The Saga of Queen Hippolyta I

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Queen Hippolyta I

When a colony of bees makes it through winter and their population has rebounded, one of their first instincts is to swarm. A swarm of bees is how the colony reproduces itself. They raise a new queen, fill up on honey, and then leave with the old queen and about half of the colony’s population. There is an astounding amount of information about how bees make decisions in the swarming process found in Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Dyer Seeley. In a nutshell, they land someplace nearby, often a tree, and then send scout bees to find a new place to live. The scouts come back and use the famed waggle dance to explain the location of the new home they’ve found. Whichever bee has the most workers join them wins. The survival rate for swarms is not great—there are so many natural and manmade dangers for them—and they might decide that their new home is your neighbor’s crawlspace, so for the suburban beekeeper, preventing swarms is part of the job. If you see a swarm, don’t worry, Because swarms are homeless, they don’t have any resources to defend and are not dangerous. Call your local beekeeping association, and a beekeeper will be thrilled to capture the swarm and put them in a hive. Free bees! 

IMG_20220511_133445434 (1)One way to prevent your bees from swarming is performing a split, which is essentially an artificial swarm. When I last posted about beekeeping I was on the fence about if/when to split my hive, but decided to do it after a nudge from our friend Rachele (thanks!). I would have liked to keep Queen Leslie Knope II in the Bee & Bee for purely superficial reasons, but in order to have the best chance to prevent that colony from swarming, I moved her. The idea is to move about half of the bees over to a new hive, with some resources and empty space, so that they feel like they have swarmed, keeping them from actually running away. I performed this split on May 10th and am calling their new hive The Parks Dpt. 

In the Bee & Bee, I had to be really careful to leave frames that had fresh eggs on them, so that the remaining bees could raise a new queen. Right after an egg is laid, it stands up on end, like a grain of rice. Over the next day or so, it starts to tilt over to about 45 degrees. On day three, it hatches. Within the next three days, the larva that hatches either can or cannot become a queen, depending on choices made by the nurse bees. I held the frames up to sunlight to get the best view, making sure they had eggs. 

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Emergency Queen Cups with Larva

I checked back three days later, just to make sure that they had started raising an emergency queen, and found a frame with nine queen cups on it, and I could see larvae in a few of them. I stopped my inspection there, to prevent accidentally damaging any potential queens. More experienced and/or less nosey beekeepers might not check on their splits as much as I did. Once I saw the queen cups, however, I left the hive alone until after 15 days had passed, on May 25th. 

A virgin queen hatches after 16 days. When I made the split, I saw eggs, so I knew that they were between 1 and 3 days old. I did not know how old the eggs that the bees made into queens were, so I did my inspection in the middle of the window, in the very slim hope that I might be able to see one hatch. Once a queen bee hatches, typically, she will find all the other queen cups and sting the queen pupa inside of them, so she’s the only one left. If more than one hatches at the same time, they fight it out. In Honeybee Democracy, Seeley suggests that the workers might sabotage one of the virgins if they think the other is better.

 When I opened the hive, I could see that the queen cups had hatched and some of them had been torn open at the side. It looked very much like some kind of battle royale had gone down. I also found a couple of partially destroyed queen cups that still had queen larvae in them, just not fully developed. I gently opened them the rest of the way and was able to glimpse what a developing queen looked like at different stages. It was sad, but also beautiful, thinking about what each of those baby queens could have been, had they been the one who ultimately became queen of the Bee & Bee. Wistfulness aside, it was clear to me that, unless she had been wounded or killed in a fight with other hatchlings, the Bee & Bee had a virgin queen among them. Within four days, she would be ready for a mating flight. 

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A hatched queen cup

A queen bee leaves the hive just once (unless the colony swarms) to mate with drones. On her mating flight, she will mate with an average of 12 drones. This mating is essential to the genetic health of the colony. A queen won’t mate with drones from her own colony. Assuming she survives the flight, a queen should start laying eggs in around two weeks. So the earliest I expected to see eggs was June 2nd. 

I did a hive inspection on the 2nd, holding my breath a bit. I saw eggs on the second frame I pulled from the upper brood box. They were perfectly placed, one egg per cell. I almost couldn’t believe it. As if that wasn’t good enough, moments later, I saw the newly mated queen on the frame. It was a magical moment. Bees are amazing. This new queen is named Queen Hippolyta I after Wonder Woman’s mother. 

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Queen Pupae at Different Stages

I wasn’t able to get my camera open fast enough through my sticky gloves, so I didn’t get a photo of her that day, but today, a week later, I was able to find her again and get some photos and video. She is a beautiful queen bee and is already laying tons of eggs, taking after her mother, Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Speaking of, Queen Leslie Knope II is reigning well over The Parks Dpt. They aren’t working on swarming, are building out comb in a second box, and the population is booming. I got some video today of her laying eggs. Again, the only word I can think of is magical. I will be posting that as a reel over on our Instagram soon. 

Making this split was an utter thrill and I am so happy that the Bee & Bee was able to make a queen successfully, even with a sudden late-May snowstorm. I hope soon they ramp up comb production so that they can start making honey, too.

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Queen Hippolyta I

 

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Queen Leslie Knope II laying an egg

Mid-Spring Homestead Update 2022

Mid-Spring is kind of an antsy time on the homestead for me. Seedlings are starting to emerge and they take a lot of water and weeding until the garden is in full swing. I have to watch the bees for swarming. Projects need to be done. And the weather is all over the place. I was so grateful for three whole days of rain this week. We desperately need it.

A few weeks ago, we had an open farm day, where we met many neighbors; answered questions about the alpacas, hens, and bees; and sold some dryer balls and greeting cards. We plan to have additional farm days at least once a month during summer and fall. 

