About Beanstalk Honey

Beanstalk Honey produces and sells varietal and flavoured honey.

Hello Spring?

I’m sure most of you have noticed, but we have a lot of snow still! It’s still knee deep out in the beeyard. Not only that, but the weather hasn’t warmed up enough for the bees to fly. The willows have been out for a week now, but the weather hasn’t been warm enough for the bees to be collecting the willow pollen yet. We try to do our beekeeping with as few inputs as possible, in other words, we don’t usually supplement our bees with pollen replacements and sugar syrup. However, the winter has been so long and the weather is looking so drab for the next while that I’m seriously considering it.

This time of year it’s really easy to lose hives. Individual bees raised in the fall have been alive all winter, and that’s a long time for an individual bee to live (winter bees tend to live around  seven months; summer bees live for only a few weeks). Starting around now, the winter bees need to be raising lots of young ones to replace themselves. To do that they need pollen, which is what the larva are fed. Hopefully they packed enough away in the fall, and hopefully events coincide in the spring so they are able to fly out and collect willow pollen. A lot of beekeepers feed pollen substitutes around now to help them raise brood, but the best pollen they can get is the fresh stuff off the willow bushes. So that’s why the weather needs to be nice! If they don’t have pollen, they can’t raise much brood. Without raising enough brood right now, the hive can dwindle away as all the bees that hatched in the fall die of old age.

In addition, to stay alive bees need to eat honey or sugar syrup. We feed them lots of sugar syrup in the fall and that needs to last them all winter and into the spring, until a new nectar flow starts. (We feed them sugar syrup because sometimes bees don’t overwinter very well on honey- it can mess with their digestive tracts, and during long periods of confinement during our cold winters, we don’t want them having digestive tract issues. Most beekeepers feed sugar syrup because bees can digest it with fewer waste products so they don’t need to defecate as often.) A hive in the fall that’s full of sugar syrup can weigh around 120lbs or more. That’s how much food a hive will go through over the course of the winter and if they run out the bees simply starve to death. By this time of year, regardless of how much we fed them in the fall, they’re starting to get low. I have my fingers crossed my bees have enough food to get them through until the weather warms up.

Which brings me to why it’s so important that we be breeding our own bees. Bees that are well adapted to our climate tend to overwinter in smaller clusters and then build up their population very quickly in the spring. This means that in long winters such as this one, they have a better chance of making it because there haven’t been as many bees to feed all winter long. They are less likely to have run out of food by now because their population was smaller all winter. The best way to get locally adapted bee stock is to raise your own queens for a few years. Breed from the hives that have made it through the winter and over time you’ll naturally end up with bees that do well surviving our winters.

I’ll keep you posted on how my hives do!

Queen Breeding and Nuc Building

While the dandelions were blooming I was building new hives, called nucs, from my full-sized ones. I don’t have many hives this year and building nucs is a way of increasing hive numbers. Increasing involves two distinct procedures. As we know, in order for a hive to thrive it needs two basic thing: lots of bees of different ages and a laying queen. So when we’re increasing our number of hives, we need to concentrate on these two things. Firstly, we need to build nucs, which means populating an empty box with lots of bees and frames of brood to achieve the requirement of having a  lot of bees of different ages. Secondly, we need to graft, or breed, queens. These steps occur simultaneously and need to be carefully timed so everything comes together in the end, with the result being a happy new hive. The rest of this post will give a brief overview on how to graft queens and how to build nucs.

When making new hives, about a week before the nucs are built the queens need to be grafted. This is a rather complicated procedure that some other website will explain better than I could. But basically, I transfered barely visible larva from a frame of brood into plastic queen cups and placed them in a swarm box, a box stuffed full of bees. After 24 hours I transferred them into the upper brood chamber of a strong hive in my apiary. I first made sure that hive’s queen was trapped in the bottom box with a queen excluder so she wouldn’t get into the queen cells and destroy them. The queen cells mature for ten days in this hive, after which time I placed them in the nucs to hatch. This is a photo of the frame of drawn-out queen cells after ten days. The cells are hanging from the bottom two bars; the top two bars were empty space for the bees to put wax in. A caveat: this is the first year I’ve bred queens and the cells don’t look the greatest!

This is the specialized frame for breeding queens. Each cell on the bottom will hatch a queen. There is too much wax on all the cells.

At the time this photo was taken, I’d already put the best cells into nucs. The rest, the ones you see here, were covered with too much wax. I think the  mistake came when I put a box of foundation above the box containing this frame so the wax bees were concentrated in the area and got carried away drawing out wax.

Putting the queen cells in the nucs. Two or three queen cells are placed in the nucs in case one fails.

Now let’s back up a minute and I’ll show how the nucs are built. Two days before I put  the queen cells in, I selected frames of brood from my hives and put two or three frames of brood into four frame nuc boxes. I also put in one or two frames of honey and pollen.

Here I’m going through the bottom brood chamber of one of my over-wintered hives selecting frames of brood to place into the nucs. The nuc is on the far left, the red box.

Completed Nuc

A completed nuc. This four-frame nuc is in a standard sized box that I divided with a sheet of melamine so I could fit two nucs in one box. I used a feed bag as an inner cover to minimize the chance of a queen from one side getting into the other side. With the feed bag I can also open one nuc without bothering the other one.

This is my other type of nuc box. It’s a standard sized box cut in half. The advantage of this kind is there’s no chance of the queens mixing and killing each other and they’re easy to move around because they’re tiny. But they are specialized equipment: they can’t be used for anything else but nucs.

I checked the nucs yesterday and they all have eggs in them now. This means the queen cells have hatched, the virgin queens were successfully mated and they made it back to the hives to begin laying.

So there you have it, a crash-course in queen breeding and nuc building. There are lots of other places on the internet that provide more information if you’re interested in learning to do this too.

Those Stinkin’ Skunks

As I mentioned previously, a skunk has been visiting my apiary at North Cooking Lake for the past few months. I’ve trapped two skunks so hopefully my yard is now skunk-free.

I first noticed them back in late winter. There were small tracks in the snow around the hives. I knew there was a fox around so I assumed they were small fox tracks (oh, I should have looked more closely!). But then one evening I wandered by the beeyard and interrupted a skunk at one of the hives! I realized I had been seeing skunk tracks, not small fox tracks! They’ve been pestering four hives in particular and the attitude of the bees have changed dramatically.  The skunks keep knocking off my entrance reducers, which is how I can tell which hives they are visiting and how frequently, and eating the bees when they come out to defend their hive. Now when I go near these hives or open them up, the bees are very aggressive and attacking me much more than the other hives. The skunks have got to go!

But how does one get rid of skunks in a beeyard? I’ve been trapping them and releasing them far away my farm in an area far from any other houses. I have a lot of experience with small mammel trapping so I’m quite comfortable with this method. So far I’ve trapped two and neither has sprayed while in the trap nor while being released. Other techniques I’ve heard for getting rid of skunks:

-electric fencing strung about three inches off the ground around the bee yard.

-wood frames covered with chicken wire placed in front of each hive. The idea is that the skunk can’t walk on the chicken wire. A similar idea to texas gates for cattle. I’m going to try this if I have more than two skunks.

-CritterGitters. A battery-operated device that emits an obnoxious noise when an animal’s movement or heat activates it. I haven’t tried this but if I have anymore skunks I’m going to get one of these too.

-Shoot it. This is the default option everyone immediatly suggests when they hear I have a skunk. However, it’s more difficult than it sounds! Apparently they stink like crazy if you don’t instantly kill them and I don’t want my beeyard stinking for years. And how am I supposed to find and shoot a skunk outside of my beeyard? And I don’t want to kill the skunk, I just want it out of my beeyard.

-Strichnine. Really??!! I read Robyn Davidson’s book Tracks a number of years ago and believe me, anyone who has made it to the end of that book will never in a million years consider using strichnine. It’s a horrible way to die, not to mention that’s it’s also an illegal substance.

And those are all the suggestions I’ve had for getting rid of skunks. Trapping is working for me but it’s a bit time consuming. It’s taken me about twleve nights of setting traps to catch two skunks. Both have taken a really long time to leave the trap when I’ve released them. I think they’d rather stay holed up in the trap for the day (because they’re nocturnal) than venture out into broad daylight in a strange area. It’s taken them each 1.5-2 hours to leave the trap once I’ve opened the door. So I think a combination of methods is best- put out chicken wire frames and trap them? If trapping doesn’t work or you can’t find a trap to use, try critter gitters. The nice thing about the traps is the skunk is gone once you get it, as opposed to being deterred but still around for when the frames or critter gitters are removed.

The bees are flying!

This time of year I’m answering lots of questions about how the bees did over the winter. The answer:  overall, from what I’ve been hearing from other beekeepers, the mild was winter was good for Alberta bees. At our apiaries we had very, very few losses- less than 3%! The bees have already been collecting pollen for a couple of weeks now and we’re going to unwrap them soon. We’re looking forward to a great year of healthy bees and honey production. I’m excited to be able to offer our dandelion honey in late June; we’ve been sold out of it since December but people still ask for it every week. And by July we’ll have our much-loved wildflower too.  This summer, there will also be a new face at our stall: Becky, my sister, will be working the stall while Dan and myself are out with the bees. So say Hi to her when you see her!

One more update from the beeyards: unfortunately, I have a skunk eating bees out of my apiary.  We’ll be trapping it this weekend. Skunks can be big pests around beehives. They scratch at the front of the hive and when the bees come out to defend themselves they get caught in the skunk’s fur. The skunk then picks them out and eats them, slowly de-populating the whole hive this way. So we have decided the suspiciously rotund skunk marauding the bee yard has to be relocated somewhere else before it becomes a skunk family.

In the field with the bees

Here are some photos from the summer of taking care of bees.  They’re taken at the apiary of Bear Creek Honey, not my own apiary at The Beanstalk.

First we check the frames of honey to make sure they're ready to be taken away for extraction..

Then we blow the bees off with a reverse-vacuum cleaner thing, creatively called a "bee blower."

Blowing bees was mostly my job because there is no heavy lifting. On occassion, I may have fallen asleep while blowing bees. It gets a bit repetitive.

Then we take the bee-less boxes of honey and stack them on the truck, ready to be hauled off to the extracting room.

Watch out for crawling bees! The blown-off bees land on the ground and crawl back to their hive if they don't feel like flying. They like to crawl up, so if they met my boots, up they crawled. Apparently duct tape is key to making sure they bees can't crawl under the coverall cuffs. Alternatively, tucking the coveralls into the boots works too; bees don't like crawling down.

Check out the native bumblebee nest! See the honey pots in the center bottom? The bubble-looking cells are developing baby bees.

Robbing Bees

The work is finally wrapping up for the season! I’ve fed my bees sugar syrup to get them through the winter but with the warm weather they’re out flying around, robbing anything with even a trace of sugar or honey on it. In the fall, there are lots of worker bees who want to collect nectar but there is no nectar for them to collect. Instead, they steal honey or sugar from anywhere they can get it. That means they’re sneaking into my extracting room to take honey from the honey boxes I’ve taken off their hive. Once in there, they get disoriented and can’t get out again.  They’ve been clustering on the top of my window overnight and in the morning I knock them into a bucket and take them out. I’ve only had to do it twice, but even that is too much. Robbing bees spread diseases and once they get robbing they are more likely to rob out neighbouring hives, which can devastate that hive’s ability to overwinter. So next year the top item I need is a 100% bee-proof extracting room.

On another note, thanks to the folks who came out and helped harvest potatoes! I have lots of beautiful potatoes available now, so contact me if you would like to stock up on your winter supply. I’m selling them unwashed to maximize storage life (but they’re just dusty rather than dirty so they’ll be easy to wash), and I would prefer to sell in 25 lb or larger quantities but I can do smaller as well. So contact me if you’re interested.

And I’m still selling honey at Salisbury Farmer’s Market. On October 6th the market moves inside the greenhouse for the winter and I’m looking forward to see how the indoor market compares to being outside!

I’m also still working on the little cabin… I spoiled myself by buying a beautiful soapstone stove to heat it over the winter. And I managed to get my paws on some 1″ limestone flooring to use as my hearth! I’m really excited to install it and I’ll post photos once it’s in.

Salisbury Market

In my ongoing quest for a simple, effective way to connect to members of the public, I am now a regular attendee of the Salisbury Farmer’s Market! I discovered this market three weeks ago and I’m really happy with it. If you’ve never been, there is a lovely array of vendors, from people selling fresh cream and other dairy products (the line-up is always amazing at their stall) to baked goods, vegetables and meats. This week I traded honey for strawberries from another vendor and they are The Best strawberries I have ever tasted. If you haven’t been to this market, you really ought to go check it out. It’s small and laid back and the vendors are all top-notch.

Best of all, it’s where you can find me peddling my wares!

Salisbury Market Stall

Salisbury Farmer's Market, every Thursday from 4:30 to 8 pm, year round and Salisbury Greenhouse in Sherwood Park.

Presentation on the weekend & the birds return

We’re well into spring now, with the rain this week! So far I’ve planted carrots,  beans, potatoes, three types of swiss chard, five types of peas, four types of specialty beets and two types of spinach. I’m excited to see what the beets look like when they’re beautifully bunched together. I planted most things last week and then we were all sitting waiting for some moisture.

A big thanks to the folks who came out and helped plant potatoes! It would have taken ages if I were out there on my own.

Yesterday I planted a cover crop of buckwheat, wheat and rye. The rye should keep the weeds suppressed (and hopefully will not become a weed itself), as should the wheat. The buckwheat will add lots of organic matter to the soil when I till it in. I’m also hoping it will be flowering at a time when not many other plants are flowering (mid-late July) so I’ll be able to get some buckwheat honey.

Other recent news: I now have five new bee hives! If all continues to go well I should have plenty of honey for the Terwillegar market this summer.

And there are more birds arriving by the day. So far there is a pair of American Kestrels setting up a summer home in an old woodpecker nest in a dead poplar tree. Some people might dislike standing dead trees, but if it means I get a first hand look at a breeding pair of kestrels out of my cabin’s loft window I’m all for them.

There is also a gang of yellow-bellied sapsuckers claiming the yard as their territory. One male drums all morning on an old chimney pipe (he’s the loudest) and the other drums on the powerpole twenty feet away. They’ve taken turns chasing at least one female, who mews like a sick cat. Between them and all the other birds, the yard is a pretty exciting place to be these days.

The only unwelcome visitors are the mice! I think it was an ideal winter for mice, what with all the snow, and there are more mice out there than I could have imagined possible. One ate all but two of my melons yesterday. Yes, I was growing melons. They were happy little plants but a mouse came along and ate off all their leaves so now they’re just stubs sticking out of the potting soil. I’ll keep the two or three I still have and maybe I’ll start more but probably not because it’s getting a bit late for melons.

The biggest (most intimidating?) news for this week is that I’ll be giving a talk for the South Edmonton Vegetarian & Gardening Club on the weekend about the contents of the Canadian organic standards and what we could ask farmers at farmers markets about how they grow their food. I’m doing it without powerpoint, in a workshop style format, which is a new style of presenting for me so I hope it goes okay!

If you’re planning on coming, please think about what prompts you to buy food from farmer’s markets. Between all of us, I’m sure there are a million reasons, which we will be brainstorming at the beginning of the talk/workshop. You can find more info here.