Honey & Swollen Dog

It's that special time of year when Lorraine extracts a little early honey, follows the strict codes, guidelines and fees of the county fair and submits it for approval.  I know we aren't the only ones entering honey because fellow beekeepers in the same county made some noise when we won last year that they intended to "serve us" and that this year it was "on" and we had better "bring it."

Bring it we did and got the blue ribbon!  That now makes three years in a row for extracted honey and two years in a row for comb honey.  Our bees rule!

Above is Storm of Paul & Storm sampling comb honey fresh from the hive earlier this summer.  I know our honey awesome and when friends visit and we force them to partake of the honey they also agree it is awesome.  But it is so nice to get the county officials behind you who say, "Indeed, mighty fine honey you got there, ma'am!"

An individual who is probably not as impressed with this victory is Lola.

If you missed it on Twitter, Mr. Neil's puppy got nailed by the bees.  We took her to the hive and didn't have any idea she had been stung.  When the other dog Cabal has been stung--you know.  He yelps, runs and if bees follow him, he tries to fight them by snapping wildly.  For the most part, the dogs understand to stay away, but here and there they get stung.  Interesting thing though about Lola was that we never heard any yelping at all.  When we were back at the house, I noticed that she kept wiping her face with her paws.  I asked Mr. Neil, "What's that all about?"

"Don't know," he said.  "Dog dream?"

She continued to rub her face against her paws and when she paused, I thought her eye looked swollen.  We immediately went to her to check that no stingers have been left behind.  I think we found where she was stung, but it looked like the stinger was gone.  Her face was so itchy, she rubbed it against anything she came in contact with: paws, carpeting, grass, rear ends--you name it.

Here you can really see the swelling, Mr. Neil said she looked like a cartoon dog.  He checked out what we could do to help the poor thing--turns out over the counter antihistamine medication.

Here's what Lola should look like for comparison.  Her swelling went down a few hours after Mr. Neil gave her some meds. Swelling is normal for bee stings.  Many people think that they have a fatal allergy to bees when they swell up from a sting.  That's a normal reaction.  When you really want to worry is when you itch in weird places.  If you get stung on the hand and soon after the bottoms of your feet or armpits are itchy--that's a sign of a fatal allergy and you should hightail it to the emergency room ASAP.

This is my favorite photo with a Hans inspired caption.  Poor Lola, she looks like she's wondering why her nose is so big.  That's got to be weird for a dog that uses smell the way we use sight.

Some good with the bad.  Glad Lola is better and happy that our bees still reign supreme in the county.

Award Winning Bees

award winning bees I am just so giddy!  Our bees won the county fair for the second year in a row!  And this time, we took both the honey ribbons--one for extracted honey and the other for cut comb honey.  It's official, our cured bee vomit is the best bee vomit!

It's the oddest sensation, the bees essentially did the work, we just took it out of the hive and presented it to the fair officials and they judged it to be what we already suspected--super tasty.  However, I still feel a deep satisfaction in it.  And no, we are not the only entrants in the county fair--there were others and the local bee club does have a booth at the fair, we are certainly not the only beekeepers in the area.

Beekeeping is the coolest thing and I love that I do it, I love watching my bees. I don't know what the secret to our hive flavor is. I've never been a fan of honey.  When we started our beekeeping operation and Mr. Neil said that we would split the honey down the middle, I didn't care.  I was strictly interested in beekeeping from a natural history point of view.  Honey had always had an odd after taste that I never cared for.  I did like Really Raw Honey brand, that was the first time I found honey a pleasure to eat.  We were warned that in our beekeeping class that our honey that our own bees produce would be the best tasting honey ever and we would be spoiled for any other kind.

I've always kept that in the back of my head. Even the first time when we ate honey from our hives and the four of us on our bee team literally devoured a frame in twenty minutes.  I had never tasted anything like it.  The honey was warm from the summer sun, the wax was fresh and chewy.  The honey was light in flavor, that tasted the way the local wildflower smelled, with just a hint of a peppery bite in the finish.  I thought it was the best, but still in the back of my mind, I thought it was because they were our bees. Even if friends told me it was the best honey ever, I was still suspicious.  Who well tell a beekeeper that their bees make "ok honey" or just "edible honey" or even "sucky honey?" No one is going to say that (at the very least to be polite but also because the beekeeper could send bees to sting them). I was cautiously optimistic about how great our honey is.

