Sol Homestead in Winter

Miss Firecracker

Winter is allegedly a quiet time, when the garden and apiary are done for the season and I am all cuddled up reading a mystery novel. There’s always something to do, though, between the toddler, the chores, and keeping all of us living things warm, fed, and growing. 

Animals

The hens went on “sabbatical” for about six weeks and egg production is slowly ramping back up. They molted starting in November. When hens molt it can be a “hard” molting when they lose their feathers all at once and look awful for a minute before they grow back. Our hens did a “soft” molt. Aside from feathers blowing everywhere on the property and Eliza looking a little naked around her neck, you’d not really guess that they were molting. The energy needed to produce new feathers, plus the very short days probably caused them to stop laying eggs. Someone is also eating eggs if we don’t get to them soon enough. This would indicate that they might need a little more calcium in their diets. Oyster shell it is! 

Freeloading chickens Angelica, Persephone, and Peggy

The alpaca herd is doing well and getting fluffier by the day. Little Luna has grown so much. She is four months old and almost as tall as her mama, Miss Firecracker. We didn’t really notice how much shorter Miss Firecracker is compared to the other girls until Luna started to catch up to her!

We still have two 200 yd 2-ply worsted weight skeins of Miss Firecracker’s yarn left for $35 each. Send us a note in the contact tab if you’re interested!

Bees

A couple of weeks ago, we had a three-day stretch of temperatures in the mid-50s, so I decided to get into the hive for a couple of quick chores. I had seen bees out flying occasionally and I could hear them when I put my ear to the hive, but still, I was nervous that when I opened it I would find that they had blitzed through their food or that there would be signs of too much moisture or too few bees. None of the above happened. I didn’t pull any frames out, but it looks like they have most of their honey left. I added sugar to the feeding shim just in case they do run out of food (the Mountain Camp Method), as I am not planning to open the hive again until spring. If they don’t use the sugar they will just haul it out eventually, but in the meantime it will help absorb moisture.  

A big winter cluster still!

I also did a quick Oxalic Acid dribble just in case the previous mite treatments weren’t sufficient. I wanted to do it when it would be warm for a few days so that the moisture had time to dry out before it got cold again. I have read over and over that this year was an especially gnarly mite year. I think I got out there just as they were heading out for the day, which was the perfect time because they were still mostly in one place for the treatment. There was just one little hiccup. To dribble the OA in the lower deep box, I just tilted the top one up, as I was trying not to disturb the hive too much. Just as I was dribbling the solution along the last frame, the top box slipped and almost fell to the ground. It was heavy and I was holding it one-handed, but somehow I didn’t drop it or smash anyone. 

An undertaker bee at work

Once I reassembled the hive, I brushed as many dead bees out from behind the mouseguard as I could and then watched the bees coming out to relieve themselves and do their chores. I got to watch some undertakers at work. I did help them by brushing the dead bees off the landing board before I left. 

Overall, I am really encouraged by the size of the cluster and how tidy and well-stocked the Bee & Bee is looking. The average overwinter survival rate is ~40%, though, so I’m still keeping a close eye on the hive on sunny, warm days.

Orchard

IMG_20220113_154658038We are hoping to see more growth out of our orchard trees in the coming year now that they are fenced in and safe from alpaca attacks. We need to be more regular about watering them, but for now, the blanket of snow is taking care of that. Our little orchard trees have stood up to some brutal winds this season, assisted by a slight windbreak created by the barn. 

Ideally, I should have wrapped the trunks on the trees around Thanksgiving, but I got to it around New Year’s Day. Hopefully the little guys are okay. I wrapped each trunk in felt, which provides breathable protection from the harsh winter sun in the absence of leaves. They look like they are wrapped up in little scarves. I saw tiny buds on one of the trees when I was wrapping it, and that little glimpse of spring was encouraging. Colorado is not the easiest place to grow fruit trees. 

