And just like that

it’s Autumn.

I went out of town for a week. When I departed, it was still unseasonably hot and dry here. By the way, I think unseasonable is an adjective that I probably need to stop using, because unseasonable is the new climate change norm, right? Anyway, I returned to full-on gloom. We’re in the middle of an entire week of cold drizzle. I’m trying to embrace the change – we certainly need the rain, and the fall roots and greens are drinking it up and growing like mad.

 

However, no matter how many cold-hardy greens I plant, I get anxious when I contemplate the long cold season ahead. I figure we’re about two or so weeks from the first frost, and then it will be mid-May until I can set out the 2018 batch of summer annuals. Seven months. Eeek. I also become nervous when I think about the effect of the long winter on the honeybees. There’s not much in bloom right now, and they’ll need to rely on their stored honey for food, and for hive thermal mass, until March. I’m thinking each colony needs to occupy 18-20 bars going into Winter. My youngest colony was only half that size a month ago, so I gave them two bars of honey from another hive, and I started feeding them sugar water. Additionally, I participated in the Mite-a-thon a few weeks ago and conducted the sugar shake test on my two oldest hives. My mite count came in at 6 and 9 mites/100 bees. Very concerning, but I have not yet decided if I will treat. Most of the treatments seem to succeed primarily in creating treatment-resistant mites. Ideally, I’d really like to work on creating a mite-resistant apiary, which may mean rebuilding with hygienic honeybee genetics through re-queening or capturing new feral survivor swarms. My current colonies seem to contain some Russian honeybee genetics due to their dark coloring, tendency to build up quickly and love of swarming. I’m hoping at least a couple of colonies will successfully overwinter, despite the mites, due to the winter-efficiency of Russian honeybees, and that the long break in the brood cycle (all the colonies but the youngest have already dramatically decreased the amount of brood they are raising) will help lower the mite load. I guess that’s one benefit of the long winter nectar dearth. I’m also considering adding some screened bottoms to the hives to give the bees a hand at eliminating the mites if they already have some grooming instincts. If I do treat, it will be within the next two weeks while it’s still warm enough to open the hives. With very little capped brood in the comb, most of the mites will at least be vulnerable to treatment if I decide to go that route. Decisions, decisions.

Meanwhile, I’m scrambling to catch up on post-vacation garden chores, and to keep up with preserving giant harvest coming in from the garden right now. I came home to plants laden with ripe tomatoes, tomatillos, chiles and squash.

 

Also, another reminder that soon I will be clearing out my summer vegetable beds: my planting garlic order arrived yesterday. Since I left all my garlic in the ground in Albuquerque, I’m starting from scratch with new varieties this year. I selected a mix of hardneck and softneck varieties that seemed likely to put up with both wet/cold and hot/dry. It will be fun to see which do well here.

 

Almost 10 Weeks

I can’t believe a month has passed (already?) since I last checked in. The weeks are flying by. Most days my schedule devolves into chaos as I bounce between items on my “to do” list:  establish a vegetable garden, build a predator proof chicken run, unpack all the boxes, build new hives for the expanding apiary, and maintain the gardens and pasture that are already here . . .

However, I think I have finally gotten the upper hand (if we ignore the 18″ tall dandelion patch gone to seed in the front pasture/meadow), and can take a bit of a breather before diving in again.

The vegetable garden is planted with the summer vegetables (minus the giant beds of potatoes and New Mexico chiles that I’ll hopefully grow in future years),

so now I can spend some time working on the rest of the yard before prepping the beds that will be planted with the fall crops.  I still have lots of perennials and shrubs looking for a permanent dirt home, so as soon as the record-setting heat wave is over, I plant to start weeding and expanding the ornamental garden beds.

The 8′ x 16′ chicken run is pretty much complete, although I believe someone was talking about tricking it out with some additional roosts, and a dust bathing area.

The next improvement in Chickenland will be a new coop. I’m planning on building a 6′ x 8′ shed, half for chickens, half for supplies and garden tools. My plan is to start building at the end of August, with the goal of completing it by mid/late September (before the first snowstorm).

