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Archive for the 'Beekeeping' Category

September Joys… and Flowers!

September 18th, 2010

I have to ask.  Does September seem like a really busy month to everybody?  For some reason I seem to be running around in circles trying to catch up with myself.   Classes and elbows trying to get things done, if you know what I mean :)  I can hardly contain myself with all the things I’d like to do.   Ah, like writing a little more.  This has been a slow year for the written word, perhaps a year of change.  I’ll get there, and my friends I hope you’ll go with me…  this is the start of such a beautiful season!   

I see change all around, and feel the pace of insects and birds hurrying a bit more, gathering all they can before the fall begins.   Another season of color…

A few days ago I was enjoying watching a few of these Yellow-collared Scape Moths (Cisseps fulvicollis) flying around the goldenrod and this white flower in the Aster family.    The moths were very slow flying, almost like helicopters, and the wings opened up wide just before take-off.

I finally remembered the plant is called White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) and is tremendously abundant at this time of year, along with the goldenrod, which is great for the bees and other pollinators.  So far I’m excited about the season in terms of pollen and nectar for the bees.   We’ve had a few rains, but mostly warm sunny days for the bees to forage, which means a nice fall nectarflow so they can really work to strengthen their hives.  

Last year we had so much rain in autumn that I couldn’t feed the bees enough to carry them through winter.   But now, things are looking up! 

In the picture below a bee is carrying a white colored pollen into the hive (and another one along the bottom-left corner of the picture).  I thought it might have been from the snakeroot flower, but I didn’t see a single bee gathering pollen from that plant- it may only have been something from which they gathered nectar.

Later I realized with a Doh! that the bees were getting the white-colored pollen from our very white Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora), which is growing all over the shed next to the chicken coop.  

Sweet autumn clematis is very easy to grow and has an amazing fragrance with a profusion of white flowers.  I watched the bees fill their tiny pollen baskets with white pollen and fly right back to the hive a hundred yards away.     Each year when the clematis is finished flowering, I cut it back within just a few feet from the ground.  All that growth is just one season!   And I even cut it back a little in July to try and train it around the top of the shed… alas it has a vigorous, wild nature!   It’s covering one window and half the door…

This year I plan to cut it back a little earlier so that I can paint the older shed to match the chicken coop, and fix the rickety old door.   I need to repair and paint our brown garden fence as well.  Some of the cross bars have rotted where they join the posts.  Maybe I can salvage it for a few years more with a little stain/paint and not too much expense?

Sometimes it seems as if everything needs fixed!   Well a lot of them do… and it’s time to get that weedeater out again and really take some of the brush and weeds down, clean up the garden, work on the engines, clean up the barn and garage, organize the desk and downstairs, decorate a little, etc.  

And you know what?   I feel really lucky… really blessed, to be here…  to be able to be in good health, to have so many things to do that need done.   Simply to wake up and watch the sun rise.   Here’s wishing you a great week ahead!

“The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Chrysanthemums.
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.”

John Updike, September

 




Seasons and Years of Change

September 14th, 2010

Beautiful weather after last week’s rain, and everything is growing once again. With late summer I have the joy of allergies kicking in for a few weeks…  the last Hurrah! as the grasses and goldenrod bloom. Which is great for the bees at least :)   Some years I don’t notice my allergies at all, and others it seems crazy and I’m sneezing all the time- like this week.   I could use a few days at sea…

Sometime within a week after putting to sea, you suddenly realize that your nasal passages are totally clear… the air at sea is usually so clean and fresh. Well most places that is, unlike the Persian Gulf where the dust storms would roll off the desert and engulf everything in a near brownout of fine dust particles for a day or two at a time. But the South Pacific was a different story!  I’ve been thinking of sharing few more stories of my past life (seems like “lives”), but I mostly want to share the beauty and experience of nature and our day-to-day life as it is now.  We’ll see.

The sedum flowers are also blooming, and the butterflies are enjoying the tiny flowers. The bees will follow when the flowers open a bit more.  Sedum is such a great plant… drought tolerant and blooming at just the right time in late summer when the insects really need them.

I saw a hummingbird the other day, surprised they were still here- soon they will depart on their migration south. The bees are incredibly busy now, which is a good sign.  I’m hopeful that the hives will build enough stores to carry themselves solidly through winter.

It was amazing watching the bees this afternoon, dropping through the sunlit sky, diving down to the hive by the dozens like tiny fighter jets… and then I stepped close to the front of the busiest hive, smiling as I watched a host of bees taking their first orientation flights outside the hive.   This tends to happen on warm afternoons, and is a good sign of a strong hive.

