Archive for the 'Beekeeping' Category

The Honey Harvest – Part II

August 22nd, 2009

It is fitting that I share Part II of our honey harvest today- the first ever National Honeybee Awareness Day.  The USDA issued an earlier press release highlighting the critical role of honeybees to agriculture.

“Bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value and is an essential component of the production of more than 90 food crops – particularly specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, fruits and vegetables.”

“Honey bees are critical to the process of pollination of our crops throughout our country and an important part of maintaining a stable and sustainable ecosystem,” Secretary Vilsack said. “Honey Bee Awareness Day will help highlight this important role, as well as the significant threat honey bees now face from the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder.”

It is no surprise that people have become more aware of the plight of the honeybee by media reports and tv specials in recent years.  We even read about how to save or help honeybees, and companies such as Haagen-Dazs have extended their influence and financial support as well  (I love Haagen-Dazs ice cream!)-  they even have a cool flash-based site at HelptheHoneybee.com .

Certainly the threats to the honeybee are real.  Many researchers believe we’re seeing a cycle of change with the bees especially in regards to human-based chemical influenced threats that may compromise their immune systems.  There have been cycles of losses in past years of course where the honeybee faced similar threats of disease.  Yet with the abundance of immuno-chemical challenges within the environment, and coupled with physical threats due to mites, hive beetles, bacteria, and viruses, the honeybee today must overcome greater challenges than ever before.

The honeybee is even attacked by other critters!  A Bald-faced Hornet hovers in front of this hive, just before grabbing one of the workers to take back to its own colony.  The Bald-faced Hornet is actually in the yellow-jacket genus made up of  predatory social wasps.


So do the bees just stand there and let themselves get picked off by predators?  Usually, yes- they are not bothered normally from such threats and appear unsuspecting. But the bald-faced hornet is sneaky, and grabs a bee very quickly, or knocks it to the ground and then carries it away in its legs.   Sometimes however, the bees react quickly too and they “ball” the other insect such as the bald-faced hornet, or an intruding bumblebee, and eventually they kill it (sometimes they ball a drone or a queen bee within the hive as well).  In this picture the bees “balled” a larger insect that I couldn’t determine for sure- researchers believe the heat and carbon dioxide produced inside the “bee ball” kills the intruder… and sometimes a few bees die as well.



Today there’s an increasing trend focusing on natural and organic methods of beekeeping, in a similar fashion to gardening and healthier living choices.  This trend is tailor made for the small and part-time hobbyist beekeeper with relatively few bee hives.  Yet it doesn’t come without risk- trying to shepard hives of thousands of bees through the various seasons is an inexact science, and involves a great deal of art and intuition born only of experience.   There are no guarantees, and it can become an expensive hobby.   And if I do find disease with the bees, do I just let them struggle with it?  Give them chemicals to fight it?  We’ll see.

While the bees are facing challenges, does that mean we can’t find them anywhere?  No.  You can still purchase live bees from many companies around the nation, but it helps to order early (meaning during early winter) in order to get on the list and receive bees throughout the spring.  By mid-summer it’s difficult to find package bees for sale to start new hives. Then you’re off to the races, learning how to take of them and wondering what you got yourself into along the way.



Ah, but beekeeping does come with its own rewards!  Eventually (in the second year for most new beekeepers), you’ll find yourself harvesting honey from your very own hives.   It’s a rich reward like no other, and brings a satisfaction and pride at the work these amazing creatures have performed.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to gather our honey, and what I take from my hives is pure, natural and raw. The bees produced it on their own, in a challenging spring and summer season of rain and cooler weather this year.  Most of it is from wildflowers and trees in the area. Blackberries, elderberry, maple, clover, dandelion, mulberry, aster, locust, basswood… many more than I can count.  One of the hives is a lot stronger than the other- producing around 35 pounds of honey to the other hive’s 10 pounds this year.   In some parts of the country, the weather really hurt the honey yield, so I’m thankful for how well these bees did this year.

A beautiful frame of capped and filled honeycomb.


Working with bees in 85-95 degree summer weather is a pretty warm affair though.  Especially dressed in such fashionable, clunky apparel. It’s hot, sweaty work- and I don’t think the bees appreciate some big, sweaty human prodding around in their home. That’s where the smoke helps. I use a little smoke from burning grass or burlap and waft the smoke around the entrance or the top of the hive, and it calms the bees. Not only does it mask the odor of the beekeeper, but the bees have an instinctive response to fill up on honey in case a fire threatens the hive and they need to leave. Not all of them bury their heads in cells to suck up honey at the first whiff of smoke… most just seem hang out and continue doing whatever they were doing.

But when I open their hive without smoke they tend to get a little defensive and “ping” off my veil or coveralls more quickly. A hive of more defensive or aggressive bees will come pouring out at you in a heartbeat, seemingly with stingers first! So a little smoke goes a long way, and keeps the bees under control. That’s kind of important really, and while some people advocate not using smoke, I believe it actually aggravates the bees less, and helps you get finished a whole lot faster so you can close the hive back up and let the bees get back to their work.

