We finally finished the months-long intensive paint job on our little free library and seed exchange and installed it this evening. Yay!!!!
Now, to spy through the front windows and see who stops to look at books!
We finally finished the months-long intensive paint job on our little free library and seed exchange and installed it this evening. Yay!!!!
Now, to spy through the front windows and see who stops to look at books!
March harvest total: 108.71
2014 harvest total: 201.01 lbs
There are lots of approaches to dividing honey bee colonies. Our favorite is walk away splits. This method is cheaper and less complicated than purchasing or raising a queen to introduce. But the real reason we believe in walk away splits is that the bees get to select and raise their own queen.
In all aspects of our beekeeping, we attempt to meddle as little as possible in the life of the colonies, and we endeavor to cultivate locally adapted bees that are better at taking care of themselves without treatment or other human support/interference.
Walk away splits are simple (in theory) and give the bees a break in the reproductive cycle, and thus also a break from varroa mites.
The beekeeper’s only role in a walk away split is to transfer frames from the original hive into new boxes. The bees do the rest of the work. The key to this type of hive division is timing and ‘ingredients.’ In the ten minutes it takes the beekeeper to transfer frames from a strong hive into a new box, she must choose frames that contain key components and arrange them in such a way as to make it easier, not harder, for the new colony to raise a strong queen.
So what do bees need to raise a good queen?
Bees need eggs from which to raise a queen. The difference between a worker bee and a queen bee is a matter of nutritional variation early in development. All young larvae are fed royal jelly, but worker bee larvae are fed less royal jelly for a shorter period of time than larvae being raised for queens. It is safest to select frames containing eggs for the bees to rear a queen, rather than try to gauge the age of the larvae you see (since very young larvae can also be raised into queens with the right nutrition). By making sure the frames you choose for the split contain eggs, you guarantee that the bees will be able to select larvae of the correct age from which to raise queens.
Phew—what a mouthful!
A new split doesn’t need very many eggs for the bees to raise a queen. In fact, avoid including frames with lots of eggs or open brood, as this will force the bees to feed and care for many babies. Ideally, they should put most of their energy into caring for the developing queen or queens they are raising.
One frame of capped brood with a small patch of eggs is perfect for a walk away split.
Excellent nutrition is critical to the survival of a young split. Because most of the bees on frames of brood are young nurse bees, the new split will not have a strong group of foragers for some time, and it’s important that there is food in the split for the bees to survive on in the beginning. Nectar is an important nutritional component, so make sure it is plentiful in the split. Although honey works too, I have heard that including frames with curing nectar is even better where raising baby bees is concerned.
Two or three frames containing a combination of nectar and pollen should be sufficient for a walk away split. These important frames of food should be placed facing the frame with eggs, so that food sources for the young queen and her attendants are close at hand.
Pollen contributes protein to a bee’s diet. Again, nutrition is key. If it’s possible to find frames with both nectar and pollen together, this is best.
Think of capped brood as future workers. Capped brood doesn’t need to be fed and tended to like bees in the larval (uncapped) stage of development. Capped brood is less labor and resource intensive for the nurse bees in the new colony. At the same time, it ensures that there will be an influx of young bees to the colony’s workforce within 13 days.
One or two frames of capped brood should be sufficient for a walk away split. All the brood should be together in the middle of the box. More capped brood can be added to make a stronger split.
Hive divisions need lots of nurse bees. Again, the developing queen should have all the attention and care she requires, and the capped brood must be kept warm. Nurse bees are also more likely to stay in the new hive, rather than returning to the mother colony (which is often only a few feet away). No matter how many older foragers you add to a new split, they will find their way back to the original hive if it is close by. This is because, unlike nurse bees, foragers have already gone out into the world and oriented to the original hive’s location.
Select nurse bees by adding frames of capped brood (and a few eggs!) that are covered in bees. The bees in the brood nest should primarily be nurse bees. Because they are younger than foragers, nurse bees tend to be smaller.