In the meantime, I’ve been busy in the workshop building new beehives. I thought I was off the hook for the year, as I ended up combining the colony temporarily housed in a nuc box with my other swarm that lost their queen. However, a few weeks ago, the colony that cast off those swarms back in April started building queen cells again. Before I was able to do a divide, they sent out two swarms. The first swarm was a giant swarm with the existing queen, and the second was a much smaller swarm with a virgin queen.

Fortunately I was able to capture both swarms, so now I have 5 colonies on site.

The large swarm is housed in a new hive I hastily built. They’ve already built comb on 12 bars and have filled much of those with brood. The small swarm is rapidly filling the nuc box which holds 7 bars. No signs of egg laying yet, but there is partial comb on all the bars. I’m debating between building another horizontal topbar hive or trying to super the nuc box with a small top bar box. I have about a week to decide and build.

First Things First

I’m checking in quickly via cell phone because my computer is still in pieces on the floor of my new office. Hands down, this was the most disorganized and physically grueling of my household moves. Partially because this is the first time I was moving critters, gardening stuff and a complete garage workshop, but also because we were simultaneously trying to complete home repairs to make sure we were handing off the house to renters in good working condition.
Anyway, by the skin of our teeth, we exited Albuquerque and have started to settle in here in Arvada. The first priority was setting up the beehives. The apiary is a little ad hoc right now, but the bees seem happy. Loading them into our truck camper to get them up here was fun. First off, you’ll notice 3 hives and a nuc box in the above photo. The colony I split sent out 2 swarms with virgin queens the week before the move. Fortunately both swarms clustered nearby, one in my vegetable garden,  the other in my neighbor’s juniper tree. Of course I collected the swarms, so we ended up loading more boxes than we had anticipated. Also, it had been a warm day before the move and the bees bearded on the hive entrances for most of the night. I had to get up in the wee hours of the morning to screen over the entrances, but by the time we loaded the hives, each entrance had collected a small beard of foragers that had been out overnight and were returning first thing. We ended up with quite a large number of loose bees in the camper, which seemed to alarm other motorists. Apparently one passing car passenger held up a sign “bees in truck”.

Unfortunately, I missed that humorous moment as I was driving up with chickens in the back of the Subaru Forester. I was convinced that this was going to be a nightmare, but it ended up being fine. I created a well-lined 3′ x 4′ enclosure in the back of the car complete with the normal feeder and nipple waterer. I draped shade cloth over the whole thing so they’d stay cool and maybe be convinced by the dim light that it was bedtime. Honestly, they were so terrified they just huddled in the corner in a chick pile for most of the 7 hours, although Iris did lay an egg towards the end of the trip. Anyway, the 7 hour, skull-splitting bawking fest I had anticipated did not come to pass. For now, things are still a bit disheveled in chicken-land as I prep to build the predator-proof run. However, the hens are in love with their first lawn-side living experience.

Ready, Set, Go

Welcome to Spring. My apologies for disappearing again. A few weeks after I last posted in November, I was thrown another curve ball when Non-Gardener came home from a trip to California and asked “How do you feel about moving to Denver?” December was spent answering that question. Even though I love living in Albuquerque, and the timing is not great (it would have been nice to enjoy a full year of living with insulation, good windows and solar power), I am a big fan of change (and projects, I guess), so, we are indeed moving to Colorado, although not Denver proper. Our initial intent was to find a property in Denver similar to what we have now: a house just large enough to accommodate two home offices in a walk-able neighborhood with just enough yard for a small vegetable garden and a beehive or two. Unfortunately, January is not a great time of year to look for property, and it soon became clear we were not going to find the holy grail house during our window of opportunity. Instead, we ended up fixating on a house that was almost the complete opposite of what we thought we wanted. A suburban split-level house on a full acre of land that requires a 5 mile drive to get anywhere. Ugh, I hate having to drive all the time, but, did you catch that? An entire acre of land. And it’s zoned for “country estates”, which means livestock is allowed. The neighbors have alpaca and sheep, there are goats further down the road, and there are enough chickens in the hood that my noisy birds won’t stand out. Yes, as it turns out, the chickens are moving to Colorado too.

