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Posts Tagged ‘beekeeping’

I bet you thought I had fallen off the face of the planet – didn’t you?

Well, I didn’t – but my computer nearly did.  After a long time and a small pile of cash things are finally getting back to normal.

It has been a cold, dark and dreary winter and we are all ready for spring to roll in like a run-away Mac truck without brakes but winter has been pretty stubborn around here.  Even so, I have been watching for any sign of spring and am happy to announce that even though it is only March the first spring flowers are blooming here at the ranch!  Of course they are dandelions and they are growing inside the greenhouse.  I really should take the hoe to them but after last winter I am content to watch them bloom – for now.

The best news though is that it appears both of the beehives have survived the winter.  As cold as it was I was getting a little worried about them and had even sent off an order for 2 more packages of bees to arrive the end of April.  But then it happened – we had a few nice days above 50 degrees and we saw the first activity at the entrances.

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They’re moving slow and they don’t get very far from home but they are moving.  I was sad when I realized they were moving dead bees out of the hive and piling up the little carcasses on the ground out front.

It was a really tough winter.

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I am amazed that they can survive temperatures of -30 (or colder) with just a loose wrapping of tar paper to help block the wind.  We did leave them with plenty of honey – 4 boxes instead of the 2 that all the books suggest so I didn’t really worry about them starving to death but I did worry about the wind.  With those extra boxes the hives were a little bit top-heavy but the straps and cement blocks held them steady enough – at least until last Tuesday morning.

I heard the wind before I even climbed out of bed.  It was howling pretty steady then around 6:00 am the house was hit with a gust that sounded like it was trying to tear the roof off.  One huge blast then 15 minutes later the wind died down and had nearly quit.  It was a bit eerie, but we still had a roof so I figured everything was OK until I stepped out to feed the chickens and found Beatrix’s hive tilted to the side at about a 45 degree angle!   Steve (our Corgi) nearly jumped out of his skin when I screamed and ran across the yard.  He hasn’t seen me run very often and frankly – he doesn’t like it.  He believes I was built for comfort not speed and I tend to agree.

It didn’t take long to realized it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  Thankfully, the blue strap, with the snazzy chain adapter, was cinched down tight enough that the hive had tilted as one solid piece and didn’t break apart in the middle.  The green strap had also caught the top and kept the whole hive from tumbling off of the cement blocks too so it was just hanging there like the leaning tower of Pisa.  It didn’t take much to stand it back up, re-adjust the straps and move a few more cement blocks in beside it.  The roof is still a little tilted like it got crammed down really hard but hopefully our girls are OK inside.  It was too cold to open the hive right then so I will wait for the next nice day before I check.

I have been reading and thinking a lot about bees this winter.  There are some great books out there with lots of good information.  I have also been building 2 new hives (for the bees that are coming), and there’s also plans for a ‘Honey Hoist’ (so I can lift the hives by myself) and a couple of swarm traps to see if I can catch a wild swarm – free bees is a wonderful thing.  From everything I’ve read it’s kind of like fishing.  You set out bait – a swarm trap made out of a hive box that has been used and smells like honey and beeswax and then you sit and wait for someone to fly by and take a whiff.  Since it’s more of a dumb luck kinda thing I should be really good at this.

I have even given a couple of talks to different organizations (and basically anyone who would sit still and listen).  Since I am becoming something of a local ‘Honey bee expert’ (that’s code for ‘crazy bee lady’) I have decided to purchase a few props for my next talk which will be for the Custer Mile High Garden Club next Monday night.

My lovely assistant Steve has offered to model them for you.

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It’s like doggy camouflage for when we’re working bees.  The bees will never suspect that he is a dog and not a actual winged member of the colony.  At least that’s what I’ve told him and so far he believes it.  The wings and antenna really do look better on Steve than they do on me – but even he admits he doesn’t have the legs for the tights – yellow and black strips – way cool!  Now if I could just find a yellow tutu…

Yes, it should be a fun-filled discussion at the old garden club but before I impress the gardeners I will spend this weekend in Cheyenne, WY at the first (but hopefully not last) Wyoming Bee College.  2 days of beekeeping classes, banquets and lots of people who will teach me everything I ever wanted to know about bees but was afraid to ask.  The conference is  presented by the Laramie County Extension Office and is a really good deal at $50 for both days.  It sounds like they have some great speakers lined up and even a few vendors who will sell me wonderful things I simply can’t live without.

