Wednesday, April 23, 2014

10 Acre Woods Newest Beekeeper

6 years ago when I walked into my first Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Club meeting I knew I was home.  Men and women of all ages and shapes, dressed in overalls or jeans, flannel shirts and boots with unkept hair. I had found my people. I didn't know a thing about keeping bees other than it was a hobby meant for me. Those people were my lifeline those first few years. I depended on their guidance, wisdom and kindness for my every move. Heck, I still depend on them! I wasn't sure I would ever become a real beekeeper with an ability to play it forward and give back to another new bee keeper.

Here I am now, overseeing two bee yards. I no longer fumble through the equipment catalog wondering what the heck the difference is between a brood box and super. I know just what to order. I  no longer wonder if I will ever know the difference between a queen, a worker or a drone. Its second nature to me. I no longer ponder over the endless questions that consumed me those first few years. For the most part,  I get it now. I have some bee juju to share and finally someone to share it with.

My brother-in-law Charlie was always interested in the bees, initially I think it was the honey that lured him in but now he's the owner of a 10 acre farm in Hamburg Mn embarking on a Permiculture adventure and he is interested in sustainability as a way of life. I admit openly that I came to this adventure in hopes of tempering my hyper active spirit, of finding a way to lead a more mindful, deliberate and contemplative life. I am still on that journey, my hyper active spirit ebbs and flows depending on the state of the bees. I have however found the keeping of the bees a way toward a more mindful existence. It has also lead to one of my most valued relationships in life, the friendship I have with my beekeeping partner, Paula. I couldn't do this without her. I didn't come to this with honey or sustainability in mind. It occurred to me that if I could give back to the planet in some small way through pollinating a little speck of the earth, that would be nice. Now, 6 years later I am in a position to give back to Charlie what was so generously given to me by countless other bee keepers. He is already off to a good start with a keen eye and knack for this crazy hobby. He is a natural and I am betting he will eventually manage the 10 Acre Woods apiary on his own, if he wants. 

Charlie invited me to keep bees on the farm almost immediately. I am not sure if he intended to become a beekeeper himself but he is well on his way. For months now he has been working on a design for the bee yard, consistent with the principals of Permiculture. After I scoped out the property last fall we decided on a location for the bee yard. Charlie got to work this spring creating a Hügelkultur around the perimeter of the bee yard. Hügeklutur is a design concept using layering as a principal and is the practice of burying large volumes of wood to increase soil water retention. The porous structure of the wood acts as a sponge when decomposing underground. Charlie dug down about 5 feet in a circle around the the bee yard, filled the dugout with rotted wood, mounded the dirt back up, spread bee friendly plant seed on the mound, including clover, covered the mound with hay and then placed large sticks on top. The seeds will sprout through the hay and sticks and provide a rich source of pollen and nectar for the bees.  The structure will also bee a good wind block and help protect the hives in the winter. He is also building a wooden arbor at the passageway to the bee yard which will also have some kind of bee friendly vines. It is already visually stunning. I can't imagine when the Hügelkutur and arbor are in full bloom.

The day the bees arrive is always one my most favorite days of the year. I look forward to it all winter long. This year it took longer than usual for the bees to arrive and I was getting edgy and worried. Finally last Wednesday they arrived and we put two of four new packages of bees into hives at Charlie's farm, 10 Acre Woods. The packages seemed healthy. It was a cold, windy day and it was difficult getting our queens out. We inadvertently killed a queen during the installation of Charlie's Crazy Comb. I don't fret about these mishaps anymore. I know exactly what needs to be done to remedy the situation. Charlie kept his eye on the hives over the next few days while we waited for the arrival of a new queen. He would report in a few times a day providing important observations. Within two days it was clear we had a problem in the queen less hive. The girls were lethargic, not foraging and clustered, even as the weather warmed up. When I finally arrived back on the farm 5 days later with a new queen we discovered the majority of the bees in the hive were dead, piled up at the bottom of the hive. I was heart sick, simply devastate. What had gone wrong? I'd never seen such a think in all my years of beekeeping. I have mulled it over and over, talked to my people and likely the bees had a particular strain of nosema, an intestinal disease that infects bees, that kills them in a matter of days. It is also possible that the bees starved to death. I wasn't attentive to how much syrup was left in the bee cage feeder can. Maybe it was full, defective and the bees hadn't had any nutrition for a week. I don't know for sure. We slipped the cage with the new queen into the hive and closed it up. Charlie reports more activity coming out the hive in the past few days, but frankly I don't have much hope for them. There wasn't but a frame or two of bees who won't be able to build up enough comb quickly enough for a healthy queen.

The second hive on that property, Andrea's Drone Den seems strong and active and the bees are bringing in pollen. I am not sure where they getting pollen from, we barley have a hint of budding but they found something. I just hope it isn't a stash of sawdust, they have been know to hoard that when nothing else is available. I will go back to the farm over the weekend to make sure the new queen in Charlies' Crazy Comb has been released and then next Wednesday we will do our first inspection, see if the girls are building comb and if the queen is laying. These are tense times for a beekeeper. So much is at stake and things can go wrong.