Uncapping a frame of honey.


I mentioned before about an old honey extractor from years ago?   My folks kept that old extractor through the years for some reason.  It was laying in a corner of the barn… beat up and kind of rusty.  I pulled it out to look at it last year and frowned,  “No way…” I thought.  After pricing new extractors this year I reconsidered.

So what the heck I thought, and I did a little experiment… I removed all the parts and conducted reverse electrolysis in a 55 gallon drum with a battery charger and some iron rods.  It was amazing- the rust came off that thing in less than 24 hours!  I then hand-cleaned, bleached and scrubbed the extractor ’till it was nearly sparkling, and painted it inside and out.  I finished by completely coating it with two coats of food-grade epoxy- a clear, hard coat finish that nicely sealed it top to bottom.  Finally satisfied that it was in good shape to use for extracting honey, I still didn’t know if it would work very well.


I soon found out that they made things pretty well a hundred years ago however, and the extractor worked like a dream.  It was made by The Standard Churn Company out of Waupenka, Ohio sometime around 1910.  My grandparents were kids back then, and I can’t help but wonder how much honey this old extractor has seen.  The company made butter churns mostly, but I’ve found references for their extractors in old farm manuals.

After uncapping each frame by using a knife to remove the top wax cappings on the cells,  you put two frames in the extractor and crank one side for a minute- then take the frames out and turn them around.  Crank some more for a couple minutes, then take the frames out and turn around one more time.  Crank again for a while and that about does it.  The honey came out easily, taking a little time of course, but I can’t argue with the results.   As the honey spins out of the frames, it drips down the sides of the extractor and out into a bucket with a strainer set up at the top.  The honey is lightly filtered to remove bits of wax and sealed in a food-grade bucket ready for bottling.  No heating, no super micron filters… raw, natural and ready to eat!  That afternoon we hand-cranked about 20 medium frames of honey with that machine, two frames at a time- it was actually kind of fun.

Over three days we pulled supers and frames, extracted the honey and then began filling up the pre-washed half-pound glass bottles.  Lots of helpers- the boy loved it, and Memaw pitched in too :) I was like a kid in candy store… moreso with so much honey around.   It’s not a huge amount for the first real honey year- nearly five gallons in all.  Maybe more if we get a good flower bloom this fall.  I’m still looking at various designs and names for a label of some kind too, but it’s just not there yet.

I’m still amazed by the process- and the honey!  It’s exquisite… a beautiful amber gold that tastes incredible.  I filled up a few honey bears too, and the young boy got to have one all his own.


I like to think the flavor is enhanced by the time spent working with the bees, and watching them dance around the flowers, surviving through the pace of the changing seasons.   The other morning I watched the sun rise, enjoying the colors of dawn.   I heard a bee zooming by as I enjoyed the morning.   They’re up early too when it’s warm out, and the flower sources are a little scarce right now.   I smiled, marveling at the wonders of nature.  We help them have a home, the bees do their thing, and we receive a little honey in return.  I sipped my coffee and thought of how many more things we could do if we really wanted to.

There are three hives now at Fox Haven- not very many, but a lot from my perspective.  Earlier this month I requeened the weaker hive, and split off a new hive from the strong colony, starting it with its own new queen.  That’s another way to increase the number of hives you have in your apiary, and it’s also a story for another day.   If you missed it before, here’s a link to read about The Honey Harvest Part I.

The Honey Harvest – Part I

August 16th, 2009

Beekeeper. The word brings to mind curious thoughts about people in white suits and funny hats. I always viewed these folks as a little bit odd, semi-reclusive types that sold us honey and enjoyed having stinging insects crawl around on them.  The other day I smiled when I realized that I’m becoming one of those odd types myself!   

I’m still new enough that even using the word “beekeeper” seems strange to me.   I’ve also found that beekeepers are a pretty amazing group of folks from all walks of life.   Bees are kept everywhere, from cities to farms, and the people who work with them are as diverse as the flowers and trees that the bees visit.   I’m only in my second year of a planned five year experiment. I told myself, “Self!? Let’s see what beekeeping is all about. Give it five years. Ok?”  I had some prodding of course.  More specifically the young boy’s urging, after having watched a science cartoon about beekeeping at age 6. That was like some motivational charm that inspired me to try something I always wanted to try, or at least thought I wanted to try.


Like many of you, I’ve always had pastoral visions of living closer to the land… a place in the country, gardens, vegetables, animals, bees… self reliance… even a little place to hide out if the world goes crazy.  Quite the romantic view of things, and even though it seems like the world has gone crazy the past few years, life pretty much goes on the same as before.  Living in the country is a grand thing indeed if you don’t mind the work that comes along with it. We have, in a rural hobby farm fashion, approached some of that pastoral ideal. Not nearly as some of our hardier blogging friends have done with homesteading, but we’re getting there.  Sometimes you ask yourself what you were ever thinking, but having a few hives of bees has definitely made it more enjoyable.

