Archive for the ‘bees’ Category

night-time bee handling

Sunday, June 15, 2014:
There is only one hive left in the home yard right now, the others being up behind the garden at the monastery. Yesterday that last hive threw a swarm, which, after forming a vortex over the bonfire pit and buzzing like a dynamo for twenty minutes or so, obliged us by coalescing in a dwarf apple tree on the front lawn, where a step ladder, a hive body baited with comb smeared with cappings and a frame of brood taken from the home hive, and a smoker enabled us to catch them again. Normally, we like to work bees in broad daylight, preferably with a bright sun shining and all the field bees out where they belong, in the field; but we were busy all afternoon, and it was dark when we took them up to the monastery. Our plan was to unite the three thousand or so itinerant worker bees with the lesser of the two colonies up there and let the queens duke it out.
For two hours that day we had worked the swarm with bare head, face, hands – arms, even – without a sting. Not so now. The intrepid bee-handler stepping confidently forward into the glare of the truck headlights wore no protective gear. All that was needed was to pop the covers, super and queen excluder off the south hive, lay a single sheet of newspaper over the exposed hive box, and mount the second box, the one containing the swarm, over the paper. Then, on with the excluder, super and covers, center them, and away we go. Piece of cake.
Only, with the quiet ‘pop’ of the propolis seal when the hive tool levered up the super, the colony came to life, sizzling like a frying pan full of bacon. It was dark, remember, and we couldn’t see the bees. We pried up the shallow box, which my appropriately hatted and veiled co-worker removed, and began levering off the metal grid of the queen excluder, when the night was suddenly full of bees. You know, they don’t even need to sting you, the buzzing is enough when it’s against your face, or your wrist, or your midriff. In about five seconds there were bees in my shirt, tazering my arms, and working their way into my hair. I took off into the night at a high rate of speed, shucking clothes as I ran, and brought up at the blueberry patch, minus most of my wardrobe, madly combing bees out of my hair with my fingers. My reading glasses were a casualty, trampled in the melee.
Shawn, the prudenty veiled, finished that hive transfer alone, calmly, and unstung.

Read Full Post »

Thursday, June 12, 2014:
The garden is looking its most ravishing best, thanks to plenty of rain, moderate temperatures, and steady maintenance. Check in out in August, it will probably look like heck. Three plantings of potatoes are off and running, the mangel-wurzels, having been thinned twice, make a lemony-green ruffle over fifteen rows, and the winter squash is starting to vine. The corn, on the other hand, has been ravaged by deer, escaped Katahdins, and crows, and had to be replanted, following the silver-green lines of the field peas to keep the rows straight. The black oil sunflowers are about eight inches high, and we hope great things for them.
All over the monastery pastures the clover, crimson and dwarf white, is dazzling with blossom, but – this should worry you – there are no bees. None, except for a few bumble bees, and only a few. Without bees many plants have no pollinators. We carried two of our home hives up last night and put their stands on the west side of the garden, backing the woods and facing east. May they thrive and throw swarms.
There is a lost fawn in the clearing by North Creek making alien noises. I wonder what has become of its mother.

Read Full Post »

Wednesday, August 14:

   The lactating cows are moving north across the hermitage pasture, last grazed in June.  The grass has had seventy days’ rest, and is tall and lush, full of purple clover tops and not too heavy on iron weed and Queen Anne’s lace.  Mornings and evenings after milking, the cows are put onto about twelve hundred square feet (thirty foot by forty foot) of new forage; they will only be on it twelve hours, grazing, fertilizing, and stomping every square foot of the paddock.  Then they will move to the next paddock.  This is considered heavy use, but the long rest between grazings means all the forage has plenty of time to regrow.

   Poppy and Sugarplum are each putting about three gallons in the bucket every day, with just two pounds of grain per milking to make them stand still while they are squeezed.  That translates to about one dollar and twenty cents of grain for three gallons of milk, or forty cents a gallon.  If we could not give them grain they would learn to live with it, or rather without it, but in fly season we are in favor of milking contented cows – they are less likely to upset the bucket.  Up to a quart of each gallon is thick yellow cream (Poppy’s milk is richest), and we make butter every other day.  What we don’t use immediately is frozen for later use, but we use a lot of butter.

