Racine Hives

It had been too long since I last checked the hives in Racine, MN.  I had intended to check them when we were down to butcher chickens, a few weeks ago in August.  But, I forgot the varroa mite treatment in St. Paul.  Besides, the butchering, albeit much faster than prior butcherings, took a chunk of the day.  I did not want to consume more time, post-butchering, to check hives — and run the chance that I’d get stung and have a reaction; we had chickens to quarter and get into the freezer!

The drive, like the many, many times we have driven before, was uneventful.  Hastings, Cannon Falls, Zumbrota, Pine Island, Oronoco – the river-towns of southeastern Minnesota – their signs clip by as we head south.  It was somewhat early, and there was very light traffic.  When I notice the speed limit had dropped to 60 miles per hour, I know that we are at Rochester.   Past the Apache Mall; when the South Broadway Avenue exit sign can be seen, it’s time to change lanes to the right and take the exit.  The Rochester International Airport, followed by Stewartville.  The speed limit drops to 30 miles per hour within Stewartville, and picks up again upon exiting south of the city.  I always chuckle to myself as we exit Stewartville, there is a 30 mile per hour marker, and less than 75 feet past it, there is a 55 mile per hour marker.  I find the nearness of the two signs to be funny, I don’t know why.  A few minutes down highway 63, Racine can be found.

Melissa commented, as we were entering the turn lane for Main Street, that her friend in Racine, said the fatal accident the day before resulted the intersection being closed for much of the morning.  The heavy rain during the night had erased many of the signs of the accident from the road.  Tire marks and a bit of spray paint on the pavement could be seen but even with the temporal proximity to the accident being just the previous day, the intersection felt normal.  This was the second fatal accident at this intersection, this year.  A left turn onto Main Street; a left a few avenues down and then a right into the driveway of the farm.  Wingnut, one of the farm dogs, greets us.  Her face is covered in mud, but she’s happy to see us.  Mel and Buster, the two house bassets, soon can be heard barking at us through the kitchen door.

It rained off and on, on the drive down to the farm.  As we pulled into the farm, it was now on, again; it was raining.  Might as well take care of the business I needed to take care.  Melissa grabbed her things from the car; she needed to say hello to her horse, Victor, and then walk puppies from the kennel.  The puppies are not so puppy-ish anymore; they’re closer to being just very rubbery full sized creatures.