Beekeeping can be a hobby or a profession, and some people work with bees all their lives.   The accumulated knowledge and experience among 20, 40 and even 60+ year beekeeping veterans is amazing, and I understand fully that just having bees for a couple of years doesn’t make one a Beekeeper.

My Mom came out and helped me remove and cover the honey supers this year.  She’s 80 years old and amazing in her strength and endurance.  She had her own hive years ago in a more suburban environment, enjoying the bees for a few years.  I remember being home briefly one summer and wondering about my crazy parents and their beehive.  They had this old hand-cranked extractor… a little thing that held two frames.   I watched them get the honey out of their frame and tasted it… yum!  Maybe that planted the seed for my thoughts on beekeeping, I don’t really know. 


While the “beekeeper” name hasn’t felt quite right yet- I am getting closer.  For now I still think of myself as a Bee Learner- someone who sort of understands the process, but really has no idea what the heck the bees are doing most of the time.  Although I’ve been stung a few times, the bees I have are pretty gentle.   I keep wondering if there’s some mass event where the bees are going to revolt and I’ll have to come to terms with a more stark reality of their independence.  I’ve read stories of beekeeps being chased out of their apiary by hoardes of angry bees.  That would take a little of the fun out of it to be sure.

So far so good however, and the bees seem to be doing fine.   I pulled up a full frame of honey from this super with beautiful white wax covering it all.  If I wanted to make or sell comb honey, it would be perfect if it was this color.   It was a nice day to take the honey off the hive- and right around mid-summer so the bees have plenty of time to make more.


Beekeeping is becoming a lot more popular, and there’s a host of really interesting blogs and websites out there devoted to the subject.  As more people embrace these fuzzy little girls who bring us honey, some appear to romanticize them however… embracing that Disney-esque anthropomorphic tendency we often have with animals of all kinds.

I’m not one of those people, unless I’m enjoying the 8-year old’s imagination.  While I certainly agree that bees are really cute (I watched a newborn bee crawling out of its cell yesterday!),  I know they’re just an insect that does amazing… sometimes painful things!  I don’t ever want to underestimate these little guys, or female workers to be more precise, and I respect that they’re a living colony of animal life that fulfills important roles. 

For their own part, the life of the colony is paramount.   I’m glad I can help foster an environment that helps them live and grow.  I don’t use chemicals or antibiotics, and have this growing belief that too many chemicals both within and external to the hive is compromising the immune system of the honeybee.


These bees are living naturally, in a man-made box of course, subject to all the challenges of their environment.  They huddle close together in winter, and hang outside the hive a little in summer when it’s hot.  I wrap them in the cold, and prop the cover up a bit when it’s too hot and they can use more ventilation.  They fan their wings to circulate the air, and to evaporate the moisture from the honey in the hive before sealing it with wax.  I  try not to mess with them too much- they know what they’re doing.   Hopefully they’ll be strong enough to overcome any potential disease or parasite problems. 

The birds, hornets, dragonflies and even lizards come by the hive for a “bee snack” at times.  The little guy below was brazen enough to munch on a bee while I was working with them.  The hive population ranges from around 20,000 bees in winter to more than 50,000 to 60,000 bees in summer in a single hive.  The young boy was asking me how many bees we had altogether… I laughed and said probably more than 150,000.  Not that many when you consider many commercial beekeepers have from hundreds to thousands of hives. 


For now my bees are doing pretty well with a natural approach- I can’t officially say “organic” because that word comes with a lot of costs and inspection requirements dictated by the USDA.  Arguably for the better whole, and you’ve got to have standards somewhere.  But hey I know my little bees are making really healthy honey.  Maybe I’m just lucky that they’re doing okay and it’s only a matter of time.  I don’t really know for sure- but if they ever have problems I’m just going to keep trying, and keep it natural.

The bees really just tolerate me of course.  When I go to work with the hives I try to make it a relaxed process, yet there’s an unmistakable air of tenseness or “being on edge.”  Part of that is me, and sometimes being uneasy with so many flying around and in the hive.  Or the knowledge that if you bang a frame or brood box too hard you’re going to have thousands of bees reeeaaallly unhappy with you!  Just a little bump makes thousands of bees go “Buzzzz!” all at once in some innate shared response.  That really gets your attention- maybe I should make a recording of it for an alarm clock for the 8 year old :)

And the bees watch me too… a dozen or more guard bees sitting upright on the top edge of the frames, wings erect and ready to fly, turning this way and that, landing on my veil or crawling on the hive tool as I manipulate the frames.  Sometimes hives can become “hot” and the bee’s defensiveness is magnified.  Some beekeepers routinely are stung several times or more, but with a “hot hive” most will replace the queen and the hive will become more gentle with time and different genetic traits.   My bees have been very gentle over the past two years.  But when they do become upset they fly around my head, banging on the protective veil to let me know of their displeasure.


