Bees · Lazer Creek Apiary · Nature · Products and Vendors · Supplemental Feeding

Counting Our Blessings – March 2019

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Crocus, March 2019

Tornadoes

Last Sunday afternoon, we listened to so many tornado warnings that we lost count.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the watch/warning system, a tornado watch means that weather conditions are favorable.  A warning means that an active tornado has been sighted or that radar has a strong indication that one has formed in the vicinity, so more than 5 warnings makes for a stressful afternoon.   Here in Georgia, most tornadoes are shrouded in rain, so they are less visible than in other areas of the country, which doesn’t help the nerves.   The one that touched down came within 300 yards of our niece’s and her husband’s house, then came through south of our land and north of BILs.   We had no damage at all here, but, sadly, the county seat sustained significant damage.

The tornado swept through Talbotton between the school and the court house, destroying homes and taking down beautiful old trees.  Click here to see pictures. It’s been heart-breaking to drive through town to and from work this week.   On Monday, so many trees were down and so many news crews were parked along the narrow road that it was hard to see much else.   As the week progressed, the debris close to the road receded, but that made the extent of the damage more apparent in many ways.   Still, when we look at the loss of life and the more severe damage to the west of us, we know it could have been worse.

Freezing Temperatures

Once the storm passed, we had three nights of below freezing temperatures.  We’d attempted our first queen grafting on Saturday and completed a quick check of all the hives.  We were a little concerned about having enough bees in the grafting hive, and quite concerned about the bees being able to cover all the wonderful brood we saw in the other hives.   As soon as temperatures were above 60, all of the hives were active and there is minimal evidence of chill-brood cleanup.

First attempt at grafting queens
First attempt at grafting queens

We checked the grafting frame on Thursday and are happy with the success rate of our first attempt.   The cell walls are weaker than we’d like, but we have queens.   One of our hives is in severe need of a new queen — or a can of Raid!  (Just kidding about the Raid.)

Warm Today

It’s very warm out today and the bees are vigorously hitting any sugar source they can find.  I had some leftover fondant in plates and baking cups, so I put those out to supplement the syrup buckets.  I slept in this morning, so I was too late to replenish buckets even with a bee suit on.   The girls are crazy this morning!

Bees on Fondant
Bees on Fondant

We have thunderstorms predicted tomorrow, but nothing like last weekend.  The warm weather is likely to continue, and I have trays of seedlings in the greenhouse just waiting for the danger of frost to be over.   I also had a Carolina Wren in there this morning….  Nature keeps life interesting and sometimes gives me a better jolt than coffee!

The cattle panel greenhouse has performed so much better than the more traditional greenhouse we had in the city.   I have two seed tray mats and three light bulbs in there, and everything survived a 25 degree night.   I still need to plant the lemon cucumber from High Mowing Seeds, and some Echinacea, but then I think I’ll be done.   All of the other seeds from High Mowing are doing great, and I’m excited to taste all the heirloom tomatoes in May.

The rest of my weekend will be spent reading 136 essays and entering grades!   These are revised essays, so the grading will go far quicker than for the first drafts, but it really is time for me to stop procrastinating.   It’s hard to believe that we are 3/4 of the way through the school year and it’s time to close the gradebooks out again.   I may have to take the laptop into the living room, because it is just so very hard to sit inside looking out of the window as spring reveals its unique beauty and resilience.

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Violets

Now, have I ever told you about my funny and embarrassing story about the wild violets Beccy and I picked when we were 14?   I’d better save that for another day, or I’ll never get started on those essays!

Oh, and remind me to tell you what the turkeys have been up to……

Supplemental Feeding

What I’ve learned while making fondant for bees

Let me preface this post by saying that I know some of these things should be painfully obvious, but I hope that some of my readers are, at times, as distracted as I while trying to do many things at once — like playing SimCity while cooking.

Lesson 1:  Respect the capabilities of your equipment.  Five pounds of sugar cooks quite nicely in my largest pot and cools quite nicely in my mixing bowl.  A few weeks ago, I tried to make a 7 1/2 pound batch.  The time I spent trying to get the sugar up to temperature while not letting it boil over ended up making the process take longer than it took me to make two, 5-pound batches today.  I was able to start cooling the first batch in the mixer while bringing the second batch to a boil.  Five pounds of sugar yields around 9 each 6″ small paper plates full of fondant, and each hive eats 4 plate fulls in 3 – 4 days.

Lesson 2:  Paper plates work well, especially the small, 6″ size ones.  We can fit four plates to a hive.  We have a spacer between the brood chamber and the super so that the plates fit without letting in cold, winter air.   Only two dinner-size plates fit in the same space.  I’ve tried making fondant on baking trays, but it ended up a soupy, sticky mess that wouldn’t hold its form, which is why we switched to plates.   However, today we poured a batch onto a wax-paper covered cookie tray, which leads to lesson 3.

Lesson 3:  If the sugar mixture goes above “soft ball” on the candy thermometer, it is likely to set up very quickly and very hard.  If you notice the fondant getting hard when it is still hot, get it out of the mixer (or, worse, saucepan) quickly.   My first or second batch of fondant turned into a giant sugar-cube in the bottom of my pot in about 30 seconds while I was searching for my pan.   However, you can add water and slowly bring up to a temperature at which the sugar will dissolve again to get it out of there.

Lesson 4:  Drape your counter tops with beach towels!   The YouTube videos we’ve watched all seem to feature organized people not making a mess in their kitchens,  but hot fondant drips.   It’s so much easier to throw towels in the washing machine than to dispose of newspaper.  We like to recycle, and I don’t think anyone wants us to recycle sugar-coated newspapers.  Plus, you can drape the towels over the edge of the counter for added protection.  I guess you see why I blog instead of making YouTube videos.  Plus, no one (except maybe my husband) wants to watch an old lady dance to “I Love Rock and Roll” while stirring boiling fondant.

