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.

 

Controlling flea beetles in the fall garden (help wanted)

I didn’t get row cover on my beans in time this spring, and the flea beetles found me.

tired beans

Flea beetle is something of a catch-all term used to describe several species of beetles (not all of the same genera), all of which are tiny (1/16 to 1/10 of an inch long), that live in the soil and cause mayhem in North American gardens. They adore feeding on your vegetable plants, and can reduce a favorite crop to smithereens if not dealt with promptly. One treatment won’t suffice: They can produce four generations or so in a warm-climate growing season. Overwintering adults typically emerge when temperatures hit about 50 degrees (10 C). In recent years, it’s been 50 degrees at Christmas.

Here is my quandary: Their preferred cuisine is cruciferous, which happens to be what I need to get planted soon. Most winters are mild enough here that greens and root crops may be harvested year-round if grown under horticultural fabric, but that means getting seedlings and transplants off to a good start, starting now.

Row covers can be effectively employed to exclude flea beetles from pristine soil, but (clearly) that’s not what I have. Installing row cover where an infestation has already occurred just traps the beetles inside, keeping them safe from predators while they devour your spinach. Row cover must be sealed tightly all the way around to be effective, by the way.

Trap crops come highly recommended. “Plant a crop of mustard greens!” the gardening literature exhorts. Alas, the trap crops are what I want to eat this winter. Kale, collards, mustard greens, broccolini, radishes, tatsoi, arugula. These are the seed packets sitting on my desk, awaiting my decision. I fear that planting a trap crop, even far away (relatively speaking) from the vegetable bed, will only encourage more of the little punks to move in and feast upon everything in sight.

The garden literature also recommends scouting newly planted beds and counting the beetles as they arrive. This presumes the gardener can count insects best differentiated from dirt with a hand lens before they jump to the safety of the earth. Anyone who has brushed against a plant infested with flea beetles has seen a spray of tiny bugs fleeing the scene of the crime. Who can possibly count them in situ? Even if the gardener manages to hunker silently down and get a view of the action, must she hold her breath to avoid disturbing them? What if she needs to sneeze? (It’s fall pollen season, you know.)

Flea Beetle Management for Canola, Rapeseed, and Mustard in the Canadian Northern Great Plains. Graphic by the Government of Saskatchewan.

I don’t want to spray if I can avoid it. I have been known to pull out the neem oil from time to time, but it’s only moderately effective against flea beetles.

What to do, then?

Possible solutions to flea beetle infestation

I’m tempted to try one or a combination of the following. Have you had success with any of these?

1. Diatomaceous earth. DE is a fine powder made of fossilized remains of diatoms, a kind of algae. When used as an insecticide, the powder absorbs components of the waxy coating of insects’ exoskeletons and causes them to dehydrate. It’s critical to obtain food-grade DE for this application to be effective.

2. Interplanting with garlic. Garlic is a moderately effective insect repellant when sprayed on plant surfaces. I have to plant my garlic somewhere; I suppose it may as well go between my rows of kale.

3. Parasitic nematodes. To read about parasitic nematodes is to discover another of Mother Nature’s horror shows. Employing them can be a bit tricky, because the gardener must get the correct kinds of nematodes (families Steinernematidae and Heterorhabditidae, and some species are picky about who they infect); time the application to coincide with a larval stage of the target species; and keep the soil moist, not too hot, and not too cold.  On the plus side, they don’t infect birds or mammals.

Parasitic nematodes. Photo by Penn State University Extension.

Given my warm climate, and extrapolating unscientifically from the graphic above, I guess I might be able to interrupt a larval cycle if I went out tomorrow and applied the nematodes…maybe?

Please send your advice, post-haste.

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 1, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

How on earth can it be August? The summer is flying by, and I must start thinking about my fall garden. Already I am somewhat behind (what else is new?).