   This morning we formed three teams and dug potatoes for an hour, one man digging and a child picking up potatoes.  (Mom was one of the ‘men’.)  The newest section of the garden, at the south end, was all sod potatoes, and some of the plants were so puny there was hardly more potato in the ground than we had put down to begin with.  In other places an individual plant might yield as much as five or six large potatoes.  The rule of thumb when saving seed is “the best plants in the worst soil”, so we saved these in a separate bucket to plant next year.  We got about three hundred pounds in the hour we were digging; then it was lunch time.

   This time of year we have to fit in planting fall crops while we are still very much in the middle of managing the summer ones, so after we picked tomatoes, peppers, okra and a few onions the marauding chickens had scratched out – this time of year Mom wonders why we have chickens – and made stroganoff (ground beef, onions, garlic, sour cream), mashed potatoes, cucumber and onion salad, carrot salad, and tomato marinade for dinner, we went back out to haul compost, turn raised beds, and sow fall carrots.  We spread fence wire over the beds when we were finished to keep the dogs and chickens out; they have already torn out many feet of the late summer beans.

   The two supers of honey were extracted in the summer kitchen, but we had to wait until evening so the bees wouldn’t know; they always want to make the thing into a party.  I think there will be about six gallons of honey.  When we were done we had to take a shower, since our extractor, when it is operating, covers anyone within a yard of it with a spray of fine honey filaments.  It’s like being caught in a cotton candy machine.

   Five shooting stars while we milked Monday morning reminded us how far the summer has progressed; we seldom remember to watch for the Pleiades until it is too late.  Shawn would point out that this was just one more reason for me to rejoice that I have been moved to the five thirty a.m. milking team.

Read Full Post »

Friday, August 9:

   The cool weather has given way to more of the summer sauna.  Standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes we feel the sweat running down inside our shirts.  This is good weather for ripening the tomatoes, but we note with something only a little shy of depression that many of the plants are browning out from the bottom up, a sign that fungal blight is getting the ascendancy.  Eliot Coleman (sigh) reminds us that if our soil was all that garden soil ought to be, our plants would be immune, by and large, to insect and disease pests.  That’s like telling the ugly stepsister that if only she were pretty she could be Cinderella – not especially comforting.  Yet, we remind ourselves, the year seldom passes when we don’t get enough tomatoes for five or six dozen quarts each of salsa and pizza sauce.  There  is yet hope.

   One of the great qualities of this life is its transient nature.  Some things, of course, are non-elective.   Failing to milk the cows, for example, is simply not on the cards.   But inside that parameter there are many which change from day to day, as, for example, the path we will walk taking the cows to and from their paddock.  Since early in July, the lactating cows have been grazing clover and orchard grass in the meadows from which we took hay at the end of May.  Starting at the north end of the meadow, they have gradually moved up the hill until this morning we put them on the last paddock to the south.   At the beginning of the month we had only to walk about sixty yards to bring the cows up to the barn; this morning the cows’ paddock was three football fields away.

  This not insubstantial increase made a real difference in the time it takes to do the morning milking; the bell for morning office, which should see us putting the buckets and milk can in the farm car, now catches us while we are unreeling the line for the new paddock.  Makes for a big hurry when we get home, and like as not means one of us is going to miss his shower.  But tomorrow, oh, the blessedness, the cows will move down to the silo end of the hermitage pasture, just across the lane from the barn, where the clover is tall and red-topped and the cows have not been since early June.  Often this is the way; just when you are thinking things are getting a little out of hand, the thing that is annoying you, whatever it is, changes.

   Children are like that, too.

   And grownups.

   We note, for application next summer, if we can figure out how to put the information to good use, that where the cows passed in mid-June, there is very little of iron weed or Queen Anne’s lace.  Presumable this would be by reason of the cows’ willingness to graze these things at a certain point in their growth, but not earlier – perhaps they were not yet up? – or later, when they are more mature.  All these little things keep us thinking we are learning something, which prevents ennui.

   Two supers of honey are packed away in coolers in the summer kitchen until one dark night – in daytime we would be mobbed by hunting bees who could get in through cracks around the door – when we feel motivated to extract it.  It is lovely stuff, liquid amber, not dark like some years produce

Read Full Post »

hiving a swarm

Thursday, June 13:

   We are very poor beekeepers.  We lack method and discipline.   We are inconsistent and dilatory.  Yet every year, a few very poor years excepted, we collect enough honey to provide for our family’s use with enough over for barter and gifts.  The bees are benevolent.

