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Farm Life

What happened to the bees?

About a week and a half ago, Anthony went out to check on our bees to see if they needed more food, and to clear out any dead bees on or in the bottom of the hives. He made some fondant sheets to put on the inside top of the boxes, just in case they had gone through all of their honey stores.

We had a spell of a few warm days between 40-50 degrees, which made it the perfect time to go in and check on them. Generally speaking, it’s not good to open the hive bodies when it is colder than 45 degrees because it puts the bees at risk of getting chilled. They work hard at keeping the inside of the hives a warm temperature throughout the winter, and we don’t ever want to disturb that. When there are unusually warm days in the winter, you will (hopefully) see your bees flying in and out of the hives, making cleansing flights. Bees don’t like to poop inside the hives, so they basically hold it until there is a warm day and then they fly out to “cleanse” themselves.

Anthony didn’t see one single bee flying around, so he began to suspect that something was wrong. (I was working in Las Vegas for a week while all of this went down, so Anthony had to handle it on his own) When he opened up the hives, he realized that all of our bees were dead. He called our mentor, Rick, who told Anthony that he would be able to stop by and see what might have happened. In the meantime, he began to clean out all of the hives.

When he looked at the bees, they didn’t seem to have anything obviously wrong with them – they didn’t have deformed wings or bodies, the hives didn’t smell weird and there was PLENTY of honey for them to eat. So we took this to mean that they didn’t have any diseases. When Rick stopped by later and took a look, he told Anthony that he didn’t see any evidence of a Varroa mite issue. Varroa mites are one of the biggest reasons why hives don’t survive in our area.  We found the queen dead amongst all of the bees in one of the hives, so we know that they didn’t die because they were queen-less.

There was about 20 pounds of honey left between the two hives. Many of the bees had stuck their heads deep into the cells, which based on what we’ve learned and read so far, can mean that they were cold and didn’t want to break out of their cluster. In the winter, the bees form a cluster to create a big ball of warmth inside the hive. It’s actually more complicated than that, but you get the gist of what I’m saying. Rick seems to think this is probably what happened. And since they didn’t break the cluster to go up to the upper hive body where the food was, they most likely died of starvation. Here’s a video of Anthony going through the hives and cleaning them up.

So what is the answer for next year? That’s an excellent question that we still don’t know the answer to. We had some seriously cold and windy days in January, with the wind coming from the south. We have open fields across the street from us and no windbreaks, so this could have sent some very cold air toward the hives. We built a northern wind break, but we don’t want to block the southern sun from hitting the hives with a southern wind break.  If we do build one, it can’t be more than 2 feet tall. We had ventilation on both the top and bottom of the hives, but maybe it wasn’t enough. Without enough top ventilation, condensation can build up and drip ice-cold water onto the bees, thus making them too cold. Our plan right now is to read more, ask more questions, make some more windbreaks and maybe add a bit more ventilation.

We’ve ordered our new bees and more beehives; this year we are growing our apiary from 2 hives to 4. The new bees should arrive sometime around the end of April, beginning of May. We are upset and very heartbroken that we didn’t successfully overwinter our bees this year. Hopefully with a few changes next year we won’t go through this again. But that’s the thing with bees, or working with any living creature, I guess. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen. All we can do is educate ourselves and make sure we are taking care of them as best we can.

Farm Life

Honey Harvest

Last Tuesday, Anthony and I decided it was time to take the honey supers off of our hives. Where we live, the second week of August is the time when most beekeepers are harvesting their honey.

We weren’t expecting much in the way of honey this year. Many times first year bees only make enough honey to sustain them through the winter. One of our hives produced a nice amount of honey – we got about 3 supers full from them and a full super usually provides about 20 pounds of honey.

Do you remember this diagram of a hive?


The honey super is the box that you put on top of the deeps. We have two deeps for each hive – usually their brood (eggs) is in the bottom box and their honey is in the top box.

