Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Gift a Swarm


After a first attempt of relatively unsuccessful bee keeping and much internal debate wether or not to try again this year, a swarm landed in our garden. The packaged bees we purchased last year swarmed 3 times. In each swarm we failed to find a queen, inevitably leading to the demise of the hive. Also, leaving the only queen right hive too few in numbers not to have succumbed to the first frost. We were not alone. Success at keeping a hive over the winter was few and far between in the local bee circles e run in. Though those circles are small there still was not much to feel positive about where bee keeping is concerned. So the debate went, do we buy a $95 dollar package and give it another go, despite all of the potential roadblocks for the modern apiarist, or do i just wait for a swarm??? if we bite the bullet, spend the money, the worst case scenario is we pollinate the neighborhood, get a little honey and a few bee stings. Well, bee purchasing day at the university came and went. After that i only halfheartedly inquired about where i can locally purchase a package, the decision was made... i wait for a swarm... and a swarm did come... right into our lap... Actually, the top of the quince bush in our garden. it was truly a gift...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bumble Bees Love Borage

Pollen-legged Bumble Bee (upper right)
There's very little time to languish on the deck and relax these days as the garden is in full production. Not only is it necessary to tend to the plants, there's harvesting, then preparing the bounty. It all takes time, not that I'm complaining, mind you, but it leaves little time for other endeavors, like sitting on the deck watching the bumble bees, and blogging.

I've been fortunate to be sitting here in front of the borage plant captured in a wine barrel and witness the daily comings and goings of several baby bumble bees. It's peeked my curiosity about the fuzzy little insect, apidae bombus a relative of the honeybees I' am tending nearby. Like the honeybee, they feed on pollen and nectar. And like the honeybee, they sting. I understand, and not from direct experience, that their stinger isn't barbed, so they have the distinct privilege of being able to sting over and over. They make their nests in holes in the ground...not the elaborate colony concocted by honeybees, they often only house 50 bees compared to the honeybees tens of thousands. But my favorite fun bumble bee fact is that they can "buzz pollinate", that is, the frequency of their buzz releases pollen from plants, in particular tomato plants. I'm pretty smitten with their genus "bombus" as well.

Wikipedia informs me that bumble bees visit the same plant day after day. So the bumble bees visiting today are the same ones I've been seeing every day. Thus the bumble bees and I have got a steady relationship forming. These pretty little creatures leave scents on the plants they visit that discourages competition from other bumble bee foragers. Guess I can safely name them now. This little tidbit makes me even more intent on continuing my ritual of shooing my canine companion from his nightly pursuit of capturing baby bumble bees in his ferocious jaws.

It is truly awesome the amazing natural world that is as close as the edge of the deck. To imagine that we are an integral part of it is all the more awe inspiring. If more of our kind spent more time sitting on the deck observing the coming and goings of the insects, plans and animals we share the world with, we'd have a better understanding of our place in nature and feel less compelled to continue to contribute to its ruination.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beautiful Broccoli, Entirely Homegrown Meal

Broccoli grows well in cool climates, hence it's a perfect crop for sometimes sunny, always cool, costal northern California. The broccoli bed was prepared with generous a helping of compost, another must.

Yesterday we harvested our first successful broccoli plant, yielding easily several pounds of broccoli. Last night's dinner was the result of the fruits of our labor:  yukon gold potatoes with broccoli, and strawberry rhubarb cobbler.

The broccoli not only looked spectacular, it was the sweetest and most flavorful I've tasted. The stalks are firm but not woody and the left overs will make excellent broccoli cheddar soup today. We'll definitely purchase these seeds (Premium Crop Hybrid) again next year from Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon. Although we've ventured into saving seeds from our crops, since this is a hybrid plants from the seed will likely have completely different qualities than the plants we're currently growing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lavender Harvest

They say lavender has calming properties in addition to many other therapeutic uses. Harvesting lavender in and of itself was therapeutic. Deciding which buds to harvest, which to leave a little longer,  fingers scented from oils released from delicate wands, whorls of purple and blue in compact buds... it is an enjoyable, grounding activity.

As we have only a few plants, there won't be much to play with and make fun things like skin toner, lavender water, lavender pillows or sachets. This batch will be used for culinary purposes.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Treasure Hunt

The benefit of having free range hens versus keeping them in a chicken run is probably obvious to most. Healthier chickens, more nutritious eggs, and fertilized pasture are the most obvious. There is a down side however, if you see it that way. For the past 3 days egg production has seemingly come to a halt, with only a couple of eggs each day in the usual places. The usual places are probably most unusual as we have let them pick their favorite nesting spot: some lay in the coop, some in the shed, and some in the garage.

Hidden Nest

The Hidden Entry

Blackberry Ensconced Quince
After combing the place several times and coming up empty, the local raven flock became suspect number one in the egg disappearance. No eggs in any of the nooks or crannies I could think of. This afternoon however, after watching "les girls" toddle off toward the tall grasses near the quince bush that has become ensnarled by blackberry vines, it dawned on me where the eggs had to be. Sure enough, a hidden cache of one dozen eggs lay in a nice little divot scratched out by the hens. On hands and knees, reaching deep into the brambles, my hand alighted on the very cool smooth surface of an egg.

