Spring Check-In

by Rick van Vliet on April 16, 2014

Well, Spring has finally sprung here in the Land of 10,000 frozen lakes. Almost. On April 16, we have a local forecast that includes the possibility of one- to two-inches of fresh snow.

The bees that just arrived from Sunny California are wondering, “Where the heck are we?!”.

This past weekend, we received our first spring order of package bees. We were all up before the sun, and had planned the pickup of our four packages from Nature’s Nectar in Stillwater MN.

Nature’s Nectar has been doing this for a while, and they order bees by the semi-trailer load. They said they were expecting 600 beekeepers to pick up on Saturday, and when we got there, it looked like they were ready!

They had a pretty good system worked out, scheduling beekeepers by last name starting with the Z’s at 0730 Saturday morning. Our friend Nancy, with Cindy and I, arrived at the pickup in our assigned 0830-0930 time slot and were greeted by a scene that was short of amazing.

In the rural driveway at Jim’s house, there was a tent where helpers where cecking names. In the garage, there must have been 15 or 20 pallets with 100 packages each. After we got checked in, their guys brought out our pre-paid packages and we were on our way home. And hour out and an hour back, and the stop for pickup was less than 10 minutes.

honey bee pickup

package in the car







(Remember, two or three pounds of bees, a can of syrup for travel food, and one queen in a special little box. They’ve only been together for about three days…they have not grown up together. This is why they keep the queen physically separated from the group…the workers would kill her if they could get to her. Within a few days, they all get used to each other’s pheromones and start to get along.)

The bees generate their own heat to keep themselves warm all winter, and a package is no different. You can feel the heat coming off the packages as they hum their little bee hum.

package warmth

After we got them home, we waited for the afternoon. I wanted the wind to die down a bit, and make sure that the clouds stayed around. Cooler and cloudier weather would help keep the girls from absconding…otherwise we would have waited til evening to install the packages. We were in no bug rush to get them hived, except for the excitement of a new season getting started!

Out to the field, in our next post. So, stay tuned :)


Oh. A semi-load of package honey bees looks a lot like this (thanks to Olivarez Honey Bees for loaning us the picture. This is a standard 53ft semi. Each of those boxes hold about 3 lbs or 15,000 honey bees. And that’s a lotta bees.)

semi full of bees








To the Field!

by Rick van Vliet on April 16, 2014

Saturday afternoon, we couldn’t wait any more…and had to get out to the field! We decided to put all four of these first packages out at Zweber Farm. We have Will’s yellow hive, and three others ready for loading. Though it might look like I was ready in this picture. I wasn’t sure that I FELT ready :)

where to start?When we had all the frames arranged inside the hive boxes and ready to load, we’d spray the bees with sugar syrup to distract them and wet their wings so they couldn’t fly up at us, slip out the can of food and pull out the little queen cage.

prep the pkgPocketing the queen to keep her warm, I shook the workers out of the package into the prepared hive. The queen cage has a cork in one end, so I carefully pop the cork, and replace it with a mini-marshmallow jammed into the hole. The bees will chew that marshmallow out within the first day, releasing the queen into the colony…Ready to get to work!

little queenie cage

And when we’re done shakin’, frames are replaced so each hive box has ten (for brood and honey on the lower boxes). I pop a bucket of simple syrup (sugar water) on the inner cover so the bees have some extra carbs as food, the outer covers are put on, and a rock or branch on top of it all to keep the lids on in the wind. Any bees that remain in the package will find their way inside with the rest over the next hour or so.packages loaded




Now, we leave them alone for a week or so. The queen will start laying, and as it warms up, her rate will increase and at some point the queens can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day! (time from egg to adult worker is 18-21 days…so you can do the math on population increase). And pretty soon we’ll have early spring flowers. But the dandelions are the first big nectar crop that we have in Minnesota, so we all look forward to that.

pkg closeup

Another load of packages will be coming in from Georgia this time, this weekend April 19. More news after that.

