Hives in Saint Paul

DSC_5685---2014-11-19-at-16-22-55Here in Saint Paul, we entered winter with three hives buzzing with activity.  Our fourth hive was empty; the bees had likely swarmed earlier in the fall.  No honey, no pollen, just wax crumbs in the bottom of the hive; they packed up all their belongings and left.

When we checked the hives in December, during a stretch of warmer days, we were surprised to find all the hives empty.  Two of the three seemed to have suffered the same as the previous empty hive.  With the exception of a few dead bees, wax pieces and pollen on the bottom board, the hives were empty.  There was still some honey and pollen, but the bees were gone.  The fourth hive had a very small cluster of dead bees in the middle.  A small amount of honey and pollen remained.  My guess, and it is just a guess, as a group, they just could not maintain an adequate temperature.  Maybe there were not enough bees (perhaps varroa mites spiked in this hive and weakened the population).

For the last few winters, we have wrapped the hives in tar paper to act as a barrier to the wind as well as allowing for the ever-so-small warming effect from the sun.  We had mixed success over the years. The use of tar paper for this winter was no different.  However, with the hives being without bees early in the winter, meant that we would likely have to deal with mice in the hives.

Even with the hive entrances blocked off with scraps of tar paper or duct tape, mice can still get into a hive.  The hives are ideal mouse-hangouts; slightly warm from the tar paper wrap and food in the form of honey and wax (it is a lipid, after all).

Over this past weekend, I decided to do some spring cleaning and rearranging of the hives.  The hives could be completely torn down, wax scraped if need be, debris removed, components inspected – all without needing to wear a beesuit or be concerned with getting stung.  The bee-free situation of the hives would also allow for something that I have been wanting to do for a while: better level the hives and physically arrange them differently.

It is difficult to tell from the photo (above) that the hives are actually located on the side of a hill.  It is only a slight angle – less 15° – but the layout still has problems.  Originally, I had dug into the hill to better level the hives, but with heavy rain last spring, the general cycle of forest-dross-buildup, as well as burrowing rodents below – the hive bases were buried on the uphill side and beginning to be excavated on the downhill side.  We had shimmed up the downhill sides with sticks and left over cedar shakes (from siding the coop); it looked tacky and felt flimsy – like the hives would tip over if top-loaded with honey frames.

Mouse Nest in a HiveThe first hive we opened was empty.  No signs of mice; just the wax bits and a few dead bees on the bottom board.  The second hive, however, was a bit different.  The piece of tar paper that had been blocking off the top-box’s entrance hole had a hole through it.  In pulling off the tar paper wrap, bits and pieces of what looked like shredded paper fell out.  The smell of mouse-living hit my nose.

Lifting off the top deep box, I nearly fell over as a mouse jumped toward me – from the box to the ground.  It made some mouse-noises as it ran between my legs and off into a nearby brush pile; I assume it was cursing me out in its native tongue.

The middle deep box was more or less completely packed with shredded paper and stunk of urea.  I am not sure where the mouse or mice were getting the paper to shred; maybe our near by “open air” garage (the building had red squirrels living it throughout the winter).  Frame by frame, I shook the paper and mouse-crap into a pail.

The mice had also eaten through several frames of honey and comb.  Two frames had bottom bars that had been chewed through and two more frames of nectar that had not been turned into honey had mold on them.  Theses frames went into the fire we had started in the fire pit a bit earlier in the day.

Mouse Nest Under a HiveOnly one of the hives had a mouse nest in it; all of the hives, however, had nests under their bases.  More shredded paper, leaves and twine were all bundled up.  Mice would jump out from under the hives as I picked up and moved the bottom boards.  I would let out an explicative as if having a mouse jump at me was something unexpected at this point.  That night, all I dreamt about were mice in the house or in our bed.  Any creek or cracking sound in the house would send me fly up out of my sleep – It must be a mouse!

The next morning, with the hives torn down, and moved out of the bee yard, we set to work clearing out the buckthorn seedlings and other bits of flora that taken up residence over the last few years within the confines of the bee yard fencing.  A quick run-around with the push-lawnmower and a quick raking made short work of the task.  Maybe a sprinkling of rape seeds or clover in the areas where we will not be walking is in order.

Getting the hives set back up.Our neighbors to the south of us had given us a heap of wood pallets earlier in the fall; pallets make nice platforms for hives.  Previous owners of our house, at one time, had left a piles of short concrete pillars (14″ long, 6″ in diameter) in the woods and near the “open air” garage; we have no idea what pillars were for, but we have used else where around the property – the fire pit, for example, is ringed with them.   More pillars, deeper in the woods, would make for great pallet supports in the bee yard.