 And the honeybees.Yeah, I’m not a big fan of trucking bees around the country, but. . . I want to hit the ground running, and the colony that moved into my empty hive last year is tremendous. They’ve been actively foraging for a month already (in early February they were already returning to the hive with pollen) and when I opened the hive this morning for the first time this year, they were already building comb on the last empty bar before the follower board, which means they are currently occupying 20 bars. Yes, they’ve almost filled the hive in March. Of course, they’re also starting to build queen cells. I will be keeping close tabs on them for the next few weeks, and I’m prepping my empty hives to receive splits. Based on my previous experience, it looks like I’ll be splitting the hive in about 10 to 14 days, so the new queen(s) should be hatched and mated before we move in early April. Yes, I know, this sounds totally insane: splitting my hives, so I have more living creatures to move or re-home. On the other hand, opening the hive today and seeing all those healthy bees spill out was a very welcome sight, particularly in the current environment in which good news is a rare commodity. By the way, there is nothing like the hummmbuzzz of a healthy, active bee yard to buoy the mood.

Anyway, despite being a little overwhelmed sorting out the moving logistics, I will try to be a bit more present here in this space. I thought about shutting down Less is More, but the journal has been an invaluable resource for me, and maybe, occasionally, it helps someone else too. And now with a new project on the horizon, I will have a lot of lessons-learned-the-hard-way to share. I’ve been reading and watching videos, and I’m already sketching ideas for the new place. Did you know that Arvada, CO receives an average of 18″ of annual precipitation? Twice the rainfall almost makes up for losing 60 days of frost free growing.

 

Always Something New

What a great gardening year! My apologies to the smoldering Northwest, but I think we have a little bit of your weather. The slightly cooler, slightly damper, atypical summer in New Mexico has been a nice reprieve. And the plants are happy. This is a pretty good morning harvest for the end of July: PKS_2045 I’ve also been harvesting carrots and leeks. Stuff that’s usually far gone for me this time of year. Oh, and look at the pretty eggplant: PKS_2002 The critters are also out in full force. I’ve been seeing some larger raptors in the ‘hood – larger than the usual hawks, as well as lots of tiny little creatures too. Look at this pretty crab spider:PKS_2036 There’s a bee back there too:PKS_2040Speaking of bees, the two small colonies with new queens are slowly building up. Here’s a photo of a comb from H002-1:

PKS_2027Recently a friend was asking me about inspecting my hives and how I am able to identify the queen. I explained how she looks different, and also moves differently. When I see her, it’s usually the movement that catches my eye first, then the confirmation of the different size and color. You can see the queen in H002-1 at the very bottom right of the photo above. Most of the time I don’t worry too much if I don’t see her, so long as there are signs of her in the hive. Although it is always nice when I do catch sight of her, just as extra confirmation, and yesterday I found myself looking very closely for a queen when I was inspecting H001-1, my queen-right split. I was almost done with the inspection when I had a nagging suspicion that something wasn’t quite right. Then it dawned on me that while I had seen a lot of capped brood, I hadn’t seen any young, uncapped larvae. I quickly went back for a second look. Not only was there very little uncapped brood, but what there was, looked like this: PKS_2031Two larvae in one cell – a classic sign of laying workers. I have no idea what happened to the queen ( I never did see her). This is the hive that has the other split at the back. I noticed the follower board hadn’t been well seated after the last inspection and bees seemed to be squeezing through, back and forth. I wonder if the pheromones from the young queen interfered with the front colony. I have no idea if the old queen died, was killed or took off with a swarm. However, since it looked like there was already communication happening between the colonies, I took out the follower board and placed a piece of paper between the colonies as a very penetrable barrier – hopefully the two colonies will become one in a few days without any violence. There’s always something new and fascinating to observe when I open the hives. You know, I never had any inkling that beekeeping might be my avocation, but I’m beginning to suspect that I will I could easily spend the next few decades learning from the hives.