   The hive on stand number three threw another swarm this morning, the second from that hive.  The first swarm rose on a sunny, hot day last week, coalescing in front of the line of white boxes in the bee yard into a spiraling column of bees twenty feet high.  Shawn was in the lane cutting curly dock and pokeweed along the garden fence, and the buzz of his Stihl kept him from hearing the aggressive, dynamo buzz of the excited insects.  The first we knew of their planned exodus was the innocent question of a visitor: “– are those bees?”

   Spring is the usual time for bee colonies to reproduce.  The reproduction of individual bees goes on all year, individual bees being but a cell in a larger organism, incapable of independent life.  It is in the form of the colony that honey bees have their real existence.  When an abundance of flowering plants are available for honey making, a bee colony may find its living quarters growing cramped, every available cell being filled with honey or brood.  The worker bees take action.  One or more very large cells are built, usually along the bottom of a comb or frame.  Eggs nurtured in these cells are fed a different diet from that of the worker bee or drone, and the emergent insect will be a queen bee.  She is the nucleus of a new bee colony.

   Before she, or they, the new queens, hatch, the old queen gathers a faithful contingency around her and sends out scout bees to look for a likely location for establishing a new hive.  She sallies forth with her army, to be out of the way before the new young queens arrive to dispute her throne.  At first she won’t go far.  Flying out from the parent hive she settles on some nearby surface, where the hundreds of bees who are making the move with her settle on and around her and one another, forming a cluster which may be the size of a football, even a basketball.  There they wait for some returning scout to bring news of good lodgings to be had.

   This is the time for collecting the swarm, if you can.  We usually hive from three to ten swarms a spring, a few from our own bee yard, more in the surrounding community.  The village police have our number and when some anxious citizen calls with news of a swarm — in his back yard, or on the eaves of his house, or, once, on the signal box of a railroad crossing — the gendarmerie notify us.  We usually have one or two hive bodies – the larger boxes used for a colony’s living quarters – set up and ready for the hiving of swarms.  We put this, and the box containing our bee veils, gloves, smokers, pruning shears, bee brushes, etc., in the back of the pickup and head out to see if we can add a colony to our bee yard.

   The first swarm of the year, the one spotted by our visitor, had the bad karma to disappear into the woods.  We walked among the fourty- to sixty-foot oaks, maples, beeches and elms listening for the dynamo buzz of a swarm cluster, but could hear nothing except bird calls, and the wind in the leaves; we could see no characteristic brown clump pendant from a tree branch or humped up on a rock.  Other farm business called us away, and that swarm was lost to us.

   Today’s swarm was kinder.  The swirling cloud of bees quickly gathered in a slender elm sapling less than twenty yards from the parent hive and only about twenty feet up.  We debated then whether to send up a climber whose weight would bow the tree over until the upper branches were within reach of the ground.  Then we would be able to clip the branch on which the swarm was clustered and drop it gently into a hive box.  With the hive entrance stuffed with green grass to prevent the bees’ immediate egress, this hive box could be placed on a stand in the bee yard with a reasonable hope that the insects would find it an acceptable new home.  In a few days we would put a second hive box on top of the first and a new colony would be added to our apiary.

   Bending the tree over by the weight of a climber would, we thought, be the least disturbing to the agitated bees, much less than the vibrations of a chainsaw.  We have used the method once or twice before.  But the lower trunk of our elm was stout, and the tree somewhat shorter and stockier than ideal for the bending process, and in the end we used the power tool.  The bee yard is on a narrow shelf on the side of a steep hill – most of the farm is on a steep hill – and two of us perched precariously, booted toes dug into the soft earth of the hillside and hive box and pruners at the ready, while three more carefully back-cut the elm stem close to the ground, bracing it as high as they could reach, and then slowly dropped the tree top until it was within reach of the veiled and gloved collectors.

   Several quick and careful cuts removed the portion of the branch beyond the swarm cluster, then with the cluster almost entirely within the box we cut off about ten inches of elm branch and dropped it into the hive.  Inner and outer hive cover were set in place, and the hive was placed on an empty stand.  A few bees visible in the hive entrance showed by their rapt attention turned to the interior of the hive and whirring wings that the queen was, as she almost had to be, among the bees we had collected.