Our second hive didn’t really produce much of anything. I noticed a few weeks before we pulled the supers off that it seemed like that hive had a much smaller population and was not producing. Our mentor Rick told us that it looked like it had requeened itself. This means the bees got rid of the existing queen and replaced her with a new one, and that usually happens because she is not doing her job well enough. So because of that, they didn’t have a queen that was laying enough or for a long enough time to match the hive next to it that had been going strong all season. Rick seems to think that the requeened hive will do really well next year. Queens do their best in their first few years of life.

This is a queen cell, a new queen will emerge from this (image from

So, back to the harvest. To remove the supers, we applied a fume board – basically a lid that has a super stinky smell coming off of it (think STRONG blue cheese). When that board is on, for just about 30 seconds, it drives the bees further down into the hive, removing them completely from the super. Anthony and Rick did that for each one until all of the bees were out of all of the supers. Once we loaded the supers up in Rick’s truck, he took them to his honey house to dry them out overnight. His honey house is about 90 degrees and has a dehumidifier in it to ensure the honey is dry enough. Honey needs to have a water content of about 18% to be jarred. A good indicator that the honey is ready and has the proper water content is when the bees cap the honeycomb. When they cap it off, it prevents moisture from being absorbed. A refractometer can tell you exactly what the moisture content is.

anthony and capped honey

The white on this frame is wax – this shows what it looks like capped

Once we were back at the honey house, we started by uncapping the wax on all of the frames. This is a somewhat delicate and labor intensive process. We will be using these frames again next year, and since the comb is already built out, the bees will be able to concentrate on filling the comb, instead of starting from scratch and building up comb. So we want to keep the comb intact and untouched as much as possible.

cutting the caps

First, we sliced the cappings off with a knife. We saved all of the cappings to try making something with the beeswax

capping comb

This capping comb takes off the smaller bits and pieces of wax. Look at all of that delicious honey!

Rick generously offered to help us and also let us use his extractor. Extractors are pretty pricy – around $1300 and up. Before we dove in to that purchase, we wanted to have some experience under our belt.

Once the frames are all uncapped, they are placed in the extractor and the honey is spun out. Here’s a video of the entire experience.

We filled a 5 gallon bucket with honey. And got lots of wax to experiment with.

honey bucket

My favorite part of the whole harvest process was when Rick told Anthony to take a piece of the wax and try it. He told him to chew it like gum and taste the honey. Anthony tried it and was shocked. He actually said “WOW, I think I’m going to like honey now!” He even made me give him a blind taste test when we got home with some honey that we had in our cupboard and of course declared ours superior.



honey harvest lucky break acres

This was such a GREAT experience. We are so fortunate that our bees survived and are healthy and gave us such an incredible gift. We also can’t thank Rick enough for all of his help. Anthony and I still have so much to learn, but now that we’ve got half of a season under our belts, we are ready for more!

Farm Life

Beekeeping Day 1

Last weekend we finally got the long-awaited call letting us know that our bees were here. Anthony and I drove up to Watertown early Sunday morning and picked them up. The amount of bees that were waiting for other people to pick up was incredible, as shown below. Can you imagine what the place looks like in California, where they originally ship from?

bee packages up close

These are the packages the bees come in; we bought two packages and each comes with one Queen

Bee packages

Closer bees in warehouse

Bees in warehouse

This is only a portion of the bee package pallets in the warehouse

The two of us have been going back and forth for about 6 months (no lie) as to where we were going to put the bees. You would think there are a ton of options on a 5 acre property, but we had an EXTREMELY difficult time agreeing on their placement. I wanted to put them up on the parkway – close to our fruit trees, away from where people would be bothering them all the time, tucked into a line of bushes that would hopefully have enough branches to protect them from the north wind in the winter. The large trees in that area would also provide them with dappled shade, which is perfect for the bees – not too sunny and not too shaded. So I pled my case for the 150th time and we set them up on the parkway.

Anthony on parkway

Anthony on tractor

I’m pretty sure he is looking at the hives, thinking “how soon can I move these?”

Anthony still didn’t think there would be enough protection in winter from the north wind up on the parkway and he didn’t want to have to build anything. He wanted them next to his garage, but that’s an area where I plan to plant sunflowers and still need to tear up all of the grass to do it. Plus I thought it was way too close to the garage and where people would frequent, and Gigi runs around in that area from time to time.  Nevertheless, Anthony and I picked the beehives up from the parkway and moved them back to the garage just a few days after placing them. Back to the drawing board.

