honey bees

Wildflowers – There Is More To It Than Pretty Blooms

Recently, in a group I belong to on Facebook for beekeepers, someone posted a business card with wildflower seed mixture packet attached in the shape of a bee that a company was handing out. It was pretty clever and cute marketing. Then I got to thinking…what is really in that little bee shaped seed packet and how far is it traveling?

Planting pollinator friendly flowers, shrubs, and trees is blowing up everyone’s social media feeds, yet there is a little more to planting pollinator friendly habitat than one would think.

The original reason I didn’t fully agree with the company’s creative marketing tactic was because business cards travel. Our business cards end up all over the United States, and even the world. We hand them out to people at all sorts of events, mail them in packages, place them with donations, etc. Can you imagine if I planted seeds that originated from another country in the United States, not knowing I had inadvertently brought in a non-native species that isn’t considered a flower here? You are supposed to declare any seeds, soils, etc. going through customs and they should get confiscated as part of the process, but a business card with a seed packet packed away is definitely easy to forget. Minnesota is currently battling palmer amaranth that was brought in through a pollinator friendly planting. I would hate to be that person that planted seeds from a company not knowing that it wasn’t clean seed.

Then I got to thinking about it a bit more. Think about what is really native in terms of wildflowers to the area you live in. For me, it is much different from certain elevations or from one part of the state to the next. If I truly wanted to invest in a pollinator friendly habitat, I would work to find species that were both pollinator friendly and native to my area, as well as hardy for my growing zone. Many gardening centers now specialize in this type of landscaping. When the 30 acres that some of our hives are on was converted to RIM ground, we were able to choose a pollinator friendly habitat mix from the DNR that was specialized for our area. It also made me realize the importance of sourcing seed from my area too. If you are in Minnesota, I highly recommend Albert Lea Seed House for specialized seed mixtures native to Minnesota or working with a local company that specializes in native plantings such as Blazing Star Gardens. We’ve realized the importance of utilizing seed that has inherent genetics to thrive in our area. New research also shows that honey bees prefer blooms in rural areas versus urban areas, so finding out blooms native to your area seems to have increasing importance.

Our hives out on an area that was planted in specific wildflower habitat for our area.

An important and specific item to honey bee health, is understanding the difference between nectar and pollen. Some flowers, vegetables, fruits, trees, and shrubs, require pollination which happens when a bee visits various blooms and transports the pollen on their legs from bloom to bloom. When bees are seeking out blooms to feed off of, they are collecting the nectar to produce honey. Plants vary in the amount of nectar they produce, so it is important to offer a wide variety of nectar producing plants throughout the growing season. Just planting a wildflower mixture, may not actually produce the amounts of nectar that bees need or when they need it most.

Most recently General Mills has been in the news, for giving away wildflower packets of seeds in their #bringbackthebees campaign. Others have posted about whether or not bees are really declining, or ulterior marketing motives, but I’m not really concerned with that. I’m concerned with what happens when a flower such as baby’s breath which is considered a weed in some areas that may be in the packet of flowers, grows in areas where it shouldn’t be planted, and what that can do to other crops or actual native species that are planted.

I love flowers, don’t get me wrong – but planting wildflowers is a little trickier as not everything is native, not everything thrives, and not everything is necessarily even considered a flower depending on your location in the country. The true definition of a weed is a plant out of place.

There are many plants you can plant to help pollinators that will last for the summer in your gardens or flower pots, which you wouldn’t have to worry about coming up every year or potentially spreading and becoming a weed. Flowers like zinnias, cosmos, and marigolds are all simple flowers you could plant around your house and garden instead. When truly establishing a wildflower or native flower area for pollinators, it is best to work with a local source who understands the intricacies of the ecosystem you are planning for.

-Sara

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Getting ready for spring and honey bee arrival!

We are busy expanding our honey bee operation from two hives to twelve this year. We have purchased 2 separate kinds of bees – Russian and Italian. Our Russian bees are going up on a piece of land where they will help pollinate melon fields which we are pretty excited about! I am eager to find out what their honey will taste like. Our Italians will be going out on the same piece of land our other 2 hives are currently on.

Our Russian bees are being shipped to us, and we were lucky enough to find a local supplier for our Italian bees this year. It makes it a much shorter trip when we only have to drive 30 minutes instead of 5 hours to get our bees! They are set to arrive in the first 2 weeks of May.

So that means we have been busy ordering supplies from Mann Lake Limited in preparation for our bees arrival. It hasn’t been uncommon to come home to shipments like this sitting at my garage every week.

Honey bee supplies sitting and waiting to be put together!

Honey bee supplies sitting and waiting to be put together!

We decided to purchase unpainted hive bodies this year – you will soon find out why – so they are sitting waiting to be painted. Although we might have to paint and then stencil/repaint designs depending on when our next idea launches and we can get things in the works.

