The Swarm

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Wow.  There has been a lot of craziness lately. Trying to manage two hives, mentor a new beekeeper, and updating a blog is tough to keep up.  Let me start by saying we’ve had an unusually cool and wet spring and summer to this point.  The rain has been great for crops and vegetation allowing the bees to have plenty of nectar and pollen to source.  However, with too much rain the bees do not have a chance to leave the hive and forage.  Lately, we’ve had a good mix of sunshiny days with rainy days.  The heat is also a positive factor at this point, helping wake up the hive in morning at get busy.  (what’s your productivity level like when you wake up on a sunny day versus a gloomy gray day?)

Before I post about my hive inspections, I would like to cover an amazing phenomenon of nature- the swarm of a honeybee colony. The focus of this post will cover the recent swarming activities of Spencer’s hive.  Spencer is the beekeeper I am mentoring who has a hive next to my hive in the Met West Community Garden.  The photo above was taken in the garden where the hives are located.  The bees decided to take a temporary residency 25 feet up on a branch.

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There are a lot of factors to understand about a swarm in terms of What, When, Where, Why, and How.  I am far from an expert on this and still learning, but I will do my best to explain.

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What is a swarm?

In very simple terms, a swarm is a mass of honeybees. Although a swarm of bees tends to frighten people, they are actually very docile in this state as they are bloated with honey (cannot flex their abdomen to sting) and they don’t have a hive to protect.  It is common to see them cling to something like a tree limb, a chainlink fence, or even a brick wall.

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Why do bees swarm?

In a nutshell, honeybees will swarm in effort to start a new honeybee colony.  It is their natural means of reproduction.  In preparation of swarming, the bees do many things differently in the hive.  Most noticeably to beekeepers, the bees will prepare a swarm cell (or queen cell) at the bottom of a frame to create a new queen.  The swarm will leave with the residing queen before the new queen is born.  You can see in the image above that there are several swarm cells at the bottom of the frame (those peanut shaped cells).  In the foreground is a capped swarm cell, meaning the queen is days away from emerging.

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Often bees prepare queen cups in case the need arises to replace the queen or if they feel they must swarm, which become queen cells once an egg is placed inside and the bees begin the queen rearing process.

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Bees feel the need to swarm if things get too crowded in the hive.  This is a sign of a healthy colony as the population is so great, they feel overcrowded.  Beekeepers can prevent a swarm through a number of measures.. however as we learned, this does not always work. This photo illustrates just how overpopulated the hive was.

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Here is Spencer as he initially enters the hive, unknowing what’s to come..

One measure to take is to give the bees more space by adding a super on top.  The beekeeper can also checkerboard dense brood frames with empty cell frames to create more open space.  Removing the swarm cells will also help prevent a hive from swarming.

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However, yesterday we removed 6 capped swarm cells and 8 queen cups with eggs from Spencer’s hive.  This morning, they swarmed.  We were too late in our efforts.  Now we had issue that we had just killed and removed any new potential queens for the worker bees that stayed behind.

Another option would have been to forcefully split the hive into two hives, one retaining the old queen and the other with several queen cells.  These queen cells would produce several queens to fight to the death to take leadership of the hive. This method is known as creating a split.  This would have also prevented the swarm.  We didn’t do this because we did not have the equipment or permission at this point to create a new hive at the garden.  We also thought we had taken necessary measures already to prevent them from swarming. We were wrong.

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Currently, there sits a swarm of bees 25 feet up in the tree at the community garden.  Without a ladder or any method to capture the bees we turned to plan B.  Luckily Mike had a swarm lure, which is an oil based liquid that attracts swarming bees (smells similar to lemongrass oil).  The plan was to place this in an empty hive about 200m away.  The smell of the lure would be quite strong and permeate throughout the neighborhood (only bees can smell it).  Hopefully the swarm of bees send a scout to check it out and report back to the swarm that she has found their new home.

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Here is Spencer explaining to the neighbors why they saw mass of thousands of bees flying around earlier that day.  Although they were frightened at first, after discussing what happened, one of the neighbors was interested in joining us on a hive inspection sometime.