   Hiving a swarm is always an unplanned interval in the work scheduled for the day, and bee equipment is hot to wear; we get it over quickly and go back to unfinished chores.

Read Full Post »

Sunday, May 28:


There are lots of books out there to tell you how to manage bees better than we could do, so we only share our experience here as a point of reference for other amateurs.

We have been into the hives a number of times in the last two weeks, determining the state of our captured swarms and checking the status of our older colonies.  Mostly we have been looking for queens.  Experts find queens easy to spot, giving us the suspicion that there is some magic involved, but we generally ascertain the presence of the queen in a hive by peripheral evidence, usually the number and age of “brood” – larvae and pupae – in the hive.

A colony without a queen has no way of replacing its numbers and will die, so keeping track of queens is important.  The colony on hive stand number one must have lost its queen to a swarm about two weeks ago, and we have been watching anxiously for a sign that a new queen has hatched, established herself, mated, and is laying eggs.  On Monday we examined each and every frame in the hive – twenty frames total –searching for eggs, and found nothing; three days later a second examination showed us dozens of cells each with a bit of white jelly in the bottom, larvae only a few days old.  Always braced for a new failure, now we take a moment to relax.

For the next five minutes we are successful farmers.


No rain.

Almost all the seedlings started in the greenhouse are set out now, only the basil and marigolds, which were started late, and a few extra zinnias, being still in flats.  Even these are set out on the timbers that frame the raised beds, where the seedlings will receive full sunlight, getting them ready for life in the garden.  In the home gardens sixty tomato plants and two dozen pepper plants will, if all goes well, supply the raw ingredients for something shy of one hundred quarts of salsa and the same amount of red sauce for pasta and pizza.

The remaining seedlings, another four dozen or so, we have planted in the big garden at the monastery, where they will have to take their chance with marauding deer and rabbits.  Last summer when we sowed that garden to buckwheat, the deer grazed our green manure down to stems.  All conventional wisdom says that the block of corn we planted there last week will be harvested by the deer long before the ears are full enough to interest human appetites, but we had the seed corn left over from our home garden, and thought we might just as well.  More as a psychological comfort than anything else, we threw a loop of electrical fence around the tomatoes, peppers, and corn, and hooked it up to the solar charger that powers the steers’ paddock.  Maybe – not probably – it will deter some form of wildlife sniffing around for a free meal.

The potatoes and onions look very good.


The steers at the monastery seem to have benefited from a day behind polywire in the barnyard to learn what a hotwire is for.  Having spent two months on the far west pasture, which is large enough that they might never have had a serious encounter with electrical fencing, they were a risk when we put them in the paddock at the Franciscans’.  Chasing animals around a big field with no perimeter fence is very low on our list of amusements, and not the way to ingratiate our farm operation with our generous hosts.  The Franciscans might reasonably be concerned for their landscaping if they saw Sirloin and T-bone, as they have christened the steers, skipping through the weeping maples and bayberry bushes.  Fortunately the animals seem to have attention only for the tall forage in their paddocks, and taking breaks in the shade under clumps of overgrown raspberry cane.

As for the milk cows.

Lesson:  when a man tells you a cow is due to calve in a particular month, ask him how he knows.  Did he see her bred?   Does he know for certain that this exact cow was mounted by the bull in the pasture?  Was she artificially inseminated, and if so, by whom, and with what?   Did he make sure she didn’t come back into heat a month later?  Or was she pregnancy checked by someone (not me) who knew what he was doing?  Find out.

This particular bit of advice was available in our dairy cow reference book The Family Cow, by Dirk van Loon, but we forgot about it until about thirty seconds ago.  You can’t teach some people.

The clock never ticks slower on a farm than when you are waiting for the parturition of an animal the breeding date for which is unknown.  Baby Belle, our young second-calf cow, is hanging fire.  She has been bagging up (her udder has been expanding and filling) and growing fat – some of us have felt the calf kick when we were rubbing her down – but the man from whom we bought her said she was due to calve in March, and, folks, it’s May already.