Just waiting to be painted

Just waiting to be painted!

Hopefully we will be all set for our new bees to arrive. We have our pollen patties and feeders ready to go. We still have to purchase our sugar. I’m fairly positive the checkers at the grocery store always look at me like I’m crazy when I have a shopping cart with about 50 lbs of sugar and that is it! Our suits are hanging up and ready. We are excited to expand and bring local honey to the area. Our first round of honey should be here in late August for purchase!

We’ve also been busy trying our hand at our first batch of honey mead!

transitioning the 2 week fermented mead to the carboy where it will ferment for about the next 6 months

transitioning the 2 week fermented mead to the carboy where it will ferment for about the next 6 months.

Honey mead takes a long time to ferment – 6 months at least! So we won’t have any ready until around late August or September for us to try. I’m just hoping it tastes good. ;)

It was an interesting process siphoning it, mixing in the yeast, watching the fermentation process, etc. We actually purchased all of our mead making supplies from a local craft brewing supply store in Faribault called Know-How Brews & Foods. They have very friendly and knowledgeable staff. If you are interested in trying some craft brewing of your own, they have simple beer and wine kits you can purchase! Some which have been developed locally in Faribault and Northfield! They are located right in downtown Faribault, so I encourage you to stop in and check them out.

Needless to say, we will have a busy spring with planting, honey bees and a new baby in the mix!

-Sara 

What do Honey Bees do During the Winter?

We get a lot of questions about what we do with our honey bees during the winter. We aren’t a big enough operator to send hives south for pollination purposes.

In the fall when the weather starts getting colder, we winterize our bees. This involves placing an insulator kit around each hive. The kit is black to help absorb sunlight to keep the hives warm throughout the winter. However, the bee breeds we purchase are known for their hardiness in northern climates, so that is part of their winter survival as well.

Winterizing bee hives in the fall of 2014

Winterizing bee hives in the fall of 2014

This is what our hives look like after their insulator kit has bee placed on them. Each hive also gets a moisture board placed inside to absorb excess moisture that might build up in the hive.  We don’t open the hives during the winter as this could cause the bees to die due to the cold and moisture. Our bees also get medication before the winter. Bees are highly susceptible to viruses and mites. Typically, a wild bee will join your hive at one point or another and they carry diseases as well as mites. Picture a mite like a tick on your body that you can’t remove. This is what happens to bees. The medication we use helps not only treat these issues, but prevent them as well. In 2015, we are looking at purchasing a different breed of bees that are known for grooming each other so they pick off the mites on each other.

So far this winter has been pretty mild for our bees. Although the bee breeds we purchase are hardy for Minnesota, repeated negative temperatures can be tough on the bees. Bees don’t quite hibernate like many think, but it is kind of similar. The worker bees will essentially beat their wings enough to keep the Queen alive through the winter. Some bee keepers may place their hives in a shed over the winter, where others, insulate them like we do.

As the days begin to get warmer, the bees will start to slowly emerge and become more active. This is when we start to check hives more. We watch the weather forecasts and then will remove the insulators. The bees themselves know when they should start foraging for pollen and that the weather is better, kind of like when we know it is safe to go out with just a sweatshirt on and not our down filled winter coat.

We hope you enjoyed the glimpse into what our bees do during the winter, and don’t forget to visit the Sweet Cheeks Honey website for additional information about our bees, and upcoming news!

-Sara 

Why Bees Are Dying. It is More Complicated Than You Think & No, It Isn’t Monsanto’s Fault.

My Facebook newsfeed is full of well-intentioned people posting about Monsanto’s latest news piece from Mexico and the bees, but fail to actually read it or understand the issues that someone raising bees are actually concerned with. It was all about Round-Up aka glyphosate (a weed killer not a neonicotinoid) and the banning of Round-Up ready soybeans to protect the bees.

I finally made a Facebook post about it because I was so frustrated. I am going to go into a little more detail about that post here.