The other thousands of bees are busy with their work, but they know something’s up. I try just to focus on what needs to be done- pulling out frames filled with honey, or inspecting frames of bee larvae and pollen looking for any sign of disease or other problems with the queen.  The more you learn, the more interesting it becomes though. 

We pulled off two full supers and a few other frames that day.  Not all of the frames would be extracted, but we removed them with relatively little fuss.  I used a “fume board” and some herbal-based solution to help move the bees out of the supers.  You put the board on top and they don’t like the smell so they move downwards through the hive.  Then you lift off the super- or take frames out one by one if desired.  A cordless blower vac helped gently blow the leftover bees from the frames- they don’t seem to mind the wind because its a natural event perhaps, and they fly back to the hive. 

There’s a tendency to really want to watch what the bees are doing… to mess with the hive too much, and to try and see everything.   So instead I just walk outside with a cup of coffee, and watch them coming and going from the hive.  You can’t help but feel a sense of ownership, or stewardship really, to make sure they’re doing okay.  I’m still amazed by what they do and how they fit in to the natural world with us. 

We’re getting there…  Show me the honey!  I’m thinking while I roll 50+ pounds of honey on the handtruck back to the house.  I remember working and waiting for over a year with these guys to get to the first harvest.  So in a virtual sort of way, I’ll share it with you next time in The Honey Harvest Part II!

Catching Up with Summer

August 3rd, 2009

It’s been a “catch-up” week at home, along with a little county fair fun tossed in.  This has been the darnedest summer with such cool morning temps- altogether enjoyable really.  Hard to believe it’s August, on the backside of summer already. The garden has struggled quite a bit, probably more with lack of attention than anything else.  But a few days of weeding and watering has it looking a little better.


Managed to plant some more potatoes, and new beans, carrots and beets- another experiment to see how things work out for a fall harvest.  If we have room, I’ll plant some peas again.  The tomatoes are just starting to ramp up finally too.   You can see the planted rows and the cucumbers trying to climb the fence… they’re just beginning to produce some nice ones.  Matter of fact, think I’ll fertilize today again.

The county fair was nice the other night- I’ll write another post about that.  Except for the part about driving home, which was a little scary.  We’re heading home on a small country road at night, overgrown with trees, and an oncoming truck swerved briefly across the yellow line and back.  I didn’t think much about it as that driver corrected, but apparently he drifted again and something on the side of that truck smashed into my driver’s side  mirror on the ’93 Ford, which then swung back and smashed my driver’s side window- kablamm!  We ended up with glass exploded all over us.  Thankfully no injuries beyond a few cuts on arms and fingers, and we pulled into a car wash vacuum place down the road to clean up and check things over.  What were the odds?  The other truck just kept going- it was either their mirror or something sticking out, but apparently it didn’t bother them.   I just wanted to make sure we were all okay.  So now I’ve got plastic covering the window until finding a place to fix it.   Crazy.

In better homefront news, it was also time for a honey harvest!  I’ll write about that another day, but needless to say it was really fun to see the fruit of the bee’s labor for over a year. They worked their little tails off this year and I ended up taking off over 50 pounds of spring wildflower honey.  I’ve been bottling the honey, and preparing for labeling… haven’t got that far yet, but  it’s really tasty.  The young boy enjoyed cleaning up a bowl of drippings- nothing like fresh honey from the hive.  If things work out I may put some up for sale :)


One of our stops last week for cheap fun was a visit to the Shepard of the Hills trout hatchery near Table Rock Lake.  You can fill a little cup with fish food and throw it to the fish- which is perfect fun for the kids.  The trout appreciate the food as well! 


Missouri has four hatcheries for managing trout fishing in many of our beautiful spring-fed rivers, with naturally reproducing populations in several rivers.   Some of these rainbow and brown trout grow to trophy size.    But we camped by the lake, which was a lot of fun- and the yellow lab really enjoyed swimming at the shoreline.  He has grown into a beautiful adult labrador retriever.


After getting home earlier this week it was time to cut the dam again.  One of those yearly chores I enjoy after it’s finished, but not the doing part.   It keeps the pond dam in really nice shape and is a necessary part of the maintenance.  I thought I was going to pass out from the heat and exertion, but water and gatorade really helps. Maybe I’ll put a Twitter feed on the site, then I can just pull out my cellphone and send a message. There I am, lying in the weeds …  “Just came to after passing out while brush cutting the dam, I’m staring at a frog…”


The picture only shows part of the dam… but it’s 265 feet across the top, and nearly 33 feet down the face.  I don’t cut about 50 feet on that one side by the cedar- it’s still too brushy and rocky yet.  Took about 3-4 hours to finish, except for the damp spot that I’ll cut with a weed eater. Sure looks better though, and tons of trees, brush,  and poison ivy won’t grow up there now.  Small accomplishments in the countryside.

