This year has been odd in regards to honey production. We would normally harvest wildflower honey early June and sourwood honey in July, but June was a bust. We ended up with one medium plastic frame that wouldn’t seat in the extractor and one large frame that fell apart and dumped all the comb in the bottom. While we were able to extract about five pounds over about two hours, the time spent was not worth the output.
However, the bees packed the frames when the sourwood trees were blooming, so we have honey coming — we’re just waiting for the girls to cap the honey! Just in case the honey was actually ready to harvest, Hubby bought a honey refractometer. The last remaining bit of honey we have from last year contains 16% moisture. What is in the hives was still at 20% a week ago. Below 17.8%, the honey will not spoil , but until it gets there, we and our customers are waiting.
Our biggest problem with that right now is the increase is small hive beetles and the decrease in available resources for the bees. Small hive beetle larva can ruin a frame on uncapped honey very quickly if the hive population is low, so we’re keeping an eye on that. We’re also holding off on supplemental feeding as we don’t want any sugar syrup making its way into our honey supers. Once we’ve pulled honey, we’ll split strong hives, feed them well, and try to build up strength before the fall nectar flow starts.
In early spring, we had an abandoned hive that was rife with small hive and wax moth larvae — the chicks loved it! A not-so-nice part of me already feels intense satisfaction feed Japanese beetles to the chickens, but I’m still hoping to not have any chicken treats in our hives — especially as the chickens have not yet started to repay our kindness with eggs!
Hopefully we’ll get to pull honey this weekend. If not, I will attempt my first hot-process soap. Life is good on the farm, and we never run out of things to do!
Sourwood trees put on quite a show at this time of the year with their feathery white fronds of flowers, especially when the sunlight hits them just right. I spent much of last year wandering through our woods trying to find one that I can see from my desk late afternoons but never did find it from the ground! Now that we’ve pushed back even more brush, we’ve found more sourwoods than we ever imagined, including that one. These trees are probably the reason our honey was so very popular last year.
Sourwood honey is prized for its color, texture and taste. The bloom time is relatively short, so pure sourwood honey can be hard to find, especially after dry summers when the trees produce less nectar. The weather this year has been close to perfect for nectar production of all kinds, and we’re hoping for a good honey harvest.
We place our honey supers when the blackberries are in full bloom, but our bees also have access to plenty of nectar from trees, wild flowers, and clover. As we push back brush, we plant more clover to provide as much nectar close to the hives as possible. Up to this year, long grass has choked out the clover, but our zero-turn mower has solved that problem this year and the clover is still going strong. The sourwoods have just started blooming, and we’ll leave the honey supers in place until both they stop. We use no pesticides or insecticides (other than fire-ant granules) on our land, so we know our honey is high quality. Still, last year’s honey was the best we’ve ever produced, and we credit the sourwoods for that.
Last year’s honey was the color of champagne and delicious. Many of our repeat customers found it helped with their allergies and sore throats, and they are waiting for us to have a new batch to sell. We used plastic bottles with caps that seal for the first time last year as the bottles are sterilized when manufactured and we’ve had some leaky mason jars in previous years. Filling the bottles from the new honey keg was much faster and less messy than our old method of ladling honey into jars on a scale in the kitchen sink! We’ll be finished with the construction of the honey house by next year’s harvest, and the job will be even easier from start to finish.
I’m also looking forward to the honey harvest so I can immediately process the wax cappings for use in salves, lotion bars, and soap. While all the wax we use is filtered many times, I prefer the best wax for anything I’m going to use on my skin! I have started an itch-soother infusion for salve and a lavender infusion for soap and both will be ready by the time I have the fresh wax.
But right now, I hear thunder and need to go harvest zucchini and blueberries before it starts raining!
Sometimes it seems that bees know just when I’m wearing a dress and heels or when we have ice-cream in the back of the car after a grocery run — they just know when to make swarming more of a challenge for us. Then I have to think back on the swarm that moved into an empty NUC while I was checking bees last fall to realize that maybe we just remember the inconvenient swarms better!