We generally prefer not to supply our bees with sugar syrup feed, though this is often recommended for new splits. Instead, you can include an extra frame of honey to feed the bees until nurse bees have graduated to foragers.
How many frames to include in a split
We generally aim for at least five frames total in a walk away split (including a few frames of brood, and a few of pollen, nectar, and honey). We aim to include enough bees to cover these frames, keeping in mind that bees on frames of food stores may not be nurse bees and will probably return to the original colony.
If you want to add additional nurse bees, you can remove extra frames of brood from the mother hive and shake the attending bees into the new split. You can also always add extra frames of capped brood (covered in bees) to bolster the split’s population down the line.
What makes a hive ready to divide, and how can you, the beekeeper, tell? Here’s what I go by when deciding if one of our hives is ready to split and ready to raise its own queen. And, if any of the beekeeping jargon below has your head spinning, take a look at our illustrated glossary of beekeeping.
Is the hive ‘booming’? I look for bustle at the hive entrance, including bees orienting, bees arriving at the entrance with pollen, and a generally busy, productive vibe. Removing the outer cover, I look to see if there are bees visible (teeming, even) at the inner cover’s opening. I check out how the bees’ population seems within the hive. Are the frames covered in bees? Are the boxes full?
A good strong population in and of its self doesn’t mean the hive is ready to divide, but strong numbers are a must for making a walk away split. After a divide, both the mother colony and the new split(s) need to have plenty of bees to rebuild and raise a queen.
If there’s lots of new, pearly white wax in the hive and bees tending to curing honey, there is a nectar flow in progress. This bodes well for hive divisions, as it means food is plentiful. Proper nutrition is essential for the bees to be able to raise a strong new queen.
Of course, it’s entirely possible to have a nectar flow on and a hive that’s not at all ready to divide. But I would hesitate to divide a colony if I don’t see signs that the bees are finding good forage and that they are currently supplied with stores to raise a queen.
The presence of drones and drone brood within the hive generally indicates that the colony is in its reproductive phase. An exception to this is hives in which there is a drone-laying worker (this can happen when the colony lacks a queen and a worker bee begins laying unfertilized eggs). In this case, all of the brood will be drone brood—not a good sign.
In spring, in a healthy colony, the queen will begin laying some drone brood before the hive swarms. If it’s spring, and you find drones milling about in the hive and patches of drone brood on the frames, the colony is in the process of reproduction.
Look for a ratio of about 90% capped brood to 10% uncapped brood in the hive. This is a sign that it is definitely time to divide the hive.
Before the colony makes its final preparations for swarming, the queen’s egg production slows. The bees are actually putting her on a diet to lose weight so that she will be able to fly with the swarm when it leaves the hive. Another benefit to the slowed egg production is that capped brood is less work for the remaining bees after a swarm to care for. Since the colony remaining in the hive after a swarm has its population cut by about half, the bees can put their energy into raising a strong new queen—not feeding uncapped worker bee brood.
This can be an obvious sign that the colony is reproducing and will soon, or has already, swarmed. It’s also possible the colony is in the process of replacing a failing or dead queen, rather than at the height of its reproductive vigor.
If you see queen cells, check out the above indicators to confirm preparation for swarming. Also note where the queen cells are positioned on the frame. Cells along the bottom edge of the comb are more likely swarm cells, while queen cells scattered in the middle of frames are often supersedure, or queen replacement cells.
It’s also worth looking to see if you can find eggs in the hive when you see queen cells. If eggs are present (and the brood isn’t all drone) you know that the queen has been in the hive within the last three days.
Also note what stage of development the queen cell is in and how much attention the bees are paying to it. If the bees aren’t milling around over the cell and looking like they have important business to attend to, it’s likely the queen isn’t viable, or that this is an old, un-hatched queen cell. If the bees are attending to it, you should too.
The presence of viable capped swarm cells is a definitive sign that the hive has already swarmed, or that it is about to.
I inspected one of our strongest hives on March 8th. This is a colony that is seriously booming. The bees overwintered with four deep bee boxes, and we added a fifth in late February. That fifth box was teeming with bees on March 8th and was full of brood, capped honey, pollen, and nectar.
