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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.

bald-faced-hornet-attack-2

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.

bee-ball

 

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.

honeybees-on-hive

*******

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.

capped-honey

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.

uncapping-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.

hand-crank-extractor

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.

first-honey-jar

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.

three-beehives

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. 

taking-off-honey

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.

frame-of-honey

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.

bees-in-brood-box

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. 

lizard-eating-honeybee

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.

removing-supers-from-apiary

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!



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.

Just Bee Happy

March 5th, 2009

It’s so warm out now that it feels like the middle of spring.  We’re not there yet, but winter is giving way and the days are getting much longer.   Yesterday was time to remove the insulation from the bee hives.  I went out early with temperatures in the low-40’s, and cut off the packs of insulation material.   I wasn’t sure how the bees were faring, and had not checked on them for a couple of weeks.  I slowly peeked inside each top cover and Buzzzz! they let me know they were still fine, thank you very much.  As I stood nearby a lone bee flew back to the front of a hive and crawled inside.  I had never seen the bees flying in temperatures so cool. 

I came back a couple hours later when it was nearly 60 degrees F, and hundreds of bees were flying around actively in front of the hives.  Awesome!  I watched in admiration, thankful they made it through winter thus far, and was surprised to see bees bringing back pollen.   I then took a short hike down the hill and looked up at some of the larger maple trees, and sure enough- they had begun to bloom.

Maple tree in bloom

I can’t say for sure, but maple is my best guess since there’s not many plants other than red cedar or elm that have begun to bloom.  Bees don’t really use anything from the cedar trees and I’ve seen only a few elm trees anywhere.  There may be a willow blooming somewhere too, but I haven’t seen it yet.  However there are lots of maple trees around and the bees can get both pollen and nectar from them.   

I’m excited that the bees are doing so well.  My goal is to foster honey production and local pollination while caring for the bees in a natural, healthy manner.  I don’t want to use chemicals or synthetic treatments for our bees if at all possible.  I first wondered how to produce organic honey, but after a lot research I believe it’s nearly impossible for most beekeepers to achieve.  You can find “organic” honey on the internet, and from other countries, but I believe honey labeled as organic is a dubious distinction because you don’t really know where the bees go.   Maybe you’re paying extra for a label that really isn’t accurate.

 How many bees can you see with pollen? 

Missouri Bees with pollen in March

With a hive of 50,000 or more bees, who knows what pollen and nectar sources they visit?  How do you know the bees have not visited a plant or flower with chemicals on it?  Their normal range is two miles in all directions, with some research showing flights up to five miles! I suppose if your hives are in the middle of a 3-4 square mile area with no farming or other residential/commercial activity you can reasonably be sure the bees are encountering only natural forage.  But more importantly, is the honey raw and unfiltered?  Has it been pasteurized or heat-treated to prevent crystallization?  There are many enzymes in raw honey that are destroyed by heat treatment.  Pasteurization of honey is not really a health issue anyway- it is primarily used to kill sugar tolerant yeasts that might lead to fermentation, hence longer shelf life.

The USDA requirements are fairly strict too- and seems to classify bees as livestock. To certify livestock as organic, a farmer/producer must be able to prove that the animals have not come into contact with certain chemicals or genetically modified material.  Not going to happen with bees for most beekeepers in the U.S.  And did you know by many organic standards that even organic honey can come from hives in which antibiotics have been used during the year?  Doesn’t make sense to me.   You can find organic honey imported from other countries too, but I would like to think that natural, local honey would be healthier and preferred by most people.  Unfortunately, the imported honey is often cheaper than what a small producer can offer.  Still I would like to think that most people will pay a little extra for a quality, local product that they know where it comes from and helps support the community.

My goal is to harvest raw, unprocessed natural honey, while keeping healthy, untreated bees.  I don’t intend to become a commercial beekeeper on a larger scale- just big enough to have some honey and sell it in the local area.  But many beekeepers believe bees simply won’t survive without antibiotic or other treatments due to the mites and other diseases they can catch.  Maybe so, but I’m going to give natural beekeeping a try.   If all goes well this year maybe we can add to the number of hives.  At any rate, it’s time to get the rest of the equipment ready so the bees can make lots of honey this year!

Snowy Landscapes

January 29th, 2009

What a snowfall we got the other day.  Our thoughts are with all those folks struggling to get their lives back together after the ice storms this week.  Thankfully we only received the white stuff- about 6-8 inches worth.    The kids were out of school for a couple of days, and we enjoyed a chance to spend some time together.     

The Shiba Inu loves to run around in the snow, and has a coat so thick he would be just fine outside all the time.    He’s running through the garden here and likes to look for rabbits and moles. 

