Category Archives: Bees and beekeeping

It was a dark and stormy night

And a grey, chilly, rainy day. A break in our streak of springlike weather around here, but this too shall pass. In a few days we’ll have 80 degree temps with showers here and there – perfect time to go start seeding the areas I’ve set aside as forage areas for the bees. By the time they arrive and are ready to get to work, those areas should be in full bloom. I also need to continue my quest to get all the frames ready to go, so we (I) can start planting in a couple of weeks. I may need some farm labor help for that, since my back is still(!) twinging me. Guess it really was pretty bad, whatever I did, although all I was doing at the time was shoveling, something I’ve done a ton of around here. Funny the way things work.

Taking the sting out

Reading around on some bee news today, since I’m in enforced idleness, courtesy of a horrendous back strain (from yesterday’s adventures in hauling dirt). I ran across this story about stingless bees. Very interesting stuff, and would be something to look into if we actually lived in an area where their foraging would enable them to subsist. To be honest, I’m not overly concerned about being stung by the bees we’ll be getting here at the ranch. Occupational hazard, in the same way that slicing open a finger or knuckle on a heatsink or edge of a server chassis is in my business. I’d like those stings to be as few in number as possible, of course – who wouldn’t? – but I have to say I’m just as excited now about getting bees here as I was when we first started discussing it.

Review: Colony

I’ve watched Colony several times now. The synopsis as given by the filmmakers says “Colony documents a time of unprecedented crisis in the world of the honeybee through the eyes of both veteran beekeeper, David Mendes, and Lance and Victor Seppi, two young brothers getting into beekeeping when most are getting out. As Mendes tries to save the nation’s collapsing hives, the Seppi’s try to keep their business alive amidst a collapsing economy.”

This may be the documentary they wanted to make, but it doesn’t ¬†actually seem to be the one they did make.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is touched on in the film, but as one person (Randy Oliver) puts it, sometimes things like this are cyclical and happen for no particular reason other than it just does. Maybe it is systemic pesticides, maybe it is disease, maybe it is the stress that bees face due to the migratory nature of commercial pollination, maybe it is some combination of these and other factors, or maybe it’s something else altogether, but the film itself takes no particular stance on it, nor does it offer any steps that any individual could take to help. Dave Mendes is featured, talking to groups about pesticides, trying to get people together to do something (in the film, what this may be isn’t entirely clear). Outside of the film, anyone interested in bees at all knows that Mendes is all over the place talking about the need for research and so forth, but this isn’t really touched on in the film. There are some shots of a congressional hearing talking about money for research, but nothing more than one might get in a summary story from CNN or the like.

The rest of the film focuses on the Seppis, a religious family running a commercial operation in California. Most of that focus is not on the effects on CCD on their operation – although there are some points where they do talk about dead hives – but on their negotiating attempts with almond farmers to get a certain price point per hive for almond season. While this holds some interest for people really interested in beekeeping, I imagine this would be fairly boring overall. Quick summary: almond farmers pay migratory beekeepers a price per hive to have bees to pollinate the short flowering season in the fields. With hundreds of thousands of acres of almonds in California, as you might guess this involves a lot of money in the end: with an estimated 1.4 million hives required to pollinate, do the math at even a hundred dollars per hive.

And this business side, I think, is where people like me begin to really think about what’s going on in this film. Before I get into that, though, I have to point out one of the most irritating moments about this film, which involves one of the Seppi sisters talking about the hive. While holding a frame covered with bees, she points out the queen, and says, “They’re somewhat of a matriarchal system.” No, they are a matriarchal system. That’s what it means when the female of the species is in charge, making the decisions, and doing the work. She mentions the queen lays all the eggs and the workers do the nursing, cleaning, and foraging, and says, “But they wouldn’t be there without the male.” After pausing, she gives a little smirk to the camera, and spouts this gem: “You have to remind feminists that.”

OK, which feminists would that be? The ones who never got out of sixth grade biology and know nothing about reproduction? Or the ones uninterested in the submissive woman line touted by certain religious sects – the women (and men!) who happen to be the ones who fight for equal rights for women, and in the past managed to get women not to be counted as chattel, to be able to go to school and receive an education, to be able to work in the same fields as men, and got the right to vote? Those feminists? None of those I know think men are unnecessary or think that complete separatist living is the way to go – those types, like the people who seem to think feminism is a dirty word or that women should just give up their own dreams to accede to what someone else thinks they should do are, fortunately, fringe and rare.