Bees spend about the first 3 weeks of their lives inside the hive, growing, building comb, acting as nurse bees to the young larvae- feeding and capping their cells. They must fly during that time, if only to relieve themselves,  and somehow they heed the call and head outside the hive to fly, becoming workers, orienting themselves with the sunlight and shadows, somehow knowing with amazing accuracy the exact position of their hive on the earth.

Honeybee on Sweet Autumn Clematis

If you move the hive more than a yard or two from its position, the bees will not know where to go…  I’ve read an old expression if you need to move a beehive:  Stay within two feet, or move it two miles!   I’m not sure about that, but I know if you do want to move it, you wait until after sunset and seal up the hive.  Then you move it to its new location, releasing the bees the next morning.  If it’s too close to the old hive location, you risk the bees flying back to their original location and not having a home to go to.

In the distance, I hear Captain Jack crowing, also enjoying the afternoon sun.   I went to collect the eggs from the henhouse, and picked up six of them.  Later on we gathered two more…  one of the first days that I’m sure each of the eight hens laid an egg.  Hooray for the girls!

I let them out into the garden for a good bit of the day… they love it.  In fact, Jack has figured out how to fly out of the run, and then fly back in if he wants to.  But the hens wait patiently, and after they’ve laid their eggs they deserve an outing to feast on greens and tiny critters.  One of the Barred Rocks was just running from the coop to catch up when I took this picture.  By the way- I thought our white “Snowy” might have been a Leghorn, but she doesn’t lay white eggs-  I think she might be a Wyandotte hybrid of some sort?

In the morning as we get ready for the day, the animals are ready to go too… the little kitty is becoming a holy terror within the house.  The yellow lab doesn’t seem to mind- she grabs his tail and he can’t help but wag it all over the place.

The shiba waits at the door for leftovers.  Anything the boy doesn’t eat the shiba gets to try.  Sometimes the chickens too.  I’m finding out that chickens love to eat just about anything!  So far it has been fairly simple to incorporate them into our lives and that of the other animals.

Here’s a neat photo from our trip last month.  We had a chance to stop at the marvelous national historic site of Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois.   Perhaps I’ll write more about it later, but as we walked from the first floor to the upstairs, the historian told us that the stairway railing was completely original to the home, exactly as it was over 150 years ago.

The young boy’s hand is there, and I’m amazed to think that President Lincoln- and his family- used that railing when they went up and down the stairs.   They had four boys… Robert, Eddie, Willie and Tad (Thomas). Only Robert lived to adulthood, and died in 1926 at age 82, buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Eddie died young at 3 years, 10 months, and Willie at 11 years. Tad reached age 18 before he died. But the boys did spend their happy childhood years in that house, listening to stories, singing, playing games, and holding that same railing.  I could almost imagine hearing their voices…



Home and Checking on the Critters

August 22nd, 2010

Oh my… home again! It was a nice journey around the upper midwest, and after the Iowa State Fair we made our way to Missouri, stopping over one night near Mark Twain Lake to clean things up a bit. It wasn’t all fun on the way home… I picked something up at the fair and spent a few nights with a fever and cough.

I’m getting there but it really knocked me out for a few days. Salmonella anyone? Who knows… I had several eggs at the fair, and a couple of egg breakfasts in Wisconsin and Iowa. It wasn’t a fun way to finish the trip, but hey that’s the price you pay for having fun, huh?  Home again and school starts this week for the boy.

That last night at the fair was really nice, and we rode the Skyride up the hill to the campground.  

On the way home the boy learned how to play dominoes.  He found an old dominoe set at an antique shop at the fair for a reasonable price… nice little wooden pieces.   After playing a game or two he would build things that didn’t stay up very well while driving along.

The chickens must have known we would be home… they gave us five presents for the first time with that many eggs. I was really hungry this morning and had four poached eggs on toast! Of course they were half-size eggs anyway :)

We have one or two chickens that don’t know where to lay their eggs… well, maybe they do, but one likes to put an egg in the corner of the coop. I found four eggs in the nest boxes this morning however, so maybe they’ll adapt.    They’re a cute bunch, and race out to see you whenver you come near the coop and run.  Of course they’re motivated by food… they go crazy for scratch mixings of corn and other seeds.

Hello Chickens!  We’re Home!!!

