Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Update On How Our Honey Bees Be

Yesterday we went out to check on our bee hives. Here Roy is opening up the first hive. All of the pictures included in this post were taken then.

In northeastern Minnesota, the long, cold winters are devastatingly hard on bees. This past winter was just such a typical winter, and our bees suffered. We made sure to leave them plenty of food for over-wintering, but because of extreme conditions, it didn't seem to do much good.

We went into winter with five hives. This spring was cold, wet and gray which made things worse for the bees. After having to stay clustered together in an effort to stay warm all winter and not moving about in the hive to get to their stores, their "hibernation" season was made even longer by the bad spring weather. With no sunshine, no warm days for them to get out for cleansing flights or even realize winter was over(!), more of them died.

When the queen bees started laying brood in late winter, the bees had to stay in a yet tighter ball cluster to keep the brood alive. The main aim was still to keep themselves, the queen and the brood alive which took too much of their energy.

Bottom line, when Roy checked the hives in early April, we found we had lost four of the five hives.

The remaining one hive had a handful of bees and a queen but no live brood. Roy was doubtful that there were even enough bees left to rebuild the hive. Never underestimate the strength and determination of a honey bee though. Gradually through the late spring and summer, that rag-tag little bundle of bees built themselves up into a moderately strong hive.

A good friend that we had gotten started in beekeeping a few years ago fared better over winter than we did. He lives approximately 40 miles away and must have a micro-climate that is kinder to bees than we do because his consistently seem to do better than ours. He gave us two splits from two of his hives in early June. Splits consist of two frames of bees including eggs, some partially sealed brood, some completely sealed brood plus a queen cell. Those two splits situated in their new home (on our homestead) developed through the summer into strong hives.

The above is a shot of our bee enclosure. We have them totally enclosed in a chain link cage including a chain link covering on top. This is because we've got black bears that would love nothing better than to get their big paws on some honey. The whole enclosure is inside an electric fence also. The chain link fence might not keep out a determined, very hungry bear (after he went through the electric fence) but hopefully it would cause enough noise that we could get out there before the hives were totally destroyed.

So we ended the season this fall with three moderately strong hives although they hadn't put by much honey due to having to use all their energy to build themselves up over the summer. Needless to say, there was no honey for us to take off our hives this year.

Without a good supply of honey in the hives, we knew the bees were going to need a little extra help over this coming winter, so this fall we fed sugar water.

Below is the sugar syrup feeding tray which sits on the very top of the hive.

Each of the three hives took about twenty pounds of sugar along with some biodynamic additions to enhance the syrup mixture. We fed until the bees stopped taking the syrup and at this point, Roy feels they're ready for winter. We're now waiting for seriously cold weather to wrap the hives with 1" thick foam insulation to help keep them warm. Then we hope for a bee-friendly winter, early spring, and bountiful summer for them to flourish in. Then maybe, just maybe there will be enough honey for us to take some for our own use next fall.


  1. Very interesting. I really enjoyed coming across your blog. And the wolf story? Wow!

  2. Hi, troutbirder - Thank you very much for the kind words, and thanks for commenting.

  3. I'm not sure where your hives are located in relation to the surrounding topography, but I do know, from experience as a forester who used to live and work in N. MN; I do know that it doesn't take much of a change in elevation (a depression in relation to the surrounding topography) to create a frost pocket. I'm sure you folks are aware of this, but thought I'd throw it out there.

    One June I walked a road that cut through a white cedar stand. It was early morning -- 8am-ish. The surrounding higher ground (maybe ten feet or less in elevation gain) was warm and toasty-ish (comparatively speaking for N. MN that time of year). But, the depression had solid ice formed in the ruts in the road.

    Seriously, I would bet it had been a week or more since the higher ground had seen frost, but that low spot was froze tight! Cold air is heavy, sinks, and condenses causing frost as the energy dissipates. If your hives are either in a depression (subtle though it might be) or on a slight slope where the cold air moves downward toward a depression, it could be part of the problem relating to your bees when compared with your neighbors. Then again, again, as you know, it doesn't take much change in distance from the shore of that big pond up your way, your place in relation to your neighbor's place, to make a HUGE difference in microclimate.

    I am sure you folks pondered all these variables and, after having lived up there for so long, probably understand the concept of frost pockets and lake effect on temperatures better than I do, but thought I'd toss it out there.

