Training your teeth, and the first (real) harvest

I made another brisket today, putting it on just after 5 AM – I almost didn’t need the flashlight outside because the moon was so bright. This one was a tad larger than the one I did on Sunday, and I pulled it off the smoker at around 2:30 or so this afternoon, wrapped it and let it sit for awhile before cutting it, and then decided I was going to have some of it this time around.

Brisket May 2013

We had eaten all the squash last night when my sister made dinner (and by the way, I nearly choked to death on a piece of it, before managing to cough it out of the back of my throat), so I rambled out to the garden to see if any of the billion fruits out there were ready. Answer: yes.

Zucchini May 2013


Squashes May 2013

In addition to the seven pounds of peas I picked this morning, some of which were foisted off on the a/c repair guy who replaced our thermostat, I picked over five pounds of zucchini and squash.

Shelling peas May 2013


I sliced up one of the smaller yellow squash, since I was the only one eating at that very moment, and tossed it in the oven with some pepper, garlic, and cheese, then chopped up a slice of brisket into teeny baby size pieces to avoid more choking hazards, and had myself a very nice lunch that took me about 45 minutes to eat.

Lunch May 29 2013

Bee checkup

I went out in the bees today, to swap out the feeders on the new hives and to make sure they’d released their queens.

Empty queen cage May 2013


All three had broken the queen out of her cage, and I found the queen in all three. The weakest hive, in which I had put a frame of brood and honey from an existing hive, had queen cells on the bottom, which I’m guessing they started before the caged queen was released, not understanding that they had a queen already. Since the new queen is young and strong, if any of those cells do produce a queen, the existing (and now released) queen should be able to take her out. Survival of the fittest! All three have begun to drawn comb, and the first two are storing pollen.

Comb and pollen May 2013

This  is the queen from the first packaged hive – she’s the one with the red dot on her back, just to the left of center. She was busily making her way around the frames.

Queen bee May 2013

None of the queens are laying yet, as there isn’t anywhere for them to lay until the worker bees get a bit more done. For now, I’m happy with their progress, and happier that the third hive looks like it will make it.


This afternoon, after pounding in posts for the garden, the clouds started rolling up for our daily storm, so I decided that would be a good time to stop, suit up, and go check on the 30K or so girls that joined us on the ranch yesterday. Those of you following this story recall that yesterday I took two frames, with clinging bees, from one of the other packaged hives. Today, there were more bees in the third hive than before, so some of those had stuck around. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the numbers, as this is definitely a weak hive at this point, so it was time to pull a frame of brood from one of the two established hives. I picked the stronger one, because the bees were hanging out on the front of the hive (more about that later).

After opening the top, removing the inner cover, top super, and queen excluder, I was into the top brood box. Bees use propolis to seal their hives, sealing up against drafts and whatnot. That stuff is everywhere, and if you decide to keep bees, my recommendation is to always wear old clothes, or at least “working in the garden” type clothes: propolis is sticky, always will be, and is the ultimate superglue, impossible to fully get off of anything. Why does this matter? Because the tails of the frames, where they rest on the hive body, are sticky as hell with the stuff, and it took me a great deal of effort to pop a frame out to examine it. I checked for the queen, and didn’t see her – this hive went queenless last year, and then likely killed off the new queen I’d bought, so we’re talking about an unmarked queen in this hive, making it difficult to spot her. Hopefully she was not on this frame, because I took it, bees and all, to the weaker hive and put it there, swapping a fresh empty frame into the stronger hive for them to build.

This frame is about as perfect as it can be at this time in the season: a honey band across the top like a rainbow, a bit of pollen on one side under that, and then below that, brood, both capped and uncapped. Toward the bottom you can see some larger cells; these are drone (male) cells, which are larger than the worker honeybees, all of which are female. The drones server no purpose except to mate with a queen, and typically get kicked out of the hive at the end of the season. Drone cells/larvae are also used by the bees as a way to trap varroa mites: the mites like to go into the larger cells, and the bees can then uncap the cell, take the larva and the mites, and toss them out of the hive. It’s very clever. The drone cells tend to be at the bottom area of the frame or actually on the bottom – meaning when you pull a frame like this, sometimes it will split open drone cells as it did here. I scraped those all off as they’re not needed in the weaker hive, and that’s gooey grossness for most people.

So this frame, bees and all, went into the weaker hive. Maybe the adult bees will stay, maybe not – they are aware of the pheromones of their own queen, which are not present in this weaker hive – but the brood does not care where they are when they emerge from their cells, and will accept the soon to be released queen in this hive as their own, turning it into a productive colony of bees, still weaker than I’d like, but stronger than just a few hundred bees. I’m hoping that will be the case, and hoping that the transported bees and the bees in that hive don’t start a turf war with lots of casualties.

Bee frame May 22 2013


Checking in

When I go back out after hiving the bees, I take a peek under the cover to make sure the bees are still there. Today, a problem: the third hive doesn’t have many bees in it, and since I didn’t see any swarm balls anywhere, and since the other two are very busy indeed, my guess is that bees from the third hive drifted and attached themselves to the first two. Since they’re not used to the pheromones of the queen with which they’re shipped, they’re not the little loyalists they will be later. The first photo is the first hive, and the second is the third hive I did this afternoon.

