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  • Birds, Bees and Wendell Berry

    Spring 2017Wendell Berry is the poet of farmer and nature dweller alike. He is my favorite writer, poet, fiction, nonfiction, and I’m excited to say he liked my tweet. For World Poetry Day, I linked to the Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

    Spring 2017We are in spring mode: Bob has been tending seedlings for months and they are now filling the high tunnel. Kale, carrots, radishes and an unidentified probably Asian green that was supposed to be butter crunch. It is much more like Romaine, long spiky leaves growing from a center but without any head forming.

    I have four ginger plants sprouting in the greenhouse in the back bedroom  and am just trying to be patient for the others. There is a spot ready for them in the high tunnel. The turmeric showed no sign of real life so I just put all the pieces in pots on the sun porch. We shall see…maybe getting into dirt will encourage them to sprout and root.

    I decided, even after last summer’s failure, to go ahead and increase the apiary. I bought two nucs–boxes of bees with a queen, brood and some honey–from a store about two hours away and picked them up on Friday. I took the pickup, thinking they could ride in the back but the owner insisted they be up front with the air conditioning running full blast. With so many bees in such small space, they generate a lot of heat. We had a careful drive home and they aSpring 2017re now hived.

    My goal today was to get the feeders off my old hives and installed with a light syrup mix on the new hives. I knew the old hives seemed to be doing well but hadn’t done a check yet. I am happy to report they are doing well. So well, in fact, that I decided to put boxes on them and do the feeders another day. Both hives had begun building up into the feeders so I scraped the comb and left the feeders for them to clean. I added a medium to the single deep hive that I saved last year. I had some old comb from the freezer, three frames from the strong hive, and five newish frames. I’ll keep an eye to make sure they start filling it up but I’m not too worried as they seemed ready.

    The stronger hive has a deep and a medium. I checked the medium and saw new brood and lots of honey. Didn’t manage to get to the bottom box but will check it next time. For now, I added a queen excluder and a honey super with some drawn comb and some new frames. They also seemed eager to start building. The bees seemed pretty mellow. I had the smoker but they didn’t seem all that aggressive. I was able to walk away without being chased.

    I am pleased with both hives and am hopeful for the new ones. They are active as they get settled in their new homes.

    Spring 2017A few other pictures…the resident fox who has little concern for the dogs that are barking at him like mad. I worked in the hay barn one afternoon this spring, prepping the bee hardware. I kept an eye out for him as he hangs out in the hay but I didn’t see him this day. As I came down out of the barn at one point, I realized he was snoozing in the sun on a cart we have in the barnyard. It’s loaded with brush for the next bonfire and he was tucked in the branches on the edge, one eye slightly open and keeping an eye on me.

    Spring 2017I am kind of excited about my orchids! I have been pampering them for a year now: summer in the dappled sunlight of the upper porch and then winter in a greenhouse in the bedroom upstairs. Warm and humid, just the way they like it. I was rewarded with blooms on two of the plants. I brought them downstairs for some late winter color. Soon, it’s time for them to head back to the porch.

    We have had two red bellied woodpeckers at our feeder this year. They like the long tube where they can rest their tails.Spring 2017



  • Cautiously Optimistic

    In my last bee post in June, I mentioned the weak hive. My remedy of putting in a few frames of brood from my other hive did not work. The next time I went into the hive, it had been heavily invaded with wax moths. There evil invaders take advantage of weak hives. Normally, the bees are able to fight them off but my hive was just not strong enough. It is just ugly: they make sticky webs across the frames and the worms eat into the wax. The only positive part was that there were still a large number of bees in the hive.

    I made an emergency call to a bee keeping expert. Could I at least try to save this hive? He advised swapping frames with the healthy hive again, adding any unaffected frames from the invaded hives and reducing the whole hive to one box. I ended up with six frames of bees, brood and honey and added four empty frames to fill the box.

    I am lousy at finding queens so couldn’t find one. But, after a week or so, I found the evidence of the bees making an emergency queen. This is another one of those fascinating things that bees do and one of the reasons I don’t buy queens. It just makes sense that having the bees make one is better than introducing one.

    Once they make a queen, it’s all a game of timelines and numbers. From laid egg to hatch is 16 days for a queen. Then another 5 to 6 days  until she is ready to make her mating flight. Then, a few more days until she lays eggs. It can be 28 days plus or minus 5 days.