So, for a lark we entered a jar in the county fair last year and we won.

I was shocked--was our honey really that good?  Was it just a fluke, were we just new entrants and judges thought, "Oh, here's somebody new, let's give it to them!"  We entered again this year and I tried to keep my hopes low--we might not win this year, our honey tastes a bit different with a hint of mint, maybe someone has an all basswood honey that would blow the judges out of the water, or maybe someone else has a turn to win this year--and our extracted honey won again!  We must have talented bees with a knack for producing great honey.

We also thought we would enter in our comb honey, but Lorraine noticed that the entry rules read, "cut comb honey" and worried that our use of Ross Rounds may not count.  Cut comb honey comes from the type of supers where you literally cut the wax comb into squares and put them in either plastic boxes or in a jar with more honey--you can eat the wax along with they honey.  Ross Rounds are the best way that I have found to do comb honey.  There are plastic circles that fit into the frames of the Ross Round.  The bees build out the foundation inside the white circle.  When they cap over the honey, you remove the frames, easily pop out the white circle and put a lid on either side--badda bing, badda boom, you're done.  There's no cutting (apart from trimming away excess frame foundation).  Here is a blog entry on how to extract you comb from Ross Rounds.  The holders and lids make for a great presentation, especially if you found on where every single cell is capped.  But I wondered if that would be considered cheating--you essentially are putting the container for holding the comb in the hive for the bees to build in.  I told Lorraine that we should be rebels and to enter it anyway...and we won!

I find comb honey far easier to harvest and I enjoy it the most--I love chewing the wax. It's also the more valuable honey--you tend to pay more for it. However, when I give comb honey to friends, many are kind of wierded out about the wax.  I found out through a friend on Facebook that Mr. Neil had gifted him some comb honey and he confessed he hadn't eaten it because he wasn't too keen to eat wax.  So we have extracted honey.

Perhaps Lorraine's method of extracting our honey helps with the flavor?  We have a big fancy extractor, but she prefers to strain our honey through cheesecloth. We do not heat our honey (some beekeepers do to make it stay in a liquid state for a longer period of time--which also affects the flavor of the honey and causes that weird after taste ). If you do not heat your honey, it can "granulate" over time, which is fine, it's just a tad thicker.  It's safe and works fine in tea, but some people think granulated honey is inferior and will not buy it, that's why many commercial honeys are heated, so it will stay liquid and consumers will purchase it. If you wish to turn granulated honey into liquid honey, just put the jar in warm water for a few minutes.

We are all now warming in the afterglow of our second consecutive win and our clean sweep of all the honey awards at the county fair.  I'll try to head out this weekend to get photos.

Bee Update

I kind of put my nose to the grind stone the last week and finished off a draft of the book and now I am dying to get out and watch some birds!  I'm hoping to do a bit of that on Wednesday.  In the mean time, we are getting things ready for the fast approaching bee season.  Our final living hive, the Kelli hive, has unfortunately succombed.  From the looks of things, she had moisture build up and that's what killed the hive. In the meantime, Lorraine has been extracting the honey from the dead hive and forced that nice folk singer, Jason Webley to aid in the extraction. Thanks to all who offered advice regarding Russian bees, we now have three packages on order, which brings our coming hive total to 7.  Yikes!  This year's Hive names are: Wendy, Juliet, Hannah, Yvaine, Magda, Svetlana, & Bea Arthur.

Oh Nosema!

Mr. Neil emailed that he had been by the hives and that Kelli was silent.  I emailed back, "You mean Kitty, right?" If you recall, Kitty was in a small cluster and the cold was probably going to kill her.  The Kelli hive was strong and loud.  No, he meant Kelli.  I hoped that he was either seriously jet-lagged, had excessive ear wax and ear hair, or maybe minor hearing loss of his punk band days.

Non Birding Bill and I headed out to the hives before I left for Indy to get the down low.  I put my ear to the Kelli hive.  It was quiet...too quiet. I wondered what could have happened, she was so healthy, did we finally get colony collapse?  We wouldn't know without opening the hive.  It was about to rain at any moment, so we decided to take the hive apart and take it back to the garage and inspect what could have been the problem.  However I soon as I opened the ceiling, I found a small cluster of live bees.