It was very dry while we were gone and all the grass was going to seed and nearly two feet tall. Weeds everywhere… I can’t believe how much things grow up in such a short time. We missed our Concord grape harvest! They were just ripening when we left and I thought our timing would work out… but the dry weather wilted the vines and all the grapes dropped off.

While cutting the grass I nearly ran over a little turtle scooting through the field. He was heading toward the pond a good hundred yards away. I believe it’s a Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta belli).

Colorful little fellow, and he kept paddling in the air as we looked at him. I took him for a free ride to the pond, and let him go… he swam quickly for the depths.

A quick check of the bees and they’re working away like crazy. There goldenrod is blooming! I watched dozens of bees at one hive bringing bright packs of pollen into the entrance. Three of the four hives appears to be doing well, but I may need to order a new queen for the other.

It’s good to see the bees doing well.  Still not a lot of honey this year, but their populations have increased dramatically.

The garden is surely winding down… the squash bugs got most of the pumpkin and squash vines, and cucumbers too.  But the corn is still growing taller and the carrots are growing bigger.  The tomatoes, not so much… between wilt and hornworms they’ve had a pretty tough summer.  But we probably took more than 30 pounds of tomatoes from the garden this year so we can’t complain. The elderberries have half dropped their fruit as well, so we hope to run around and cut some berry clusters before they’re gone.  Soon it will be time for jelly!

We may have some cooler weather ahead and I need to make the rounds and catch up on all the writings in the blogosphere.    

Sometimes I think of my grandmother on my father’s side.   I last saw her in 1999 when she was in a nursing home and when I asked how she was, she laughed and said “I’m here…” and then, “Time waits for no man…”    She passed away a few months later.   Somehow I’ve been thinking about life in the context of time lately… but (with luck and a little time!) those thoughts will await another day.   Stay well…

Here’s someone who really loves little Brownie the chicken!




Thankful for Goodness Around the Garden

July 29th, 2010

Where has July gone already!?    I’m thankful our garden and other activities are coming along nicely, and I hope our harvest keeps on coming.  Or at least progressing… like my weekly battle with squash bugs and tomato wilt (I’m losing!).  

I will say our tomatoes have produced their largest harvest this summer as compared to others ( The boy loves tomatoes!), but the plants look so ragged and are really struggling. Such is life in an organic garden in the midwest.  So much still to learn… but we’ve had enough tomatoes to make a good bit of salsa and more coming for sauce.

Each year I want to plant more and more… you can never have enough tomatoes! 

And what is the deal with pickles anyway?  Why do we like canning them?   You can buy a huge jar of pickles at the store for a few bucks.  Or you can take time to plant cucumbers, weed the garden, grow and pick them,  buy the jars and ingredients, and then take time to can your own…   Granted their is some raw satisfaction in doing it yourself. And it’s fun to share with kids… somehow pickles have a universal appeal.

These are the home-canned variety with dill mix and garden grown dill and other ingredients inside… like garlic and jalapeno peppers. Then processed for 20-30 minutes in boiling water to keep for long-term storage. 

They are very different from the fermented pickles I made last year… those were pretty tasty and I still have a few in the fridge that are still really good.  But it was hard to achieve consistent, firm pickles when I fermented them naturally.  

And do you have a good cucumber and tomato salad recipe in summer? They go so well together, but there’s so many cucumbers!… so maybe pickles just come from trying to figure out what to do with all the extra ones.  I guess it’s fun trying different recipes too… what’s yours?!

I did come up with a natural concoction to help combat tomato wilt/fungus and for discouraging squash bugs and other critters. Here’s my recipe: In a plastic bottle sprayer, combine 1 cup of milk, 1/4 cup hot/spicy sesame oil, 1 tablespoon tea tree oil soap or shampoo, 1/2 teaspoon dishwashing soap, and the rest with water… shake well and spray away!

It seems to work pretty well, although I found if you put the milk and oil in a blender first with a few drops of dishwasing soap it mixes a lot better. When I spray it the bugs skedaddle away quickly. It may or may not kill them, and is probably just a temporary protectant.  But hey, it doesn’t cost much!  Do you have a special mix or recipe that works?

The carrots are doing pretty well this year, but we came out a few days ago to find a dozen or more caterpillars happily munching away on the leaf tops.   These look like the caterpillar larva of the Black Swallowtail Butterfly. The boy loves them, and we kept a few to grow into butterflies- it worked out well, and we released them back outside after they emerged!

There’s no free lunch in this garden, so out the rest went!    Well okay, there are lots of free lunches…  I’m just trying to get the crowd to leave!   But I threw the extra caterpillars up into the grass and weeds at the fenceline, so maybe they’ll still become butterflies too.  