This past week I planted baby bush lima beans and pulled out the ‘Contender’ bush beans. The flea beetles abused the ‘Contenders’ horribly; next year I’ll do a better job of protecting them at the outset. I have two small eggplant growing, but something’s making eyelet out of the leaves. I do hate to spray but it may be time to pull out the neem oil. Oh, how it smells!

flea beetle damage beans

Flea beetle damage on ‘Contender’ bush beans

The tomatoes, however, are performing well. We’ve had cooler weather lately, in the mid-80s, which means the plants have a better chance of setting fruit. While the fruits do taste better when they ripen hot, I have to wonder, how hot is hot? What’s the optimal temperature for good-tasting tomatoes? The other challenging factor is that we’ve had lots of rain. I have to really keep an eye out and harvest the ripened fruits before they split.

I got my first fig on Wednesday! It was, I tell you, the best fig I have ever eaten. Do you grow figs? I intend to plant another one this fall because I have heard that they set better when there is another fig close by. And I also have ambitions to grow some more blueberries. Well, I have lots of ambitions.

One of my lingonberries died during a heat wave but the other is chugging along nicely. I’m starting kale this weekend and some lettuce as well. I should make room for carrots, garlic, and shallots. I’m fortunate to be able to harvest food year-round here, if I get organized in late summer and through the fall. How long is your harvest season?

Hope the weather is treating you well and the late blight stays at bay.

Best,

Amy

 

Dragonfly season

The dragonflies have started making appearances around my garden.

blue dragonfly

A Great Blue Skimmer? (Libellula vibrans) perching on a dead flower stem.

I love watching these graceful insects buzz around my garden. A small pond in my front yard, perhaps three feet long and two feet wide, seems to be enough to attract them by the dozens. I like how this one seemed to cock his head and consider me as I photographed him.

dragonfly in pond

One of my goals for the summer is to learn more about the dragonflies and other insects that visit my garden. I think this one is the Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans). Lots of these come to visit, and they’re enormous.

I hope they’re eating lots of mosquitoes.

dragonfly profile

 

Gardening as spiritual practice: Watching ants on peonies

If you grow peonies, you will have noticed how the buds attract ants–sometimes by the handful.

ant on peony bud

The buds secrete nectar, which the ants devour in a frenzy. This does no harm to the plants (so don’t spray the peonies with insecticide!). One day in early May, I took five minutes out of my morning to watch the ants eat the nectar.

In the morning light, the ants’ black bodies looked metallic; even occasionally translucent, with black bands running across their abdomens. Although the morning was warm, about 60 degrees, the ants moved with short bursts of energy, slowing down in between. They seemed to use their antennae to sweep the nectar towards their heads.

ants on peony bud through magnifying glassThe morning was quiet. I heard only the sounds of birds, or the occasional airplane overhead.

Are these ants in the same colony? Are they competitors? They seem to get along on the bud. They do not fight each other; there is plenty of nectar for each of them. They have no other objective than to do what they are doing. They have no schedule to keep.

I spent only five minutes watching the ants, but it felt so much longer. My mind kept nagging me to get to work, to get going, to do. I had to exercise resolve to stay where I sat, to watch and breathe. Practicing the observation did not come naturally. What does it say about me, or about my culture, that it should be so challenging to be still for 1/288 of a day?

Looking through my magnifying glass, I think I can see the ants’ tongues. It turns out, however, that ants don’t really have tongues; they have fingerlike appendages called palps around their mouths. I don’t know if what I could see were the palps, or the mandibles moving. I’m inclined to think I saw the palps, as the mandibles are quite large. There is so much I don’t know about nature; ants are just the beginning of my ignorance. Perhaps one day I will read E. O Wilson’s definitive work.

ants on peony thru magnifying glassHenry Mitchell used to sit and watch irises unfurl. Fortunately for him, he did not live (at least, not for terribly long) in a world obsessed with the 24-hour news cycle; he had no cell phone nor email demanding his attention, so perhaps it was easier for him to disconnect. At any rate, I loved watching the ants, however challenging it became for me to stay present with them. I know I will try again next May.

 

Know thine enemy: Common weeds to know

Here’s a terrific chart of common weeds, by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Get to know the weeds that make their homes in your garden. The more you know about them, including their life cycles and reproductive habits, the more weapons you have with which to thwart them.

And please, avoid using chemical weed controls. They can be toxic to pollinators, including bees and butterflies, and can persist in the soil for very long periods of time. Mulch and other methods of weed control are more sustainable, and healthier for you, your family, your pets, and the environment over the long term.

 

Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium fistulosum