The other business to attended to was to return nuc boxes from the bees purchased in June from Cresco, Iowa.  I could keep the nucs for $20 each, or return them. It’s only a 45 minute drive from Racine to Cresco, and it’s the edge of the driftless area of Minnesota and Iowa – the scenery is pleasant with rolling hills, rivers and creeks. If your mental image of farm country is that of neatly divided squares of 160 acre pieces of land with road on all four side, this is not that. The roads are more a series of swooping curves and short straight-aways than a grid-like system. The drive is a familiar path – this is the fourth trip to Linda and Manley’s, twice to pickup bees in early summers and, now, twice to return empty nuc boxes in late summer and early fall. It was raining when I pulled into their driveway; house on the right, a neatly kept garden on the left, trees. The house was dark; no one appeared to be home. I pulled up to Manley’s pole building. It was raining hard. The nuc boxes are fairly light, being made of corrugated plastic, if the wind picked up, they would likely get scattered about. Next to the pole building, perpendicular and to the right, was a shed with a car parked in front it. The car and shed might work as a windbreak. I left the nucs tucked behind and to the left of the car, and near the shed’s door. The rain stopped just north of Linda and Manley’s; dark clouds and lightning could be seen further to the northeast. After lunch, I set to work on checking the hives. We are down to just two hives in Racine; we started with four hives several years ago, the count peaked at six, and with winter kill and uncertain future plans for the continuation of hives on the hive, we arrived at two. One of the two hives has been mediocre at producing honey but has been stellar at overwintering, having successfully made it thru four winters. The first hive to tackle is one that contains bees purchased from Linda and Manley the previous year. Three honey boxes sit atop two brood boxes. The bottom brood box appeared to have been knocked off the hive base — likely by a lawn mower. The half-inch gap between the bottom box and the base makes for a nice exit and entrance for the bees; it also might be wide enough for a field mouse to squeeze in. As I waited for the smoker’s wood chips to catch fire, I got my protective jacket on. Even though there are only two hives, the late-season smell of golden rod nectar being turned into honey drifted across the wind. It’s a sweet, musky scent. I have heard the smell described as being like a gym locker. Maybe without adequate ventilation, a locker might smell a musty, but the scent of golden rod nectar turning into honey is nothing that I kind of like; it means that fall is on its way. I pulled the outer cover off, and gave the inner cover’s center opening a few puffs from the smoker. A quick pry with the hive tool, and the inner cover came off. A heavier stream of bees came out of the bottom gap; a few puffs of the smoker seemed to do the trick; calming and confusing them. The top honey box came loose from the one below with a bit of hive tool prying. The box was loaded with honey – all ten frames. I set it on cross-ways on the upside-down outer cover on the ground. The second honey box had ten nice frames of honey; it was stuck something-fierce to the box below it. A bit of prying and minimal movement, and the box came loose. I set it on top of the other honey box I had just removed. The third honey box was similarly cemented to the top brood box with propolis. The top brood box looked great. No burr comb, and without tearing heavily into it, no queen cells. Anecdotally, strong bee numbers. More smoke was puffed across the top brood box before I pried it off and set it onto of the reverse-ordered honey boxes. With the weight of a 100 or so pounds of honey, and the top brood box off of the bottom box, I was able to square it up on the hive bottom. The bees seemed to be getting a bit hot. Guard bees repeatedly flew into my face screen. More smoke across the top of the brood box on the hive base. I fiddled around getting the package of Hopguard II open. This particular product works best at the end of the season, after most of the larvae have emerged. Early September is likely a bit early, but I figured I would apply a treatment of it anyway. Four strips of Hopguard II to each brood box. The first strip went well. As I pulled the second strip out, the box resting on the hive base turned into a bee-volcano. Bees flew up and got tangled in the cuff of my jacket; I began to get stung through the cloth. Many puffs of the smoker, and I remaining calm, and I had four strips of Hopguard II in the one box. I moved a bit quicker with more purpose. I lifted the brood box that I had moved off, back onto the one that I had straightened on the base. More smoke. I rotated puffs of smoke and inserting Hopguard II strips. More smoke. Lots of smoke to clear out of the layer of bees so I could return the honey boxes atop. My wrist felt like it was on fire. With the hive of Manley’s Spicy Russian Bees reassembled, I moved onto the other hive. This turned out to be almost a non-event for the bees in this hive. A little smoke, moved the honey boxes and the top brood box away, inserted the Hopguard II strips, and reassembled the hive without incident. If you are curious about the efficacy of Hopguard II, there was an interesting study done that more or less concluded what I have anecdotally observed. The study is here. Closing Down The Hives We are not going to be getting much honey this year. I mentioned this already in a previous post. No honey from the southern hives, actually. None. This is not a huge infliction monetarily on its own. Honey from these hives never sold as well as the honey from our hives in St. Paul. We still have a pile of the stuff from 2014. People seemed like the more complicated floral taste of the St. Paul honey. Not getting any honey from these southern hives is a monetary hit, none the less. Particularly, when you factor in that we should have had at least six hives in southern Minnesota. Instead, we ended the season with just two. That’s$80 to \$120 per hive.  Gone.

The one hive, in the photo with tar paper wrapped around it, is a bit of a rare bunch of bees.  Actually, it’s probably just a strong queen.  This was the queen’s third season.

There probably short list of whys on the loss of four hives – the crappy Georgian/Wisconsin bees, the hotter-than-accustom-to Russian/Iowan bees, or just mites.  The list could go on.

It is actually some what late to close down the hives – the first day of November.  The hives are usually all closed down by this time of year.  It has been an odd fall, though.  Indian summer, no less.  We had late summer temperatures much of October.

Hives are closed down, now.  Wrapped in tarpaper, with an insulated moisture quilt on top.  The remaining hive of Russian bees (in the above photo, it is the hive with the smoker atop), although the bees did not produce any harvestable honey, all the available frames in the deep boxes was filled out with stock for winter.  If they overwinter successfully, I’m optimistic that they will produce a harvestable quantity of honey for us.

Hive Checking

Over the weekend, I decided to check the hives we have the back of our property.  I also planned to put escape boards on; there is honey to be harvested.