On to the business side. The son who appears to be the primary force of the beekeeping business, says they had 1200 hives (and they want to “bless” farmers with their bees). During the film, the discussions with farmers talk about pricing between $140 and $170 per hive for pollination. For convenience, let’s just say a thousand hives. That’s a lot of money either way. At one point, though, the mother says that the parents are pumping in $20,000 above what the business makes to keep it afloat. Ignoring all the other income (the dad works as a teacher, apparently, and the family may have almonds of their own), as a businessperson myself I have a hard time understanding why it isn’t possible for them to run this business and live on $150,000 a year, even after expenses knock out part of that gross income, especially when they’ve had a few years of managing the business under their belts. Now, I don’t know anything about their accounting or their books or their expenses, but if you’re in the hole that much each year, perhaps you need to take some business classes or exit the field, because something is not right.

In the end, this was a rather unsatisfying documentary, and likely to be not something terribly interesting except to those of us who keep bees (or will be keeping bees).

Random things

Looking forward to the (short) series Doomsday Preppers coming up on National Geographic. They had a standalone episode last year, with one guy repeating the same long phrase about coronal ejections over and over – but he and his wife did build a tilapia tank out of their pool and used that waste to fertilize crops in a very nice setup. I’ve been reading the comments on some sites about the new series – in the clips for which I could swear I saw the Dervaes clan briefly, so that part will be muted out or forwarded on the DVR if that’s the case, since they annoy me – and I have to say that some of the fringe dwellers on those sites are absolutely batshit insane. ¬†Between the people with grandiose conspiracy theories about how the military is gearing up to take over at least one major city and the armchair commandos blathering about OPSEC, it can be amusing when it isn’t a bit scary. I watch this sort of show for the same reason I watch things like Hoarders: morbid fascination.

I’ve also been watching some bee-related documentaries and working up some reviews of those, including the single most annoying line out of all of them.

Mount Mulch is being taken down, slowly but surely. The back garden area has two walkway areas to mulch to be complete before I move along to the herb garden and berries up front. I figure Tuesday to finish the paths and begin on the other stuff. Wednesday is yet another trip to the dentist, so Thursday will be the day to pick things back up again. Instead of banging/jarring my head around working outside after the dentist, I’ll be starting the wine (riesling!) that we’re going to make here. Fun stuff.


The bees are coming

Not exactly Paul Revere warning of the British arrival, but exciting in its own way: we received a confirmed ship date for our bees of mid-May. On the same day we received that notice, we received seeds I’d ordered specifically for the bees. Serendipity. I plan to have have nectar-producing plants going full blast by the time they get here and we get them settled into their homes so they will immediately be able to get to work building out their comb so the queen can start laying (of course, we will be feeding them for a bit when they first arrive, too, to help things along).

It’s going to be like counting down the days the Christmas around here.


I’ve been thinking quite a bit about bees lately. At the moment, I’m mostly considering where I want to place the hives and when to start sowing the seeds of things I picked up specifically for them so that we may have something in bloom when the packages of bees finally arrive.

Some people go into full-on apocalypse mode – TEOTWAWKI – and talk humorously about defending against the zombie hordes, but in reading everything I possibly can about bees, it turns out zombification may be an issue amongst bees as well. I have to say I would not be as worried about zombie bees as the humanoid variety (no opposable thumbs!) but hopefully this won’t be an issue here for a very, very long time (if ever).

What’s next?

Thanks for the question, Ben! Of course I have mighty big plans for the coming year – but don’t we all? I decided this coming year needs to be much better planned than last, so I took the time to figure out how much plantable space I have: 2680 square feet in the frames that are not used by things that won’t be moved (asparagus and strawberries). This does not include any of the other berries or fruit/nut trees. In addition, I currently have a number of frames tied up in garlic production, and those will not be available until at least May at the very earliest.

I have planned much of the same things for 2012 as we’ve had in years past: tomatoes, both sweet and hot peppers, onions, peas, snap beans, dry beans, brussels, cabbage, lots of herbs, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cukes, okra, summer squash, zucchini, peanuts, tobacco, corn, winter squashes, melons, beets, spinach, leeks, lettuce, pumpkins, and many, many flowers (and clover) for the bees.

