Winter Hive Check – Jan 2012

Snow Tracks
Snow Tracks

It is late January, and it is time to check in on the hives; see how things are going for the bees. The winter, to date, has been relatively mild; very little snow with many days above freeze with the exception of several days of -10 degrees F (-23 degrees C).

During the winter months, unlike the spring, summer and fall months where bears and errant children tend to be a hive’s major foes, the major foes of a hive are moisture (condensation), temperature (cold), and food (or lack there of). Moisture is most easily controlled through adequate ventilation – leaving an entrance open at the bottom of the hive (with a mouse guard in place) as well as having a top entrance of some sort usually allow for things to be well ventilated. Moisture plus cold are a certain death for a hive. It is very similar to a wet human in the cold – hypothermia sets in quickly followed by death.

We deal with cold by adding insulation to the mix. Our hives at the Ahrens’ Bee Yard are encased in a polystyrene tomb (with entrance holes). All of our hives at the location are back to back or side to side (we have eight hives at this location). Two hives deep by four hives wide, this rectangle is encased by two inches (51 mm) of polystyrene insulation on all sides (including underneath). in addition to giving the hives an extra R value of about 9, it acts as a fantastic wind and draft break.

Food is a long term planning item for the bees. Because they spend all spring and summer gathering for the fall and winter, under normal circumstances, they should have an adequate store of honey and pollen – if they were left to their own devices. However, we, the keepers, add another variable to the mix when we harvest the sweet goodness of honey. Luckily, we did not harvest honey from the Ahrens’ Bee Yard this past season. We wanted to establish the colonies in their hives and be able to start this coming season with fully drawn out comb with seasoned, over-wintered queens. If we had harvested, we would be concerned, going into February, with whether the bees had exhausted their food stores. This is why we perform winter checks — to supplement, when needed, the food stores of the hives.

Hive Check Video

Rolling into the Ahrens’ Bee Yard in the truck, it was apparent that they had received more snow than at our house thirty miles (48 km) to the south. Looking in the rearview mirror, I could see two paths cut through the eight inches (20 cm) of snow by the tires. We pulled up over the hill, and tucked up against the pines at the edge of the field was our polystyrene sarcophagus. Melissa helped with the initial snow removal from the top and disassembly of some of the panels, but she quickly made it back to the truck when it came time to break into the bee-chamber.

The first hive to check was my beekeeping partner’s hive. Upon pulling off the inner cover, the hive-scent hit my nose and the feisty Russian bees began to trickle up toward the surface. The sugary syrup in feed pail had crystalized — a quick slit of with my knife and the lid was freed. The lidless pail was returned and the hive buttoned back up.

The second hive to check was the Canadian bees. Upon removing the inner cover, I was greeted with emptiness. No hive smell, no hive sounds – just emptiness. I removed all but the bottom deep set of frames – empty. Just dead bees. There was very little honey in the frames, which made think of robbery by the other bees in the sarcophagus.

Dead Mouse
Dead Mouse

Hive three’s only special attribute was a dead mouse suspended face down in the remaining heavy syrup in the insulation/feed box. Hive four revealed an extremely strong, extremely feisty lot of bees. With the inner covered removed, I found an empty feed box a multitude of bees cleaning the remaining sugar crystals out. Removing the feed box, the hive foamed over with bees and the alarm pheromone of the bees, which smells a lot like bananas, wafted up in my nose. I worked quickly, and frequently puffed smoke at the hive to calm them. I replaced several empty honey box (“super”) frames with frames containing fondant.

The remaining hives were uneventful; no other dead hives, no other dead mice, and no other angry, banana-scented hives, just bees keeping busy in the depths of winter.

Beer Bread [Recipe]

Cuisinart Stand Mixer
Cuisinart Stand Mixer

   + 3 cups bread flour
   + 4 Tbsp. Honey
   + 1 Tbsp. Baking Powder
   + 1 Tsp. Salt
   + 4 Tbsp. Oliver Oil
   + One (1) 12 oz Beer (preferably, an ESB or IPA)

There is an unfortunate side effect to being on an autoimmune disorder drug: I am not supposed to consume alcohol. To sate some of those missed tastes, I cook with alcohol. Wine in soups, flaming bourbon’ed potatoes, and, of course, beer bread. The following is recipe for a beer bread, that, when an Extra Special Bitter or India Pale Ale are used, the resulting bread is a delicious, citrus-esque and hoppy sandwich bread that goes excellent with tuna or a likewise strong tasting protein. Aside from the delicious taste, this bread is damn-simple to make.

Set your oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C); while the oven is heating, assemble the bread. Start by putting all dry ingredients into your stand mixer’s bowl.

Next, add the oil, honey and beer. Throughly mix all the ingredients; place batter/dough into a well greased bread pan and place into oven. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The top crust will be golden brown when done; double check by stick a toothpick into the loaf – a clean, doughless toothpick means your loaf if fully baked.



It is late January and that means it is cold outside. Single digits below zero fahrenheit (in the -20s C) are the norm. Today we are a bit on the warm side – low 20s above zero fahrenheit (-6 C). Even with chilly outside, inside, we are starting to get moving on spring plans. The ground is rock-solid and frozen with several feet of frost, but garden and yard layout can still be imagined with something as simple as pencil and paper. For now, though, I am attempting to root a grape vine.

We have two basset hound puppies that for all practical purposes, are like nematodes with legs. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but more a physiological sense: nematodes have a strong digestive tract with openings on each end.

