Posts Tagged ‘bees’

The Bears and the Bees

The most recent meeting at the Oxford Hills Honey Bee Club hosted Scott Lindsay, a wildlife biologist from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to go over information about black bears. Apparently the only state in the lower 48 with a higher population of black bears is Oregon.

At the moment, it is probable that male bears, boars, are are out and about on warm days, 40 degrees and up, but they’re still going back to sleep in between. The female bears, sows, likely won’t be up and around until early to mid-April. That’s also when you’re likely to see cubs in softwood and mixed wood trees. If you do, walk away calmly, since their mother is probably watching nearby.

Interestingly, it takes about a week for their digestion to ramp up after their four to five month hibernation, so their first forays out aren’t gorging. The other interesting piece of information is that as much of a food jackpot as a beehive is, it’s not actually their first choice. If they can find other, natural sources of food, that’s what they prefer. The hard part in the beginning of spring is the limited food supplies outside of the hives ramping up their brood for summer nectar flows.

When I was in Colorado, the bee school emphasized both electricity and physical sturdiness of the structure. Scott prefers making the area around the hive, or anywhere else you don’t want to have a bear, an unpleasant place for the bear to be. This includes electric fencing with a charger giving no less than .5 joules (the horsepower of electricity), and at least a 5,000 volt shock. Something that the bear will remember. However, you can also do things to make the general area unpleasant. There are pyrotechnic shells, cracker shells, that you can get for your 12-gauge. Speak with the ATF and/or USDA for permission. Air horns and firecrackers can also be used to make loud noises. There’s this thing called a propane cannon, but he recommended against using it if you’re in a populated area since it upsets the humans, too. If being annoyingly loud isn’t enough to discourage the bear, you can add some pain stimulus. Aside from the electric fence, you can also get beanbag rounds for your shotgun. If you get rubber bullets, make sure you aim for large muscle masses. The idea is to make the animal uncomfortable, not actually injure it.

If you have a younger bear in the area, they’re easier to train. Because bears are territorial, having a local bear trained to not eat your hives is the best of all outcomes. It will protect its territory, because that’s what they do, and therefore accidentally protect your hives from any not yet trained bears. Not training your local bear means relying on luck to keep your hives safe. Apparently some hives can go years without being touched but half a mile away is an apiary that gets cleaned out on a regular basis. The hard part is that can change without notice. Once the bear finds the easy food source, they’re really, really hard to discourage. A lot of people would like such a bear removed. That’s the second-to-last choice for the department, and it’s also not very effective. First, they’re placed in already claimed territory, annoying the bears on the Quebec border, then they tend to just walk right back home. It really only works with boar bears in the four to five year age group. The odds are, that’s not your bear.

Legally speaking, if a bear is causing harm or damage to you or your livestock, you are allowed to shoot to kill. For it to be legal, you have to call your local game warden within 18 hours. However, most bears have no interest in attacking us and with a little work on our part, they can be discouraged from attacking livestock, too.

One last point. On the off chance that you run into the very, very rare bear that is genuinely predatory and not just trying to intimidate, fight back. Playing dead will not work. However, convincing them that you’re not an easy meal might make them look elsewhere.

A Farmer’s New Year

IMG_6156January has come and gone. Ok, so has February. It is past time to be thinking about what I learned last year and what I’m going to be doing this year. We are well into the season of seed catalogs and getting into the season for starting those seeds. Farming is a highly seasonal occupation, so it’s also time to order bees, chicks, and poults for the coming summer. Unfortunately, I have only just been given permission to put a little weight on my broken ankle and I don’t have an ETA for being functional.

One of the things I learned, after losing my flock to predators, is that I can acquire chickens who are between a few days and a few years old pretty much any time over the summer. However, the older they are, the more habits they’ve established. My current flock is made up of older hens that came from a stationary coop and run that had been scratched down to dirt and younger hens who had been raised in a strictly indoor coop for four months. This has left both groups far less likely to do things like attack the pumpkins I chuck in to them as treats or do serious scratching for bugs. They were getting better at it before it snowed, but they weren’t up to the level of the girls I raised myself and chucked out on grass the minute I could. I also learned that I need to move their mobile coop very regularly to keep the ground clean. That will need to start as soon as it’s warm enough to be planting in the garden where they are currently living. Two strong legs really help with moving the coop.

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Maybe ducklings again? They are adorable.

The latest I can order chicks through the Paris Farmer’s Union is early May. My preferred place to start the chicks, however, is the bathroom upstairs. I should be doing stairs again by the pickup in June, I think. Of course, I also thought I’d be going back to work a month ago. At my bee meeting on Saturday I sat beside a fellow small farmer and we commiserated over broken legs. She broke hers in a February and wasn’t in physical therapy until that August. I was promptly sorry I’d asked about the healing time. There’s not much point in getting chicks in August, since they probably won’t be fully feathered by the first snow. They certainly won’t be big enough to stick up for themselves in the winter coop that is a bit undersized.

