Sunday, April 18, 2010

B - Autopsy

DH hammin' it up last Spring with the new hive
It's finally time to tell you what happened to our first year of beekeeping, as many of you have wanted to follow along...

It's often called a "dead-out". They didn't survive the winter. Figuring out why was a bit of an exercise; not really an necropsy (because we didn't cut up actual critters) but an analysis of the evidence, for sure...

We didn't see bee activity on any of the warm winter days. Typically, bees take advantage of those days to perform cleansing flights (potty runs) since they won't make a "mess" in the hive. There were no dead bees around the entrance or below, so we simply waited until early Spring just in case...

As soon as a warm spring day convinced me they weren't alive, I opened the hive. A few dead bees on the lid, a few visible on the tops of frames. We had left the hive with two deep supers (hive bodies) for the winter, and a wrap for warmth (although I have my doubts about the effectiveness of that). The top super was ridiculously heavy with honey. Rather than run the risk of warm weather spreading the inviting smell of honey to marauders (a bear has been seen in the area), I pulled it as soon as I could.
Most of the frames were completely filled with honey; I just shot this one to show you the contrast between filled comb and empty comb.

There was some brood but not the number I would have expected, and empty cells that had been eaten out, but generally not a lot of bees. Those that were found looked as if they had been frozen in a moment of time; some clustered, but others eating, and walking around/climbing as if on their way to a task. The cluster was pretty small and a few dozen bees were found down in the comb, literally eating to the very last drop. This is often a sign of starvation. I didn't see the queen, and the bottom board of the hive did not show visible signs of mites. We ruled out disease or parasites; but were concerned with the small amount of bees. Likely a fall swarming or a dead queen, both which would have left the survivors without enough resources to make it through the winter.

Death occurred early in the season; the top super was so heavy with honey I couldn't carry it up to the house, I had to drag it on a sled!

So, on to extraction. Each frame had to be uncapped using a hot knife to skim the caps off the comb. I saved even the scraps, and collected them in a pan.
The frames were place in a centrifuge extractor. One frame goes on each side, and a volunteer (the DH) gets to spin them and the honey is flung out and gravity collects it on the bottom.
From there, the honey flows through holes in the bottom, through a screen filter which catches bits of wax, body parts and such, then is collected in a tank until you are ready to pour off into containers. We do not pasteurize; all the pollen and good stuff is in there when we bottle (less the bee parts.)

Empty frames are then put back in the hive body to be used for the new bees coming in the Spring. This work took several very sticky, but very satisfying hours.

The scrapings were gently melted down. Honey can be poured off, wax saved, and other stuff thrown out. This honey is less desirable but no less usable - I bottled it for use during the year in baking.

From the hive we harvested more than 5 gallons of honey. I am left in awe of the bees.

Bee hives today are mostly designed with the ease of keeping and harvesting in mind. The Langstroth hive is the standard, named after a fellow in the 1800's that did extensive work with bees and discovered the idea of "bee space". He determined that bees need a certain minimum distance to work and live in the hive. If left with more space, they will fill it with wax structure and propolis. This reaction is a completely bee invention, but a nightmare for bee keepers as it sticks frames to the body, to each other, and reduces the maximum output of the hive. So most beekeepers simply put 10 frames in each body, all designed to keep proper "bee space" between frames and maximize honey comb.

When doing my initial research into beekeeping, I was struck by this calculated construct and didn't like the "feel" of it, since it reminded me of commercial farming which is designed to pull maximum production out of so much, without regard to its impact on land or animals.

Some beekeepers run 9 frames in each hive body which also affords a little more space for the beekeeper to manipulate individual frames (all while wearing bulky protective gloves.) I also liked the fact that running 9 frames instead of 10 gave me an extra frame to swap in if I wanted to move brood, honey, etc. So we built our hive with 9 frames. The bees took advantage, and filled the extra space. A little more work to pull apart the hive, but what a visual treat!

Who knew bees were interior designers?

