Join us as we follow our new colleagues—the bees—through their second year homesteading in the Rock Creek Valley. The story is in reverse chronological order so scroll down to start from the beginning, or read more about their first year on The Ranch.  

Chapter Three: Lessons Learned

by Kelsey Bruns, Beekeeper, Master Naturalist

A Growing Year

I am constantly amazed and humbled by the complexity of the hive. One of the first things I learned from my apiarist mentor was that once you believe you know everything about beekeeping you should quit because that means you are a terrible beekeeper.

Instead, you should always be learning from the hive. That comment has stayed with me. This season there have been many surprises and unforeseen circumstances with the hives, a less-than-bumper crop of honey, and yes, there has been a lot of learning.

Honey crop in jars
We sold jars from our 2017 at this year’s Autumn Harvest Celebration. Photo by Kelsey Bruns.

For me, beekeeping is an intricate dance of manipulating the hive. As a beekeeper you are constantly assessing the hive and reacting quickly enough to know what your next move is going to be. Knowing how to read a hive is imperative to a healthy and successful hive. This can be as easy as moving frames from point A to point B and as complex as listening for different intonations of the buzz of a hive. This season there were many instances to practice observation and react to what the hive was telling me.

A Product of our Environment

Spring was very wet and cold this year, and our summer came in strong and left quickly. Two things need to happen for any plant to produce nectar: warmth and moisture. The warmth and moisture allows the plant to bloom. But the golden ticket is to have both these things happen over an extended amount of time. With no moisture in the ground, the flowers may be present but they will not produce nectar.

Lacking these two integral factors left the hives with less than enough time to collect a enough nectar to turn into a large crop of honey. As one can imagine, this can be quite frustrating for a beekeeper. I feel for the local farmers when the weather is just not conducive for a bumper crop that can support their livelihood.

A Tough Call

With all this being said, I can blame the weather all I want for the lack of honey, but the reality of this year’s less than exciting honey crop was also due to the health of the hives. For reasons unknown, two hives lost their queens. To make matters worse, these two hives lost their queens right before the nectar flow.

As a beekeeper, all your work is for the nectar flow. You work to ensure you have the strongest hive possible with the most bees that are foragers right as the nectar comes on. With no queen continuously laying eggs to keep hive numbers up, and forager bees coming of age, a hive simply lacks the bee numbers and the appropriate cohort of bees to collect nectar.

Female worker bees keeping the brood warm on the frame

As the weather turned cool, the bees started to clump for winter. This act helps the bees to stay warm while exuding less energy. Photo by Kelsey Bruns.

Even after this event, I still had hope for my hives. I repaired these hives with bees from the two strongest hives in the apiary and patted myself on the back for a job well done. But to my dismay one of the new queens in the hive did not mate well and was a drone layer (only produced male bees, not female worker bees), and thus this hive was once again doomed. Being an optimist, I went into the strong hives once again to repair the damaged hive and this queen took.

Finally, all of the hives were back to normal. But because of my optimism (or potentially my stubbornness), the two strongest hives that I used to heal the weak hives had suffered. I ultimately decreased their bee numbers, and in return, these hives produced less honey.

Honeybees outside of their new hives

Female bees taking advantage of their last sunny days in the Rock Creek Valley before their winter stay in the Bitterroot Valley. Photo by Kelsey Bruns.

I had to make this decision along the way and I had my reasons. The question was, should I let two hives die and let the strongest hives stay strong and produce an amazing honey crop? Or should I save two hives and sacrifice the amount of honey I would get in the end? I reasoned with the second option, which roots in my philosophy of beekeeping.

The purpose of beekeeping for me is not how many pounds of honey I harvest; it is for the mere appreciation I have for them. Understanding the honeybee hive is a wonder. Something so complex, yet so perfect and simple, that it hasn’t changed in millions of years.

The hive is a beautiful super-organism that our society will always be indebted to and that I will forever be in awe of.