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Dead hive in the fall. I think I did the powdered sugar treatment too late. They got damp and caught a chill, most likely.

The real sticky situation is the bees. I have a line on a full 20-frame local hive, but I have to pick it up and do so no later than early May. Because of where my apiary is located, the hive has to be hand carried, and we can’t really break an active hive into smaller pieces to make it lighter. I think my brother will help me with the actual lifting, but it has to be something he can carry, since there’s no way I’ll be able to walk across uneven ground carrying 70# or more of hive and colony by May. The bees are even more time-sensitive than the chickens. If I don’t get them this spring, I won’t stand even half a chance of splitting over the summer to maybe, hopefully, have multiple colonies going into the fall. The other option is to order a box or two of bees. They’re much lighter to handle, but they also won’t have as strong a start and I’ll need to be installing them in mid-April. Of course, they’ll be going into hives with drawn comb, unlike the last batch, so that will help. On the other hand, I’m still going to be on at least one crutch, I’m sure, so checking the queens and feeding them will be extra challenging. Either way, I need to make my decision this week.

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This is last year, this year these are wintering over in the garden.

I had hoped to start a patch of nettles in the yard. I’m not going to be able to get to the boggy parts until it’s too late to plant the seeds. I haven’t even thought about any plants I might want to start for the garden, in no small part because I can’t get down the stairs to our nursery in the cellar. I’ve been struggling with the sprouts I’d like to be feeding my hens before there’s grass available because there is a limited amount of space that I can get to at the moment where there’s both a sink for water and warmth.

Spring is well on its way, the farming year is about to hit its stride, and I am trying to figure out when I’ll be walking again. Happy new year.

I Have Bees!

IMG_6840A week ago I installed two packages of bees from Georgia. I think they’re Italians, but they’re some sort of well-behaved, as-domesticated-as-possible breed. Whatever they are, it was probably only about 55 degrees, though sunny, when I slammed the boxes on the ground and shook the stunned bees into the hive (that’s how you do it), and nobody was particularly threatening. I was a bit of a chicken about handling them, but I’ll get over it.

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I left the queens in their cages hung on the back of the hive, but I did pull the corks two days later. I expect the workers have eaten through the candy stoppers by now and I’m hoping both of them will be laying by the next time I open up the hive. Technically you’re supposed to pull the cork the day you install the bees and then not touch anything for a week while they’re getting settled, but I’m just not that good at following directions!IMG_6859

I left each hive with a quart of 2:1 syrup (that’s two parts sugar to one part water) and a scattering of human-quality pollen all hidden under the second hive body to discourage robbing from each other and by other critters. I do plan to get to the point where feeding is a matter of final desperation, not a matter of course, but doing that with a box of bees is going to reduce your chances of a successful start. These girls have already been on a trailer being shipped up from IMG_6841Georgia stuffed in a box with other bees that are not their sisters and a queen that is neither their mother, nor is currently laying eggs. All of this is very stressful, and I need them to raise a whole new generation of bees before they die of old age and over work. That means supplementing them until we have more forage than a few hundred daffodils in flower.

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I will be tracking my hives to see how they do which means they need designations. It seems logical to name my hives after queens, so I’m starting with Amina (from Zazzau) and Boudica (of the Icini). The plan is not to name the queen, but to name the bloodline. As long as the queen in the A hive can be traced to the Amina line it will retain that name. If the line fails, the hive will be renamed. In other words, they can requeen themselves or I can requeen them from a split off that hive and keep the designation. If they’re doing so poorly that I requeen the Amina hive from a Boudica split, the line is dead and I choose another name.

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The one on the right is small cell foundation.

One of the things I’m tracking is the difference between standard foundation and small cell foundation. Since I have two sets of comparable bees that are not currently attached to any foundation, it seemed like an experiment was in order. Amina hive will be trying out the small cell while Boudica hive will be rocking the standard size. My interest in the foundation size has to do with the varroa mite that is causing havoc among American beekeepers as well as in other parts of the world. According to the conventional beekeepers, it’s pointless. According to the treatment-free beekeepers, they didn’t really have success in finding a balance with the mites until they were fully regressed to the smaller size.

My plan is to pursue treatment-free beekeeping to the best of my ability. You can find people vehemently for and vehemently against this in the beekeeping community. Bearing in mind that if you ask five beekeepers a question you’ll get at least six answers, I think that the final decision has to rest with the person or people managing each apiary whether it’s one hive or 1,000, as they will be the ones handling any fallout from it. My interest stems primarily from my concerns about the fragility of our current food system and my lack of interest in supporting the companies that I see as keeping it fragile. After all, Monsanto et al would go out of business in short order if we managed to remember how to feed ourselves without copious applications of chemicals and patented seeds. If I can work toward bees that can take care of themselves in the current, non-friendly environment, then I will be making one step toward a more stable food supply which is a step toward a more stable world.IMG_6876

Finding My Power: To Farm or Not To Farm

This seems to be the perpetual question. On the one hand, if we don’t have farmers, we don’t have food. This should be pretty straight forward, right? On the other hand, it is difficult, verging on impossible to be a farmer and be able to afford to feed yourself. That should be a ridiculous statement, but it’s not.