The school year is almost upon us once again, and there’s a host of unfinished things to do.  I hope your summer is going well!


One final note, sad but also bringing clarity and relief, the remains of a navy pilot from the ’91 gulf war were found this week.  Contrary to years of reports of his status as missing,  Michael Scott Speicher apparently died at the time his FA-18 was shot down in January, 1991.  I didn’t know him personally, but knew of the search and his status for a very long time.  We shared a lot of the same airspace, rituals and traditions, and I’m very glad they found him.   I know his family hoped he was still alive, but are also proud and relieved to find resolution, and to have his remains returned home.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Speicher’s family for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country,” said Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy. “I am also extremely grateful to all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last 18 years to bring Captain Speicher home.”

Growing Through Summer

June 30th, 2009

What a difference a week makes in the weather- it’s just beautiful out there in the mornings.  The sky is incredibly blue this week, although we need to water to keep the garden growing along.   Aside from moles running willy-nilly throughout the vegetables, everything is doing okay.  It’s even time for the sunflowers- they’re always so cheerful looking when they bloom in early summer.


The japanese beetles are still with us- I won’t show the picture, but we had a totally filled “bag-o-beetles” across the pond.  I moved the traps further away and it has helped keep the numbers down around the house and garden.   Look at this muscadine or wild grape vine- it’s growing on top of a rusty old hay rake, and the little black dots are the beetles just covering it.


The wild elderberry is in full bloom too.  I think the wet spring really helped the elderberries this year, and they’re growing abundantly all along the roadsides.  The berries will be ripe in August and September.


Time to cut more grass too- which is strange because there’s a ton of clover growing and bees all about.  So there I am worrying about running over the bees while they’re trying to gather nectar for honey.  I went in the hives yesterday… lo and behold one of the hives is really building out their frames with honey.  The other hive, not so much.  But since this is our second year, the bees are not only gathering nectar, but they have to build out each frame with wax honeycomb.  It takes time and energy, so there won’t be a lot of honey this year.  But as I pulled apart the supers (boxes of frames), the wax broke in several places with glorious light colored honey pooling on top of the frames.  One of these days very soon…

On a personal note, Mom is eighty years old today- Happy Birthday!  I can only hope to be as strong and healthy… we went blueberry picking the other day, filling up our little buckets.  I really tried hard to put up a nice, clear picture… must be my camera :)


Another Hive Makes Three

May 23rd, 2009

It was time to set up another bee hive this week.   Probably should have set it out earlier, but I wanted to have an extra on hand as a bait hive in case a swarm was looking for a new home. Sometimes bees just pack up with the queen and move away, taking half to two-thirds or more of the hive workers with them.  If there’s a ready bait hive nearby, they may just move into that.  Otherwise I’m setting it up to add another hive to the mix either this year or next.

Here’s the pieces laid out for a basic hive. I’ve assembled some of the products and painted them- they don’t have to be white, but I like it that way.  I’ve set my hives up on concrete blocks to keep them off the ground. I just arranged the blocks to make a rectangle, and spaced them between the other two hives.  I use a level make sure the blocks lean slightly forward and to one side to ensure rain falls off the front corner of the hive, and so water cannot drain into the hive.  We’ve got a few skunks around too, and I think the height of the blocks can keep them from getting to the entrance.  I’ve read that skunks love to claw hives and suck on bees like candy… I’m not keeping Jujubees thank you very much :)


I use roofing shingles on top of the concrete blocks to protect them from moisture, freezing, etc. and maybe reflect a little warmth to the hive. There’s a downside in terms of the hive becoming too tall to handle the heavy supers comfortably, but I’ve got them on gravel and should manage okay- I can drive up behind the hives if necessary in a truck.

I’ve assembled the hive stand and bottom board here, and like to place a screened bottom board on top of a regular bottom board. The screened boards help with ventilation, and theoretically reduce potential mite problems on the bees allowing the mites to physically fall off and through the screen where they can’t get back to the bees. Many beekeepers only use the screen, with no other bottom board. I like it this way though- and the bees have done well with it so far. I can put a tray or sticky paper in at the back and check for mite populations.


Next comes the hive body, and then the inner and out covers and the hive is ready! Empty, but ready. I’m thinking of trying a split off one of the other hives, using some frames of brood and honey, and getting a new queen for the new hive. It’s getting late in the season though, because the hive would start very small. The bees need time to build up their population while gathering enough honey to take them through winter. We’ll see.


