Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Working the bees

The bees arrived in a buzzing little box in mid-April (while I was off traveling in Kenya!).  So Jeremy took care of installing them in their new home and there are no pictures of any of that. You'll have to wait for those details because we do have more bees arriving next month. More about that later.

Here they are happy (? - I hope!) in their new home.

Coming and going.

It's not a good idea to disturb the bees too much so we really tried not to. In June Jeremy opened up the hive to make sure things were going well. I know - it's kind of silly that he wears a bee veil but has bare arms! I guess he'd rather get stung on his arm or hand and not his face.

Looking for the queen.

These guys have been busy! Yep, busy bees! =)

Oops, put this board in upside down! You can see how they're building comb all over in any place where there is space. Sue Hubbell talks about the "bee space" which is the ideal distance apart between combs. I think if there is too much space they may find it drafty so they fill it in. We're still working on finding the right spacing for our bees.

Jeremy checked the bees other times too, though it mostly looked the same as that time in June. We had a general idea of how much honey the bees should be making and when we should add more supers. But they were slow for some reason and it was some time before Jeremy felt they needed another super. I think they only got that third box on before fall came. Jeremy went out to check on them for the last time in about October and discovered they had all died.

Here you can see the comb, with honey, and dead bees in the comb.

We don't really know why they died. We've talked with a number of beekeepers and think we've narrowed it down. We're pretty sure it wasn't disease. That's good - one of the bee diseases is so bad the only solution is to burn the whole hive (there is no disagreement about that!). It's possible the queen died for some reason and the bees hadn't been prepared with a new queen. They are pretty dependent on that queen. She makes more bees, so if she dies, the bees slowly die out with no new bees to take their place.

The other possibility is that they starved. The first picture seems to show that: bees crammed into the comb eating the honey. I think we had some cool evenings and it's possible they were too cold to move over 3 inches to find more food. That does happen I guess.

But maybe it's a combination of those two - or neither of them. We don't know. We did learn some interesting things in the process though. First, we had a beekeeper extract the honey for us (she's a professional and has a machine and everything!). She said we had a lot of "wet honey." The bees bring in nectar and store it in the comb; the nectar has a high water content. Throughout the summer they fan their wings to dehydrate it, thereby creating the honey we all know and love. Our bees hadn't had time to dehydrate the nectar all the way so our honey had a high water content. It still tastes fine, the problem is it will go bad faster. We gave some little jars away to family and warned them not to admire the jar for too long - eat it right away! We put the rest in a bucket, secured cheesecloth over it, and set it in front of the heater vent. After a couple months it seemed to be the right consistency. I hope our future bees will do this job themselves!

The second thing I learned was about flowers and nectar. I wondered if our bees just hadn't found enough nectar and that's why they were so slow and then died. But we have tons of flowers in our yard, blooming a lot of the summer! I talked to a beekeeper about this and she said it's possible since there was such a drought last year that there wasn't much nectar in the flowers. I've prided myself on some native and drought-resistant plants - they still bloom and look pretty even when we haven't had much rain. But it turns out they aren't making much nectar and that's what the bees need. So this year I'm going to be better at watering the flowers - and I'm going to mulch better to keep all that moisture in.

In the end I think we got about a gallon or so of honey. Not bad for our first year!
That's all we've got left now; we'd better slow down and make it last! Our new bees are set to arrive at the beginning of April. I'll try not to take a whole year to let you know how that goes!

Oh, for those of you who are wondering, I haven't been stung at all (and I've gotten every bit as close to the bees as Jeremy). Jeremy got stung once I think. As long as you don't bother or harass them, they are very peaceful and content to go about their business.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bees...the beginning

I can tell I fell of the blogging bandwagon in a big way when we started a whole new urban homesteading project and I never blogged about it! I know I mentioned it once or twice (and some of you have been patiently waiting for an update - you've told me!).  It's amazing that some of these photos are from more than a year ago now.  Without further preface and delay: getting into bees!

To start with, we took a day-long beekeeping course, asked tons of questions of everyone we knew who ever had anything to do with bees, and we got some books. The number one thing we learned (which has been backed up by other beekeepers since): PERSONAL PREFERENCE!  That is, you'll hear a dozen or more different ways to do any single task with bees (how to feed, care for, medicate, etc) and it's really up to personal preference. Actually, the way Sue Hubbell explains it in A Book of Bees, this is because climate and bee habitat vary from area to area and something that works in one place may not work in another. So really you have to get to know your own bees and your own bee habitat. Don't worry, I get the feeling they'll teach you.

Jeremy was really the instigator of this project.  He begged family for gifts of all the beekeeping stuff we'd need, and over the space of about a year he got it!  Last Christmas he got boxes of bee frames to put together.  Yep, DIY!  And there is a lot of little fussy stuff to do when putting these things together.

First he built all the boxes.

He drilled some holes in the fronts to allow for bees to come and go and for extra ventilation. We got little corks to fit in these holes so we could block them up when needed.

Then he primed and painted all of them. Painting is important because the hives sit outside, of course, and the paint will help keep the wood from rotting away.

Then Jeremy built all of the frames. I think these were the most nit-picky of all.

After they're put together you slide the wax foundations in each one, then secure them.