Shiba Inu in winter

Speaking of the garden, it’s pretty sad looking.  I’m embarrassed to show how we’ve barely cleaned up last year’s growth.  The next warm spell we get I’m going to head out and clean it up, and topdress the rows with leaves.  It’s time… I’m already imagining tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, peas…

Garden bare in winter

I keep telling myself spring isn’t far off, especially while plowing the gravel drive.  I took half the snow off, but it’s still a few inches deep.  I don’t want to plow too closely or I would scrape away the packed gravel base.  We park one of the cars near the road during snowstorms because it doesn’t drive very well down and up the snow-covered slope.  Hopefully some of this will melt off today.

Plowing snow on gravel drive

But I just love how the landscape looks when covered in snow.  Maybe it even keeps the bees a little warmer?  Who knows, but in about a month it will be time for the queen bee to start producing a lot more baby bees.  Oh, if you’re wondering- the beehives are black looking because I wrapped them with black-painted insulation for warmth. 

Some people debate whether you should wrap hives in winter in the midwest.  Some believe it makes them too warm and hence they could be more active and eat more their winter stores of honey.  I like to think it helps them stay warmer, using less of their own metabolic energy to stay warm comparatively, and hence eating less of their stored honey over time.  I’m sure there are a lot more opinions and research out there… I’m a new beekeeper and still learning.  But this winter has been colder than normal for us, and I’m glad I wrapped them up. Hopefully they make it to late winter when I’ll start feeding and the cycle will begin again.

Winter landscape and bee hives

Winter Mysteries and Bee Shadows

January 25th, 2009

Looks like snow in the forecast for tonight or tomorrow…  If it’s going to be winter, I enjoy having some of that white stuff around- especially if the alternative is ice or freezing rain.   Late one afternoon as I walked along the pond dam the Little Bluestem just stood out beautifully against the background of the pond.  Snow flurries in the afternoon covered the ice briefly.

Little Bluestem and snow on pond

The next day was warm enough that the sun begain melting the snow.   I found the footprints of an animal that crossed the ice- they look like coyote or fox tracks, but I don’t really know.   Neat to see however.  I also have to wonder how the fish are doing under the ice?  Maybe if it stays cold enough we could even try ice fishing this year.

Footprints on the ice at Fox Haven

The next day the sun melted the snow off the ice to reveal a marvelous scene.  The thawing and freezing of the ice had created some of the most beautiful designs!  It almost looks like stained glass or something created by man… but only God and nature creates such beautiful scenes as this. 

 Designs in the Ice

It was even warm enough one day for the bees to fly around.  It was weeks since I had seen them, and I always worry that they are getting enough to eat through winter.  Watching them buzz all around the outside of the hive was pretty neat. 

 Bees flying about in January

I had to zoom in on one part of that picture above- I love how that one bee’s shadow is reflected on the white landing board!  Here’s a close-up-

Bee and Shadow © Fox Haven Media 2009

Is that cool or what?  I liked it so much that I cropped just the bee’s shadow and added it to the image rotation of the little pictures by the quotes above.  With cold nights and warming days, we could think about tapping a few maple trees for syrup.  That’s a project for another year, however, and for now we’ll just enjoy getting things done around the house.  I actually cleaned off that workbench in the barn yesterday with a nice fire in the woodstove- first time in several years.  With any luck, this mad streak of productivity will continue for a few months into spring.   Goodness knows it’s time to think about what’s going in the garden this year.

Doing Nothing Much

January 3rd, 2009

A couple of warm days means a chance to get a lot accomplished.  Even the bees took some time to stretch their wings, and I was glad to see them.  They had not been out for at least 3-4 weeks after the last cold stretch, and they need a chance on warm days to relieve themselves.  And there’s bound to be a lot of new young bees that have emerged.  They look soft and fuzzy, and fly around the outside of the hive to orient themselves.  Only a couple of months to go bees… hang in there!

Bees emerging on a warm winter day

Of course with the heavy rain last week we had to clean up a few areas too.  The gravel driveway tends to wash out during the heaviest rain.  Last year I added two types of gravel on top of the old stuff, and worked hard to pack it level- it has done fine for one side of our dip, but this side still washed out.   The rain was some of the heaviest I’ve seen in the last few years.

 Gravel washout from heavy rain

But I was happy to see the gravel washed straight down the driveway instead of off the side of the driveway.   After using the big rake on the back of the tractor, we all grabbed a few hand rakes to finish it up, and it’s good as new.  We’ve thought about having asphalt put in someday, but those thoughts quickly fade as we remember the driveway’s almost 1/4 mile long.  Realistically the gravel is so much better when the ice comes in winter.  