Three busy hives would be nice- in a year or two I could have a good bit of honey. Can you tell what’s different about the third hive setup below (besides being smaller)?  Bees can actually use pattern differentiation to tell their hives from others. Some folks paint them different colors or paint a pattern on the front. I thought maybe the trees on different sides of the first two hives would help, so that’s why I put them there. But adding a third hive introduces a new factor, so I wanted it to look different.


With three hives closer together, I wonder if I’ll get some drifting of bees from one to another? I’ve spaced them more than three feet apart to minimize the likelihood, and the different patterns should help. But sometimes the wind blows them around so much they become confused or go right to another hive. I doubt it is fully explained- some research indicates that young bees may also join other flying clouds of bees and go right in to a different hive thinking it’s their own.  And if worker bees come back drifting to a different hive with pollen or nectar I think they become assimilated… kind of like the Borg or something.  But do they go back to their own hive later? Don’t know.

And why are drifting bees not stung when going into a new hive?  Some say it’s because they act like it’s their own hive, not giving any behavioral cues to the guard bees to think otherwise. But robber bees are different, displaying some furtive intent or behavior to steal honey, and the guard bees are alerted to their presence. I find it all so fascinating- there’s so much to learn, and much that researchers still don’t know.


The hives look settled on the edge of the woods, facing south toward the pond. I like them to have a little shade for the heat of summer, although some “beeks” believe full sun is best.  If they stay healthy and make honey, that’s about all I could ask for.

While setting up the hive, a friendly little tiger beetle stopped by. Well friendly is a bit emotive, but it stayed still long enough for a picture. It’s probably looking for it’s next meal, and I’m glad tiger beetles are really small! This little guy is the six-spotted tiger beetle and he has some good sized chompers.


I’ve learned a lot more about tiger beetles (and other insects, trees, plants…!) thanks to Beetles in the Bush’s amazing pictures and information.  I can’t say for sure, but I’ll bet he’s got a big smile on his face while testing out his new DSLR photo system.  His picture of the six-spotted tiger beetle is awesome!

Spring Unfolding Quickly

April 25th, 2009

Spring has moved so quickly that we’ve seen temperatures in the high 80’s for the past few days.  It has been downright hot and windy!  Where’s my cool spring air?  Ok, I’m not complaining- and the leaves are just bursting forth along with insects and everything else.   The bees have been frantically busy, and I’ve tried to keep up with them, adding boxes of “supers” so they have plenty of room and can continue to build comb and store honey.  The bees need these warmer temperatures to help produce and manipulate the wax while building comb.  Since this is the second year for my bees, they still need to build, or draw, honeycomb on many frames of plain blank foundation– the sheets of wax or plastic that give them a start in each frame. 

The redbuds were beautiful this year, and the bees took the most advantage of it that they could. 


They didn’t seem to mind when I got up close- they simply went about their business.  For at least a week I enjoyed the hum of their efforts all around the house.  I love this rear-shot of a a honeybee, heavy with pollen, cruising in to another redbud flower.


The critters of the pond have really emerged too. I’ve noticed that the bass and bluegill have begun swishing out nesting areas for the spring spawn, and the frogs are all about now.  And we have more turtles this year!  I’ve seen at least four different ones around the pond, and caught a picture of these three enjoying the the sunshine on a warm afternoon.  I need to sneak up closer to see if they’re the same species- I don’t think so, but they “plop” off the log really fast if I try to get too close.


We did have a pair of wood ducks hanging about near the woody area at the top of the pond.  I hoped they were nesting, and saw a pair last year with a half-dozen ducklings paddling about. 


But lo and behold, yesterday I found that our too-friendly Canada geese have returned, bringing with them a half-dozen of their own goslings! If you know much about these big, beautiful birds, you know that having them around- right here where we live- is a mixed blessing.  While wonderful to watch, especially while raising their young, they can also be a mess- leaving bird stuff all around the pond, and they have voracious appetites, pulling grass by the rootful from around the edge of the pond.   I do enjoy watching them swim gently around the pond, and the little ones are really cute.


I was successful at discouraging them from nesting here in February and early March, but there are 2-3 smaller ponds in the area that they can use for nest sites.  Once their young have hatched in March, they gradually get to know the area.  And yesterday they walked them through field and forest to our pond where they would like to spend a lot of time.  It’s fun to watch them paddle about and learn to fly, but I’m not really a fan of the idea… given their tenacious nature however, we may have little choice!

The oak trees are in full bloom right now too- these red oak catkins must be 3 inches long.  I wonder if bees gather pollen from oak trees?  Maybe not when their is so much flower nectar and pollen available.  But they do gather maple pollen, so…


I hope you have time to get outdoors and enjoy the warming weather. Spring and fall are my favorite times of the year- I don’t think I can really pick just one!