At first I was hopeful to see signs of life.  But wen I looked closer, I could see that the cluster was just too small.  It barely covered one frame.  She had plenty of food to see her through, but one more hard core cold snap was probably going to do this hive in--which is entirely possible even though the calendar reads spring.

What went wrong?

nosemaI think I have my answer on the front of the hive.  Look at all that bee excrement, I think there's a bit of bee dysentery going on.  I think the Kelli girls had a case of nosema, but I can't really say that unless I send in a few bees for testing.  Bees hold in their poop all winter and then let it go in the spring.  They'll go on cleansing flights on warm days to relieve themselves.  They shouldn't go all over the front of the hive.  When I give the bees their fall feeding, we put a little antibiotic to prevent nosema.  Neither hive ate too much of our homemade nectar, which I didn't think about too much since they both had plenty of food. Kind of regretting that now, but then again, how does one forcefeed a bee so it will take her medicine.


Looks like we'll be starting with all new hives this summer and no dividing of older hives.

We were planning on a total of six hives this summer, but that was based on four new packages and splitting Kelli.  Since we will only have four, I'm thinking about trying some Russian bees.  We've been using the Minnesota Hygenic bees (Italians) based on their "hygienic" behavior of cleaning out brood cells when they sense something wrong.  But the more I read about the Russian bee and how it seems to resist varroa mite infestation a bit and can take a hard winter, I'm thinking I'd like to give some a go.

Any blog readers know someone who raises and sells Russian bees in the US and would be willing to send a package to Minnesota?

To The Bee Cave, Bee Boy!

DON'T FORGET: There is still time to get your entries in for the Swarovski Guest Blogging Contest. A chance for you to have a blog entry posted here for the day (and getting some of my readers a taste of your writing) and a cool prize while I'm birding in Guatemala!

Well, the weather has been above freezing and all of us just happened to be in town for a moment so Mr. Neil, Non Birding Bill, Fabulous Lorraine and myself decided that it was time to do a winter bee inspection to determine how many bees and supplies to order for this spring.

Since we would be digging about inside the hive to check the food stores the hives had left, we decided to go with our bee suits on. With his hat and bee suit, NBB almost looked more like seaman from the movie The Life Aquatic than a member of a team of award winning beekeepers.

We have two hives that we are over wintering. Above is the Kelli hive. She is three deep brood boxes, wrapped in insulation, with two moisture boards (stuff they use in your bathroom walls to absorb moisture), and some newspaper. You worry more about your hives getting wet in winter than you do the cold. The bees can take the cold, but moisture in a hive just messes everything up. Kitty is two boxes without insulation and just newspaper for moisture. We were running a couple of experiments: for overwintering, do we want to do three boxes instead of two and do we want to use insulation or not. There are arguments for both. It's possible for bees to survive with only two boxes--fewer places to go and therefore the cluster won't be at risk of being too far from food. Insulation on the hive could fool the bees into thinking it's warmer outside than it really is and they fly out too soon and die.

Before we opened them, I put my ear up to each hive to see if I could hear them buzzing. I could! Kitty was not as loud as Kelli, but both hives were totally alive and had survived the harsh January temperatures so far! After we opened the Kelli hive, I held up my camera to the open frames so you could hear a hive buzzing in winter (you can see the green Kitty hive in the background):

We didn't dig too deep in Kelli, she was loud, just glancing at the top frames, she had plenty of food, and if we have learned anything, it's that the more you leave your bees alone to just bee, the better off they are.

We did make sure that bother bottom and top entrances were open for good ventilation. She was incredibly dry. Even her news paper was bone dry. The moisture board was working well and there weren't too many dead bees at the entrance and we could see a couple come in and out. The three box system, with insulation, and the moisture boards appeared to be working very, very well.

Kitty was a different story. She was alive, but her cluster was very small. If you look between NBB and Mr. Neil in the above photo, you can see part of it. Mr. Neil is holding a spray bottle, he sprayed some homemade bee nectar around them and we made sure that the frames closest to them were full of food, so if the cluster ran out of food where they were, they would not need to go far.

The cluster of bees stays together to stay warm. If it gets so cold that they cannot move far and they have eaten all the nearby food, they may starve before they can move to where there is food in the hive. As we moved the frames around, the hive was incredibly wet.

