Our journey with the bees has been a slightly rocky one. Last year, when we first got our bees, we had two hives in the back orchard, and one up toward the front of the property. The front hive was not doing as well as the other two, and I realize that it spent most of the day in the shade: not a good thing for bees. It had also gone queenless at some point, probably because the queen decided it was too damn gloomy there and took off with half her workers. So we relocated the hive to the orchard, and as we moved the other two further west from their original spots, I found one of the hives had absconded. In May, we received three more packages, one of which again was struggling. However, the original two were doing fine (swarms notwithstanding), and a good frame from the strongest hive has helped this weakest one along nicely.
The strongest hive – the one that originally was at the front of the property, as it happens – has swarmed twice this season, in March and again in May. That isn’t unheard of, but it’s rare, and I decided to go into the hive and see what was going on in there. With my sister’s help, we smoked the bees and took a look around inside. Neither of us could spot the queen, but there was a nice brood pattern, pollen stored, and honey. Lots of honey. So much, in fact, that we found two full frames of it – but they weren’t doing anything in the super I’d put on top of the hive bodies, for some reason. I decided that perhaps part of the issue was that they were honey bound: that is, they’d stored so much honey in the area where they live, the queen couldn’t lay, and couldn’t get past the honey barrier to do anything in the super (which is fine; I don’t really want her laying in the super anyway, as it will make honey extraction a pain). So we took two frames of honey out and replaced them with fresh, undrawn frames.
We stuck them in an empty hive body and placed the whole thing over a chafing dish. I’d not been expecting any honey this early in the season, so we have none of the things we’ll eventually need for full scale honey extractions. One of those things is an uncapping tub, which allows you to hold the frame above a tub on a nail-like surface and scrape the caps off the cells. We improvised.
Uncapping a frame June 2013
Another thing we don’t have – yet – is an extractor. After uncapping into the chafing dish…
…we set the frames back in the hive body and set the hive body back on top of the chafing dish to let the honey drip out. Gravity is our friend here.
We had used a sheet pan to hold the frame we weren’t working on each time, and wound up with a bit of honey there. Of course my mom and sister had to taste it – not me, though, as honey is too acidic for my damaged mouth.
There were a couple of bees hanging on to the edges of the frames when we brought them in. Guess who didn’t see one when grasping one of the frames to move it out of the way.
Another sting to add to my collection, this time on the pad at the base of my pinky finger. Unlike the ones I’d had in my ankle and shin, not too much swelling, and it only hurt for the instant of the sting itself. It mostly itched throughout the night and into the next day. Meanwhile, back at the frames, the honey was drawing down nicely into the dish.
Today, we had this.
Of course, amongst the honey is wax, pollen, probably a few bee parts here and there and so on. That’s what strainers are for.
This is a coarse strainer. We also have fine and micro, but decided to start with this. The contents in the dish get poured in…
… and the honey flows through to the bowl beneath it.
Eventually all that’s left in the strainer is the wax (and assorted bits of things).
Now, we wait for the honey to settle and for the bubbles to work their way up to the top. We’ll then take a look at it and see if we want to strain it again, or just bottle it for use: Lazy Dogs Ranch honey.
There comes a point when you’re picking yet another huge batch of squash or beans or cukes that you realize how tedious it is to weigh on a basic kitchen scale, in bowls. Given how crazily everything is growing here, courtesy of the great soil we brought in, it became more evident than ever that a new weighing method was in the cards. So I got one of these: 70 pound capacity, well above whatever we’d be putting into a single picking bag at any time.
A full bag of snap beans weighs about ten pounds.
The slicing, dicing, salting, brining, and canning continues apace. This batch of tangy relish was done yesterday (two quarts, eight pints). I have another in progress right now, in addition to another batch of pickles for sweet relish. The season is going to be a long one.
When harvest season begins at the ranch, just about every day is filled with some aspect of it: picking, canning, freezing – everything involved in putting food by, as they say down here. Today: finally getting the sweet pickles chopped and into jars. The whole process to make sweet relish (or sweet gherkins) takes three days: two brines in salt water, then three turns in the sweet pickling solution. Once that’s done, remove the pickles and boil the pickling liquid for a few minutes. The pickles get a good dice, to whatever size you think is acceptable for relish. And yes, it’s done by hand for now, for however large or small a batch I happen to be making.
The relish gets packed into jars, then topped with the hot pickling liquid, making sure to get all the air bubbles (or as many as humanly possible) out. The lids go on, and it’s into the canner for a boiling water bath: here, at sea level, ten minutes for pints, and fifteen for quarts. Once the time is up, the jars come out, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the metallic POP to tell you that you have a good seal. After a cooldown, they get a tag with the date and off they go to the cold room for storage, ready to be called into duty to top hotdogs, be added to tuna or potato salad, or whatever other need beckons.