This swarm initially looked like 4 smaller swarms, but it turned into one of the biggest swarms we’ve had. We last inspected the hive on Sunday. They had barely started working the honey super and we made a split to give the queen open frames to lay fresh brood, but by Friday they had the honey super about 30% full, multiple frames had hatched, and they were still storing nectar in the brood boxes. Even with the bees in the trees, the hive was still rocking it! The nectar flow is good this year, and we need to recheck some other strong hives again as soon as the coffee kicks in this morning.
The swarm was pretty high up in a pine tree, so it took some brainstorming, which included discarding crazy ideas while building upon them, to get the branch down. We even very briefly considered chopping the tree down! Hubby managed to drop the swarm right onto the tarp we’d laid down with multiple boxes on it. We’d baited all of them with Swarm Commander and I’d put a frame with nectar, brood, and bees from the original hive in the 10-frame. After they’d recovered from the fall, they started pagenting in to the 10-frame and one of the NUCs. Some of them returned the tree, just higher up than before. They spent the night out there, but they are still alive and kicking!
After a while, we shook the remaining bees from the tarp into the 10-frame and just crossed our fingers. Now that’s it’s warmed up, bees are migrating down from the tree to the two capture-hives. Of course, we won’t know for a few days whether they are just regrouping in preparation of another escape attempt or happy in their new home, but we consider this capture a success, an adventure, and a wonderful example of how well Hubby and I work together.
We both took one sting each (for swarming bees they were relatively well-mannered) and the anti-itch salve I made from a Beeswax Alchemy recipe worked wonders. It was the first time we’d been able to try it on a bee sting — I’ve wanted to know if it works for a long time, but not enough to intentionally get stung. I’m not so sure that the soap I tried last week is turning out as well, but it is the most complex soap recipe I’ve tried yet. More about soaps, lotions, and salves next blog….
The chicks are rapidly outgrowing their space, and moving them outside to the dog kennel so that I can clean their indoor home is becoming more of adventure with every passing day. The baby can now fly out of the cattle trough, and the bigger girls can fly out of the plastic crate I use for transport. Moving them is no longer a one-man job! Luckily Maggie is just fascinated with them and wants to herd them like she herds everything else and she’s smart enough to realize they are not new dog toys! The chicks are becoming accustomed to being handled and one is eager to be picked up when she hears dried meals worms in a Dixie cup. That’s a trick I learned from my sister-in-law; she has her chickens trained to follow the sound of worms in a plastic Dixie cup, which they love even more than my gifts of chickweed and tender dandelion leaves.
Wax moths had moved into one of our swarm capture hives, so the chicks got a treat of larvae in a bowl followed by a couple of bee frames to clean up. They enjoyed chasing small hive beetles and I enjoyed watching! I kept an eye on them to make sure they weren’t eating anything besides the wiggly invaders. After three minutes, I had clean frames to put in the freezer and maybe reuse later this week.
This week is spring break, so Hubby has been able to make good progress on the coop and chicken run. We’ll move the girls into the coop once we have the door on and then we’ll finish up the run. It started raining today while Hubby was adding rafters to the run and I was painting the screen door, so we ended up with a non-construction day. We both have indoor chores to catch up on, and it’s probably good to give our bodies a break too.
While we currently plan to have a maximum of five chickens, Hubby is building the coop large enough to house more because we’ve learned that our plans are always changing here on the farm. We may eventually have enough honey and wax products for sale that we’d have a market for eggs too. I made my first batch of glycerin-honey soap last week and plan to attempt my first batch of soap using lye later this week. When we harvest honey this year, I need to weigh the wax we refine from cappings to get an idea of how much beeswax soap etc. I can make. So far, I’ve been using wax from previous years for my experiments, and I don’t plan to make any products with purchased wax.
Hubby just arrived home and announced that the only self-rising flour he could find came in a 25 pound bag, so I guess that I’ll be spending more time than usual baking over the next few weeks! Even if I bake a cake every day until it’s safe to socialize again, we’ll be eating healthier than we have been doing. It’s amazing how far we’ve slipped back into our “city” eating habits since the start of the school year. It takes very little time to make a pitcher of red rooibos tea, but we’ve been drinking sodas for the past few months. Likewise, I used to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast and they take no longer that Toaster Strudels, but we slipped into a Toaster Strudel routine. I didn’t realize how many convenience meals we were eating until I noticed how often I was running the dishwasher now that I’m cooking from scratch again! I hate that it took a pandemic to get us to rethink our eating habits, but that’s also a very small piece of silver lining in the huge cloud that is hanging across the world right now.
