Archive for the ‘beekeeping’ Category

beeyard 2014 -BLOGI didn’t have honeybees in 2013 because they had died out over the winter. Many beekeepers in my bee club—the Ashland Virginia Beekeepers Association— suffered losses then. I had three hives in 2012, but going into the winter I knew one was weak and I would probably lose it. I was so busy working on Grow a Sustainable Diet, I decided not to look for replacements last spring. Working on Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people is keeping me busy this year—deadline is July 1—but I didn’t want to go another year without bees. Since I knew ahead of time that I would need bees, I ordered them in December. A friend in the Ashland Beekeepers picks them up each year in Georgia. I would have liked to have gotten local bees, but this was easier than searching them out.

The beeyard sat empty of bees all last year and the wax moths moved in, doing damage to the wax in the frames. Recently on a warm Saturday I took everything apart and put the best back together in two hives to get ready for the newcomers. I prepared one deep box for each package of bees. The first photo shows those hives with the bees safely inside. Soon it will be time to add another deep super to those hives and after that I will need to put a honey super on. Instead of putting everything away in the shed, I cleaned things up and prepared what looks like another hive right in the beeyard. That tall stack has the deep boxes I will need and a honey super for each hive. Not only did I not have to put them in the shed now, I won’t have to drag those boxes out there when I need them.

Knowing what it is like when I move boxes around, I thought I’d put an old metal wagon in the beeyard. The tires are beginning to rot and it is best left in one place, making a perfect bench for setting boxes on. I placed a deep hive body on the wagon with a piece of plywood on top. Now when I am working with the hives, I have a place to set any frames that I take out. The piece of plywood keeps the weather off the box. When I am working with the frames, I’ll put the plywood under the box. If the queen is on the frame I put in there, there will be no worries that she would drop off the frame undetected with the plywood on the bottom. The box is brown because it was painted that color when I received it from a friend.

beeyard equipment storage

beeyard equipment storage

The extra honey supers on the stack currently have no frames in them. I thought that would be a great place to put things I need, such as my hive tool, bee brush, and Boardman feeders. I put a queen excluder under the honey supers to keep things from falling into the hive bodies.

medium frame that the bees have made into a deep

medium frame that the bees have made into a deep

I prefer to use deep boxes for the bees and shallow boxes for the honey supers. It takes three medium boxes to house a cluster and only two deep boxes. Although the deep boxes are heavier, I like working with them, rather than handling more mediums. One year I received a nuc that had medium frames. When I transferred the frames to my deep boxes, the bees added comb to fill them out. You can see one of those frames in the photo. It goes to show you that the bees know what they are doing and will make comb without foundation, which is what they do in a top bar hive. Building a top bar hive is definitely on my to-do list. Unfortunately, we didn’t get one made this year in time for the new bees. It would be different learning to handle the comb from a top bar without the benefit of the wood frames, but seeing how substantial the comb is that the bees filled out, I look forward to it.

I don’t know why I never thought to make these changes in the beeyard before. The extra boxes and the wagon will make my life easier this summer. Having the extra Boardman feeders already came in handy. I usually put one jar of sugar water in a feeder on the front of each hive, which I did when the bees were installed on March 27. I didn’t have to hunt for the extra feeders when I took off the entrance reducers and added another jar to each hive. There is also a feeder inside each hive that is the size of a frame. We will be traveling this week and I want to fill up all the feeders before we leave so no one will have to tend to the bees while we’re gone. There will be other things our son will be tending to, but not the bees.

The Mother Earth News Fair near Asheville, NC is coming up this weekend. I’ll be there the whole time and will be speaking on Sunday, April 12 at 1pm. If you are looking for me other times, you might find me at the New Society Publishers booth or out and about the Fair. On the way there I’ll be visiting two libraries to give a presentation. I’ll be speaking at the Summers County Public Library in Hinton, WV on Wednesday, April 9 at 3pm and at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, VA on April 10 at 6pm. Each library is home to a seed library. Hope to see some of you at these events!Homeplace Earth

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Mead Jug and Book--BLOGMead is an alcoholic beverage that you can make by fermenting honey and water. The first year that I made mead was 2007 which was the first year that I kept bees. Since the production of my bees went to building their hive that first year, I bought honey from friends at the farmers market to begin my mead-making adventures. So, even if you don’t have bees, you can still make mead. My first batches were with honey and water only, but since we have grapes, I usually add them to the fermenting pot. I think using grapes would technically make it honey wine, but I use the terms mead and honey wine interchangeably.