In my blog about what it would take to gross $10,000, I only addressed the numbers generated from my interest in farming. This needs to be looked at from another angle, though. What are the numbers my current employment is generating and what are other possible income amounts broken down into the hours, weeks, and months they take to get to $10,000.

I am currently working at a temp job that I rather enjoy making $12 per hour. In Maine, I’m doing ok as a moderately skilled temp. To gross $10,000 I need to work 833.33 (call it 833) hours which is 20.825 (call it 21) weeks or 5 months. That’s a long time. It’s also not taking into account commuting time, gas, clothing requirements, or the fallout from not feeling like I’m contributing in any meaningful way to the world. Gas and commuting time are fairly easy to attach numbers to. I am commuting pretty much exactly an hour each way five days a week plus five 30-minute lunches, making my 40-hour week actually a 52.5-hour week. 40 hours times $12 per hour divided by 52.5 hours means that counting the commute and lunch, I’m being paid $9.14 for each hour the job is consuming. Gas is costing me about $38 per week and the vast bulk of it is for my commute. That means that 21 weeks of commuting costs me $798. At $9.14 per hour before taxes, that means about 87 hours are spent just paying for gas. That’s over 1.5 of my 52.5 hour weeks every 5 months are just paying for gas.

Let’s say I find a job with the same commuting and lunch time and cost, but I’m making $15 per hour for 40 hours. That’s 666.66 (call it 667) hours which is 16.675 (call it 17) weeks or 4 months. My actual time being used is still 52.5 hours per week, which means I’m actually being paid $11.43 per hour before taxes. 17 weeks of commuting at $38 per week is $646 or 56.5 hours. That’s just over a week every 4 months is to pay for gas.

Temping, like an increasing number of permanent jobs, does not offer insurance or any guarantee of hours. Unlike a permanent job, my temporary employer can send me home at lunch time and tell me not to come back for absolutely no reason other than they don’t need me. Poof- no more income. The staffing agency has it in their best interest to get me back to work as quickly as possible, but that might be days or weeks of unemployment. Have you ever tried to save an emergency fund on $12 per hour?

Farming also offers no insurance, no guarantees, and if you’re not careful, the potential to end up with no income and a pile of debt if it all falls apart. On the other hand, I will be using and learning skills that are actually useful in the real world. The world in which being able to feed yourself means knowing whether those berries are yummy or deadly. I have the potential to make my corner of the world healthier, cleaner, and better habitat for both my cultivated plants and animals and the local plants and animals that are using the same space. I can help to perpetuate skills, genes, and equipment that we will need when we realize that Agribusiness might not be working as well as advertised. Farming, particularly small-scale farming, demands a certain level of fitness that will keep me healthy long past the time when an office-bound body would fall apart. It has its own challenges for health, but at least you can often see them coming. I can build the business to embrace my strengths and interests and my income is limited only by my imagination and ability to manifest what I see.

Now comes the hard part. I have been told, am being told, will continue to be told that the responsible thing is to get a “real” job. I need to work on a skill set that employers are looking for. I need to invest time, energy, and possibly money in pursuing what society tells me is an acceptable, respectable, logical use of my time and energy resulting in a “fair” income. I will be paid what I am “worth.”

I was talking about this with a friend and he asked if I’d considered what I would regret not doing in 10 years. 10 years ago I was just settling into a job with a company that I had spent the previous couple of years building a resume to get into. It was a good, solid company. I knew people that loved working there. I was making more money than I had ever made before. I was studying hard to get the licensing to move up in the ranks exactly the way I was supposed to. I may have even had my first exam under my belt at that point. I was doing everything right.

I’m not saying I didn’t learn things from working there, but in the end, you learn things from walking face first into a wall, too. Just because everyone’s doing it and everyone’s saying you need to do it, doesn’t mean it’ll work. Not everyone can get through to Platform 9 ¾, and it turned out I’m one of the ones that can’t.

I can’t quit my job and start farming tomorrow. I do have access to land that I don’t have to pay for, which is more than most people in my situation can say. What I don’t have are a significant number of skills or the money for the infrastructure. 31 hives worth of materials (excluding bees) will cost me about $5,663- that’s 472 hours (12 weeks or 3 months) worth of work at $12 per hour before taxes and expenses. However, I can take the time I would spend looking for a “real” job, and the small amount of disposable income I do have and spend it on a small number of hives so that I can build the necessary skills. If things go well, the hives themselves may gradually generate the income needed to expand my operations. If things go badly, I won’t have spent more than I had and it could be chalked up to an educational expense.

