Tuesday, September 29, 2015

fall management of the hives

I have had kind of a funky year with my bees.  It's been a very good year for the bees, they have done well, grown their own new queens, built up with the season and are now appropriately becoming a smaller and healthy cluster.  But the honey has not been particularly flowing, shall we say.  Having made it quite well through the winter this past year, I was very excited to be growing the beeyard in the spring, without needing to replace any bees.  I entered the season with two very healthy hives and then split them into three full hives and one nucleus colony.  While we traveled this summer, and despite planning and preparations, I unfortunately lost the nucleus colony and the other new hive never became particularly robust.  I have much to learn here still, obviously.

I have been waiting to make a fall harvest of honey because the hives were a bit behind in their production.  Honey is ready to be harvested once the bees have cured it and then capped it with a layer of wax.  Each time I peeked in on their honey activities, they did not seem to be capping it, despite a good deal of beautiful dark liquid filling up the frames.

Eventually, given advice from those more knowledgeable, I decided that it was time to harvest, that the honey was in fact harvestable despite not being capped, and especially, that it was time to do so in order to be able to apply my fall treatments for mites to get the bees strong and healthy for the winter.  The window for being able to do so is temperature dependent, and with temperatures falling these days, it was definitely time to get in there.

For me at least, a visit to the hives can result in rather surprising findings.  Missing queens.  No eggs.  Swarm cells aplenty.  A nucleus hive gone empty.  Bees that can sting you right between the eyes.  Really anything.  And so, when I got all my honey harvesting equipment lined up, had rented the bee club's honey extractor, and fired up ye olde smoker, I knew that anything was possible.  But I was still excited and making big plans for the honey.  

Except, when I got down there, I found my rather measly middle hive was looking quite poorly and seemed to be attempting to make another queen, which given the rarity of drones for fertilization in the fall, did not seem like a wise venture.  They were also dangerously low on honey.  And brood.  So I considered.  Ran for my class notes up in the house, only bringing a few hitchhiking bees into the kitchen.   I decided I would need to retrieve those bees from the kitchen light fixture later.

And quickly, I paged through my notes until I found the class in which I learned how to do a dump merger.  

I emptied the bees from the weak hive, thump by thump onto a tablecloth in front of a strong hive. 

Added the little remaining brood from the weak hive to that hive.  Moved frames around that larger hive to be in a good configuration for the smaller cluster with all the supplies of pollen and honey they could need to get through the long cold winter ahead.

I placed the mite treatment.

And closed it up.  Any honey frames that were left over, I cleared of all bees, still hopeful for a honey harvest, and put them in a covered bin.  That is something easy to write, but not so easy to do.

Then I moved on to the other hive.  Which was doing pretty well, I discovered.  No need to feed it, but wanting to leave plenty, even extra honey and pollen for them this winter, after rearranging the frames and consolidating it down into a small number of boxes, there were only a few frames of extra honey there as well.  I placed their mite treatment.

I closed it all up and stood back, feeling pretty good about going into winter with two strong and well supplied hives, with no need to feed them, and already treated for mites.  And knowing that I can split them again in the spring, when resources are abundant and new queens can be reared.  Nothing lost really despite going from three hives to two in one afternoon.  Because they are more likely to survive in this new configuration.

Those bees were doing exactly what my teacher had said they would do.  They were marching right up that tablecloth into the new hive.  And settling in and calling it home.

But then, the frames of honey in the bin.  Thinking about my winter management in years past and my dependence on sugar candy to feed the hives when their honey supplies get low, I made a decision.  More than wanting a honey harvest for myself, I wanted these bees to be as healthy as possible going into next year.  

So I packaged up the extra honey frames.  

And tucked them into the freezer in the barn with the growing supply of preserved food from our garden.  

And now I have preserved their own food for them -- no need for candy boards -- should they need it during the cold winter months and the early spring ahead.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

apple picking at home

Decades ago, someone planted an orchard in our backyard.  We have a number of old heritage apple trees, probably planted along with a Victory Garden in support of the war efforts, raising food at home.  Some years these old trees produce fruit.  Some years they do not.  And most years, the apples fall before they ripen.  This year, this pre-ripe descent happened to one of the trees during the strong winds of a thunderstorm.  And I missed the apples that fell from an enormous old scraggly tree down on the river bank. I spotted squirrels and groundhogs scurrying past me with a large and gorgeous green apples in their mouths, ferrying them someplace to keep for the winter.  And knew I had missed my chance with that tree this year.  But one tree, miraculously, held on to its apples.

And there they are.

Fourteen feet up.  

Red and flawless and so enticing.  

And completely unreachable.

I decided to attempt to address the situation this weekend, when Nicholas and Elliott were both home and playing weird soccer, as they have named it, in the yard.  Hint: Tennis racquets play an integral role. So I rounded them up and told them I needed them to climb some trees for me.

They were well fed at the time and remarkably willing to help me out.

Nicholas was first up in the tree.

While Elliott, height disadvantaged, struggled a bit.

It didn't take long for us to all realize that there was really no way to reach those apples in such a manner.  The branches were too thin and the apples were too high.  And soon, inspired by one mastered tree, I lost Nicholas to his quest for more trees to climb, reminded of just how fun this could be.  Especially when the alternative was to go inside and practice his guitar.

I called to him, mentioned fetching a ladder from the barn, but eventually gave up.  He was enjoying himself.  So was Millie.

Elliott tried his best to solve the problem.  With a stick and a good deal of silliness.