We did (past tense) have a lovely, four year old riverbank grape vine growing up the side of our shed. This was until the youngest nematode, err, puppy, discovered it was a large "stitch". The lovely vine was reduced to a stump. I did manage to save a length of vine. Wrapped in wet paper towel and placed in the refrigerator, the length rested.

Rooting Powder
Rooting Powder

Rooting a clipping or piece of stem is the process where you help or force roots to develop; basically it is a simple form of cloning. I am by no means a rooting expert. But, you will basically need:

  • A dormant, vine cutting with a few bud-points
  • Root powder/hormone
  • A heat mat
  • Potting soil mixed with a little sand
  • A pot
  • Stiff wire
  • A sheet of heavy, clear plastic

Start by trimming both ends; identify which way the buds are pointing, pointing up – that is your top (bottom is the opposite end if you were wondering). Cut the top at an angle and the bottom straight. Between the top and bottom, you will want several bud-points and little leaf scarring.

Plastic Tent
Plastic Tent

Prepare your potting soil mix by mixing in a little bit of sand. The sand helps to lessen the moisture slightly and, in theory, helps to lessen bad molds. Whether this is true or not, I am not sure. It sounds sensible, though.

Dampen the bottom end and dip into the rooting powder/hormone. Tap off any excess. Push the cutting, bottom first, into the soil closer to the pot’s edge than the middle. With two pieces of wire make a hoop-cage that goes up and over the cutting. Drape your clear plastic over after having watered a bit. Rubber band around the pot, and set the whole thing on a heat mat. And now wait. You will want to water the pot now and again if the soil is looking dry, but do not over water.

Buzzing to Japan

Fromm Pet Food - Cat
Fromm Pet Food – Cat


A handful of people know this already, but, in March, for two weeks, I will be in Japan. I am sure my sister will take me to Hello Kitty Land (Sanrio Puroland) in Tokyo, but I am more interested in monasteries, castles and, of course, beekeeping.

With my sister’s help, we have been trying to contact various beekeepers in Japan. One problem: language. My sister speaks some Japanese, but does not write kanji. I do neither of those at all. With the help of a friend of my sister’s, we have a couple emails into beekeepers around Japan. No luck so far. I have, however, contacted 玉川大学ミツバチ科学研究センター (the Honeybee Science Research Center, Tamagawa University) and they were kind enough to suggest I try contacting the prefecture’s livestock department (that is what the introductory paragraph of kanji says to do). That will be next – attempting to contact my sister’s prefecture’s livestock department (I imagine this is something akin to my county or state’s agriculture department or office). The language is just killing me, though.

When I visited Finland a few years ago, the Finns have absorbed so many English words (and put a Finnish twist on them) that it was relatively easy to reabsorb their words and get at least an idea of what hell was going on; plus, everyone expect for the farthest outreaches in Lapland had people who spoke nearly perfect English. My initial dealings with people from Japan (both on this beekeeping project, and with my work life) are proving that there is a much sharper learning curve to get past for both sides of the language equation.

I am getting excited for my trip to the Far East; good food, snow monkeys, shogun castles, shinto monasteries, giant buddha, mountains, and of course Sanrio Puroland. If the beekeeping in Japan project does not pan out, I am sure I will still have more than enough to occupy my two weeks.

A Nervous Beekeeper *Now with* Lip Balm

Scowling Alex
Scowling Alex

As I spend my evening with my wife, Melissa, at the emergency room, a fleeting thought danced across my head: computer coding, being mostly solitary, tending bees and being an assistant-lord to a flock of chickens suits me well. Being an E.R. nurse, doctor, tech, assistant, or otherwise would put me on edge. I am a bit on edge now just sitting here. Too much commotion, too much movement. This is not to say that these are not valuable societal occupations; it is just not a work field that would suit me. Besides, I trend toward sweating the small things, and being generally nervous. These are not qualities that would put a patient in duress at ease.

In an Andy Rooney-like fashion, I digress.

The weather here in Northern Minnesota, and all of Minnesota for that matter, has been warm. Too warm for early January. I worry, of course, about the bees that are tucked away in their hives. Too warm, and the queens will begin to lay eggs (brood). This would lead to more mouths to feed and the chance of food-stores being burned through too quickly; extra winter feeding on our part would be needed else we run the risk of having bees starve and die.

We are hoping to make a nearly-all cane sugar fondant for winter feeding. The recipe is ultra simple: water, granulated cane sugar, and cane syrup. 2:½:2 = Two cups of granulated sugar; ½ cup of water; 2 tablespoons of syrup. This should scale linearly. You will also need waxed paper or butchers’ paper for which to put the finished product as well as a candy thermometer to gauge the stage of the product while it boils.

Scowling Alex
Scowling Alex

Put all ingredients into a sauce pan or appropriately sized vessel; put the pan over medium heat with a lid. Dissolve all the granulated sugar and bring the mixture to a boil for 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove the lid, and using the thermometer, heat until things are at 240 degrees F (116 degrees C). Pour the liquid onto the waxed paper or butchers’ paper and let cool for a few minutes; long enough to start to stiffen. When it is cool enough to be touched, you can work it into the shape you would need.

We like to sometimes fill empty honey super frames with the fondant. It makes for easy handling and easy deployment.

Lip Balm
Lip Balm

Unfortunately, I will be away for the weekend; no checking the hives this week and no whomping up fondant. Perhaps a midweek whomping and a feeding next weekend.

We did, however, do a small bit of whomping with almond oil, jojoba oil, beeswax, a bit of rosemary oil and water; we made lip balm. It turned out quite well. Very simple. Recipe for another day.