Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Humbled By Bees

By the weather forecast, Saturday afternoon looked as if it would be the last relatively warm and clear day for some time to come. The state of the beehive had been nagging on my mind for a while so I decided to get right to the task of harvesting the honey and reconfiguring the hive for winter. As soon as Sean heard of my plans, he asked if he could help me. I was very welcoming of his participation because he has always been a bit squeamish around the hive and I felt it was a good opportunity for him to increase his confidence.

We have had a good historic partnership with the bees. They have been very docile and industrious and we have mostly left them to their business. We have never had an issue with anyone getting stung and I have never had the slightest fear of working around the hive. I regularly demonstrate their non-aggressive nature to visitors to our farm by passing my hands through the little cloud they form in front of the hive as they hurry back and forth to the nearby fields of flowers. I also will open the hive now and again to peek inside without any protective equipment at all.

Back at the house, Sean and I suited up in our make-shift bee-suits and headed out to the hive. I cracked it open and began to break it into sections to assess the health of the bees and to see how much honey they had accumulated. From what I could see they looked strong and heathly. Sean assisted by handing me tools and by manning the smoker which is used to keep the bees calm during our invasion. Aidan also stopped by to observe the proceedings from a short distance away.

It didn't take long for us to notice that the bees were being unusually aggressive. As I worked further into the hive the air around us filled with more and more angry bees attempting to defend their home. Before long Sean became unnerved by the number of bees that were swarming around his head. I assured him that they would not hurt him in the bee suit and gently chastised him that he needed to stay calm and not overreact to the threat.

Despite my reassurances and my efforts to calm the bees, their furious defense continued unabated. Sean and Aidan decided that it was too much and headed back to the house as I did my best to finish up the task. Poking around in the beehive is normally a pleasant and interesting experience but the rising aggression of the bees soon had me looking forward to finishing my work, closing the hive back up and getting away from it.

As I began the process of stacking the hive back up I was suddenly surprised to feel something brush against my cheek. My middle-aged eyes are losing the ability to focus on things at close range but I was convinced that a bee had penetrated my suit. It was flying around inside my veil and preparing to sting me in the face! It was at this point that all of my years of beekeeping experience and my oh-so-grownup self control abandoned me utterly.

I admit it. I panicked! I can't imagine what I was thinking. I just went into autopilot. As if out of reflex, my gloved hands came up and pulled the veil off of my head to shake the bee out without a single thought to the cloud of angry bees that orbited me just outside the protective suit!

As if with one mind, the angry bees recognized the unexpected opportunity to wreak their revenge. Dozens of them dove at my unprotected head in search of the perfect spot to sting. By then I had recovered my faculties but there was little I could do but flee. I quickly walked away from the hive and made my way across the hayfield while I attempted to keep the vengeful mob at bay by waving my hands around my face.

Despite my efforts to get away from them, they continued attacking my head even after I had traveled more than 80 yards! In my attempts to defend myself I had dropped my glasses somewhere in the field. I was also leaving a trail of clothes and equipment behind as I shed layer after layer to rid myself of the bees that had become trapped inside with me.

The worst of the experience came from the fact that I have very long hair. It was tied back as always but in running my hands over my head, I was entangling more and more bees in the strands. By the time I had finally moved far enough away that the defenders had retreated, I had at least a half-dozen bees entangled and buzzing furiously just behind my ears! I kept trying to smash them with my fingers but the buzzing continued until I finally made my way into the house and picked them out one by one while standing beneath the hot shower.

I referred to the suits that we wear as "make-shift" because only the head-gear and gloves are made for this purpose. The suits themselves are actually painter's overalls made from thin plastic from the hardware store. The fatal flaw in this instance is that there are gaps in the defenses that can be exploited by the bees if they crawl down under the collar of the suit and then up under the headgear. That being said, I have used this arrangement and even less for years without encountering any issues.

As for why the bees were so aggressive, I can't say for sure. The best time to work in beehives is during warm clear days when most of the bees are out foraging. For that reason the cool weather may have been a factor. It may also be that these particular bees that I had purchased from Georgia during last spring are simply more aggressive than I am used to.

Once I had rid my hair of the last bee, I suited back up to complete the task at hand. I closed the hive up and collected two full supers of honeycomb loaded to the brim with fresh honey. The bees eventually calmed down and returned to their docile ways.

I counted my stings and was surprised to have only received three. Of course, had I remained calm, I would have kept that number to one at the most. In the end I am left with a renewed sense of respect for our tiny winged livestock and a clear sense that I need to upgrade our equipment before the time comes to begin working the hive again next spring.
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Back In Bees...ness

We have actually had bees back on the farm since our package of replacement bees arrived a month ago. The problem is that they have been utterly neglected as we focused all of our attention on the chickens. In the last week, I finally managed to devote a few hours to getting them a little better situated for the summer nectar gathering season.