I guess it wasn’t as much of a question as I thought.

$10,000

Money’s funny. One number can seem like so much or so little to the same person, depending on the circumstances around it. If I had to pay $10,000- wow, that’s a lot of money! Where would I come up with it? If I were to receive $10,000, it’s a lot of money up until I start paying bills. Then it goes mighty fast.

I was doing some end-of-year looking at my spending in 2016. I’ve been tracking it for most of the year to help me figure out where it all goes and why there’s never quite enough. The number $10,000 came about because it’s an annual budget of modest spending for one excluding rent, food, utilities, renters insurance, and internet. Just for giggles, I wondered what it would take to gross $10,000 from my farming ventures.

If you know anything about farming, then you are familiar with the fact that gross and net income are not the same and often very, very different.

Honey: 1,250# at $8 per #. That’s 31.25 hives (call it 31) harvesting an average of 40# per hive

Nucs (nucleus hives): 67 nucs at $150, but only 56 if I sell them for $180 each

Eggs: 20,000 or 1,666.66 (call it 1,667) dozen at $6 per dozen

It was just an experiment. Everyone knows farming has no security and little if any prosperity attached to it, but some of those numbers looked almost possible. I don’t have much information on the net income for each, but I could make some educated guesses.

For the eggs, with the numbers I’ve been collecting since I got my chicks in the spring, to gross $10,000 I’d be looking at a net of $-20,000 or thereabouts. Yes, that’s a negative. The housing is killing me. I’ll never make money off of the eggs, but eventually I would like to at least get them to pay for the eggs and old hens the family eats.

For the honey, I found a place where I can get a kit with two deeps and buy one medium super for about $173 per brand new hive (2016 prices). At $8 per pound of honey, that’s around 22 pounds per hive to pay off the woodenware. If I’m buying bees, that’s another $125 to $190 or 16 to 24 pounds. With average harvests in Maine in the 40 to 45# range, that means I should be able to pay off even a purchased hive with the first full harvest- which isn’t until the second summer/fall. If I am splitting my own bees and/or catching swarms, I can make a dent in paying off the bear fence in the first harvest, too. Looking at my 31 hives, they will cost $5,363 for the hives themselves, no bees, and $300 for the bear fence with a potential income of $9,920. (31*40*8) That leaves me with $4,257 to either purchase the bees or pay for my time to split hives and catch swarms.

Splitting hives will mean making at least some nucs for my own use, and I can certainly make more for sale. I’ve heard of available patterns for making nucs out of ½” plywood, about four per sheet. At $20 per sheet that’s about $5 for the box. I also need 5 frames and 5 foundations, a total of about $18. That makes the gear requirement around $23. Nucs are selling around here in the $150 to $190 range for local bees, more if the nuc was overwintered. As a newbie I’d probably start selling at the low end, meaning that after deducting the gear, each hive could net me about $127 less the cost of my time. If I manage to make 67 successful nucs to sell, minus $23 per nuc for the gear, I could have around $8,509 to pay for that time.

If I have 31 healthy, producing hives, making 67 nucs shouldn’t be that hard. If I can do both simultaneously, I could spend around $7,204 but gross about $19,970 to net around $12,766. Hm.

These numbers aren’t taking into account some very important information. It doesn’t include rent/lease/mortgage on the land I’m using. It doesn’t include taxes. It also doesn’t account for the hive bodies and nucs that I have to buy and/or build for the hives that are too weak to produce honey or split into nucs. It doesn’t have room for the farm up the way to spray their fields at just the wrong time of day with the wind blowing in just the wrong direction that wipes out most or all of my hives. It doesn’t take into account the time it will take me, a beginning beekeeper, to learn the skills necessary to take care of 31+ hives and build 67+ nucs.

The numbers are still very interesting.

The Queen is Dead

I would say “Long live the Queen!” but I haven’t gotten a new one yet.

As a first-time beekeeper, my job was to get my hive through the winter and into the first honey flow intact. When I first started poking at them, I was thrilled to see that there were lots of girls climbing around what had been the brood area. It was slightly off to one side instead of truly centered, but if that’s where the queen wants to lay? That’s where the queen lays. I was so excited that I was telling everyone my hive had survived the winter! Until someone asked if my queen had survived. Good question.

I hadn’t had a chance to really get in there and do some spring cleaning until this weekend. Between work, weather, and the hike to get to the friend that’s baby-sitting them for me, it was a challenge. My friend has been watching them- and was really getting a kick out of watching them bring so much pollen back even very early in the spring. I had every reason to think that 100% of my hives had made it through the winter. How many beekeepers can say that?

The dark comb is from brood frames and the light comb is from the top of brood frames or honey frames- those places don't get walked on as much.

The dark comb is from brood frames and the light comb is from the top of brood frames or honey frames- those places don’t get walked on as much.

