Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in His hand Who saith "A whole I planned, Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!" - From "Rabbi Ben Ezra" by Robert Browning

Friday, March 16, 2012

As Busy As Bees!

Things have been pretty busy here at 5~Acre Farm. We're only just getting a chance to catch our breath... well, I am. Poor John is still pushing himself at a maniacal pace! His primary concern right now is the bees. With the unseasonably warm weather this week comes the possibility that the bees are ready to swarm.

John, ready to check the bee
Swarming indicates that the honey bee colony is reproducing. The old queen bee will leave the hive with about 60% of the worker bees to form a new hive. That's tens of thousands of bees leaving the old hive box where a new virgin queen will take over and produce tens of thousands of new worker bees.

We're raising Minnesota Hygienic bees, which were developed at the University of Minnesota over several years. "Hygienic" bees are just that, hygienic. They are the Felix Unger of bees, and if you don't get that reference, just think about bees with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). They keep their hives absolutely spotless, reducing the chances of mites and diseases, and increasing their chances for strength and survivability.
Our first three hives

John's job right now is to watch for signs that the bees are preparing to swarm and have new hive boxes ready to be inhabited. If the boxes are nearby and ready, at the right time, John will capture the queen and put her in a cage, then put the cage in a new hive box. Other bees will be pulled to go with her. She'll be kept in the cage, in the hive box until the colony is established. If John misses the chance to do this, the bees could swarm and go high up into the trees or even leave the farm. That would be a big loss for us, since we are trying to grow our bee colonies and potential for honey.

Opening the hive
If John is successful, we will go from three hives to six. Our potential for honey will also double. This being our first honey season, we are expecting to harvest 10 quarts per hive. That is what has been suggested to us by other beekeepers. That's 30 quarts total. Next year, with six hives, that will mean 60 quarts of honey. If we have six hives next year, they will potentially double to 12, and will produce 120 quarts of honey the following year.
These are 10-frame hives

That's a lot of honey, and it sounds great doesn't it! But it's not that simple. All kinds of factors will influence the size of the hives, their reproductive abilities, and the amount of honey to be harvested. Bee health is imperative. Right now, we are lucky to have not just strong hives, but super-strong hives. This, I believe, is due to John's absolute attention to detail in their care. He inspects the hives daily, reads everything  he can find about bees, does internet research late into the night, and asks zillions of questions of the other beekeepers at our monthly beekeepers' meeting.

Removing an outer frame for inspection

The bees also have to be well fed. In order for the hive to thrive and prosper, you can't rely solely on flowering plants and trees to provide pollen and nectar. When we brought our bees home last June, we started giving them sugar water on a daily basis. Seven pounds of sugar per gallon of cold water was recommended. We kept this up well into fall, until, at one of our monthly beekeepers' meetings, the best beekeeper in the state told us we probably didn't need to give them that much. We stopped the sugar water for a little while, but started giving them a lighter syrup in the new year.

Frame, bees on both sides, filling in the combs with hone
Now, it's Spring, and we're holding off on the sugar water again while nature provides the pollen and nectar the bees need. However, to insure that the bees are getting sufficient nutrients, John is providing Protein Patties to supplement nature's provision. "Pro Patties" are filled with vitamins, anti-oxidants, and trace minerals that contribute to colony strength. As indicated, these pro patties provide needed protein, whereas the sugar water provides carbohydrates. You can see the Pro Patty (halved) on either side of the top of the hive box. Each hive has already consumed three split patties in one month.
Inner frame, fully covered and filled in

The bees also have to have a fresh, available water source. There is a fresh-water pond less than a half-mile away, on our neighbor's property, and we keep fresh water near the hives. John has hung a few hummingbird feeders nearby, and, to the right of the hives (see photo above) there is an old humidifier that John re-purposed as a waterer.

The yellow hive tool is used to separate and remove frames

It is also important to keep the bees in a poison-free environment. Weed poisons, crop dusting poisons, even bug spray can all take their toll on a bee colony if they are exposed. 5~Acre Farm is, for the most part, removed from populated areas, and we do not use any poisonous chemicals on our orchards and crops. The few neighbors we do have must not be using poisons on their lawns and flowers, because we haven't seen any evidence of it in our hives.

The Hygienic bees are great at keeping their hives clean, but John is still diligent to inspect regularly for signs of mites, wax moth larvae, beetles, and other harmful insects which can quickly decimate a colony.
John built this removable rack to hold frames while he works

As strange as it might seem, having a fire ant colony near the hives is a good thing. They keep the surrounding area clean of dead bees, beetles, larvae, and spilled honey and pollen, and anything else that is littering the area.

To sum up, if your goal is a strong, thriving hive, the following points are important issues to pay attention to:

  • A nutrient rich diet
  • A clean, intruder-free hive
  • A fresh water source
  • Avoidance of chemical poisons
  • Frequent hive inspection
Larger bees are drones
I'll post a lot more about the bees as the season progresses. It is exciting to be involved in this process. Mother Nature does some incredible things, and we not only get to watch, we get to participate! John has dived into the deep end of beekeeping, and he is doing a fantastic job. I have every confidence that he will be considered an expert within a couple of years. I'm glad that John has taken the lead in beekeeping. He is teaching me a lot, but I find my time primarily needed elsewhere on the farm. But I am blessed to know that these bees are in the loving, capable hands of my husband.

John likes to tell folks that we have acquired a half million new employees. They always look stunned. Then he jokes about how difficult it is to fill out all those tiny little W-9 forms. Folks don't always get it right away, but they always have a good laugh when they do!


  1. stopped by for a 1st time visit...hope u guys like teaching & explaining in detail,taking pics cause i certainly am new with bees & everything else it must require to run a lovely farm such as your's!

    1. Hi there hapytatorcater2! We seem to do a lot of our learning by tripping over something that needs to be done! LoL! I love keeping this blog and sharing what we are doing in the hope that it is helping someone else. John and I are happy to share the knowledge we glean from others. If you ever have a question, we'll try to answer it, or find out who can!