In the meantime, here’s what’s going on: 

Bees

IMG_20220430_123903711The Bee & Bee is thriving! My big task at the moment is keeping an eye out for swarm cells and deciding if/when to split them into a second hive. In a nutshell, a honeybee colony is better thought of as a superorganism that reproduces itself rather than individual bees reproducing. When a colony survives the winter like this one did (yay! yay!), their population climbs quickly and they start to think about throwing off a swarm—a new colony. When that happens, they build queen cells at the bottom of frames, and once those are growing new queens, the bees gorge themselves on honey and about half of them leave with the old queen. They usually land on a nearby tree and scout bees fly out to look for a new place to live. Some beekeepers love to catch swarms (free bees!). Queen Leslie Knope II is doing an amazing job and I just spent good money on her in my emergency requeening last year, so I would very much like for them to not swarm away with her. If I see that they are getting ready to swarm, I can split them to try to prevent it. Or I can split them preemptively. I need to decide which very soon, I think.

IMG_20220430_123630717The bees have started to build drone comb in-between the two deep boxes that make the brood nest. Last week during my hive inspection, I was worried that it was swarm cells, but a closer inspection clearly revealed that it was drone cells. Drone (male bee) cells look like bullets. Queen cells look like peanuts and hang down from the bottom of the frame or perpendicular to the rest of the comb. I think they were annoyed that I destroyed some of the drone cells when I pulled the frames out. Sorry girls!

Today during my hive inspection, I found some good news and some bad news. I have been feeding them 1:1 sugar syrup in hopes that they will start drawing fresh comb in their honey super. They weren’t, so I took the queen excluder off last week. I had put it in place so that the brood the queen laid in the old, mite treatment tainted comb could hatch out before I put clean frames in. Today, I saw that they were starting to build comb. IMG_20220506_130806551Yay! It was mostly cross comb, so I pushed it into the frame, wanting them to use the wax to build the comb on the frame instead of out from it. The bad news was that there was a patch of mold on the bottom board. The bee shop sold me some pollen patties a couple of months ago and I put one in the brood nest, but it started to melt and drip onto the bottom board. Clearly, that was the origin of the mold. I could smell that something was off as soon as I opened the hive. It wasn’t as sweet as usual. Fortunately, the spot of mold was small, so I was able to scrape it and flip the bottom board before the mold caused any real damage to the hive or the comb. Phew! Beekeepers, do you use pollen patties? This was my first experience and I’m not sold on them. I am so happy that the hive is doing well! 

IMG_20220506_131504244That One Bee

In general, my bees are very sweet, but often there is one guard bee who just won’t quit. When I take my glove off to take pictures she’s buzzing at my hand. When I go home, she follows me. In an online beekeeping group I’m in, I saw this bee referred to as That One Bee. This year’s hypervigilant guard bee has emerged. When I was filling garden beds (more on that below), she kept buzzing me. I have sat by the hive and watched the bees without having an issue, but that day she was on the warpath. Today, I had a bee hang out on my beesuit for the longest time after I was done. Beekeepers, do you have That One Bee?

Garden

IMG_20220506_122017460I have started to harden off my seedlings (tomato, eggplant, echinacea, verbascum, and pepper) before transplanting them outside. My pumpkin seedlings were looking really good, if leggy, but they withered and died while I was hardening them off. If I am completely honest, I think what did it was that they were sitting on the kitchen counter overnight and, on an impulse, I watered them with leftover coffee and it was tooooooo much nitrogen. Sorry, plant babies. I love you. 

Before those three days of rain, however, I was able to plant corn, green beans, and pumpkins outside in the pumpkin patch and the new raised beds. This year I am growing two types of corn, purple green beans, and a wide variety of winter squash: Porcelain Princess Pumpkin, Mashed Potato Squash, Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, Baby Bear Pumpkin, Naked Bear Pumpkin, Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Luffa Gourd, Igor Pumpkin, Jack O’Lantern, Harvest Moon Squash, Butternut and Acorn Squash, and Kabocha Squash. 

I thought that I was planting them on the early side, but when I checked my records, I planted them on the same exact date last year. I hope to have a good harvest, using the insights about watering I learned last year. Again, fingers crossed. 

About a month ago, when it looked like we were in the clear for frost, I planted summer squash, greens, peas, leeks, and carrots. Plenty of seedlings have started to come up. This weekend, I am planting the rest of the flowers, including several varieties of sunflowers. I am really trying to get the border around the horse run bursting with pollinator-friendly and native flowers this year. My efforts last year did not work out, but I think the soil was too hot, since it was largely made up from old horse poop we had to clean out of the barn. I mulched it heavily over winter to try to draw the nitrogen out. I hope this year things grow better. At any rate, a single grape hyacinth made its way from the front yard to the back, and they are good spreaders, so nature might do the work for me. Thanks, girl. 

Compost

I have been struggling with composting for two years now. I was told that it’s not really that hard, but I can’t seem to get my compost to compost all the way. It didn’t smell bad or anything, it just was not breaking all the way down into good dirt. I spent some time doing research over the winter and came to the conclusion that I was

  1.  not turning my compost often enough 
  2.  including scraps that were too big and 
  3. not giving it enough time. 

After listening to an episode of Gimlet’s How to Save a Planet Podcast (which is very good) called Waste, Worms, and Windrows: Domingo Morales’ Quest to Make Compost Cool, I felt convicted to get my compost efforts back in action. The episode does a good job of explaining why composting is better for the environment and talks about Morales’ efforts to bring composting to New York City on a bigger scale. It’s worth a listen. Since then, I have been diligently turning our tumblers almost every day and putting all of our non-dairy food scraps into a container to go out each day (We don’t eat meat, but if you do, that doesn’t go in compost). I use our kitchen shears to cut fruit peels into smaller pieces and crush the eggshells before tossing them in. It’s a little more effort, but also strangely satisfying. We have two tumblers and I let one rest while I filled the other. The full one is now being turned while it breaks down, but I’m not adding anything new anymore, and have moved to the second tumbler. I can tell by the weight when I turn them that the food is breaking down. Will it turn all the way back into dirt this time? Fingers crossed. If you are good at this, I would love tips. 