More rain expected for tonight, but hopefully not too much.  I’m still looking for our first real snowstorm… in the meantime we we’ve been doing various chores including cleaning up a lot of the house, the holiday ornaments, taking the tree down and out and splitting a bunch of older oak rounds for firewood.  With luck we’ll have just enough to get through winter. 

After all the holiday excitement, the boy says we’ve been doing “nothing much” the last few days.  Somehow I’ve really enjoyed doing nothing much.  Oh, except eating of course.  We’ve been doing far too much of that!  This week it’s back to school and back to the routine.  If we have another warm day it will be time to whip the garden into shape.  We’re already thinking of what to plant…

 

Hints of Autumn Color

October 11th, 2008

The green leaves of summer are finally giving way to yellows and reds.  In our area the peak of Autumn color is usually the third or fourth week of October.  It’s such an enchanting time that we often wish it would last longer.  But the next few weeks will be a lot of fun.  I think I see a leaf pile in our future… 

 Early fall color in Missouri

The bees are still hard at work gathering whatever they can.  The roses have come into full bloom once again, and the bees have found their pollen.

 Pink rose and honeybee

And weekends!  It’s not enough that we have work to do outside, here in Missouri football fever has gripped the state as we watch our Mizzou Tigers play.   But that’s not until this evening, so for now it’s time to head outside and get a little more work done.  Have a great weekend.

Flowers, Berries and Bees

September 12th, 2008

The autumn season is just around the corner, and the fall honeyflow for the bees is in full swing.  Many seasonal flowers are blooming and very abundant due to all the rainfall.  I have left the bees alone for the past few weeks, and hopefully they are producing lots of honey for their winter stores. 

Sedum flowers are tiny, but the bees are covering these plants throughout the daylight hours.  Bees are fascinating insectsDid you know it takes over 2 million trips to flowers to make just 1 pound of honey?  Each worker bee lives about 6 weeks, and during that time each worker will make about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.  Makes me appreciate honey all the more!

Bees love Sedum flowers!

I left a large patch of these “weeds” near the pond dam, and the bees seem to love them.  I don’t know what they are called, but there’s probably a quarter acre of them about 4-5 feet tall with white flower heads.   

 Autumn flowers that bees love

Earlier this summer I didn’t see the bees around our property much, and we didn’t have many flowers blooming that were suitable for bees.  They would zoom off from the hive somewhere, and I thought they were really fast.  But honeybees can only fly about 15 mph and can be challenged on windy days to make it to the hive.  The NOVA article above says a worker bee will visit between 50-100 flowers on each trip outside the hive.  That’s a lot of work!

It’s also time to harvest some more berries.  These are “autumn berries” from the Autumn Olive or Autumnberry tree (Elaeagnus umbellata). 

Autumnberries in late summer

Autumnberry is really a very large shrub, originally from Asia.  Decades ago they were planted around the eastern U.S. to help with soil stability and erosion prevention.  Turns out they are quite invasive however and have taken over many areas. The plant is thick and branchy, with many thorns in the upper branches.  Not easy to remove.  I’ve watched a large thicket grow up in just a few years above the pond.  But the berries are edible, and we’re going to experiment with them to make jam or jelly. 

If all goes well, we may also have a little honey to go with our biscuits before the bees settle in for winter.  We’ll check on them next week!

Bee hive and Labrador Retriever in foreground

Rain Coming, Bees are Busy

September 3rd, 2008

 The week has been very hot, but now the cooler weather arrives.  Both a cold front and the remnants from hurricane Gustav are converging in Missouri, and we expect several inches or more of rain tonight and tomorrow.   We need the rain but not too much!  I was able to spread another 20 tons of gravel on the driveway behind the house.   In the spring, the rainfall washed out much of the driveway and slope leading back towards the pond and woods.  I’ve been waiting for a nice dry week to spread it, and get the giant dumptruck back there.  Just in time for the rain, but the gravel should help slow down the velocity of the water.  At least it won’t be nearly as muddy!

Here’s one of the honeybees gathering pollen from a Japanese Anemone flower.  Look at all that pollen on her leg!  They are also all over the sedum plants, but other than that I’m not sure what flowers they are visiting right now.  Goldenrod should be a major pollen source for them in the early fall, but what else?

Honeybee and Japanese Anemone flower

But the bees have been very busy, and I’m sure they sense the changing daylight and the autumn season coming fast.  If they make enough honey for winter, we may get to steal a little from them this year before the cold comes.  Keep working bees!

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