I did find a really neat plant this month.   Kind of funny too because I was the one who planted it.   A fellow beekeeper gave me a small mint plant a couple of years go, supposedly as an aid to natural beekeeping.   I’m all for that, even though I didn’t know what it was, and planted it at the base of an oak tree near my hives…  this year it finally flowered.   This is a Pycnanthemum species of some kind… try saying that five times really fast!  I love the white bracts that look like leaves at the top of the plant, with a little crown of flowers.

How did I find out what it was?   Well, I was enjoying the beautiful sights at Edifice Rex a couple of weeks ago, and Annie shared some photos including a plant called Mountain Mint…   I had never heard of it and thought it was neat.   Lo and behold when this one bloomed I realized it was the same plant!  Pretty neat way to find out something new- thanks Annie!   I’m not sure which species of Pycnanthemum it is, but it looks like albescens

I’ve also found that a particluar species of wasp really loves these little flowers.   The Double-Banded Scoliid wasp (Scolia bicincta) has covered this plant over the past week, with as many as 18 wasps on the tiny flower heads.   I’ve also seen some tiny flies and other insects, but no other bees, moths or butterflies.   It’s fascinating to see how the wasps really love the nectar from these tiny flowers.   These are commonly known as digger wasps.  They burrow into the ground and parasitize grubs and other insects.  I’ve never seen this species except on this plant.

*******

The bees are doing well and still building up their hive populations. About a month ago I took five frames from a really strong hive, and placed them in a small “nuc” hive.  Here’s a picture of that little nuc hive sitting on top of an empty full-size hive at right in this picture.

The little old boat with flowers is our “Burt Dow Boat”… do you remember the story? I wrote about it here a few years ago.   I love to fill it with petunias each year, and planted a wispy river birch behind it…

Anyway, I checked on that small nuc hive yesterday and it was doing so well that I put those bees right into that full-size hive that it was sitting on!  I was excited because the nuc was a “walk-away split” and the bees raised their own queen.   When I opened it up they had two full frames of brood and newly capped larvae… cool beans!    It looks like they’re in the shade, but the hive gets full sun from the middle of the day until sunset.

I wondered a little about moving their entrance lower from that little nuc to the bigger hive… if you move a bee hive any appreciable distance, the bees don’t know where to find it.   Supposedly if you need to, you either move them 6 inches a day, or two miles away!   Moving a good distance away is  fine, as long as you wait until all the bees get home in the evening, and then close them up.   But I only moved my bees down a couple of feet, and they quickly figured out how to get into their new home.

Now that I placed them into a new hive, they have five empty frames to draw out with wax, so I mixed up 10 pounds of cane sugar as a syrup, and put that in a hive-top feeder for them.  They won’t draw wax unless their is a good bloom and nectar-flow going on, or if you feed them to stimulate production of wax and additional bees.

With luck that hive population will increase over the next few months and be strong enough to carry right through winter.  I’m thankful they’re doing well and keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll have four hives next spring.

Our other visitors lately include a couple of Great Blue Herons who visit the pond a few times each week.   I don’t begrudge them a meal or two, but they never tire of an easy catch at the expense of our little fish.    When I see them I usually clap my hands or try to sneak up on them…   then they “Croawwwk!” loudly and fly away.

 

July is coming to an end.  It has been a really warm and humid month, but we also enjoyed a good bit of rain.    Hard to believe how fast summer is going by, but we’re not quite to midsummer’s eve yet!  

The evenings are so beautiful however, and the other night was a pretty one…  the boy just marvels at sunsets and the light on the clouds.

 

I hope your summer is going well too. What are you thankful for today?  See you next time!   :)




July Ramblings

July 20th, 2010

A few days ago the chickens were hanging out in the shade with temperatures in the coop over 100 degrees.   And then rain, sweet rain.   And then more rain.    Two days ago I began to write, “a passing storm and raging winds, and then a gentle breeze, drizzle and clouds.  Just what the garden needs, and a respite from the heat…”

I saw this early before dawn… it was quiet and a beautiful orange light was all around.   I just had to walk further.

Then I saw this, slowly building to the southwest…

The clouds billowed upward and outward, forming a classic thunderstorm, with the rumble of thunder in the distance.

Soon it became this…

The barn swallows have another nest full of three more fledglings, and a dry perch to watch the rain pour over the gutters.  Methinks there’s a clog somewhere down the line… I cleaned the gutters out not long ago, yet heavy rain pours over.