Alpacas

IMG_20220409_125333029The alpacas are set for shearing during the first weekend of June. It will be Luna’s first shearing and we are a little nervous about how Miss Firecracker will handle it. She is still very protective of her baby. Luna is almost eight months old. It seemed like Miss Firecracker was weaning her back in February, but Luna is still nursing sometimes, so it is taking awhile. From what I’ve read, when left to their own devices, alpacas wean around 8 months old, so I expect that we will see the nursing sessions continue to wane over the next month or so, until they end completely. Miss Firecracker is not losing weight, and we are not planning to breed her again anytime soon, so we have no reason not to let her follow her instincts. 

The pool is back out for the alpacas. Anytime I get the hose out to water plants, they run over to their pool and wait for me to top it up. They each have at least 2” of fleece on their backs, so you can imagine how hot they get on warm, sunny days. They also like to gather in the shade of the barn by the chicken coop. Miss Firecracker usually gets the shadiest spot. 

Last weekend, I was filling in the new raised beds that Julio and his dad built. I put a layer of alpaca poop on the bottom of each bed as filler and for the added nutrients. As I struggled to get the wheelbarrow, which I discovered too late has a flat tire, through the gate, Moira pushed her way into the backyard to eat the grass. As if Moira wasn’t enough to handle, I took pity on the other girls, who were looking on jealously. I let them eat the yard last year and was usually able to get them back over the fence without too much fuss. This time was different, however. Not only did they leave poor Luna behind, they would not go back to the pasture no matter what I tried. I used a treat to try to bait them into the pasture or barn. I banged on a bucket to scare them. I chased them. I tried to push them. I sprayed them with the hose. I turned on the sprinkler. An hour later, I just charged at them yelling “Go! Go! Go!”, making myself as big and menacing as I could. It worked. Fortunately, I didn’t get kicked or spit at (Theo thought about it) and they looked at me from the pasture like I had lost my mind. It was quite the drama. 

Luna and Clementine need work on halter training and this experience just reinforced that maybe they all need a little work, so we will use that as an opportunity to let them eat the yard as well, but with less frustration getting them back across the fence. 

IMG_20220428_100542801Chickens

The flock has really ramped up egg production and the problem of them eating their eggs is getting better. We’ve been getting 2-4 eggs a day on average. One day we got five! Julio’s theory is that whoever is laying the pale green eggs (Eliza?) is the head hen, because hers never get eaten. One of these days, we really are going to build them that tractor, but in the meantime some afternoons in the orchard await them. 

Orchard

Speaking of the orchard, we think about half of our apple trees are dead. The rest have put out leaves and the pear trees are already in bloom. The rest, however, seem to have a bit of frostbite, or something else went wrong. I am pretty bummed. We watered them (although, in our climate, perhaps they could have used more), fertilized them, mulched, and wrapped the trunks. I am not sure what happened, but I am sad about the loss. We are going to keep watering them and keep our fingers crossed a bit longer. 

Leave Your Dandelions (And a Manifesto Against Lawn Culture)

IMG_20210507_101819446Soon the dandelions will be in bloom all over the lawns of America’s suburbs, and they present an opportunity for you. The blossoming of these little yellow flowers is your chance to help the pollinators without spending one cent or, in fact, doing anything at all. You can be a rebel, a little bit countercultural, and support the health of pollinators in the ecosystem that sits right outside your home. 

As much as people like to prune and tame and labor over manicuring their lawns, they are actually part of an ecosystem, and our human activity can either coexist with the creatures there or work against them. In the spring, dandelions are one of the first food sources for bees coming out of hibernation. Cutting down those dandelions deprives the bees of that meal. Worse, spraying the dandelions with chemicals can kill the bees outright. For the sake of the native bees or your neighborhood beekeeper, please PLEASE do not spray the dandelions. Even better, leave them to grow. 

IMG_20210517_125513971Dandelions aren’t just good for the bees; they’re also beneficial to your lawn and the other plants you grow. The taproot of the dandelion helps to draw nutrients in the soil upward, making them more readily available to green things growing nearby. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can eat the dandelions in a salad or make tea out of them (LawnStarter). They have a wide variety of nutrients, which is why they used to be considered valuable, not a weed to dispose of. 

The humble dandelion is a good example of how the rise of lawn culture put our ecosystems and our relationship with nature out of balance. It used to be that owning land was valuable because of what land provides—a space for growing food. Certainly, land ownership offers other cultural and ecological benefits, but the idea that you would own land, however much, and work hours each week to grow an invasive crop that takes an obscene amount of water and chemicals to maintain, and out of the bargain you got—what—a sense of fitting in? That nonsense, my friends, is a bourgeois display that says you can afford to waste precious natural resources. It all goes back to the French aristocracy (the ones who eventually were beheaded when the people couldn’t afford bread) (Medium). We really can’t afford to waste these resources, either. There are 40 million acres of lawns in America (Salon). Imagine if we did something healthier and more useful with even half of that land. 

Lawn culture is an expensive waste of time, energy, and water. I’d be thrilled if we did away with it entirely, personally. I’m going to tell you why. And then I’m going to give you some ideas of what to do instead. 

