Winter Hive Checkings

A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday, I got out to the beeyard here in St. Paul, I needed to check the hives.  In November of 2016, during the just-before-winter-hive-check, we had two fairly strong hives – they were strong enough and had produced enough honey that we were comfortable harvesting honey from these hives.  We left an ample amount for the bees to use throughout the winter.  The other two hives, however, were not in great condition.  The bees never moved up and beyond the first honey super, and in one of the hives, they had not even filled out that first super completely.  The top deep on each of these two hives was also empty.  After we pulled honey supers from the two strong hives, we wrapped the hives in tar paper, like we have done for many-a-winter-seasons. In addition to the winter tar papering, we have been using insulation boxes with a piece of Homasote board on the bottom of each insulation box, this, in theory, helps absorb excess moisture from the bees.

When I walked into the beeyard, two weeks ago, I had the feeling that things might not be good.  It had been warmer than the usual the last week, and yet, there were no signs of worker bees cleaning the hives out.  Instead, in front of one of the weak-hives was a pile of Homasote chips.  I knew what that meant – mice.

As soon as I took off the outer cover, the smell of urea hit my nose.  Mice.  As I began to tear down the hive, I noticed a small rodent nose poke out of the hive entrance.  It darted back into the confines of the fine – I assume this nose was attached the rest of a whole mouse.  Bending over to get a closer look, it was apparent that metal hive entrances are the way to go – the mice just chewed on the wooden entrance until it was large enough to just saunter into the place.

With the insulation box, honey super, and top brood box off, I was down to the last brood box and bottom board.  This remaining brood box was less frame-and-comb, and more shreds and pieces of Homasote board – soaked in mouse urine with feces mixed in for good measure.  A rapid series of taps on the remaining brood box, and a deer mouse came shooting up from between two loosely clogged frames.  I wondered aloud, if there were more in there?

I lifted off the brood box, and with a shower of daylight, twenty or so mice explode out from the hive, darting this way and that way, over my feet, and across my pant legs.

On to the next hive, I guess.

One other hive had signs of mouse damage in it, but only between two frames.  The bees in that hive, one of the strong hives going into winter, seemed to have gotten above their nearest pocket of honey in a super, and, likely, were caught off guard when the temperatures swung lower.  A similar situation was uncovered in the other strong hive.  A frozen cluster of bees was at the top of the hive – just until the Homasote board.  Plenty of honey remained elsewhere in the hive.

The last hive, one of the poor hives going into winter, had no honey remaining.  What little honey had been produced by the bees, had been all consumed.

This unfortunate happening with all the hives being devoid of bees can be spun into a positive of sorts, I guess.  We have been wanting to get the hives moved for a little while, and this presents itself as an opportunity to more easily deal with that desire.  I spent the rest of the day removing the hive boxes and generally cleaning up the fenced in area.  I also removed the pallets that the hives had been resting on for the last few years – the pallets were getting a bit soft.

The hope is, once the ground thaws, put four concrete pillars into the ground – similar to the base of my previous chicken coop, and build a nice, solid platform for the hives to reside on; make it easier to work around the hives and not be confined by the old chainlink enclosure.

Further South…

A week ago, a couple friends tagged along with me to Racine, MN, where we have just two hives remaining.  We have had hives in Racine for a number of years, and surprisingly, we have on hive that has had bees – through three winters.

The sun was out when we arrived at the farm.  Each of us put on a beesuit, and we walked the short distance from the car to the hives.  I rapidly tap a bit on the first hive, the hive that had made it through three previous winters.  I could hear anything.  Neither could my two friends.  We had the smoker going, just in case the bees were actually there.

The tar paper on these two hives was in shreds.  The wind must have been fierce earlier in the winter.

With the first set of ratchet straps removed, I lifted off the outer cover and insulation box.  The thing that hit me first was the smell.  A live hive has a distinct smell, and this hive had it.  I lifted off the top honey box, and bees began to make their way up.  A peek under the next honey box showed a teaming colony of bees hard at work, in the hive, on a nice sunny day.  The honey boxes also had ample weight left in them, evenly distributed, there was no need to supplement with winter pollen patties (which was great, because I had forgotten them back in St. Paul).

My friend, also named Alex, who was also a beekeeper in Vermont a few years ago, got to work at unclogging the entrance of dead bees.  I started to unstrap the the remaining hive.  Our friend, JP, watched and asked us questions.