Filling Out

I was very happy to see queens in all three colonies when I inspected the hives today! Here’s the new queen in H002. Her wings look quite battered. Hopefully that didn’t happen before her mating flight. She looked like she was actively laying eggs when I spotted her, with the nurse bees telling her where to go next – I could sit and watch the bees all day. There’s always so many things happening in the hive and so much communication occurring.

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The small split in the back of H001 also has a new queen  – she was running back and forth, here and there, when I saw her, with no sign of laying yet. I was still maybe a day or so early to spot eggs, but I had time and weather on my side for an afternoon inspection today, and didn’t want to squander the opportunity. I’ll check again next week for signs of brood.

Meanwhile, that nice cool damp spring we had is over. Weather has returned to a more normal pattern with a good bit of heat happening in the afternoons. Even with shade cloth, the peas and lettuce are probably on their way out and I’ll be in the time of dearth (user error again on getting enough spring greens going) until the tomatoes and beans start coming in. Fortunately, the tomatoes are doing well, and I’ll be able to harvest the first few by the first of July.

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Looks like Punta Banda will be the winner again. Unfortunately, like last year, it is also showing early signs of disease – yellow shriveled leaves at the bottom. Last year the Punta Banda plant eventually recovered, unlike many of the other tomatoes, and I ended up getting a second flush of fruit.  This year, I’m pretty sure the damage is being caused by spider mites, so I’ve been hosing off the plant leaves every evening. I hope this helps. I have ten plants in the ground, green and growing right now. I’m really hoping its a tomato year – the sort of tomato year that requires me to bust out the canning jars.

By the way, despite looking ahead at a month of slim pickings, the garden is actually looking pretty good and full right now:

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Occupied

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With only 2 days remaining until the new queens emerge, I decided it was safe to check on the hives today. I was happy to see, when I opened H001, that my queen-right split does indeed have a happy laying queen. After I checked on them last week, I left behind a half pint of sugar water in case they were feeling stressed over provisions. However, today there was a good bit of capped brood, so clearly last week I missed seeing the eggs – apparently they were feeling well fed and content all along. Oh, and the queen, normally so secretive, was so busy when I looked in today that she forgot to hide. It was nice to see her!

While I  had H001 open, I tidied up the arrangement of bars and placed a solid follower board behind the 15th bar. In the closed off back of the hive, I placed a jar of sugar syrup and a few bars of empty comb. Oh, and I removed the rear entrance cover so I could place a second split in the hive, if necessary. Indeed, H002 was looking pretty busy when I opened it up, so as I went through the bars, I selected 2 bars full of wet honey, 2 bars with some capped worker brood and 1 bar with a queen cup. This is a smaller split than the previous, so hopefully all the rain we’ve had recently will keep the nectar flowing as they’ll need good conditions to grow. Although, I figure that by placing them in the back of H001, if the queen doesn’t hatch or mate successfully, or if they just fail to thrive, I can always combine they with the front colony. On the other hand, if both colonies do well, I’ll need to look into adding supers to the top of the the top bar hives to provide more elbow room as half a hive can fill quickly.

Oh, and back to H002, I left them with 4 or 5 queen cells and replaced the stolen comb with empty bars, so hopefully they won’t feel the least bit swarmy when the queens start coming out. I’m glad I won’t be there to witness the carnage when the first queen hatches and offs the rest of them.

 

One Week In

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I checked the hives today, a little sooner than I planned, because I wanted to take advantage of the sunny calm weather (have I mentioned that we still keep getting unusual stormy weather here?) There’s no sign of the queen in the supposed queen-right split, but there are about a half dozen fat queen larvae feeding on royal jelly in h002.  That hive is still so bustling I’m nervous that they may decide to cast out a swarm or two with the extra virgin queens that hatch. Hmmm, maybe I should create another divide into my nuc box. I would hate to lose any bees.

Moving Day

for the queen bee.