Bees back in the garage

We then decided to put them on the old water tank; Anthony even asked our neighbor Kevin to come over with his skid loader to move the large cement planter off of the tank to a different area to make room for the hives. Later, when I pointed out that there was absolutely no shade for them, Anthony began to rethink this placement.

Bees on the way home in the backseat

Bees on the way home in the backseat

When we arrived home with the bees, we put them in the cool garage to wait for our friend Rick (remember him, here?) to come over and help us with the installation. Then we took the hives back out to the parkway where they originally were and set them up again. Beekeeping was exhausting so far, and we didn’t even have the bees in their hive boxes yet! After getting the hive boxes set up, we got all of our equipment ready in the garage and went inside to make the bees some food. To supplement their diets while they are first starting out, we mixed 10 pounds of sugar with hot water in a 2 gallon bucket that we had pre-drilled with tiny holes in the top. We would be turning it upside down over the hive box once we put the bees in the hive box.

I have to admit, I was so severely nervous. Anthony has been out with our friend and mentor Rick twice to help him with his hives, but this was my first interaction with the bees. Rick called to tell us he was on the way, and to spray the bees in their boxes with sugar water to give them something to eat. When he got to our house, he had us spray them one more time, then we set out. Here is the video of Anthony installing the second hive after Rick installed the first. I have to say we are in great hands with Rick; he is so knowledgeable, calm and extremely helpful.

Rick brought along some of his extra bees to supplement our hives. He was concerned we were getting our bees so late in the season, so he told us that he would give us some drawn comb to help our bees get a jump-start on their work. I didn’t realize that he was also adding in some bees with those frames. I can’t stress enough how invaluable this gift from him is. This is not something you can buy in a store, and it really boosts our chances of getting our own honey this year. Rick is a very giving person and loves bees so much – it seems as if he wants everyone to be successful and have happy bees and to love it as much as him.

We did it!

I stopped feeling nervous once I was filming Anthony and Rick. The humming of the bees kind of made me feel calm, in a weird way. Rick told us that they sounded happy. I kept thinking about some of the people I know that are deathly afraid of bees and their buzzing; I can see why they might have been freaked out. I’m just relieved that I didn’t freak out and that I actually liked it. In the video, you see Anthony put a small marshmallow in the end of the Queen’s cage – the worker bees will slowly remove the marshmallow to release the Queen and get used to their new Queen in the process. If all goes well, they will release her and everyone will get to work.

Anthony and Rick

Our next move is checking on them 5 days from the time we installed them, which is Friday. We will be checking to see that the Queen has been accepted and that everyone is doing the job they are assigned to do – drawing comb, laying eggs and getting along. As with all things here on the farm, wish us luck!

Farm Life

Bee hotel

I know we’ve been on a bit of a bee kick lately, but you know how it is when you first start learning about something. You can’t stop thinking about it, learning about it, researching it and figuring out how you can try it all. At least that’s how I operate. But it’s just a coincidence that I recently learned about bee hotels.

I am currently in the Master Gardener program at our extension office, and that is an entirely different story for another day. One of the programs that our local extension office is working on is called the Bee Hotel Project, you can see the information below.Bee-Hotel-Flyer-Updated-1

Once I saw a picture of a bee hotel, my interest was piqued. They are so cool and sculptural; I thought a bee hotel would look great in our yard. I am also kind of obsessed with pollinators and taking care of them so they can flourish. I composed a Bee Hotel Pinterest board, here, if you are interested in checking them out. Here are a couple of my favorites:

From the Jardin du Luxembourg

From the Jardin du Luxembourg, link

Bee hotels are created for use by (amongst other insects, bugs and pollinators) solitary bees – not honeybees. Mason bees are one of the solitary bees that are attracted to bee hotels, and a mason bee can pollinate a fruit tree 50 times more effectively than a honeybee. Solitary bees don’t construct hives, but they build nests and they really like to build those nests in hollow tube like structures.

bee hotel beginnings

You can even buy a bee hotel on eBay, but why would you need to? It’s easy to make your own, and it’s a perfect project to do with kids. National Geographic has a great tutorial, here. Most of the items for a bee hotel can be found in your yard or garage. When my Godson and his brother came to stay with us for a few days over their Spring Break, we got to work on our bee hotel.

Owen cutting the sedum

Owen cutting the sedums

Anthony had torn a huge electrical box off of our silo a few days prior to the boys coming, and I thought it would make the perfect frame for a bee hotel. Halfway into working on it, I realized that it was WAY, WAY too big, but once we were that far, there was no going back.

Silo electrical box

Where the original electrical box was

Lucky Break Electrical Box

Anthony moving the giant bee hotel

Anthony moving the giant bee hotel

We were outside for 8 hours each day, with the boys drilling holes into logs, pruning back hollow sedum stems and stacking items into the hotel. Owen even made the sign; he was beyond stoked to be able to use the Dremel tool by himself.

Owen and Chuck

Owen and Charlie, the ultimate Bee Hotel contractors

Jen and I Bee Hotel

I think Jen and I liked working on the Bee Hotel more than anyone

An extremely rainy week followed the boys visit, so I wasn’t able to finish the bee hotel for a while. In the meantime, there was an article in one of the local papers talking about bee hotels. One key sentence I read was that the bee hotels need to be at least 3 feet off of the ground. What??? Ours was sitting on the ground and it weighed about 500 pounds at this point. Plus Anthony had bolted the hotel with 2 giant bolts to a fence post. This was going to take some serious negotiation with him.

On the ground

On the ground

I asked my Master Gardener instructor about it being 3 feet off of the ground and she was very sweet, saying “well, at least you’ll get some cool beetles in there.” Beetles?  No thank you, I have plenty of those inside of my house right now. I don’t need to provide any more homes for them. Anthony was actually very amenable and got to work once we had a nice sunny day again. I emptied everything out of it, he got 3 discarded tree stumps from the neighbors and we propped it up, re-bolted it and I got to work filling it back up. This bee hotel project cost me a grand total of $10, and that’s only because I bought some bamboo sticks in order to create more hollow pieces to stick inside.


Our final step was to attach chicken wire over the front in order to keep birds out and all of the bits and pieces in. Voila! Here is our finished project. I’m just hoping for some bees to start checking in.

Lucky Break Bee Hotel

IMG_7778 IMG_7776 IMG_7775

***One final and major note, is that sometimes bee hotels can be colonized by wasps (read the study if you are interested, here) so I’m going to have to keep an eye on that. I’ll be sure to let you all know how it works out.

Farm Life

Beekeeping 101

A few weeks ago Anthony and I were lucky enough to attend a hands-on beekeeping class. We have done some reading and attended some of our local beekeeping club meetings, but nothing beats doing things with your own two hands.

Rick Sallman taught this informal beekeeping class out of his home. He has over 30 years of experience with bees and it definitely shows. I first met Rick when I took an informational class at our local library and have since heard him speak at the beekeeper’s club meetings. He is extremely passionate about bees and is always forthcoming with different tidbits of information on what to expect and how to handle the bees in general.

Rick teaching us about winterizing the hives

Rick teaching us about winterizing the hives

We learned how to handle the equipment, got familiar with the terminology of all of the pieces and parts and put some pieces of our hives (or brood boxes) together.


We learned how to light our smokers and also learned a bit of common sense, but what I probably would not have thought about, and this was: don’t set your bees on fire with the smoker, but make sure it is a cool smoke. The practice of smoking the bees has been used (according to our reference book First Lessons in Beekeeping) since antiquity, to calm the bees. We will not be using it until our second trip out to the hives, when we are first checking on them after we put them in the brood boxes (or hive boxes).


The smoker that we bought is the larger of the two sold at our local supplier. We first lit some newspaper and dropped it into the smoker. Then we tossed in some old pine needles and puffed the bellows the entire time, adding more needles until we had a good smoke going. I was pretty excited about the fact that I now have some use for all of the pine needles we have all over our front yard.