So I will leave Steve in charge while I am gone.

And I’m sure things will be fine…

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“Look deep into my eyes.  You are getting very sleepy.”

“Now repeat after me,  I must feed the dog…  I must give him bacon…”

Steve, you crack me up!

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Have I mentioned lately how awesome my children are?  Well, I should and I should do it often because –  they are.  Especially the wonderful daughter we got when our son married her.   I love my daughter-in-law Dani.  She is fearless!

When Dalton & Dani came back from Cheyenne (with the new hat, pretty little filly & sweet tattoo) they helped me do something else I had been putting off.  Something they got stuck doing the last time they came to the ranch and something they will probably have to do next time they come for a visit – we added more boxes to the bee hives.  Even though Dani is afraid of bees she has always jumped right in and helped out. 

I told you – she is fearless!!!

For the last month or so I had been watching those busy bees.  Watching as they came and went, packing in load after fat-legged load of pollen.  So far they’ve gathered white pollen, pale yellow pollen, bright yellow pollen and now it’s such a dark orange that it’s almost red.  Sometimes you’ll see 2 bees arrive at the same time with different colored pollen – obviously from foraging at different flowers.  And, if you sit there long enough, you’ll see the girls who have loaded themselves down with too much pollen.  These ladies are easy to spot because they’ll misjudge the landing pad and crash into the side of the hive or even miss the hive completely and fall to the ground.  It’s better than watching TV. 

As you can tell I watch them a lot.

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“Does this pollen make my butt look big?”

Besides pollen, they have been packing in other things too – stuff you can’t see like water.  We have an old galvanized bath tub under the eaves of our house.  It gathers the rain from our roof which I usually use to water the flower beds but this year there is always a bunch of bees at the tub.  They land on an old board floating on the water and get a drink before heading back to the hive.  Occasionally, I’ve seen them resting on the back of the large fat toad that lives in the plants beside the tub and swims in his own private pool.  When he’s not swimming he’ll sit on the board and be literally crawling with bees.  I think he likes it. 

Whenever I pass the tub I always look for bees – especially ones that have fallen from their perch and are swimming the best they can.  Which I have to admit, bees don’t do very well.  That’s probably why they are so quick to grab onto the end of my finger and crawl up my hand to escape a watery grave.  It’s fascinating to watch as they dry themselves off – needing the warmth of my hand and the sun as they wipe the water from their body and spread their wings to dry.  In less than a minute they are on their way back to work.  Once in a while one will slow down long enough to buzz my face before they leave. 

I always say “You’re welcome, Honey”.

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Some bees search out the sticky tree sap which they convert to a substance called propolis.  This is an antibacterial goo they use to seal every crack & crevice in their hive and basically glue everything together.  I’ve seen pictures of mice that have been stung to death in a hive and since the carcass is too large for the bees to throw outside they have sealed the whole mouse in propolis – sort of a sticky molasses-colored mouse mummy at the bottom of the hive. 

Lovely.

On calm evenings I like to stand beside the hives with my ear pressed against the sides – listening to the hum of happy bees as they put up their winter food supply.  A steady stream of bees coming and going with their pollen pouches full keeps the entrance of the hive hopping but if I’m off to the side nobody seems to care.  I think they have even gotten used to me being there.  It is a documented fact that bees can recognize human faces – amazing!  I imagine it would be a little like us buzzing the faces on Mt. Rushmore.  But I got to tell you, it would totally freak me out if Honest Abe moved and said “Your welcome, Honey.”

But I digress…

Over the last couple of weeks it’s been pretty easy to tell that things were changing in the hives.  I have been noticing lately that the bees spend a lot of time at the entrance with their butts in the air and their wings going really fast.  My theory is that the humidity is so high that they are madly fanning the hive to dry out the honey and help it cure.  I have no proof if this is what they are actually doing and not some weird ‘happy summer’ dance.  Until I find out different this is my story and I’m sticking to it.   I’ve also noticed as I’ve listened to the hives that the real ‘hum’ of the hive has been getting lower and lower so I was pretty sure the hive was nearly full.  I bet with a stethoscope you could really pin-pointed their progress but I don’t have one – so I guessed. 

