Picture
In June we noticed a bee swarm had taken temporary residence high up in our plum tree.  Since both of our hives were occupied, we sent word out to the local beekeeper community.  It wasn't a very convenient location for capturing it, though, so no one jumped at it.  It decided to move after not too long, and Paul followed it east on Encinal and tried to give the new hosts a heads up (most people get pretty freaked by bee swarms).

A couple days later, we found either that swarm or a new one in our apple tree, a much more convenient location.  This time our friend John, another local beekeeper, said he wanted to capture it to populate one of his empty hives.  We caught the whole process on videotape.

Swarms are the natural way that bees form new colonies.  When a bee colony begins to run out of room in its current digs, it raises a new queen.  The old queen leaves the hive with half of the other bees.  The bees will find a place to clump together around the queen somewhere while scout bees look for a new location for the colony to live.  The swarm is almost like a liquid glob made of bees and is usually very calm.

The process to capture a swarm is basically to shake it into some container.  In this case, we shake it into a standard hive box which John later (at night, when the bees are most calm) took back to his empty hive.  The shaking is a little more aggressive here than was perhaps necessary... we've seen some swarms practically poured into boxes.

If the transfer works, the queen bee will have made it into the container.  The rest of the bees will eventually follow her.  If she did not make it in, the others will start marching out of the box within ten or fifteen minutes.  In this case, the capture worked, as we confirm that bees are still headed into the hive a while later.

There's a good article on bee swarms here if you want to learn more.  If you come across a swarm, contact your local county's beekeeper association and someone will usually come right out to capture it.

 
Picture
This year's honey harvest netted about 115 pounds (about 38 quarts) of honey.

This is the first year that Madeleine was able to suit up and see the action up close (no, she's not pulling frames out of boxes quite yet). She is very well versed in the vocabulary of beekeeping and she was enthralled earlier this season to see a queen bee up close for the first time.

This harvest is also the first time that we've saved the wax cappings because  Ann wants to try making some beeswax candles.

We've gotten the harvesting process down much smoother now. We did the harvest in 8 hours flat (!), by far our fastest time.   A big part of that has been minimizing the number of people present.  That especially helped in the cleanup process, as more people present means more sticky honey on the bottom of people's feet, the floor, the counters, doorknobs, and every last surface in our neighbors' house where we do the extraction.

 
Picture
On April 25th we had 540 people trek through our garden as part of the 7th annual Bay Friendly Gardening Tour. We spent six straight hours answering questions about our chickens, rain barrels, bat house, beehives, and greywater system, probably in that order. After that came questions about many of the 33 fruit and vegetable crops that we've squeezed into our small back and front yards. 

We got many comments about the enormous size of the strawberries in our patch as well as the prolific raspberry and blueberry bushes, and lots of questions about our asparagus and fava beans ("What is that plant? And what is that one over there?").

Many of the people on the tour are novice gardeners, and it was wonderful to hear their excitement as they noted what can be done in just a small space. We were gratified to hear so many people tell us that they were going to go home to put up a bat house, set up rain barrels, convince a spouse to let them get chickens or bees, plant a fruit tree, or build a raised vegetable bed. 

Overall, preparing for the Tour was a huge amount of work, but we are thrilled that the re-landscaping project we began a year and a half ago is finally finished (we think). Now that the weather is beautiful and we've begun to eat meals on our back deck, we can enjoy a yard and garden that is busy producing our summer crops without much effort on our parts.

(The top photo shows our Fuji apple tree in the foreground.  The photo below shows raspberries along the chicken fence, an apricot tree just in front and near the center, fava beans at the bottom and toward the center, and asparagus at the bottom and to the right.)

 
Picture
Our yard and those of three of our close-by neighbors will be featured on this year's Bay-Friendly Garden tour on Sunday, April 25th.  The free, self-guided tour is sponsored by StopWaste.organd includes over 40 gardens in Alameda County, grouped in geographical clusters.  Pre-registration is required.