Now, having said that, I tried to stick to fewer varieties of tomatoes this year, but couldn’t resist a sampling of them to see what we can get to grow around here. The Cherokee Purples were doing well until the worm invasion, but we got a grand total of zero from the late plantings before I let them go in the freeze last night. The peppers performed quite admirably, and I am mostly staying with the same varieties. For the bells, I’ve selected Revolution to replace Fat N Sassy as the big blocky bell. I’ve also added pepperoncini peppers to the hot pepper mix, for pickling.

Average last front here is the second week of March, although a couple of years ago we had a freak freeze the first week of April. That’s the only time that’s happened in all the time I can recall, so the plan is to get things started this month and put them out around mid-March (coincidentally, the same time as my birthday, and I can’t imagine a better gift to myself than to be grubbing around in the dirt). The first rounds of tomatoes will be in this group, along with the first rounds of broccoli and cauliflower. Sow things like peas and cukes directly, along with lettuces. When the determinate tomatoes have finished their output, which would be June/July for most, pull those and replace with okra, since okra doesn’t care about how hot it will be. Put in the dry beans, as they’re fine in the heat. In August, restart flats in the barn with the second round of tomatoes. In September, restart flats with another round of the brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels). By now, we should be able to check in on the bees and see how much production they’ve had for the season, and harvest a bit from them. Late September/early October, plant out the flats. Later in October, plant next year’s garlic. End of the year: final harvest and cleanup. Throughout the year, successive flower planting for the bees, so there will always be something in flower for them.

That’s the goal. How closely I manage to stick to it is something we’ll have to see as we go along. The most exciting part of the year, to me, will be getting the bees to help out with pollination and seeing if we can begin harvesting some honey. And it would be nice to get a tomato or two, something we haven’t been able to do since the first year we had a garden here, due to various circumstances.


The air up here

Bad blogger, bad! No posting on a regular basis, what is wrong with you?

Nothing wrong, just incredibly busy around here. Our season has lasted well into the winter, and we’re still harvesting peppers. The tomatoes that showed some promise going into fall succumbed to massive worm damage, so once again this year, like last, no tomatoes (although for wildly different reasons, given that last year it was a cancer of a different sort).

There’s a monarch butterfly chrysalis attached to the upended cooler by my garage, which is right near the butterfly bush I planted for the other monarch caterpillars that graced us with their presence before moving on to whatever secret place they chose to attach themselves. I’m hoping to capture it as it emerges, whenever that happens to be, and I have the plant cam set up on it.

My dreams have been invaded by images of paintings I’ve never seen hanging in galleries I’ve never visited (or heard of). My subconscious is probably trying to tell me something.

My puppy had to have the top part of one of his (non weight-bearing) toes amputated because he tore the nailbed right away from the bone on a ball-fetching excursion. It’s sad to me that he was in pain, but good that he’ll heal just fine and he’ll be right back to his duties.

The bees have been ordered, and should ship to us in May. We’ll be able to put these things to good use.

Most of this will be gone from the new barn when spring arrives, as they’ll be set up as homes for the three packages of bees (and queens) we’ll be receiving. Everyone is pretty excited about this, including me, and I’m looking forward to spring even more than usual.

Seeds for the new year were ordered and have arrived (mostly), and the next two weeks will be seed starting time in the small barn, under the lights – which I need to rerig for the pulley system I came up with to make things easier to wrangle under them. As with years past, we’ll be attempting a good variety of tomatoes to see what we like, or is we can just get any to maturity and get a harvest. This year will be better planned than previous years, to be sure.

The garlic went into the frames in late October, and is doing wonderfully thus far. By my estimate, I planted out over 2000 individual cloves this year, which will give us plenty to use and some to save as seed for next year’s planting season, I expect. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to sell some as well, since this is not the usual garlic found in grocery stores.

Here’s hoping the new year will be better than the previous years. Be sage, be happy.

Greetings, Earth creature

OK, so maybe it isn’t an astronaut suit. But it does look like something from outer space when you’re not used to seeing it.

If you’re going to play dressup, you might as well include some other people in the fun.

Of course, you can use all the help you can get.

Especially when you’re on the cusp of undertaking something new and different.

Something that promises to be great fun – and a nice side business for the ranch.

It’s all quite exciting. We can’t wait to order our bees in a month or so and pick them up in the spring for placement in their new home. Did I say home? I meant homeS, plural: we’ll be starting with multiple hives on the ranch. Both better pollination and honey are in our future – the primary reasons for bringing bees to the ranch – and we’ll also get beeswax for things like candles, salves, and balms.