The second hive turned out to be even more active than the first.  Removing the insulation box, showed the bees were busy moving about on the south-facing side of the hive.  A quick check on the weight of the two honey boxes showed an ample amount of mostly well distributed honey.  Alex worked to unclog the entrance this hive after he finished up the other hive’s entrance.

With that, we made sure each hive was reassembled with no gaps to let out warmth, or let mice in.  The entrance guards were back in place, and the ratchet straps snug.  We headed back to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

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.

Bustle Bee

With a blog named Snowshoe Bees, you would think I could be writing more about bees.  I looked back through the blog posts for the last year or so, and I found I wrote a couple entries about bees or mentioned bees in some sort of anecdotal fashion.  There was the entry, from October 11, 2012, on Disruptive Forces and the situation of the beekeepers I know in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  They had been working for a very long time to keep bees that were free of varroa mites.  I have been tacitly following their trials and deals with the newly arrived varroa this season.

That would appear to be the last time I wrote about bees.

I am actually actively managing bees, again, this year.  Last year was sort of a loss for keeping and managing them.  At the end of last season, we did manage to pull about seven gallons of honey, but this was after basically having zero contact with the hives from early May until late October.  Melissa came with when we pulled the honey boxes last fall; she was terrified – the bees were extremely angry.  The bees had been without human interaction for much of the year.  This year, I am able to check them more often as we have them much closer than north of Duluth, as it was last year.  We are running eight hives this years.  They are split evenly between St. Paul – these are located at the back of our property in the woods – and Racine, MN – these are located on a farm owned by friends of ours.

It was sometime in late April, I think, I headed to Duluth to retrieve gear that had been left there after we pulled honey boxes last fall.  The winter in Duluth was quite hard on the bees there.  Of the six or so hives we left for overwintering, only one appears to have survived – and that one is likely the remnants of the one that actually made it through winter but swarmed during the spring.  I suspect it is the result of a swarming because the hive the bees were residing in was empty last fall.  I fill our Dodge van with as much gear as possible; upon leaving the New Scenic Café after lunch with my parents, my dad commented on amount and weight of bee-stuff in the van, “your tires don’t look too happy.”

We headed to Racine, MN, this weekend to check the hives and add the first honey boxes.  The bees were busy doing their thing, and really could not have cared less that I was poking around in their homes.  With only a small bit of rearranging of brood frames in each hive, and I was able to get the honey boxes on all four hives within a matter of minutes.  I have yet to put honey boxes on the hives here in St. Paul.

As a nerdy-side-note, when I look at the black and white photo of the bee smoker (above), I cannot help but think of the Computer Graphics course I took as a undergraduate in the early 2000s.  Why?  The reflection in the curved top.  It brings back memories of trying implement reflection in a ray tracer written in C++ running on Sun Solaris 8.  Those were the days.

Disruptive Forces

We are back in Minnesota after spending a week or so in the Boston, Massachusetts.  Our mode of transportation was an automobile.  I am not fond of commercial radio and I have been trending toward financial/monetary podcasts as well as political podcasts.  Of the podcasts we listened to, I kept noticing a common idea that threaded its way through them.  The idea or tacit notice would popup here or it would popup there.  The idea is not new, it is not even that exciting.  Nassim Taleb, Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, wrote a book on the subject called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  I lean more toward a less eloquent sounding name: disruptive forces.

Outside, it is in the low 40s F (~5.5 C), but I am sitting in our living room; we have a nice fire going in the fireplace.  With a dip into the mid-30s (~1.6 C) on the docket for this evening, a nice fire feels, well, quite nice. We are burning wood from our property – walnut, apple, and cedar, but mostly, we are using buckthorn (pdf).

In Minnesota, at the Federal government level and in forty-five other states, buckthorn is considered a “noxious weed.”  The designation of “noxious weed” is a way in which governments can apply a whole host of existing laws and regulations without explicitly codifying Rhamnus cathartica L. in legislation.  Noxious weeds are generally considered detrimental to economical or societal wellbeing (Cannabis sativa, for example, is classified as a “noxious weed” in many states; whether Cannabis is detrimental economically or societally, is, in an of itself, a completely other topic). This means that there are regulations in place to disincentivize the further dissemination of buckthorn and the others on the list of noxious weeds.  Even the penalties associated with the laws and regulations that are supposed to govern willfully and knowingly the spread of noxious weeds and invasive species (both flora and fauna) can be viewed as an attempt at a disruptive force.

