bees on the brain


Welcome to my brain this week! As Spring approaches (I promise, it will come!) I find myself in full-on bee mode.

My most recent YouTube video is about propolis and its importance to a hive (Link to the full video at bottom) and my last post was about prepping for our newest arrivals. And guess what? I still can’t stop thinking about them!

I’m particularly looking forward to a new variety/race of honeybees this year (new to us). Thus far in our beekeeping adventures, we’ve had Carniolan bees. This spring, we’re starting Saskatraz.

Me installing a Carniolan Queen in a new package two springs ago

Saskatraz is a relatively new bee variety, bred in Saskatchewan Canada for preferred genetic traits such as hygienic tendencies, excellent honey production, resistance to mites, and a good winter survival likelihood. There are lots of articles on the web that will give you tons of detail on how these were bred along with further info, so I won’t dive in here. Instead, I’ll give you more context on why these appealed to us.

#1: overwintering

Northern MN is a hard place to keep bees! With temperatures getting to -30 f or lower and windchills of -60 f the last two winters with almost-record snowfalls, our ladies have it rough.

We do all we can to help them out (wrapping them, putting on a big candy board, setting up a wind break) but there’s only so much one can do. This winter hardiness was easily our number one reason for selecting this variety.

Our Carniolan hive a few weeks ago

#2: hygiene/disease resistance

We’ve been lucky enough to not have any major sicknesses in our hives, but we know this is a major concern. As mites and other bad guys become stronger and more resistant to treatments, it’s important to do all we can to naturally keep them healthy, so this benefit fits the bill for sure.

#3: honey production

This was the least of our desires when we looked at bee varieties this year. I will be SO pumped if we get honey this year (we’ve only gotten a tiny bit over the last two summers), but for us, the enjoyment is in watching the ecosystem, seeing how the hive works, and knowing that we’re having a positive impact.

All-in-all, I’m looking forward to our Saskatraz bees this year! I’ll be posting lots of videos throughout our adventures, so make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Catch you next time!

prepping for bees in 2020

As I did last winter, I’m eagerly and nervously keeping an eye on our hive as the winter goes on.

This year’s hive after our first big snowstorm

We were lucky last year; our first year hive made it through the bitterly cold and very snowy winter unscathed! I was so proud of our little ladies. They were weak going into winter but somehow they pulled through!

As you know, we then had trouble over the summer as the colony became queenless. Though we got a new one and the hive was stronger going into winter this year, I haven’t been able to get the same kind of pulse in them as I did last year.

As the colony was weak last fall, we only had two deep boxes on. This meant that the bees had a smaller space in which to cluster, so I could actually press my ear against the hole in the top box and hear them buzzing.

This year, with the larger population, we have three boxes. I can’t hear them buzzing this year. I’m telling myself it’s because they have more room and are likely clustered down in the second (or perhaps even first) box, but I’m scared!

Checking on the ladies late last spring

Regardless of what happens to the ladies this year, we’re going to keep going! I just got off the phone with our local bee supplier and ordered two three-pound packages of Saskatraz bees. This is a newer variety that has been bred in Canada to be disease- and mite-resistant, to over-winter well, and be good honey producers. In mid-April this year, we’ll be installing them in two new hives alongside our Carniolans (provided they make it through the winter).

I’m looking forward to spending some time at our local stores in the coming months, picking up more supplies and prepping for our latest hives.

I’ll post more another time about why we chose Saskatraz as well as why we’re getting two more hives rather than just one.

One of my favorite pictures from a hive inspection last year

Wish us luck as we go into 2020, and stay tuned for updates!

honeybound hive

If you’ve been following us here, on Instagram, and on our YouTube channel, you know that earlier this summer we found ourselves with a queenless hive. The saga of determining if the hive would produce a queen who would then fully mate ended with a need to buy one from another state, where it was too hot to shop for an additional week. This left our ladies queenless and in need of work for about 5 weeks.

What does a honeybee do when there’s no queen to care for and the nectar flow is at its peak? Make honey of course!

As we went about our hive inspections during our queenless time, we noticed that they were making lots of honey but as novice beekeepers, that made sense to us and wasn’t worrisome. Fast forward to a few weeks after we’d installed our new queen, and we realized a dilemma: our new queen was laying but far less than we expected.

In researching our concerns, we learned we had a “honey bound hive”. Basically, there was too much honey preventing the queen from laying!