The bees had been installed in a single deep brood chamber by a friend while I was working in Mexico. The brood box has space for ten frames of comb. We provided them with four frames that were already full of honey from last year's bees to carry them over until the major nectar flows began.

The bees and their new queen settled in and began raising new brood to increase their numbers for foraging the summer nectar. They also began flying all around the farms in the area collecting nectar and pollen. All of this they crammed into the six remaining frames of comb.

The danger of letting bees get too crowded is that they will decide that they don't have enough room. In that case they will create a new queen and swarm out of the hive in search of a bigger place to live. They naturally do this anyway as their way of reproducing and spreading but the tight living conditions makes it more likely. We would have been left with a largely empty hive and our $65 worth of bees would have lived for the season in the wild and then perished in the cold of next winter.

Having these dangers in mind, I called up a beekeeping acquaintance in the area and arranged to purchase some sheets of foundation from him. The box that I needed to use to expand the hive was still full of honey from last year and had old, dark combs that needed to be replaced. A few evenings ago I uncapped the old combs, spun the honey out using our centrifugal extractor, removed the old wax comb and put the new foundation in the frames. In the fading twilight, I placed the newly prepared second brood chamber onto the hive thus doubling the space available to the bees.

In a few days I will need to suit up and have a look at how things are going in the hive. With a new package of bees, there is no way to know the quality of the queen without doing a close inspection inside the hive to see what she is doing. Hopefully I will find that she has moved up into the second chamber and is busily laying eggs in a nice concentrated pattern on the new comb. The new brood will greatly increase the size of the hive and their honey gathering capacity.

Having finally completed the task of setting up the new box on the hive, I headed back inside to clean up the sticky mess I had made. I filtered and bottled the honey. Some of it was sold recently to friends at work which marked the first time we had received any money for something produced on the farm. The $12 wasn't much, but it's a beginning!

The remaining task on my plate is to melt down the old wax from the combs that I removed. I can either sell it back to the beekeeping supply store for use in manufacturing new foundation or I can keep it around the house for some other use. Of course, before I had a chance to do anything with it our dog managed to steal and eat one of the honey-sweet combs and get sick all over the house!
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First Beekeeping Class

You might recall that during a recent beekeeping conference I decided to sign up for a beekeeping class to bring myself up to date with the latest techniques. That class is being taught by Ed, an elderly gentleman who has about 50 hives in his suburban backyard. We had our first get together in late March and it was an interesting experience.

I arrived to find his driveway choked with cars and the class gathered in a cluttered little classroom that he has built onto his detached garage. There were about eight students including myself. As with the beekeeping conference, I was again surprised to see that roughly half of the class were women. Somehow I had always thought of this as a nerdy male hobby and I'm glad to see that isn't the case anymore.

Ed's presentation is a bit disjointed and meandering but clearly salted with many years of experience and well worth the concentration it requires to take it all in. The class is also being attended by and perhaps co-taught by a younger man who is a professional beekeeper and also very knowledgeable. The trouble is that he tends to talk throughout each session to anyone who will listen, generally rather loudly and continuously over the top of whatever Ed is saying.

The intention of the class is to be a hands-on experience of working the bees right alongside Ed for the next year. For that reason we spent only a short time in the classroom before suiting up and heading out to the yard. As we were suiting up, a knock on the classroom door announced the arrival of Ed's wife and daughter bearing a coffee urn and a tray of cookies so we made the bees wait a while longer.

Once out in the yard Ed took us through the steps of the task of an early spring inspection of the hives, all the while overshadowed by the narration by the other beekeeper on a number of mostly unrelated topics. The purpose of this inspection was to check on the condition of the bees after the long, cold Michigan winter and to boost their health by feeding them pollen cakes to help them get through the last lean month before things begin blooming. What we found as we went from hive to hive was educational but disheartening.

As we worked our way through his apiary, it became apparent that few of his hives had made it through the winter. They had perished for a number of reasons including simply freezing to death but the overwhelming majority had died from a disease called nosemosis. Nosemosis is caused by two different species of a single-celled organism called Nosema.

Recent evidence has revealed that is it a type of fungus and is closely correlated with the dramatic crash in honeybee populations worldwide known as colony collapse disorder. This parasite is ingested as a tiny spore by the bee and it reproduces in the intestinal tract causing dysentery-like sickness in the bee. Honeybees are normally very tidy and fastidious about the conditions inside the hive. They even take short flights away from the hive to relieve themselves and to "take out the trash". When nosema strikes those rules break down as the sick and weakened bees defecate all over the interior of the hive and spread the disease to other bees who try to clean up the mess.

A hive that is infected with Nosema is easy to detect because it is covered with deep-brown smudges. If you look at the tops of the wooden frame boards in the open hive in the picture (enlarge it by clicking on it) you should be able to see the little spots all over them. Hive after hive was opened to reveal dead or dying colonies infested with this nasty disease. Ed was visibly shaken by the loss of so many bees that left him with only about a dozen of his original fifty hives. When you consider that a package of bees to reestablish a hive costs around $65 you can see how the impact of this loss would add up.

