Chicken tips for the winter

So here in Maryland we find ourselves in a prolonged cold spell that has brought our temperatures to 15 and 11 below zero with the windchill. On Friday, it was so cold that the water nipples were rock solid and my husband called me because he was trying to figure out what to do to help get water to the chickens. All outside water was frozen and the chickens needed to have access to water. All animals need water, especially chickens who lay eggs (no matter how infrequently!) Their water bucket is kept outside with a heater that kicks on if the temps drop below freezing, the heater keeps the water liquid, however, the nipples are out in the air and they were frozen rock solid! We have a water bucket that I use when brooding chicks and my husband hung that one INSIDE the coop and filled it with hot water, he periodically added hot water to keep the water from freezing and the inside placement of the waterer kept the wind from freezing the nipples. Tonight the windchill is due to be -11. It has never been this cold for so long here since I’ve lived in Maryland.

One thing you want to make sure you do as a chicken owner, is to have adequate food supplies. Chickens generate heat through the action of digestion, so before they go to bed they will fill their crops and while they sleep they will break down the food and that action heats their bodies and keeps them freezing. The down feathers help to. I do not use a heater, the risk of fire is too great and if you constantly provide heat they won’t adapt (they grow more feathers if needed). And on a side note, my chickens are not “cold weather” breeds.

I noticed they were hunkering down in the nest boxes which are filled with straw, in particular, the molting chicken would hang out there. So I added a layer of straw on top of the pine shavings bedding for extra warmth and it was well-received, within a few minutes one had already settled in.

In summary, provide water (check the supplies frequently), food and wind protection. Straw can help too. Good luck getting through this cold snap or as the weather channels like to call it… the POLAR VORTEX!

First day of winter

Last Saturday was the first day of winter, the winter solstice and a warm one at 70ºF though still windy and threatening rain. The bees were out in force and I was able to take a quick peek at the top boxes just by lifting off the covers. All but one of the top boxes had just a smattering of bees, the purple hive had a lot more over the top frames which worried me. Either the cluster is huge or they’ve used more food. So I added a candy board just to be on the safe side and they were all over it, even on the cold days. I’ll keep an eye on it and try to get a deeper look when the weather is better.

Here are a couple of brief videos of the activity at the hives:

Makes for a happy beekeeper :)

Winter prep

Connie and I went to the Howard County Beekeepers meeting where Jerry Fischer, the Maryland State Apiary Inspector was the speaker. He covered preparing the bees for winter and he mentioned a few interesting things, italics are my additions:

1. You may know that the winter cluster of bees consists of bees huddled over frames of brood and honey, which usually spans between two hive bodies. If that is the case, when you hear “don’t break the cluster”, it means don’t reverse the two hive bodies as you would in spring. I would assume that this also means if your bees are confined to one box then don’t move the frames the bees are on.

2. Cluster temperature (when not over brood) is usually 25 to 30° above the outside temperature.

3. In our area, you can assume that the bees created after September 1st are the winter bees. All of the bees born by the end of August will be dead by Christmas.

4. They recommend one deep of honey/sugar syrup or 2 mediums for the winter.

5. Every gallon of 2:1 sugar syrup equals 7 lbs of winter stores. That makes sense as one gallon of water is 8 lbs, adding 10 lbs sugar increases the volume to 2 gallons and the bees still have to drive off the moisture to cap it.

6. Bees seldom consume more than 15 lbs of food between November and December. After the winter solstice is when consumption increases rapidly as the queen starts to lay again.

7. When the outside temperatures are greater than 47°, the bees can move on the honey and change their location. Lower temperatures trap them in place.

8. Bees CANNOT cluster on foundation, it must at least be drawn comb. So for those of you who have just started beekeeping, make sure you leave the bees only with drawn comb and not unworked foundation. Remove the undrawn frames and put nothing in their place, just make sure the frames left are in a group with no empty space in between them.

9. There are approximately 2800 packages sent to Maryland beekeepers every spring. Take care of your bees and you won’t be one of them.

10. Black locust and tulip poplar are the major flows in our area; having drawn comb for the honey supers will greatly increase your honey harvest.

11. To be a good beekeeper you need to understand the biology and habitat of the honey bee.

So how is my winter prep going? I have the four hives and they all appear to be coming along very nicely.

-Melissa, the orange hive is 2 deeps and one medium, there is one unworked frame of foundation which I expect to be drawn out this week.

-Demeter, the purple hive is two deeps, one undrawn frame of foundation

-Peony, the pink hive is one deep and one medium, there are 2 undrawn frames in the deep

-Aphrodite, the teal hive is 2 deeps with most of the frames drawn (about 8 were drawn in 2 weeks!).

I did not treat for mites this year, I hope that wasn’t a mistake, I’ll talk about that another time.

Since the end of July I have fed them 218 lbs of sugar. I was mixing 8 lbs of water and 10 lbs of sugar, I have now thickened it to 6 lbs of water and 10 lbs of sugar. I stopped feeding the purple and orange hives and as of this weekend I am just feeding the 2 new hives. The pink hive took 2 quarts in one day, I added more today and will keep filling it as needed. The teal hive actually strengthened quite a bit in the past 2 weeks, I was pleasantly surprised.

I hope everyone’s winter preparations are going well and we all come out of the winter with live bees! It’s getting surprisingly cold here for Maryland.

New hive stand

Well, not new in design :) It’s a carbon copy of the hive stand my husband already built for the first 2 hives. I didn’t want the new hives in front of the old ones and the best solution was what you see below. The layout of our yard, which is essentially a rectangle, dictated the set-up. I just love having the stand as it makes every hive inspection so much easier.