  • First of all, soybeans are a self pollinating plant. You don’t need honey bees to pollinate soybeans. However, that doesn’t mean that honeybees do not visit soybeans, because they do. Soybeans are a flowering plant, however it isn’t known how honeybees visiting soybeans affect yields. Research is currently being done on this.
  • Second, Round-Up, aka Glyphosate, sold by many, many chemical companies out there not just Monsanto is a weed killer, not in the class of neonicotinoid’s that bee keepers are worried about. That being said, typically glyphosate is applied in early spring before weed emergence, long before bees are out in full force. And let’s face it, soap and water can kill bees too. Many farmers, including us, are transitioning away from glyphosate due to weed resistance. In fact, we didn’t use it at all this year. Glyphosate is the last thing I’m worried about as farmer hurting bees. That is like worrying about my bees getting caught out in a rain storm. The modern and large-scale use of glyphosate is more common in your neighbor’s backyard to kill weeds on their patio.
  • Third, neonicotinoids are what bee keepers are worried about. The studies are inconclusive. Largely inconclusive. Mark and I have sat in and listened to some of the greats like Dr. Spivak talk all about this. There are a few things you need to know about neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are used as a seed treatment in modern agriculture, meaning the seed has a coating that has it in it and helps protect the plant while it is growing from munchers like aphids, beetles and other insects. The concern with them is the dust that can happen during planting. However, new technology involving planters as well as new seed lubricants eliminate that dust by up to 90%. Neonicotinoid’s don’t actually kill the bees. They make a bee, essentially drunk. Think of the last time you had a few too many beers. Standing and forming complete sentences was a tad difficult yes? Since bees have to go much further than ever before to find nectar due to habitat loss, when they are essentially “drunk” they may not always find it back to the hive, and then die or when they do find their way back to the hive, their pollen is no longer good.
  • Fourth, we have been losing bees since WW2. Long before any types of these crop protectants were used in agriculture. Remember too that a bee’s lifespan is measured in weeks. They don’t live very long in general, but multiply quickly.
  • Fifth, one of the major issues (larger than neonicotinoids) are mites. This is our number one killer of bees. Mites are nasty little parasites that operate much like a tick, except for bees. They can quickly destroy an entire colony, and this is a major issue we deal with. We actually have to medicate our bees during the fall, before wintering them, in order to protect them. Most bee keepers medicate their bees due to mites.
  • Sixth, another major issue (often larger than neonicotinoids as well) is habitat loss. This is a big deal. Which is also another reason why we believe strongly in CRP and RIM land here at Hewitt Farms. We often put more land into CRP and RIM because we believe in restoring habitats for wildlife, bees included. Our bees are out on a piece of 20 acres of RIM land, that bumps up into CRP. We planted the RIM land in a clover and wildflower mixture specifically for the bees. Farmers are not the only ones who may have contributed to habitat loss through increased planting of corn, soybeans and wheat, the general public has also contributed. From tearing up fields to build new subdivisions, to paving new roads or building a school on outskirts of town in what was once prairie. All of this has contributed. So how can you help and move forward? Plant bee friendly flowers. Consider planting a whole flower bed in bee friendly flowers. Consider turning your front lawn or back yard into a bee friendly prairie. Try planting an apple tree or two. Plant a few hardy blueberry bushes. All of these things will help with bee habitat. You are going to start to see farmers changing what they are planting here because of crop prices, which is a good thing, as it will bring additional crops into the mix for bees.
  • Seventh, bee keeping is a business. Bee keepers don’t just keep bees for the fun of it. They recoup through shipping them for pollination and making honey or using the beeswax. This all causes stress to the bees. Hives aren’t just left to their own accord. I know of bee keepers that ship their bees from Minnesota down to Texas or California. This puts stress on the hives and can bring other diseases into your hives too. Every time you open a hive to take out a super or to check on the comb, it can cause stress on the hive. Yet, you have to do this because it is a business. You aren’t just going to keep bees to keep bees. You use the products they create: the comb and honey, as well as the pollination they do. There are a lot of steps you have to follow when taking care of a bee hive.

So what can farmers do? We can easily make sure we are spraying early enough in the spring when bees are not out in full force. However, this is completely weather dependent. We can focus on seed treatments rather than sprays. We can look at alternative crops to try. Some Minnesota hardy crops we can try are pumpkins, cherry trees, apple trees, and blueberries. I know that Mark and I are both interested in trying pumpkins in the future on our farm.  But anyone can consider planting more of these around their garden or home. Think of a hedge of blueberry bushes at the end of your property! You can help pollinators and have delicious blueberries! We actually planted a cold-hardy blueberry bush this year at our home. Maybe you are interested in having a bee hive out on your property. We are always looking for additional places to put our hives, so if you have a piece of land you think we should check out to place a hive on, let us know!

Checking the hives and removing a pollen patty, a feed we give to the bees.

Checking the hives and removing a pollen patty, a feed we give to the bees.

It is important not to blame this on one company. It is important to think of what we can all do going forward. Stopping the blame game and realizing we all play a part in it and are all at fault is also important. There are things we can control like I mentioned above, but there are some things we can only combat like mites and viruses our bees pick up. If you have questions about our bees, and what we are doing, please don’t hesitate to ask at any time!

-Sara

Our New Adventure in Honey Bees!

People have asked me why we decided to get started in honey bees. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure either of us really know why. We were just interested in them and it gave us a foot in with diversifying our farm, but not needing additional land or a large amount of capital to do so.