It was the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz that got me started. Page 29 has a recipe for T’ej (Ethiopian-style Honey Wine). It sounded so simple I just had to try it. Mix water and honey together in a 4/1 ratio, cover it loosely and stir it several times a day for a few days until it is bubbly. Then put it in a jug with an airlock. As you can see in the picture, the jug that I use is a one gallon glass apple cider jug. I have found that not all one gallon glass jugs have the same size opening in the top. I prefer jugs with a 1½” opening over the ones with a 1¼” opening. Corks and airlocks are readily available from suppliers of winemaking equipment. The airlock allows the gas bubbles to escape, but doesn’t allow new air in. The ingredients don’t include yeast because you are gathering natural yeast from the air. That’s the “wild” part of this fermentation. If it would drive you crazy to make something without knowing exactly how it will turn out, you might as well stop reading right now. This is a fermenting adventure and there is nothing exact about it.

Crock and stainless steel pan with fermenting mead.

Crock and stainless steel pan with fermenting mead.

I put the honey/water mixture (and fruit) in a 2 gallon crock or a 2 gallon stainless steel pot covered by a cloth. I stir several times a day and at the end of a week I strain out the fruit and put the mead in a jug with an airlock. After it has been in the jug with the airlock for a few weeks is where it gets tricky. The directions on page 29 say to leave it for 2 to 4 weeks until bubbling slows, then drink it or age it. The first year I did this I took that to mean that I could bottle it at that stage. I found out that bottling it too soon could result in popped corks. If you are looking for a crock like the one in the picture and can’t find one locally, check with ACE Hardware. They can order it for you and have it delivered to the store, saving you shipping costs. In the photo the mead pots are sitting on the woodstove. There is no fire in that stove, it’s just a convenient place to put those pots in the summer. I use 2 gallon containers in order to have plenty of room with the fruit. If you are only fermenting honey and water you could use a one gallon jar.

If you are going to try this then you also need to read Chapter 10: Wines (including mead, cider, and ginger beer) in Wild Fermentation. That chapter explains aging, siphoning, and bottling. Now I leave my mead age for a year or two in the jugs before bottling. It’s hard to wait that long the first year, so make enough to try some early and put some away.  One thing I don’t seem to get around to doing is racking, which means siphoning it from one jug to another, then continue to let it age with the airlock. Racking separates your finished product from the sediment, which is supposed to result in a more delicate flavor. There is nothing wrong with the sediment; in fact it is full of vitamins, and it can be used in making salad dressing or other recipes.

Mead bottles and corker--BLOGThat brings us to bottling. I recycle wine bottles and am always on the lookout for extras. Wine bottles need to be corked and that involves a corking machine to insert them with. Although not expensive (about $19) I was hesitant to spend the money, but then, I’m always hesitant to spend money. However, that appliance makes corking the bottles incredibly easy and I’m happy to have one. There are some bottles that come with their own plastic corks “tied” down with wires. The ones we have are the result of buying sparkling lemonade or juice at a health food store. (It is a good thing to serve to children when the adults are drinking something stronger.) We just fill those bottles and tighten the “corks” with the wires. You can see both types of bottles, the corker, and a few corks in the photo. I write pertinent information on masking tape as a label for each bottle in storage. If I’m giving a bottle as a gift I’ll make a nice looking label when the time comes.

To transfer the liquid from the jugs to the bottles you need a siphon, which can just be plastic tubing. This might sound crude, but to get the liquid flowing, you need to suck on the end of the tube that will fill the bottles. Once it starts flowing, insert the tube into the bottle. For each gallon I’m siphoning, I have five clean wine bottles at the ready. At a level lower than the gallon jug, the wine bottles sit in an oblong cake pan that will catch any drips as the siphon goes from bottle to bottle. I’ve recently acquired a mini auto-siphon (a size that fits nicely into a gallon jug) that eliminates the need for me to suck the end of the tube and it works quite nicely. I have learned to leave a 3” headspace when filling the wine bottles and only fill the gallon jugs to the base of the handle (you can see that in the top photo). Even if the action appears to have stopped by the time you fill the bottles, just the transfer can stir things up a bit and it’s good to have plenty of room. With the gallon jugs, air can escape through the airlock, so you won’t be popping it off, but things could bubble up at the beginning and enter the airlock (which you don’t want) if you fill it too full. If that happens, just take the airlock off, clean it, and put it back on.