Honeybee Visiting the HivesHaving hauled half a dozen or so of these pillars into the bee yard, I set to work with a shovel, digging in to get the right depth to bury the concrete supports.

With the pallets in place, reassembling the hives was the easy part.  They stacked together quickly.  As I put them back to together, I noticed that we had a few winged visitors.  Maybe a dozen bees – or simply the same few – land here or there on droplets of honey on the tops of frames.  The question of whether these were actually our bees – a few of the bees that had packed up and left in the fall – popped into my head.   Not shown in the photo (below), all the larger hive entrance holes had been covered with duct tape; we are hoping it keeps the mice out until we get bees installed.

_DSC7162We have had bees on order for while – from one supplier in Iowa of Russian bees, we have had our name on their order list since February of last year.  We also put an order in in January with a place near Baldwin, Wisconsin; those bees will be available for pick in mid-April.   We will also have to wash down the hive equipment prior to installing bees – I’ll want to make sure the urine from the mice is washed out; it will also give us a chance to jettison any frames that are showing signs of mold.  This will happen in early April.



With snow on the ground and the hives tucked in until late December when we will need to check food supplies and general wellbeing, it’s about time to get around to finishing the extraction of honey (e.g. removal of honey from comb).  We pulled about seventeen full and partially full honey boxes from the ten hives we had this season.  We have extracted about two-thirds of the honey from Racine, MN and have yet to get to the St. Paul honey. As far as hives, we are over-wintering seven of the ten hives we ran this season; three having failed in late fall – two in failures in Racine, and one in St. Paul.  There will likely be at least couple more failures to bring the mortality rate to the usual 50%.

Winter is usually harsh on hives in Minnesota (and elsewhere in the upper midwest).  And, over the last couple of days, it snowed a bit in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as well as elsewhere in the state of Minnesota.  Here in Hibbing, we awoke to -10 F Thanksgiving morning.  Astronomical winter will not be here for another month or so, but, with a few inches of crusty white snow on the ground and temperatures now well below freezing (and zero here on the Iron Range), for many practical purposes, winter has arrived.

racine-half-acreIn the mean time, we plan.  We have been tossing around the idea of having four or so hives north of Hibbing and Chisholm, MN, on family-owned forested property.  Melissa also has family near Finlayson, MN who have the startings of a CSA-type farm.  They are interested in including honey with the vegetable and poultry shares that they will have available next year.  And, back in Racine, the farmer is letting us play with a half-acre for a large garden.  We plan to plant a large amount of buckwheat, monarda, and other bee-friendly-plants in addition to the regular staples of a vegetable garden.  Needless to say, we will be busy next season.

Summer Hives

About a week ago, we were in southern Minnesota – in Racine. This is our second year for having hives down there. After that photo was taken, I dawned my bee-suit and hopped onto the riding mower and cut the grass around the hives; the farm-hands won’t cut the grass near the hives.

Last year, we had four hives on the farm; only two over-wintered successfully.  Those are the two on the left-side of the photo (to my right).  It always amazes me that, as the honey-season progresses, each hive progresses (or regresses) differently.  The two successfully over-wintered hives were doing great in early May.  The one that I am leaning against in the photo continues to do quite well; three full honey boxes with the fourth added just prior to the photo being taken.  The hive on the far left is doing very well with the exception of the bees not occupying the upper two honey boxes.  They had half-filled out the bottom super (the two-colored box), but then, stopped.  There isn’t any signs of illness or weakness in the queen; they are just no longer moving up into the boxes.  The other hive that has done a 180° turn is the shortest one in the photo.  We hived the package of bees in that hive along with the other three new hives, but after checking it in early June, the bees were not expanding out of the bottom deep box.  Removing a second deep from atop, we left it with the hopes of not putting much effort into – thinking the queen was weak or had even died.  By the end of June, we added a honey box on top because the deep box was completely filled out with brood comb.

Back in St. Paul, at the house, our four hives are just chugging along.  Located at the back of our property, the bees of the hives quietly go about pollinating the neighborhood.  They are doing their duties quite well.  The hive that I have my arm on in the photo has three deep brood boxes as well as the four honey boxes.  It’s a strong hive.  All the hives are doing well.

At this point in the season, we are going to have a lot of honey this year.


Winter Bees in Racine

We headed down to Racine, MN, yesterday to visit hounds, people and check the hives.  People were in good shape, the hounds were doing well, but of the four hives in Racine, two were in good shape and two did not make it through the extraordinary cold that the region had while I was in Vietnam.

The weather yesterday was in the mid-30s (single digits celsius) and with the sun out, the bees were out buzzing around.