Meanwhile, I am taking other swarm preventative measures in my own hives…….. we’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: The swarm was lost. Spencer was keeping an eye on it through the afternoon and the swarm took flight and headed north.  He tried to track them, but they moved too quickly.  Hopefully they found a good home in a hollow tree or something. Hoping they did not decide to take residence in a cavity of a building where they might become a nuisance.

Met West Garden Bee Package Installation

Bee Package

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have started a hive in a community garden this spring. Following the installation on my roof, Mike and I headed over to the Met West Garden with the remaining package of bees to do the installation. This was very similar to our earlier installations.

queen cage

After removing the queen cage from the package, I replaced the cork with a marshmallow that the worker bees will eat through and release the queen on their own. You can see in the image that she is contained on the inside of the screen. A worker bee is on the outside tending to the queen. Given that the bees have spent several days, maybe even a week in the package, they have started to build some burr comb on the outside of the queen cage. The queen’s pheromones tell the bees where home is, so naturally if the queen is trapped in this small cage the bees will start building their home around the cage.

Sugar syrup can

After removing the can of sugar syrup from the package, there remained a cluster of bees hanging to the bottom sucking for some syrup.

Installing queen cage

Here I am wedging the queen cage between the frames.

Pouring bees

After placing the queen cage in the hive, I dumped most of the bees on top of her so they know where she is and will keep her warm.

Package in hive

Again we left the package in the hive for a day or two to allow all the bees to come out of the package and into the hive as opposed to leaving it in front of the hive. This way they are less exposed to the cold weather and make it into the hive with no problem.

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My hive at the garden is right next to Spencer’s hive. It will be interesting to track the development of the two hives given that my hive had 2 full supers of built out comb with honey and pollen stores while he is starting fresh with empty frames. Typically starting from scratch in a hive’s first season won’t produce any honey for harvest. I am hoping that since my hive has a bit of head start, we will see some honey this year.

Bee on windsheild

Special thanks to Mike for taking some these pictures, which came out great. In this last image, one of the bees is clinging to my windshield as I drove away. I guess she was already attached to me and sad to see me go 😉

 

Rooftop Bee Package Installation

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I am very pleased to write that the bees are finally in! Last Friday night I picked up three packages of bees with Mike from another beekeepers house. We ordered these packages with a group of beekeepers in Chicago. A few individuals were willing to take a van up to Waterton, WI on Friday to pick up all the packages from Lee Heine. By the time we got home with the bees, it was too late and very cold and windy- definitely not spring weather yet.

Here is my installation. Explanation and photos are below.

Bee package

We didn’t want to keep them pent up in the package for too long though. They stayed over night in Mike’s basement were it was much warmer than outside. Midday Saturday we had three packages to install (one of mine on the roof, one of Mike’s on my roof, and my other one in the community garden).

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We started with Mike’s hive. I decided to take pictures of Mike’s installation and then have Becky shoot a video of my installation. We got some great shots and everything went pretty smoothly.

queen cage

The queen was found alive and well in her queen cage. The bees seemed to have already taken to her pheromones quite well. In my opinion, they appeared to be trying to reach the queen to take care of her. Mike wasn’t so sure about that. He thought there was a chance they still might not have accepted the queen. To be cautious, we didn’t directly release the queen into the hive. At the base of the queen cage there was a cork. Once we got the cork out, we plugged the hole with a marshmallow, which theoretically would be eaten through by the worker bees and then released.

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Once we plugged the queen cage we placed it in between two frames in the hive.

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The bees already started building some burr comb strangely around the can of sugar syrup.

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They were pretty calm, not aggressive- just curious.

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To make sure the rest of the bees knew were to find her, we dumped about 70% of the bees on the queen cage and in between the frames. It’s time for them to get to know their new home.

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Because it was still chilly out and there was some cold weather in the forecast, we put the package with the remaining bees in the super in place of 4 frames. This is a temporary setup. After a day, the bees left the package and crawled about throughout the hive. We took the package out and stored it away.

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If everything went smoothly we should see the queen laying eggs within a few days. Having reused the frames from our hives from last year, there was already built out comb and honey and pollen stores. This should give them a great head start on the season. Also, we are feeding them a 1:1 water/sugar syrup with a pollen patty to give them an extra boost and so they don’t starve in case plants in the region haven’t started producing nectar yet. We’ve certainly seen a lot of rain lately, so hopefully things start blooming soon.

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Finally, here are three fearless beekeepers in action!.. or something like that.

Building a new hive

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This Spring I started a new honeybee hive at the Met West Community Garden where I will also have a plot to garden. Over the winter I had contacted a handful of local community gardens in hopes of starting a new hive. Coincidentally, Met West had been recently talking about getting bees for the garden. The above photo is of the site where the bees will be located. You will see in later posts how we have fenced off the bee area with bamboo fencing.

The idea of having bees was put to a vote among the garden members and it was almost unanimously approved. The garden will actually have 2 hives. I will manage one hive while mentoring another beekeeper who is starting his first hive. His bee package came first and we installed it smoothly. It was so nice to see bees flying around again!

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As for my hive, I decided to build it from scratch. With the help of my buddy Mike Hansen, I built 5 hive supers. He is in all the pictures because I was the one taking them.. also because he did most of the work ; ) Hah, thanks Mike!

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The building process took 4 or 5 sessions of a couple hours of work. I selected to use a mid-level quality pine wood as I do not need premium wood for a hive. Looking back there are many things I would do differently in building the supers.

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For example, rather than teeth the edges of the wood together, I would simply miter the edges.

This is how we cut the teeth.

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Mike matching up the teeth edges- ready to be glued and nailed.

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Everything came together pretty smoothly, with no major hickups. I was very happy with them.

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After building the supers, I stained them with a semi-transparent white. I also created a stencil of the garden logo and some bees to paint on the hive. Unfortunately, my can of spray paint was clogged because it was so old. You cannot buy spray paint in the city, so until I make it out the burbs to buy some, I’ll have to hold off on the stencil.

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I decided to buy the inner cover and telescoping cover because we had enough on our hands already. I had a spare bottom board and simply converted it to a screened bottom bottom.

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I’m excited to have more than 1 hive going (one on my roof, one in the garden). It will be interesting to see their differing activity and hopefully the hive in the garden will increase the crop yield. Looking forward to it.

Honey Extraction

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The honey is here! Well, actually it’s been here since the fall, I just have not harvested it until now. Originally I was not going to take any honey from the bees, but since they died I figured I might as well make the most of it and get some honey.

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This was the first time I had extracted honey. The extraction process requires some serious equipment if you want to do it right. We were lucky enough to have a connection with a more mass-produced local honey operation who they let us use their equipment. The extractor alone runs anywhere from $2000-4000. Yikes! Then there was the uncapping tub which goes for another couple grand. As small operation beekeepers, we were more than happy to have access to professional equipment.

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After ridding the hives of dead bees, we began to examine each frame for capped honey and determine if the frame was worth extracting. Some frames had very little honey. Other frames had some honey and a lot of sugar syrup (fed to them in late fall). We didn’t use those because we wanted to keep our sugar syrup content to a minimum in our raw honey.

In total I took 5 frames of honey. One was nearly completely capped honey- the rest were anywhere from 50-75% capped honey. From Mike’s two hives he took 20 frames of honey, although some were from earlier in the summer when he pulled some honey frames. One of Mike’s hives had made it through the previous winter and started last spring strong with built out comb, honey reserves, and a good population.

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After we had our honey frames collected, we set them aside until the morning that we would extract. The honey extraction was a laborious 5 hour process between the two of us. We suited up in hairnets and latex gloves. We sanitized the bucket and tap we would be extracting into.

To start, we uncapped the honey on all of the frames. To do this we used a heated knife and careful sliced away at the wax cappings to reveal our golden honey.

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The wax cappings fell into a sort of trough that collected all of our wax throughout the process.

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Once I had uncapped all of my frames, I inserted them into the 12 frame extractor.  This machine uses centrifugal force to spit out all of the honey from the frames onto the walls of this giant stainless steel tank. At the bottom sits a tap where the extracted honey would dispense.

Look at it go!

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From here the honey drained through a mesh filter removing any wax, bee parts, or other particles that shouldn’t be there. For me I had about 0.75 gallons of honey and it had mostly gone through the filter in about an hour or two. Mike’s filter for some reason took days for the honey to pass through.

Once our honey was in the buckets, we cleaned up and hit the road. I also gathered our wax cappings in a smaller bucket to be dealt with later. These cappings still need to be rendered in order to create usable beeswax. I could use the beeswax to make candles, lip balm, soap, lotion, or facial cream to name a few possibilities. This will be another project.

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The next step was jarring the honey. In a last minute scramble for a bucket before extracting, I gathered a bucket and a tap from Brew & Grow in the West Loop. Unfortunately, the tap I put on the bucket was intended for bottling beer (meaning the opening was very small). This meant each jar of 4oz of honey took 15 minutes to fill. So this took a while.

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By the end of it, we totaled 26 jars of honey- 24- 4oz, 1- 5oz, and 1- 2 oz. The 2oz is for my mom when I go to visit as I can bring it as a carry-on under 3oz. Interestingly enough, days after jarring the honey it seems to have crystallized or creamed a bit as its settled. With that said, it is still extremely smooth- smoother than any honey I’ve bought before. This stuff is fresh!

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Over time all honey naturally crystallizes. It’s still edible and delicious, just in a different form. You can even return it to liquid by heating it. However, if you cook the honey, you may kill the live enzymes and nutrients. I like to take a jar and put it in a bowl of warm water (almost boiling, but not). I leave it in there for a few minutes and even stir the honey, returning it to a liquid state.

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Time to go eat some honey. Mmmm..

A sad day to be a beekeeper :(

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I regret to share with you that I have lost my honeybee colony. Deceased. Not only did my hive die, but both of Mike’s hives did as well. We knew it would be a tough winter after such a poor summer last year, but we did not expect to lose all 3 hives.

It was warm enough today to peak inside the hive and lay a pollen patty on top. Pollen patties supplement the bees’ diet with proteins that plumpen them up and stimulate brood rearing. This would have helped them have a strong start to the spring. Given that we have some warm weather ahead of us, upwards of 55 degrees, now is the time for pollen patties.

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We started with Mike’s small hive and quickly noticed zero activity. It was quite a shocker, to be honest. I felt my heart sink to my stomach. For some reason, in my mind I had told myself that all three hives would survive.

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We had the roof shingles attached to the sides as insulation, so we couldn’t immediately go down through the hive. So it was onwards to the next hive- my hive. At this point, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I removed the bricks and lifted away the telescoping cover to reveal the inner cover which has a small opening in the middle. Again, instantly zero activity.  As I cracked open the inner cover, I saw a couple bees frozen in place, as if I hit pause on a video.

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As I peered down between the frames it was clear to me that everything was lost. I pinpointed the cluster of bees and where they met their end.

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I pulled out a couple of frames and found some bees head first in the cell. Their final attempt to stay warm.

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We moved on to Mike’s other hive and it was the same story. All were dead. This is the only one of the 3 hives that had made it through the winter last year. It was the most promising.

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Here are some of the frames as we pulled them and cleaned the dead bees out. You can see there is still a good amount of capped honey in these frames. We fully disassembled the hives for cleaning and then put them back together for storage. A sad sight.

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Why did they die?

We can’t be certain why they died, but we do know a number of contributing factors.

Varroa Mites – This is probably the main cause. Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that feed on the bees. They weaken and shorten the life span of the bee from which they feed. We found a lot of mites in the piles of dead bees. There tends to be a certain level of mite infestation in most colonies. Some people use chemicals to treat for them or alternative methods to encourage hygienic behavior among the bees. Looking back, we could done more to manage the mites.

Low Population – Ultimately, the mites lower the population of the bees going into winter. Whether or not the low population was because of the mites, it means there are fewer bees to cluster and keep warm, leaving them more susceptible to cold temperatures.

Freezing Temperatures – A strong colony of bees can survive in temperatures down to -30 degrees F, provided they are protected from the wind, have proper ventilation, and have a strong population to keep warm. In our case, the low population ultimately caused them to freeze and shut down indefinitely.

One of our biggest fear going into the winter was that they would not have enough food to make it to the spring. The bees must have died in January or February because there was still a lot of honey in the hive. I probably have a good 20-30 pounds in there.

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You can see here among the beeswax and pollen, a good number of varroa mites. They are the small elliptical-shaped black dots. The number of them here in relation to the number of dead bees is high. This indicates we had quite an infestation.

What happens next?

Well, it’s time to suck it up and move on. It’s time to order another package of bees. A package of bees will run me anywhere from $75 to $100. This is assuming there are still packages available for sale. March is pretty late to be ordering packages. I will have to call on Monday to a few places and see if they have any available for April pick-up.

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I do plan on taking some of the honey my bees left behind. I will probably take 2 or 3 frames worth of honey, which will be a few jars. I am going to save the rest and use it to hopefully jump start my next package of bees, giving them a strong start to the season and strong colony by next winter to make it through to the following year.

Also, I will end this with some exciting news. I am going to be starting a beehive at the Met West Community Garden in East Village. I have already ordered my package of bees for that. So there will definitely be bees in my life in 2013. During the summer I am going to invite members of the community garden to join me on inspections and hold educational sessions on honeybees.

Another thing I am planning to do in a couple months is try to catch a swarm of bees. This will be an adventure and merits a blog post on its own. Mike will not be ordering a package of bees and will be depending on catching a swarm, which will be tricky.

Winter Check + Mead Making


It’s been another inconsistent winter. We’ve had some very warm days in January where the bees actually took flight and had a chance to relieve themselves. Could you imagine going all winter without using the bathroom? Otherwise they’ve been in there huddled up, shivering through the cold days, hopefully staying warm… and alive. We’ve had a few cold spells come through Chicago and some heavy snow to go along with it.

At this point there really is no way of knowing if they are still alive or how much honey they have left for the remainder of the winter. Last night I had a pretty morbid dream that all three hives were dead. Let’s hope that doesn’t come true. We did try one test to see if there were bees alive in the hives. I put my ear up to the hive and gave it a good smack on the side to see if it created more audible buzzing. But because we have the roofing shingles surrounding the hive, it was hard to get any feedback let-alone smack the hive with intensity. We will have to give it another month+ and see what Spring has for us.


In other news, Becky and I started brewing our first attempt at mead. Mead is the result of fermenting honey, also known as a honey wine. One could imagine its as old as collecting honey itself. I’ve read that the earliest archaeological evidence shows mead production dates back to around 2000 BC.


We made two batches. Both are starting out relatively similarly. One we’re calling “Plain Jane” will be a simple straight-forward recipe with no flavor, spices, additives other than honey, yeast, and nutrients. The other we’re calling “Tina” which we plan to add vanilla bean and a cinnamon stick, possibly some cardamom. This one is more of an experiment. These have been fermenting now since 2/2/2013. Thirty days from when we first fermented them, we will rack them into other jugs to clear out a bit of the dead yeast.


This is one of the yeasts we used. It is a wine yeast that is easy to work with. It needs to be refrigerated before using. They are alive!


Here we are activating the yeast after letting it sit for a few minutes. They are very sensative.


Becky is sanitizing all of our equipment. If any other bacteria gets in our jug, it will feast on the honey we are using to feed the yeast.


Time to mix in the honey into the warm water. We boiled the water to remove any bacteria, but let it cool a bit so we don’t destroy enzymes in the honey. Some people boil the honey too, but I like my honey and will treat it nicely.


When the honey is mixed with the water, it is now known as the must.


Becky is adding the yeast to the must. Time to get to work!


Eat it all up!


And here’s where they will rest for the next month and beyond. Right beside the yoga mats in the dark.

Winter Preparations


Well, its that time of year again. Time to prepare the hive for a Chicago winter. The bees will hopefully survive. There are a couple key factors to their survival, which include honey supply, proper wind blockage/insulation, and proper ventilation. Condensation build up can be an issue if water drips directly on the bees. They freeze and die. Otherwise bees can survive in temperatures down to 30+ below zero. They huddle together in a ball and shiver all winter long with the queen at the center. These winter bees will live about 5-6 months or so, while the summer bees only live about 2-4 weeks.  Throughout the winter, they eat their honey stores and move upwards in the hive.  I’m really not sure if they have enough food to make it through the winter. Only time will tell.


This year we’ve chosen to wrap our hives in roof shingles. Mike found a nice stack of them in an alley a few weeks ago. As you can see, my hive on the right is wrapped up completely. The top super has jars of sugar syrup in it, which is now removed.  So the lid comes down to where the shingles start.  Some people choose not to prep their hives for winter. If you think about it, wild honeybees don’t have anyone prepare their hive for winter. Putting the shingles around the hive acts as a wind breaker and a layer of insulation. Some people go further and actually wrap thick foam insulation around the hive. Others theorize that this actually makes the hive too hot.