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Catch The Buzz

by Rick van Vliet on October 25, 2013

Here’s a 50 second video from the landing deck of the hive…Take a minute and catch a buzz. (we didn’t film this, but Cindy found it on the web)
This film is a continuous pan across a busy hive entrance.Urbana, Illinois, USA



by Rick van Vliet on July 7, 2013

We don’t get very many visitors (me and the bees), but last week Tom D. had already lined up a visit to the bee yard in New Market (Zweber Farms). He had expressed an interest in seeing the bees a few months ago, before the weather got nice. And Sunday 30-June was a drop-dead gorgeous day!

Tom had some folks from out of town visiting him, and asked me if Frank H and his daughter could tag along and go into the hives with us. Well, of course!

We tasted some honey right out of the frame when they arrived, talked a little about what they’d be seeing, and then took a short drive out to New Market.

They all took turns getting into my spare bee suit, and we had a short inspection for Tom, Frank, and daughter “J”. At 16, almost 17, J was interested, asked a lot of questions, and held a frame full of bees and brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) without flinching! Heck…the first time I pulled out a full frame of bees I was nervous, and J did a great job. It probably wasn’t the first thing she would have picked to do on a Sunday afternoon (go out to some cow pasture on a hot afternoon, put on some dumb white jumpsuit overalls and listen to some old guy rant about his..what…honeybees? sheesh, dad…like really?) But we all had a good time, and I hope I taught them a little about the bees, their troubled times, and let them taste just how amazing real local honey can taste as opposed to the Jewel store brand.

Thanks Tom, Frank and J, for coming out to the pasture and listening to this old guy rant ;)

Frank and his daughter with their bee veils!

Frank and his daughter with their bee veils!






Three months into the Season

by Rick van Vliet on July 11, 2012

After the first three months in this season, I have a very different view of this “bee thing”! We started the season with eight packages. And we started early. And for the most part, these girls are all rockin’!We have had a little problem with queens, though.
One queen (At Don Johnston’s beeyard) didn’t survive the installation in April, since (like a doofus), I put her cage with the exit hole facing down. One of her traveling attendants died before they got out, and blocked the little escape hatch, blocking the Queen’s escape into the hive….and she died in the cage. We were able to get a replacement queen, and hoped for the best (more on her later).
Another queen (in hive #5 at Zweber’s Farm), just plain disappeared. Not sure if they swarmed with her, since a swarm usually leaves a few queen cells behind to take the place of the absconding swarm and their royal…there was just no queen left in #5, and the remaining girls were a little PO’d. So we replaced a queen in #5

And, down at Sanders’s farm (Cinnamon Ridge in New Prague, MN)…we had another queen go missing, so we merged those two colonies into one, about two weeks ago. The combined colony seems to be looking good.

Finally, back at Johnston’s beeyard, we had a queen(this is the replacement queen from a few paragraphs back) who just did not know what she was supposed to be doing. I noticed that there were waaaay too many drone cells for the population mix. And the drones that were hatching were much too small (drone cells are slightly bigger than worker cells), so it appeared that Queenie was confused about what kind of eggs she should be laying in those cells.
You see, the queen feels the size of the cell, and based on that size, she drops a fertilized egg in the cell for a worker; and in unfertilized egg in the larger cell for a drone. And this is in teh dark, and she’s apparantly laying 1200-1500 eggs perday. This queen just was not with the program.

I learned most of this when this past Sunday, we had the honor of getting some mentoring assistance from Victoria R (who manages 120 colonies on the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux reservation neear us. Victoria is the manager of the tribe’s Wozupi, and has been working with bees for seven or eight years).
Victoria took one look at the colony, and noticed that the drones were smaller than they should have been, and far more numerous than they should have been!

drone brood

Similar to this, but much “spottier” drone cells (click for a large version)