With this idea of disruptive forces bobbling around in my head for most of our time in Boston and on the road to and from Boston, we were driving through Chicago, Illinois, last week, I was listening to a podcast of Science Friday.  The segment that struck me as being particularly fascinating was the discussion and pitching of Steven Strogatz‘s new book, The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics from Zero to Infinity.  Steven is a Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  The book itself sounds quite interesting – as the playful title might suggest, it is a book where you get a smattering of mathematics without having to hold a bachelors degree in mathematics; you will not be held to know a Bernoulli differential equation from a Bernoulli trial.

$\Huge{\lim_{x \to \infty} \dfrac{1}{x} = 0}$  The segment that I piqued my curiosity was that of the discussion of zero and infinity. It is common place, nowadays, to simply disregard zero as that number that is after negative one but before positive one.  It is a special number – multiply any number by zero, and you get zero.  Add zero to a number and you get that same number back.  And, of course, there is infinity.  It is universally accepted by all but a fringe; infinity, however, can still be a difficult concept to get one’s noodle around.  Infinity, like zero, has special properties.  Divide any regular number by infinity, and you get zero back (the calculus limit, above, is a way of expressing this).  Infinity minus one is still infinity.  There are other properties, as well.

What does zero or infinity have to do with disruptive forces?  You need only to look at the late-medieval into the early Renaissance-era Europe and the Catholicism that ruled academia and most aspects of knowledge, life and thought of that time.  Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and for his time, a free thinking radical.  Bruno was born in 1548 A.D. and became an ordained priest by the age of 24.

Among Bruno’s “crazy” ideas that caused the Church to get all-up-in-his-business was how he considered infinity to exist outside the context of God.   The Church felt this notion, this belief was disruptive enough to warrant an inquisition.  Remember what Monty Python character, Ximénez shouts, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  And of course, the end result of his trial by this Roman Inquisition was rather disruptive for Bruno’s continuation as a living person: he was burned at the stake for being a heretic.

Let us jump back to invasive species.  When you think of invasive species, if you are in eastern Minnesota, you might think of lamprey or zebra mussels.  If you are in a cohort of beekeepers in Ontario, in and around Thunder Bay, you will likely think of another pest: Varroa destructor, also known as, varroa mites. With an importation ban on honeybees from the United States to the south, and geographic isolation – 700 km to the east and west from most populations, Thunder Bay was on the short list of outposts of varroa-free honeybee colonies.  Varroa first made it into Canada in 1989, but because of Thunder Bay’s isolation  and because of the watchful eyes and ears of one zealous beekeeper named Jeanette Momot, the area stayed mite free…until the late summer of 2012.

Searching through my emails and group message posting to construct a timeline, I first noticed something was a miss with my friends in Thunder Bay when, by chance, I noticed a terse posting from Dean Harron (I last wrote about Dean in my North to Ontario post) referencing a conversation he and I had started on April 8, 2012.  More digging into posts; I found the conversation Dean was referring to:

However if we import bees from the south we all will not have any bees or beekeepers in the North at all. Alot of time and patience has been devoted by our senior beekeepers to have it remain this way, however there are some beekeepers that do not agree…what a shame!  We hope their egos will be satisfied when this destruction happens in the Northwest [of Ontario].  It will not be beneficial to anyone to say the least.

The “senior beekeepers” Dean speaks of include Jeanette Momot, previous written about in the same North to Ontario post, and himself.  Saying that the senior beekeepers were devoted is putting it lightly.  In June of 2011, I had an email conversation with Jeanette; I asked her about the history of the Thunder Bay bees.  She replied with a lengthy and interesting history of the bees, her background and a self-deprecating shot at her bee-addiction:

 I started grad school in the Entomology Department at Iowa State University with Walter C. Rothenbuhler in March of 1962, where he was working on hygienic behavior of honeybees.  It had been found that this behavior made them resistant to the devastating disease American foulbrood, which had destroyed countless colonies in the states previously.  I spent the summer of ’62 working with his group on this problem at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.  Then he was offered a position at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, and several of his graduate students were invited to transfer as well.  So I was involved with these studies until 1964, when I received my M.S. from Ohio State.  I worked for the USDA in Fargo, N Dakota on insect control problems for a couple of years, then married and wound up back in Columbus among the bees.  We moved to Thunder Bay in 1975, but didn’t have bees until we purchased our country property in l977.  We have been keeping bees, producing honey and raising queens ever since.  Of course, I always looked for hygienic behavior in the queen mother used for the bulk of queens produced, as well as wintering success, gentleness, and honey production in the progeny, but also tried to raise a queen from each colony as well, to keep the genetic diversity.  That works because queens mate with 15 to 20 drones each.Inbreeding would lead to poor brood viability.  If the colony wasn’t hygienic, I would replace her, of course.  We had a wide assortment of bees here in the Thunder Bay District.  I was partial to the Buckfast line developed by Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey in England.  I was able to acquire Buckfast bees from Weaver’s Apiaries in Navasota Texas, and I would usually buy some queens from them each spring, until the border to Canada from the U. S. was closed in 1987.  We also had Mraz bees, Carniolans from Hawaii and elsewhere, Caucasians, Italians — we tried everything.   I always raised some queens, but since 1987 have produced all of my own queens, as well as many for the local Thunder Bay District beekeepers.  We worked hard to keep our area free of mites, and have succeeded so far.  I  also sold some bees to Mn beekeepers along the north shore of Lake Superior for many years, and they must like them, as they keep coming back for more.  We are one of the few mite free areas left in the world, and are having a hard time convincing our government to protect our status.  It is also too bad that we cannot send nucs across the border, as it is very difficult to shake packages of bees in 50F weather, and we have that and colder even at the end of May.  Our biggest problem is the weather, the long cold winters and our short growing season.  Of course farming methods, cut before bloom to keep the protein content of the forage high doesn’t help either.  July used to be the best month for honey production; now it is often our worst.  But beekeeping is still very addictive;  I have been trying to quit for about 10 years now.  Maybe it is an obsession! Jeanette Momot – June 20, 2011

Jeanette has been the driving force behind keeping mites out of the Thunder Bay region.  She has gone to great lengths to preserve her work; she mentioned once to several of us that she had a mole at the post office in Thunder Bay, and if someone had honeybees mailed in to the region, she would get a call from this mole.  She would then contact the person who purchased the bees and explain the potential harm these non-Thunder Bay bees could pose to everyone’s apiaries in the district.  She would then go one step further; if the person would agree to destroy the package of bees, she would replace it for them with a package of local bees plus a queen at no charge.

Thus, twenty-five years of work is now threatened.  Late this summer word started to trickle down from the Thunder Bay region; varroa mites had arrived.  This unfortunate happening will go unnoticed by the scores of Canadian tourists that pass through Thunder Bay on their way to points south – like for the shopping excursions into Duluth, MN.  A small handful of dedicated hobbyist beekeepers in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, have taken notice and are now trying to measure the situation, gauging what to do next year for they made annual treks north of the border to obtain fresh packages of mite-free bees and queens.  It is a disruptive force select handful of fellow beekeepers.

Bee puns and hive parts

Update: March 5, 2012 – It appears that many folks are finding this post in the hopes of locating top notch bee-humor; if you happened up on this page with the hopes of finding awful bee jokes, please check out: BEE Prepared to Groan: BEE Puns and Jokes

The apiculture world is rife with puns, and I will admit that I am not immune from putting some really awful ones to use. All throughout the week, I would bring up bees or bee-culture things with co-workers; always throwing in a pun worthy of a resounding “boo!” (not the scary kind of boo, but more of the booing of one off of a stage).

I was excited; my hive parts were being shipped. “Sam, you should get bees; they’re all the buzz!,” said I to my co-worker; he looked at me like I was slightly crazy. I checked UPS tracking – a large, 70 lb (32 kg for the 90% of the world’s population that is on the metric system) package was to arrive on Wednesday (today). That was Monday; the puns continued throughout the day. Most of the puns revolve around exaggerating the ‘e’ sound in words with ‘be’; I’ll spare you the pain of listing them…

My heavy box of high quality hive components arrived this evening. It is unfortunate that:

1. It is February
2. It is February in northern Minnesota
3. It is February in northern Minnesota and we have three feet (about a meter) of snow on the ground

I will, however, set to work on painting and assembling the supers and hive bodies. But, in the mean time, I will probably order those Pink “Blue” Berries from Hartmann’s Plant Company.