Before we started our work on the hive for the day, I noticed a fair amount of dead bees in front of Mike’s hive.  After taking a peek inside, there was still a good cluster hanging out and keeping warm.


Here is a pile of wax, pollen, and dead mites that Mike scraped out of the entrance of one of his hives. The varroa mites are the small oval-shaped brown specs. It is normal to find a certain level of mites in a hive. We thought there were a few more here than we would have liked to see. I wrote about varroa mites in a previous post.


Even on a chilly day in the low 50s, you still might find a few bees curiously flying around. I must have done something wrong because this poor girl stung my glove. I didn’t notice until I saw this bee stumbling around disoriented on my arm. She will die shortly after stinging me. You can see on the back of her abdomen is a spot of yellow guts hanging out.


Here is where she stung me.


As I was removing the top super I spilled a little sugar syrup. This bee was quick to sneak out of the top to drink some of it. Drink up! A cold winter is ahead!


Here is an image of our top insulation effort. It’s a piece of yellow foam wrapped with aluminum foil. The foil will help keep the heat from escaping from the top. The hole in the middle allows condensation to escape and not build up beneath the foam.


Here you see Mike laying a strip of fabric over the top of the insulation. We will have two of these strips on either side of the hole.  The idea is that it will absorb any condensation and lead it out of the hive.


Here we are putting the telescoping cover over the insulation board and condensation strips. With the cover closed completely, the fabric strips will hang past the edge by a hair- just enough to allow any condensation to drip out without taking in any condensation from the outside (rain or snow).

Here’s to a cold and snowy Chicago winter! Hoping the girls make it into the Spring strong!

I took some honey!


Here are some busy bees at the end of an Autumn season.  We had a few unusually warm days in the past couple of months.  You can see I already put the entrance reducer at the front of the hive to limit wind from getting in the hive.  It also helps the guard bees have less area to protect from any end of the year honey robbers or invaders of their hive.  However, as you can see in this image, there is high traffic at the entrance.


In preparing for Winter, I am going to be doing a bit of reorganizing of the frames and supers.  I am going to remove any completely empty frames (as seen above), as the bees will not use these as their foraging comes to close.  I will also make sure there are solid honey frames at the bottom and in the middle of the hive.  There should also be an energy supply (honey) in the supers above. The whole purpose the bees collect and create so much excess honey is to make sure they have enough to last them through the winter. This is something I consider before taking honey from them for my own consumption.


So here it is.  My take for the season.  A measly 1-sided 75% full frame of honey.  This is almost not worth taking, but I need to try some of my honey.  This might yield me a 12 oz jar if I’m lucky and do not lose much honey in the extraction process.  This is the only amount I felt comfortable taking from my 1st year hive.  Hopefully I left them 60 or 70 lbs of honey.  I’m not quite sure how much is in there.


This is the backside of that frame.  You can see there is a small section of capped honey.  I probably won’t even bother with this.


The dark cells in the frames are actually packed pollen.  Pollen is generally used for feeding brood in the rearing process, if I’m not mistaken.  Trace amounts of pollen end up in honey as well.  Unfortunately, neither the bees nor I will make use of this pollen.  Unlike honey, pollen does expire after a certain amount of time.  Also, there is no easy way to extract the pollen here for consumption.  I did however take a toothpick and pick out some cells and tried the pollen. It has an interesting sweetness, some more tart than others.  The tartness might be from expired pollen.

Mid-Autumn Hive Inspection


At the end of September, we were able to inspect the hive to determine if I was going to be able to to harvest any honey this year.  After the inspection, I decided to wait to take any honey from the hive.  At this point they still had a few weeks to gather nectar. We’ll see in a later blog post if I take any honey… 😉


Here are our working grounds. My hive is in disassembled mode on the right.


Lifting out a frame.  Looks like some busy bees!


Another busy frame of bees.  Look at all that capped brood.


Here was a frame FULL of capped honey. Woo hoo!  I’ll leave this one for the bees though. They deserve it.


Mike is inspecting his hive.


Just giving the girls a little smoke. Letting the know our presence and clouding their communication.


I’ll leave you with this photo of Mike inspecting one of his frames.