The pink hive was literally moved a couple feet back onto the hive stand. However, the teal hive was far enough away (~ 6′) from its final location that if I were to try and just move that teal hive onto the new stand, it may confuse the bees. Bees use a variety of celestial and topographical cues to orient themselves to their home and as you can see the teal hive was to the left of the purple hive. The new location will place it to the right of the orange hive; the returning workers would be very confused trying to figure out where their home went.

In a similar vein, my friend needs to move a hive she has from the front of her house to the back onto the hive stand but the distance is a good bit more than 40′. If you haven’t heard this by now, beekeeping lore states you can move a hive either less than 2 feet or more than 2 miles. There a few tricks to get around this: close up the hive for about 3 days and then open it, this would force the confined bees to reorient themselves to their surroundings, the other option is to place a leafy branch in front of the entrance to force the bees to reorient, the idea being the bees would think a big branch had fallen and the topography had changed (but really, who knows what bees think?). This next idea is the one I tried: a few days before the move place a white board in front of the hive. When you are ready to move the hive, make sure that you replace the white board as it was and the bees will use it to help them orient to their new location. The idea came from an email sent to Rusty: Runway lights

Here’s my set up:

Runway lights for the hive I want to move.

Runway lights for the hive I want to move.

After the move, I left the runway in place for a few days before removing it. When I moved the hive in the late morning, there were a few bees that came back to the old spot and were clearly wondering where there home went. By the end of the day, there were no lost bees; they either found the new home or joined the purple one that was close to home. The "lost" bees would have been carrying either water, nectar, pollen or propolis and so they would have been accepted into a new hive. Robbers do not come bearing gifts.

After the move, I left the runway in place for a few days before removing it. When I moved the hive in the late morning, there were a few bees that came back to the old spot and were clearly wondering where there home went. By the end of the day, there were no lost bees; they either found the new home or joined the purple one that was close to home. The “lost” bees would have been carrying either water, nectar, pollen or propolis and so they would have been accepted into a new hive. Robbers do not come bearing gifts.

Honey harvesting?

I mentioned in another post that I had tested my honey using a refractometer to determine if my uncapped honey was ready for harvesting.
Why didn’t I just wait until the bees capped it? Impatience my friends, impatience. I have coworkers asking me about honey and neighbors getting excited when they see me in the hives and I needed to start feeding them pronto and I don’t want to mix honey and sugar syrup.

Generally the honey refractometers cost upwards of $200. I didn’t need it to be super exact, just exact enough to let me know if the honey was 18.6% or lower water content as it should be; Grade A and B honey, according to the USDA, contains 18.6% or less water, Grade C has more. I found a refractometer on Amazon for around $30, it comes calibrated but you are supposed to recalibrate it. The problem with the cheap ones is exactly that, they’re cheap so the instructions were poor to say the least but thankfully I had watched some videos and read up on refractometers. The instructions the came with the device stated to use distilled water as a calibration fluid. WHAT??? The water percentage range for the refractometer I have is 12% to 27%, if you use distilled water…it’s 100% water!! Crazy people.

There are calibration oils that you can use but I didn’t have that (I may buy some to have on hand) so we tried to make our own calibration fluid using supersaturated sugar syrup: 80 grams of sugar and 20 grams of water. Do you understand how difficult that is to dissolve??? Oiy. Some heat helped, it had to cool a little, then it was used quickly before it solidified. As a second check, I used an unopened bottle of honey I bought from a beekeeper in PA, they both tested at 20%. I had decided to use the bought honey as my standard, if my honey came out higher I would NOT extract. My refractometer was still not accurate and I needed to compare it against something reliable (as you will see).

Well, the uncapped honey I tested came out at 23%, definitely not something I wanted to extract. The higher the water content, the quicker the honey will ferment. I had heard that if you shake the frame of uncapped honey and it doesn’t shake out then it’s harvestable, however I did the “shake test” and it didn’t shake out even in 95ºF temperatures. So I won’t be using that as my gauge next time.

I checked a week later and it was down to 22%. We had our monthly bee meeting and our club has a good refractometer with many increments between the percentages whereas mine jumped from 16 to 17 to 18%, etc. We used both of our refractometers and I found that mine tested 1.5% higher than the club’s. So I borrowed the club’s refractometer and my honey tested below 18%. Time to extract!!

My el-cheapo but perfectly serviceable refractometer. I let the bees clean it up when I was done with it.

My el-cheapo but perfectly serviceable refractometer. I let the bees clean it up when I was done with it.

We borrowed the club’s new 2-frame extractor which proves more than adequate for most of us backyard beekeepers.

I used a sheet pan as my work surface when I scratched the cappings. Whatever collected on it I later set out for the bees to clean.

I used a sheet pan as my work surface when I scratched the cappings. Whatever collected on it I later set out for the bees to clean.

The waiting frames. They were not end to end filled frames.

The waiting frames. They were not end to end filled frames.

You can see most of the cells have been emptied of honey but another spin was warranted. It took a little trial and error to figure out the optimum speed.

You can see most of the cells have been emptied of honey but another spin was warranted. It took a little trial and error to figure out the optimum speed.

Waiting to be spun

Waiting to be spun

Those flecks are the wax cappings

Those flecks are the wax cappings

Beautiful, beautiful. In the end we got about 17lbs, essentially from one hive and some lost to robbing and eating.

Beautiful, beautiful. In the end we got about 17lbs, essentially from one hive and some lost to robbing and eating.

I get my labels from myownlabels.com, they are waterproof and removable which I really like. These are Victorian Square jars and I LOVE the black lids:
DSC03936

The muth jars were sealed with plastic over the cork, I felt safer that the cork wouldn't pop out on the way home.

The muth jars were sealed with plastic over the cork, I felt safer that the cork wouldn’t pop out on the way home.