Quantcast

Sights and Colors in Early September

September 3rd, 2009

The mornings have been so cool and the days full of sunshine.  Everything is still green, but you can see signs of autumn coming.  By late afternoon it’s nice and warm around 80 degrees F- and all the critters are about.  Today I thought I would share a mix of sights over the past week.   One thing I’ve noticed is that all the bees and wasps are nearly desparate for nectar.   They are covering every available flower as they rush towards winter preparations.  Here the bees are taking nectar from a pink sedum.

honeybees-pink-sedum

The honeybee is one of the few species of its kind that winter over as a community.  I believe most our other wasps, bumblebees, yellowjackets, etc. die with the coming frost except for leaving one or more queens to survive through winter. Those queens find somewhere to hide and lay dormant, emerging in the spring to begin an entire new colony.

This is an early morning picture just after sunrise- the bees are waiting for the sun’s curtain of light to drape across their hives with warming temperatures and cue them to start foraging.

beehive-sunrise

The honeybees must survive as a colony through the winter, depending upon stored reserves of honey to carry them through. They form a tight cluster or ball inside the hive to keep warm through shared body heat and metabolism. I’ll be making winter preparations for the bees next month- for now they are keeping very busy.

The young boy picked his little muskmelon (cantaloupe) the other day. This one ripened small, but we watched for telltale signs of light browning and beginning to split from so much moisture inside.  The plant spread out to a huge vine, but only produced 3-4 smaller melons.

little-muskmelon

But sure enough it was wonderfully ripe. We kept it in the refrigerator and he loved having it as a snack after school.  Yum!

yummy-muskmelon

It’s also been time to pick elderberries again.   Last year I combined elderberries and grapes to make some really tasty  jam and sauce… it’s fitting that we are on our last jars this month. Even if we’re not quite ready to make more, I pick the elderberries and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer.  Not only does it keep them from spoiling, but it freezes the little bugs on the berry clusters and makes it much easier to pick and wash them.

spider-elderberry-poke

I went to reach for a cluster here, and found this nice Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) in the way.  The spider didn’t mind as I reached over his web to the drooping corymb of berries.   The larger berries at right are of course from wild Poke- not edible for us unfortunately, but the birds really love them!

I came across a neat fungi in the yard and got down on my knees for a close up picture. I didn’t realize I had captured the basset hound in the background.  He’s the “old man” of the place, in his eleventh year now.

fungi-dog1

And a friendly Monarch butterfly landed among the day lily leaves. It seems the butterfly had a broken wing, perhaps from an encounter with a bird.  It still managed to flap away through the air.  The monarch migration has begun, peaking in our region as they travel south about the second and third week of this month.  Here’s a couple links where you can check the fall map for monarch migration routes, and the peak migration dates for your latitude.  We don’t normally see that many- their route is too far east or west I think.  But one year I saw dozens around that timeframe.

monarch-butterfly

In the past I’ve only see one species of milkweed plant for the monarch larvae to feed upon.  But last week I came across some milkweed vine (Asclepias family).  The monarch larva also feed upon this species so I was excited by the find.  However I do have mixed feelings about vines growing around the landscape- they seem to take over!  These large green pods contain thousands of big, white fluffy seeds that fly everywhere.   I recently dug up several thorny thistle plants with purple flowers- they too have fluffy seed heads that float on the wind.

milkweed-vine-pods1

Near the bee hives the oak and hickory rounds are gathering in a big pile for splitting. These are from a few trees that have died and been cut down over the past year.  The wood is still excellent for using in our woodburning stoves for winter heat.  They also make great seats for fishing!

oak-hickory-rounds

In another garden/food experiment, I made some fermented pickles last week. These were very interesting- not vingegar cured like most modern pickle recipes, but instead they undergo natural lacto-fermentation and become true sour dill pickles like in the old days.  I’m sure a few of you make or enjoy real saurkraut, and the pickle fermentation is similar.  Here we are adding some more cucumbers to the brine.

fermented-pickles

They were really good and after 7-10 days of fermentation I placed them in quart-sized mason jars with the brine and then into the refrigerator which essentially stops the fermentation.   Lots of recipes call for boiling the brine, and then processing the pickles in a canner. You can do that for long-term storage, however doing so kills all the beneficial bacteria and the probiotic qualities of fresh fermented pickles. Next year I would like to grow better cucumbers (and cabbage) for pickling- these are more for fresh eating, but they did okay for pickles. You can google quite a few different recipes, and try it yourself!



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!



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 :)

bee-hive-parts

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.

bee-hive-bottom

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.

bee-hive-body

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.

three-hives

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.

bee-hives-setup

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.

six-spotted-tiger-beetle

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!

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!

Summer Bumbles and Bees

July 8th, 2008

The month of July in Missouri is a lot of things.  Good things like tomatoes, barbeques, cooler mornings and maybe a few rainstorms if we’re lucky.  And then there’s the other things… the heat and humidity, weeds and trimming, and tons of insect critters that find their way into everything, usually leaving us itchy reminders to deal with.

