I had three hives in the back yard this year and not one of them wanted to go easy on me. One hive was purchased as a nucleus colony in May and built up rather quickly, then gave me my first 30 pounds of honey!
After we extracted that, I put the empty honeycomb back into the hive and they never really went back to it. So after a few weeks I moved it over onto the purple hive. The purple hive got off to a bad start. The queen bee that came with the package turned out to be a drone layer. I opened the hive one day and all I saw were lumpy honeycombs…all of the brood was drone brood, no worker bees were being made. That’s not good! Worker bees are what keep the hive going. They take care of the babies, they feed them, they forage for nectar and pollen, they make honey. Drones hang around and eat and wait for a chance to mate and then they die. I didn’t need thousands of those. So I had to locate the queen and kill her. Sadly I killed several queen bees this year. That first one, the drone layer, was replaced by a new queen bee that I bought from a beekeeper in Gurnee. Once she was introduced, that hive took off. It filled that honey super in a month or so and I took another 40 pounds of honey.
The middle hive, the blue one, went queenless just around the end of August. I kept giving them new frames of eggs from another hive so they could make their own queen, and nothing was happening. As the end of summer approached, I decided to buy another queen from the beekeeper in Gurnee. I took a day off of work and drove to and from Gurnee, about 5 hours of the day gone, and then went home to go through that blue hive to remove any queen cells that had been made. And there were a lot of them. In fact two of them HATCHED while I was going trhough that hive and I had to kill those two queens. They were unmated and it would have taken too long to wait for them to go on a mating flight and begin to lay eggs before the end of the season. So I went through frame by frame making sure there were no other queens in that hive before I introduced the new one I had just paid $42 for. When I was sure there were no others, I put the new queen in and closed the hive. Three days later I opened it back up to see if there was any progress and…
I was out $42. It appeared as though I had overlooked one of the queens that the hive had reared itself, so she found and killed my newly purchased queen, and was now wandering around the hive not laying eggs because she hadn’t gone on a mating flight. I decided to leave her be for now and see how much she could build up the hive before the end of the season.
Last week I went through my hives and determined that the blue hive wasn’t going to make it through the winter. It didn’t have enough honey and pollen, it didn’t have enough bees. I started to prepare to merge blue hive and nucleus hive together. When the day came to combine the hives, I found the queen bee that wasted my $42 queen and I squished her. She didn’t do a good job of building up the hive. I took all of the bees and the 10 best frames of honey from that hive and placed them on top of a stronger hive with a single sheet of newspaper between them. Three days later, the bees had eaten through the paper and had merged into one strong hive. Now there are two hives in the back yard that I need to winterize.
It’s been a challenging summer for sure, but I learned a lot of new techniques and am planning on adding two more hives next spring, only in Manhattan in my sister’s yard. She lives on 5 acres and all of her neighbors have large yards with plenty of dandelion and clover for foraging.
I’ve managed to sell a lot of honey and other items made with honey and beeswax (soap, lip balm and dog treats) and have raised money towards adding new hives in the spring. Thanks to all of my neighbors and everyone who bought something from us this year, you’ve all made maintaining this hobby possible!
When I started raising bees, I received a lot of questions from people who know me about WHEN the honey will be available for sale. I mean a LOT. I had no idea how many people want to buy local honey. My main problem has been I haven’t been able to produce as much honey as I need to make all of those people happy. I’m trying though!
After I extracted the first honey from my hives in the spring, I was left with a chunk of wax about the size of a large bar of soap. I could have probably made a candle out of it and then burned it, but instead I melted it down, added some oils and honey, poured it into tubes and made lip balm! I’ve been using it for the last few months (as have my neighbors and friends) and I have to say, this stuff is pretty great. There are no chemicals or preservatives that will dry your skin (to make you need to buy more lip balm) and I’ve found that I use this lip balm less often than I would use the store bought kinds. It just works better!
Besides the lip balm, I wanted to use some of the honey for something I’ve been wanting to try for a while…soap. I started reading about cold process soap making a few months ago and finally had all of the components I needed to make my first batch. I used honey from the hives and made some Milk & Honey and Oatmeal soap (again with all natural ingredients) and last night I made some Pumpkin Spice soap. There are about 50 bars of soap on a rack downstairs curing, but I’ve used a few small pieces and it is nice and sudsy and it smells great…my whole house smells like Milk & Honey & Oatmeal soap.
Being that Molly’s Bees is centered around Molly, a dog, I started thinking maybe I could use some of the products from the beehives to do something good for dogs. I follow a local shelter on Facebook called Tender Loving Care (TLC) animal shelter in Homer Glen, my hometown. They rescue animals from high kill shelters and bring them to Illinois to find homes, and every week they post the most adorable photos of dogs and cats (and sometimes rabbits and guinea pigs) and every week I want to go adopt one or two of them. I contacted the shelter through their facebook page a couple of weeks ago and asked if it would be ok with them if I began selling some of these soaps and lip balms and donating a percentage of the profits to the shelter, to which they replied “That’s a great idea!” Now all I have to do is start selling stuff! I’m getting some applications together for craft fairs and farmers markets for the next couple of months, and I’ll add the items to the Molly’s Bees Etsy shop as well. Besides the soaps and lotions and lip balms, I’ve decided to put together some other dog related items for dog lovers out there to help maximize the opportunity for the shelter to make some money off of me 🙂 I’ve been producing some leash holder/treat jar combos and am also thinking about producing the actual treats to go into the treat jars as well. I baked a batch of honey-peanut butter-pumpkin dog bones the other night and Molly couldn’t get enough of them.
