A Beekeepers Off Season

Homework

The bees are all tucked away for winter. There really isn’t much for the beekeeper to do this time of year, (except maybe check in on the bees on a warm day to make sure every one is making bathroom runs out of the hive etc.) But there are a few things a thumb twiddling beekeeper can do in the winter months to keep their bee brain active and engaged for the upcoming season.

I am a firm believer that even if you have been a beekeeper for 50+ years there is ALWAYS something new to learn about bees. Reading something from a new perspective can be refreshing and eye opening and you may learn that you can alter your approach and get different or better results. I think by now my readers know that I tend to take a “different” approach when it comes to beekeeping … and just about everything else too … This is what works best for me as a beekeeper and I love to share what I know. My bee knowledge has come from my wonderful bee mentors over at Steller Apiaries, numerous books, studies, some great scientists that I have had to privilege to listen too, and seasoned commercial beekeepers alike. All offer great insights and ideas, making me a better beekeeper than I was the season before.

I highly recommend going to your Beekeepers Association meeting! I usually try to attend the Michigan Beekeepers Association Spring Meeting every year. This is where I learned that for the most part beekeepers are some of the friendliest folks you will ever meet. Every one is there to expand their bee knowledge. The MBA always has some great speakers and “How-To” breakout sessions. You can learn about everything from the intricacies of honey bee pheromones to how to make candles and lip balm. They also usually have a number of beekeeping supply booths there too, so you can talk up the fellas from Dadant and maybe pick up a new hive tool or grab a new bee suit. I personally love stopping by the Wicwas Press table to pick up new books.

Now is the time to really brush up on your bee trivia too. I LOVE “Fun Facts” to the point that it’s most likely extraordinarily annoying (yet informative!). Like did you know that you can tell how many times an apple blossom was visited by a honey bee (or other pollinator) by how many seeds that particular apple has? OR that the first ever shipment of bees to the Americas in 1609 ended up lost somewhere in the Bermudas when the ship was blown off course by a bad storm? Here are some books that I like, some are for a nice pleasure read and others are more in-depth and technical.

Understanding Bee Anatomy: a full color guide; by Ian Stell. Oh my gosh this book is beautiful! It has lots of great photos and information, you can actually see how bees work. It is divided into chapters like “Legs” and “Wings and Flight Structures.” So when someone says “You know honey is bee vomit right” you can say “Well technically nectar is stored in the crop, which can hold 30% of the bee’s weight in nectar, and is prevented from continuing further into the digestive system.” But people usually don’t like fun facts when they are trying to make a joke, so don’t be surprised when they aren’t nearly as impressed with you as you are with yourself.

The Bee Friendly Beekeeper, A Sustainable Approach; by David Heaf. This book is great for those wanting to get a better understanding of Top Bar Hives, and it mainly discusses Warre type hives. It also goes into some history of beekeeping by ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians.

Bees In America, How The Honey Bee Shaped A Nation; by Tammy Horn. Seriously if you only pick up one singular book this winter pick up this one! It is chock full of amazing history starting from the colonization of the Americas all the way up until now. It explains how “Quilting Bees” got their name and lots of old beekeeping traditions and superstitions that were brought here by all the different countries that made America what it is today. It also explains how bees were used for motivation and a job to prevent depression and lethargy in the new world. It also discusses the role Native Americans played in the integration of “the white man’s fly.”

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. This book is not entirely bee related but is still a lovely read and one of my favorites. It details a young girl that ends up living with a woman beekeeper and her two sisters in a big pink house in the south around the time of the civil rights movement.

And lastly don’t forget to update your bee diary! If you don’t have one you should! Every hive that I have ever started has its own chunk in my book. This is where I add dates of capture/install, dates of swarms and any manipulations and behavior plus what I find in the hive during my observations. Write down the weather the time of day and how the bees smell too as these details can offer great insight into what is going on in the hive without you having to actually get in there and look at things. Check out At The Hive Entrance by H. Storch. I like to draw pictures in my book too. It’s kind of a mini history of each hive’s life.

What do you do in the off season? Maybe you cram info or maybe you just relax and hibernate. Have any book suggestions for me? I will take them! Also I realize that bees are a hot topic right now and people have a lot of interest. Is there some particular “bee thing” you want to know more about? Shoot your ideas and maybe I can come up with a post to help a little or maybe point you in the general direction. Please keep in mind that I know only Top Bar Hives and not a darn thing about Langstroth and I am still growing and learning on my beekeeping journey much as you are. I often change my stance on subjects depending on the resources I encounter. Like I said above, growing into a better beekeeper than I was the season before.

Happy Overwintering!