One of the early chores on a warm day is to check frame-by-frame for leftover honey, pollen, and brood pattern. I wasn’t the most attentive beekeeper last year, so I was also doing a fair amount of scraping off comb that had been laid down where it shouldn’t have been. There was honey left over, which explained why they weren’t really taking much advantage of the feed I had started giving them. As I got closer and closer to the brood, I started to get concerned. I ran into some drone cells (I really should have had my camera with me so I could show you) but I brushed it off as a rogue worker. But no actual brood ever showed up. Seeing as how there wasn’t even any sealed brood, I’m guessing I lost the queen months ago. Since I lost the queen but kept the workers, does that make it a 50% loss, or is it a 100% loss because they will die eventually and not be replaced?

Now, when you lose a queen, you have two choices. You can requeen them by buying a queen or, if you’re good, replacing her with one you happen to have bred yourself. Or you can just start all over again. (Hoping they will requeen themselves only works if they catch the loss when they have very young brood to work with.) In my case, I havea few concerns. With as old as my workers are, would they be able to properly care for a queen and the brood she would have to lay very quickly to get them up to par? I’m not really willing to bank on that, since it’s the very young workers that are nurse bees, not the ones that have nearly worn themselves out. There are also a couple of irregularities in the hive- not all of the drones had hatched and some were clearly dead in their cells, and there was something that looked a lot like sand all over the hive. Are they just being sloppy, or are they diseased?

Do you know what that yellow sandy-looking stuff is? I don't.

Do you know what that yellow sandy-looking stuff is? I don’t.

I’m reaching out to my apiary society for some help in determining whether either of these is a real problem if I decide to re-use the drawn comb and other hive parts. If I get a box of bees and I can install them in pre-drawn comb, that means they can get down to setting brood and gathering nectar that much faster. I could even potentially add them to the workers that are already there to give the population a little boost. The more bees I have already gathering nectar and pollen to feed them, the more of the younger bees in the box can be left inside to nurture the brood.

So far, the suggestion is to leave it in the care of the girls that are left. They should make/keep it tidy themselves. If I lose them before I get a new set to put in there, clean it out as well as I can and freeze the frames for at least 24 hours. This won’t affect any pollen or honey in the frames, but it should kill any mites or other issues in the wax. I will keep you updated as more information comes in.

On a more entertaining note, this video is awesome!

Bee School Part 2

Bees mean flowers. Flowers often mean herbicides and pesticides. Whether you have bees, your neighbors have bees, or you just want a flower garden for yourself, what you put on your garden and lawn will affect the bees and other pollinators. It seems that Bayer products in particular tend to have systematic pesticides. They stick around for a lot longer and have a tendency to build up in the wax and pollen. It’s a possible reason for Colony Collapse Disorder. One of the worst is the neonictanoids that Europe has found to be an unacceptable risk. America, of course, prefers to test chemicals on the general public until they are proven to be a problem, rather than restrict them until they are proven to be safe. This means that the flowers you just bought for the garden may have been treated with neonictanoids as seeds. This means you’re importing a very pretty poison to your bee yard. Be careful.

The next class was about diseases and pests. Right off the bat we were told to never buy used equipment. You don’t know what diseases might be lurking in the wood and any leftover wax. The odds are, it’s not worth the money you save considering the colonies you could lose. The first disease was a perfect example. American Foulbrood pretty much can’t be treated. It is possible to salvage the honey, but after that you have to burn not just the hive, but the bees as well. You don’t want to spread it to other hives if you can help it. If the person selling the cheap, used hive has no idea what happened, but his colony died? This is what you could be housing your new colony in. At around $100 for a box of bees, that’s an expensive experiment. Most of the rest of the little pests and diseases could be managed with a healthy hive and requeening as necessary. The bees should be keeping themselves clean and managing almost any health challenge.

Larger pests can be a bit more of a problem. Mice like to live in the corners of hives that are abandoned by the bees in winter when they cluster around the queen. They will do quite a bit of damage to your frames and the comb. It seems that metal mouse excluders are the best bet, since they have been known to chew openings in wooden ones. Skunks are another challenge. They will sit right in front of a hive and snap up the bees as they fly out. A board with nails stuck through it, or very sharp tacks, should keep them far enough back to let the bees angle away before they get eaten. Bears . . . well, bears got a class of their own.

Winnie the Pooh lied to us as children. Bears really don’t care that much about honey. What they want is the fat and protein of the brood. (Marmalade, however, I am sure is still a favorite.) Because of this, unlike skunks, mice, or raccoons, if a bear gets to your hive, kiss it good-bye. The brood is in the center of the bottom, and that’s where the bear goes, destroying everything else in the process. They also learn, so if you feed a bear a hive, they will keep coming back to see if there’s more to be had. It can take up to 30 return trips for them to figure out that you’re not giving them another hive. That’s a lot of time for a bear to be in your yard. There also really isn’t any part of town that can feel safe from bears. Whether you’re butting up to the mountains or snugly downtown, put serious thought into bear fencing. It’s expensive, but so is buying a new hive and colony.