Our yard is pretty well qualified, with native plants, rain water catchment, gray water, chickens, bees, food production, and landscaping with salvaged materials.  We've been told to expect over 500 people (and perhaps well over that, since registration has been particularly strong so far).  There's also a need for volunteers to help out, so sign up if you're interested.

Here's a fuller description of the tour from StopWaste: "The 7th annual tour continues to celebrate the diversity of Bay-Friendly gardens. Urban farmers grow abundant harvests of fruit and vegetables, and keep chickens and bees.  Native plant enthusiasts embrace the local flora. Salvaged material aficionados blend recycled art into the landscape. Bay-Friendly gardens offer something for everyone—come and discover ideas for creating your perfect haven.... Gardens range from professionally designed postage stamp-sized lots in Berkeley to exuberant one-acre market gardens in Pleasanton."

We're pretty excited, although we have a bit more prep to do over the next few weeks.

 
Picture
It took our bees about 3 ½ months of working steadily, but they've now provided us with our first 50 pounds or so of honey. (Technically, we've gotten honey from a hive in our backyard in the past, but that was when someone else was doing the beekeeping for us and he gifted us with a jar or two before selling the rest.)  However, yesterday was the big day for my neighbor Dell and I (the two "official" beekeepers, although the rest of our households get a lot of credit too). A friend and veteran beekeeper, John, generously offered a few hours of his time to help us learn how to extract the honey, and he showed us quite a few tips along the way as he examined our hives. He gave us our first glimpse at a queen bee (she is twice the size of the worker bees) and helped us diagnose some of the happenings in the hives in recent weeks. 

Picture
One of our colonies has been exceptionally strong, so we were able to harvest nine frames of honey from that one. The other has been queenless for a time and hasn't been very productive, so we didn't extract any from it. We couldn't complain; a 50 pound harvest (about 17 quarts worth) seems bountiful to us, even though I know of beekeepers who get 300 pounds in a season with two hives. If we were to sell all of our honey at the going rate, generally $7-$9 a pound, we'd have a good start at recouping some of our $555 start-up costs.

Our harvesting party turned into a neighborhood affair as several people joined us for John's teach-in at the site of the hives (our neighbors' backyard). Madeleine and John's five-year-old daughter alternately watched with interest—she in her own bee suit (now Maddy wants one)—and played quietly by themselves, completely unfazed by the sight of thousands of bees buzzing around. After we "worked the hives," we traipsed the honey-filled frames to our shed where we had set up the extractor equipment.

Picture
Others joined us to help handcrank the extractor (a large centrifuge that spins the honey out of the frames) and to see the honey flow. We let it settle overnight so the wax would rise to the top, and this morning we lined up our jars, opened the spigot, and oohed and ahhed as it filled jar after jar.

Because we don't have all the fancy beekeeper's equipment, we haven't perfected a method for recapturing all the beeswax that gets lost in the extracting process. Nor have we perfected a straining system to keep small bits of wax out of the honey, so you'll notice in the photos that our honey comes in "creamy" and "chunky" varieties (although the wax does rise to the top by itself in a matter of hours). It all tastes the same, and Madeleine will attest that it's yummy. We hope to have more honey to harvest by this fall, and we expect by then our harvesting techniques will have improved. In the meantime, there will be a lot of bread baking and granola making happening in the neighborhood this week.

Bees!

4/10/2008

1 Comment

 
Picture
For two years an Oakland beekeeper kept a beehive in our backyard. After he went missing-in-action when our last colony died off in the fall our neighbor, Dell, and I decided we should go ahead and learn the art and science of beekeeping ourselves. What that has meant practically is that for the last three months I've been learning beekeeping while Dell has been fronting half of the start-up costs for two hives. I read some books about beekeeping, attended the Alameda County Beekeeper's Association meetings, visited other beekeeper's hives in Alameda, and took a local "Introduction to Beekeeping" class. 