We did find a queen cell, indicating that the colony had noticed that something was wrong with their queen, and had started raising up a new one.. We talked about things, and we decided to kill off the poorly performing queen, leave the colony queenless for 24 hours, and merge these girls (and guys) into one of my stronger colonies down on Zweber farm.So…regicide, it was…and we consolidated most of the frames into one hive box.
The next day (Monday 7/9) I snuck back into the Johnston beeyard as the sun was fading…and strapped the cover, hive box and bottom board so it was all a solid unit. Stuffed some bug screen material into the entrance for ventilation, but to keep the girls in! Smoked the hive pretty heavily, so they would suck up plenty of honey and so they would make the 13 mile trip from Prior Lake out to New Market in my trunk.
This is not like hauling a few packages…this is a colony of about 30,000 whacked-out workers and drones, without a queen, (remember, the package is about 5,000 bees in the spring).
Set them carefully in the trunk, checked the screen (I do NOT want these girls crawling out of the hive box and finding their way into the passenger compartment of the car. And they were fine).
Got them down to New Market as the sun was really fading fast (Made this run this later than usual so that most of the foraging workers had come in out of the fields…they don’t work at night).
Did a newspaper merger, like the one last year…and I’ll go back to see how they’re doing in a few days. Give the combining colonies a chance to get to know each other.

So that’s the way it’s going this year, so far. Eight colonies down to six. And two of the six are starting to look like they’re going to be producing enough honey in the upper stories (honey supers) to take off and bottle. I have yet to decide if we’re going to be selling any.

Thanks for reading this far, and we’ll be back pretty soon.


Move-In Day

by Rick van Vliet on April 10, 2012

It was move-in day on Friday 31-March! I got the call from my supplier (Dale Wolf) on Thursday afternoon, that Dale was arriving back in Baldwin a day or so early. We were supposed to pick up the packages of bees on Saturday, but this early alert changed my plans for Friday and Saturday. Changed my calendar to read “Playing Hooky”!

We headed over to Baldwin, Wis (19 mile marker from the border with Minnesota on I-94), and got to Wolf Honey Farm around ten AM. Signed in with Dale’s wife Joyce, and then went out to Dales’s truck, a 20′ box on wheels, full of packages of bees.

Dale is third-generation honey farmer, so he’s been doing this for a while. And he makes two trips per year in the spring to pickup packages of bees in Georgia to haul back to Wisconsin.

The bees were pretty docile this morning, since the temperature hadn’t gotten up much past 40F. They had only been in the package since Wednesday sometime and had only known this queen for a couple of days.

Bees in the trunk And here’s your host, with a 3-pound package loading the Audi. There are four packages already in the trunk, and five 3-pounders adds up to about 85,000 bees (5700 per pound, three pounds per pkg, 5 pkg)…That’s a lotta bees.

We were expecting to pick up 8 packages in total, but we had a tentative agreement for three hives fall through. So we picked up 5 packages today, and will get 3 more in a couple of weeks, when Dale comes back with another truckload.

Stopped over to see my Mom, to show her what these bees looked like when they’re ready to load into the hive. Since she had been out to visit “the girls” last summer, I thought she’d like to see a fresh package before they were hived.

We’ll catch up with these five packages of honeybees shortly, when they arrive at zweber farm. Bzzz




Spring is here!

by Rick van Vliet on March 28, 2012

I just  realized that I hadn’t posted since last fall, when we bundled up the surviving hive, topped up the feeder pail, wrapped the boxes with black tarpaper, and patted the box a couple of times, wishing the girls a safe winter.  With all the things that could go wrong over the winter (mice,starvation, chill, mites), we were really hoping that the colony would come out of their winter isolation in good shape and ready to rock this spring.

‘Twasn’t meant to be. When I opened up the top hive box on the 1st of march, the feeder pail was full, the honey stores inside the box still weighed about 80 lbs, and a very small cluster of dead bees greeted me.  Kind of sad. Not “loss of a pet” sad, but rather “that was a lot of work to have them all die” sad.

With a second set of experienced eyes (thanks to Mike Leary, from the St Croix Beekeepers) to look in on the evidence, our CSI team determined that the girls likely starved. Couldn’t get to the honey? Couldn’t get to the sugar syrup? Hard to say. But there was no evidence of fungus, or foulbrood…although they might have chilled out and died from cold. That’s the result of poor ventilation, and when condensation forms on the inside of the box…the moisture drips onto the bees, and they can’t keep themselves warm.