Garden

I am getting ready to start seeds in about a month, and the first order of business was organizing the seeds I have left over and the new ones I ordered on sale last month. The result was too many seeds! My big goals are to expand the pumpkin patch and get the pollinator garden blooming this year. I think the soil was too hot last year, since the beds had a layer of old horse poo under them, so I put down a heavy layer of mulch to try to cool it down. In order to make everything fit, I am expanding the container garden on the patio, using some pots left by the previous owners. In terms of seed starting, last year was a total flop, so this year I am adding heating pads and humidity covers to try to get some little plant babies growing! These additions should be especially helpful for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Any tips, master gardeners?

First attempts at spinning

Spinning

I am learning how to spin. After almost a year with little progress, I decided that I needed to put a deadline on myself to get the ball rolling, or the spindle spinning, rather. I decided to use the pretty merino fiber I had to make Christmas gifts for my grandparents. I was really pleased with how my first two yarns turned out, but I got less than a third of the way through knitting a cabled headband before I was out of yarn. That’s when I learned how to measure a skein using a niddy noddy, and discovered that I had only spun ~30 yds out of 4 oz of fiber. Yikes. I had to learn to spin thinner!

My first skein. So fluffy and pretty, but only 30 yds!

I eventually managed to spin three 2-ply 100 yd skeins of bulky weight yarn and I thought they turned out nicely. I know they are durable too, because I had to restart one knitting project three times due to some technical mistakes, and the yarn held up splendidly. Now, I am working on spinning thinner, more consistent yarn and finishing skeins so that they are not just usable, but saleable. A huge help in all of this was the book and DVD Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont and the Youtube channels MeganERisk Tutorials and JillianEve. I’m spinning every day now, for at least a few minutes and I’m enjoying it, which is a huge improvement from just a few months ago. 

Home 

Spinning thinner yarn with leftovers from Moira.

Aside from holiday festivities, things have been quiet around the house (knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, whatever it takes). We have been enjoying our repaired fireplace and trying out some new recipes. We are vegetarians, and each winter I am on the hunt for new veggie comfort food. This winter has had some real hits. 

Some of our favorite new-to-us recipes this winter have been:

In a few weeks, we will be putting up a new fence, to provide some more privacy and deaden the road noise in the backyard and pasture. That, we hope, pray, cross our fingers, is our last big house project for some time. 

What do you do during this winter season, for fun or around your own homestead? Let us know below. -Kasey 

Preparing the Backyard Bees for Winter

Winter Bees

Often, when talking to people about our bees, I get asked what the bees do during the winter. The answer is pretty amazing, really. 

A bee born in the spring will generally live for around six weeks, but a bee born in the late fall can live for up to four months. The reason for this is that over the cold months, the bees’ metabolisms slow down, preserving their energy and, as a result, slowing the aging process. 

Bees are experts at regulating the temperature in the hive. In the summer, that means bearding and fanning to cool things off. In the winter, that means sealing the hive with propolis (bee glue) and forming a cluster. Bees cluster when the outside air temperature dips below around 57 degrees. (I have sometimes seen the bees out flying when it is slightly cooler than that.) The cluster keeps the queen and any brood present at the proper temperature, between 85 and 93 depending on the status of the brood nest. The cluster needs to maintain contact with the stored food or they can starve to death even if there is plenty of honey in the hive. If it gets really cold outside, the bees may enter torpor, a sort of suspended animation in which their metabolism slows down so much that they require little fuel and look dead. Their are plenty of videos out there of people breathing bees “back to life” by bringing them out of torpor. 

Winter Hive Setup

Since temperature isn’t really a problem for bees most of the time, the really issues are 1) mites and 2) moisture. 

The Varroa Destructor Mite is the probable cause of many colony collapses because the parasitic mites deplete the nutrition vital to winter bees and also spread disease. It is vital to get the mite situation under control before the queen is rearing the winter bees so that the cluster is as healthy as possible. I treated our bees with Apivar and Formic Pro during the year. Before closing the hive up for the winter, I also did an Oxalic Acid Drip to try to get rid of as many mites as I could. I feared that the extended bit of warm weather we had, which lead the queen to keep laying a decent sized nest, meant the mites would keep breeding too. Having a large cluster is great, but as the bee population starts to decline, the mites could overtake them. So, I hope that worked. 