We also installed two hives in our bee yard in Northfield. I have not been back there yet. It is cold again here now and a three day rain cloud has settled overhead. The bees are clustering at night and not out much when it rains so no point in checking them. I don't like to go in and disrupt the bees until the queen has had time to start laying.

I had two more packaged that were originally going to be delivered this weekend, another hive for each bee yard, 6 hives in all. My supplier called two days ago to delay the shipment until May 17th, cold and rain in Kentucky has not been kind to bee keepers, especially those who raise queens. I am out of my mind about it, May 17th is just way too late to start a new package of bees in Minnesota. Our season is short and I am starting out on foundation this year, no comb. It isn't likely that bees placed on May 17th will have time to build 3 brood boxes of comb let alone store enough honey for their own winter needs. Curses. I quickly teamed up with my dear beekeeping friend Patty who found us some Nuc's, little nucleus colonies of bees, a smaller version of a normal beehive with 5 combed out frames full of bees and brood and a queen. I am not sure why we haven't done this before but we haven't. I am totally jazzed. The Nuc's will arrive around the 6th of May. I am getting two, one for each bee yard.  In the meantime I need to shore up my situation in both bee yards. I have to decide on Monday if I still want the delivery on May 17th. I am not one to give up bees but I am short on equipment this year and if I end up with 6 viable hives that is enough. However, I can't predict how Charlie's Crazy Comb is going to do and we could always end up with some other crazy problem in a hive so I hate to turn down bees. I don't know how I will land on this, somewhere between 6-8 hives, all first year hives so it is unlikely we will get any honey.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bee Season Opener

It has been a rough week for me. After a month of of scraping, cleaning, repairing and replacing equipment we finally staged the bee yards last week in anticipation of four new packages arriving on Monday. After 5 years of ordering bees from Kentucky we trusted the routine. The bees ship on Saturday and they arrive on Monday. This routine has repeated itself over and over.

I was particularly excited about the arrival this year as Monday was the first day of Passover. It felt sacred and special. Monday came and went without the arrival of the bees. I was disappointed but quickly regrouped with my beekeeping partners. They would come on Tuesday.

Tuesday came and went, no bees. After numerous conversations with the post office and our supplier I finally got the tracking number for the bees. In a way no one else is possibly capable of, I spent the better part of 6 hours Tuesday hitting the refresh button on the USPS tracking site hoping to get some news. Admittedly I went to a place of panic. I don't care to share the details, just trust me. I am prone to worry and I go to worst case scenarios easily. In my head the bees were all dead and no replacement bees would be had. I would be looking at a summer without bees, something I simply couldn't face. Before the end of the day I secured a top secret number to reach a very compassionate employee at the post office who had spent the better part of Tuesday trying to help me locate our bees. She offered to find a way to have me pick them up Tuesday evening at the airport but reminded me that it was tax day and going to the airport might be a nightmare.

With my secrete number in hand on Wednesday morning I called Leona at 6:45. The bees had arrived. I picked up Paula and off we went, unsure about what kind of shape they would be in. All four packages were in good condition. Two of them had a pile of dead bees on the bottom but nothing more than usual. I was a little dumbfounded but grateful.

It was a gloomy, cold and windy day. The race was on to get these girls in their homes before the wintry mix began. We headed to 10 Acre Woods, the farm of my brother-in-law and new beekeeper Charlie to situate two of the packages. Charlie has gone to great lengths to create a beautiful apiary area on the farm. I will share more about that in a later post.

The packages went in easily but the queen releases were another story. We seem prone to queen drama at Flight of The Turquoise Apiary. We began with Andrea's Drone Den. The queen release was impossible, she simply didn't want to leave the cage. Paula set the cage down in the pile of the bees and closed up the hive, hoping that she would just go out and we could remove the cage after managing the second package. It seemed like a reasonable idea. We closed up the hive and moved on to the second hive, Charlie's Crazy Comb. Again, the bees went in easily enough and Paula released the queen, more easily this time. We returned to the Andrea's Drone Den to retrieve the queen cage. The girls, having already readily accepted the queen due to the longer than normal journey had taken over the cage. It was impossible to tell if the queen had wandered out so I had to spend a great deal of time and effort shaking the queen cage and trying to get the workers off so I could see that she was gone. Meanwhile Paula discovered a queen on her glove. Holy hell. Where had she come from? Which queen was she? We all agreed it seemed most likely she was from Charlie's Crazy Comb.

I didn't get a good look at her but Paula thought she was injured. Paula put her in Charlie's Crazy Comb. If she is injured or sick the bees will kill her. They won't tolerate a less than perfect queen. So I have ordered two more queens, one for Charlie's Crazy Comb, assuming she needs to be replaced and another for Andrea's Drone Den, in the event that the queen on Paula's hand was some how from that hive. Oh the crazy queen drama. Hopefully the queens will arrive on Friday or Saturday and we can figure out our situation on Sunday or Monday. We are starting on foundation so it isn't going to be easy to trouble shoot. If we were on comb the queen would be easier to locate because she would be able to start laying immediately. Now she has to wait for the workers to build comb. Unfortunately it is going to be wicked cold for the next few days so the bees will probably cluster and not build much comb making it even harder for us.

The packages went in easily down in the Northfield Apiary and we have another package, maybe two more coming in a few weeks to complete that location.