I had come prepared to divide the hive, based on its huge population. I worked my way halfway through the fifth box and considered my Is the colony ready to split? mental checklist.
Population, check. Nectar flow, check. Drones, half-check (I saw a handful of drones, as well as a handful of drone brood cells, capped and uncapped). Capped brood, no check. There was certainly capped brood, but it was nowhere near 90% of the brood I saw. I also didn’t see any queen cells.
For the record, I actually prefer to split before the bees start raising a queen. Handling frames with capped queen cells entails a risk of damaging the queen. Also, once there are queen cells, it may be too late to prevent swarming, as the first swarm may have already left with a large portion of the colony’s population.
Based on the capped brood ratio, I decided the colony wasn’t quite ready, but I thought they were close. Because of the nectar flow and the prodigiously laying queen, I added a sixth box for the colony to move into and resolved to return in a week for another inspection.
It’s amazing how different a hive can look from one week to the next when it is ramping up in spring. I ended up splitting the hive today, and am second-guessing some of my decisions, but I’ll save all that for my next post.
When we began harvesting navel oranges in earnest last month, I canned orange marmalade for the first time. The recipe is from our third edition copy of Stocking Up (1986), by Carol Hupping and the staff of the Rodale Food Center.
I was drawn to this recipe for its simplicity. Of the four ingredients, only the water wasn’t ‘local’ (i.e. from our own garden). The book calls it Bitter Orange Marmalade, and it is indeed quite bitter due to the inclusion of all of the fruit peel in the recipe. Maybe next year I’ll try a more traditional, sugary marmalade recipe, but overall I’m pleased with this one.
As I’ve mentioned before, I always hesitate somewhat to share recipes for canned goods. Please proceed at your own risk, and read up on canning safety at the website for the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The USDA offers a Complete Guide to Home Canning there. You can read about botulism on the CDC website. If you don’t feel comfortable canning, or have safety concerns, you can always make recipes to freeze or store short-term in the refrigerator.
Enjoy! After dutifully waiting the recommended two weeks, we popped a jar open and started snarfing. I’ve been eating orange lime marmalade by the spoonful!
We kept up our garden record keeping, but slacked off somewhat on our harvesting in February. It was a month of orange wedges, orange juice, and canning orange marmalade. We neglected our greens, and the garden is overrun with spinach, lettuce, broccoli, mustard, and kale. Peas, beets, carrots, fennel, and asparagus are on their way in for March!
February harvest totals
February harvest total: 66.13 lbs
2014 harvest total: 92.3 lbs
We’ve done it again! Two years after picking out our first backyard chickens, we brought home two new chicks this week. Of course, they’re just as stinky and ridiculous and adorable as the first batch.
As yet unnamed, the Welsummer appears to have clambered to the top of the pecking order and gave the Ameraucana a few sharp baby-pecks last night. For her part, the Ameraucana seems to be following in our Barred Rock’s footsteps; she is an eating machine!
We chose the breeds for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they were available this week at the feed store. Since we only wanted two, there is no way for us to order chicks through the mail, so the semi-local feed and fuel store is our go-to place for chicks.
In addition, as shallow as it sounds, we were drawn to these breeds’ egg colors. Welsummers lay dark brown eggs with speckles. Ameraucanas are known for their blue/green eggs. As extremely small scale ‘chicken farmers,’ we have always enjoyed being able to tell the Barred Rock’s brown eggs from the Barred Leghorn’s white ones. With these new birds, we will maintain our ability to keep tabs on who’s slacking in the henhouse.
We also considered laying rates. From our rather limited research, it seems Welsummers lay about 160-180 eggs per year, while Ameraucanas lay in the range of 250-280 eggs per year. Unfortunately, we’ve only recently begun keeping proper records of egg-laying for the chickens we have now. Supposedly, Barred Rocks lay 250-300 eggs per year, while Leghorns (not sure about Barred Leghorns) lay in the range of 300-330 eggs per year. These days, just beginning their third year, both Luma and Petunia are laying about four eggs a week.