    As for bees---the only thing I know about them, really, is how to get stung a lot! Well, hornets and wasps actually. Used to step on their ground hives all the time in the fall up there---busting through windrows and unable to see their swarms. Hehe...milligram for milligram, there just isn't a tougher critter on the planet, eh?

    Anyway, good luck with the bees!

  4. Speaking of subtle differences...that can be huge regarding microclimate: If you have a spruce-fir stand on your property (red pine etc---conifer) that is large enough for you to prune the overhead branches and set up your hive fencing etc. beneath, it would go a LONG way toward keeping your bees considerably warmer during the winter months. Same concept used by the deer, right? They yard up in cedar stands or try to find other thick cover, because the branches and needles trap the daylight sun energy (sort of like your car windows in the summer months) and it keeps the temps warmer beneath the trees.

    It is, of course, the same reason why it is warmer on a cloudy January day than it is on a sunny January day. The sun's energy (photons) pass through the clouds and hit the ground, but the clouds prevent the reflected IR from escaping into the atmosphere and the temps increase.

    Anyway, I'm just throwin' mud at the cold N. MN winter wall and hoping something sticks that might benefit you and your bees. I'm sure, though, you folks have already pondered all this stuff.

  5. I really didn't realize there was so much involved with beekeeping.
    Hope your hives do well through the winter. Maybe you should install a little furnace in there for them!!

  6. Anonymous - The location of our hives should be okay. They are open to the south but surrounded on the other three sides by trees . . . sort of snuggled into the woods. Also on the top of a slightly southern sloping piece of land so their little domain shouldn't collect any frost puddling up.

    Our bee keeping group has actually talked of the possibility of having some sort of "building" to house the bees in over winter. The old-time pioneers put the hives in their cellars each winter!

    Hi, Sue - Bees are a fascinating, extremely complex society all their own. Fortunately, with just a little help from us, they know exactly what to do!

    A little hive furnace? Hmmm. Maybe a very large can of sterno under each hive for the winter? :o)

  7. Wow! I never even thought of the bear factor for you folks up der in da nort land. I hope you have a good "bee winter" so that you can sneak a little honey next year. Love the idea of a bee keeping group. Take care and thanks so much for all the great information on your hives:)

  8. Ya, sure, you betcha, we got plenty a' bears! We've been lucky ('course, we've taken as much precaution as we can) to not ever have had a bear tear into our hives but almost every year we hear of someone in the area that has had their hives ripped up. And the bears do make a mess. Usually nothing but splinters left!

    And you're very welcome re the bee info!

  9. Well, I tried, eh? Good luck with the little buzzers...though, a thought: shielding the bees from the wind is not the same as placing them under protective cover. I suspect the bee boxes probably provide a break from the wind. If the boxes were under a canopy of trees, conifer during winter months, the air temperature would actually be higher. A shed, of course, would be even better than putting them under trees. Anyway, you folks know more about bees than I do.

  10. Anonymous - Appreciate any and all thoughts. There's got to be just the right way to get around our not-friendly-to-bees winters! We just have to keep experimenting and find the right solution.

  11. great post! We spent some time on honeybees and had a local beekeeper come lecture during our master gardener course and it was one of the most interesting things we did! She finished up and we just sat there, after "the bell rang" lol.... waiting for more! I hope your hives have some better luck this year and the weather cooperates.

  12. Survival blessings for your bees-- such a challenging situation!

    The Piper has gotten "the bee bug" (actually has been wanting to do this for years), and she's starting bee school this weekend. We went to an introductory session last week and really enjoyed the presentation. It's helpful to have your "reality check" beekeeping posts alongside the information we're getting about Maine beekeeping. The more we all try, the better off the bees are going to be!

  13. Erin - Bees are extremely interesting. They have such a defined, complex (to us anyway) society. Tasks that only certain bees do, some go out foraging, some never leave the hive, some are nurses, etc., etc. My hubby thinks you could probably study them for a lifetime and always learn something you didn't know.

    MaineCelt - Oh, good, you're going to get bees! Just wait until you get that first crop of honey! Rewarding and amazing. Conscientious beekeepers have got to all work together to pull honey bees back from the brink of extinction. Our crops, gardens, flowers can't survive without them.

  14. thanks for sharing you bee story with us Mama Pea. I wish your hives the best of luck this winter.

  15. Thanks, Ruthie. If our November weather is indicative of the whole winter, the bees will be happy, stay warm, and survive with no problems at all!