My surviving bee colony, H002, has been doing really well this Spring. They built up quickly once the weather warmed, and the queen has been laying in a nice even pattern. Since this colony has been very strong and enjoyable to work with, and I have an empty hive, I decided to see if I could induce the colony to raise a new queen for me so I could split the hive in two. I know there are more reliable methods for raising queens, but I wasn’t feeling ready to tackle any of the more refined techniques. Instead, I decided to try and induce swarm behavior, but split the hive before the swarm actually occurred. I know, risky, in case I mistimed the whole operation, but for a newbie beekeeper it seemed like the easiest method. So, instead of spacing the combs in H002, to give the bees plenty of room, I placed a follower right behind the last comb in the colony. They had expanded so quickly they were already using a couple of the empty combs I had given them from the dead out hive. By last week, they were raising brood on 13, out of 18 bars, and were quickly filling up the remaining combs with nectar. There was also a lot of drone brood. These were all good signs that the colony might be feeling like it was an auspicious time to send the old queen off to find a new home.

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Indeed, when I opened the hive yesterday there were queen cups on the edges of 6 of the brood combs. Unfortunately, the lighting wasn’t very good and I couldn’t tell if any of the cups were occupied, so I closed everything up and went back in today. This time I was prepared with a small flashlight and could see eggs in most of the cups. Actually, the cup I was able to photograph has two eggs in it.

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Now that I had good evidence that the hive was fully ready to raise a new queen, I started the split. I had read through the instructions in my reference books earlier in the day, so hopefully I remembered everything. The tricky bit was finding the queen. Of course that little hider was on one of the last combs I inspected. While I was working my way through the hive searching for the queen, I set aside three combs that had mostly capped worker brood, plus a comb with a queen cup, as insurance. Those bars, plus the comb with the queen went into a nuc box I had placed next to the hive. I also took two combs that were full of nectar. I tightened up the remaining bars in H002 and gave them a few bars of empty comb – I have a ton of empty comb stashed away from when I cleaned out Hive 001. With the hive secured, it was time to transfer the split into the H001. I was really nervous that somehow I’d lose my queen in the transfer – she’d fall off the comb or get squished between the bars. Hopefully that didn’t happen. I didn’t spot her while I was making the transfer, but the nurse bees all seemed to content to be in their new home, so hopefully she made it in there with them.

Now the waiting begins. With my fingers crossed, I’ll leave both hives alone for 10 days, then go in to see if the queen cups in H002 are capped, and if the queen is laying in H001.

 

Dead Out

The weather has taken a turn for the balmy here and I’ve been pleased to see the honeybees out flying most days. Except, today, the bees coming and going from H001 just didn’t look right. Yesterday the entrance looked fine, but today there was a lot of debris including dead bees and crumbles of wax and propolis.

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So, I steeled myself and opened up the hive. At the back of the hive were a few bars of dark empty brood comb I had relocated in the autumn, then therewere a few combs covered in robber bees chewing their way into the honey, and finally, toward the front, an intact cluster of bees, all dead. As I pulled the combs out, the ball of dead bees fell to the bottom of the hive, with a lot more dead bees still buried in the comb.

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I believe this is the tell tale sign of winter starvation.

I’m not suprised. I’ve been worried about this hive since October. During my last inspection in mid-October, they looked much more unprepared for winter than H002. They hadn’t closed down their entrance at all, were raising brood, and didn’t have much honey stored – only two or three combs entirely full, with another three or four partially full. I joked to non-gardener that “those California bees don’t know how to do winter”. Unfortunately, it looks like I was right. At the time, I was uneasy enough about their winter stores that I actually fed them two pints of sugar water in November. Although, it looks like they ulitmately may have had enough food stored away, but the cluster ended up trapped too far from the pantry. Some of the comb appears to have the remains of brood in the cells, so I suspect the workers didn’t migrate back to the honey because they were trying to protect the brood.

Needless to say, I’m super bummed. Hopeully I’ll be able to repopulate the hive this spring. Right now the hive is open so the other bees can continue to clean out the remaining stores. When the honey and pollen are gone I’ll store away the empty comb and clean house.