Why Manicured Lawns are Bad for the Environment

  • The carbon emissions from gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers, trimmers, etc. are super wasteful (The Week). We have an electric lawnmower and tools from Ryobi that we are happy with. 
  • Grass lawns are a monoculture of a non-native species that does not support the biodiversity needed for healthy ecosystems (Discover Magazine).
  • Fertilizers used on grass are terrible for the ecosystem. They are very high in nitrogen which throws the soil’s nutrients out of balance. If you live on or near water, those chemicals wash into the water, causing an algae bloom which chokes out the sunlight, damaging the biodiversity and health of the plant and animal life meant to live in the water. (Greater Greater Washington)
  • All this grass is potentially very flammable in areas prone to wildfire, especially in drought, which is increasingly everywhere (PBS).

What to Do Instead of Mowing Your Lawn

  • A recent study showed that mowing your lawn every two weeks instead of every week was beneficial to the bees. So a middle road is possible! Just mow less frequently. (USDA)
  • Build some garden beds for wildflowers or a vegetable garden, or plant some trees. Adding diversity to the plants in your yard will boost the ecosystem, especially if they are plants native to your area. Less square footage to mow, too. 
  • Don’t use chemicals. Period. Your lawn might not look perfect. And I’m sorry, I don’t actually care. Grass gets brown when it’s dry out and then greens up again when there’s moisture. That’s how the plant works. 
  • You could also grow a ground cover other than grass. There are plenty of species that require a lot less water, grow slower, and provide food and shelter for insects and creatures. Less maintenance, more biodiversity. Finding the right ground cover for your area will take a bit of research and work, but that’s just time you’d be mowing your lawn, anyway.
  • Read a book. 
  • Take a walk. 
  • Make a jar of “wishes” for your favorite young (or young at heart) person using the puffy seed balls of your dandelions. 
  • Make a cute “Pardon the Weeds. I’m Feeding the Bees” sign.
  • Save money. 
  • Take a nap. 

Lawn culture comes with a lot of baggage in American life. It’s tied up with ideas about prosperity, hard work, good civics, being a good neighbor, sometimes the actual law (The Atlantic). If you have an HOA, there might be little you can do to buck this bologna, aside from mowing every other week. Really, though, it’s all so unbelievably wasteful. 

But, Kasey, you might say, you have a half-acre of…dirt. And that is true. The alpacas eat everything before it can grow much. But in our back yard, we keep it low-maintenance, mowing about once a month, letting the alpacas eat the grass, not wasting water on it, and focusing our energy instead on the pollinator and vegetable gardens. We have a lot going on on the homestead, and, frankly, not spending a lot of time tending to the grass—easily the least useful plant we grow—is a relief. 

Join us, won’t you: let the dandelions grow, mow your lawn less, and have a beer instead, you rebel, you. 

Sol Homestead in Winter

Miss Firecracker

Winter is allegedly a quiet time, when the garden and apiary are done for the season and I am all cuddled up reading a mystery novel. There’s always something to do, though, between the toddler, the chores, and keeping all of us living things warm, fed, and growing. 

Animals

The hens went on “sabbatical” for about six weeks and egg production is slowly ramping back up. They molted starting in November. When hens molt it can be a “hard” molting when they lose their feathers all at once and look awful for a minute before they grow back. Our hens did a “soft” molt. Aside from feathers blowing everywhere on the property and Eliza looking a little naked around her neck, you’d not really guess that they were molting. The energy needed to produce new feathers, plus the very short days probably caused them to stop laying eggs. Someone is also eating eggs if we don’t get to them soon enough. This would indicate that they might need a little more calcium in their diets. Oyster shell it is! 

Freeloading chickens Angelica, Persephone, and Peggy

The alpaca herd is doing well and getting fluffier by the day. Little Luna has grown so much. She is four months old and almost as tall as her mama, Miss Firecracker. We didn’t really notice how much shorter Miss Firecracker is compared to the other girls until Luna started to catch up to her!

We still have two 200 yd 2-ply worsted weight skeins of Miss Firecracker’s yarn left for $35 each. Send us a note in the contact tab if you’re interested!

Bees

A couple of weeks ago, we had a three-day stretch of temperatures in the mid-50s, so I decided to get into the hive for a couple of quick chores. I had seen bees out flying occasionally and I could hear them when I put my ear to the hive, but still, I was nervous that when I opened it I would find that they had blitzed through their food or that there would be signs of too much moisture or too few bees. None of the above happened. I didn’t pull any frames out, but it looks like they have most of their honey left. I added sugar to the feeding shim just in case they do run out of food (the Mountain Camp Method), as I am not planning to open the hive again until spring. If they don’t use the sugar they will just haul it out eventually, but in the meantime it will help absorb moisture.  

A big winter cluster still!

I also did a quick Oxalic Acid dribble just in case the previous mite treatments weren’t sufficient. I wanted to do it when it would be warm for a few days so that the moisture had time to dry out before it got cold again. I have read over and over that this year was an especially gnarly mite year. I think I got out there just as they were heading out for the day, which was the perfect time because they were still mostly in one place for the treatment. There was just one little hiccup. To dribble the OA in the lower deep box, I just tilted the top one up, as I was trying not to disturb the hive too much. Just as I was dribbling the solution along the last frame, the top box slipped and almost fell to the ground. It was heavy and I was holding it one-handed, but somehow I didn’t drop it or smash anyone. 

An undertaker bee at work

Once I reassembled the hive, I brushed as many dead bees out from behind the mouseguard as I could and then watched the bees coming out to relieve themselves and do their chores. I got to watch some undertakers at work. I did help them by brushing the dead bees off the landing board before I left. 