Preparing Top Bar Hives For Winter

Helping bees close up shop for the winter is one of my seasonal chores. This year my husband even helped! I am really proud of him; he has always been supportive of my bee habit and loves to sing the praises of bees, but never really wanted to get too close for fear of getting stung. He even winterized a hive all by himself! One step closer to being a big happy beekeeping family.

I have two Kenyan Style Top Bar Hives (or kTBH) at my parents’ house so we decided we should have taco night, the boys would get Grammie and Grampy time and I would get my bees hunkered down for winter.

The process to do two hives probably takes a whole 30 minutes from start to finish. You need your hive tools, I keep them all in a tool box. Specifically, a hive tool or small pry bar (I used a flat head screwdriver since my hive tool grew legs and walked off), bee brush, stapler, 1/4-inch hardware cloth cut to the size of your TBH, a bowl, knife, and straw.

Start by removing your lids and stapling the hardware cloth around the rim so it will overhang onto the sides of the hive. I did this my first year beekeeping and I leave it on year round. Also remove your observation window to see how far the girls have gotten and where you need to start prying up the bars to slide in your follower board.

Hives

Hives ready for winterization.

Remove any started or unfinished comb. The goal here is to have that follower board right up next to the last full bar of honey comb.

Unfinished comb

Small unfinished comb.

Move the follower board up to the last comb and be careful not to squish any of your ladies. Use your bee brush or a gentle hand. Neither my husband or I wore bee suits for this hive manipulation as our bees are docile.

The comb you collect here will most likely be full of uncapped honey. Cut it off the bars and place it in your bowl and share with your family. To be clear on one thing. We only harvest our honey once a year, in the spring time. NOT the fall. The bees eat their own honey all winter and in the spring after the nectar sources have returned in our area, we take what they didn’t use during the winter.

Comb

More unfinished comb.

Stuff the empty bit of the hive with straw. And I mean STUFF IT IN THERE! I used at least a 1/4 of a bale of straw just for this tiny little bit of empty hive. The straw acts as insulation. While you are at the straw stuffing, stuff a bunch into the underside of your lid. More insulation and it also helps to wick away moisture that the bees will produce keeping their queen warm.

Pack with straw

Stuffing straw

Now simply replace your lid and staple down the excess hardware cloth around the outside of the hive. Replace your observation window and ensure that it is totally secure. It is not a good thing when your window blows off in a storm and its a few days or weeks until you find it has fallen off.

TA-DA! Bees are all cozy for the winter!

More bee posts to come so keep on the look out for them. Happy Beekeeping!

Observation window

View from observation window.

A Simple Wish For Our Children

As parents, we have hopes for what our children will be when they grow up. Some hope for their children to have unbridled success in high paying jobs like doctors or engineers, or maybe even president … though I can’t say I would be too proud of raising a politician.

Our hopes are smaller, much more simple things. I want them to love all things green and growing. To care for and respect all creatures whether they have feathers, scales, or fur. I hope that they are unafraid to work hard, make mistakes, or try something new. And that they know saving up for a dream is worth it no matter how long it takes. I want them to know how to do things. I hope they will be strong men with rough hands and big hearts. Above all we want them to grow into decent human beings.

I knew from when Little J proudly presented me with a carefully selected rock from the driveway, and when Little O picked his first wild violet this spring, and how they both are mesmerized by the chickens that we have a really great opportunity for showing these two little fellas the beauty of the world. I want to be sure we nurture this born-in appreciation for nature in hopes that it will be a lifelong love affair.

Boy, do I have plans! Next year they are each going to get a large pot to grow whatever their little hearts desire. They each have their own little watering can and they can water their mini garden when I water my flowers on the porch. Our garden center has some neat little figures and decorations for tiny gardening that I think they will enjoy … but it might just end up being a hot wheels car or a dinosaur. I’ve also been thinking about a children’s garden, and Matt is working up plans for an upgraded swing set complete with a climbing wall. They can even help gather eggs.

Jacob enjoying the herb gardens at Sauders Village

But right now, we go outside and watch the robins. They are 1-1/2 after all and we don’t have any expectations about what will occur on our trips to the yard. We know for sure they will run straight for the chickens and watch them for a long time, and they have to kick the tires on the car. There may even be a wagon ride or swinging. Sometimes we spend time in the garden; I love watching them pick a weed here and there and put it in the bucket to go to the chickens. They play in the dirt, fall down, run, and swing. Right now we watch them grow. We watch them wonder at the grass and the tiny black fly buzzing by, and appreciate the tiniest things that we as adults may find annoying. They don’t see grass as simply something to be cut or a fly just something to swat.

They see something amazing.

I hope we can help keep it that way.