The reason the smoker calms the bees is that it triggers a response in them to start feeding on honey. When they eat the honey, their stomachs get full, making it much more difficult for them to sting. The smoke also helps to disguise certain pheromones that are released by bees guarding the hive. The smoker will be used when we open the hives to inspect them. Or for entertainment purposes by Anthony. As are all things.


Rick showed us some of his equipment and combs that had previously had bees in them.


Bottom board


Frame with foundation

Rick also showed us how to put our bees in the brood boxes for the first time. They will come in this box and will also come with a queen. We will spray the bees with some water (to lessen the chances of them flying away) and basically pour them out of this box into the brood boxes. Then we will put the Queen in the box with them and close it up for a few days. Then – you guessed it – about five days later we will take the smoker out and check on them, to make sure the Queen is laying eggs and that the comb is being constructed properly.


The box the bees come in


One other very important thing we learned about was making “Bee Food”, or a spring mix for them when they are first getting started. Bee food is basically a mixture of sugar and water that will get them started their first few weeks. The sugar mix is in these buckets and will be placed over the box for them to feed on like so.


We spent some time learning about all of the parts and pieces of a hive, or brood box. I was a hot mess when I went to pick all of our equipment prior to the class. I had no idea what a foundation was, or why I had to be careful when handling it prior to installing it in the frames, amongst many other confusing things. This is a great, basic diagram of the Langstroth hive, the type of hive that we will be using.

We reviewed all of this equipment and then put most of it together.


Frames prior to the foundation being added



And now, this is where we’re at.


We just need to finish painting the boxes and read everything else we can get our hands on. And wait until the end of April for the bees to arrive.

Farm Life

Beekeeping Part 1

As I mentioned a few posts ago, one of the things we are going to do in the spring is try our hands at beekeeping. I took a brief informational class at our local library last year to see if it was something I thought we could do and I was hooked. I know some people are grossed out by flying insects, or deathly afraid of them, as is the case with one of my good friends, but I am neither of those things. I’m actually afraid of losing them and would like there to be more of them. I’m sure you’ve heard about the disaster going on with the bees worldwide; you can read more about it here, here and here.
smoking bees lucky break acres

When I attended the class at the library, I was told the best way to learn about beekeeping was not only reading books and watching videos, but to find a mentor and other beekeepers to hang out with. So I started sporadically attending the Walworth County Beekeeping club. At that club I asked around about how to get started, they told me where to go and who to order my bees from, as well as how many to get.

bees on the frame lucky break acres

Order bees?  I guess I never thought I would be ordering them, though I’m not sure where I thought I would be getting them. Lassoing them in my yard? At the wild bee store? I was told it would be best to start out with two hives and to order two, 3 pound bags of bees. Each 3 pound bag is approximately 10,000 bees. Each bag also contains a queen. I ordered everything and checked out a few books at the library.

bees lucky break acres

I’m still reading up and much to my relief, one of the well-known beekeepers in our area – actually the man who taught the informational class at the library – is teaching a two-day beekeeping class in a few weeks. We signed up and he gave us a very detailed list of all of the equipment to order. We are picking everything up next week. Here’s what I ordered:

  • Hive Tool (for opening the hives. I’ll talk more about propolis later)
  • Smoker
  • Adorable Beekeeper Outfit (so, this is a stretch, but I did order the full body suit. I’m sure I will only use it once or twice, but I would rather be prepared, right?)
  • Leather gloves
  • Frames, Hive Boxes (or brood chambers), Supers (see diagram below)
  • Outer Covers, Inner Covers and Bottom Boards


I’m excited and a little bit scared, there is so much information to learn and any time I am responsible for a living thing, even if it’s just a flower, I’m worried about killing it. I’m sure it’s why my career as an EMT never came to fruition.

bees lucky break acres

Maybe you can follow along with us and decide to keep your own bees – many municipalities are passing ordinances allowing people in urban areas to have their own beehives in their backyards, regardless of size. I hope we can inspire you, even if it’s only planting a few bee-friendly flowers in your yard.