Frenzied

As predicted, with only ten days to go before we depart LessisMore south for, literally, greener pastures, things are super hectic. To make things even more complicated, I’ve been mining my existing gardens for plants to transplant into the large, mostly grass, yard in my future. I’ve been dividing as many herbs as I can, while also digging out seedlings and extra native perennials and shrubs.

In the meantime, I also have a honeybee split to keep an eye on. Due to my travel plans, I ended up making the split under less than ideal conditions. I didn’t feel like they were quite ready, but also didn’t want to chance losing a swarm while I was gone. So I split, and as it turns out, I think everyone is doing well. I couldn’t find the queen when I did the split, so ended up pulling out 12 combs of mostly capped brood and wet nectar, but also some younger brood, and a couple of combs with queen cups. I pulled 12 bars total, and left 16 in the original hive. I opened that hive when I returned, eleven days later, and was pleased to see uncapped larvae, and then, of course, no surprise, the queen. The split seems content. They’re expanding and the queen still has a nice even laying pattern. In the meantime, I think a new queen has successfully hatched in the old hive – I spotted what looked like the discarded tip of a queen cup dragged out onto the landing board two days ago. I did a very quick partial inspection of that hive when I returned, as well, and saw, three bars from the front, a cluster of capped queen cups, supercedure-style, on the lower edge of a comb. I didn’t inspect past that point, to see if there were more, but I was happy to see at least a few capped cups. Although, given that they were clustered in that one spot confirms my hunch that I was a few days too early with the split, and the preexisting queen cups were not yet occupied. Instead, the bees had to up-size some existing larvae cells when I stole their queen. I’ve been keeping close tabs on the hive to see if they decide to cast out a virgin queen swarm despite the split. The hive is still bustling with activity. Every afternoon the two colonies send out the new foragers on an orientation flight around 2 pm, and there is quite an impressive cloud of bees in the air:

The Bees are Back

Way back in March, when the weather turned springlike, I set up the new hive I built last year, relocated the two old, also empty, hives, and redistributed the top bars. I set up each hive with a mix of old comb and empty bars, with a follower board about 2/3 back, so each hive would (hopefully) be a desirable new home for a colony ISO. In the meantime, the yard has been thick with foraging honeybees. I wasn’t sure where they were living, but I was hoping they were outgrowing their existing house. So, while I’ve been volunteering on the Swarm Call Hotline to increase my chances of being called to capture a swarm (no luck yet), I also set out to lure some bees to me. I set out a bowl of honeycomb that still contained some crystallized honey, and crossed my fingers. Low and behold, it worked. I started noticing some bee activity around the hives at the end of last week, and by yesterday, there was a steady stream of bees coming and going from the middle hive (H002-1).

This morning I opened up the hive to check, and yes, a colony has moved in. They’ve already built a few partial combs. I wasn’t set up to do a full inspection, so I closed everything up right away, before spotting the queen. But yay! Free bees!PKS_3411 As a side note, with three empty hives in a row, I wonder what was more desirable about the middle hive. It was a used hive, with a lot of propolis, which I believe is more desirable. But I wonder why the middle orange hive was selected over the, also previously used, end green hive. I wonder if color or position has any bearing on the selection, or if the green hive has some lingering undesirable chemical or pest.

A Mad Dash

2016-02-25 11.59.24I’m going to try and use my extra day to catch up around here.

I’m racing to keep up with our unseasonable weather. For the past three weeks or so, we’ve been having full-on Spring, 65-70 degree days and nights above freezing. While I love basking in the warm sunshine, it’s not necessarily a good thing for the garden to be 3 weeks ahead of schedule. My peach tree will probably bloom in a day or two, which means there’s a good chance of frost damage if the weather returns to normal. I also worry that all the early winter bonus precipitation will soon be evaporated and gone, and I’ll be tending a parched yard again. I actually took down my coldframes over the weekend, because it looks like my mustard greens and pac choi were staying too warm – I think they’re going to bolt before making a large leaves. However, on a bright note, almost all those seeds I planted two weeks ago have emerged. The only hold outs are the carrots.2016-02-28 13.49.49Meanwhile, in a sad turn of events, there are currently no honeybees alive at Less is More. I lost one hive in November, over a weekend when I was out of town. I returned to find dead bees littering the ground under the hive. The other hive perished more recently – about a month ago, I think. I noticed a lot of dead bees surrounding the hive, and when I opened it yesterday, there was a tiny dead cluster of bees surrounding the dead queen. Unfortunately I didn’t use my brain when the first hive died – I should have collected some of the dead bees to send off for testing. Both hives showed some signs of dysentery around the entrance, but not so much to lead me to think they were suffering from nosema. At this point my best guess is tracheal mites, but that is really just a guess. If I had suspected sooner, I would have tried to treat with a vegetable oil, powdered sugar grease patty. Anyway, I was able to scavenge about 6 partially full combs of honey from the recently deceased hive. The combs are currently smashed and draining, and I’ll be putting my name on the swarm call list for the spring – hopefully I’ll be able to repopulate.

Oh, and in regard to repopulating Less is More, I’ve also reserved a few baby chicks from one of the local feed stores. They will be arriving April 6th – I have some building to do between now and then. Because the Wyandottes are such terrible bullies, I don’t think I’ll even attempt to integrate the new pullets with the old hens.