It had been a while since I had last opened the hives for inspection.  I had last been to the hives a few weeks prior to fix one of the supports under the pallet that two hives reside upon.  Moles had borrowed under the chunk of concrete supporting the back, right corner.  The tallest of the hives was resting against the chainlink fencing that surrounds the hive area.

It has been a fickle year for bees for us.  We mixed things up a bit this spring and got bees from a couple different suppliers.  One in Wisconsin with bees via Georgia.  The other, from northeastern Iowa where they were raised.

I say fickle because we lost, almost immediately, two packages of bees that we picked up in Wisconsin.  We had had plans to hive them in southern Minnesota, and had put the packages of bees into nuc boxes.  By the next morning, all the bees in each nuc were dead.  We subsequently had two hives swarm.

The Iowan bees faired well enough.  There is one quirk with them, though — two of the four hives (two in St. Paul, and two in Racine, MN) failed to move up into the honey boxes.  In the above picture, there are bees in the two bottom deep boxes, but there is very little activity in the top box.  No honey packing in the top box.  The two deeps on that hive are full of bees and honey; it’s like they just did not want to move up one more layer.

The tall hive in the photo – on the right – is loaded with bees and honey.  Three deep boxes for brood and three boxes of honey.  This appears to be the only hive we will get honey from this season.  Not much honey on the other hives.  No honey in the boxes on the other hive; the fourth hive swarmed or collapsed.  No trace of bees in that hive.

The one thing that I was very annoyed with was finding small hive beetles.  I have never had them in our hives before.  I suspect the Wisconsin bees carried the beetles.  I have no evidence to prove this, but those bees were simply unimpressive.

I think next year, we will go back to our previous supplier of bees — even though they will be priced much higher than the Wisconsin bees, they have been much more reliable in previous years.

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.

Spin’em Right Round

Spring arrived early this year.  It actually arrived in Minnesota while I was still visiting Japan and that was in early to mid-March.  When I left for Japan at the beginning of March, we had a couple feet of snow still on the ground.  Two weeks later when I arrived back in Minnesota – the snow was gone and we were out of the below-freezing-temperatures.  We immediately (upon my arrival back) started to think of the bees and how this über-early spring would impact them.

We dewinterized the hives as soon as I was unjet lagged.  The hives at the Ahrens’ yard seemed to be doing well enough and still nice stores of honey.  All but the Canadian bees made it through the winter.

The early spring is allowing for the bees to be out in nice weather and to be able to get much needed pollen for brood rearing.  The willows are in full bloom at the moment, and maples are starting to be in bloom.  The bees here at house are active when the sun is shining on their hive (the air temperature is currently being stunted by the cold air coming off of Lake Superior).

With such a nice day, it was perfect weather to inspect the hive here at the house (and will later today, inspect the Ahrens’ yard hives).  With my smoker in one hand and my hive tool in the other, I got to work.  The two honey boxes (supers) we had left on the hive were still nearly full – no need for supplemental sugar syrup when they have plenty of the good stuff still left.

There is an idea that many beekeepers subscribe to, including ourselves: rotate your deeps/brood boxes in the spring.  In our case, we had two deeps on the hive.  By the time spring rolls into season, the bees will have moved from the bottom box up into the top box.  Rotating means taking your bottom deep box and putting it on top of the other deep box.  As the Mad Hatter said, they are changing places.

The general idea of this rotation is to prevent swarming of the colony by stirring things a bit and having them realize there is plenty of space in the hive and there is no need to get stir-crazy for a bigger place.

In checking out hive at the house, the cluster was indeed located in the top deep just below the two honey boxes.  There were workers in the honey box directly above the top deep, as well.  The bottom deep was empty – no brood, no bees, just a bit of capped honey.  I have been hearing from beekeepers near Madison, Wisconsin, that they are having colonies swarm a full month ahead of what is normal.  Luckily, we are still cool here, near Lake Superior.  Best to be cautious, though, and get our hives rotated.

In addition to rotating the top deep into the bottom deep’s place and vice versa for the bottom deep, we added a third deep, a queen excluder and placed the two honey boxes back atop.  We also cleaned the bottom board of winter debris – dead bees, mold, and bits of clumped pollen.

With the debris gone, and the bees now in the bottom deep, the hive seemed to come alive.  Bees exiting and returning to the hive; it appeared much more active and normal.