Category Archives: Bees

Re-Queening a Hive

Our first bump in the road with the bees this season was to lose one of the queens from our two new packages of bees.  I went to inspect them last weekend to look for signs that the queens were alive and healthy.  Looking for either eggs or bee brood is the best way to determine if a queen is present, other than actually finding the queen (which is not that easy).

During our first summer with the bees, I never personally worked the hive.  It was always Jesse and one of the kids doing the beekeeping and me standing nearby taking an excessive amount of pictures.  So, I have absolutely no experience looking for eggs or brood.  But because Jesse is away for work, I was left with no other choice.

While inspecting the first hive, I could not find any sign of a queen – no eggs or brood.  My lack of experience caused me to doubt myself and wonder if I was just missing something.  I put the frames back in and moved on to the second hive.  After pulling out the second frame, I immediately noticed brood in the cells.  They look like little white worms.  My husband tells me they are not worms, they are larva.  But they sure look like worms to me…

Anyhow, finding the signs in the second hive was both good news and bad news.  It meant that I was capable of finding what I was looking for and that it existed in that hive.  The bad news was that it meant the queen in the first hive was dead.  For added assurance, I asked our beekeeper mentor and friend, Paul, to come and check that hive too.  He confirmed that there was no sign of a queen.  It is hard to say what happened to her.  She could have been squished when we were shifting frames around or sometimes the bees simply just do not like the new queen and “ball” her, which smothers her.

I called our bee supplier and he said he could have a new queen for me in a couple of days.  Last night I went and picked her up.  I had to drive about 30 miles one way to his residence to get her. As I was driving, it occurred to me how ridiculous it seemed to be driving that far to pick up one bug.  Without that one bug, however, the hive is a complete loss.

Once I returned home, I suited up and headed out to the hives with our youngest.  (He took these pictures, so pardon the blurriness 🙂 ).

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All the Way from Chico, California…

Our package bees arrived last night after a long and harrowing trip from sunny Chico, California, to the cool weather of Minnesota.  Their arrival was delayed a day after they were temporarily stranded in Wyoming due to a snow storm.  Our bee supplier, who lives only about 15 minutes from our home, received 800 packages of bees from the truck carrying around 2,400 packages (about $100,000 worth of bees!).  These are some of the pallets sitting in his yard when we arrived.

Although most of the bees were inside the packages, there were several “hitch-hikers” flying around too.  You can see some of them on top of the packages.

I was hesitant to approach the crates to take pictures, but the bee guy reassured me it was safe.

They won’t hurt you.  Come closer.  They’re good girls.”

So I bravely told our son to go over by the bees so I could take his picture.  🙂

Once we got the bees home, it was time to install them in their new homes.  Jesse sprayed them with sugar syrup to slow them down and make them easier to shake out of the package.

He was not wearing any protective gear because we only have two bee suits and both of the boys wanted to help.

Our youngest….

Our oldest…

After spraying them with the sugar-water, Jesse first removed the queen from the package.  She is in a separate little cage inside the package.  Her attendant bees stuck close to her.

Time to shake the bees out of their package and into the hive.

The bees explore their new digs and after shaking the majority of the bees out of the package, they released the queen down in hive.  She was quickly surrounded by her attendant bees.

Because it is early in the season and no pollen is yet available for the bees, we are providing them with some supplemental food in the form of pollen patties (on right).

We are also feeding them a sugar syrup mixture to get them through the next few weeks until the first crops are available (usually dandelions).  The feeding bucket has tiny holes that drips the liquid out when inverted on top of the top board.

Notice that Jesse ended up having our youngest hand over the bee suit after being stung on the head!  Turns out the bees were a little cranky after being banged around and dumped out of their package and into the hive.  I would not be surprised if they were also a little upset about being relocated from warm and sunny California to Minnesota.  That would make me crabby too.

The installation of the second hive went a little smoother and by the time we finished it was almost completely dark.  It is best to install the bees at night so that they can acclimate to the hive for several hours before the worker bees take off to forage.

Here is the queen for our second hive.

After putting the queen into the hive, Jesse carefully replaced the remaining frames being very careful not to squish the queen.

The bees are now installed into their hives and ready to start their work today.  We are hopeful for a successful beekeeping season with healthy and productive bees!

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Bee Students

Saturday we attended a course entitled “Beekeeping in Northern Climates” at the University of Minnesota.  Dr. Marla Spivak and scientist Gary Reuter from the Department of Entomology taught the course.  There were about 160 people in attendance (the interest in beekeeping has dramatically spiked in recent years).  It was a very informative course and we came away feeling like we learned several ways to improve our beekeeping this year.  Below are a few of the highlights.

Wintering Bees

After the loss of our first bee colony last winter (described here), some of the most pertinent information for us was on successfully wintering a hive in our cold Minnesota climate.  The first tip that we learned was that a larger bee population would increase the odds of the colony to survive through the winter. Wintering with 2 brood chambers in Minnesota is possible, but the UofMn recommends the use of 3 brood chambers to increase the colony population and honey stores. We will definitely increase from 2 to 3 brood chambers to improve our odds next winter.

Bottom two boxes are the larger brood chambers, and the smaller boxes are honey supers. We will have them fill three brood chambers before we add honey supers this year..

Jesse believes that moisture build-up due to insufficient ventilation was the primary cause of the colony failure this winter. The dead bees were black and wet when we opened the hive in February. There were also honey stores still remaining in the hive. We learned that the UofMn recommends drilling a 1 inch diameter hole 3 inches from the bottom edge of the hive body. The hole is normally plugged, but in the winter the hole in the top brood chamber should be left open for ventilation. Another recommended practice is to place a piece of “buffalo board” over the inner cover to help draw the moisture out of the hive, and one flap of the hive protector should be tucked along the hive to create more space for air flow.