Even the newspaper on top was wet. There were thousands of dead bees on the inside. We took out a bunch of the dead wet bees. We have some concerns about this hive. Her cluster is small. If the rest of the winter is mild, she should survive. If we get some more subzero days, we're afraid that the remaining cluster of bees is so small it won't be able to stay warm enough. There's not much more we can do at this point.

So, I think two things to take from this are: 1. That white moisture absorbing material used for bathroom walls helps to keep a wintering hive dry. 2. That a two brood box hive probably could survive, but I don't know if we would do it again without insulation. We want to have six hives going this summer and we think what is going to happen is that we will split the healthy Kelli hive into two hives and that Kitty will most likely die and we will need to restart her.

Some good, some bad with the hive inspection, but it was fun to get a taste of our beekeeping operation. I really do miss it. I love birding and I love travel, but I think beekeeping is one of the coolest things you can ever try in life. It's more fun than I ever realized.

After we were finished we had to put the hives back together and put the bricks back on to make sure a strong winter wind didn't knock their covers off...and I can never resist working a Father Ted reference:

First Bee Post Of The New Year

We are hardy folk, we northern beekeepers! Mr. Neil and I pose around a snow surrounded Kitty beehive. We came out to make sure that the snow wasn't blocking key ventilation areas in the beehives and to see if they were alive.

Mr. Neil and Non Birding Bill also checked to see if our electric bear-proof (and skunk-proof) fence was still in working order. Not that we need to worry about bears at this exact moment, but better to find out now if there is a problem with the solar panel now than in the spring when a bear has breached the fence and made a mess of the hives.

The Kitty bees are in a smaller hive this winter (an experiment to see if we can overwinter bees in a two hive system instead of three). This time of year, the workers and queen are all clustered together to stay warm. We opened the roof and they were right at the top. A couple even flew out at us! Mr. Neil asked, should we go inside and see what's going on, maybe we could add a frame of honey for them."

NBB quickly said, "No!"

"But do we--"


We didn't have a smoker and two of us were dressed in black--the color a bee is most likely to sting. So we didn't go much further. Her humming sounded very healthy. Here's a video I made just to pick up the sound of their buzzing in twenty degree temperatures:

Things over that the Kelli hive were just as happy:

We could hear them inside the hive. The snow had piled up over the bottom entrance and Mr. Neil shoveled the front. As soon as it was clear, a couple of bees came out--one even took out a dead be. Bless our OCD Minnesota Hygienic Bees--"Must be clean, must be clean," they chant in their little buzzy voices.

Both seem content and healthy. They still have a few months to go and we'll check them again. This reminds me that it's getting time for me to order our bees for the spring! I think we'll have a total of six hives this summer! We'll probably divide Kelli and order three new packages of bees.

On our way out to the hives NBB found some feathers scattered on the snow. Above is one of the clumps. We found them in the spot where we have seen a saw-whet owl in the past. We were trying to figure out what kind of bird the feathers came from. The coloring of this clump looked like morning dove.

But then we found these secondaries (with a little blood ), looks too small for mourning dove to me. I think this might be junco. Possible for a saw-whet to take out, but also prey for a sharp-shinned hawk which also hangs out in Mr. Neil's woods in winter. I didn't see any owl poop on the snow, but then again, find white on white is kinda hard. But a fun mystery to chew on.

That Darn Kitty Hive

I just got the current issue of WildBird Magazine in the mail and there's a photo of me at the beehives! I'm so proud, part of our award winning Kelli Hive is pictured in a birding magazine. I feel like I'm crossing some sort of border by getting bees in a birding magazine. Now sure what that border is exactly, but it's cool in my little brain. Incidentally, you can send in your own photo of yourself reading WildBird, you just need to make sure to take it someplace where you do a lot of birding. Which for me happens to be around my beehives. Check out this killer titmouse photo I got near the hives on Sunday:

Nothing like mixed nuts and brush pile to make a titmouse come in and give you his sexy side.

We went out to our two remaining beehives to prep them for winter (the lovely lady above is the Kitty namesake). We are running a couple of experiments. There are beekeepers of two camps: 1 is to insulate your hives in the winter and the other is to not insulate. In our neck of the woods where subzero is the norm in January and February, insulating your hive makes sense. However, some beekeepers feel that a strong hive can stay warm without the insulation and that the insulation gives the hive a false sense of how cold it really is outside. Foragers come out too soon and die, weakening the hive.