I’ve made mead using herb tea for the water, but I didn’t like it enough to make it again. I usually add grapes to the honey water mixture, preferring the green seeded grapes to the Concords we grow. I’ve also made mead with elderberries and blackberries. I had more popped corks with the berries than with the grapes, but I can’t say for sure it was the berries or something else I did that caused those corks to pop. Until you get the hang of it, you might have some corks that pop. It will do you well to keep that in mind when you choose a place to store your bottles.

Having meals, including beverages, from only homegrown supplies is exciting. I’ve mentioned having mead on some of my Homegrown Fridays. It is nice to have homegrown/homebrewed honey wine occasionally at home and it is great to give as gifts. I’ve posted my mead recipe on my recipe page here if you want to join in the adventure. Remember, the learning is in the doing and it’s all fun!Homeplace Earth

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crimson clover and hairy vetch-BLOG

hairy vetch on tomato fence and crimson clover

You did a good job last fall getting cover crops planted.  Now, they’ve taken over your garden and you don’t quite remember what you had planned to do with them. What you’ve done is to grow great biomass for your garden that you can use as compost material or cut down as mulch right where it was grown.  Give yourself a pat on the back!  The next step is to cut it down at the right time as mulch-in-place or cut it and put the material in the compost pile.  At this stage it is all green matter and your compost would benefit from an addition of an equal amount, by volume, of dry, carbon material.   At this time of year my carbon comes from Jerusalem artichoke stalks, or sorghum and cornstalks that I put aside in the fall.  Maybe you have access to leaves, hay, or straw.  If you are bringing in that material from outside sources, read my post Killer Compost to know what to look out for.  Water well when building your compost pile.

cereal rye-BLOG

cereal rye

Last May I wrote Cutting a Rye Cover Crop at Pollen Shed.  It speaks to the importance of cutting your cover crop, in that case cereal rye, at the time when it has reached its most biomass, just before it produces viable seed.  For any crop, that would be when it is flowering. You don’t normally think of grain crops with flowers, however, you will see where the seed heads begin to form and the pollen will be hanging off it.  If you cut it earlier than that, the rye and wheat plants, like the grasses they are, will grow back.  If you wait too long, seed will form. That’s okay if it’s seed you’re after.  In that case, you would wait longer to cut it and need to make sure the seed has matured. One way to test is to cut a few seed heads and thresh out the seeds in your hand.  If you don’t get seed that looks like what you planted, it’s not ready. After the plant has put its energy into seed production, it begins to die. You will see the rye and wheat plants begin to turn brown when it is time to harvest the seed.  The harvest will be seed and straw and usually occurs here in mid-June.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic in zone 7 our last frost date is around April 26.  Cereal rye is my major cover crop and generally sheds pollen around the end of the first week of May.  That’s also about the time that the farmers who are on top of things are making their first cutting of hay.  This year, however, the weather seems to be all mixed up. We didn’t have much of a winter and warm weather arrived early.  Usually we have a spike in the temperature in the second week of April, fooling people into setting out their tomatoes, only to turn colder before the weather has settled.  The weather did a good job convincing my rye that warm weather was here and it flowered early.  I cut it in the beds where it would be left for mulch on April 20. I’m really interested to see how the rye and wheat do that are in the beds to be grown out for seed. The temperatures here dipped into the 30’s on April 24th and 25th after nighttime lows in the 60’s on April 16th and 17th. Looking back to my temperature records from last year, I see that the April nights were consistently warmer in 2011.  Last year I cut the rye for mulch on May 10.  It must be the lack of winter this year, not warm April nights that brought the rye to flower earlier in 2012.  My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows my management of this system.

crimson clover-bee hovering-BLOG

crimson clover with hovering honeybee

It might be that you have grown Austrian winter peas or crimson clover as your cover crop. These crops are legumes which fix nitrogen from the air in the nodules on their roots, returning that nitrogen to the next crop as those roots decompose in the soil.  You could cut these crops at flowering and let them lie as mulch, as with the rye, but their biomass wouldn’t be as long lasting as the rye.  They are best used as green material for the compost, adding carbon to capture all the nutrients as composting occurs.  Crimson clover, not to be confused with red clover, is a beautiful plant that generally flowers here around mid-April.  The legumes can be easily pulled out or cut for compost material and the bed planted soon after.  I wait two weeks to transplant after cutting the cereal rye beds for mulch, but I could transplant sooner than that into the legume-only beds.  If I was seeding into the beds, I could easily do that in a legume bed two weeks after cutting.  If I was only after the biomass and in a hurry to get the next crop in, I would cut crimson clover as soon as it has flowered.  However, I have bees that enjoy it, so I wait a little longer before cutting so they can have the most benefit from the clover blooms. 