First packaged hive May 2013


Third packaged hive May 2013

The latter should look a lot more like the former, but alas, the third package was apparently full of traitors. So, since they have no real attachment right now to the hives they’re in, I took two frames with some bees from the first hive and swapped them with empty frames from the third. If tomorrow when I pop it open, the third hive is still short on bees, I’ll open one of the two established hives and take out a frame or two of brood from that one and swap them for two empties from this third package hive. Since the nights are warm, there shouldn’t be any issues with keeping the brood warm, and they’ll have some new bees hatching out to replace the traitorous bitches that decided to cast their lot with one of the other two hives. I also pulled up some grass and stuffed it in front of each hive entrance, to try to keep the girls at home for a bit to get used to their own hives.

Blocking the entrance May 2013

And the fourth picture: what the world looks like when you break open the top of a hive.

View from inside May 2013

Buttoning up

Once the package is as empty as it will get from shaking it, it’s time to button up the hive: I center the frames in the hive by pushing them in toward the center – gently, everything is done gently to avoid squashing bees! – try to get as many bees off the edges as possible, then put the inner cover on, using a side to side motion as I lower it in order to get any slow to move bees out of the way.

Centering the frames May 2013


Then the top cover goes on and I set the empty package on the ground in front of the opening. The rest of the bees will make their way into the hive on their own, as they finish cleaning up the sugar syrup from the mesh of the package.

Ready to close May 2013


After they’re all in and secure, I leave them alone for a couple of hours, then go back to give them a quick check, mostly to ensure they haven’t absconded from their new home, and that the remainder of the bees have moved themselves into their respective hives. It doesn’t take long for the packages to be just empty boxes.

Closed hives May 2013

Pouring the bees

Those wooden covers on the top of each package of bees is not just there to keep the bees in. It’s there to cover the syrup can (which feeds the bees while they’re in transit) and to hold the queen cage in place (through which the attendants feed her until they manage to release her). Pop that wooden cover off, and you get this: one syrup can, and the silver tab there is the tab of the queen cage.

Opening the bee package May 2013



One of the most difficult parts of the entire operation is getting the syrup can out of the box. I use the wooden cover to slide across the bottom of the can as I lift it out to force the bees back into the package, and cover the hole. With that out of the way, I grab the queen cage tab, shake it a bit to get the ball of bees off it, and lift her out, then cover the hole again.

Queen bee May 2013


After removing the cork that covers the candy plugging the hole in the queen cage – the bees will eat through this and release her – I hang the queen cage on the frames in the middle of the hive body. Push those frames together and remove a couple on the side, then spray the bees in the package with some sugar syrup to keep them busy, and it’s time to dump them: bang the package on the ground to clump them, them upend them, remove the cover, and they drop right into the hive in a massive fountain of bees.

Pouring the bees May 2013


They immediately begin crawling up the frames on either side.

Bees on a frame May 2013


This bee apparently latched onto the package and stayed there for the entire trip from Georgia. She was there when the (allergic to bees) UPS driver unloaded the package. She was still there when I moved the 10 pound package into the garage for the bees to have to some quiet time and was still there when I toted the 10 pounds of bees out to the orchard to hive them this afternoon. Very determined.

Hitchhiker May 2013

The grand trellis experiment

Trellising tomatoes has always been kind of a pain in the ass. With the number we grow, staking each one individually would mean constant monitoring and retying to the stakes every day. Cages? Far too many needed, and the expense would be astronomical. Those winding poles? Same problem with individual staking and with cages, plus I have my doubts about their strength. After thinking about it for awhile, I decided I needed something that could support a bunch of plants at once, be easy to manage, and that would provide support but also allow for the movement of the plants during storms and maintain good air circulation through and between the plants.

I decided on a catenary design, which for people who have forgotten their physics, is like a hammock: rope strung on each side of the rows of plants, hanging between two posts. The benefit of this is that you can have multiple levels of support without it becoming impossible to reach all points of the plants, and each level is also not fixed: you can raise or lower them as needed. The questions were: how to best build it, and just how long could one run be? For the first trial, I picked the smallest frame run in the back garden, which is about 32 feet long, with two rows of tomatoes running the length. Off I went to the store, to pick up six t-posts and a few other things to do the experiment.

I realized I had no post driver and my bro didn’t have one squirreled away in all his various tools, either. So, after a quick jaunt back to the depot of homes for a post driver, and after putting some earplugs in, I pounded in the posts for the rows that were to be the trial for the trellis. I had sawed down some dowels yesterday and drilled holes for the rope – the dowels act as spacers to keep the rope at a consistent distance surrounding the plants. Anyone who has tied off simple lines knows what a pain in the ass that can be, since the lines slip. With this, the holes are just wide enough to get the line through with the help of a small pick, so they stay pretty firmly in place. The ends of the lines are tied on to simple metal rings, which have been slipped over the posts. Each span is composed of a single length of rope, down and back between the posts, rated at a 70 pound load, which I hope will be sufficient the way these things are growing. I’ll add a second level the plants can simply grow up through, and this is the level that will be the mobile one if necessary, to track with their growth – the lower level is more to keep the bases off the ground, to help prevent disease and rot, and to support the fruit that will grow on that lower level.

Right now, there’s a huge storm brewing up outside, and the alert that just popped up on my weather app says 50 mph gusts are coming with it. Hopefully, all of the plants will survive without too much damage if we get caught up in the storm.


Tomato trellis May 2013

Tomato trellis May 2013