    So, today, when I pulled some frames, I saw larvae. Yay! That works perfectly with the timeline. I reduced the hive to one box on July 12. Around July 31, I saw hatched queen cells. That’s 19 days. Larvae show up in about 3 to 5 days after the eggs are laid. That means my larvae were eggs around August 6, 25 days after this all began, just about a perfect timeline.

    It is going to take 20 days for those larvae to turn into bees. Workers bees live about 40 days. I put capped brood in the hive on July 12. There wasn’t a whole lot left on July 31. That means the current bees in the hive are anywhere from 14 to 28 days old. So, I am expecting to see the population go down in the next couple weeks. I may need to add one more frame of brood from my healthy hive, which had plenty of open brood.

    So…I am cautiously optimistic that I can save this hive. I did commit to getting two more nucs of bees. If all goes well, I will have four active hives.

    Today was also the first day of dusting the bees with confectioner’s sugar. It is a known, organic method for fighting varroa mites. They live on the bees so when you dust them, they clean off the sugar and get rid of the mites at the same time. I have sheets with grids that I can slide in the hide to do a mite count and may do so the next time I check the hives.

    I continue to balance nature and management. All the beekeepers I know are having a tough year: the late frost killed off the blossoms that fuel the spring flow and some hives, like mine, never requeened. This is the most management I’ve had to do int the three years I have had the hives and I’m hoping it will save my hive.

    One item of interest: I am getting nucs from someone who practices Slovenian bee keeping, a method that makes it easier for people to manage a hive. A typical hive box can weigh 50 pounds. It is right on the edge of what I can lift so if I am going to continue this hobby into my next decade, a friendlier method would be welcome. I am looking forward to seeing the operation.

  • Suddenly Spring!

    A gorgeous Saturday and the big job was to do the first post-winter bee hive checkin. I’ve been watching the hives for the past month or so and seeing lots of activity. They’ve been on the to do list for awhile but when I had time, the weather was too rainy, or windy, or cold. Today was perfect! I donned the suit, fired up the smoker and headed down mostly just to remove the feeders and see if there were babies.

    I fed them three times this winter: twice in December/January time frame with a thick syrup (2:1) and then in February with a lighter 1:1. The feeders were empty, and both hives had started building comb with lots of honey along the underside. I took them off, scraped up the excess comb and honey and put them to the side. They’ll clean them out.

    I’m happy to report that both hives have LOTS of bees but they were not overly aggressive. I used the smoker, of course, but they mostly left me alone as I worked, too busy with their own Spring chores to worry much about me. And, I think I have gotten less intrusive, feeling more confident about moving boxes and pulling up frames.

    They seemed to have a fair amount of honey and pollen stores and bees were flying in with bulging legs. It’s the Spring flowering season with fruit trees and early flowers providing plenty of foraging.

    There was also evidence of brood in all stages including eggs and larvae so that shows evidence of a queen. I am not good at locating the queen and did not want to pull out lots of frames. This was a check in after all. I did switch the boxes for one of the hives, putting the deep on the bottom and the medium on the top.

    Next week, I want to replace one of the hive boxes on the other hive as it is in pretty bad condition, starting to rot at the top. I’m also going to put on the honey supers. I may look a little more closely then since I will have to pull all the frames out of the box I’m replacing and see if I can find the queen.

    We’ve been enjoying our honey all winter and if I get that much or even more this year, I’ll be a happy camper.

  • An Autumn Update

    Displaying This morning was one of those mornings that have me questioning the farming life. It was about 20 degrees when I headed out for the chores. Fortunately, I am prepared for such mornings with lots of warm clothes from long underwear to boots to hat and gloves. And the animals seemed no worse for wear, especially the turkeys who spent the night outside, roosting in their usual spots on the wash line and overhead power line.

    We worked until dark last night, digging up the last of the sweet potatoes. We had a bumper crop so if you’re in the market for potatoes, come on by. I’ve been baking pies and did a delicious batch of sweet potato donuts using my new donut pans. For Thanksgiving, I’m making Sweet Potato Tarte Tatin.

    Last weekend, we weaned the baby pigs by transferring them to the pen with chain link for better security and moving the mamas to the wider open pen with electric fencing. It’s pretty amazing that three strands of wire can keep them in. There was a little weeping and gnashing of teeth but nothing that some greens and scoops of food couldn’t fix. The babies merged quickly and they can still see mama so everyone seems happy.

    What a nice day!Well, except for Biscuit, our boar, who is now alone in his pen. He was with the last sow, Hamp, who does not appear to have gotten pregnant. We went ahead and moved her in with the other two females. Biscuit figured out how to look out through the window of the building where he stays. Very cute but we strung a piece of wire just in case. The plan is to get him out into the field, but we need to build a shelter.

    The babies seem to love their new pen. I sat out with them for awhile and enjoyed listening to them rooting in the dried leaves. For those of you who need a cute pig fix, here’s the video:

  • This Week in Pigs..and more

    We got the first freeze of the season two nights ago. That’s the end of the squash plants but we were able to have a least a short crop of yellow squash this fall. Now, we are into winter crops: greens like collards, kale and mustard and root vegetables including sweet potatoes and turnips. The latter are new to us and I found the best way to make them is with a bit of butter and brown sugar. I made one sweet potato pie and it was delicious. More are on the horizon…

    The story this week is mostly about pigs. One morning, I looked out the front window to see Biscuit, our 300-pound hog, go trotting past on his way to the field. Hamp, the sow that shares the pen with him, was not far behind. They had pushed through the fence, turning over the empty refrigerator on the other side, tore up the hen yard, and managed to chew through electric fencing that hadn’t been turned on yet. Bob got behind them with the truck and I lured them back to the pen with sweet potatoes and biscuits. I wish I had video of the two of them running towards me, ears flapping like overgrown puppies.

    Yesterday, we gave the piglets their shots and castrated all but one of the males. It went surprisingly well as we were lucky to have an experienced neighbors. The babies did scream but seemed no worse for wear at the end. The mothers were a little concerned but not aggressive. After helping with capture and the shots, I hung out with Macintosh as her babies came back. She was happy to eat a few biscuits and get her ears scratched.

    The babies will be able to leave the mom in just a few weeks so we’re getting ready to advertise. We’ll sell most of them if we can. We want to keep a couple, probably one from each litter. I will miss them but they are already starting to eat us out of house and home. We do supplement the feed with greens, and our goal is to get them on grass as soon as we can. That means training them to electric fence, a process we have already begun with the two big pigs and one of the litters. They learn pretty quickly.

    Just for fun…

  • Piglets!

    IMG_0725I am writing this entry from the pig pen. And, I will be attending today’s board meeting from the same place. I declared this a “family emergency” and want to spend every minute with our first set of piglets. Ten adorable babies were born yesterday to Macintosh, our full blooded Tamworth sow. We knew she was pregnant but weren’t sure when the babies would arrive. She seemed perfectly fine yesterday morning, hanging out with the others to get fed. But late morning, she made a bit of a nest for herself and in about four hours, we had ten piglets! They came out easily and were up and moving almost immediately, heading for food!

    Friends arrived and we hung out watching the whole process, taking turns getting coffee or walking the dogs. I stayed until after dark, once everyone seemed to have settled in for the night.

    I am blessed by a great board chair who was willing to let me phone in my attendance today. I probably could have left them alone, but mother pigs have been known to accidentally smother their babies in the first few days. Macintosh seems to be very careful as she moves around, making gentle sounds and lowering herself in the nest first before rolling over. She has been in and out of the nest this morning. She ate a hearty breakfast and has been drinking lots of water. We fed her dog biscuits and water yesterday but she wasn’t all that interested. Right now, my back is to the pen but it is completely quiet.  AAH…Happy Mama

    Bob headed to the farmer’s market with the last of the summer watermelons and baskets of greens. I feel a little guilty for the dogs…they haven’t gotten their morning walk today. Relief is coming at some point and I’ll give them a little attention. We strung up an extension cord down here and I’m thinking I could bring the Keurig down, too.

    So, that’s the big news here…we believe Tam, another sow, is also pregnant. We have a farrowing shed almost ready to go so that will be the afternoon project. Babies never come when they are supposed to, do they?