When I suggested we add the boxes our selves Hubby was less than enthusiastic so we (Hubby, the bees and I) were glad to see the kids return.

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Here are my two lovely assistants.  The beautiful and brave Dani – complete with long gloves and you will notice she will be working without a veil this time.  She is overcoming her fear of bees.  And of course, we have the handsome Dalton who has never worked with a net and is waving to his fans in the audience.

The plan is simple.  They grab onto the handles of the bottom box and lift – hopefully leaving the floor of the hive on the stand.  I am ready with a mirror in one hand so I can look up into the hive and see how full it is and an extra box at my side – ready to slide it onto the floor so they can set the hive down again.  Easy-Peasy. 

It sounds good in theory but there is always the possibility of problems. 

The first hive – Beatrix’s hive was heavy.  Dani and Dalton lifted the boxes and the floor came with it.  I quickly loosened it and set it back on the stand. 

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This is the base of the hive complete with a whole bunch of bees doing the whole ‘butt in the air – madly fanning’ thing. 

Forgetting the mirror for the moment I grabbed my camera and snapped off some pictures – looking straight up into the hive.  I was a bit confused that the camera seemed to be having trouble focusing but once I stuck the mirror in to look I could see why.

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The bottom box was nearly full of comb.  In fact the comb had probably been attached to the floor and that’s why it stuck.  I love this photo! 

The bees in Beatrix’s hive have almost filled 3 boxes of comb and chances are good that the top two are full of honey.  Now if they can fill more boxes we just might get enough to harvest some this fall – as long as we leave them at least 2 boxes of honey to get them through the winter.  It takes a lot of honey to keep warm in this country!

Next we moved to Matillda’s hive.   This one is just a little behind the other hive – they are just getting a good start on the 3rd box.  The honey making still seems to be going strong so who knows how much more they can accomplish before fall sets in. 

We worked quickly but this time it just wasn’t fast enough.  As Dani & Dalton held up Matillda’s hive I was trying to get another picture when Dani started squirming and stating in a fairly calm voice that she was getting stung on her right cheek just below her eye.  I was horrified but so proud of her – she didn’t scream, she didn’t drop the hive and run, she just gritted her teeth and scrunched up her face till I could get the new box in place and brush away the angry little bee.  They quickly set the hive down and Dalton held it in place untill we could regroup.

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I am such a bad mother-in-law that I reached for my camera and snapped this photo as the rain started to fall and Dani carefully stepped away from the hive.  Our bee girls have drawn first blood!  And poor Dani was the target. 

We rushed to the house and found the ‘Sting Stick’ medicine in the cupboard.  Thankfully, Dani isn’t allergic to bee stings – since this is the first time she’s been stung she didn’t know.  The sting didn’t swell and she is as beautiful as ever!  Thank goodness.

And what did Dani say about this whole episode, you ask?

“That bee-sting hurt worse than the whole tattoo did!”

I love my kids.

 

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Spring is in the air – finally – and I am ready.

You might remember last winter I took a few community ed classes – scuba diving, handguns and beekeeping.  While it may seem like an odd combination these are all things that interest me. 

That explains a lot – don’t you think?

Anyway, it is spring so therefore it is time for me to try out one of the interests for real.  As of a week ago I am a beekeeper! 

Anyone who knows me may have already guessed it didn’t happen without mishap – this is me we’re talking about after all.

 

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I have always loved bees – they are fascinating creatures and even though I have been stung several times that did nothing to dim my fascination for the little darlings.  Last summer when I noticed a lack of bees at the ranch I knew it was time to get serious.   The very first thing you learn when you decide to keep bees is that it actually takes some time and a lot of planning before the bees even show up.

Since the internet is a wealth of information I started there and that is where I first came across information on the Warre hive (Pronounced War-ray).   These hives, also known as the People’s Hive were created by a French Abbot – Emile Warre (1867-1951) who had studied bees and hive designs for many years.  In fact he had spent most of his life building different types of hives and testing them, usually a dozen of each model.  Instead of creating a hive that was built to be the best for the beekeeper and to get the most honey production he designed a hive that is the healthiest for the bees themselves. 