Part of the process of growing anything is monitoring the health of your plants. In my case, I’m always on the lookout for critters bent on destroying the hard work we’ve put in here. Deer and bunnies? Fencing. Other things require more work just to find them: chewed, holey leaves, dying stems, holes bored into the base of a plant, and most especially: poop. Yep, that’s right – any time I’m working in the plants, whether that’s to weed, harvest, or run line for trellises, I’m on the watch for the telltale signs of bug incursion, primarily by watching for poop. Today I went on a worm hunt, although I did manage to bag some stinkbugs along the way, as I found poop and chewed leaves throughout the tomatoes. The newly hatched worms are so small as to barely be visible even on a thoroughly chewed leaf. As they mature, via their constant chowing down on my plants, they get bigger and fatter, and easier to spot, but if they’re larger, that means they’ve been eating longer, so there’s the tradeoff. If I’m lucky, I spot them before they fully mature.
If I’m super lucky, I find them when they’re very young, or even just hatched. If I’m incredibly lucky, I’ll find a bunch of babies all at once, making the killing much more efficient.
If I hit the jackpot, as I did today, I will find one with the eggs on its back, and be able to take out not just the current generation, but the next as well.
June 1st this year is not just the start of hurricane season, but the official start of our harvest season here. Sure, I collected a bunch of shelling peas the other day, and we’ve had romaine for almost a month, but now the heavy hitters start coming in.
This afternoon, while picking, I was interrupted by yet another swarm. Which is crazy, and I swear this hive must be possessed, as this was the same hive that swarmed previously. Unfortunately, I saw them as they were getting themselves together to move on to whatever location the scouts found, rather than at the point they were finding a handy branch to settle on while the scouts were out. I heard a low buzzing noise while I was up to my shoulders in some plants, looked up, and the cloud of bees was on the move – I hadn’t even noticed the swarm hanging off the pine tree not twenty feet from the rear garden, and they’d apparently gotten themselves there while I had been inside having my usual lunch. They flew into the pool area, which is fenced in, and by the time I had grabbed my phone and walked out the back, they had vanished. I walked around the western edge of the property, and no bees, anywhere: they were gone. That royally sucks, as the hive had plenty of food and plenty of room to store brood, pollen, and honey. I’m thinking of ordering a queen from the place we get our bees, finding the queen in this hive and beheading her, and introducing a new queen to see if that will help.
On with our harvest totals today:
Yellow squash: 8 pounds, 1 1/2 oz
Zucchini: 7 pounds
Cukes, adam gherkin: 8 pounds
Cukes, homemade pickles: 12 oz
Snap beans, provider: 12 3/4 oz
My sister is leaving to return north for a month before coming back down to visit again, and will taking the squash and zucchini with her. The gherkin cukes are in the brine, the first step of a three day process that will end with them being sweet relish. And despite the frogs croaking like there would be rain, despite the forecast, and despite the clouds that suggested it, there was no rain today. We really do live in the bermuda triangle of weather here at the ranch.
Up just after 6 this morning, got a shake and some coffee in me, then headed out to the great outdoors. Pulled the shelling peas that were fast to flower but not very robust, weeded out that entire frame, and then replanted it with lima beans. Personally, I can’t stand the things, but others in the family like them, and since most of what I grow is destined to be everyone else’s meals anyway, I put them in.
I headed out back to get some tomatoes trellised, and as I was crawling around in the plants, trying to get lines run, two things came to mind: first, I was not prepared for success. The season has turned out far better than I thought it would, even with the massive reframing and soil/poop hauling. Second: next year, as soon as the tomatoes go into the frames from their flats, the posts and trellises are going up as well. It would be a far simpler operation when they’re only about a foot tall with a single main stem than it is now that they’re four feet tall with multiple branches. I managed to get one half of one row done, and wound up having to cut my line at the end of the run instead of running it down and back as I’ve done in a couple of the other frames. But now that I have a process for getting this done in the frames where the tomatoes are giant and sprawling, I should be able to get the rest knocked out fairly quickly (or as quickly as it can be given that they are giant and sprawling). The fact that it’s 95 out there with 70% humidity – which is higher under the plants, as they are a heat and humidity sink – does not help the process, but this is life on the ranch. And besides, there is a payoff at the end.
Even if a session outside leaves you with sweat dripping off the end of your nose as you’re leaning over and hands stained with the yellow-green of the tomato plants.