I googled "long pole apple baskets."  Scratched my head.  And looked down.  And decided to cut my losses.  They were red.  Not flawless.  But reachable.

On his way in to do homework, I enlisted Nicholas once more.  Sirius did his best Blueberries for Sal reenactment.

Nicholas and Jonathan plunked these apples down in the kitchen next to the potatoes, also awaiting their proper storage and preservation.

And Elliott and I got to work.

The first batch is being made into apple butter, and as I write this it is stewing away in my slow cooker.  I am using an "a little bit of this and a little bit of that recipe," a combination of these ingredients with a bit of these flavors infused and Marisa's process.  It smells heavenly, and Elliott is hopeful that it will be ready for him when he returns home from school tomorrow.

We'll see.

Friday, September 25, 2015

potatoes and groundhogs...one thing leads to another

I have the tune of the Mexican Hat Song in my head today.  But the words are Cheryl Wheeler's version, involving potatoes and one mention of a groundhog

You too?



Long long ago, on our honeymoon, before wrinkles and children, rodents and extreme backyarding, and other of "life's complications," we attended a folk music concert with a picnic and a bottle of wine. It was a glorious evening, one of the best of our honeymoon.  One of the performers there at the Seattle Zoo that night, along with three other folk singers, was Cheryl Wheeler.  And during the concert they drew words generated by the audience from a hat and each of them needed to perform a song that was somehow related to the selected word.  One of the words was farm animal.  And Cheryl sang this song.  There is a mention of a groundhog.  And she emphasized hog...and paused...for effect. 

And thus began my lifelong connection between potatoes and groundhogs.  See?  It makes perfect sense now, right?

We are hard at work harvesting what remains of the garden and beginning to clean it up for the the season.  This week I set to work on harvesting the potatoes.  Though exhausting to dig and sift through all the beds, I had company, and I was in the lovely shade of the sunflowers, still this season's best crop.

I discovered there is a family member that has even more patience than I for potatoes.  Elliott, who busied himself with rescuing all the tiny tubers that I was missing and leaving beside in the turned beds.

While I harvested the potatoes, something I enjoy and have the patience for, Jonathan, who does not share the enjoyment or the patience for this, did what he does best.  He emptied the garden shed completely, and then threw a bunch of stuff out and reorganized what went back in.  He is very good at this kind of thing, and I neither enjoy it nor am I good at it.  Which is probably why, since I am the primary user of the garden shed, it was in the condition that it was in.  

To my credit, the garden shed is in need of some structural attention that extends beyond my abuse of it, that despite my plans for it, are unlikely to happen this season.  That's okay, it will happen eventually.  But there is a groundhog who lives beneath the shed.  And he has chosen to chew an escape hatch (think Lost, the tv show) in the already rotting floor of the shed.  My approach to solving this problem was to pull a flower pot filled with pebbles over the hole for a couple of seasons.  Jonathan did a bit more of a significant repair. And the roof?  It is covered in beautiful and aged cedar shingles.  But it leaks.  And if you look closely, you will see, through the back wall of the shed, that actually serves as the windbreak for our beeyard.  So you can see...the out of doors through several large slits.  I am hoping the bees don't some day see my shed as a spacious McMansion to move into during swarm season.

Thinking about potatoes.  And groundhogs.  And lutzing.  Whaaat?  I'll get to that.  I lutzed my way down the river bank to the brush pile.  And spotted this.

Though this may appear an anthill?  Trust me, it is not.  It is a large, 10 foot in diameter, freshly dug groundhog hole.  I think I found the other escape tunnel.  We are likely living atop a complicated underground society, feeding well and prospering off our backyard shenanigans.

Which brings me around to our honeymoon again.  A good pair we are, though we might not have realized quite the far reaching reasons many years ago sitting on a blanket, fresh faced and birth trauma free.  Because this is what my charming husband did to my shed while I dug in the dirt.

Now, not wanting to be outdone by my industrious husband, and having brought in all the potatoes, I looked around for what more to do.  To appear busy of course, while he toiled around in the shed.  Well, there was a wee bit of weeding.

To my credit, it is hard to weed when the bees are enjoying the flowery aftermath so very much.

And so, I cleared those beds containing only blossom-free weeds, tidied up the rows of crazy but so pleasing to me mixed flower seeds I resorted to throwing quickly in this year.  And admired my bees.  

Maybe I admired my bees a bit longer than was necessary.  But I was just finishing that difficult work up when Jonathan finished hauling all the garbage up to the barn.

Since it was all in the name of family competition, apparently, Elliott decided he needed to take on another task as well.  Inspired by my newly installed drying racks that had been repurposed to the shed for drying herbs and such during our renovation of the laundry room inside the house.  He eyed the herbs.  And went to work.

Then it was time to head inside for dinner.  Eyeing the potato bin...I decided on potato soup.  It was kind of a version of this.  Except it was inspired by my I don't keep creme fraiche in the refrigerator and a groundhog ate my leeks situation.  So? I modified.  


Now. The lutzing. And, no, nothing to do with Kellan.

During the 1996 Zoo Honeymoon concert which solidified my synaptic association between tubers and ground rodents, Ms. Wheeler also began discussing her imaginary training for the Olympics, and how she was working on her lutzes.  She demonstrated.  And so, when I spotted Nicholas doing this stretch post-run later that evening, I had to giggle because...tubers and lutzes and rodents, oh my.  

You're Lutzing!  I exclaimed.  No response. I think he may be learning just not to ask questions.