Besides that, they are easy to make and can be built for around $40.00 per hive compared to $250 – $300 for a Langstroth hive.   The plans, along with the book written by Abbe Warre are free on the internet!!!  Either google Beekeeping for All or go to:

http://www.natural-beekeeping.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/beekeeping_for_all.pdf

And for a builder’s guide with measurements in inches instead of mm’s go here:

http://thebeespace.net/category/warre-hive-construction-guide/

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Here’s one of the hives (full of bees) on May Day – we woke up to 2″ of snow.  The jar of sugar water is their feeder.

Top Bar hives are built to let bees do what they naturally do.  Imagine a wild honey bees’ home – a  hollow tree.  Warre hives aren’t round but they are smaller than the hives you see all over the countryside – the better to keep warm in the winter.  When bees move into a new tree they start at the top and build their comb downward, starting with brood comb that soon hatches out and is then filled with honey as new comb is built below for new brood.  Since the brood is always growing in new comb supposedly there is less disease.  Summer passes, and the tree fills with honey from the top down.  In hives with frames (the most common hives you see) extra boxes, or supers, are added to the top of the hive forcing the bees to build up.  Warre Hives are the opposite – the whole hive is lifted and the new boxes are added to the bottom allowing them to continue building downward.  In the fall you harvest the boxes of honey off the top without really opening the hive and disturbing the bees.

Makes sense to me.  So I built two of them last fall.

My education continued last winter when I attended a beekeeping class in Rapid City.  I was hooked and couldn’t wait for spring.  I ordered 2 packages of bees on January 2nd and then  patiently (hey – I tried) waited for the bees to arrive – sometime in April or May.  The guy who taught the class also was the one who would be coordinating the bee shipment so I checked with him several times and again on Friday and was told the packages of bees would be leaving Nebraska Friday night and would be ready to pick up Saturday morning in Rapid.  I quickly set up my hives and told everyone who would listen that “THE BEES ARE COMING, THE BEES ARE COMING!!!

Since I was making a trip to Rapid and since I am an obsessive multi-tasker, I had several errands lined up as well.  I mean – why waste a trip?  We have been cleaning out the garage which was full of stuff from Dan’s folks’ house so I filled my pickup with boxes of items to donate to the local Goodwill.  It looked like a mobile rummage sale with every available nook and cranny packed to capacity with everything from old wool suits to ceramic ducks.  I had my list made out – all numbered and listed in order so I would not waste a moment because I had to get back to the ranch ASAP!  Both our boys would be here for the weekend and since we had extra help, Hubby decided we should brand the calves.  I was feeling rather proud of myself Friday night for being soooo well organized – right up to the time the phone rang at 9:00 pm.

It was the bee guy who informed me that he had messed up and hadn’t ordered my bees.  He apologized and told me for sure they would be in the next shipment 2 weeks later.

I was bummed…  I was sad…  I am not a patient woman…

I sat up late, drinking beer and tatting into the wee hours of the night and mostly feeling sorry for myself.  But Hubby was thrilled that there would be one more set of hands to order around Saturday morning.

We got up early, saddled horses and gathered cattle.  We got them in with few mishaps and spent a good amount of the morning sorting cattle into one corral, calves into another and bulls into the last one.  The bulls were first through the chute.  We doctored the sick one, treated them all for parasites, checked them over and turned them back into the ‘horse pasture’.  Next came a few yearlings – the ones that didn’t go to the sale last fall because they were too small.  They got the same checkup plus they got branded too.  It was nearly 11:00 so I ran up to the house to check on dinner and before I could open the door I heard the beeps of the answering machine.

You guessed it – 5 calls.

“We’ve got extra bees if you can get up here to get them.”

“Where are you?  Are you coming for the bees?”

“You have to come get them if you want them.  We’ll be here till 10:00.”

I stood in the middle of the kitchen, covered in a thick layer of dust and manure, reeking of poop & branding smoke and basically looking like something the cat hawked-up.  The guys down at the corrals were getting the cows into the alley at that very moment so there was no way I could just jump in my pickup and head to Rapid.  By this point I was pissed and wanted to sit down and cry but thankfully the last message was from one of our neighbors.

“JoAnn, my son-in-law is in Rapid City picking up his wife’s bees.  He heard the bee guys mention your name and called to find out if you were the one that lived out our way.  He was wondering if you would like him to bring your bees too?”