If you have three or more hives, you can ask the Department of Parks and Wildlife for the materials to build a fence. Since that’s more than you’re legally allowed to have in the city, you’re probably stuck building your own. The three main points are for it to be stout, easy to access, and safe for both you and the bear. Stout is easy- bears are strong, smart, and big. If it’s easy to knock down, they’ll do it. Easy to access makes sense, too. If it’s hard to get in there, you won’t get in often enough to take good care of your hive and make the most of it. The safety aspect was the most interesting. Safe for you- of course. But when it really comes down to it, we don’t want to damage the bear. It’s not the animal’s fault that its home has been taken over by hysterical two-legged creatures that shove food in its face and then kill it when it tries to eat the food. We need to try and be civil neighbors, at least.

There is a perk to going all-out for bear fencing. If it keeps out bears, it keeps out dogs, skunks, raccoons, and curious children. If any of them run into 10,000 volts, they probably won’t come back for seconds. This will simplify your large pest control issues. I plan on planting mine with pretty herbs and flowers that would be a waste in the main yard because of the dog. No reason not to make the most of it.

Obviously, these two posts are just an overview of the classes. Aside from wondering if my brain might melt from over-use, I couldn’t be happier with what I got out of it. The cost of the fencing that I’m once again convinced I need to have is making me wince, but other than that, the class was great for pointing out the possible pit falls while still encouraging anyone who really had an interest in it. I recommend it.

Bee School Part 1

If you live in Colorado, and you want to keep bees, the Bee School put on by the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association is awesome. For what they’re charging, I’d consider adding a hotel bill if you’re travelling from a distance to still be a fair price. It is two days and a ton of information. They encourage questions during the breaks and make it very clear that they will be available for more questions as the season goes on and we get our own hives and colonies. 

The day started off, as they do, with some basic housekeeping information. There were two points that stuck out, though. The future of beekeeping is not one beekeeper with many hives. It is many beekeepers with one or a few hives. It’s much more stable that way. The other is that in Colorado Springs we can expect to lose 15-20% of our hives annually. In California, the expectation is 20-50% of the hives. Plant flowers and stop using pesticides, people. We are not ready to see what happens if the bees disappear. 

The history portion was fast, but it was enough to whet my appetite to learn more. The oldest recording of stealing honey is 15,000 years old. The Egyptians moved their hives for pollination purposes. Current bee laws are based on Roman bee laws. Finally, the honey bee as we know it arrived in America in 1622. It was dubbed the “white man’s fly” since the bees tended to precede the arrival of the white man in a given area. However, beekeeping couldn’t be really commercialized until L. L. Langstroth, the father of American beekeeping, came up with the Langstroth Hive in 1860. The standardization and ease of access to the hive made it possible to do on a large scale.

The next portion was talking about the agricultural benefits. Did you know that it’s a $200 billion industry world-wide with the worth in the US being around $20 billion? Of course, when 1/3 of our food depends on these little animals, it becomes less surprising. Though more disconcerting when you consider their fragility. Bees aren’t just good for food, though. There are 7-800 conditions listed in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers. Half of them include honey in their treatment. There’s more to honey’s health benefits than just help with allergies. Even propolis, bee glue, seems to have health benefits as an antiseptic, antibiotic, and even an antiviral.

There were examples of the necessary equipment that were passed around  for us to handle. During that lecture, we also got to hear anecdotes about things that were learned the hard way. This was when we were told that if you ask 5 beekeepers the same question, you will get at least 6 answers. There is a lot of science involved, but there is also a lot of art. Once you have learned the basics, it is up to each beekeeper to learn the ins and outs of their colonies and the areas where their bees are kept. 

Currently, each plot in Colorado Springs is legally allowed one hive, assuming your HOA doesn’t object. They are working on getting it back up to two. That way if you lose one, you’re not out of bees until the new one is established. If you live elsewhere, though, check your local laws. Just down in Fountain, you can’t legally have a hive unless you have at least an acre of property. Of course, if you’re planning to flaunt the law, keep the neighbors well bribed with fresh, local honey.

Did you know that the queen bee rules, but she does not reign? It is the worker bees that determine when she needs to be replaced and they are the ones that choose the worker eggs to turn into little queens. Of course, once the first queen emerges, she promptly stings through all of the other queen cells to remove any potential rivals. The workers also take on every job in the hive at some point in her life. 

Did you know that when a bee colony is searching for a new home, they make decisions as a group the way our brain makes a decision. There was a Nova show on it. Basically, they do their waggle dance to tell their sisters the good news, but they aren’t above whacking a sister who is waggling for a different destination. In the end, whoever has the most interested sisters wins the vote. It seems that neurons in our brain send positive and negative signals to waggle or whack to influence the vote in the direction they want. Who knew?