Lesson 5:  Hot fondant burns about the same as hot wax.  If you get some on your hand, remember which faucet is the cold water and which is hot.  It doesn’t help to run hot, hot water over hot fondant.   This is why many people recommend using oven mitts, but I don’t like wearing gloves unless I have to — like when I pick up the hot mixing bowl.  There’s a time and a place for everything, but stirring the sugar water while wearing gloves doesn’t work for me.

Lesson 6:  If you take the plates out to fill the hives, the bees will find them (and you) in about ten seconds, especially if you’ve added Honey B Healthy or essential oils.   If the fondant is soft, it’s easier for the bees to digest, but not good for hugging to your chest to keep the bees off.    If you do end up with a t-shirt covered in fondant, head indoors quickly and make sure none of the bee-knee babies is following you!

Lesson 7:  Don’t be surprised if the bees eat your paper plates.   We weren’t, because my brother-in-law had the great idea (and I don’t mean that sarcastically) of leaving notes about how many frames had what on them in the hives, but when he went to show my husband his system, there were no notes in the first three hives.  The half-eaten index card was proof of his sanity — a big relief to us all.

Lesson 8:  Softer fondant is easier for the bees to digest, and as we’re giving this to them when nature is making life difficult for them, my goal is to get the right consistency.  However,  if it turns out “wrong,”  the bees will eat it anyway.   Too soft, and it will absorb water from the air and turn to syrup.  “Too hard”, and it’s easy to stack, store, and transport.  Don’t stress about it.   If the fondant ends up just right, we can’t stack the plates, but we’re fine with our dining table looking like we’re expecting the Edgar-eating roach from Men in Black to come for a tea party and the plates of sugar never stay there long.

Lesson 9:  It’s worth the time and effort.   Bees are stupid and will go ice-skating on a bucket of sugar water when they are hungry.  Our bees are out and about when temperatures rise above 45 degrees, but the buckets take a long time to warm up and often have ice on them until mid-afternoon.   I’ve been experimenting with ways to let them wet feed without becoming hypothermic, and may have one successful method.   I’ll blog about that once we’re convinced it actually reduces bee loss.

 

Bees · Supplemental Feeding

Cooking for bees

I finally made a successful batch of bee fondant using the recipe from Honey Bee Suite.  I like the common-sense approach of the author, and I was able to use my experience from three failed batches to improve what I was doing with recipes in general.   Five pounds of sugar yielded six paper dinner plates of fondant.  We’ll let you know later how long it takes the bees to eat a plateful of sugar!

Why fondant?
If a hive has not had enough time to create a store of honey that will get them through the winter, the bee-keeper needs to supplement their food source.  This is our first year with bees, and it has been an interesting learning experience.  We started about a month before the summer dearth arrived with only a Nuc hive, but there were plenty of resources for the bees at the time. Things were going well all the way up to the dearth when the hive began to get weaker and weaker, then sometime between weekends, wax moths invaded and decimated our hive.  We placed the infected frames in the freezer to kill the moths and larvae, but the hive was weakened severely and they were not able to protect themselves from the next attack — robbers.  Feral bees attacked the weak hive and stole most of the honey and effectively ended the life of that hive.   We restarted again, early fall season with two ongoing hives we purchased from a beekeeper who was getting out of the business.  We currently have two strong hives, but they do not have as much stored honey as they should at this time of year.  When it’s warm, one can supplement natural food sources with sugar mixed with water, either outside the hive or in a feeder placed inside the hive.  In cold weather, bees stay in to keep the hive warm and cold syrup dripping on them doesn’t do them much good.  Fondant is table sugar that has been cooked to break the sugar down into fructose and glucose — molecules that are more like honey and easier for the bees to digest.
The first attempts
My first attempt used a scaled down recipe from Bamboo Hollow Apiary, and it’s a recipe I will go back to try again.  Mistake one was thinking I could do this without a candy thermometer!   I ended up with a brown sticky mess that I tried to give to the bees, but it acted like fly paper, so we very quickly removed it.

Attempt two:  I used the same recipe and my brand new, shiny candy thermometer.   That was far more successful, but the temperature kept rising for long time after I turned the heat down.  With the successful batch, I turned the heat down as the temperature approached 230 degrees and adjusted it up and down by one number on the dial until reaching the desired temperature.  I plan to make the next batch on the gas burner on the grill to see if that is easier.  So — I had a batch of fondant that had been heated a little too much, and when I went to pour it into a pan, the pan wasn’t where I had left it!   By the time I found a pan, I had a huge sugar lump in the pot!   I managed to break it up and scatter it on the pan, but it wasn’t pretty.   The bees seemed to like it, but there was no way to fit the chunks under the hive lid.

As the chunks weren’t really usable and leaving them outside the hive attracted ants, I decided to try dissolving  and reheating them.  By then, we’d watched a couple of YouTube videos that used Karo syrup to make the fondant more malleable (although other resources recommended avoiding Karo syrup and corn starch), so we stirred a little in.  We poured the resulting mixture onto a wax-paper lined pan and it set very nicely.

However — this mixture was hygroscopic, as we found when we cut the sheet into usable sheets and placed those sheets on a shelf in the refrigerator until we could place them in the hives.  The next evening, our left-over pizza was firmly glued to the glass shelf and we dumped the remaining fondant into a glass bowl.  By the next morning, the mixture had absorbed even more water and was quite runny.  The bees are enjoying it, regardless.  In fact, when I went to check one of the bowls this morning while it was still only 40 degrees outside, the guard bees from our strongest hive let me know that I needed to leave their bowl alone!