Sometimes hairy vetch is planted in the fall to precede tomatoes.  I’ve done that in two tomato beds this year.  I prepared the beds last fall and moved the tomato trellises there at the same time. The vetch grew up and I cut it April 25.  My tomatoes are ready now in the coldframe for planting out.  I started the seeds there on March 16.  Having grown in the coldframe, they are already acclimated to the outdoor temperature fluctuations.   Sometimes hairy vetch can be a nuisance in the garden.  In the past I’ve used it as a companion to the wheat and rye and you can see that in my cover crop video.  You can also see how it became a problem in the rye.

It is good to plant a small amount of a legume into your grain crops and the legume I use now is Austrian winter peas, a winter hardy variety of field peas. Both the vetch and winter peas will grow quite tall and could pull down the grain if left to grow.  That doesn’t matter if I’m just cutting the crop to lie down as mulch, but if I want the grain later in the season I need to pull out the vetch or winter peas.  Austrian winter peas are much easier to pull out than the vetch.  If you are growing grain on a larger scale than your garden bed, you might choose red clover as the companion to the wheat or rye.  You can seed it into the growing grain in the spring.  The red clover will grow some and provide a nice green cover when the grain is harvested, then it will keep on growing and a harvest can be taken the first summer.  Let it grow over the winter, then harvest twice the second summer.   After that it is time for another crop for that space.

You can find the best cover crops for your location and situation by reading Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition, available from www.sare.org.  Be sure to read all the text, not just look at the charts.  There is a lot to learn and every time you think you have it down, something else comes along to figure out.  The important thing is to let the soil and the garden guide you.

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bees on their porch-BLOG

bees on their porch

Beekeeping seems to be all the rage these days.  Bees are a really important part of our ecosystem and people are beginning to realize that.  Actually all insects are important, it’s just that bees are more noticeable and you can “keep” them.  This is the fifth year I’ve had bees.  When I started, I was really a newbie.  As much as I know about growing vegetables, I knew little to none about having bees.  I had to pore over the Dadant catalog and read the beginning beekeeping books.  Just as gardeners can get loads of good information from seed catalogs, new beekeepers can learn much from the beekeeping supply catalogs.  A friend loaned me a series of video tapes that helped. I still have a lot to learn, but four things I would pass on about beekeeping are:

1. Whatever they are selling the honey for at the farmers market is probably a bargain, compared to getting set up and producing your own.

2. Provide a watering hole for your bees or they will become unwelcome visitors at your neighbor’s pool or fountain.

3. Join a bee club.

4. Find a mentor or friend to go through the experience with you.

three hives-BLOG

Cindy's three hives

Getting started with bees is not the same as adding a few chickens to your backyard.  You could make any sort of shelter out of found materials for your hens.  Bees, on the other hand, need special housing if you want to manage them easily for a honey harvest. In the wild, of course, they do well on their own without our interference.   The regular box hive is what most people associate with beekeeping.  It was refined about 1850 by Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth with his concept of “bee space” making it easier to remove the frames.   New thinking is going the way of top bar hives.  I know a few beekeepers who have started using a top bar hive, but I don’t know if they’ve extracted honey yet.  I understand that you have to destroy the comb to get the honey.  That leaves you with plenty of wax to make into candles, but the bees have to produce that much again for a place to store their honey.  With the Langstroth hives, the frames with comb and honey can be spun in an extractor to take the honey and leave the comb intact.  There are pros and cons for both hives.  If you want to learn more about those top bar hives, there will be two people speaking about them at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA in September.  Their websites are http://www.goldstarhoneybees.com/  and http://www.beelanding.com/.  I’ll be there as well.  