  • Taking the Bad with the Good

    July has arrived, and the rain has finally stopped. An early tropical storm in June soaked the place and then it just seemed to keep raining. We lost the early squash and zucchini plants that had just started to produce. Some of my flower seeds came up (you can always count on zinnias!) but others either drowned or rotted. We still have hay in the field as we just haven’t had the necessary dry days to be able to harvest it. What we did harvest was good and is now tucked safely in the former corn crib. The chickens and pigs love having a bale of hay to scratch and rutt. We added on to the pig pen and now they have a little woodsy area and plenty of space to run.

    The bees continue to be a learning challenge. The split hive did produce a queen but she just couldn’t lay eggs and get babies hatched in time to save the hive. It might have been possible to pull frames of brood from my healthy hive to get them through but I just didn’t know enough to even ask. My mentor said he doesn’t think I lost all the bees. They probably joined the hive next door.

    That hive seems to be going gang busters. I added a third medium box a couple weeks ago but they haven’t started it yet. The bottom box has three empty frames and the second box has about four. I suppose they will move up when they are ready. There’s capped brood and honey throughout the two boxes, and the frames are heavy. I’ve been feeding them and they go through a quart in about four or five days so they aren’t taking much considering how many bees are in those boxes. I didn’t see the red queen anywhere, but I also didn’t pull out all the frames. Perhaps she has been replaced.

    I did get to try out some new equipment. Smaller gloves made it much easier to handle the frames. And I love my frame hangers. I put a new ventilated inner cover on that box and gave them a fancy hive excluder.

    The plan is to get a nuc or two from another keeper in hopes of getting three hives up and running. I’ll have to feed them but he thinks I can get them through the winter. I’m impatient to get them going but am waiting for new equipment to arrive. He will swap me five deep frames for five empty ones and I’m waiting for those deep frames to arrive. I ordered lots of other stuff: top inside feeders, ventilated inner covers, stands, more mediums, a whole kit so we have two veils and other tools.

    Your reward for reading this…a few photos from the farm.

  • Bee Journal

    Checking hives has been on my to do list, but it’s been raining non stop since last Friday. Today, I finally donned the suite, fired up the smoker (I still need to work on that), and headed out to the hives.

    The first bit of exciting news is that I am pretty sure I saw the queen in the new hive we created. Definitely bigger than the rest of the bees. I caught two glimpses as she walked around. The new frames haven’t been used at all,and I didn’t see evidence of new cells. It would really be too early for her to be laying. I’ll give her a week or so before I check again.

    Meanwhile, I also added another box to the healthy hive. I looked through the frames of the middle box and saw lots of new comb on the empty frames and lots of bees but no queen. She may have been down below but with the threat of rain still there, I didn’t want to spend too much time with the hive open so I only checked out the middle box. I did notice what might be swarm cells. I’m wondering if, because the bees were driven in by the rain, they felt crowded. Maybe the new box will help keep them from swarming, even though it is what they do naturally in order to grow.

    I also fed both the hives as their jars were empty and I need to make more bee food.

    It is a little frustrating to be so new at something. I did feel more confident today as I suited up. But there is just so much I don’t know. I’ll keep an eye out for a swarm…I’m pretty sure they haven’t swarmed already. You can potentially catch a swarm so I should put together some more frames.

  • Bee Journal

    I worked on the hives today. My main mission was to fill feeders and look for queen cells in the hive we split off last week.

    Neither hive needed food so the nectar flow must be sustaining them. My bee mentors tell me that if they don’t need the food, they won’t take it. I did leave the jars in there just in case.

    The first hive is “buzzing” along. They are building new comb on the middle four  frames in the top box, and I saw the nicely marked queen wandering around on one of them. She had obviously been laying eggs. I didn’t go any further into the bottom box as I was worried about hurting the queen.

    The best news is that there are three clearly identifiable queen cells in the second hive! So, they are doing what they should to get the hive re-queened. They have not built any new comb on the frames but are using the natural comb they created. Now it’s a matter of time: it takes 16 days for the queen to emerge, another week or so before she takes her mating flight and then a few more days for her to start laying eggs. I’ll check on them again about June 10th or so to see if any queens have emerged.

    I had much better luck with my smoker this time. Mostly patience to get up a good head of smoke. I did have to relight it in between checking the two hives.

    I’m still nervous about doing damage such as smushing the queen but each time I suit up and head out, I feel more confident.