Colorado is a pretty dry climate, so I am not very worried about moisture, but too much moisture in the hive can be disastrous to the bees. When they generate heat for themselves, some condensation is created and some is needed. Bees, like all living things, need water. But if too much builds up, it can drip on the bees and/or lead to mold, both of which are very bad. To control moisture, I put a quilt box on top of the honey super. The quilt box (purple in the picture) has a thick layer of pine shavings from the chicken supplies that will absorb moisture. It also features screened vents to allow ventilation, another form of moisture control. Under the quilt box, I have a feeding shim (blue), which will allow me to add a layer of dry sugar (Mountain Camp Method) later in the winter as emergency feed. The dry sugar will also absorb moisture in the hive. If I put it in too early, though, the bees will just haul it out like trash. Many beekeepers tilt their hives forward about 5 degrees to allow water to run out of the hive, but I cannot figure out how to do that with my hive stand. Given the dry climate and the quilt box, I hope that this setup works.

Finally, there’s a mouse guard and it’s all strapped to gether with a ratchet strap with some heavy rocks on top. This setup held it all together during 85 mph winds yesterday!

 It’s our first winter with the bees and I have so enjoyed them this year. I really hope that they make it through the winter. The requeening late in the season made me nervous, but the long stretch of warm weather gave them a leg up, I think. I fed them 2:1 syrup along the way so that they didn’t have to break into their stores. At the last inspection, I estimated that they had about 100 pounds of honey stored, plus plenty of pollen. I’ve seen them out taking “cleansing flights” (to go to the bathroom) and dragging out dead bees on each warm day, and I get a little thrill every time. 

 Good luck, bees! I hope to see you in the spring.  -Kasey

Further Reading

Scientific Beekeeping: Fat Bees Part 1

Honey Bee Suite: Temperature regulation in a winter cluster

The Saga of Queen Leslie Knope II

IMG_20211005_101958753_HDR (2)I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that my beehive lost its queen after a Formic Pro treatment. I had suspected for a few weeks prior that the queen was getting weak, but as it’s my first year, I wasn’t sure if she was slowing down because it was summer dearth or if it was a problem. The hive had made moves to replace her before, and I thwarted them. Because she was unmarked, I did not know how old she was. Looking back, I should have either requeened the hive earlier in the summer or let them requeen themselves. When I removed the Formic strips and did a hive inspection in the last week of September, I found many supersedure cells. I stopped counting at 12. That late in the season, however, it was too late for them to raise a new queen and get her mated. Thanks to the advice of a couple of other local beekeepers on Instagram (Thank you!), I moved quickly to find a new mated queen. I couldn’t find one locally anymore, so I was able to get one shipped from California. Thankfully, she arrived safely. 

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Queen Leslie Knope I

While I was waiting on Queen Leslie Knope II to arrive from California, I had to deal with the mess in the hive. I inspected the frames to cut out the supersedure cells. I saw a lot of eggs, but at the bottom of a few frames, there were multiple eggs in a cell, all at the back. It was perplexing. For some background, the presence of the queen’s pheromones suppresses the ability of worker bees to lay eggs. If a hive has been queenless for a bit, some of the workers may start to lay eggs. The problem is that they are unmated and so they can only lay eggs for male bees—drones—whose only job is procreation (and sometimes heat regulation) so in the fall they are so useless that before winter the workers evict them entirely. A laying worker bee also doesn’t have the long body needed to lay an egg in the back of a cell, where it belongs, and she generally lays multiple eggs per cell. Once the eggs hatched and the workers capped the cells, I saw that the hive was full of drone larvae. But it had looked so good when it was in the egg stage. It is also possible that before a queen bee dies she runs out of stored semen to fertilize eggs and only lays drones. I wast not sure if what I saw in the brood nest was a laying worker or a dying queen. 

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Supersedure Cells.

Either way, I had to find and dispatch Queen Leslie Knope I before introducing her successor. If the queen was already in the hive, the bees would most likely reject the new queen, killing her. Or the two queens could do battle, possibly leaving me with the failing queen again. Queen Leslie I was on the smaller side and unmarked. I had not been able to find her in previous inspections, although I did find her in a couple of photos over the summer. I did careful searches for her on consecutive days and never found her. I also never found fresh eggs, which told me that she was likely dead already. 