The Welsummer had better lay beautiful eggs and be fabulously healthy to earn her keep!
If you’re just after the pickle recipe, scroll on down…
We are crazy about pickles, and every summer I can quarts of fresh-pack cucumber dill pickles. The fun of fresh-pack pickles, is that there’s no waiting around while they brine and no worrying about weird bacteria cropping up during the brining process. You chop up your ingredients, boil the brine, and can the goods all in one exhausting evening.
Last week, though, I tried something new.
It started with scads of cauliflower in the garden. Then Kelly and I made a trip to a magical place called Mountain Feed and Farm Supply, in Ben Lomond. It left my head spinning with all its nifty gadgets, and I brought home my very own ‘Perfect Pickler’ and wild ideas about probiotic cauliflower pickles.
Lacto fermenting pickles is different from fresh packing, but as it turns out, it’s not really harder to do, and it yields much greater benefits nutritionally. The Perfect Pickler’s trick is the airlock that fits into the lid of the jar; while your vegetables froth away, growing what are apparently millions of good bacteria as they lacto ferment (i.e. pickle), no outside air or ‘bad’ bacteria can get into the jar to taint your recipe.
The big logistical downside to lacto-fermented pickles is that they can’t be canned. The canning process would kill all of those wonderful probiotic bacteria, and render your pickles lifeless. Therefore, you’re stuck with them in the fridge. Being a big batch girl, myself, this is a definite bummer.
In terms of equipment, I’m still a little hazy on how much help the airlock is, given that the lacto fermented pickle recipes I’ve read thus far suggest opening the jar periodically to taste the pickles. Doesn’t this (along with all the air/bad bacteria in there to start with) negate the protective effects of the airlock?
If the airlock is indeed optional, one could just as easily pickle in a simple canning jar and lid and save the cost of the pickler getup. My fabulous gardening friend Tanya makes the best sour kraut I’ve ever tasted with just a regular canning jar.
The recipe I (very loosely) used directed me to let my cauliflower and brine sit in the jar for four days before adding apple cider vinegar and retiring the whole kit and caboodle to the refrigerator.
On day four, I dutifully opened the jar and tasted the pickled cauliflower. Delicious! But so lightly flavored, that I doubted it had really done its thing yet. After all, our house is consistently five to ten degrees colder than the ambient temperature assumed by the recipe (it suggested a household that does not drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit).
I conferred with my better half, and we decided to let the pickles continue their science experiment for another day on the kitchen counter. I now think I should have checked the pickles again that evening, or at least by the following morning. Instead, I waited a good 30 hours. By this point, the fermentation had kicked into high gear, and the ‘Snow Crown’ cauliflower florets bobbed in a mysteriously purple bath of frothy brine.
I’m not sure how to describe the smell and taste, beyond ‘gassy.’ Kelly declared it still good, while I felt vaguely nauseous for the next half hour. It’s really not bad, I guess. For a first try. Maybe. There’s a gallon of it waiting for me in the fridge.
Kelly insists that the taste I found so off-putting is the result of a rather vigorous (but healthy!) fermentation/pickling. Maybe it will mellow with the addition of cider vinegar that the recipe called for? If not, there’s more cauliflower in the garden, as well as some monster cabbages on the way.
By cookie-craving chance yesterday, I dug up a cookbook written in the 1970s by my grandmother’s younger sister Clara B. Clauson. And lo, tucked away in a chapter I’d never bothered to read, I found my great grandfather’s sour kraut recipe, and my great-great grandmother’s pickled green tomatoes recipe. Both call for crocks, with no mention of airlocks or looming threat of bad bacteria. People used to just deal, I guess.
While admittedly vague in spots (a ‘handful’ of salt for each head of cabbage), I’m excited to give these family recipes a spin as soon as I can get my hands on cabbages and green tomatoes.
