One of the things about the ranch that remains constant is that there is always something to do, either inside or out. This past week, the goal was weeding the back garden area and chopping up the vetch (which, hilariously enough, the autocorrect on my phone wants to correct to “kvetch”) that has regrown, so it can be used both to mulch the transplants when the time comes and so it can compost in place to return itself to the soil for later years. Today: achievement unlocked! The two rows in the foreground need some topping off with fresh soil and manure, and that will be done well before the transplants are ready to go out.
Next target: the front gardens. In addition to the weeding chores, keeping the bees fed and happy during these winter days is also very important, as is keeping a good water supply for them. I do this with a birdbath near the beeyard, with some sticks in it to allow the bees to drink without drowning themselves. Even with this in place, we still have to fish them out of the pool from time to time, but once they dry off, they’re off again back to their hives. I found this one girl hanging out at the edge of the birdbath basin, drinking up.
Just another day at the ranch on a beautiful day that felt more like spring than winter.
After processing out the honey in the extractor and then getting the honey that was in the uncapping tub (and also taking that beeswax out, to be cleaned and stored until we do a melt), the last task is cleaning everything. Fortunately, there are many thousands of helpers ready and willing to do just that.
It takes a lot of them as there is still quite a bit of honey left, clinging to absolutely everything: extracting honey is not a pristine or entirely clean (hands-wise) process. Like Cecil B. DeMille, we have a cast of thousands.
The girls can be quite acrobatic when they are searching for every last drop of sweet honey to carry back to their hives.
They are also quite focused on their task, which allows Norma Desmond here to be ready for her closeup.
A late season frame pull for honey, as the bees in one hive were starting to approach the honeybound phase: storing so much honey that no cells were available for the queen to lay. Replacing a couple of full frames with empties can hold that at bay hopefully, until such time as we can pull more honey-filled frame and/or split off some of the bees from that hive to create a new hive with a new queen.
Last month, I created two new split hives. A split, for those unfamiliar with such things, is when you take a frame or frames of brood and bees from an existing, strong hive, and put them in a new hive, either with a new queen (which is what I did) or by taking our brood that contains eggs that were recently laid so the bees will create an emergency queen for themselves.
I also had a third hive I had split previously, without a queen, which was going nowhere, but which had bees in it. So I also added a queen to that hive as well. About a week ago, I opened this hive to find it completely empty of bees: a failed split.
Today I visited the bees to feed them, only to find one of the attempted split hives completely empty: abandoned, including a queen with clipped wings who would be unable to fly. I think this one is on me. Last week, I had removed some frames that wax moths had gotten into but that I had cleared, because the bees were not drawing any comb on them. This change may have thrown a wrench into things and either pissed them off that they drifted to the other hives or they just left, in which case they’re all dead by now, having no queen. So, I’ve ordered another queen, and this time will take two frames of brood from the very large hive, and beyond those two frames pulled from the other hive, the other frames will be brand new. Hopefully that will allow them to build up as we move into winter. If it works, I’ll do the same with the original split attempt. Overall, it’s disappointing this one left. However, the second split I did at the same time as this one is still working itself up: I found the queen, the workers are drawing comb, and I think they will survive. Or I hope. Beekeeping is, at its most basic, a lot about hope.
In other news, the three new package hives seem to be doing fine, and one of them was really aggressive and pissy when I opened it to have a quick peek inside – it was still rather early and slightly foggy, so the foragers were not all out foraging. Full bee suit FTW!
Later this week, I’ll go into the supers on the really string hive, and the second hive that is making a fairly nice go of things, and see if there is more honey to pull. But I’ll bring the smoker when I do, to keep them a bit more sedate than they were today.
Every season, there is some kind of disappointment at the ranch. Sometimes, it is the entire season, like 2010, lost to cancer and surgery. Other times, it is low output, like 2012. This year, it was the tomatoes being flattened, although we still had a fairly good harvest, all things considered. This year’s major disappointment, however, is the bees: two swarms that were captured but did not stay, one swarm that was seen far too late to do anything about, one hive completely absconding without a trace of anything left. This afternoon, heading out to feed the bees, I tapped on the sides of the hives, and once again, it sound completely hollow on one and nearly so on another, so my fear is another hive absconded, and possibly two. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this would be. The state apiary inspector was here two months ago, and all four hives were just fine, and buzzing (no pun intended) with activity. Today, there is next to nothing in two of the hives. Tomorrow, if it’s slightly warmer and a lot less windy than today, I’ll go into the hives and see what’s left in each one. Hopefully, they’re all still home, just bundled into a ball against the chill. Otherwise, it will be yet another package order from a supplier – although perhaps it’s time to find another supplier, given the history of bees from this particular supplier.
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.
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.
Another thing we don’t have – yet – is an extractor. After uncapping into the chafing dish…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, we had this.
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.
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…
… and the honey flows through to the bowl beneath it.
Eventually all that’s left in the strainer is the wax (and assorted bits of things).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And the fourth picture: what the world looks like when you break open the top of a hive.