Their choice of spots for a nest is impeccable. Not only is it completely invisible to the human (or raven) eye, the quince bush provides the element of refrigeration that has kept the eggs fresh until I could find them. I am thankful to have hens that can free range, carefully choose their nesting spots, and provide me with an entertaining Saturday afternoon treasure hunt.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Honeybee Varroa Mite Inspection

The hive ladies got their very first powdered sugar dusting today. This technique is used to detect the presence of the veracious ferocious Varroa destructor, or varroa mite. The sugar knocks the mites off the backs of the bees and onto the bottom board. Removing and examining the bottom board gives a clue as to a hive's mite load.
Sugar Honeybees

Apparently these mites are omnipresent; all hives will eventually come up with them. It's early yet to expect to see many of them, but I'm pleased to report these ladies have come up with a clean bill of health. No detectable signs of mites!
Varroa mite hitching a ride on the back of a honeybee
Photo from
The varroa mite parasite attaches itself to the honeybee and, like a leech, sucks on the bees hemolymph (blood). This weakens the bees and additionally makes them susceptible to viruses. It is thought that this mite is a key ingredient in Colony Collapse Disorder, the syndrome that is virtually killing off our bees.

How Much is Too Much Bee Business?

Yesterday our original, twice-swarmed hive saw a flurry of activity at the front of the hive. Bees landing on the front face, many bees hanging out at the entrance, bees seeming to not have a work agenda, like being heavily-laden with honey and coming in for a slow landing, or the pollen-legged type bringing flower protein to the colony. It looked as though there may be some robbing going on. There were even some bees much larger than I'm use to seeing coming and going. What is going on? My initial guess was that they were being robbed. And since our smallest weakest hive seemed to be experiencing the same activity lately and had around 15 or so dead bees on the landing, it seemed a plausible explanation.

Hive Covered With Wet Sheet
Launching into action, I swiftly reduced the entrance to the smallest possible size, and placed a wet sheet over the hive to deter any foreign subversive activity. Apparently the "home bees" are still able to find their way in while others are not. Within the hour crazy bee activity had ceased and the weather had turned back to normal Humboldt summer weather, cold and wet. So, I removed the sheet.

Was my assessment correct? There weren't dead bees all over and I couldn't really distinguish any fighting activity at the entrance. Was it just that we were experiencing a moment of nice weather for a change and even the drones decided they could come out for a quick look for those virgin queens some 60 feet above our heads? Such good weather that the activity was heavily increased from the norm? The big bees I saw, in retrospect were most likely our own drones since drones are probably not robbers...they're lovers, not fighters.

Oh the angst of an ignorant newbee keeper.

Life Before The Garden Cart?

I don't recall how I got much done before having a garden cart on hand to transport everything from bales of alfalfa to multiple bags of soil amendments to wine barrels. This barrel would have remained put under an imposing echium plant that was ensconcing it medusa-style. But Barbarella, our Barred Rock and Barney, our club-footed Rhode Islander were instrumental in the removal. They picked out all the bugs while I heave-hoed the soil and together we were able to remove much of the weight in the barrel before it was leveraged onto the cart for the transport. In this picture they are seen in their roles as transportation engineers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Migratory Hive Covers: WTF?

Hive inspection yesterday didn't go well. Besides the disappointment of finding queen cups in two hives, both hives with migratory covers were all damp inside, a condition not to the bee's liking. I suppose the ultimate meaning of migratory covers is that it will lead to your bees migrating away from your hive. Lovely. Where was the warning label for that? There are warning labels for everything else, even things more intuitive. You know, like the ones on silica packets (do not eat this) or on Alice in Wonderland's little bottles (Drink Me).

Migratory covers are for big-time beekeepers, which we are not. It enables them to stack their hives side to side for transportation to big-time orchards, which we do not do. Guess we're going to have to invest in more telescoping covers for our beautiful but damp, soggy, windy, cloudy, cold Humboldt summer.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chicken-Proof Gardening And a Gardener/Beekeeper's Philosophical Rant

This weekend among the homestead projects was cleaning out half-barrels of spent brassica plants, reinvigorating the soil, and planting herbs in their place. The barrels are just off the deck, close to the kitchen, and a little handier than trucking  all the way out to the garden for a snippet or two of herbs.

Chicken-proof Herbs
After planting the barrels I took a break to sit on the deck and survey the results of our labor over the weekend when I looked down at the aspiring herb garden barrels to find that one of the Evil Stepsisters (translation: Wyandotte hen) was clawing contentedly away in the dirt at the location formerly occupied by two echinacea starts. Starts that took forever to germinate and grow to their current two inches high. Oh my! That will learn me to take a break before a job is complete. One echinacea was salvaged, the other was nowhere to be found, likely in the belly of the hen who will give it back to us in the form of an egg...a really nutritious egg.

It is interesting to note the change in gardening philosophy that keeping bees can bring. In my former gardening life, the spent brassicas wouldn't have been occupying precious barrel space. None-the-less there they were still, all gangly, twisting their long flowering stalks lazily atop the deck, effortlessly attracting entire tribes of aphids.  By all rights any self-respecting gardener would have yanked them up by their heads, tossed them to the compost, and made way for something new and more productive.

Enter the bee-minded gardener! Bees and brassicas apparently have coevolved. Bees need brassicas for the obvious nectar and pollen while brassicas need bees to assist in their pollination. They suffer from "self-incompatibility" (don't we all from time to time?): the pollen from one flower will only pollinate the flower of another brassica plant (no inbreeding here). This is a problem for them because their pollen is a bit on the sticky and heavy side and isn't readily windborne. Thus the bees and the brassicas enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Who am I to uproot half of a perfectly compatible partnership?