Sing me the song of bees

Our journey with the bees has been a slightly rocky one. Last year, when we first got our bees, we had two hives in the back orchard, and one up toward the front of the property. The front hive was not doing as well as the other two, and I realize that it spent most of the day in the shade: not a good thing for bees. It had also gone queenless at some point, probably because the queen decided it was too damn gloomy there and took off with half her workers. So we relocated the hive to the orchard, and as we moved the other two further west from their original spots, I found one of the hives had absconded. In May, we received three more packages, one of which again was struggling. However, the original two were doing fine (swarms notwithstanding), and a good frame from the strongest hive has helped this weakest one along nicely.

The strongest hive – the one that originally was at the front of the property, as it happens – has swarmed twice this season, in March and again in May. That isn’t unheard of, but it’s rare, and I decided to go into the hive and see what was going on in there. With my sister’s help, we smoked the bees and took a look around inside. Neither of us could spot the queen, but there was a nice brood pattern, pollen stored, and honey. Lots of honey. So much, in fact, that we found two full frames of it – but they weren’t doing anything in the super I’d put on top of the hive bodies, for some reason. I decided that perhaps part of the issue was that they were honey bound: that is, they’d stored so much honey in the area where they live, the queen couldn’t lay, and couldn’t get past the honey barrier to do anything in the super (which is fine; I don’t really want her laying in the super anyway, as it will make honey extraction a pain). So we took two frames of honey out and replaced them with fresh, undrawn frames.

Honey frames June 2013

We stuck them in an empty hive body and placed the whole thing over a chafing dish. I’d not been expecting any honey this early in the season, so we have none of the things we’ll eventually need for full scale honey extractions. One of those things is an uncapping tub, which allows you to hold the frame above a tub on a nail-like surface and scrape the caps off the cells. We improvised.

Uncapping a frame June 2013

Another thing we don’t have – yet – is an extractor. After uncapping into the chafing dish…

First honey June 2013

…we set the frames back in the hive body and set the hive body back on top of the chafing dish to let the honey drip out. Gravity is our friend here.

First honey June 2013

We had used a sheet pan to hold the frame we weren’t working on each time, and wound up with a bit of honey there. Of course my mom and sister had to taste it – not me, though, as honey is too acidic for my damaged mouth.

First honey June 2013

There were a couple of bees hanging on to the edges of the frames when we brought them in. Guess who didn’t see one when grasping one of the frames to move it out of the way.

Bee sting June 2013

Another sting to add to my collection, this time on the pad at the base of my pinky finger. Unlike the ones I’d had in my ankle and shin, not too much swelling, and it only hurt for the instant of the sting itself. It mostly itched throughout the night and into the next day. Meanwhile, back at the frames, the honey was drawing down nicely into the dish.

First honey June 2013

Today, we had this.

First honey June 2013

Of course, amongst the honey is wax, pollen, probably a few bee parts here and there and so on. That’s what strainers are for.

Honey strainer June 2013

This is a coarse strainer. We also have fine and micro, but decided to start with this. The contents in the dish get poured in…

Straining the honey June 2013

… and the honey flows through to the bowl beneath it.

Straining the honey June 2013

Straining the honey June 2013

Eventually all that’s left in the strainer is the wax (and assorted bits of things).

Beeswax June 2013

Now, we wait for the honey to settle and for the bubbles to work their way up to the top. ¬†We’ll then take a look at it and see if we want to strain it again, or just bottle it for use: Lazy Dogs Ranch honey.

 

Weighty things

There comes a point when you’re picking yet another huge batch of squash or beans or cukes that you realize how tedious it is to weigh on a basic kitchen scale, in bowls. Given how crazily everything is growing here, courtesy of the great soil we brought in, it became more evident than ever that a new weighing method was in the cards. So I got one of these: 70 pound capacity, well above whatever we’d be putting into a single picking bag at any time.

Scale June 2013

A full bag of snap beans weighs about ten pounds.

Snap beans June 2013

The slicing, dicing, salting, brining, and canning continues apace. This batch of tangy relish was done yesterday (two quarts, eight pints). I have another in progress right now, in addition to another batch of pickles for sweet relish. The season is going to be a long one.

Relish June 2013

Relish June 2013

Sweeties

When harvest season begins at the ranch, just about every day is filled with some aspect of it: picking, canning, freezing – everything involved in putting food by, as they say down here. Today: finally getting the sweet pickles chopped and into jars. The whole process to make sweet relish (or sweet gherkins) takes three days: two brines in salt water, then three turns in the sweet pickling solution. Once that’s done, remove the pickles and boil the pickling liquid for a few minutes. The pickles get a good dice, to whatever size you think is acceptable for relish. And yes, it’s done by hand for now, for however large or small a batch I happen to be making.