Beautiful Spring, Bees and Color

April 18th, 2009


It’s amazing how many flowering plants are in bloom right now- the bees have so many flowers to choose from. You walk along side a redbud and hear a constant “hummmm” from the bees.  Here a fuzzy young bee is gathering pollen and nectar from a viburnum in flower.  Never thought I’d think of a bee as cute, but doesn’t this one look neat?   I’ve planted Burkwood viburnum along side a Carlesi viburnum, and we have several native Blackhaw viburnum in the area as well.  They don’t flower long, but the fragrance is amazing.


Here’s a better look at the viburnum flowers with another bee. 


And everyone loves the dogwoods at this time of year. The dappled white flowering trees look so nice scattered through the woodlands before the leaves come out. But in a few weeks all will be green once again.  Time to get outside again!


Dandelions, Garden Chores and May Apples

April 7th, 2009

Looks like we didn’t get that hard freeze last night in our area.  Thankfully the buds and flowers look pretty good this morning, with one more night of near-freezing temperatures to go.   With any luck, this is the last of the cold temps for spring.  I say “Hooray!” and it’s time to really get the garden going, as well as a host of other projects.

I even covered the bee hives a little for the next two days.  Just a little insurance to help them stay warm during these cold nights- brood production should be ramping up and the bees might not be able to keep the bee larvae warm enough.  When it’s really cold, thousands of bees gather in a cluster to share and produce enough body heat to keep themselves, and the brood on the combs, warm enough.  In late spring the queen produces a lot of brood in anticipation of all the worker bees they will need to gather nectar and pollen for the year, but a cold snap can force them to gather in a tight, central cluster within the hive and not keep some of that brood warm enough to survive.  Whether or not a little insulation does any good on a cold night is the question, but I figure it couldn’t hurt!  I’m sure they would be fine either way, but I like the idea of helping them out.

Dandelions provide a huge source of pollen and nectar in early spring for the bees.   I’m amazed at how much they can carry on those little legs.

honeybee with dandelion pollen

We were hiking around the woods a couple weeks ago (I’ve been looking for morels ever since!), and we came across an old piece of lumber in the creek bottom.   I don’t know where the wood came from, but it had a couple of really old nails in it- the square shape kind that almost look like they were hand forged.  I doubt they are that old, but it really makes you wonder about the history of it all.   


I’ve been pulling out a few of our own old nails while cleaning up the garden. The raised beds are falling apart and the wood is full of ants, so it’s time to replace or remove them.  They’re 15-20 years old, and I know the history- my folks put these in originally.  Strange to be taking out nails that their hands put in. But I’ll save the nails and use them again, maybe for a tree fort for the boy.  But the garden rows have a nice top layer of compost now and we’re almost ready to go.


I’m going to try harder to find some morels this year… they are just too delicious when you find some.  I was skunked last year, but really didn’t try that hard. I haven’t found any on our property over the past three years, so I plan to range out a little and cover some bottom ground in the area and see if that helps. 


Some of the old timers say to look for morels around fallen elm trees or around the may apples.  That hasn’t helped me yet, but I do like seeing the may apples come up.  When I find the first morel I’m going to do a little victory dance and remember the site.  I don’t have any secret spots yet like Ed does, but lately his victory dances have more to do with what goes out, rather than what goes in!

A Little White and Color in March

March 29th, 2009

A little snow in late March and it feels almost like winter again.  This was a wet, heavy snow and most of it is already melting.  I don’t think it even bothered the fruit buds, and I’m glad the day’s temperatures will be near 50 degrees F.  I just finished feeding the bees on Friday to help stimulate brood production- they should be snuggled in a warm embrace in the lower hive body, and when it warms up they can snack on a little of that sugar syrup.  Until yesterday the bees have been quite active however.  I noted that the serviceberry trees are blooming (even saw a bee on one of the flowers which answered my wondering if they used them), and the redbuds are only a few warm days away from flowering too.


But just yesterday the landscape was full of spring colors without the wet stuff. The pussy willow tree is about finished blooming now, which is over a week earlier than last year. Here are some of the flower heads just before dropping off the tree, with a little mason bee hovering about.


March is also time for our PJM rhodedendron to bloom- this is one of my favorite plants and flower colors.  It’s often too hot and humid here for growing most azaleas and rhody’s  easily, but maybe we’ll find some shady places for a few more.


Hiking the forest boundary revealed our old friend Rue anemone blooming on the southern slopes. The rue flowers have a gentleness of color and form that reminds me of the quiet days of spring.


I’m amazed how one day you don’t see anything, and the next day flowers are blooming everywhere.  Soon we’ll get a run of warm spring days and everything else will start bursting forth. Which means it’s really time to get the garden in… unlike some more productive folks, I’m feeling a little behind these days!


We have a little garden angel to look out for things though… This little angel is supposed to help me think of ways to put our bricks to use. As you can see, just the idea kind of makes one sleepy. Of course I’m not the only one looking for ideas about what to do with bricks, but I much prefer garden angels to guardian scorpions!