Overall, I am really encouraged by the size of the cluster and how tidy and well-stocked the Bee & Bee is looking. The average overwinter survival rate is ~40%, though, so I’m still keeping a close eye on the hive on sunny, warm days.

Orchard

IMG_20220113_154658038We are hoping to see more growth out of our orchard trees in the coming year now that they are fenced in and safe from alpaca attacks. We need to be more regular about watering them, but for now, the blanket of snow is taking care of that. Our little orchard trees have stood up to some brutal winds this season, assisted by a slight windbreak created by the barn. 

Ideally, I should have wrapped the trunks on the trees around Thanksgiving, but I got to it around New Year’s Day. Hopefully the little guys are okay. I wrapped each trunk in felt, which provides breathable protection from the harsh winter sun in the absence of leaves. They look like they are wrapped up in little scarves. I saw tiny buds on one of the trees when I was wrapping it, and that little glimpse of spring was encouraging. Colorado is not the easiest place to grow fruit trees. 

Garden

I am getting ready to start seeds in about a month, and the first order of business was organizing the seeds I have left over and the new ones I ordered on sale last month. The result was too many seeds! My big goals are to expand the pumpkin patch and get the pollinator garden blooming this year. I think the soil was too hot last year, since the beds had a layer of old horse poo under them, so I put down a heavy layer of mulch to try to cool it down. In order to make everything fit, I am expanding the container garden on the patio, using some pots left by the previous owners. In terms of seed starting, last year was a total flop, so this year I am adding heating pads and humidity covers to try to get some little plant babies growing! These additions should be especially helpful for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Any tips, master gardeners?

First attempts at spinning

Spinning

I am learning how to spin. After almost a year with little progress, I decided that I needed to put a deadline on myself to get the ball rolling, or the spindle spinning, rather. I decided to use the pretty merino fiber I had to make Christmas gifts for my grandparents. I was really pleased with how my first two yarns turned out, but I got less than a third of the way through knitting a cabled headband before I was out of yarn. That’s when I learned how to measure a skein using a niddy noddy, and discovered that I had only spun ~30 yds out of 4 oz of fiber. Yikes. I had to learn to spin thinner!

My first skein. So fluffy and pretty, but only 30 yds!

I eventually managed to spin three 2-ply 100 yd skeins of bulky weight yarn and I thought they turned out nicely. I know they are durable too, because I had to restart one knitting project three times due to some technical mistakes, and the yarn held up splendidly. Now, I am working on spinning thinner, more consistent yarn and finishing skeins so that they are not just usable, but saleable. A huge help in all of this was the book and DVD Respect the Spindle by Abby Franquemont and the Youtube channels MeganERisk Tutorials and JillianEve. I’m spinning every day now, for at least a few minutes and I’m enjoying it, which is a huge improvement from just a few months ago. 

Home 

Spinning thinner yarn with leftovers from Moira.

Aside from holiday festivities, things have been quiet around the house (knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, whatever it takes). We have been enjoying our repaired fireplace and trying out some new recipes. We are vegetarians, and each winter I am on the hunt for new veggie comfort food. This winter has had some real hits. 

Some of our favorite new-to-us recipes this winter have been:

In a few weeks, we will be putting up a new fence, to provide some more privacy and deaden the road noise in the backyard and pasture. That, we hope, pray, cross our fingers, is our last big house project for some time. 

What do you do during this winter season, for fun or around your own homestead? Let us know below. -Kasey 

Preparing the Backyard Bees for Winter

Winter Bees

Often, when talking to people about our bees, I get asked what the bees do during the winter. The answer is pretty amazing, really. 

A bee born in the spring will generally live for around six weeks, but a bee born in the late fall can live for up to four months. The reason for this is that over the cold months, the bees’ metabolisms slow down, preserving their energy and, as a result, slowing the aging process. 

Bees are experts at regulating the temperature in the hive. In the summer, that means bearding and fanning to cool things off. In the winter, that means sealing the hive with propolis (bee glue) and forming a cluster. Bees cluster when the outside air temperature dips below around 57 degrees. (I have sometimes seen the bees out flying when it is slightly cooler than that.) The cluster keeps the queen and any brood present at the proper temperature, between 85 and 93 depending on the status of the brood nest. The cluster needs to maintain contact with the stored food or they can starve to death even if there is plenty of honey in the hive. If it gets really cold outside, the bees may enter torpor, a sort of suspended animation in which their metabolism slows down so much that they require little fuel and look dead. Their are plenty of videos out there of people breathing bees “back to life” by bringing them out of torpor. 

Winter Hive Setup

Since temperature isn’t really a problem for bees most of the time, the really issues are 1) mites and 2) moisture. 

The Varroa Destructor Mite is the probable cause of many colony collapses because the parasitic mites deplete the nutrition vital to winter bees and also spread disease. It is vital to get the mite situation under control before the queen is rearing the winter bees so that the cluster is as healthy as possible. I treated our bees with Apivar and Formic Pro during the year. Before closing the hive up for the winter, I also did an Oxalic Acid Drip to try to get rid of as many mites as I could. I feared that the extended bit of warm weather we had, which lead the queen to keep laying a decent sized nest, meant the mites would keep breeding too. Having a large cluster is great, but as the bee population starts to decline, the mites could overtake them. So, I hope that worked. 

Colorado is a pretty dry climate, so I am not very worried about moisture, but too much moisture in the hive can be disastrous to the bees. When they generate heat for themselves, some condensation is created and some is needed. Bees, like all living things, need water. But if too much builds up, it can drip on the bees and/or lead to mold, both of which are very bad. To control moisture, I put a quilt box on top of the honey super. The quilt box (purple in the picture) has a thick layer of pine shavings from the chicken supplies that will absorb moisture. It also features screened vents to allow ventilation, another form of moisture control. Under the quilt box, I have a feeding shim (blue), which will allow me to add a layer of dry sugar (Mountain Camp Method) later in the winter as emergency feed. The dry sugar will also absorb moisture in the hive. If I put it in too early, though, the bees will just haul it out like trash. Many beekeepers tilt their hives forward about 5 degrees to allow water to run out of the hive, but I cannot figure out how to do that with my hive stand. Given the dry climate and the quilt box, I hope that this setup works.