We decided to insulate the Kelli hive and this year, Non Birding Bill made sure the insulation was not going to come off like it did last year. He duct taped the crap out of it.

We decided to not insulate the Kitty hive and to take her down to two boxes instead of three. Mr. Neil has read that this will work in our neck of the woods and I was skeptical but he brought me around to his way of thinking. The idea is that the cluster of bees does not have to travel as far to get to the food storage. Last winter, the Kitty hive died because the cluster got stuck were there was no food and starved to death. So with lack of insulation and a small space to keep warm, she should be good to go.

Note how Mr. Neil and NBB are a good distance from the hive? We foolishly went out to the hives with no beesuits or smokers. As we checked inside the Kitty Hive (and true to her cranky nature) some bees flew out and one stung me through my winter glove. Everyone took a step back. Interestingly enough--the sting did not hurt nearly as much as my first sting. It is true, the more you get stung, the less painful the sting--although it has been rather itchy the last two days.

We were a tad worried about Kitty when we came out, her buzz was not as loud as Kelli's and when the hive was opened, I thought I heard that kind of dissonant buzz that you get when your hive has gone queenless. It may just be the winter low-key buzz. I'm not going to worry about it. Requeening just does not work out for us and I refuse to intervene on that any more.

We will check on our girls a bit in the winter. Mr. Neil suggested we go out with a spray bottle of sugar water to spray the cells if they look low on food. We are also trying to use some newspaper in the tops of the hive to absorb moisture and that will need to be replaced.

This bee season went by too fast.

Pine Siskins and Bonfires and Bees

Just a reminder: The next Birds and Beers is this Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 6pm at Merlin's Rest.

This weekend was kind of a blur, I'm still trying to catch up. This early winter weather is just perfect for a one last hurrah before the hardcore cold temperatures force us inside. Non Birding Bill got Mr. Neil to host a bonfire gathering.

We had a great bonfire going and we burned some unusable beehive frames which made for some spectacular pyrotechnic effects with the old wood. Speaking of frames, we still have some frames full of honey to extract and a big fancy extractor. I thought that maybe we could do some extracting at the bonfire gathering--lots of friends over, "Hey, don't you want to be a junior beekeeper and extract some honey?" We could all take turns, running the crank. Alas, much like all the beekeeping equipment out there, NO INSTRUCTIONS (beekeeping equipment manufacturers--that sucks and makes me not like your products and is off putting to new beekeepers).

So, little was extracted and we now have a fancy extractor that we are not real clear on how to use. Lorraine has gone to the cheesecloth method for some of our frames.

This morning we woke up to a dusting of snow and LOTS of finches at the feeders--the long tube feeder almost had all 20 perches were full. Non Birding Bill and I headed out to our remaining hives we are going to over winter--Kitty and Kelli. We were going to screw in the metal entrance reducers so the girls would have less area to defend and to also keep mice from moving inside.

When we arrived, we found paw prints which looked remarkably like skunk at the entrance of both hives. This snow fell in the early morning hours. That jerk skunk had just been there a mere few hours before NBB and myself. Skunks knock at the entrance of a hive. This makes the bees angry and they come out to attack, the skunk eats them, apparently unfazed by the stinging. We have carpet tacking around the entrances to prevent this (when the skunks come knocking, they get pricked by the nails), but it's gotten strewn around this past bee season. So NBB and I rearranged it to give that skunk a few good pricks if it comes back. Hanz (the guy who does yard maintenance) built our bees a wicked bad electric fence to keep bears out, Lorraine is going to ask him to add one more line of electricity, closer to the ground and closer to skunk height to encourage the b@stard to look for food elsewhere.

NBB and I put our ears to both hives and heard contented buzzing from within each hive. Love that!

Early plans for next season--six hives! We'll divide Kelli into 2 hives (cause she's gonna swarm and if we divide her, we can control the swarm), 3 new hives, and Kitty...well, that's our angriest hive and we're just gonna let her do whatever she wants to do. If she wants to swarm, then she can swarm. I'm not gonna argue that hive.