Disease and Pest Control

It was very interesting and refreshing to learn that the UofMn is promoting that beekeepers move away from using chemicals and antibiotics in their operations, except as a last resort. Dr. Spivak believes that over-treatment of the bees has led to poor natural resistance and the bacteria, viruses, and pests have become resistant to these treatments. For example, Terramycin is a common antibiotic that research has shown is becoming ineffective at treating American Foulbrood (AFB). Instead, the UofMn is advocating that better results can be achieved by improved management techniques and using bees bred to exhibit hygienic behavior.

Some of the management techniques we will follow after attending this class are: (1) replacing brood combs every 5 years; (2) shake, requeen, and burn comb if AFB is detected;  (3) order MN hygienic queens next year; (4) use the 2 hive horizontal rotating method to keep our colonies strong and young queens; and (5) buy Varroa mite traps for our hives to improve colony health.

Our bee supplier called today to tell us our packages of bees will be arriving some time this week.  After attending this class, we are even more excited to start our second season of beekeeping!

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The Bees are Dead!

It was our understanding as beginning beekeepers that it was possible to winter our hive here in Minnesota so long as we took steps to help them through the harsh season.  The first task was to provide the bees with sugar syrup (since we harvested most of their honey) for them to cure for their winter food store.  We prepared the sugar syrup (a 2:1 ration of sugar to water) and put it into a feeder in the hive.  It was still warm enough that the bees were active and they went to work curing the syrup.

As the cold weather set in, Jesse continued to prepare the hive by building an insulated hive cover to help keep the bees warm and block chilling winds.

Around the beginning or middle of December when Jesse checked on the bees, they were still alive and thriving in the winter cluster.  According to our go-to beekeeping information source,“The Beekeeper’s Handbook” by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile, bees form a winter cluster in the late fall and winter that expands and contracts as the outside temperatures rise and fall.  The bees remain active in the cluster and continue about their business.  However, their activity continues to produce water vapors, which must be allowed to escape the hive. 

After the extreme cold snap of weather that we experienced over the holidays, Jesse went to check once again on the bees.  The scene was quite different this  time when he removed the hive cover.  Silence.  No bees.  No activity.  Nothing.

With our limited knowledge and experience, we have concluded that the bees did not have adequate ventilation and that too much moisture built up inside the hive.  Another possibile reason for the loss of the bees is those extreme holiday temperatures.  In any event, despite our best efforts, we failed our bees. 

We went out to the hive yesterday to take a closer look.  After taking off the cover and lifting off the boxes, we saw the carnage.

All of our wonderful, hard-working bees…dead.

So we end of our first year as beekeepers with feelings of mixed success.  We managed to make it through the summer and fall with no failures in the hive or diseases.  Most importantly, we enjoyed a moderately successful honey harvest for our first year.  After these successes, the loss of the honeybees this winter is quite disappointing. 

Like all failures, however, there are lessons to be learned.  Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby and we intend to continue our education and become more knowledgeable in all aspects of managing bees.  We have already placed our order for two packages of honeybees to arrive some time in April.  We will also be attending a one day course offered at the University of Minnesota on beekeeping in northern climates this spring.  Hopefully our next year with honeybees will have a better ending than our first year!


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Our First Honey Harvest

After our first summer as beekeepers, we were fortunate enough to enjoy a moderately successful honey harvest.  Jesse collected the full frames from the hive and we brought them into the house to start the messy process of extracting the honey from the comb.  Using an electric uncapping knife, we sliced away the waxy caps of the honeycomb to allow the honey to drain out.

The hot knife cuts right through the wax.  You can see it starting to ooze out already.

Furthering our investment in beekeeping equipment, we purchased a honey extractor from Mann Lake, Ltd. The extractor holds three frames.  Once the frames are uncapped, we placed them into the extractor for spinning.  We learned from a demonstration at the State Fair to only partially spin one side out and then turn the frames around and spin the other side out.

The extracted honey sits in the bottom of the drum until opening the drain valve.  Passing through a double-strainer, the beautiful golden honey drained into a five-gallon bucket.

After finishing with the extraction process, we were ready to put our honey into containers.  We ordered 25 of these great honey bottles from our favorite bee supply company.

The final total for our bees was in excess of 50 pounds of honey.  Not too bad for beginners!


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Bees and Teens

The kids thought their dad was a little weird when he told them we were getting bees last spring.  This came as no surprise to us because what kid doesn’t think their parents are weird at some point?  Jesse originally thought he would focus on getting our youngest son involved with the bees as a special project they could do together.  They checked on the hive together and Jesse shared with him all he was learning about bees through reading and talking with his bee mentor, Paul.

As the summer progressed, however, an interesting thing happened.  The other two also became interested in working with the bees.  Eventually, each time Jesse would say he was going out to check on the bees a discussion would ensue about whose turn it was to accompany him.  We purchased a second beekeeper suit and they each took turns working the bees with their dad.

Smoking the bees encourages them to gorge on honey, which makes them calm.  Calm bees are a good thing when you are pulling out frames to inspect.

Our youngest takes his turn.

Even our oldest, a genuine teenager and huge XBox 360 fan, wanted a turn working the bees.  We couldn’t have been happier.

Brushing the bees off to get a better look at the frame.  The bees are making good progress in capping the combs filled with honey.

And so the bees have turned into a family project.  These amazing little creatures have attracted the interest of our teenagers enough to lure them outside and away from technology.  For that, we are grateful.

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