Finally, there’s a mouse guard and it’s all strapped to gether with a ratchet strap with some heavy rocks on top. This setup held it all together during 85 mph winds yesterday!

 It’s our first winter with the bees and I have so enjoyed them this year. I really hope that they make it through the winter. The requeening late in the season made me nervous, but the long stretch of warm weather gave them a leg up, I think. I fed them 2:1 syrup along the way so that they didn’t have to break into their stores. At the last inspection, I estimated that they had about 100 pounds of honey stored, plus plenty of pollen. I’ve seen them out taking “cleansing flights” (to go to the bathroom) and dragging out dead bees on each warm day, and I get a little thrill every time. 

 Good luck, bees! I hope to see you in the spring.  -Kasey

Further Reading

Scientific Beekeeping: Fat Bees Part 1

Honey Bee Suite: Temperature regulation in a winter cluster

The Saga of Queen Leslie Knope II

IMG_20211005_101958753_HDR (2)I mentioned briefly in an earlier post that my beehive lost its queen after a Formic Pro treatment. I had suspected for a few weeks prior that the queen was getting weak, but as it’s my first year, I wasn’t sure if she was slowing down because it was summer dearth or if it was a problem. The hive had made moves to replace her before, and I thwarted them. Because she was unmarked, I did not know how old she was. Looking back, I should have either requeened the hive earlier in the summer or let them requeen themselves. When I removed the Formic strips and did a hive inspection in the last week of September, I found many supersedure cells. I stopped counting at 12. That late in the season, however, it was too late for them to raise a new queen and get her mated. Thanks to the advice of a couple of other local beekeepers on Instagram (Thank you!), I moved quickly to find a new mated queen. I couldn’t find one locally anymore, so I was able to get one shipped from California. Thankfully, she arrived safely. 

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Queen Leslie Knope I

While I was waiting on Queen Leslie Knope II to arrive from California, I had to deal with the mess in the hive. I inspected the frames to cut out the supersedure cells. I saw a lot of eggs, but at the bottom of a few frames, there were multiple eggs in a cell, all at the back. It was perplexing. For some background, the presence of the queen’s pheromones suppresses the ability of worker bees to lay eggs. If a hive has been queenless for a bit, some of the workers may start to lay eggs. The problem is that they are unmated and so they can only lay eggs for male bees—drones—whose only job is procreation (and sometimes heat regulation) so in the fall they are so useless that before winter the workers evict them entirely. A laying worker bee also doesn’t have the long body needed to lay an egg in the back of a cell, where it belongs, and she generally lays multiple eggs per cell. Once the eggs hatched and the workers capped the cells, I saw that the hive was full of drone larvae. But it had looked so good when it was in the egg stage. It is also possible that before a queen bee dies she runs out of stored semen to fertilize eggs and only lays drones. I wast not sure if what I saw in the brood nest was a laying worker or a dying queen. 

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Supersedure Cells.

Either way, I had to find and dispatch Queen Leslie Knope I before introducing her successor. If the queen was already in the hive, the bees would most likely reject the new queen, killing her. Or the two queens could do battle, possibly leaving me with the failing queen again. Queen Leslie I was on the smaller side and unmarked. I had not been able to find her in previous inspections, although I did find her in a couple of photos over the summer. I did careful searches for her on consecutive days and never found her. I also never found fresh eggs, which told me that she was likely dead already. 

Then, there was the question of the laying workers. If I had laying workers, it also increased the likelihood that the hive would be hostile to the new queen. I still wasn’t sure if I had laying workers or not. The absence of new, messy eggs leaned toward not. But, to be safe, I thought I should intervene. I read that one way to deal with laying workers is to shake the frames of bees out about 100 feet from the hive. Laying workers are usually, but not always, nurse bees who have not left the hive to forage yet. The theory is that if you shake a laying worker out away from the hive, she won’t be able to find her way back. It felt kind of mean, but the hive is really a superorganism and it’s not worth risking the whole colony for a few bees. So, I shook out the brood nest away from the hive. I don’t really know if that did anything other than making the bees angry. Based on subsequent reading I did, though, I am pretty sure that I had a drone-laying queen, not laying workers.

IMG_20211005_102708275By the time Queen Leslie II arrived, I was as confident as I could be that Queen Leslie I was no longer in the hive. Even still, I spent some time observing the bees’ attitude toward their new queen before I left her in the hive. When you order a new queen, she comes in a little cage with a few attendant bees who are there to care for her. One end of the cage has fondant for the bees to eat and the other has a candy plug that the bees will gradually eat through to release her into the hive. This slow-release mechanism allows the queen’s pheromones to circulate through the hive before she is loose, helping the hive to accept her as their queen, and not immediately ball and kill her. Usually the candy plug is reinforced with a cork, which you pull out before putting the cage in the hive. When Queen Leslie II arrived, I set her on top of some frames for a while and watched how the bees approached her. They were not at all aggressive. Workers came up to the cage and crawled around it, but none were trying to sting her through the mesh or trying to ball her. So, I left the cage suspended between two frames in the brood nest. (Full disclosure: I accidentally hung it upside down, so I had to go in the next day and flip it. If one of the attendats had died in the meantime, it could have possibly plugged the exit. Oops.) Some people encourage beekeepers to remove the attendant bees before placing a queen, as the presence of strangers can cause aggression in your workers. I read that the queen’s pheromones cover these workers too, so it shouldn’t really be a problem. Additionally, as a new beekeeper, I didn’t want to run the risk of losing or injuring the queen while removing the attendants. 