Prepping relish June 2013

The relish gets packed into jars, then topped with the hot pickling liquid, making sure to get all the air bubbles (or as many as humanly possible) out. The lids go on, and it’s into the canner for a boiling water bath: here, at sea level, ten minutes for pints, and fifteen for quarts. Once the time is up, the jars come out, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the metallic POP to tell you that you have a good seal. ¬†After a cooldown, they get a tag with the date and off they go to the cold room for storage, ready to be called into duty to top hotdogs, be added to tuna or potato salad, or whatever other need beckons.

Sweet relish June 2013

Of plants and poop

Part of the process of growing anything is monitoring the health of your plants. In my case, I’m always on the lookout for critters bent on destroying the hard work we’ve put in here. Deer and bunnies? Fencing. Other things require more work just to find them: chewed, holey leaves, dying stems, holes bored into the base of a plant, and most especially: poop. Yep, that’s right – any time I’m working in the plants, whether that’s to weed, harvest, or run line for trellises, I’m on the watch for the telltale signs of bug incursion, primarily by watching for poop. Today I went on a worm hunt, although I did manage to bag some stinkbugs along the way, as I found poop and chewed leaves throughout the tomatoes. The newly hatched worms are so small as to barely be visible even on a thoroughly chewed leaf. As they mature, via their constant chowing down on my plants, they get bigger and fatter, and easier to spot, but if they’re larger, that means they’ve been eating longer, so there’s the tradeoff. If I’m lucky, I spot them before they fully mature.

Worms June 2013

If I’m super lucky, I find them when they’re very young, or even just hatched. If I’m incredibly lucky, I’ll find a bunch of babies all at once, making the killing much more efficient.

Worms June 2013

If I hit the jackpot, as I did today, I will find one with the eggs on its back, and be able to take out not just the current generation, but the next as well.

Worms and eggs June 2013

First harvest of the season

June 1st this year is not just the start of hurricane season, but the official start of our harvest season here. Sure, I collected a bunch of shelling peas the other day, and we’ve had romaine for almost a month, but now the heavy hitters start coming in.

Squash, zuke, and cukes June 2013

This afternoon, while picking, I was interrupted by yet another swarm. Which is crazy, and I swear this hive must be possessed, as this was the same hive that swarmed previously. Unfortunately, I saw them as they were getting themselves together to move on to whatever location the scouts found, rather than at the point they were finding a handy branch to settle on while the scouts were out. I heard a low buzzing noise while I was up to my shoulders in some plants, looked up, and the cloud of bees was on the move – I hadn’t even noticed the swarm hanging off the pine tree not twenty feet from the rear garden, and they’d apparently gotten themselves there while I had been inside having my usual lunch. They flew into the pool area, which is fenced in, and by the time I had grabbed my phone and walked out the back, they had vanished. I walked around the western edge of the property, and no bees, anywhere: they were gone. That royally sucks, as the hive had plenty of food and plenty of room to store brood, pollen, and honey. I’m thinking of ordering a queen from the place we get our bees, finding the queen in this hive and beheading her, and introducing a new queen to see if that will help.

On with our harvest totals today:
Yellow squash: 8 pounds, 1 1/2 oz
Zucchini: 7 pounds
Cukes, adam gherkin: 8 pounds
Cukes, homemade pickles: 12 oz
Snap beans, provider: 12 3/4 oz

Green beans June 2013

My sister is leaving to return north for a month before coming back down to visit again, and will taking the squash and zucchini with her. The gherkin cukes are in the brine, the first step of a three day process that will end with them being sweet relish. And despite the frogs croaking like there would be rain, despite the forecast, and despite the clouds that suggested it, there was no rain today. We really do live in the bermuda triangle of weather here at the ranch.

Cukes brining June 2013

Toiling in the soil

Up just after 6 this morning, got a shake and some coffee in me, then headed out to the great outdoors. Pulled the shelling peas that were fast to flower but not very robust, weeded out that entire frame, and then replanted it with lima beans. Personally, I can’t stand the things, but others in the family like them, and since most of what I grow is destined to be everyone else’s meals anyway, I put them in.

I headed out back to get some tomatoes trellised, and as I was crawling around in the plants, trying to get lines run, two things came to mind: first, I was not prepared for success. The season has turned out far better than I thought it would, even with the massive reframing and soil/poop hauling. Second: next year, as soon as the tomatoes go into the frames from their flats, the posts and trellises are going up as well. It would be a far simpler operation when they’re only about a foot tall with a single main stem than it is now that they’re four feet tall with multiple branches. I managed to get one half of one row done, and wound up having to cut my line at the end of the run instead of running it down and back as I’ve done in a couple of the other frames. But now that I have a process for getting this done in the frames where the tomatoes are giant and sprawling, I should be able to get the rest knocked out fairly quickly (or as quickly as it can be given that they are giant and sprawling). The fact that it’s 95 out there with 70% humidity – which is higher under the plants, as they are a heat and humidity sink – does not help the process, but this is life on the ranch. And besides, there is a payoff at the end.

Sungold tomatoes June 2013

 

 

Even if a session outside leaves you with sweat dripping off the end of your nose as you’re leaning over and hands stained with the yellow-green of the tomato plants.

Sweat June 2013

 

Hands June 2013

Hands June 2013