There was a constant flow of goldfinches all morning. None of them were banded, so it was just a steady stream of hundreds visiting. The day before, I had noticed a couple of pine siskins and the more I watched the goldfinches...

...the more I would see streaky pine siskins mingle in among the flock. Which is right on target according to the Winter Finch Forecast: "A conifer seed specialist in winter, most siskins should leave the province this fall because the spruce cone crop is poor in the boreal forest. It is uncertain whether the huge white pine seed crop will keep some siskins in central and northern Ontario this winter."

I put some fine ground sunflower hearts and thistle on the tree stump. Goldfinches flew in for it, as did juncos and (of course) pine siskins. In the above photo, you can see some of that yellow edging on the wing feathers of the siskins. If you have goldfinches in your yard and you've never noticed a pine siskin before, take a closer look at your finches. Pine siskins can be easily mistaken for goldfinches in winter plumage. But look at the breast. If it's clear, it's a goldfinch, if it's super streaky, it's a pine siskin.

Once two or three siskins were on the stump, more moved in. It wasn't too long before the siskins outnumbered the goldfinches! I didn't get a photo of it, but we did have one crazy pine siskin going to the no melt peanut butter suet. I'd never seen a siskin on suet before, I thought they were strick seed eaters.

Birds, Beers, Bald Eagles, Bees, and Rio Grande Valley Fest

Holy Buckets, I am in love with the boys at the Golden Valley, MN National Camera Exchange. My all-time favorite point and shoot digital camera to use for digiscoping is a Fuji FinePix E900. It's been discontinued and hard to find. They found one for me. I'm takin' that bad boy to Texas. The Canon A570 I'm currently using is okay, but the color quality is just not as good as the Fuji. Thank you National Camera in Golden Valley, you boys are the best!

Hey, here's some cool news from WFRV:

A bird that's believed to be the oldest banded bald eagle on record in the upper Midwest has been returned to the wild. The 31-year-old female was hit by a car on state Highway 47 near Fence Lake last month. After recovering, the eagle was released by wildlife officials in Lac du Flambeau on Friday.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the bird was among 6,000 eagles banded in 1977. The average age of adult eagles is 10-12 years old.

Before this bird, the oldest bald eagle according to the Bird Banding Lab longevity records was 30 years and 9 months.

So, I think I'm kinda grateful for my insanely busy schedule this fall. Mr. Neil wanted to move the Kitty hive so it would be inside the newly installed "bear proof fence" before the winter. This is our least friendly hive and the best time to move a hive is at night. I'm sure you can tell how fun and exciting this is just be rereading that last sentence. I alas could not go this week but you can read all about it over at Lorraine's blog. Of the four of us: Non Birding Bill, Mr. Neil, Me, and Lorraine, only NBB is not the bee sting virgin. Lorraine got her's last night.

Don't forget, we got a couple of Birds and Beers coming up. Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders of all abilities--if you're interested in birds, you're invited. You can meet other birders--maybe find a carpool buddy, ask about where to find target birds, share cool research projects you might be working on, ask a bird feeding question, share life lists, share some digiscoping tips, promote your blog--the sky is the limit. It's low key and it's fun.

Here are the dates and note that the first date is in Harlingen, TX--in conjunction with the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest!

Thursday, November 6 at 7:45pm (or after the festival keynote speaker is finished that night). It will be held at The Lone Star, they are holding a table for us.

The next will be back in Minnesota:

Tuesday, November 18 at 6pm at Merlin's Rest.

If anyone is on a Texas birding listserv and wants to post the Harlingen Birds and Beers there, please do. It's open to anyone, even if you are not part of the bird festival.

Speaking of the RGV bird fest, if you are a bird blogger and are going to be there, we're going to have a formal Bird Blogger Meeting in the Alcove at 4:30pm on Friday. This is your chance to meet other bloggers, ask questions, share ideas and network. We're a fun group and we're happy to see you be successful. Please come!

AND if you are someone who has no clue what bird blogging is all about or even what the heck a blog is, I'll be giving a program called Blogging: The New Nature Journal on what bird blogging is all about, how to start one, ideas for what you can blog about, highlights of my blog and other great birding blogs you can find on the Internet. The program is on Thursday at 2pm.

If you're in Texas, I look forward to meeting you. It's gonna be a great time!