But I had already planned on taking our hives from two in 2011 up to eight this year, and everything was “on order”! New woodenware, frames, etc, along with eight packages of bees scheduled to arrive March 31. I ordered build-your-own hive boxes this year…

Hive Boxes Hive Boxes 2 Hive Boxes 3






So we “droned up” (remember, drones are the male honeybees), and brushed out the little bee corpses, and started planning 2012!

We’ve got 5 hives set up out the pasture at ZweberFarm, and 3 hives will be going into a field where Peter’s Pumpkins in Shakopee, MN will be growing some vinecrops this year. Dale Wolf, of Wolf’s Honey Farm is heading down to Georgia to pick up 7 Million bees this week, and should be back in Baldwin with his buzzing load of workers sometime Saturday the 31st. More soon!

Zweber Farm Hives



Getting Ready for Winter

by Rick van Vliet on October 25, 2011

Well, it’s been a season.  Trees have lost most of their leaves, World Series is an exciting match-up, and the bees are just about done flying for the year.

Some of the beekeepers I know are sending their girls to Florida for the winter (some like it hot…) Dale Wolf sent about 250 hives and my mentor Dan Klasen sent his 20 hives with Sarah Rushfeldt, NW regional Wisconsin Honey Queen. Sarah at 22, has been working with honey bees since she was eight, and has about 100 hives. This year she’s working a new business by hauling bees to Florida for the winter.

As for my single hive at Zweber Farm (“east”)…we’re just going to feed them til it gets too cold so they’ve made enough winter honey to make it through. We’re also going to wrap the hive with black tarpaper to help keep the wind out, and to help absorb the winter sun’s warmth. The bees themselves will work to keep themselves warm by huddling together into a tight cluster and humming. Literally.

As the cold sets in, the bees have kicked the drones out (Don’t worry…the colony will make some new drones towards spring), they’ll huddle more closely together and to keep themselves warm, they can unhitch their wings from the muscles and they’ll vibrate those wing muscles to generate heat. Remember…they’ve figured this out after 150-million years!

I’ve put 2 1-gallon pails of heavy syrup in the upper level of the hive. The pails’ lids are perforated and the bees can suck out the syrup and take it down into the hive, where they store it for winter. We’ve built up about 100 pounds of honey for their winter. Hope it’s enough.

I’ve got some pictures that Cindy took while I checked the pails (out of two gallons, we’re down about a gallon in three weeks), and a couple of videos. Here, you see a dark opening below the pails — that’s a rectangular hole cut in the inner cover. (As always, click the image to see a nice close up, in a new window)

pulling a feeder pail

Feeding the bees

The first video shows the inverted pails, and the bees going in and out of the inner cover. This inner cover sits at the top of the second story of two deep hive boxes.[flv:/video//MOV01434.flv 480 368]

Second video shows the girls flying in and out of the reduced entrance. (During the spring and fall, an ‘entrance reducer’ is placed in the main entrance, to make the total entry area about 4 inches. This week, we rotated the reducer to its smallest position…about an inch. In summer, we remove the reducer completely to give them a full 19-inch landing zone/entrance.) This video has the best buzz, even though I moved the camera around too much ;)
[flv:/video/MOV01433.flv 480 368]



Long Live the Queen

by Rick van Vliet on August 23, 2011

Well, it’s been a few weeks since I posted anything…Not that nothing’s been happening!

After the merge (13-July), we had a single hive, with five boxes. Two deep, a shallow, another deep, and a shallow on top. I gave the girls a little time to themselves to get themselves re-organized, and I thought everything was fine. But last week (15-Aug), when I inspected…starting at the bottom, I found no brood in the bottom two deeps. This concerned me a little. As I worked my way up, I did find that the bees had been packing honey in the second deep, and some in the first deep…but none in that middle shallow box.