We got this idea in our head last year to  raise honey bees. My family had honey bees for a long time, so it was something I was semi-familiar with, but had never really taken an interest in. Mark decided that this was something we should try, and I supported that idea.

We attended a hobby bee keepers class and Mark went up to the U of M for a bee keeping course. We talked to other people with bees. We purchased a few books as well to read and for different recipes and items made using honey, wax and the comb. We tried to gather as much information as we could before we started.

Our supplies arrived in 4 different and very large packages in mid February.

Our supplies arrived in 4 different and very large packages in mid February.

We decided to start small our first year, and then work on expanding after that. We purchased 2 hives from a company called Mann Lake Limited out of Hackensack, Minnesota.We purchased a starter kit that included some of the main things we would need such as the bee keeping suit, smoker, hives, bee brush, etc. We then ordered an additional hive and frames. When we picked up our bees, we also purchased an additional queen extruder and pollen patties. A queen extruder will keep the queen in the hive so she doesn’t leave and cause your bees to leave with  her. Pollen patties are essentially a nutrition supplement until flowers and trees bud out for the bees to collect pollen.

Setting up the hives in a grassy area.

Setting up the hives in a grassy area.

Mark with one of the hives after setting them up.

Mark with one of the hives after setting them up.

We went with two hives our first year to ease into this new livestock, learn as much as we can and understand the ins and outs of raising bees before we expand. As you can see in the photos, we placed our hives on a piece of land that is very grassy. Most of the land is in CRP, and now some of it will be in RIM, where we will work to plant a bee friendly vegetation mix. Hopefully, we can get some clover in there for them. Also, you may notice the stream in the background of the photo. Bees need a water source just like cattle, hogs or horses, so we placed them by this stream so they would always be able to find enough water to drink.

We picked our bees up in Hackensack, Minnesota which is approximately a 5 hour drive from our home. So we had a long day with 10 hours of driving. 5 of those hours included bees humming in my backseat! Yes, our bees rode home with us, in our vehicle. The bees come packaged in a “bee cage” that they can’t get out of, and has a feeder can for them as well. They do make a pretty loud hum, that you could hear the entire ride. That being said, I figured if we got in an accident I’d either die from the car accident or bee stings with 30,000-40,000 some bees in my back seat!

The bee cage - yes they road home inside our truck with us!

The bee cage – yes they road home inside our truck with us!

Close up of the bees in the bee cage.

Close up of the bees in the bee cage.

Throughout the ride, we sprayed the bees down with a sugar and water mixture. This sugar syrup is something we have to continue feeding them for the first month or so to help boost the colony’s health and strength. We mix a 5 gallon bucket up, using about 10 lbs of sugar every time to make a thick sugary syrup. This gets poured into a trough area of their hives for them to feed on.

As soon as we got out to where our hives were, Mark suited up in an effort to not to get stung and no worries, he hasn’t been stung yet!

Mark in the bee keeping suit! It makes me giggle every time!

Mark in the bee keeping suit! It makes me giggle every time!

Next came the task of getting the bees in the hives. The queen has to go in first (she comes packaged in her own special casing within the bee cage), and you want to ensure she flies down into the hive and doesn’t leave the hive. We plug the front portion of the hive with some grass until we could make sure she was in there and wasn’t’ leaving. After you place the queen in, next comes the shaking of the bees from the bee cage into the hive. Not all of them will go in, some will fly around before they figure out to go into the hive, and others will stay in the cage for a while so you leave the cage by the hive hoping they will fly out. Yes, some do die and refuse to join the hive.

Putting bees in the hive.

Putting bees in the hive.

You can see that we removed the grass from the front opening, and that is where the bees are going in to join the hive. Also notice the cage is left out near the hive in hopes the bees left in there will join the hive.

You can see that we removed the grass from the front opening, and that is where the bees are going in to join the hive. Also notice the cage is left out near the hive in hopes the bees left in there will join the hive.

We now check our bees about once a week to make sure they have enough food, pollen patties and that the hives haven’t been disturbed. Hives have to deal with predators ranging from bears (thankfully we don’t have them down here), raccoons, skunks, and more. Lots of critters like the honey comb besides just humans!

A few interesting pieces of information for you:

  • We won’t get honey our first year more than likely. You give up your first crop of honey in an effort to winter your colony over and ensure they have enough food. Depending, we might have enough honey, or we might not. Next year, provided our bees make it, we will end up with both a spring and fall flow of honey.
  • You do have to medicate your bees. Bees are medicated during the fall before winter to help them survive against mites. Mites are the number one killer of bee colonies. You medicate your bees much like you treat a dog for fleas. You also can get a beetle outside of the hives that can be detrimental. You treat the outside of the hive/ground for this, not the inside.

Do you have any questions for me about our bee adventure? I’d love to hear them!

-Sara