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Queen Leslie Knope II at work in the hive

I installed the new queen on Wednesday, October 6. Because it was so late in the season, I wanted to get her laying eggs as soon as possible, so on Friday, I went back to check how things were going. The bees were still not aggressive toward her and they had started to eat through the candy. I spent some more time watching them. I tested their response by brushing them off the queen cage—the brush test. They were easily brushed away, which was the result I was looking for. So, I took a small nail and punched through the candy plug. She was out. 

A week later, I did a hive inspection and there were a few eggs, but not many. I felt so anxious about the hive at that point. I was afraid that they couldn’t get a good cluster going before winter. But, the next week, my hive inspection revealed many more eggs. The drones that Queen Leslie I left behind were hatching out and Queen Leslie II had the beginnings of a healthy nest of workers. Now, a month later, the hive is booming with bees. This warm fall has helped, no doubt.

IMG_20211018_141426793_HDRIt is not unusual for hives to try to replace a new queen. During that first hive inspection after installing her majesty, I again found supersedure cells. I cut them out, and scolded my workers a bit. During the first weekend of November, I was doing a hive inspection on an unseasonable 70-degree day, and found a swarm cell—with a larva in it—on the bottom of one frame. That there was only one, and that it was there so late in the season was confusing, and frustrating to me. Before I could even decide what to do, I accidentally smashed it while moving the box it was in. My latest, and last, hive inspection showed no signs of them trying to replace Queen Leslie II, who is still laying like a champ. I expect that as the temperature drops, she will slow down. In the meantime, it has been an absolute treat to have a marked queen. I can always find the queen now and I am delighted every time I see her. 

Long live Queen Leslie Knope II. 

Helpful Resources on Re-queening

Barnyard Bees: How to Tell if Bees will Accept a New Queen

Barnyard Bees: How Bees Act When They Reject the Queen

Bee Culture: Laying Wokers. It Happens. Fix It. 

Honey Bee Suite: How to Fix a Laying Worker Hive

Backyard Beekeeping: How Many Days after Requeening Should I Expect to See Eggs

Lessons We Learned In Our Second Year

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We are having an unseasonably warm autumn where we are, with temperatures still consistently in the upper 50s. We’ve even had some days in the 70s lately, which has been great for the bees and for giving us a little leeway as we break things down for the winter. 

As we work on winterizing the garden and the beehive, it has been natural to think about what we learned this year, primarily by making mistakes or making things harder on ourselves. So, here are the big lessons we’ve learned. 

IMG_20210825_135914620_HDRBrush the Alpacas Before Shearing Them

During the first week of June, our alpacas were sheared for the first time at our homestead. They were so ready for a haircut! Before we sent the prime cuts of their fleece to a fibermill to be spun into yarn, we had to skirt the fleece—that means picking out the hay, debris, and matts. I don’t know if you know this about alpacas, but they like to roll around in the dirt and hay. They were pretty dusty and dirty and skirting their fleece was a nightmare. Kasey is still working on getting their second and third cuts ready to spin and it is just so full of hay. 

We contacted our mentor to ask him if there was anything that we could do to keep them cleaner. Some really serious farms keep their alpacas in coats so that they can’t get hay, etc. stuck in their fleece, but that is too hardcore for us. And Moira is always hot enough as it is. We also knew that brushing them could destroy the structure of their fleece, which is meant to have a beautiful crimp to it. We visited our mentor during Alpaca Farm Days and he showed us a bucket full of different brushes that we could use before shearing. If we are shearing them to spin the fleece into yarn, it is okay for us to brush them then, because spinning destroys the crimp of the yarn. Of course! So, we hope that next year that will be less of an issue for us. 

Get Beekeeping Timing Right

IMG_20210616_134653790One of the biggest disappointments we had this year had to do with the beehive. Kasey keeps our bees and this is her first year. She got the bees on May 2nd and now wishes that she had immediately tested the bees for mites and treated them, but she was new and nervous about it and it took a few weeks to get used to working with them before she was ready to check for mites. She did so the third week of May and the mite count was really high. If she had understood her options better, she probably would have used Formic Pro, but she didn’t understand that the temperature restrictions were just for the first three days. Knowing that it would soon be really hot, she instead used Apivar, adding it May 25 and removing it on July 20th. 

Apivar cannot be used with the honey supers on, because the treatment creates residue in the honey and the wax that is not safe for human consumption. When the treatment was added, there were no supers on, but there were two deeps. It was a killer honey flow this year, though, and so supers were needed after a couple of weeks so that the bees didn’t run out of room. Long story short, they filled two medium honey supers with honey, none of which was safe for human consumption. It will get fed back to the bees, but by the time the treatment was done, the honey flow was over and summer dearth had set in. So many mistakes. 

Kasey feels pretty annoyed and let down by this mistake. She didn’t plan on harvesting honey this year, but with such a good season, it would have been nice to be able to harvest a couple of frames to give as Christmas gifts. Then, in late summer, she did use Formic Pro, and the queen ended up dying. More on that in another post. The most important thing is that the bees make it through the winter, but this was a steep learning curve and the mite treatment was the only part that was really frustrating.

Gardening Lessons 

IMG_20211009_152353403 (1)The garden grew SO. MUCH. BETTER. this year overall. We grew a delicious assortment of winter squash and pumpkins, patty pan squash, zucchini, greens, some tiny carrots, green beans. The Harvest Moon Squash was a variety we’d never tried before and it was delicious when stuffed and baked. 