I started with one hive, buying a beginner kit, plus the coveralls, plus whatever additional equipment I needed for the one hive from Dadant.  Adding the bees(which might cost about $75), I probably spent about $350.  Since the first year the bees are building their home by producing comb in the two brood boxes and storing their winter food, they generally don’t have honey to spare.  I was looking forward to extracting some for myself the second year.  My bees, however, didn’t survive the winter.  There are so many reasons that may happen.   They can have food in the form of honey or sugar water in the hive and if it’s not right next to them, they’ll just crawl into their little cells and starve.  The weather is a big factor and even if they look great at the beginning of March and you pat yourself on the back for getting them through the winter, a cold rainy spell could take them out two weeks later.  I found out after I started with one hive that it’s recommended to start with two.  That would make the cost be about $500 to get started.  So while you’re learning if you even like to use honey on a regular basis, what you can buy at the farmers market is a bargain.

Providing water for my bees is something that took me by surprise.  Luckily,we  have great neighbors who welcomed them at their fountain, which is right next to their door.  Thanks Willie and Joyce, for being so nice to my bees!  When I realized that was happening, I put out a bird bath and keep it filled.  Now, they spend more time at home in our yard.  Some of my beekeeping friends have neighbors who are not so welcoming.

Joining a bee club in your area is a good idea.  You will meet others who really know what they’re doing, along with people who are just learning like yourself.  Bee clubs have speakers and often sponsor classes.  Some clubs own equipment such as extractors that members can borrow.  I joined the Central Virginia Beekeepers Association–East and have made many new friends in the process.  Besides learning much from what goes on in the meetings, one of our members, Paul Hodge, puts out a monthly to-do list for us.  It was through his encouragement and guidance that so many of us have divided our hives and started a nuc this year to raise new colonies.  Thanks Paul! 

Hook up with a mentor and/or friend for this journey.  You can most likely find one at the bee club.  Sometimes they have a list of members who have volunteered to be mentors.  Just ask.  A mentor can take you through the initial steps of knowing what to do and can be a resource to call on for help.  A good friend is someone who will join you regularly working your hive and extracting honey.  A local mentor in my area was Mr. Mac, who passed away the year I got started in bees.  I never met Mr. Mac, but I’ve sure learned a lot from him through those that he mentored over the years.  “Mr. Mac always said…..” peppers many conversations.  Thanks Mr. Mac, for teaching so many people, so that they can teach me!

jarring honey-closeup-BLOG

straining honey into the jars

This year I have three hives.  One is a strong hive that made it through the winter,  one is a split that I made from that hive this spring, and the third is from a package that I ordered in December for April delivery, not wanting to assume my bees would overwinter.  I have honey this year!  It is the first appreciable amount from my bees that I’ve had.  That strong hive filled two supers of honey for me.  My bee buddy, Angela, and I extracted it recently along with a super from her bees.  Until now, I may have had a few frames of honey from my bees that I extracted by cutting off the cappings and leaving the frames upside down in a picnic cooler so that the honey would drain out. I put canning jar lids down as spacers to hold the frames off the bottom of the cooler.  I have gotten together with Angela before to extract honey and we uncapped it over canning pots to capture the wax.  This year I splurged and bought an uncapping tank from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.   This tank is actually called a multi-use straining system in their catalog.  Angela owns the extractor we use. 

bee cleanup-closeup-BLOG

bees cleaning the uncapping tank

Uncapping requires a long serrated knife and special ones are made for that job.  A five gallon plastic bottling pail is good to have.  Even the years I didn’t get any honey from my bees, I still had honey when another bee buddy, Freda, gave me her surplus.  The extractor has to be drained periodically during the process and you have to put it somewhere in a hurry.  You bottle it from that bucket.  A strainer that fits over the top of the bucket is good to strain out the bits of wax and bee parts that may come off the frames.  I have such a strainer, but couldn’t find it when we extracted, so in the picture you see it being strained as it goes into the jars.  I much prefer straining it as it goes into the bucket.  When you’re done, just leave the sticky equipment outside for the bees to clean up. 

There is so much to learn about beekeeping and I hope you decide to jump in and be part of it.  Go ahead and join a bee club even if you don’t know when, if ever, you will get bees.  Older beekeepers are probably looking for volunteers to do some heavy lifting for them while tagging along in the beeyard.  That could be you!

For those who are local, beginning today I am giving a series of talks for three weeks at Midlothian and Bon Air Libraries in Chesterfield County.  I’ll present Feed Your Family from Your Own Backyard, Part 1 (GROW BIOINTENSIVE), Part 2 (garden planning), and Part 3 (cover crops)  Tuesdays at Midlothian and Wednesdays at Bon Air.  Contact the library for more information.  Attendance is free, however registration is recommended.  See you there.

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