Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part I

It has been almost 8 weeks since I made a post, and I offer my humblest apologies; really, there has been little to write home about.  Well okay, perhaps, just maybe, that is a not entirely true statement.  Actually, the homestead has been a veritable hive of activity, in fact our life has been very busy over the past several weeks, and that level of activity seems likely to continue into mid-June.  And, it is wearing on me a bit that I have two blog posts to complete, “Warré Bee Hive Construction – Part II,” and “Winter 2013/2014: Lessons in Hardening Homestead Electrical, Potable Water, and Heating Systems.”  I will get to those eventually, promise.

Meanwhile, I will start where I left off, at the last post containing

homestead content, which was in late March, 26 March to be precise.  The weekend of 29 March offered the opportunity to evaporate yet more sap to the state of delicious maple syrup.  The yield was 16 cups of syrup.  While we stopped collecting sap on the 6th of April because temperatures were routinely staying above the freezing mark, and because sap had largely ceased flowing as a result, the business of evaporation continued through the weekend of April 12th; at that point there was no more snow to maintain the sap for extended periods of time without refrigeration.  In fact, we still have about 30 gallons of sap in the chest freezer awaiting processing.  We learned a great deal about maple sugaring this season, and I hope to be able to expand the operation significantly next year.  Our first season was great fun, and allowed us to connect with so many people while engaging in such a traditionally American endeavor; we will treasure the memories.
It is safe to say that we have hundreds of sugar maples on the property, though expanding from 13 taps to even 100 would require a much higher capacity and more sustainable evaporation process than that we have currently provided for.  Based on the production of our trees this year, 100 trees would deliver more than 2,000 gallons of sap, resulting in approximately 50 gallons (800 1-cup bottles) of syrup.  If I assume a 5 week season, 400 gallons of sap would need to be processed per week, or about 115 gallons every other day.  To put that in perspective, we collected, in total, approximately 250 to 300 gallons from 13 trees this year, processed in batches of about 25 gallons, each batch requiring a full day (sunrise to well beyond sunset) to be reduced to syrup.

The weekend of 5 April was fun-filled, to say the least.  First off of course, more maple sugaring was on tap (pun intended); I lit the burners early in anticipation of receiving a “come pick up your bees” phone call around midday.  Sure enough, the call came in.  Unfortunately I was on my own at the homestead that weekend, and picking up the bees entailed a four hour drive round-trip to Chicago and back, so I lowered the burn rate to ensure that the fires under the sap would not go out before my return, and so that I did not return to evaporators full of burnt maple sugar.

Greg Fischer installing package bees in
Langstroth hives.  Smoker on the ground
to his left.

I picked up the bees at a warehouse in Chicago operated by BevArt: Brewer & Winemaker Supply, and I also received some instruction from its owner, Greg Fischer, on how best to install the bees. Greg is the beekeeper at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and Geri and I took a four-session beekeeping course from him last year.  Greg manages about 100 hives in Chicagoland, and runs Wild Blossom Winery & Meadery, the only meadery in Illinois; their “meads are made from locally produced honey and are international gold medal winners.”  You will notice in the pictures that Greg installed his bee packages in one “deep” Langstroth hive box.  Since I use Warré hives, which incorporate significantly smaller boxes, I asked how many boxes I should use, and Greg answered that I should also use one box.  The reasoning behind that recommendation is solid, and is basically that “hey, it’s cold out, the bees have no comb and no honey stores, and they need to keep all of that space warm, so keep it as small as possible.”  Having said that, if I have it to do over again, and I will, I would use two boxes.

Five packages, somewhere between 60,000
and 75,000 bees, in the back of the Jeep for
the 2-hour ride to the homestead.

So what happened?  I picked up the bees in five “packages,” a package includes a can of food (sugar water), a queen in a cage, and three pounds of worker bees (approximately 12,000 to 15,000 bees)), and headed back to the homestead.  Aside from a few bees flying around inside the Jeep, I had no issues, and even those bees gave me no trouble.  On arrival, I moved the bees into the house, since they would not have survived the expected overnight low temperature without the shelter of the hive.  Peter Coombs and I had already prepared an area for the hives, which included a 2 ft by 2 ft paver on which to set the hive floor, and placed the hives on the pavers.  The front of the Warré hives face due East; rise and shine ladies.  The next day, Sunday, I enlisted the aid of Dennis and Tristin Goss to install the bees in the hives.  Throwing caution to the wind, as men will, and in the face of almost total ignorance, I decided that we should leave the brand new bee suits in their packages and “just do it!”  Thank you Nike.  Between Dennis, Tristin and I, we collected 9 bee stings for our efforts, and I think, permanently eliminated any bee-phobia we might have been victims of.  At the first hive I accidentally brushed the smoker (smoke used to calm the bees) against the prepared quart zip-lock of sugar water, holing it, and dousing the hive in sugar water.  Since there were not yet bees in the hive, I was able to clean it up fairly well, though I did not actually notice that I had melted a hole in the bag.  I thought the zip-lock had come open, so I closed it and laid the bag on top of the bars.  Forging ahead, I removed a few top bars to facilitate getting the bees into the box, and shook them from the package “into” the box.  Then, I removed the cork from the queen cage, and hung the cage from one of the top bars.  Finally, I put a “pollen patty” on the top bars, also as food for the bees.  It was not long before we knew we had a problem, as Dennis noticed the queen (there was a green dot painted on her back) outside the hive.  Not good.

We thought she made her way back into the hive, and so I put the “quilt” on top of the box, upside down to make room for the food bag and pollen patty, and then put the roof on the hive.  On to the next hive.  Installation into hive number two seemed to go more smoothly, in fact there were so many bees about that we thought perhaps the bees from the first hive had made their way over to the second.  And, crucially perhaps, I did not melt the bag of sugar water.  Finally, on to the third hive, which is of the “honey cow” type, and hand-made by Dennis.  We took the same approach, and again seemed to have trouble keeping the queen inside the hive; one time I picked her up from just outside the hive with the flat side of my Swiss Army knife blade, and put her back in the hive. Still, hive number three seemed to have gone more smoothly than hive one, which is not saying a whole lot necessarily.  At completion, we had some serious concern about hive one, and thought we had probably achieved success with hives two and three.

Upon checking the hives on 12 April, it was perfectly clear that the bees had abandoned hive one and the “honey cow” for whatever reason(s.)  I have to say that was very disappointing, not to mention expensive.  By the end of the day I figured I was batting .333, not bad, at least in baseball.  On the 13th I had planned to add a second box to the only active hive, hive two.  First, I planned to remove the roof because I wanted to remove the food (supposing it had become unnecessary), turn the quilt right-side up, and then planned to add the second box below the existing box.  I found most of the bees, including the queen, up in the quilt, and I found that the bees had built comb all around the queen cage that I had left hanging in the single hive box at the install.  I decided to not attempt removal of the queen cage, and to simply add the second box on top of the first; I assumed the bees would “move in” to the higher, top box.  I did remove the food bag, and left what remained of the patty in the hive as the bees can be expected to completely consume it.

As of this writing, all seems well with hive two.  I thought I had pretty well made a mess of things, though I suppose it is not any worse than the inside of a tree.  I plan to add a third box, under the first two boxes, on 31 May; hopefully the colony will not already have outgrown the space available and swarmed.

Next time, I will do several things differently, using the process below:

1) Use two hive boxes under the roof and quilt, instead of one
2) Put the bottom box on the floor, with the top bars installed
3) Cover the hive entrance
4) Instead of making slits in the zip-lock I would poke holes with a small nail or large needle; the slits I made this first time were too long, and allowed bees to enter the bag and drown
5) Place the food on the top of the bars in the bottom box (bag and patty)
6) Put the second box, with half (four) of the top bars installed, on top of the bottom box, effectively to use it as a funnel
7) Shake/dump a third of the bees or so, into the open-top second box, and onto the waiting pollen patty and food bag on the bottom box
8) Pull the cork on the queen cage and shake the queen into the top box; do not leave the cage in the hive
9) Dump the remainder of the bees into the top box
10) Install the the remaining four bars in the top box
11) Install the quilt, “right-side up” on the top box
12) Install the roof
13) Return next day and uncover the hive entrance

Since this post will grow to longer than I would like, I am going to split it into two parts, and end Part I here.  As always, your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please “follow” the blog.

— John, 23 May 2014