But there’s still room for growth (pun intended). We realized that we want more room, so next year we are most likely building four more raised beds to create a natural buffer in front of the beehive and extend the garden’s footprint. 

We also learned that our watering strategy was insufficient. Although we got many, many squash and pumpkins, our Jack O’Lanterns and corn were puny and we think that was in part due to shifting too late from the type of watering we were doing to encourage the seedlings to grow to the deep watering that the plants needed to form fruit. We will also be watering the orchard more. 

IMG_20211009_114345683_HDRWhen we cleaned out the barn, it produced a giant mound of old, old horse manure. We were able to give a lot of it away for people to compost, but Kasey also used a lot to create a base layer for flowerbeds around the edge of the horse run. The plan was to grow wildflowers there to support pollinators. Her dream is to have lush perennial wildflower garden that takes not that much maintenance. She planted lavender, sunflowers, apache plume, Veronicas, and cone flowers there. The lavender was really the only thing that grew. Everything else scorched. She needs to test the soil, but it seems like the soil is too hot. The plan is to mulch it over the winter to draw out some of the nitrogen, but it was a good lesson in checking soil PH. 

There were so many lessons this year, but these were the biggest ones. What did you learn this year through trial and error? Let us know below. 

Notes on a Bee Sting

IMG_20210720_111925228Now that summer dearth has settled in, I’ve had a lesson about honeybee psychology. 

I did a hive inspection on Tuesday and was puzzled to find that there were plenty of eggs, larvae, and capped brood in the second deep box, but wide patches of empty comb in the brood nest in the lower deep box. There was clear evidence that the hive was queenright, so I was confused. After doing some research, I understood that I was probably seeing a brood break in response to the mid-summer dearth. Sensing that resources are scarcer, the queen lays fewer eggs so there are fewer mouths to feed. That would also explain why the bees had not drawn any comb in the third honey super I had given them the week before—although they had drawn out the brood frame I had put in place of a drone frame. I decided to feed them 1:1 just to get them through dearth and to encourage them to maybe, just maybe, draw out that super. 

IMG_20210803_133307507 (1)I thought about the bees throughout my shift as a greeter at the Molly Brown House the next day, because I watched a single honeybee repeatedly fly around the front porch, where there were no plants, in search of nectar (I guess?). Bees checking and rechecking unusual places is one sign that dearth has set in. Later that night, I did some more research, deciding whether I needed 1:1 or 2:1 syrup for the hive and I asked Julio to make it for me. By the time our baby was asleep, it was almost 8:00 and, although the sun hadn’t set, it was probably too late to go into the hive. It’s fine, I thought, and besides, I didn’t even have to take off the inner cover to put the feeder in place. 

When I got to the hive, the back fence line smelled like the neighborhood skunk had been there recently. Skunks eat bees. I did not know that. I think most people think of skunks as Pepe Le Pew and not much else, but skunks have a voracious appetite for gardens, mice, and insects. Not only will they tear a hive apart to get to the honey, but they will also scratch at the bottom of a beehive and then eat the bees who come out trying to figure out what is going on. They chew them up, devouring their juices, and then spit the little bee carcasses out. Brutal. I had no reason to believe that the skunk had been bothering the garden or the bees, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bees, who seem so hyper-attuned to their environment, recognized the stench of skunk and were on edge. They were bearding dramatically over the front of the hive, too. All of these factors indicated that I should probably just wait to put the feeder in until the next day, but I figured if I did it now, I wouldn’t attract the yellow jackets, two of whom had been hanging around the hive inspection the day before. 

As soon as I took off the outer cover of the hive, I had hangry bees flying around me. I was wearing just a veil, a regular jacket, and one beekeeping glove. Not a smart move, but at least I remembered to take my rings off. I thought I’d just be in and out quickly, but the defensive bees made it hard to get the feeder in place and the box over it smoothly. Then, a sharp pain. I was stung through my pants right on the kneecap. I had the bees’ knees. 

The box was really crooked and I still had to get the outer cover in place. I grabbed a second glove and went back, but the bees were still angry. Fortunately, I didn’t get stung again, but I did get bitten by a mosquito on the bum. 

That night, as I drank my post bee sting beer, I remembered that the observation cover I’d put over the feeder box had upper vents and that created an additional gap that perhaps the bees might have to guard. I started thinking about yellow jackets and wasps I’d seen in the garden, on edge. A strong hive can defend against a few robbers, but could my hive withstand an attack? I’d have to keep an eye on things and flip that cover over when I could.

The next morning, as I left for my run, I could smell the skunk for a quarter mile up the street. What had it been up to? Had someone hit it with a car? Had the neighbors’ dogs chased it? The stink was everywhere. Earlier in the week, I had been startled by a giant bull snake while on my run. Snakes can also pose an indirect threat to a colony if they choose to take shelter in the bottom of the hive. 

Robbing insects. Skunks. Snakes. In a couple of months, as the nights get cold, mice might also decide that the hive looks like a cozy place to stay. I should probably put on a mouse guard, too. There is always the possibility of a bear, too, however remote. 

As my own anxiety about the security of the beehive rose, my frustration that the ungrateful bees had stung me when I was just trying to feed them ebbed. Seemingly every creature in the neighborhood was trying to steal their honey, their home, their very lives. Or, in the order of priority for the bees, their very lives, their honey, their home. They had worked so hard to build the nest and then to fill it with brood, pollen, and honey. Then, in comes some giant and pops the top off the whole thing just as they’re starting to settle down after a hard day’s work foraging? I’d want to sting me too.   -Kasey

(Disclaimer: I’m a first-year beek, so if any of this sounds really mistaken, please share some wisdom, fellow beekeepers!)