So yesterday it was another huge storm of wind, rain and hail, and then today more heavy rain!  The clouds are nice in terms of cooling things off, but we’ve had quite enough water for the time being thank you very much.

I remember years ago being surprised to realize that a lot of folks have not experienced heavy thunderstorms before.   Of course that’s what I’ve always remembered about Missouri summers.    Brief storms  with thunder, lightning, showers and blessedly cooling weather.   Then back to the humid and hot.

With a little cooler daytime temperatures we  seized the opportunity to catch up on weeding and pruning.

This was a shrub rose gone wild that I’ve been meaning to cut out for weeks.  It had several more branches just like this one,  spreading out more than twenty feet in all directions!   It’ll come back unless I put something on the stump to kill it.  And the flowers?  Inconspicuous little white things.  I’m not sure where this rose came from, but it doesn’t have a place here anymore.

The young boy is really a great help around the place.   Now I understand why farmers of old had such big families…

Later the boy enjoyed a break with his Shiba.  Although that little dog likes to think he owns everything around here…  he’s a funny little guy, and a good watch dog.  He lets us know when anything out of the ordinary happens or someone comes down the gravel drive.  They are cute together…

Here’s a picture of the shiba when he was a puppy…    A few years ago I described how he adopted us from a little Japanese pet store in 2002.   We call him Kuma, which is short for Kuma no nuigurumi  or Teddy Bear in Japanese.

*******

This week it was also time to check on the bees.  I’ve got just three hives and a small nuc (nucleus hive) going. Earlier in the spring I had a hive with a drone-laying queen, and she eventually disappeared. Before the hive was queenless too long I solved that problem with the help of another local beekeeper.

We combined that hive with a nuc and a new queen, using a screened divider between them for a week. That gave the failing hive time to become acquainted with the new queen and other bees, and then after removing the screened divider, the hive became one, joining forces to work together.   Since that time they’ve steadily increased their population and look great now.

Alas I have another hive with a failing queen. This hive started out strong, but then simply languished. I have found no disease or other external problems, but the queen is simply not laying enough eggs to keep the population strong.   I will probably order a new queen to replace her soon, and allow the bees to strengthen the hive before winter.

With all the beekeeping challenges this is not a year for gathering much honey.  That’s okay because I’m really trying to build them up going into winter.  But that middle hive is very strong and may yield a small super of honey, so we’ll see.   Here’s a picture of bees fanning at the top opening on the inner cover.

One reason they fan their wings is as a signal for other bees, blowing scent pheromones from a hive entrance or other location so their hive mates know where to go.  But they also fan to cool and circulate the air through the hive on hot days .  Most importantly, the bees will fan to increase the evaporative cooling effects within the hive to remove moisture from the nectar/honey stored within.

After the bees gather nectar from flowers, it is carried in their honey stomach back to the hive, then often passed to another worker bee to process and store within the hive.  During this process the nectar is converted to various sugars by enzymatic action and deposited into the waxy cells within the hive.  But it is very runny and full of moisture at this point… not even close to being honey yet.   Beekeepers call honey which is too runny green.   It doesn’t really become honey until the moisture level is lowered to about 17%-18%.   Then the bees put a waxy cap on the cell and the honey is stored until needed as food.

Because the bees have lowered the water content of the honey, it is very hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb water moisture from the air.   Good quality honey has a very low water content which is one of the reasons it can be stored almost indefinitely without spoiling.    If you’ve ever had honey ferment at home, it’s either because the container wasn’t sealed tightly over time and it absorbed a lot of moisture, or it was too green or allowed to sit open before it was purchased and fermented later.  Of course you could always make mead or use it for baking!  Runny honey just needs to be used a little more quickly.

Everything else is coming along too.  I harvested around 15 pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers out of the garden this morning.  I think pickles are in our future… and tomato sauce!     Seems like the tomatoes are ripening all at once, and I need them to keep going.

Last week I found this lucky titmouse enjoying a feast on a ripened sunflower.

I also planted more squash, and some beets in the garden- hoping they mature in time for a good harvest.  It was the perfect time too with all the rain.    I also planted collard greens which supposedly improve in taste after the first frost.   I don’t know about that, but I enjoy them when cooked and mixed with seasoning.  Does anybody have good ideas for how to use collard greens in the kitchen?  Well I love greens, but I never made them very often.  Maybe in soup?

The sun is back out this afternoon… 96 degrees and hot! Hard to motivate anyone to do anything, even myself it seems. One small step…

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