I guess the bees fit that insect category, but they’re pretty neat to have around.   Unlike a few other critters such as ticks and chiggers.  Now I’m sure the peskier bugs serve some functional purpose for the web of life in our evironment.  But there’s times I wish they would serve that purpose somewhere else!  If you’re going to live in the country however, you have to take the good with the bad, and I’m learning that the good far outweighs the bad over the course of time.  

It’s not hard to appreciate our pollinators though.  Those amazing bees that go buzzing around and help us grow our fruits and vegetables.   Isn’t this a cool looking bumblebee?  This one is working a lavender plant, darting from flower to flower. 

Bumblebee and lavender © Fox Haven Media

And did you know that bumblebees are the primary pollinators of our tomato plants?  I’ve seen them all over our tomatoes, but I didn’t realize until recently that the way bumblebees pollinate tomato plants is through sonification.  The bumblebee pulls the tomato flower down to a vertical position, and vibrates their wing muscles at a certain frequency after which the tomato flower pollen falls out of pores in the anthers.  When the pollen falls down, it sticks to the bumblebees fuzzy body and, oh by the way, the bumble just happens to be rubbing that same fuzzy pollinated body against the tomato flower stigma, and because of his fuzzy little travels, voila! pollination from one flower to another occurs.   I think of bumblebees with appreciation every time I eat a tomato!

Here’s another important pollinator below, but it’s not a bumblebee.  Instead this is a Carpenter bee about to dive headfirst into a hydrangea flower head.  Carpenter bees are not thought of very highly because of the tunneling damage they can do to wooden beams, decking and the wood in houses and barns.  Yes, they actually bore holes and tunnels in wood!  We see them around here, but I’m not sure where they are nesting. Sometimes you see the male buzzing up and down in a certain area, seemingly harassing you if you try to walk by.  That’s just his way of protecting his territory or a nest nearby, but he’s actually harmless and can’t sting.  Not very fun to have a big buzzing critter zoom at you however.

Carpenter bee and hydrangea flower © Fox Haven Media

But our other favorite pollinators are the honeybees of course.  Our two hives appear to be doing just fine, although one is a lot stronger than the other in terms of the number of bees around the hive.   And yesterday there were hundreds of bees clustered outside the hive.  Are they getting ready to swarm?  Fanning to cool the hive?  Just new bees getting outside for some fresh air!?  I don’t really know, but with lots of space in two relatively new hive body supers, I think they’re just staying cool.  They have quite a bit of shade under some oak trees, but it has been very hot and humid lately.

Honeybees clustered outside the hive on a hot day

The other hive which is weaker didn’t have many bees hanging around outside however.  In both hives, the bees were coming and going just the same, and working flowers around the property.  It’s interesting to see the differences though, and I’ll be opening the hives up sometime the next week to see what else I can find out.

Catching Up with Bees and Brush

May 27th, 2008

We’ve had so much rain lately that everything goes squish! I will say the grass has come in very nicely this year, especially the areas I’ve planted seed. But the garden plants are hoping for a little more sun and hot weather. More rain today, but after this we may have a good break for a while.

I need to head outside and plant a few more evergreens to grow as a windbreak near the beehives. The bees are doing well, but the windy and rainy weather has also cooped them up a little too. I’m feeding them sugar syrup still and checked on them this weekend. I found the queen in hive #2 looking strong and going up and down a frame of comb. I couldn’t find her in hive #1, but the bees in both hives had built out new comb on almost half the frames in the lower hive body already. On some frames they had even put up honey as well. It’s amazing how fast they work and build the wax comb.

The beehives sit on a southern slope near some oak trees. They get a lot of sun during the day, but also some afternoon shade. We’ll see how the location works out for these two. I’m not sure if it’s the best spot, but I really like them here.

Beehives on the slope across the pond

Even though I didn’t see the queen in the #1 hive, it looked like everything was fine. The bees had built a little filled comb in wider space near the top, not quite on a frame. So I scraped it off and saved it for the boy and we had a taste of honey! I’ll check on their progress again next week and by then we will have much warmer weather each day. There are a lot of flowers blooming now, so the bees won’t lack for pollen or nectar.

Otherwise we’ve been clearing a lot of brush along the fencerows. The tree branches really grow and overhang too much if you let them. Every couple of years you have to cut them back as they grow taller, or cut them out altogether. A good chainsaw and a polesaw works wonders. The young boy really helped me out the past few days, and after cutting up the branches we made 4-5 trips with the tractor piled high. It doesn’t look like much but it took hours to finish.

John Deer 2320 tractor piled with tree branches

Thank goodness for the tractor and the loader bucket; it’s not big, but it does the job very well. Kind of like having a really large hand to carry and move things around. After making a huge pile behind the barn I stood out in a rainstorm and made a big fire to burn up the brush. Between cutting grass, spreading mulch (and everyone pitching in to clean the house!) those were the big events this weekend as we prepared for a nice visit with family.