Introduction to beekeeping

It’s been two months since I started beekeeping, and they’ve kept me busy. Not because they need a great deal of maintenance; they don’t. But like any new beekeeper, I can’t stop myself from peeking into the hive and seeing what they’re up to.

Beekeeping Basics

How does one get started in beekeeping? First, you have to order bees. They can be shipped in the mail but it’s better to pick up a package or nuc (pronounced “nuke,” short for nucleus colony) yourself.

Order the bees in the winter, because they’ll all be spoken for by the time spring comes. I ordered mine from two sources: the first package came from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, in Moravian Falls, NC, about two hours east of where I live. The second package is more local to me, from Bailey Bee Supply.  I ordered from two different suppliers on the theory that the bees would be sourced from different places (Brushy Mountain gets their bees from Georgia, Bailey’s perhaps being more local), thus increasing the genetic diversity in my apiary. The theory is just a theory; the bees may actually be from the same place, but I didn’t know that at the time.

A package of bees looks like this:

bee package.JPG

It’s a screened box with three pounds of bees trapped inside, plus a mated queen in a cage. I’ll explain more about installing packages in a future post.

Equipment

I started in April with two hives, comprised of a stand, a screened bottom board (to keep critters out and ventilation moving), two 8-frame medium hive bodies, an inner cover, and a heavy top. The hive bodies are simple boxes, with a ledge on the inside to hold the hanging frames. The frames are lightweight pine, with a black plastic sheet popped inside, just like a picture in a picture frame. The plastic is printed with the pattern of honeycomb. The bees “draw out” comb on top of the foundation.

hive body and frames.jpg

One hive body viewed from above, with eight frames and a healthy population of bees.

Here’s a closeup of one of the new frames. The worker bees make wax from their wax glands, and once the cells are drawn the queen lays one egg in each cell. The eggs show up nicely against the black foundation–each one looks like a little grain of rice.

drawn cells and laid eggs 2.jpeg

Worker bees tending the eggs. In the lower left, the cells haven’t been drawn out yet. In the lower right, pollen is stored in one cell.

The other tools I use are a veil, a smoker, a hive tool, a brush, and gloves. I didn’t start out with gloves.

Here’s the answer to the first question everyone asks me: No, I can’t expect to get a honey harvest this first year. The timing of the bees’ delivery is such that they arrive just before the peak of the nectar flow. The workers must use all the carbohydrates in the available nectar to build comb; after all, the queen can’t lay eggs and the workers can’t store pollen or nectar unless there’s comb in which to place those things. The nectar flow drops off in June and is more or less absent throughout the summer. It picks up again with a second flow in the fall as the asters bloom. So this year the bees will work on establishing their hive, I’ll nurse them through the nectar dearth and through the winter, and starting next spring, I hope we’ll start to see some honey.

Next post: Installling a package.

 

Ice storm survival 101: Fill your birdfeeder

Two weeks ago, we received an inch of ice at the MHM garden. Because it’s the South, and we have no snow-and-ice infrastructure, life shut down until we thawed. I think the only thing that kept me sane (a housebound beagle and two kids out of school were decidedly unhelpful in that mission) was the birdfeeder in the back yard.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

I’m dependent on Merlin Bird ID to tell me who my visitors are. This app, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a brilliant beginners’ guide to identifying local birds.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

I keep my feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds, which is what they want to seem to eat. These seeds pack protein and fat into a very small, easy-to-shell package. When the temperature plummets, birds need these extra calories to maintain energy and stay warm. And when berries and fallen seed may be encapsulated in ice, a full feeder can make a big difference in birds’ ability to survive.

As the weather warms and more plants come into bloom, I will taper back on the feed to encourage them to scavenge insects from the garden. I hope that they’ll be enough in the habit of visiting my garden that they’ll stick around and enjoy the buffet.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

Garden log, 1.23.15

Yesterday I planted seeds of Papaver somniferum (Hungarian blue breadseed) and Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape,’ as well as larkspur (Delphinium ajacis) ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Pink Queen.’ The breadseed poppy is perennial, but the others are annuals.

Larkspur ‘Apple Blossom’ (Delphinium ajacis ‘Apple Blossom’). Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape.’ Photo by Annie’s Annuals.

I plan to include more self-seeding annuals in my garden this year, though I’m afraid it’s late to be planting poppies in Zone 7b. Perhaps they’ll get a decent zap of cold in February and take hold by early summer. I’ve never had much luck with poppies, but last fall a friend shared her planting technique with me and so far, things seem to be working:

How to Plant Ornamental Poppies

  • Spread a layer of compost 1-2 inches deep over the area where you wish to plant. Smooth the compost with the back of a rake.
  • Scatter the seeds over the compost.
  • Use the head of the rake to tamp the seeds gently but firmly into the compost.
  • Leave them alone. Don’t water; don’t cover.

The seeds are tiny and need light to germinate. In the past, I didn’t plant them in compost, or sometimes I’d forget where I planted them and would mulch them over with shredded leaves. The ones I planted in November have germinated and their cotyledons hover just above the compost. They’re quite tough, having survived heavy rain and some wild temperature fluctuations so far.

I also, against good advice, transplanted some crocuses just before they burst into bloom. Crocuses are tough; they’ll get over it. Some tasks you just have to tackle when you have the time.

(c) 2013 AWH/MissingHenryMitchell

The garden could easily be mistaken for a mud-wrestling pit these days, thanks to  frequent rains and plagues of squirrels that dig up my unfrozen ground to hide their found treasures. I wonder why the squirrels haven’t dug up the poppy seedlings (yet?).