The bees are now set up for success in which they will over-winter well.  They now reside in the Bitterroot Valley for a second winter where the climate is less harsh and the spring flowers come early. Cheers to the bees. I am always ready to learn.


Chapter Two: A Live Hive That Thrives

Spring Turns to Summer

Spring in Rock Creek Valley was quite a dramatic season. This past winter we had an above average snow pack and thus, in return, we have had an extended high water season for Rock Creek. We hope the extra precipitation will mean a healthier ecosystem in the long run.

A bee gathers nectar from a mustard plant

Photo by Kelsey Bruns.

Now that the water is down, the fly fishing is up! As spring progresses into summer, the hives are busy, gathering pollen and trying to recuperate from the long winter.

Restorative Treatment

Winter is always difficult for the honeybees. Long periods of cold weather can be stressful for the hive. You could liken it to how humans are susceptible to a common cold in the winter. These harsh conditions can induce disease, which the hive often finds difficult to recover from.

Since the arrival of the hives back to The Ranch from their winter home in the Bitterroot Valley, I have managed these setbacks with long visits to the hives to feed them sugar syrup and pollen supplements. These two items are like super foods to the hives, which give them energy and the boost they need in preparation of the nectar flow.

Live Hive at Five

Now that summer is here, the hives are well on their way to produce a new and exciting honey that will be beautifully unique to the 2018 Montana summer. In addition to our honey production, I will be hosting “Live Hive at Five” every Thursday evening. During cocktail hour guests will be able to view our observation hive and chat with me about all things bees as they enjoy a honey-inspired drink.

Cheers to summer and to the bees!

Chapter One: Our Montana Apiary Story

Winter is a time to slow down here in Montana. Since my last blog, the snow has flown and settled in our mountains and valleys. Our local ski hill, Discovery Ski Area, has had excellent snowfall. We included downhill skiing and snowboarding in our activities program this year, so our guests have enjoyed the powder and pack for over four frosty months.

Bluebird days at Discovery Ski Area mean that spring is right around the corner!

But as our days become longer, the sun will shine a little warmer. The snow will eventually disappear and our bees will be coming out of their winter slumber. Spring means the continuation of one of my favorite facets of our sustainability program.

Wintering the Bees

It turns out our bees are travelers at heart, just like us. Since November an apple orchardist in the Bitterroot Valley has kindly hosted our bees. The bees and I are so grateful for these connections to local farmers.

I visited our bees with my beekeeper friend a few weeks ago. We managed to find a day in March where the sun was shining at about 40 degrees, which allowed us a quick look at the hive population and the food storage weight of the hives. To our delight, the bees are all present and accounted for. They have survived the harshest of Montana winter months, with many negative-digit days!

A worker bee enjoys flying local on Ranch property. Our landscaped areas also provide opportunities to gather nectar and pollen

This visit was reassuring because I now know that I left enough honey in the hive for the bees to survive for four months without a nectar flow! Now, and until the apple blossoms bloom, we will keep our eye on them for food stores and bring them back to the Rock Creek Valley by May.

Rolling into Spring

Now that winter is coming to a close and we are quickly rolling into spring, I am grateful for a successful first honeybee season here at The Ranch. It would not be possible without the support of The Ranch at Rock Creek team and our local farmers.

Having a winter home for the bees in the Bitterroot Valley and the support of a fellow apiarist has been greatly helpful. It has been imperative for the health of our hives, and I’ve had the opportunity to continue learning from a veteran beekeeper.

Kelsey visits the hives, located down Rock Creek, in a quiet valley location

So the next time you may find yourself at a local farmer’s market, shake your local farmer’s hand and say, “Thanks!” They support our local economy, and they help our communities to be healthy and happy. A heartfelt “Thank You” (and perhaps a produce purchase) will show them that their hard work is deeply appreciated.

This second year will give our honeybee sustainability program a chance to have even greater impact on the landscape, and it will give our Relais & Châteaux culinary team more chances to work their magic with this uber local crop.