I made another brisket today, putting it on just after 5 AM – I almost didn’t need the flashlight outside because the moon was so bright. This one was a tad larger than the one I did on Sunday, and I pulled it off the smoker at around 2:30 or so this afternoon, wrapped it and let it sit for awhile before cutting it, and then decided I was going to have some of it this time around.
We had eaten all the squash last night when my sister made dinner (and by the way, I nearly choked to death on a piece of it, before managing to cough it out of the back of my throat), so I rambled out to the garden to see if any of the billion fruits out there were ready. Answer: yes.
In addition to the seven pounds of peas I picked this morning, some of which were foisted off on the a/c repair guy who replaced our thermostat, I picked over five pounds of zucchini and squash.
I sliced up one of the smaller yellow squash, since I was the only one eating at that very moment, and tossed it in the oven with some pepper, garlic, and cheese, then chopped up a slice of brisket into teeny baby size pieces to avoid more choking hazards, and had myself a very nice lunch that took me about 45 minutes to eat.
I went out in the bees today, to swap out the feeders on the new hives and to make sure they’d released their queens.
All three had broken the queen out of her cage, and I found the queen in all three. The weakest hive, in which I had put a frame of brood and honey from an existing hive, had queen cells on the bottom, which I’m guessing they started before the caged queen was released, not understanding that they had a queen already. Since the new queen is young and strong, if any of those cells do produce a queen, the existing (and now released) queen should be able to take her out. Survival of the fittest! All three have begun to drawn comb, and the first two are storing pollen.
This is the queen from the first packaged hive – she’s the one with the red dot on her back, just to the left of center. She was busily making her way around the frames.
None of the queens are laying yet, as there isn’t anywhere for them to lay until the worker bees get a bit more done. For now, I’m happy with their progress, and happier that the third hive looks like it will make it.
This afternoon, after pounding in posts for the garden, the clouds started rolling up for our daily storm, so I decided that would be a good time to stop, suit up, and go check on the 30K or so girls that joined us on the ranch yesterday. Those of you following this story recall that yesterday I took two frames, with clinging bees, from one of the other packaged hives. Today, there were more bees in the third hive than before, so some of those had stuck around. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the numbers, as this is definitely a weak hive at this point, so it was time to pull a frame of brood from one of the two established hives. I picked the stronger one, because the bees were hanging out on the front of the hive (more about that later).
After opening the top, removing the inner cover, top super, and queen excluder, I was into the top brood box. Bees use propolis to seal their hives, sealing up against drafts and whatnot. That stuff is everywhere, and if you decide to keep bees, my recommendation is to always wear old clothes, or at least “working in the garden” type clothes: propolis is sticky, always will be, and is the ultimate superglue, impossible to fully get off of anything. Why does this matter? Because the tails of the frames, where they rest on the hive body, are sticky as hell with the stuff, and it took me a great deal of effort to pop a frame out to examine it. I checked for the queen, and didn’t see her – this hive went queenless last year, and then likely killed off the new queen I’d bought, so we’re talking about an unmarked queen in this hive, making it difficult to spot her. Hopefully she was not on this frame, because I took it, bees and all, to the weaker hive and put it there, swapping a fresh empty frame into the stronger hive for them to build.
This frame is about as perfect as it can be at this time in the season: a honey band across the top like a rainbow, a bit of pollen on one side under that, and then below that, brood, both capped and uncapped. Toward the bottom you can see some larger cells; these are drone (male) cells, which are larger than the worker honeybees, all of which are female. The drones server no purpose except to mate with a queen, and typically get kicked out of the hive at the end of the season. Drone cells/larvae are also used by the bees as a way to trap varroa mites: the mites like to go into the larger cells, and the bees can then uncap the cell, take the larva and the mites, and toss them out of the hive. It’s very clever. The drone cells tend to be at the bottom area of the frame or actually on the bottom – meaning when you pull a frame like this, sometimes it will split open drone cells as it did here. I scraped those all off as they’re not needed in the weaker hive, and that’s gooey grossness for most people.
So this frame, bees and all, went into the weaker hive. Maybe the adult bees will stay, maybe not – they are aware of the pheromones of their own queen, which are not present in this weaker hive – but the brood does not care where they are when they emerge from their cells, and will accept the soon to be released queen in this hive as their own, turning it into a productive colony of bees, still weaker than I’d like, but stronger than just a few hundred bees. I’m hoping that will be the case, and hoping that the transported bees and the bees in that hive don’t start a turf war with lots of casualties.
Eighteen posts down, ten to go.