And then start loading them up in the boxes.

Here's all our bee stuff ready to go: bee hive all painted and full of frames, with the base thing down there at the bottom; the smoker; a bee veil; and a hive tool.

This was all done by the beginning of March and our bees were set to come in mid-April. But I was gone when they got here!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Caution: slow moving spring

The day after we cut those branches down we had some good melt and a bit of rain. The backyard filled up with water.

Those of you who have been around since 2009 know that we dug out our backyard almost as soon as we'd signed the paperwork and took possession of the house. Back in the day, before we did this little fix, all that melting water would have poured straight into the basement. Yes, we bought our house even though there was frozen sheeting water on every wall and a skating rink on the floor! Anyway, now all the water pools in the yard, making it slightly difficult to get to the chickens. But we manage.

During most of the week last week we had really cold temperatures and the lake froze. Not quite enough to walk on, though by the end it was almost there. I finally went out yesterday and started breaking up the ice. It had started thawing from the bottom up. There was some melted water and a bit of ice, an air gap of about 3/4 inch and then this huge slab of ice about 2 inches thick covering the yard. I had to hop up and down on it a bit to get it to break. That was fun!

Another thing that happens when the melt begins - the slabs of snow/ice on our metal roof starts sliding off.

It makes for quite an awning from the inside! I've never seen it curl off like this before. It didn't do any damage to our gutter when it finally broke off after several days.

The worst part about this is the topmost roof. It's nearly flat so the snow/ice doesn't slide off as quickly. The slab will slide out slowly, bit by bit, till as much as 6 or 10 inches is hanging off. Because it's sticking out straight (and not at an angle like the lower roof) the snow doesn't curl, it breaks off suddenly with a sound like a bomb going off. Well, at least that's what it sounds like at 3:00 in the morning! It's kind of fun and exciting during the day - I just wish it was stick to falling off during the day and not during the night. But it's mostly gone now.

A week or two ago we had a friend over who knows about pruning fruit trees. This is something we know nothing about and haven't really looked into much. Now that our old cherry tree is mostly dead, we'd like to work on the two new ones (and the apple tree) and make sure they fare better and are healthier than the old one. Sarah gave us some great tips on how to prune so I'm excited to keep that up.

As we clipped away she told us some of the branches, if stuck in water, would leaf out. So into a glass of water they went. They are leafing out v e r y slowly. Sort of like our approaching spring. It is coming v e r y, v e r y slowly. We're supposed to dip down to single digit lows again this next week. Brr! Come on spring! You can do it! Win the battle against winter!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Didn't see that coming

I've been nagging Jeremy about taking down a few trees in the yard for quite some time now. (Note to self: be careful what you nag for!)

There are way too many trees on our tiny 1/8 acre. Some of them are mere inches apart. Three in particular are Siberian Elms - junk trees basically. They spend all year dropping branches and twigs all over the place; spreading their evil weed tree seeds all over the whole yard; and blocking out all the sun to our garden. And to top it off, these trees are known for not having good joints. That is, where branches fork off, the tree is weak and prone to rot, so those big old branches are liable to just fall off out of the blue. (Or in a storm, which happened in 2011.) Unfortunately these trees have gotten very big and are leaning precariously over our house and our neighbors. They have to go! We got an estimate on tree removal last fall. While it's not too expensive, we still can't really afford it.  Besides, Jeremy has a chainsaw and we have access to ladders. Surely we can do it ourselves!  Er, that is, surely if I nag Jeremy long enough he'll eventually do it! =)

We had some spare time this afternoon and Jeremy whipped out the chainsaw.  The plan was to take down one of the big branches.  Very big branches. If it fell too far to one side it would take out our neighbor's electrical; too far to the other side it would take out ours.  So the plan was to cut it so it would fall into the Kitalpa tree a couple feet over.

Which it very nicely did for us. Jeremy cut several feet off the bottom of it hanging out of the tree, and then we discovered it was STUCK in the Kitalpa!

 Jeremy actually swung from the thing a few times and it was not going anywhere. Hmm. Didn't see that coming!

So now we had a huge branch stuck and swaying ever so slightly in the top of this other tree. I won't go into all the details since our mothers read this and I don't want them to know - it was kind of scary.  But I suspect it was like when you see someone tipping back in their chair and you're just sure they're going to fall at any minute, it looks so unsafe! (Or maybe that's just me?) But when you tip back in your chair it feels totally safe. So I'm sure Jeremy felt totally safe, but I was pretty sure he was going to fall off that ladder, chainsaw in hand, at any moment and die a horrible death.  Geez, I guess I asked for it when I nagged him for years to cut these darn trees down!

Skip to the end: Jeremy got the huge branch out of the Kitalpa with no injuries to either of us and he cut a second branch off the junk trees for good measure.

Now there is a huge pile of brush to be dealt with - which the neighborhood birds are going to go bonkers over. I don't know why, but they love hanging out in brush piles, dozens and dozens of them.  I'll see if I can catch them in the act this weekend.

(In other news, I am very annoyed with Blogger/Picasa/etc for constantly having to update and change things that worked perfectly well before!  They have made it very difficult for me to put pictures and text where I want it! Grr!)