It has proven to be an intellectually stimulating and exciting diversion from chasing around a toddler, hanging laundry, and cooking meals. The more I've studied, the more intrigued and excited I've become. The science of honey bees is fascinating, and I've been reminded why I was a science major in college. Every time I get home from a class or a meeting I spend the rest of the evening regaling Paul with random facts about bee behavior. For example, the queen bee leaves the hive once in her lifetime when she mates with several males in mid-air.  Then she returns to the hive to lay approximately 1,000 eggs a day, every day, for the rest of her life until she dies, gets displaced in the hive by a younger queen, or gets eaten by said younger queen.

Picture
Last week, I suited up in a full beesuit for the first time to inspect three colonies at an fellow beekeeper's house a few miles from here. I came home encouraged that I now know enough to begin colonies of my own.

I've been having many nighttime dreams about bees, and have been wringing my hands about where and how I wanted to procure the bees to fill our two hives. Finally, yesterday I got a call from a veteran beekeeper that I could come to catch a swarm with him.  It was an exciting afternoon as we had to capture the swarm that was 25 feet high in a tree. The end result was that my neighbors and I drove home from Berkeley with somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 bees in my trunk. Today as Paul, Madeleine, and I checked on the hive several times, we witnessed hundreds of bees taking their inaugural flights around Dell's backyard as they got their bearings around their new home.

Picture
I hope to capture another swarm before the swarm season ends this month to put in the other hive. We'll probably get a honey harvest this year, although some beekeepers have warned me it will probably be "small" -- just 50-60 pounds per hive this year since we're starting from nothing. That will be just fine with me. When Dell and I decided to do this in January, it was because we wanted all our fruit trees well pollinated, so the thought of honey was like the icing on the cake. Now, of course, I'm pretty excited by the prospect of a honey harvest too.

It's a little tricky to make out, but the first photo shows the swarm of bees clinging to a tree limb 25 feet up in the tree. To capture them we attached a painter's bucket with metal hinges to a long pole, raised the bucket to just beneath the swarm, gave it a sharp jab, and all the bees fell into the bucket. Then we literally poured the thousands of bees into my waiting hive on the ground. At dusk, when all the remaining bees found their way into the hive, we closed it up and popped it in the trunk for the ride home. Dell and his wife Pat decided that to celebrate we should stop for a drink on the way home. Before going into the bar and after coming out, we opened the trunk to let the bees get some fresh air. They survived their trip just fine, no worse for the celebratory stopover.

 
Picture
It seems that our bee hive got hit by the mysterious disease called Colony Collapse Disorder that is sweeping the country recently and killing tens of millions of bees. Twenty-four states have reported bee apiaries being effected by an unknown plague that wipes out entire bee colonies at a time. What is unusual is that beehives affected by the disease are being found empty since the bees fly away to die, which is unlike their normal behavior. The day after we read about this disease in the San Francisco Chronicle, we went out to check on our bees and discovered they had all disappeared. Our beekeeper says it's possible they ran out of room in the hive so they swarmed and flew away to find another home, but we think that we or the neighbors would have noticed 30,000 bees taking flight at once. 

We were fortunate to get our bees replaced by those of a friend, so we were only without our local pollinators for about two weeks. Our new colony arrived in time to start pollinating our plum trees at the time of their full bloom. This time the hive is just over the fence in our eager neighbor's yard so little Madeleine won't incur the bees' wrath by sticking her curious hands in the entrance to their hive.

 
Picture
When we returned from vacation a couple weeks ago, we discovered that—to our surprise—our bee keeper had taken the first harvest of honey.  He left us this three pound jar out of the total nine pounds he harvested.  He says that's a pretty modest amount, and that in the future it will be a lot more.

 
Picture
Our beekeeper José added a new box for our growing bee community.  The three-story tower on the right is the one they're currently occupying.  At some point he may get a second queen to start the other hive (the short one on the left with the green top). 

The bees seem to be doing well, and José thinks we may have a first honey harvest in a month or two. 

Our neighbor planted some clover especially for the bees, but they have been disappointing him so far.  We've noticed them a little bit in our trees, but otherwise only see them if we watch them coming and going from the hive.  The bees come in and out through the slot along the bottom of the hive (see the close-up below).