If you’re interested at all in purchasing any of the items we’ll have available, stay tuned for another post here or on Facebook where I’ll let everyone know how/when and where to buy!
Everything was going well. The weather was getting warmer, my bees were collecting pollen and raising brood. It was early April and I was doing a hive inspection. Everything looked great! My bees survived the winter and were starting their second year off by building up the hive. The population wasn’t as large as it had been the previous summer, but that happens over the winter. Some colonies are a little slower to build up than others. I closed up the hive, took notes in my beekeeper log noting that everything looked good, and went on with life for another week.
The following week I had noticed there wasn’t as much activity around the hive as there normally was. One or two bees would fly off here and there, and I noticed several dead bees being tossed out of the hive. So I opened the lid. Ants. Giant black ants were all over the inner cover. Hundreds of them. In a panic, I tossed all of the ants on the inner cover out into the grass and started going frame by frame through the hive to eliminate as many as I could see. I brought a new box and bottom board out and transferred every single frame into a new hive. I contacted several other local beekeepers after I couldn’t find a way to keep the ants from trying to get back into the hive. I tried every single thing I could find online to repel ants or kill them without harming the bees…and my last resort was building a new hive stand out of whatever scrap wood I could find that had buckets of water around each leg so the ants would drown before they could reach the hive. So that worked.
The damage from the ants was pretty terrible. They had gotten to the honey, to the brood and eggs. There was a lot of dead brood, and eggs were tossed out of the comb onto the bottom of the hive. Hoping they would be able to recover, I closed up the new hive and kept an eye on things every day that week. And then Mother Nature stepped in. The temperature dropped drastically over the next few days and the small colony was not big enough to stay warm. More bees were dying. By the end of that week I looked into the hive and saw a handful of bees left. I couldn’t let them die though. How unfair that they had survived the whole winter, only to be wiped out by ants and some bad weather in April?!
I found the box that the colony had originally arrived in last Summer and put every single living bee I could find back into that box, and luckily the queen was still among them. I brought them into my house and put them in my laundry room for the night so I could figure out what I could possibly do next. And then I realized I couldn’t do anything. That was my only colony and I had no other bees to add to the hive to help keep them warm, I had no frames of brood to help them grow in numbers…so I contacted one of the beekeepers I met who lives nearby. He said he could take the queen and her remaining bees and start a new colony. So the following day, I drove the Ant Queen and her workers to Naperville and they were dropped into a new hive with more bees and eggs.
Two whole days went by between that day and the day I could pick up the new packages of bees that I had ordered in January. Those were two of the most depressing days as a beekeeper for me. Everything was gone.
I learned a few important lessons from those ants. Number one, I learned how to prevent them from getting into the hives. Number two, I learned how to kill them fast without using any chemicals (boiling hot water and dish soap dumped right over their little ant heads) and number three, I learned that I need more than one hive going at a time in case something like this happens again. So now I have three. It’s a little more work but it’s already paid off BIG TIME since I started up again May 1. I’ve had one hive kill their queen and make their own new one, I’ve had to kill one of the queens myself because it was only laying drone eggs and not workers (and I had to spend $42 to buy a new queen when they wouldn’t raise their own from new eggs). But right now, at this very moment, all three hives are doing well. They’re building up their numbers and bringing in pollen and nectar to make honey. And they’re all on a hive stand that has buckets of water around each leg to keep an ant invasion from ever happening again.
My bees moved into their home in my backyard in May, and for the most part, it was an uneventful summer and fall. They managed to produce about 120 pounds of honey, all of which was left inside the hive for them to eat during the winter. I even made a giant sugar block and put it on top on the frames inside the hive in case they ate all of the honey and still needed something to eat. I wrapped the hive in roofing paper to help keep the temperature a little higher inside, and I stacked pine branches and discarded Christmas trees on the sides as a wind break.
The days in November and December, for the most part, were warmer than I thought they would be, and then in January it got COLD. It’s been so cold a couple of days that when I go outside and take a breath, I can feel everything from my nostrils to my throat to my entire esophagus flash freeze. It hurts to breathe air out there. If you’re not wearing layers of clothes and gloves and a hat, you’re going to freeze your butt off. It was days like that that had me walking out to the hive to knock on the side to see if I could hear my bees. And I couldn’t. So I ordered a stethoscope because I thought that would help me hear them when I knocked on the side. And it didn’t. I have been walking to the windows on the hive side of the house just to see if I see any activity. Once or twice I’ve caught a glimpse of a bee flying out to what I’m assuming is it’s certain death. Bees can’t fly unless it’s above 40 degrees, and it’s been nowhere near 40 degrees lately. Once every couple of days, I’ll go out there and see a couple of dead bees on the hive’s front porch. That, oddly enough, makes me feel a little bit better. At least I know there are still some healthy bees inside and they’re cleaning house, tossing the dead bodies out the door so they don’t have to look at them.
On the first day of bee school over the summer, Jim the instructor asked each of the students what their goal was related to this class. What did we all want to get out of it? Some people wanted to learn how to identify diseases, some wanted to learn how to get the bees to produce more honey…I told him I wanted to learn how to take care of these bees so that they would survive. Overwintering is a big part of that. My two biggest fears are that they will starve to death or they will freeze to death. I’ve managed to partially alleviate my fear of them starving, but I have no control over the weather.