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.

 

Winter

Winter

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.

Winter Chickens

Recently, I have had a few people -here and there – tell me, “I want to hear more about your chickens!” It has been a while since I posted anything about them.

I think the last time I mentioned them in a post, they were in a sort of adolescent phase; they had not bulked up, yet, and they were not fully grown; a friend in Oregon said, “they look like teenagers!”

The teenage chickens have grown up, and two of them began laying eggs in late September.  By mid-October, however, they had stopped laying due to the decreasing amount of daylight.

But, it’s not like we need them to be producing prodigious quantities of eggs for us.  For starters, if they were merely creatures of production for us, we would have likely not built the coop we built.  There is my penchant for aesthetically pleasing structures.  But, we would have built something less expensive and not something with a swank green-roof over the run area; we certainly would not have sided the building with cedar shakes; I probably would not have designed and built a curved-top solid cedar door either.  Needless to say and by no stretch of one’s imagination, the birds are spoiled.

The chickens could care less about their posh surroundings; as long as they have water, food and shelter from winds, they seem happy.  During the cold snap at the start of the new year (I was conveniently in the tropics – 10.03 degrees latitude, no less), Melissa heated up oatmeal and mix in a few left overs for them to eat.  It is also probably beneficial that we picked birds that would be good in our area; heavier bodied birds with good feathering.  No naked-neck birds in our flock and no overly fancy combs, either.  We just have araucanas, brahmas, a speckled sussex and a Rhode Island red; there might be a silver laced Wyndotte, too.  The brahmas are probably the best suited for cold weather.  They are a larger bird – about seven to nine pounds – with feathers down their legs and even over their feet.  The nieces call them “fluffy feets”.

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.

 

Solace at the Lake

Yesterday, we headed north, up Interstate 35 to Duluth and points to the north. I winterized the beehives that are north of Duluth, and then we headed east to highway 61.  Through Two Harbors, we arrived at Gooseberry Falls State Park. The park is almost always empty during the winter months; the occasional hiker or random snowshoer might be seen.

The sky was overcast and there was a brisk wind off the lake.  The lake, particularly during the winter, gives me solace – at least for a moment.

Sounds of Winter: Walking on snow, jingling of our dog’s tags, and the rush of Lake Superior.