(Lady) Beetlemania

We’re heading into winter—some of us in the US more than others–which means that you may soon find Asian lady beetles (commonly known as lady bugs) on your windows and in your light fixtures. Although they can be a nuisance, and can stink and stain surfaces if they’re crushed, they don’t do any harm. They’re just looking for a slightly protected space to hibernate.

Asian lady beetles. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Extension, http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/multicolored-asian-lady-beetles/

The Asian lady beetles are roughly a quarter-inch long, but their appearance varies. Their forewings may be yellow, orange, beige, or bright red. Ten black spots typically decorate each forewing, but it’s not uncommon for the beetles to have fewer spots, faded spots, or no spots at all. In the spring and summer, these lady beetles prey on aphids and scale insects, benefitting home horticultural and commercial agricultural crops alike. Cooling temperatures signal to adult lady beetles that it’s time to find a protected site where they can spend the winter.

There’s A Place

The lady beetles favor warm and sunny sides of buildings, as well as exposed, light-colored buildings, but any protected location offers some appeal. They may move indoors through cracks in weather stripping, or small gaps around window and door casings or through attic and soffit vents.

I’ll Be Back

You may have noticed that beetles frequently pick the same sites to overwinter. Research suggests that the beetles use chemical cues, possibly from beetle feces or attractant pheromones, to locate the particular crevice they want to inhabit, whether that’s in a tree or in your siding. Although they may seem to permanently inhabit, say, your overhead kitchen light fixture, they actually can’t survive for long periods within the centrally-heated rooms of your house. They prefer to shelter in wall voids or semi-insulated spaces. But they become more active on warm days and move towards bright surfaces, like light-colored walls or ceilings, or lighting fixtures or windowsills. That’s when you notice them.

It’s possible that large numbers of beetles may cause air quality problems indoors that could trigger allergies and/or asthmatic reactions. But fortunately for allergy sufferers, this lady beetle does not reproduce indoors. When the warmer temperatures of spring come around, they’ll move outside in search of food. And they don’t eat wood, so they won’t cause structural damage to your house or to your furniture.

Lady beetles clustered in doorframe. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University IPM. http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/icm/2007/3-26/asianladybeetle.html

If You’ve Got Trouble Here, There, and Everywhere, and Think It’s All Too Much, Remember All Things Must Pass. And I’m Here to Help.

What can you do to control the invasion?

You Can’t Do That

Don’t reach for the pesticides. You’ll waste your money. Pesticides are not very effective at halting beetle invasions. Spraying and fogging can be hazardous to your and your pets’ health, and excessive use may present fire hazards. Biological controls, like tachnid flies, offer limited effectiveness.

Blacklight traps can catch beetles well in some situations. USDA scientists in Georgia developed a trap that uses no insecticide and it catches the beetles alive for future release or disposal. The trap is about 12″ x 24″ and reportedly can be easily assembled or disassembled. Learn how you can build your own blacklight trap following the USDA’s instructions.

She Came In Through the Bathroom Window

The best approach is to exclude the beetles. Seal around windows, doors, siding, and fascia boards with caulk, weather stripping, or foam sealers. Snugly-fitting sweeps or thresholds on exterior doors can prevent beetles from crawling through those gaps. Keep your window screens in good condition and consider adding insect screens to attic and soffit vents. And as a bonus, doing those things will prevent cold air leaking into your house, saving you money on your heating bills and conserving energy.

Some people vacuum up the beetles. If you like this idea, try a tactic recommended by Dr. Susan Jones of The Ohio State University: Insert a knee-high nylon stocking into the vacuum’s extension hose and secure it with a rubber band. Then reattach the hose and vacuum up the insects. The beetles will be trapped inside the stocking. Remove the rubber band and secure it around the open end of the stocking, or simply tie a knot in the end. Take them outdoors to a protected space under a porch, deck, or shed, and let them hibernate there. In the spring, release them into your garden near aphid-infested plants. If the stocking approach is too much trouble, just use your regular vacuum bag, but be sure to remove it promptly and dispose of it outdoors.

 

For more information:

Bug watcher

Montrose last Saturday was a great place for insect watching.

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on gomphrena

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on gomphrena

Pollinators were out in force, making the most of the glorious fall day.

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)?  on butterfly bush.

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)? on butterfly bush.

I particularly enjoyed watching these bees, their pollen sacs full of neon-orange pollen, coming in to feast on the dahlias:

honeybee with full pollen sacs coming to a dahlia honeybee with orange pollen sacs landing on dahlia DSC_6805 multiple bees landing on dahlia

Gardening as spiritual practice: Slowing down, looking around

Sometimes, when I approach my house from the road, I think “Oh, what a terrible mess.” I see the weeds that need pulling, the plants growing in the wrong places, the big gaps where plants haven’t filled in as quickly as I hoped.

Thinking about the garden this way–Don’t I owe it to the neighbors to stay on top of my weeds? Is my garden turning into the neighborhood eyesore?–turns it from a joy into a chore. Moreover, such a mindset prevents me from enjoying nature in its cycle, where it is and as it is, in the present. So yesterday I took a few minutes out from weeding to appreciate the gorgeous rosy colors of fall in my garden. The oranges and yellows are here, too, but today I’m sticking to a softer palette.

aster tataricus

Aster tataricus

rose chrysanthemum with yellow center

An unknown chrysanthemum, picked up from a bargain table a few years ago. I’ve made many more of it from its cuttings.

Bee on aster tataricus.

Bee on Aster tataricus

iris domestica seed pod

Deep purple-black seeds of Iris domestica (blackberry lily)

ceratotheca triloba

Fuzzy, foxglove-like blossoms of Ceratotheca triloba.

spider egg sacs in yucca plant

Two egg sacs of Argiope aurantia

anemone hupenensis 'Pamina'

Anemone hupenensis ‘Pamina’

physostegia

A pass-along Physostegia (obedient plant) begins to flower.