The class on hive assembly just talked about the Langstroth Hive, as that is what 90% of the beekeepers use. There are other options, like the Kenyan top-bar hive or the Warre top-bar hive, but they don’t have the same following. At least, not yet. I am starting with a Langstroth Hive, since I can easily get my hands on a kit, but I think I will eventually have at least one Warre hive. The Kenyans are more of a warm-weather construction and probably won’t do as well in our cold winters.

We watched a video on how to move your bees from their shipping package to their hive. It was helpful to see live bees being handled. I think that will make it a little less intimidating when I get my own buzzing box. A little. After the film, though, the instructor went through a couple of points of disagreement (we don’t need to medicate them- it’s been handled before they shipped) and some Colorado-specific points. Don’t do it on a windy day. They’ll blow away.

When it comes to managing our bees, we need to think of ourselves as bee assisters rather than bee keepers. The bees do 99% of the work. We just need to keep an eye on them and help out if they need it. In fact, our only job during the first summer is to feed them and make sure they’re strong enough to survive their first winter. Once they are an established colony, though, handling them is far from a daily task. However, when they are handled, don’t forget to forgo your perfume, aftershave, or scented deodorant. They will try to figure out what kind of flower you are and if you’re good to eat.

The rest will need to go in a second post, as this one is getting a bit long.

Urban Homestead Tour: The Redux

grass, urban homestead 207

So . . . my covering of the tour got a little wordy. Sorry about that. For those of you that got glassy-eyed at around word 600, I wanted to pull out the main points that I got from the tour. It’ll help me sort through it all, too.

What did I learn on the Urban Homestead Tour? In no particular order:

  • Anyone can do it. Even if you don’t have access to so much as a porch for container gardening, you can still can, freeze, or sew. Heck, knitting takes up practically no space at all.
  • It’s ok to start small. Most of them seemed to start with gardening, but you could even start smaller by buying produce at farmers markets to can or freeze.
  • Chickens are the gateway drug. Some people stop there, but for others it just opens up a whole new world.
  • Eggs, honey, and veggies can be sold by anyone as they are whole foods. (Milk is not.) You just aren’t allowed to put up a sign advertising that you sell them.
  • Be prepared to meet your neighbors. You may also need to bribe them.
  • An urban homestead shouldn’t stink. If it does, you’re doing something wrong.
  • Get used to that non-city smell.
  • Be creative. Raising meat rabbits? You can sell rabbits, pelts, and manure, not just meat. (Also not a whole food, so look at the rules governing selling meat.)
  • It’s not about going back in time, it’s about bringing that knowledge forward.
  • It’s about being resilient. You’re reducing the impact a disaster will have on yourself and your loved ones.
  • Be very, very, very wary of buying second-hand housing for your stock, whether it’s chickens, rabbits, bees, or goats. Disease can get imbedded in the wood and wipe out your new stock.
  • Think outside the box. What do you have that can be repurposed? What can you find for cheap or free to make into what you need?
  • Also know when you really do need to pay for quality. Buying any old thing for breeding stock isn’t usually a good idea.
  • Craigslist is your friend. So is Freecycle.
  • Make horse friends. Why buy manure when you’ll get thanked for hauling it away for free?
  • Read, learn, and take classes, but don’t procrastinate through your research. Sometimes you just need to make mistakes.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Learn the local building codes, rules for selling food and other items, and rules for keeping animals.
  • Learn which rules are enforced and the penalties for any rules you choose to flout.
  • Learn to talk to your local leaders to change the rules you don’t agree with.
  • Meet locals that are doing what you want to do. They may already know most of the above.
  • One you’ve acquired a skill set- how can you pass it on to others?

Urban Homestead Tour: Day 2: Part 1

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

I love their yard! Particularly the ornamental stream for dealing with runoff.

Day two started with beekeeping. Just FYI, apparently bees will sting you if you wear black near them. Dang it- there goes half my wardrobe. The homestead of Christine Faith and Ben Gleason (ooh- a blog I need to read) had the usual gardens and chickens, but also had ducks, aquaponics, and, of course, their bees.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

It looks like they use koi for their aquaponics, but a lot of people use tilapia since they can be eaten.

Just in case you didn’t know- honey bees are not native to America. They were imported to aid in pollination for agriculture. They do seem to have taken to living here pretty well, though. Well, they were doing well until recently. About 40% of the colonies were lost last year. That was something like 30 million bees. Sadly, even if you are an excellent beekeeper, your colony is still at risk because the drones (male bees) flit from hive to hive sharing both genetics and diseases.

Their land borders an open space, but that's not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

Their land borders an open space, but that’s not required since bees usually fly three to five miles from the hive for pollen and nectar.