Then, there was the question of the laying workers. If I had laying workers, it also increased the likelihood that the hive would be hostile to the new queen. I still wasn’t sure if I had laying workers or not. The absence of new, messy eggs leaned toward not. But, to be safe, I thought I should intervene. I read that one way to deal with laying workers is to shake the frames of bees out about 100 feet from the hive. Laying workers are usually, but not always, nurse bees who have not left the hive to forage yet. The theory is that if you shake a laying worker out away from the hive, she won’t be able to find her way back. It felt kind of mean, but the hive is really a superorganism and it’s not worth risking the whole colony for a few bees. So, I shook out the brood nest away from the hive. I don’t really know if that did anything other than making the bees angry. Based on subsequent reading I did, though, I am pretty sure that I had a drone-laying queen, not laying workers.

IMG_20211005_102708275By the time Queen Leslie II arrived, I was as confident as I could be that Queen Leslie I was no longer in the hive. Even still, I spent some time observing the bees’ attitude toward their new queen before I left her in the hive. When you order a new queen, she comes in a little cage with a few attendant bees who are there to care for her. One end of the cage has fondant for the bees to eat and the other has a candy plug that the bees will gradually eat through to release her into the hive. This slow-release mechanism allows the queen’s pheromones to circulate through the hive before she is loose, helping the hive to accept her as their queen, and not immediately ball and kill her. Usually the candy plug is reinforced with a cork, which you pull out before putting the cage in the hive. When Queen Leslie II arrived, I set her on top of some frames for a while and watched how the bees approached her. They were not at all aggressive. Workers came up to the cage and crawled around it, but none were trying to sting her through the mesh or trying to ball her. So, I left the cage suspended between two frames in the brood nest. (Full disclosure: I accidentally hung it upside down, so I had to go in the next day and flip it. If one of the attendats had died in the meantime, it could have possibly plugged the exit. Oops.) Some people encourage beekeepers to remove the attendant bees before placing a queen, as the presence of strangers can cause aggression in your workers. I read that the queen’s pheromones cover these workers too, so it shouldn’t really be a problem. Additionally, as a new beekeeper, I didn’t want to run the risk of losing or injuring the queen while removing the attendants. 

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Queen Leslie Knope II at work in the hive

I installed the new queen on Wednesday, October 6. Because it was so late in the season, I wanted to get her laying eggs as soon as possible, so on Friday, I went back to check how things were going. The bees were still not aggressive toward her and they had started to eat through the candy. I spent some more time watching them. I tested their response by brushing them off the queen cage—the brush test. They were easily brushed away, which was the result I was looking for. So, I took a small nail and punched through the candy plug. She was out. 

A week later, I did a hive inspection and there were a few eggs, but not many. I felt so anxious about the hive at that point. I was afraid that they couldn’t get a good cluster going before winter. But, the next week, my hive inspection revealed many more eggs. The drones that Queen Leslie I left behind were hatching out and Queen Leslie II had the beginnings of a healthy nest of workers. Now, a month later, the hive is booming with bees. This warm fall has helped, no doubt.

IMG_20211018_141426793_HDRIt is not unusual for hives to try to replace a new queen. During that first hive inspection after installing her majesty, I again found supersedure cells. I cut them out, and scolded my workers a bit. During the first weekend of November, I was doing a hive inspection on an unseasonable 70-degree day, and found a swarm cell—with a larva in it—on the bottom of one frame. That there was only one, and that it was there so late in the season was confusing, and frustrating to me. Before I could even decide what to do, I accidentally smashed it while moving the box it was in. My latest, and last, hive inspection showed no signs of them trying to replace Queen Leslie II, who is still laying like a champ. I expect that as the temperature drops, she will slow down. In the meantime, it has been an absolute treat to have a marked queen. I can always find the queen now and I am delighted every time I see her. 

Long live Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Helpful Resources on Re-queening

Barnyard Bees: How to Tell if Bees will Accept a New Queen

Barnyard Bees: How Bees Act When They Reject the Queen

Bee Culture: Laying Wokers. It Happens. Fix It. 

Honey Bee Suite: How to Fix a Laying Worker Hive

Backyard Beekeeping: How Many Days after Requeening Should I Expect to See Eggs