And finally, because clearly I don’t have enough pets to nurture, I gave in to non-gardeners “encouragement” and have been developing a wild yeast bread starter. I’ve been following the mash based instructions from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads, and so far it’s been developing really well, right on schedule.2016-02-29 08.48.00 I’m on Phase 4 of the seed culture and the jar of goo smells a lot like a Belgian sour beer – quite sour and just a bit wheat-y and yeasty. For the past two feeds, when the instructions call for removing half of the culture, I’ve been using the discarded bit as a base for whole wheat sourdough drop biscuits. For the first batch, I used the culture to ferment the batter at room temperature for about 6 or so hours, and did get a nice fluffy biscuit with no additional leavening. For the second batch, since I wanted instant gratification, I used the sourdough as flavoring only, and leavened the biscuits with baking powder. The first batch was more tangy, of course, but both were quite tasty and tender. Today’s breakfast: fried eggs with butter and honey on biscuits. The back yard continues to feed us well!

Almost Over

It’s a beautiful blue sky, sunny, 62 degree autumn afternoon here. Although it’s difficult to tell it’s such a nice day since the sun is low in the sky and hardly any of the rays are hitting the back yard.PKS_2483The bees are flying like mad, but this late in the season, blossoms are few and far between, despite the beautiful weather. Fortunately the rosemary has responded to the recent el nino rainstorms with a smattering of tiny purple blooms. PKS_2477Almost everything else is preparing to close up shop for the season. The leaves are turning on the deciduous trees and shrubs, and normally I’d be cutting back on water to prepare my more tender fruit trees for the cold weather ahead. That plan has sort of been foiled by a couple of recent rain storms, so hopefully the real cold won’t come in too suddenly this year.

Meanwhile, a lot of the summer vegetables are still growing, blooming and setting fruit, albeit very, very slowly due to the short days. I’ve been covering the tomato and pepper beds at night for a bit of extra warmth to try and eek out a bit more ripe fruit. PKS_2482We haven’t had a frost yet, but we’re getting close – I think I have about four days until the nighttime temps dip into the low 30s. There’s still a generous amount of tomatoes on the vine, mostly the small ones, but a couple of big ones too. As usual, I’ll pick any viable green tomatoes before the first frost to use as is, or to set out on trays in the dining room to ripen over the next few weeks. PKS_2485I also have a good crop of mulatto, pasilla (chilaca) and ancho (poblano) chiles that I was hoping I could dry for red chile, but it looks like I may have to harvest it all as green chile this year.PKS_2490Frankly, even though I adore the summer gardening season, I’m ready for the change. The summer garden keeps me pretty busy with the picking and cooking, the watering and composting. I’ll have one or two big work days after the frost, pulling the dead plants, adding compost to the beds, planting the garlic and favas, and setting up the cold frames around the winter greens. After that I get to enjoy a more relaxed daily schedule. And a change of menu- the first batch of lettuce has just reached eating size!PKS_2489 PKS_2479

 

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.

Frenzy!

First, usually, you hear the loud hummbuzz drone. That caught your attention, now you look up and see the thick cloud of bees in the air above:PKS_1988 and a cluster of bees around the hive entrance:PKS_1993I’m sure it’s intimidating, and maybe even terrifying, for folks unfamiliar with honeybee behavior and schooled on B horror films. The first time I saw this seemingly frenzied mass exodus from a hive, I was a little freaked out. However, after I spent some time watching, I realized it was just a big new batch of forager bees trying to figure out their place in the world. Some of the bees are hovering, facing the hive entrance, and others are flying in increasing spirals, away from their hive. This is so they can memorize the location of their home prior to flying off to the far and wide to gather supplies. After a bit, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, the big cloud of bees disperses and things go back to normal.

On a nice summer day, normal activity around the hive is usually limited to an orderly coming and going on a single flight path. Sort of like arrivals and departures at a busy airport: the bees fly home way up high and descend as they circle to line up for their landing. Once down, they’ll debrief at the entrance, offload and after a bit, take off again. This orderly traffic flow is hardly noticeable in a small bee yard, unless you happen to be standing right in the middle of the landing path, in which case there may be a steady stream of bees bouncing off your head – no they don’t get angry at the human obstacle, they just right themselves and course correct.

However, this every-so-often-giant-group-of-bees-orienting-themselves-all-at-once thing, that’s one of the reasons a bee yard might be a less than desirable neighbor for some folks. I’m lucky in that my backyard neighbors, the ones that are most likely to be impacted by the cloud of buzzing bees zooming overhead, think its pretty nifty having honeybee neighbors. However, even with understanding neighbors, I’m pleased when the mass orientation happens on a weekday, when the daytime neighborhood population is lower.

 

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.

 

Happy Bees

It’s 65 degrees and sunny here, and the giant rosemary in the herb garden is humming:

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When I inspected my surviving hive last week, the queen was busy laying eggs – I think the colony will expand quickly now that the fruit trees have started to bloom.

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.

Something for Everyone

When I brought honeybees into Less is More this spring, I was a little concerned. What if the honeybees outcompeted all the native bees? So far, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Don’t get me wrong, the honeybees are seemingly everywhere – there’s some serious buzzing traffic around here:

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But the other pollinators are still here too. And thanks to the extra-bloomy summer, due to the extra-moist monsoon season (have I mentioned that we’ve been getting some sort of precipation every other day for over a week, including the 2″ deluge friday night the made national news?), there seem to be even more little flying critters than usual:

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Keep in mind, it’s not just the plants that benefit from all the zooming pollinators. I spotted this little crab spider on a sunflower this morning and when I came back to check on him a few minutes later, he had snagged himself a hearty breakfast:

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Also, for the first time, there have been a lot of wasps in residence:

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I’m not sure why they are here in such large numbers this year, although I think these guys are also beneficial pollinators as well as  insect eaters. Except for the lone specimen that likes to come inside and buzz me while I’m cooking dinner, they seem to keep to themselves.

The flies, on the other hand, emerge in droves every summer, and make themselves quite a nuisance:

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Fortunately, since adding the coop to the backyard, the human areas are now a lot less interesting for them. It’s one of the strange added benefits of backyard poultry.