Monday, February 21, 2011

Late Winter Hive Check in and Feeding

February 20, 2011
42 degrees in the sun
18 inches of snow on the ground
Bright blue sky, no wind

Two hives alive, one not (Hive two has died. Oddly it was the strongest in the fall). Another winter check in went well, but it was still sort of sad. When some of the more curious bees would come to see who it was, we would tell them to stay inside, because it was only us, the beekeepers. It is one of the greatest feelings to press your ear up to the side of the hive and hear the faint buzzing of the survivors. It is also one of the worst feelings to press your ear to a hive and hear nothing... That has only happened once, and I hope it will not happen again. The little bees are strong but in some cases the bitter cold is stronger. The bees also received a bucket full of thick, sweet syrup to help them make it these last couple of weeks. Many other beekeepers have said that their hives have made it through the heart of winter, but they run out of honey a couple weeks before the nectar begins to flow again. That must bee terrible, so to avoid it we fed them. Just hang on little bees, just a few more weeks.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cool bee facts

Agriculture depends greatly on the honeybee for pollination. Honeybees account for 80% of all insect pollination. Without such pollination, we would see a significant decrease in the yield of fruits and vegetables. 1/3 of everything we eat depends on bees.
Bees collect 66 lbs of pollen per year, per hive. Pollen is the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants for fertilization and plant embryo formation. The Honeybee uses pollen as a food. Pollen is one of the richest and purest natural foods, consisting of up to 35% protein, 10% sugars, carbohydrates, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins A (carotenes), B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (nicotinic acid), B5 (panothenic acid), C (ascorbic acid), H (biotin), and R (rutine).
Honey is used by the bees for food all year round. There are many types, colors and flavors of honey, depending upon its nectar source. The bees make honey from the nectar they collect from flowering trees and plants. Honey is an easily digestible, pure food. Honey is hydroscopic and has antibacterial qualities. Eating local honey can fend off allergies.
Secreted from glands, beeswax is used by the honeybee to build honey comb. It is used by humans in drugs, cosmetics, artists' materials, furniture polish and candles.
Collected by honeybees from trees, the sticky resin is mixed with wax to make a sticky glue. The bees use this to seal cracks and repair their hive. It is used by humans as a health aid, and as the basis for fine wood varnishes.
Royal Jelly
The powerful, milky substance that turns an ordinary bee into a Queen Bee. It is made of digested pollen and honey or nectar mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in a nursing bee's head. It commands premium prices rivaling imported caviar, and is used by some as a dietary supplement and fertility stimulant. It is loaded with all of the B vitamins.
Bee Venom
The "ouch" part of the honeybee. Although sharp pain and some swelling and itching are natural reactions to a honeybee sting, a small percentage of individuals are highly allergic to bee venom. "Bee venom therapy" is widely practiced overseas and by some in the USA to address health problems such as arthritis, neuralgia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even MS.

Guest Blog Post from - Debbie at Sapsucker Farms

>> I know this isn't about bees or chickens but I just love maple syrup. Also Debbie has bees so we communicate about bees alot.
Making Maple Syrup Brings Out the Kid in All of Us

As a kid growing up in Minneapolis, I remember early spring as that time of year when the days were longer, the snow was disappearing, and I was allowed to play outside again all day long. The most fun was getting the huge pack of neighborhood kids organized for softball games, to play “kick the can,” or just ride around on our bikes. With all of these options, it didn’t take much effort to get me outside; in fact it was much more difficult to get me back indoors at the end of the day.

As time went by, that wonderful, playful era passed and I grew up, went to college, joined the ranks of the corporate world, got married, bought a house in the suburbs, and became a serious-minded adult. I retreated to the indoors during the cold months and when the snow receded in the spring, I looked out my window and only saw was an ugly, dirty yard awaiting attention – the kind that I just didn’t want to give it

But the spring-embracing child in me re-emerged after my husband and I moved to our farm in 2000 and a friend of ours who grew up in Vermont took note of all of our sugar maple trees. He gave us a tour of our own property, pointed them out, and asked: “Have you ever thought about tapping these trees?”We decided to give it a try. The first year we put out 35 taps, and constructed a primitive outdoor cooking station. We discovered it was really fun, so the next year put out 100 taps and made some upgrades to the cooker. We were hooked and made the plunge, expanding a little more each year. The next year it was 200 taps -- built a sugar house -- installed a maple syrup evaporator. Then 400 taps -- 500 taps -- more improvements. And now our operation is even certified organic.

For us, the sugaring season begins the first week of March. We organize a pack of neighbors – spanning three generations – to put out the 500 taps, tubes, buckets, and lids. We have a special drill bit that is specifically for tree tapping. My husband goes from tree-to-tree, identifying the sugar maples, then drills a hole, wipes the bit clean with an alcohol-soaked rag before going on to the next tree to ensure that no diseases are spread. Behind him, someone is ready with a tap with tube already attached, and gently raps it in place with a small hammer. The next person comes along with a five-gallon bucket and lid, tucks the tube into the lid hole and securely snaps it shut.

On our farm, we only tap the sugar maple trees because they have the highest sugar content in the sap. But all varieties of maple trees can be tapped: red maple, silver maple, even box elder which are also members of the maple family.

The taps need to be installed just before the sap begins to run, and that is completely dependent on the weather. The conditions need to be right: nights below freezing and days that are warm. Why? The sap needs to be moving in the tree in order for it to drip through the taps. Freezing nights stops the flow, warm days gets it going again. The wrong combination -- warm nights and warm days or cold nights and cold days -- will prevent this process from happening. And it is because of these very specific weather requirements that maple syrup is exclusively made in North America.

