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?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Oxymel: Honey as a Health Enhancement


Honey forecast for our hives post swarm(s): slim to none! So to celebrate, I made oxymel with another local beekeeper's honey. The Meyer lemon and the mint on-the-other-hand, are from the backyard. Next year if we're lucky (and add the second hive box in time), the oxymel will be made from  ingredients exclusively from the backyard!

Oxymel is an ancient Greek medicinal drink made of vinegar (the oxy portion) and honey (the mel portion). The ratio of honey to vinegar is 1:1 and you simply heat the honey at a low temperature in a stainless pot, add the vinegar, stir and let cool before transferring to a container. It will last indefinitely.

Hippocrates was said to have prescribed it for common colds as an expectorant, and as a general restorative. It's also been prescribed throughout time for other ailments such as: gout, sciatica, and pneumonia. Many cultures made similar concoctions, sometimes adding other healthful ingredients such as ginger, lemon, or mint.

Oxymel can be used by the spoonful as a medicine, or enjoyed in your tea or bubbly water for good health.

 "Let your food be your medicine" ~ Hippocrates

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Swarm Troopers

3 Hive Beeyard
Here's what our beeyard looks like as of Monday. The great self-dividing hive has swarmed once again. Monday must be a good day for bees as that's the day our secondary swarm alighted in our garden atop  a few prickly new raspberry canes. Poor choice of "layover" spots as the raspberry cane promptly "laid over" on the ground from the weight of the small swarm, making it a little more challenging to remove.

Small Secondary Swarm on Raspberry Canes
With three hives now, two with non-productive virgin queens, weather this week is critical to these young ladies getting out and visiting the drone den in the sky to get a proper mating. Without a mated queen and left to their own devices, these hives will die out as only drones (males) can be laid from unfertilized eggs. The forecast so far...rain, rain, rain...but possibly some sun tomorrow. I can only hope our new queens will be mature enough to be ready for their mating flight by then. If by some time next week we still cant find these queens (we checked yesterday without success) or signs of her (newly laid eggs), timing will be critical to combine these hives back with the one with the good queen so that the worker bees don't start laying eggs, a newbee keeper's nightmare.

Swarm Capture
Swarm Trooper

I'm fascinated with the inner working of the colony. While bees are individual insects, collectively they act as one organism in that they are dependent upon each other for survival.  One lone bee in the world would catch it's death of cold very quickly without it's hive-mates to cluster together with, unhitch their wing muscles and vibrate them to create heat, as just one teeny tiny example. Now that I am confident in handling the hives sans gloves, my hands can feel the heat they generate as soon as I lift the inner cover. No wonder mice overwinter in hives.

I'm reading "Honeybee Democracy" by Thomas Seeley, Cornell University bee professor. The book delves into the way in which honeybees collectively and unanimously decide where their new home will be after they have swarmed. His many years of studying their behavior has valuable lessons for we humans in collective decision-making. It is amazing what these insects can teach us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Secondary Swarm Preparations Under Way

I took a long overdue bike ride to the Farmer's Market in Arcata this morning and when I returned there were a gazillion bees in the air flying about in probably a 75 foot radius, pretty big. My heart sank and I quickly realized me bees were swarming again. Needless to say, I'm not prepared and I didn't think this would really happen since I felt I was diligent in cutting out all but two queen cells from the hive. Within several minutes, they began condensing close to the hive and eventually landed on the south face of the hive in a huge cluster. This wasn't a swarm since they returned home, but it means they're preparing to leave again. How much excitement is too much excitement you ask?

Fortuitously, Marc assembled the hive his friend Rocky gave him last night so that he could start a hive at his house. It's not painted yet, but it will due in a pinch. Considering that, if we are lucky a second time to catch our own swarm when it leaves, we'd be phenomenally lucky if the three hives all end up "queen right", or with well-mated viable queens. More probable is that at least one hive will have no queen or an unmated queen and we'll have to recombine it in time with one of the two already established. That will at least give us a chance to paint the new hive and get it to Arcata. This is baptism by fire.

On a positive note, I went in and checked the new hive from the swarm on Monday and found the original queen with her little white dot. She has laid eggs on one side of one of the frames. There's not much comb built in there yet so she's probably waiting for the working girls to build more comb so she has a place to continuing with her motherly mission. Phew! Later today if the wind dies back I hope to inspect the original hive and see what in the world is going on in there. Crazy, huh?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Almost Queen

Today was almost good enough to get in to check the old hive to see how many queen cells we've left for them. Too many increases the chances that they will again swarm, a so-called "after swarm". We'd like to keep two in case one doesn't make it, it gives the hive a second chance to have their own home-made queen (rather than a bought queen). On Monday just after the swarm we checked and thought there were two, possibly three queen cells at the most. They contained larvae but they were not yet capped over with wax to pupate.

"Almost" good enough weather was going to have to be good enough weather to check in on them as I was nervous as to just how many queens are pupating in there. Sure enough, the uppermost hive body contained three queen cells all on the center frame (the one that I had moved upstairs from the first box when I put the second one on two Saturdays ago). The lower box had one queen cell that I hadn't seen on Monday. How are these peanut shaped things that hang low from the bottom of the frame so elusive? I cut out the one cell in the bottom hive, and one from the upper, leaving two queen cells. The ladies will have to battle it out, or the one that hatches first will likely open the cell of her competitor and sting her to death. A kind of royal "off with her head" execution. Only she does it herself instead of directing minions to do the dirty deed as you might expect of royalty. Because we forgot to take a photo of the queen cells we left,  we went back in sans smoke to get a pic. Apparently we're not doing a great job of getting bees out of the way as there were not two, but three capped queen cells hanging there. Glad we forgot the picture as it gave us the opportunity to once again narrow the field for the royal competition soon to come.
Two Queen Cells Covered in Bees