There are practices that can make you a better bee-keeper. Don’t use HFCS as a supplemental food source. Seriously, that stuff isn’t good for humans who use it as a part of their diet. Think about how much worse it would be if you had to live off of it after you run out of honey for the winter but before the first spring flowers have bloomed? (If you’re going to lose a colony to starvation, that’s when it happens.) Buy only new “deeps” and “supers” or make your own. There are diseases, like foul brood, that can’t be cured and can’t be cleaned from the boxes. If you happen to contract that disease, burn everything and start over. If things are going well, you still want to burn and replace your frames every three to four years and your boxes about every 10 so that any diseases and such that have built up can be cleaned out. Make sure that you have two deeps so that your bees can store enough honey to keep them through our long winters. You get any honey that goes in the “supers” on top of the deeps.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

Two deeps, two supers, and their sugar water for supplemental feed.

To get started, their setup was about $1,000. Half of that was the bear fence, a very sturdy metal fence electrified by a solar panel. She said that if you live downtown where you don’t (usually) see bears, you may not need it. However, the bear fence not only keeps out bears, it also keeps out skunks, raccoons, curious children, and anything else that might disrupt your hive. When they bought the bees, they chose a pretty calm breed that is also fairly sturdy when it comes to cold winters. However, that queen bred with a local breed. The resulting offspring ended up potentially hardier, but they’re more wild than the original set. When you do buy your first set of bees, make sure that you don’t release the queen when you release her caretakers. If they don’t have time to meet with a cage between them, they will eat her. If you lose the queen you lose the hive, since she’s the brains of the operation. She’s also the uterus of the operation, so hope for a promiscuous queen. The more often she breeds on her mating flight, the more eggs she will have, and the longer she will live. They also mentioned that bee queens were much like the queens in Tudor England. When it’s time for a new one, the worker bees will nurture several without the current queen’s knowledge. The first to hatch will then sting each of the other queens so that she’s unchallenged.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

Most of the rest of the necessary gear.

After the first year, which gives them time to settle in, you can start harvesting your honey. If you keep it cool (106 degrees will kill the enzymes- you can reach that by leaving it in the sun), then you will have raw honey. Raw honey is antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, and good for outdoor allergies if it’s local. Also, it’s delicious.

The second stop was vegetable gardening with Allison Buckley of Buckley Homestead Supply. I really need to check that place out. It sounds awesome. Her talk was also very practical and applicable.

If you’re starting a new garden plot- dig it over today. The freezing and thawing over the winter will help to break it up in preparation for planting. You can also use cover crops like buckwheat, rye, or clover. Their roots start to break things up and they can be turned under to add organic material to your garden area. (I was talking to someone recently who mentioned that oats have absurdly long roots for loosening/holding soil.)

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn't do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

To the right- lasagne. To the left, a berry patch that doesn’t do so well with lasagne. The berries were weeded more times than the rest of the garden.

For help with the weeds, she did try laying down black plastic. However, that doesn’t just kill the weeds. That also kills all of the soil microbes that we need for healthy soil and healthy plants. What she’s moved to is the lasagne technique. This layers cardboard or newspapers, straw, and compost. To plant, dig a hole through the layers to the dirt. As the layers decompose, they create organic material for the microbes, but until they decompose, they are an effective block for the weeds.

Don't be intimidated by compost. You're just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won't smell.

Don’t be intimidated by compost. You’re just helping things rot. Keep it moist enough, and keep it aerated so it won’t smell.

Water is always an issue here. Usually it’s because we don’t have enough, so irrigation is important. I’ve been reluctant to set up an irrigation system because I assumed it was difficult. According to Allison, if you have played with legos, then you’re qualified to build an irrigation system. She offered some tips to make it easier. They’re easier to build if they’re warm, so leave them in the sun for a while, first. Once they’re built, hide them under straw to keep the sun from damaging them, but don’t bury them, since you’ll need to watch for leaks. Use a section of hose before you move to the black sections, since the connector tends to leak a touch. May as well have that leak somewhere useful. Have a section of solid flexible hose before you add the microdrip section. This will give you more flexibility for planting from year to year. Speaking of water- learn the water laws! Water barrels are illegal in town, even if you have them on a drip hose. They may or may not be legal if you live out in the county and are on a well- check first.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

These girls only get let in the garden after everything is harvested, but they love to be fed the weeds from the garden.

The last part was pest management. For that- shift your thinking. You want to have the least impact possible. Sometimes, that means accepting that you might have to share some with the local creatures. It might mean working a little harder by hand-picking bugs or high-pressure washing trees to remove things without harming the environment. She also suggests rotating your crops and using mini-hoop gardens because the sunshades can be a physical barrier to pests. If you do end up spraying, spray the smallest area possible, even if it’s organic. If what you’re spraying will kill one thing, it will kill other things, too, so be careful.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

How awesome is this?! More on this technique in the next post.

Speaking of hoop houses- she explained what went wrong with my peppers this year! Peppers don’t like cool evenings. A hoop house with even a light covering will help hold the warmth a little later in the day. This winter I will be researching and building hoops so that next year I should have a better pepper crop. The tomatoes should enjoy it, too.