When the weather is cooperating, sap is collected every one to three days. And let me tell you, there is no greater joy than tromping through the muddy woods on a beautiful spring day to find the buckets full of pure, crystal clear, pristine maple sap. Bucket-by-bucket, the collecting tank is filled and hauled back to the sugar house to be cooked in our wood-burning maple syrup evaporator. The sap is boiled for several hours, evaporating most of the water to concentrate the sap into luscious, pure maple syrup.

Maple sap has a sugar content of about 2.5 percent and pure maple syrup has a sugar content of about 66 percent. In simple terms, it means that a whole lot of water needs to be boiled off in order to concentrate the sap in syrup. It takes 30 to 40 gallons of sap – depending on the variety of maple trees – to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The plumes of steam billowing out of the chimney as the sap is cooked is quite a sight to behold.

While the length of time the sap flows varies each year, it typically lasts about three to four weeks. On our farm in East Central Minnesota, the sap flow is usually from mid-March to mid-April. When the trees start to bud, the chemistry of the sap changes taking on a disagreeable odor, color, and taste. This is known as “buddy sap” and it is the indicator that the sugaring season has officially ended.

When the taps are pulled, the holes have already dried up and begun to heal. Just like your skin, the tap hole will leave a scar on the tree. When we return next year to tap again, we will find the scar and use it as a map, moving around the trunk to tap in a different spot. Over the years, the tree grows adding more rings to its girth so by the time we work around the tree back to that general area the same area on the tree can be tapped once again.

Making maple syrup is more than just producing a scrumptious treat. It is an experience that brings together people of all generations to enjoy the great outdoors and celebrate the winter thaw. Lifting buckets, hiking in the forest, splitting wood, and staying up late to cook sap is a lot of work. But the effort is easily surpassed by the pleasure of being outside playing all day until you’re completely exhausted, knowing you get to do it again the next day. For me, making pure maple syrup, is pure childhood joy.

Debbie Morrison is an organic farmer living in East Central Minnesota, about 70 miles north of Minneapolis/St. Paul. She and her husband founded Sapsucker Farms in 2000 and have been making maple syrup since 2001. Other organic crops they raise on their farm include apples, plums, and a variety of vegetables. 20 happy egg-laying hens call Sapsucker Farms home, and Debbie also organically manages up to 20 honeybee hives each year.

Jim & Debbie Morrison Sapsucker Farms

(Photo credits: Mitch Kezar, Kezar Photography)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Guest Blog Post from - Alex Jokela: Beekeeping in Minnesota!

Ice crystals around the front door in MN.

It is January in northern Minnesota. This means we have had much snow which is usually followed up with several severe cold days and nights. Night time temperatures, at their coldest, will reach down to -40F without the wind. How does one keep bees in colder climates? For me, it started with planning. My planning started in August while attending the Eastern Apiculture Society's annual conference (held in Boone, NC, last year). I quizzed any master beekeeper who was from a northern state and who would give me a couple minutes of their time. Valuable common sense tidbits that I assembled, in piecemeal fashion, into comprehensive plan.

Moisture Control.

Growing up, while hunting whitetail deer with my father, I learned to pace yourself while hiking in the woods. You did not want sweat. As soon as you stopped to wait for the occasional deer to wander by, you would become cold faster with the moisture on your body.

The same principle of moisture and cold holds true with beehives. Moisture + cold is a perfect equation for ending up with a pile of frozen, dead bees mid-winter. To control excess moisture (remember, bees shiver in the winter to keep the collective warm; lots of moisture is given off with the shivering), a master beekeeper from Maine recommended using homasote board as an inner cover. A piece the length and width of your top super is cut, and then, using a router with a rabbiting bit, a groove is routed out from middle of the piece - roughly halfway through the material - to one edge. This will be your top entrance for the winter.

On top of the homasote, a 2" wood spacer is used. Inside the space, a piece of rigid foam insulation cut to snugly fit. The outer cover is then placed over the spacer with care being taken to not cover the cut-groove in the homasote.

Insulation Wrap.

I picked an insulation-blanket-type wrap. It is covered in a heavy-mil black plastic. The insulation is loose enough to trap air between itself and the hive boxes while the heavy plastic is useful for keeping out drafts. The wrap is pulled up and secured just below the groove in the homasote board.

As a side note, I use screened bottom boards during the warmer months; to prevent updrafts into the hives, I slid a solid piece under the screens. The bottom entrance is still accessible, but gets covered with snow.

It is very important to make sure that the top entrance remains accessible; this will be the bees' link to the outside world while their bottom entrance is in the snow.

Wind Break.

We have a taller fence to the east and north of the hives. These are the predominant directions the winter winds blow from. Even though the hives are wrapped snug and warm with insulation, there is the fence to act as a wind break. The fence, during the warmer season when the bees are active, also forces the bees to enter and leave the hives at a very steep angle - well above the yards of any neighbors.

Depending upon the size of your apiary, it might not be conducive to put up solid fencing; instead it might be enough or more time-economical to have the top entrance facing away from the predominant wind direction.

Lastly, food. This is a tricky one. You want to harvest enough honey for yourself, but you also need to leave enough for your bees for the winter. It gets trickier if you get an extra cold snap that causes the bees to "lock up" and be unable to reach the food stores. A beekeeper friend had this happen last year; in the spring, there was plenty of food stores left, but all his bees frozen out directly under the food.

By day, Alex is a programmer and data analyst for the University of Minnesota Duluth. But, in his off time, he tends bees and gardens. He is also actively involved in basset hound and coonhound rescue - he and his wife, Melissa, own two bassets and two coonhounds. He blogs about bees and gardening at