It’s like watching someone blowing up a balloon and waiting for the moment when it goes bang.  She has never come into heat since we acquired her in November; we are not doubting her state of pregnancy, but the waiting has gotten tedious.  It is impossible to plan for new baby bulls and piglets to be milk fed if you can’t predict when your glut of milk is going to come in.  We have now much the same feelings as we have had toward the end of eight (human) pregnancies, that maybe we just dreamed it all and this baby is never going to come.


This one is all positive.  The three hogs in the home pen, which have been fed mostly on swill (cooked kitchen waste) and dairy waste, now number two.  We took the largest hog to the local abbatoir two weeks ago.  Half of the pork came home to our freezer, the other half was sold to one of our friends and regular customers.  Our half is delicious; more importantly, the remaining two pigs are now supported comfortably with virtually no supplemental feed.  That means no feed bill (for the pigs) and the steady conversion of all our food wastes into solid flesh food.  And the profit from the half hog we sold covers a good portion the previous feed bill.


The laying hens are giving us one and a half to two dozen eggs per day, not counting the ones they are stealing that we don’t find.  When time allows we need to cull hens again, putting up the hens which are past laying in quart mason jars, where they will be ready for making chicken pie and soup.  Hens are versatile creatures.  The freezers are so full we have not yet ordered broilers, which are butchered at nine or ten weeks, and take up a good bit of space.  We’ll wait until our summer hamburger feasts have diminished the congestion in the freezers.

The three Pekins and their adopted sister Pasqualle, the Speckled Sussex pullet, love their new house by the pond.

Pasqualle is one confused hen.  The other day she swam across the pond.  We think this may be some kind of record.  Who ever heard of a hen that swims?

Read Full Post »

Thursday, May 24:

At five thirty a.m. it is light enough to see your footing on the lane down to the barn, if you happen to be awake enough to look.  I’m not.

The newspaper in the smoker lights reluctantly, reminding me of me getting out of bed.

Two of the swarms we have hived since mid-April, while prosperous, are on the small side, and we chose the early morning hours to unite them.  This is not because the bees are more quiescent in the twilight; they are not; rather, being all at home and not in the field, they are in a better-than-usual position to mob you.  But if you move a hive while the resident colony has bees in the field, the foragers, when they return to where home was when they set out, only find it has been jacked up and moved while they were gone, will not go looking for it, by sight, smell, or any other sense, but will merely fly back and forth over the space the hive formerly occupied as though maybe if they check again it will turn out to be there.  Eventually they will grow discouraged and do whatever discouraged bees do – die, probably – and they will be lost to the colony. So, we move hives while all the little workers are in bed, where we wish we were, and when they set out for the morning’s first foray, the field bees will orient to the new place without any noticeable glitch.  A sheet of newspaper between the two hive boxes will be gone in a day or two, but prevents the colonies from commingling immediately, giving the worker bees time to adjust to one another.  The queen bees are another matter; there is going to be a fight, and only one queen will survive to populate the merged corporation.  May the best Apis mellifera win.

Two hours later the day has really begun and even those of us whose chores wait until after breakfast are up and dressed.  Project number one today is moving two young steers to the new paddock at the monastery, where yesterday we erected a line fence – just what it sounds like, fence in a line – from which we can establish paddocks of polywire on either side.  One of the steers is but newly acquainted with electric fence, and some of us – me – are wondering how we are going to round them up if and when they get out.  The men are aggravatingly soothing.  For now, at least, the steers should be content to stay in their paddock, where the grass is more than belly-deep.

The day is going to be very full, and the rest of the pepper plants have to be set out early if at all.  Seedlings should be planted on cloudy days or in the evening, to avoid their being exposed immediately to burning sun, but this morning is bright, clear, and hot.   The process of setting-out includes raking up the beds, digging holes in which two scoops of good compost are mixed, filling the holes with water, setting the seedlings, mounding the soil around them, and watering again.  In such shade as the hay rake affords D-2 sits with her legs tucked under her like a colt’s, folding cocked hats out of newspaper to shade the little green plants.  With dirt heaped over their edges they should stay in place for the two days we’d like to keep the peppers sheltered.

Sweet corn goes in after the peppers, but we have little hope if it makes that the deer, protected, unlike our corn, by the Ohio Department of Wildlife, will let us have any.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »