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

Welcome, Luna!

IMG_20210914_111420767 (3)Our newest alpaca, Luna, is two months old today. She’s growing so fast and has more than doubled her birth weight. Miss Firecracker delivered her in an uncomplicated birth, thank goodness! You can watch our video about the birth at our YouTube Channel.

Luna kind of looks like her aunt, Theodora, who is Miss Firecracker’s half-sister. The herd was so excited when the new cria arrived and Miss Firecracker is a wonderful mother. Her temperament also changed a lot after she gave birth, she’s still not exactly outgoing, but she is much less aloof and seems vastly more comfortable. After a 50 week pregnancy, that figures. 

Baby Luna enjoys running around with the herd, taking naps while her aunties eat, following her mama everywhere, and nibbling at hay. We are enjoying watching her grow! You can follow along at our Instagram page

 

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. 

Our First Year on the Homestead

It is autumn and we have pulled up the last of our tired squash vines. The pots and garden tools are tucked away in the tack room and Julio is busy getting the barn ready for our herd of alpacas. 2020 has been a wild, difficult year in many respects, but here on Sol Homestead, we have so much to be thankful for. Our first year produced a puny harvest from the garden, but our family and our homestead still grew and we have a better idea of what we need to do to succeed next year.

Let’s recap.

Farmhouse Updates

Kasey’s library

We moved to the homestead in January after painting almost every room of the house. We also replaced the carpeting on the main level with Cali Vinyl Pro, which looks gorgeous. It is also the most eco-friendly version of faux hardwood we could find (we couldn’t spring for the real deal). The previous owners left behind several nice bookcases and Julio helped Kasey set them up as a library corner, which saved the work of doing builtins for the library. It is easily Kasey’s favorite space in the house.

In August, Julio tore down the shed. It was described as “serviceable” on the real estate listing, but Kasey thought “ramshackle” would have been more accurate. Over the summer we saw a skunk come and go from the shed and it seemed like just a matter of time before something made the shed its home. With a small dog on the property and no real use for the shed, it made more sense to tear it down and use the space to expand the garden.

Kasey the preggo wannabe farmer

Garden Trial and Error

During lockdown from COVID-19 in March and April, we started the garden. First, we tilled a 48’x4′ patch of land by our western fence and planted cold weather vegetables there. In late March, we planted five bareroot apple trees, two pear trees, two plum trees, and a peach tree. The late hard freeze that was so bad for Palisade peaches also killed our peach tree. One of our apple trees scorched, and one was smashed by a construction crew working on the edge of our land. They replaced it. Our other seven trees took well and hopefully will start bearing fruit in the next few years.

In May, we added four 4’x4′ raised garden beds, which Julio built. Kasey also planted some seeds in the containers that we used for a balcony garden at our apartment and placed them on the porch. The porch garden did the best, but we did not get much of a harvest this year. We got several zucchini, a few cherry tomatoes, and two small pumpkins. Our winter squash was taken out by frost before it reached maturity. Early in the season, the arugula got eaten by bugs and the spinach bolted. A lot of our other plants either never grew or got scorched during the seedling stage. From all of this, Kasey learned several good lessons. First, she needs to be more methodical in how she plants things. There were no neat rows in her garden. Second, she needs to be more dedicated to sprouting seeds and hardening them before transplanting them. With our short, intense growing season in Colorado, that work will go a long way. Third, our soil needs some help. This year was really about experimenting, so here is hoping that the lessons learned this year lead to a more fruitful 2021.

A Flood

In mid-July, the waterline into our dishwasher burst and flooded the kitchen. Water made it into the heating vent and ran downstairs into our guestroom, soaking into walls and the carpet. Thankfully, insurance is covering almost all of the repairs, but we have had to replace the carpet, the ceiling, and sections of drywall downstairs and the flooring on the main floor—that new flooring we put down when we moved in. It has been four months, but we are finally getting that flooring done. Water damage is a beast.

New Members of the Homestead

Dear Theodora

In August, we welcomed a new human member of the homestead—our baby daughter! We are looking forward to raising her in an environment where she will help with gardening and taking care of the animals. As a friend of Julio’s explained once, it is good for kids to grow up shoveling shit sometimes.

In early November, we purchased our small herd of alpacas from LaZyB Acres Alpacas. Our four girls have great genes and sweet personalities. We look forward to bringing them home in about a month, after we finish fixing up the inside of the barn.

Looking Ahead

Our plans for 2021 include a chicken coop and our first flock of laying hens, residing the barn, replacing the pasture’s fence, and revamping the garden. We are also going to have to figure out how to process the girls’ fleece. Most likely, in the first year, we will send 3/4 of the fleece out to be processed and do one blanket by hand to learn how to do it.

Our first pumpkin

After tinkering around this year, Kasey has decided that in the next season, she wants to focus on growing pumpkins and herbal tea for market and then puttering around with the rest as a kitchen garden. We plan to build four more raised beds, till some flowerbeds for wildflowers and the tea garden, and amp up the pumpkin patch with some more quality soil. We also want to keep developing the orchard. This winter, Kasey will be building a seed starting stand and doing some serious planning for the garden layout and succession planting schedule.

We are so excited about the fun and fluff that the animals will provide and the hard work that bringing these plans to fruition will demand. We hope to see you in the Fall of 2021 with a plentiful harvest. Fingers crossed.

Stay tuned for more information on the herd. We are excited to introduce you to the girls!

A before shot. Time to beautify!