Life remains good here on the farm, and our thoughts and prayers are with all our friends, family, and blog-readers in this scary time.
December 21 is not the ideal time to discover that I actually only have 5 have Christmas cards in my desk drawer instead of the anticipated full box. I guess I didn’t buy my normal stash on clearance at the end of last year. Or maybe I did, and they are in some weird place. Despite my best intentions, I still have not yet organized my side of the office since we moved the big desk in here. When was that? Sometime in the past 6 months, I think…..
Then I received a text message to remind me of a follow up appointment with my doctor. Has it really been two weeks since I was there? Is the new blood pressure medicine doing it’s job? There are more questions than answers in my head right now.
The good news is that yesterday was the last day of school until January 2 and maybe I can find my missing brain cells over the next two weeks. The weeks since Thanksgiving have been as hectic as any other school year for Hubby and me, but we have been less stressed than in years past. We’re determined to put a Christmas tree up in our 13 x 13 foot living room this year, and Hubby is on his way to the storage building to see if the one we have will fit. Not only did we go from 2400 square feet to 740 square feet, we went from 10 feet ceilings to whatever they are in this mobile home. I know the ceilings aren’t high enough to risk installing a ceiling fan, but how tall is the tree we’ve had for years?
It was warm enough to check hives and add some candy boards last week. Some of the hives we were concerned about now have enough bees to ease our minds, and adding a little sugar for cold, wet days should help them make it until spring. We’re not adding a large quantity of sugar this year as we ended up with a wasteful mess last year. Now that we’re living here full time, it will be easy to add sugar as needed. We seldom go for more than a couple of weeks without at least one day above 60 degrees here, so we have a huge advantage over beekeepers to the north. We are also keeping the pollen feeder full of pollen substitute mixed with powered sugar so that the bees have something to find when they insist on foraging. I went to check the feeder this morning, and bees were already on it despite the 50 degree temperature.
The November swarm we caught is even doing well. There was only one frame of bees the day after they moved in, but they now have three. Maybe more bees showed up after that first day, or maybe the queen was determined to bump up her numbers. It was not a good time of year for them to swarm, but luckily they did so on a day when I was in the bee yard. There’s so much logging going on around us that we suspect they are wild bees whose home was destroyed. Maybe they are even renegade bees that swarmed away from us sometime in the past and have now come back to where it’s safer and there’s a buffet set up! Either way, we’re always glad to add to the genetic mix.
Well, I need to run to the store and buy whatever Christmas cards I can find and then get busy doing what I always intend to complete Thanksgiving weekend! More about the bee yard later…..
I have the most amazing commute and wanted to take a picture of the fall colors, but on the perfect days to take a picture, I was running late. When I was on time, the light just wasn’t quite right. Then we had that night with below freezing temperatures….
A couple of blocks before my school, there were two brilliant yellow trees with a scarlet tree between them. One night of cold, windy weather dealt with that pretty picture. Still, there’s a permanently beautiful view across the valley from the crest of a hill by a cattle ranch. Clouds roll across the creeks and the sky is often a brilliant blue, even right after sunrise. Even though I don’t have pictures to share with you, I see the views clearly in my mind and they bring me great joy. Those views also inspired me to buy a 2020 calendar featuring the Cotswolds in England — one of my favorite places that has similar terrain to where we now live. (Talking to high school friends on Facebook has been making me homesick!)
The commute home is almost as beautiful, but the long-range views are missing. Then I pull into our driveway and see our land. Between the two commutes, I spend the day enjoying teaching and being with my students and all the wonderful people with whom I work. True, I get overwhelmed with grading and lesson planning sometimes, but 90% of the time, I’m smiling (on the inside at least)!
When I get home, I’m often surprised at the changes that have taken place while I was gone. Our neighbor’s son is clearing undergrowth for us when he has time. As our views open up, we’ve changed our minds about where to build the house, and then changed them back again, only to change again a day later.
We know that we want the back of the house to look out toward the woods and possibly with a view of the creek, which is to the right of the above scene. We’ll be right at the transition from planted pines to hardwoods within hearing of the creek, regardless of quite where the house ends up.