In the weeks following the class, Ed had a number of helpers come over to help him clean up the mess that the nosema made of his apiary. They disassembled all of the dead hives, melted the wax out of the frame and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the equipment. Our next class would be timed with the arrival of the replacement bees that he ordered so we could experience the steps involved in installing them in their new homes.

I drove away from that first class feeling sorry for the loss that Ed had suffered but glad for the opportunity to see the problem first hand. In the few seasons that I have kept bees in the past I have never had to deal with nosema. At least now I will know what it is and what to do about it.
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Beekeeper's Conference

I spent all day yesterday attending the Southeastern Michigan Beekeeper's Association conference. It was held at a college in Livonia and was well-attended by several hundred beekeepers from around the region. They had outstanding guest speakers and visiting beekeepers from as far away as Germany and Africa.

I attended a couple of interesting and alarming lectures by researchers studying the serious problems that are threatening to wipe out the honeybee. A fascinating talk by a scientist who has devoted her entire life to researching mites led me to realize that beekeeping has radically changed and become much more complicated in the twenty years that I had been away from it.

The daunting array of new practices and measures that everyone is having to follow in order to keep their colonies from being killed off by varroa and tracheal mites found me wondering if I still wanted to keep bees at all. Luckily, that feeling passed as I attended some educational classes and listened to seasoned old-timers spell out how they handle all of these issues.

The most alarming talk was an update on the status of research into Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Beginning in 2006, beekeepers started reporting that large numbers of their hives were simply empty of all but a small number of bees. The colonies have been vanishing, often striking large professional operations and wiping out as much as 90% of their colonies. The researchers seem very far from understanding what is happening and believe that it is being caused by a combination of factors such as pesticides, parasites and disease.


During the conference, I signed up for a year-long hands-on beekeeping course being taught by a team of seasoned beekeepers. Once or twice a month for the next year we will be working with the hives in a large apiary in Livonia. I anticipate learning a great deal from these people and greatly boosting my confidence that I know how to handle all of the challenges facing beekeepers today. My first class will be held this afternoon.
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We're Being Robbed!

Friday was incredibly warm. In the afternoon, Janet called me from somewhere out in the brushy field to the front of our property. She was enjoying the nice weather and her new knee-high boots with a tromp out to the cottonwoods to see how much water was standing there. She told me that I should try to get out of work a little early to enjoy the warm day. Of course I couldn't, but I suggested that we take a walk around the farm when I got home.

Shortly after I finally managed to arrive, Janet, Aidan and I headed out for a stroll. We talked about our plans. I showed them where I wanted to build the barn, the woodshop and the chicken coop. We talked about the berry patch location, where the orchard would go, how much of the field we would try to get plowed up this year. All in all, it was a great little tour and long overdue.

One portion of our walk took us up the driveway past the beehive. My eyes happened to detect a familiar motion where none should have been. I swerved away from the others to investigate and discovered a cloud of bees at the front of our hive, busily coming and going as they did all last summer. The problem is that Aidan and I had discovered that the bees had all died in the late fall!

My mind cast around for an explanation for what I was seeing. I briefly entertained the thought that our poor little hive had somehow survived and was now stirring itself into action again. I recalled that only this morning I had mailed off a check to the local beekeepers association for the purchase of a new 3lb package of bees. I thought, "Oh great, now what am I going to do? I'm going to have to come up with a second hive for the new bees before they arrive since our existing hive isn't empty afterall!"

Then the other side of my mind began to recall how very dead the bees had looked when I had last checked them. I leaned down and took a close look at the bees that were pouring in and out of the hive. They were actually a mix of bees. Some appeared to be the usual domesticated Italian honeybees but others were much darker in color. Those darker bees were probably from a wild hive somewhere nearby.

Then it clicked. We were being robbed! I had left the honey in the combs assuming that it would be fine in the freezing weather. I had been planning to extract what I could of it before installing my new package bees when they arrived in April. Now that the weather had suddenly warmed up, every bee in the neighborhood was out to steal our honey!

Since the sun was setting, I knew the bees would soon have to return to their own hives. I left them to have their fun at our expense for a short while longer as we continued our farm tour. I even managed to forget about the crime that was being committed for a while as Aidan capered along telling me about his day.

Around 11pm this evening I headed out to the hive with my wheelbarrow and flashlight. I probably looked a bit like a thief myself. After knocking on the hive and receiving no buzzing in reply, I opened it up and peered inside. The vast majority of the honey was intact and the hive was otherwise empty. I loaded the whole heavy thing up, wheeled it ponderously around to the back of the house and shoved it into the basement door where the bees would never find it.

In the morning, Aidan and I will uncap the comb, spin out the honey and package it up in bottles. In the meantime, I am going to wander off to bed, all the while doing my best to shove the thought out of my mind of the hive somehow raising itself from the dead yet again only to find itself locked in my basement!
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