6 years ago when I walked into my first Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Club meeting I knew I was home. Men and women of all ages and shapes, dressed in overalls or jeans, flannel shirts and boots with unkept hair. I had found my people. I didn't know a thing about keeping bees other than it was a hobby meant for me. Those people were my lifeline those first few years. I depended on their guidance, wisdom and kindness for my every move. Heck, I still depend on them! I wasn't sure I would ever become a real beekeeper with an ability to play it forward and give back to another new bee keeper.
Here I am now, overseeing two bee yards. I no longer fumble through the equipment catalog wondering what the heck the difference is between a brood box and super. I know just what to order. I no longer wonder if I will ever know the difference between a queen, a worker or a drone. Its second nature to me. I no longer ponder over the endless questions that consumed me those first few years. For the most part, I get it now. I have some bee juju to share and finally someone to share it with.
My brother-in-law Charlie was always interested in the bees, initially I think it was the honey that lured him in but now he's the owner of a 10 acre farm in Hamburg Mn embarking on a Permiculture adventure and he is interested in sustainability as a way of life. I admit openly that I came to this adventure in hopes of tempering my hyper active spirit, of finding a way to lead a more mindful, deliberate and contemplative life. I am still on that journey, my hyper active spirit ebbs and flows depending on the state of the bees. I have however found the keeping of the bees a way toward a more mindful existence. It has also lead to one of my most valued relationships in life, the friendship I have with my beekeeping partner, Paula. I couldn't do this without her. I didn't come to this with honey or sustainability in mind. It occurred to me that if I could give back to the planet in some small way through pollinating a little speck of the earth, that would be nice. Now, 6 years later I am in a position to give back to Charlie what was so generously given to me by countless other bee keepers. He is already off to a good start with a keen eye and knack for this crazy hobby. He is a natural and I am betting he will eventually manage the 10 Acre Woods apiary on his own, if he wants.
Charlie invited me to keep bees on the farm almost immediately. I am not sure if he intended to become a beekeeper himself but he is well on his way. For months now he has been working on a design for the bee yard, consistent with the principals of Permiculture. After I scoped out the property last fall we decided on a location for the bee yard. Charlie got to work this spring creating a Hügelkultur around the perimeter of the bee yard. Hügeklutur is a design concept using layering as a principal and is the practice of burying large volumes of wood to increase soil water retention. The porous structure of the wood acts as a sponge when decomposing underground. Charlie dug down about 5 feet in a circle around the the bee yard, filled the dugout with rotted wood, mounded the dirt back up, spread bee friendly plant seed on the mound, including clover, covered the mound with hay and then placed large sticks on top. The seeds will sprout through the hay and sticks and provide a rich source of pollen and nectar for the bees. The structure will also bee a good wind block and help protect the hives in the winter. He is also building a wooden arbor at the passageway to the bee yard which will also have some kind of bee friendly vines. It is already visually stunning. I can't imagine when the Hügelkutur and arbor are in full bloom.
The day the bees arrive is always one my most favorite days of the year. I look forward to it all winter long. This year it took longer than usual for the bees to arrive and I was getting edgy and worried. Finally last Wednesday they arrived and we put two of four new packages of bees into hives at Charlie's farm, 10 Acre Woods. The packages seemed healthy. It was a cold, windy day and it was difficult getting our queens out. We inadvertently killed a queen during the installation of Charlie's Crazy Comb. I don't fret about these mishaps anymore. I know exactly what needs to be done to remedy the situation. Charlie kept his eye on the hives over the next few days while we waited for the arrival of a new queen. He would report in a few times a day providing important observations. Within two days it was clear we had a problem in the queen less hive. The girls were lethargic, not foraging and clustered, even as the weather warmed up. When I finally arrived back on the farm 5 days later with a new queen we discovered the majority of the bees in the hive were dead, piled up at the bottom of the hive. I was heart sick, simply devastate. What had gone wrong? I'd never seen such a think in all my years of beekeeping. I have mulled it over and over, talked to my people and likely the bees had a particular strain of nosema, an intestinal disease that infects bees, that kills them in a matter of days. It is also possible that the bees starved to death. I wasn't attentive to how much syrup was left in the bee cage feeder can. Maybe it was full, defective and the bees hadn't had any nutrition for a week. I don't know for sure. We slipped the cage with the new queen into the hive and closed it up. Charlie reports more activity coming out the hive in the past few days, but frankly I don't have much hope for them. There wasn't but a frame or two of bees who won't be able to build up enough comb quickly enough for a healthy queen.
The second hive on that property, Andrea's Drone Den seems strong and active and the bees are bringing in pollen. I am not sure where they getting pollen from, we barley have a hint of budding but they found something. I just hope it isn't a stash of sawdust, they have been know to hoard that when nothing else is available. I will go back to the farm over the weekend to make sure the new queen in Charlies' Crazy Comb has been released and then next Wednesday we will do our first inspection, see if the girls are building comb and if the queen is laying. These are tense times for a beekeeper. So much is at stake and things can go wrong.
We also installed two hives in our bee yard in Northfield. I have not been back there yet. It is cold again here now and a three day rain cloud has settled overhead. The bees are clustering at night and not out much when it rains so no point in checking them. I don't like to go in and disrupt the bees until the queen has had time to start laying.
I had two more packaged that were originally going to be delivered this weekend, another hive for each bee yard, 6 hives in all. My supplier called two days ago to delay the shipment until May 17th, cold and rain in Kentucky has not been kind to bee keepers, especially those who raise queens. I am out of my mind about it, May 17th is just way too late to start a new package of bees in Minnesota. Our season is short and I am starting out on foundation this year, no comb. It isn't likely that bees placed on May 17th will have time to build 3 brood boxes of comb let alone store enough honey for their own winter needs. Curses. I quickly teamed up with my dear beekeeping friend Patty who found us some Nuc's, little nucleus colonies of bees, a smaller version of a normal beehive with 5 combed out frames full of bees and brood and a queen. I am not sure why we haven't done this before but we haven't. I am totally jazzed. The Nuc's will arrive around the 6th of May. I am getting two, one for each bee yard. In the meantime I need to shore up my situation in both bee yards. I have to decide on Monday if I still want the delivery on May 17th. I am not one to give up bees but I am short on equipment this year and if I end up with 6 viable hives that is enough. However, I can't predict how Charlie's Crazy Comb is going to do and we could always end up with some other crazy problem in a hive so I hate to turn down bees. I don't know how I will land on this, somewhere between 6-8 hives, all first year hives so it is unlikely we will get any honey.