Just like the ever-changing location, we’ve changed our minds about the house more times than we can count. However, we keep coming back to Whisper Creek from Southern Homes. We’ve talked about changes to all of the house plans we’ve looked at, including that one, but now that we’ve decided to replace the second bathroom with a tornado shelter, we’re content to leave everything else alone! The kitchen provides all the room I need to can veggies and make jam, and the porches are just the right size. We don’t like the mixed siding on the outside, but using the same siding everywhere is not a structural change. I found myself mentally planning paint colors and countertops this morning, and that hasn’t happened with any other plan in the four years we’ve owned the land!
Yes, it’s been four years. I’m glad I have old blogs to look back as we thought it had been five years. We have so much to be thankful for going into another wonderful Thanksgiving. The move here has done wonders for our mental and physical health, and we are overall healthy. We have friends and family who are worth their weight in gold, and may start building our forever home before Thanksgiving 2020 rolls around. We are going into winter with more hives than before, and I have an “Early Bird” chicken catalog to peruse. Life is good!
The weekend before the drought ended, I turned the soil in the remaining compacted section of the timber company’s loading deck and we sowed a mixture of annual rye, fescue, and White Dutch Clover. The rains came, and we have lush green grass with an under-story of clover over a few acres of recently cleared land as well as on the deck. More importantly, we have eliminated the erosion problem that has plagued us for almost 5 years now. Oh – and by cleared land, I mean Hubby pushed back some more of the undergrowth between trees so that we could have more room for clover and fewer thorny plants.
We lost one of the magnolia trees planted by the gate in the drought, so when I’ve finished my coffee and this blog, we’re going to plant some camellias and gardenias on that side of the gate so that we have evergreen plants of a manageable size that are beautiful in spring and summer. I was able to bring some gardenia cuttings from South Carolina, but was unable to get any cuttings from the camellia plants to take root. By the time we finish that, it will be warm enough to continue getting the bees ready for next week’s cold snap.
We constantly had problems with leaky lids (mainly when I put the lids on) when we used bucket feeders, so we’re trying open feeding with our internal feeders right now. The hives I checked yesterday have a good deal of nectar, but very little bee bread. We put the pollen feeder back out a few days ago and the bees are hitting it almost as hard as the syrup feeders. The pollen feeder was a great success during the summer dearth and it was easy to clean up once the fall blooms started.
I went out to refill the syrup while it was still cold enough for the bees to be indoors this morning, but it was not cold enough to intimidate the yellow jackets, so we had to add yellow jacket traps around the feeders. Those guys irritated me non-stop last weekend while I was applying a non-skid paint to our ice-rink of a deck!
Hubby was at work yesterday, and the small syrup tank was empty, so I rustled up some bravery and started the gas-operated pump to cycle the syrup in the large tank and then fill the small tank. Well, it didn’t look like anything was happening once I got the motor started, so I pulled the exit hose out to take a look. It’s a pretty powerful motor, so once the hose was out (and, yes, the syrup was moving), it wouldn’t go back in. One sugary shower and a change of clothes later, I got syrup transferred over and had to evacuate the area because every yellow jacket and bee from a 5-mile radius appeared to show up for a free lunch! I suspect I still have syrup in my hair.
A couple of week ago, I read a blog by Ron Misha about winterizing hives. He mentioned that his father used to hang a piece of burlap out of the hive lid to wick moisture out of the hives in winter. We have a roll of burlap, so I am trying that. We’re going from a record-breaking warm October to lows in the 20s this week, and the hives have more nectar than honey in them. We’ll add candy boards going into December, but this weekend is all about getting the bees through the coming week. I combined the weakest hives I came across yesterday and shook bees into others that will struggle to stay warm. I’m still rebuilding strength in my arms and hands after this summer’s neck problems, so I did not get as far yesterday as I would have liked. However, the good news is that I stopped when I noticed that I was getting clumsy because my hands were tired. Sometimes it’s good to be stubborn and push through, and other times it’s better to apply common sense.
I was going to write about some great changes to our landscape and our renewed indecision regarding where to place the house, but I think that needs to wait for another time. It’s way to pretty outside to sit at a computer for hours, especially when bad weather is going to keep us inside for the next few days. Stay happy. Stay warm. And remember that life is good on the farm!