Windy Fun, Bees in the Sun

March 9th, 2009

So much wind this weekend, and the weather was beautiful.   A few heavy rainstorms came through, but the sun came out and the wind blew and blew… too strong for kite-flying, but who knew how much fun an umbrella could be?

Playing with an umbrella

And my goodness the past few days were really warm.  Saw the temps hit 80 degrees on Friday and I decided to really inspect the bee hives.  Hard to imagine how the bees come and go in such strong winds, but they seem to manage.  It’s quite a project to go in and take a bee hive apart, especially when you have two large hive bodies (or boxes) that you need to separate.   In concept it’s not a big deal, but to really get a good look you need pull out and inspect many of the frames and take the boxes apart down to the bottom board.  It’s important to take a good look at how the bees are doing after they’ve been eating through their honey stores during the winter and to look for disease or other problems.  My goal was to find out where they were and how much honey stores they had left to feed themselves over the next few critical weeks before the weather really warms up.

I’ve been fortunate that my bees are fairly gentle, and not easily stirred up.  I was a little hesitant to mess with them while the wind was blowing so strong- they don’t like being meddled with when it’s cold, rainy or windy.  But for a couple of hours the wind seemed to ease up and change directions a little so I seized the opportunity.  When you do this you try to move slowly and deliberately while working the bees and taking the hives apart… only makes sense right?  But it’s a compromise between wanting to get the job done expeditiously and standing around too long with a bunch of frustrated little bees all about.  I’ve heard stories of beekeepers being run out of the apiary because the bees were very aggressive or angry with being disturbed.  Hope I don’t see that with these guys, and so far it has been quite the opposite.  That may change as they build up their honey stores this year, but we’ll see.   They look so calm before you start…

Bee hive

So I took the top hive body off the first hive and set it down on top of a couple bricks to hold it steady.  “Clunk!” I jarred the hive body setting it down and thousands of bees in unison give a loud “Buzzzzz!” and settle down again.  I pulled several frames to inspect them- lots of honey, a little brood pattern here and there.  It turned out that most of the bees were in the upper hive body with the lower one nearly completely empty.  So the bees were clustered in the upper box for warmth during winter, and with the queen and honey stores to keep themselves fed. The weight difference was amazing- the upper hive body easily weighed around 40-50  pounds, but the lower one was very light and almost totally empty of both honey stores and bees.  

One of the challenges for the bees can be overcrowding that leads to swarming in spring (two-thirds of the hive may head out to find a new home), so some beekeepers like to reverse the hive body boxes- putting the honey/brood-filled box on the bottom (with all the bees and the queen), and moving the now empty bottom hive body up to the top.    Bees do not like being too croweded, and the queen likes to move up when laying eggs within the brood nest.  So after reversing the hive bodies, the queen has lots of new room upstairs for brood rearing and additional food stores. Not everyone does this… but beekeeping seems to be as much or more art than science anyway.  So even though it may have been a little early, I went ahead and reversed the hive bodies, and took the time to clean up the bottom boards and such.  

So there I was, all dressed up for a bee party with a hive completely disassembled, sweating in the 80 degree late winter sunshine.  It was pretty exciting until the bees let me know of their displeasure.  Now they didn’t sting or become too aggressive, but pretty soon this great cloud of bees were buzzing all around what should have been the entrance to their winter home… and it wasn’t there.  It was laying around in pieces being inspected by some wahoo in a white suit!   I’m trying to get the hive bodies back together, and there’s something blocking it when I try to lay one on top of the other. Back off again, and I look underneath to see a couple of rocks that got stuck to the bottom of the frames.  Ever heard the term bee glue?  That’s propolis, which the bees make to cement everything together in the hive, sealing up drafts and such.  It’s a very sticky substance.   Ugh, I must have got rocks underneath when I put the hives down… I pull them off, and then finally get the boxes back together.

I don’t know about other beekeepers, but after a while you like to think that you have some kind of ongoing relationship with these little guys… or girls to be more precise, since all the worker bees are female.  Wouldn’t it be neat to think that the bees get to know the beekeeper?   That they know you’ve only got their best interests at heart?   I like that idea… but no one asked the bees.  Everytime I go inpsect the hives it seems like a half dozen or more end up squished between the boxes somewhere.  I try really hard not to squish the little gals, but with many thousands of them crawling quickly all around it’s hard not to.   That probably doesn’t inspire confidence from the bees perspective…  Ah, but in my finest anthropomorphic beekeeping manner, I figured they were just being patient with me as I reassembled their home.  

Bees with pollen

Finally, with most of the hive put back together, they started plopping down on the landing again, packed with big globs of pollen, and marching right inside as if nothing had changed.  It must be a disorienting episode, and I was worn out, but the bees didn’t seem to mind too much.  In fact they looked pretty good- I saw brood in a few places which meant the queens were doing okay, the bees health looked strong with no apparent disease and lots of honey remained to carry them through early spring.   Couldn’t ask for more than that.

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