We were not discouraged by the loss of the hive; rather, we are more determined than ever to keep bees - we've order two packs for this year! Arrival in late May...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A is for Apple (Grafting Lesson!)

Another victim of the early spring heavy snow was one of our ancient apple trees. It still bears fruit and it was a variety nobody could identify - but the tree is at least 40 or 50 years old. The apple it produces is a kind of brownish gold when ripe, and the rough skin reminds me of a pear. The taste is also reminiscent of a pear; spicy and sweet. It is a pretty late producer, and hard fleshed - what people have suggested might be a "cider apple" - intentionally raised and created for tasty cider. We have included it in our fresh cider every year for the taste (we use a blend of apples and adjust for taste as we press).

I decided we needed to at least try to salvage something from this situation, so I decided to try and graft some branches to "re-invent" this variety in a sapling. My friend, Becky, has a lot of grafting experience and pretty good success, so she agreed to come over and give me a lesson.

First, I ordered root stock from Fedco Trees. They arrived and we wasted no time in getting started; the goal is to have root stock that is vibrant and ready to grow and top stock that is as close to dormant as possible.
Unfortunately, we had a bloom of very warm weather, and all the apple trees exploded into flower buds, so it was challenging to find branches that were concentrated on new growth rather than flower and fruit production. But we took branches from the wounded apple as well as from my favorite tree - another unidentified variety that gives juicy, yellow fruit that tastes better than Honeycrisp (IMHO). I wanted to have a copy of this tree as well.
Notice, most of these twigs have growth (leaf) buds vs. flowers. I could have harvested topstock when I pruned (ummm...yeah) up to two weeks ago and kept them in a jar of water in a cool, dark corner of the cellar (think dormant). Will keep that in mind for next year...

Next, we chose a root and top by trying to match as close as possible for size. It is recommended that you graft 8 inches or so above the planting line, but we had to fudge a little to get matches on all 10 plants. Using a very sharp knife, cut each stem at an angle, then notch about 2/3 of the width of the stem and make a notch about 1/2 inch deep. You will push the two pieces together, interlocking the notches, and trying to make the best match of the cambium (growth area) of each piece.
Then we tie the graft together; we used soft, wide pieces of rubber band that Becky brought, and applied grafting wax to seal the graft site from air bubbles. Not a pretty finished product perhaps (right now) but the idea is to give the tree a healable wound that will create the graft.

Finally, they were packed in wet mulch in a bucket, and retired to the cool, dark cellar for a week or so to start the healing process. After that, they will be planted in a protected corner of the garden and cared for till next Spring. Hopefully they will be ready for new growth (and a new home spot) next April. Keep your fingers crossed!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Why I Do Not Have Nice Flowerbeds...

(or The Line For The Shower)
Speck: Mom, when is it my turn? Huh? C'mon! The girls are taking too long!

Cripes! Enough with the camera! Is there no decency???

(muffled) OK, who dropped the soap??? Where is it?

Speck: I'm outta here. Guy can't get a simple bath...

Monday, April 05, 2010

I love it...

I'm not the only one who knits on the road...

Click on me! :-)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Drive by posting

Been VERY lax about posting, primarily because I have so much going on right now that I avoid the computer in order to pack more into my day...besides, much of what I am doing is not really what I would call Kodak moments...and I'd rather post with at least one picture...
So here's one cute one to cover me:
These are some day-old Coturnix quail that we recently hatched (lengthier post will be coming). I, meanwhile, am going back to my "lemonade" project.

The reference to lemonade in my last post was about "when life gives you lemons...". The heavy, wet snow that literally crumpled and broke so many of our trees and bushes also brought to the ground all the vines, brambles and such that I've been meaning to get to. I'm working on the motherlode right now-wild raspberry vines, rose brambles, hawthorn, sumac, barberry, and grapevine threatening to overtake the entrance to the chicken barn. I've dubbed it Prickerfest 2010. Pass the band-aids.