The picture below is that of one of the queen cells that we opened after we cut it out. What a beautiful perfectly formed bee is this "almost queen". Sad we had to take her out, so to speak. As perfectly formed as she is, she was probably about 14 or 15 days old; only a day or two away from hatching. We can probably expect that, if we're going to have another swarm, it's going to be very soon.
She Will Never Get To Compete For the Crown

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Day After ~ Orientation Day

The bee yard is abuzz with lots of winged ladies taking orienting flights just outside the new hive. They're do this to learn where their new home is so that they can begin to go out and forage for nectar and pollen and find their way home. Since their original home is right next door I wonder if they're experiencing deja vu. Only problem...they're also conducting these flights in front of the old hive too. My best guess is that the bees from the swarm are drifting over to their old hive. If were lucky, really lucky, we'll end up with enough bees in each hive to continue their important work of feeding babies and storing food. I'm feeling lucky and don't expect to find a queen all alone in the new hive...those queen pheromones are simply irresistable.
Spider Eating Bee (Hint: Double-click for a close up)

This picture was taken yesterday when we noticed, in the midst of the excitement of swarm chasing, that a garden spider was feasting on one of our bees. It took a moment to reflect on nature's delicately balanced food chain and not take it personally that a spider was lunching on one of our bees. As the circle of life has it, that bee will nourish that spider that will in turn do wonderful things for that sunflower in our garden. That sunflower will give us visual pleasure for a time and in turn provide the goats succulent sustenance,  and maybe leave a few seeds for the chickens if they're lucky!

The cycles of life are self-evident in our little yard lately. Saturday we trimmed a holly tree that was casting shade on the garden only to learn that it contained a bird's nest with new born babies in it. Sadly they didn't survive the trauma even after we perched the reconstructed nest in the crotch of the same tree. Ravens quickly found and decimated what remained. Later that day we found a very much alive nest of baby birds in our chicken shed. One nest of baby birds perishes, another will live. And so it goes...

Monday, May 16, 2011


Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart. It isn't an exact science and knowing what they bees are up to and then how you'd like to handle it can keep you up nights.

Friday's hive inspection netted 5 or more queen cells hanging from one of the brood frames in the top hive box, a sign of either swarm preparation or supercedure. Most likely I waited a little too long to give them more brood space by giving them a second box to lay eggs and store honey and pollen. So the signs of swarm were there Friday. To try to prevent a swarm I squished all the queen cells, even though it felt odd squishing the larva of the little insects I've been trying so hard not to squish every time I enter their little "queendom".  But today they swarmed anyway and landed in a holly tree near the goat shed. Nice and low and easy to cut out, box up, and walk over to a newly set up hive. Good fortune!

Swarm in our holly tree

I was glad to have heard over and over in bee class that swarming bees are gentle bees. That greatly increased my comfort level of handling them. The discomfort comes with the myriad questions about the old hive and the new. Are the hives too close and the swarm bees will migrate back in the old box or allow bees left to tend the old hive to drift to the new? Are there enough bees in the old hive to keep the brood warm and fed? Do I have a virgin queen in the old hive or do I need to order a new one? If I do have a queen in the making, do I let nature take its course even though odds are much less favorable for the viability of the new queen your hive will make than one you buy already mated? It's enough to make  you lose an otherwise cozy night's sleep.

A quick check of the original hive showed no signs of a queen cell that was chewed through that would indicate there is a new queen on the loose in the hive. There were however, either two or three queen cups with larvae in them hanging at the bottom of the same frames with the original queen cells last week. If I'm sure there's no queen I can order a new one and have a greatly elevated chance of having a good queen for this hive. If there's one in there already the hive likely won't accept the new bought queen even thought she's their best bet. Finding a baby unmarked queen in there is probably much more than my unseasoned bee vision can be relied on to see.
Bee beehinds in the air fanning a message to their kin, "Queen's in here, c'mon in"

We were given the gift of a second hive in our first year. We debated getting two hives from the beginning. Opting for only one left us with lingering doubts wether we should have purchased two... With the fascinating blessing of this swarm we now have a second hive, one of the many gifts of nature, and we saved the $95 we would have spent on the hive... this swarm was quite a blessing on many levels for us... Also, handling the swarm successfully gave us a more intimate connection to our bees,  giving me the confidence to handle my bees without gloves, something that, after the initial installation, I've been timid to try again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Goats in the Chicken Coop

Who would have guessed that we crafted a chicken coop more appealing to goats than chickens. Most likely the climb onto a bale of hay and concrete block in order to access the chicken-sized coop opening appeals to the very basic nature of these climbers. Being the dwarves that they are, they happen also to fit very nicely through the tiny door.  We've spent the first several days with the new kids kicking them out of the coop. To divert their attention, we've constructed a goat playground from bales of hay, a garden cart and a couple of saw horses and plywood left over from constructing the goat shed. Lots of running and jumping and kicking and twisting from atop the plywood platform. They can balance on their two front feet better than any trapeze artist I know. OK well yes, I don't know any, but if I did...

One lovely bonus is their love of the blackberry infested overgrown quince bush. They like succulent new blackberry shoots and leaves over almost anything you can forage for them. They like dandelion leaves over flowers. They like chicken scratch over ANYTHING!

Since chicken feed has too much calcium for goats we thought better of allowing them to gorge themselves on it. Geniuses that we think we are, we hid the chicken food under the coop where there was room only for small fowl.  Wrong again... these two darlings got down on their knees in order to shimmy underneath to dine with the flock. Bottom line, goats are intelligent creatures who can easily outwit their unwitting new family.