I tripped over the chair and sprawled on the floor as I scrambled for the phone, dialing the number as fast as I could with crap encrusted fingers. By the time our neighbor answered the phone his son-in-law (whom I had never met but already loved like a member of the family) was headed for home  – with my bees and the tools I had ordered!!!

“Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!!  They told me my bees weren’t coming this time…  We’re in the middle of working cattle…  Tell him THANK YOU!!!  I’ll meet him at the end of he road at noon.”

I raced back to the corrals to share the news.  Hubby wasn’t exactly thrilled but what do you do?  I helped push cows through the chute for an hour than sped out to the end of the road and waited for half an hour before this wonderful young man showed up with a SUV buzzing with bees.  We sorted out my stuff and quickly made plans to get together soon to compare bee notes before I headed back to the ranch with roughly 20,000 bees and one nervous little dog in the pickup. 

Of course when I heard the bees weren’t coming I had put away all the stuff I had gathered up.  So I ran through the house like a crazy woman.  I had planned on buying a bee suit when I picked up the bees but since that didn’t happen I grabbed one of Hubby’s large white work shirts, tightened my belt around it, crammed on my hat and the veil I had made to fit over it, pulled on my new bee gloves that reach up to my armpits, and even stopped long enough to tie ribbons around my legs to keep the bees from flying up my pant legs.  Talk about your cheap thrills!  I ran out the door armed with a spray bottle and 2 quart jars of sugar-water and absolutely no idea what I was doing.

For months I had pictured this moment in my mind.  I had read every book I could get my hands on.  I had watched videos on You Tube of calm, cool and collected people dressed in spotless white suits gently introducing their bees to their new homes. 

“Take your time…  Don’t rush…  Remain calm…”

None of that was me. 

I was stressed, smelly, dirty and looked like I had been living in a barn.  Besides that, I was in a hurry and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a damn thing I had learned.  

So I winged it.

There wasn’t time for me to figure out how to run my shiny new smoker so I didn’t even try.  Instead I sprayed the bees with a fine mist of sugar-water through the screened sides of the box.  Then I lifted off the cover of the first hive and opened up the bars across the top.  Turning to the box of humming bees I lifted out the tin can of sugar-water and hanging there beneath it was a cluster of the most beautiful bees you ever saw!  They hung there like a bunch of grapes, happily humming as they waited their turn at the sticky juice.  It took me a few moments to figure out where the queen was but finally realized her cage was hanging just inside the box attached to a metal strap the stuck out through a slit in the top of the box.  I lifted her out but couldn’t even see her through the mass of bees that surrounded her.  I brushed some of them aside and the air filled with bees.  It was great!!!

Then I turned the box upside down and dumped a great mass of bees into their new home.   I pulled the cork from the bottom of the queen cage and stuck in the chunk of candy that she and the workers would have to eat through to release her then hung the cage inside the hive from one of the top bars. 

I couldn’t get all the bees out of the package so I sat it near the entrance and quickly put the top back on the hive.  I ran to the second hive and did the same steps. I didn’t know if I had done it right or messed up badly but when I ran back to the first hive I was thrilled to see guard bees at the entrance with their tails in the air and their wings fanning the scent of the hive out for the other bees to home in on.  And most of them had – only a couple remained in the box.

These truly are amazing creatures.

I wanted to stay and watch but knew I had to get back to the corrals.  I stripped off the gloves, white shirt and veiled hat while running to the pickup.  Jumped in and gunned it down the driveway to the corrals, hyped up on bee thrills and adrenaline only to get chewed out for taking so long!

Apparently, things had gone bad as soon as I left.  The cows didn’t want to go through the chute and a couple of them had even thrown hissy-fits once they got in the chute and pretty much busted it up.  Any ranch wife will tell you that when things go good it’s because her husband has planned it so well but when things go bad it is her fault – even if she is miles away at the time. 

Here’s a couple of photos of me in my crazy ranch wife bee suit.  I have been feeding them sugar-water until the flowers and trees start blooming and they are hungry little ones as they can polish off a quart in about 2 1/2 days.

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 Interesting fact:  The US Department of Agriculture lists honey bees as livestock so I guess you could say we have increased our herd by over 20,000 head!

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Steve isn’t sure what to think of this whole ‘bee’ thing but he is fearless when it comes to livestock.

 

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