We hadn’t been anticipating harvesting any honey this year – we want the ladies to work on rebuilding the population to a sustainable level going into winter. But with this problem on our hands there was only one thing to do – remove a few frames of honey and replace them with new frames!

I knew that local honey tastes completely different than what you buy in the store – you almost exclusively find only clover honey at any grocery store, and it’s all been pasteurized. So, I was expecting something different when I went in for my first nibble, but it was incredibly different and SO delicious!

We don’t have an extractor so there are some bits of pollen and wax as we used a strainer

Our ladies forage acres of wildflowers and wild berries, wild and cultivated fruit trees, and many other native tasty treats. Our honey is a deep orange, sweet as you’d expect, but also surprisingly tangy! I don’t have a clue how to determine what I’m tasting. Regardless of what exactly it is, I will say it’s delicious! We didn’t harvest very much but have a small bit to share with family.

I’ve added it to my morning routine of Chaga and blueberries, and we’re delving into lots of honey recipes – honey BBQ chicken this past weekend was splendid!

Make sure to learn more about our beekeeping and other homesteading adventures by subscribing to our YouTube channel (link below) and by following us on Instagram

honeybee update – expansion!

Big news, folks! Over the long weekend we added a third box to our hive! This means that our bee population is growing to the point that they need more room.

Top view of one of our boxes when the hive was just starting out last year

In a hive, each big box (called a “deep” due to its size) contains 10 frames which the bees fill with eggs, larvae, brood, pollen, nectar, and honey. As the population grows and they fill more frames, they need more frames to fill.

This frame contains eggs, larvae, capped brood, pollen, and in the lower left, some nectar

In a typical first year hive, a third box will be added, but with everything we went through last year we never got there. And without a third box, the population isn’t strong enough to make surplus honey. With it being just the end of May and a third box, this is an awesome sign that we’ll be able to harvest honey this year!

We’re keeping our fingers crossed!

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honeybees and other pollinators

As you all know, I love (LOVE) my honeybees! I am fascinated by their behavior and culture as much as I enjoy their honey. The way they interact is fascinating – the dances they use to communicate where the best pollen or nectar is, how the workers sense the queen is dying and begin replacing her. The way they huddle in a ball around the queen in the winter to stay warm and survive.

You often hear the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left”. It is typically accompanied by a few pictures of honeybees, or perhaps a hive. I imagine that the vast majority of those that have heard this quote have imagined the honeybee when they hear it.

But honeybees are only a small part of our pollinator population, and not necessarily the most effective in all situations. Bumblebees have longer proboscises (tongues) and can therefore better pollinate certain plants. They also forage in more adverse conditions. There are many other important native bees as well, such as Leaf Cutter and Carpenter.

Additionally, we have wonderful pollinators in butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, birds… even bats!

I worry that our world focuses too much on the deliciousness that honeybees provide, and neglects to care for our other pollinators. Rather than trying to rid yourself of Carpenter bees, treat your wood then create a native bee hotel for them to nest into instead. Don’t be afraid of the large and noisy bumblebee. And go to bed early so you don’t see the bats swooping about if they make you nervous!

Thank you for caring about ALL of our pollinators! Have some fun making a native bee hotel, put up a pollinator friendly sign in your yard and don’t use pesticides, and teach your kids about our other wonderful pollinators! Our world thanks you!

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Honeybee update

I checked on the ladies today! Who knew that I could love an insect? I mean, truly love them, as one would a cat or dog? When my husband first suggested we get bees, I told him he was crazy and nooo way. Now that we have them, I care about them far more than he does.

With such a low winter survival rate here in MN (only ~55% even for seasoned beekeepers) I came into winter with no expectations that our little first-year hive would make it to becoming a second-year hive. With each passing week, however, my hopes get higher despite my attempts to tamper them. Along with my hopes, up creeps my anxiety.

We did all we could last fall to set them up for success – made sure they had a lot of honey stores, but some chew candy in the hive in case they ran out, and followed the recommendations of the highly respected Bee Lab at the University of MN, but I still worry.

Who wouldn’t love this sweet little lady?

Happily, today was a good check. Through the hole we have drilled in the front, I saw the ladies dashing about to get honey for their queen. I’m trying to control both my hopes and my anxiety. You can do it ladies!

Stay up to date with our beekeeping and homesteading adventures by following me on Instagram @the_mn_homestead