In the tradition of my ancestors, here’s the approximate recipe for my pickled cauliflower (and really, it would have been undeniably delicious if I’d just stopped a day sooner!):
Cauliflower pickle ingredients (to be fudged and adjusted at your discretion!)
Enough brine to cover the vegetables at a ratio of 2 cups water to 2 tablespoons sea salt
Pack the vegetables in a gallon jar, cover with brine, and screw on the lid. Especially if you’re trying a canning lid, don’t screw it on tight. If you do, the jar may explode. My Perfect Pickler also came with a small ceramic cup that is supposed to float just below the screw-on lid. Again, I’m not yet sure how critical its function actually is.
Leave the jar on your counter out of direct light and away from any heat sources for exactly four days. As long as your house is below 74 degrees Fahrenheit, this should be fine (higher temperatures can cause mold to form).
If the pickles don’t seem pickle-y enough, let them sit out longer on the counter, but proceed with extreme caution and frequent taste tests.
When you judge the pickles to be done, add the cider vinegar and transfer pickles to the fridge. They should last for months, though they will continue to ferment slowly in the refrigerator.
Last spring I split two beehives. The results were mediocre. In one case, the mother colony failed to raise a new queen, while the daughter colony raised a veritable egg-laying machine. In the other case, the mother colony raised a viable queen, while the daughter colony ultimately became drone-laying. In both cases, I had to recombine the hives, so ended up with the same number that I started with and a lot of wasted time.
I’m not sure what went wrong with my hive splits, though I do wonder if several horribly timed weeks of vicious wind may have interfered with successful mating flights for the virgin queens.
Though I dutifully followed my hive splitting instructions, I am also more than ready to assume responsibility for the failed splits. Both hives had closed queen cells at the time I split them, and one had swarmed earlier that day. My timing for splitting the hives may not have been good, and my technique was quite possibly flawed.
This is all longwinded background to get to the second of this year’s garden resolutions. This spring, I will increase my number of hive divisions and hone my colony splitting skills.
Aside from a nifty beekeeping trick to acquire, I think mastering the art of beehive division is an essential part of becoming a self-sufficient beekeeper, as well as strengthening the stock in our apiary.
There are many, many reasons we have sworn off commercial honey bee packages (more on this another time). Swarm capturing, swarm luring, and hive division are three much better alternatives for populating the bee yard. But as much as I love the thrill of climbing the extension ladder to collect our top-bar hive’s fifth swarm of the season (no really, I do!), dividing our best colonies when they are ready to swarm is more efficient and likely to give us more bees at the end of the day. It’s also a safer bet in terms of neighbor relations; there’s nothing like a cloud of bees eclipsing the sun to get people nervous.
Walk away splits, my hive division method of choice, involves much more than just throwing some bees, eggs, honey, and pollen into a new box and waiting for the nurse bees to raise a queen. It’s also about reading the mother colony, watching the ratio of open to closed brood, understanding when the bees are ready to begin swarming preparations, organizing the frames in the new split so that the bees have easy access to the resources they need to raise a strong queen, and much more.
In the moment, sweating in my bee suit and squinting at frames trying to spot eggs (while also trying not to chill the brood), I’m not always as centered or intentional as I’d like to be. I forget things I’ve read that seemed important. I second-guess myself. I fret.
Does practice make perfect? I doubt it, but I’ll see this spring. And I’ll try hard to document and share what I learn.
If all this seemed like impossibly complicated bee lingo, stay tuned. I will keep adding to our beekeeping glossary, and I’ll try to demystify the colony division process on the blog as I practice it myself.
January was by far our best garden record keeping month on record. Kelly was a terrific sport, and together we faithfully weighed and recorded every fruit, vegetable, and herb that came in from the winter garden (right on down to 1/32 lb. cilantro harvests, I might add). May we keep this level of disciplined record keeping through the next eleven months, and may we find less tedious and time-intensive ways to do it meaningfully.
Maybe in February I’ll come up with an aesthetically pleasing table to show off the totals and tally the monetary savings, but for now, without further ado…
January harvest totals
January total: 26.17 lbs