By the time I got to the upper deep (fourth floor) that day, the girls were NOT happy that I was bee-boppin’ around in there and so, before I had a chance to really go through that 4th floor box, they had made it clear that I was not welcome on that day. So I closed everything up and dejectedly headed across the field for the car (yes I had my keys in the correct pockets this time).

So I left with the impression that we had gone queen-less again. The bees’ behavior gave me the definite feeling that they were cranky for being without a queen.

I gave them another week, and went in this Saturday (20-Aug) with Cindy and her camera. This time I started at the top and worked down. And what a surprise! We saw eggs and larvae in that top deep box, in a good pattern (all the eggs/larvae close together). By seeing the larva that this particular stage of development (little fat white grubs filling the bottom of the cells) and quite a few cells capped over…it told me that we had had a queen a’laying for at least 9 days on the frames that I was looking at.

Here’s a nice drawing of bee development – drone, worker, queen. Click that pic over on the right…

Development Cycle

Here are Cindy’s pictures of the two kinds of frames. One is glistening with uncapped nectar (almost honey) and the other has the brood. In the brood picture, you can see the fat little bee larvae waiting to be capped over where they’ll grow as pupae for 10 days, before they emerge on or around the 21st day after being an egg.

“All right Mr DeMille, Ready for my closeup”…Cindy got some really good pics with the flash! She had her jacket and veil for protection, but this time she really came in over my shoulder to get some good pictures. This is the first time you’ve been able to see closeup what I see when I pick up the frames.

Up Close Brood

Up Close Brood (click to enlarge)

Glistening Nectar

Nectar before it loses enough moisture to be honey (click to enlarge)


But this inspection on Saturday gave me a big relief, when I saw the eggs/larvae. It meant that the girls had a queen! Long Live the Queen!


West is The Weakest Link

by Rick van Vliet on July 14, 2011

Well, it’s Wednesday afternoon (July 13), and my Mentor Dan Klasen came out to my little beeyard in New Market MN to help me evaluate what’s going on. We looked in on the weak (West) hive, and the girls seemed “buzzier” than usual…they just sounded irritated. After spending a few minutes looking for the queen, we decided that the pattern of egg-laying looked crappy, and since we didn’t see the queen…we would inspect East. Those girls in West were cranky  BECAUSE they didn’t have a queen.

In the East hive, there were a couple of suspicious-looking peanut-shaped cells, which usually mean that the workers are building up “queen cells”…these even had  a nice little glob of Royal Jelly, but no queen larvae yet. So we collapsed these cells to keep them from becoming queens. (But in general, even though there were roughly twice the number of bees in East as there were in West…the girls in East were happy, calm and not nearly as loud and buzzy as the ones in West)

The rest of the inspection of “East” was good. Laying pattern is strong, lots of eggs, lots of larvae in open cells, and nicely capped brood (pupae/cocoons, remember?)…This side looks good!

merging colonies image

Merging Colonies (click to enlarge)

So we made the decision to merge, or unite the two colonies. To do this, Dan and I placed a sheet of newspaper above the third story, cut a few small slits in the paper…and placed the first story from “West” on top of the newspaper. The bees will start chewing through the newspaper, and by the time they get through it ,they’ll be accustomed to the queen pheromones of the strong colony below, and accept the fact that they’ve been assimilated. We hope! Here’s what that looks like.

This whole process took us about 35 minutes (Phew!). I’ll go back Friday afternoon, to make sure that the girls have gotten through the newspaper. If they haven’t chewed through, I’ll give them a hand by removing most of the paper. It’s going to be too hot over the next four days and they’ll need a way to get down and out of the hive. (I’m writing this on Thursday evening after attending the monthly beekeepers meeting in Baldwin, and talking to Dan…a day after the merge).

This is a common practice with weak hives, and it sort of bums me out that I came up with a “Weakest Link”…But(!) I’m glad that I started my first beekeeping year with two colonies. If I had started with one hive, and it was the weak one…I’d be done for the year.