Rainy days and Sundays always get me down when I can not garden!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Through-out the year, the activity changes within the beehive and the number of bees fluctuates according to these changes. Heading into winter a hive contains about 30,000 to 40,000 bees. By February/March that number has dropped down to around 20,000 provided the hive has survived winters icy grip. As April approaches and the days are getting warmer the Queen is in full laying mode and over the next few months the hive expands rapidly. Birthrates exceed death rates, and by June/July there are roughly 60,000+ bees in the hive. With this rapid growth, the hive becomes overcrowded, space is limited, and the queen may start to run out of brood space to lay her eggs. With more bees in the hive, the queen’s pheromones may not “get around” to all the workers. All of these factors can contribute to the hive deciding to swarm. In nature, swarming is instinctual, and results in creating a new hive from an existing (strong) colony. In other words, it’s a method of reproduction. Most swarms take place in the spring and early summer, however, bees can swarm at any time. The later in the season a hive swarms after July, the less chance it has for survival through the winter months.  
Once a hive has decided to swarm they put their game plan into motion. First, they select several eggs that will be developed into the hives new queen(s). These peanut-shaped swarm cells are usually found along the bottom of the frames. As these queens are developing, the old queen slows down her egg laying and “slims down” in preparation of flying off with the swarm. The hive does not wait around for the new queen(s) to emerge. Shortly before swarming, the worker bees gorge themselves on a 3-day supply of honey and nectar. Once they are ready the hives original queen along with 50%-60% of worker bees take flight (truly a sight to be seen). As the virgin daughter queens hatch out, they fight each other to the death until there is just one. This new queen will go on her mating flight and then resume the role left to her by her mother.

Bees swarm without having a new location in mind to move into. At first they will stop and cluster not far from their original hive, keeping the queen in the center of the swarm. The queen is not great at flying and needs to stop and rest. While resting, scout bees go out in search of a new home. They return to share their findings with the others. Collectively, the hive must agree before moving into their new location. When swarming the bees are focused on finding a new home. They are not protecting brood so they tend not to be aggressive. (Bees attack when they are protecting their hive or feel threatened). If you see a swarm of bees, keep your distance. Typically, they will not remain at that location for very long. You can also contact a beekeeper, who would be happy to come and “rescue” a swarm. Catching a swarm is the equivalent to free bees. (A package of bees cost roughly $95)

Swarming reduces the original hives numbers by disrupting the brood cycle, slowing down the hives growth and honey production. Sometimes, once a hive has swarmed, it is followed by after swarms. After swarm are smaller swarms that fallow the original or first swarm but usually with a virgin queen. This can result in the depletion of the hive. Since a hive swarms before new queen emerges there is always the risk of losing the new queen resulting in a queen less hive. This happened to us last year while inspecting a hive that had swarmed. Lifting off one of the brood boxes, we damaged the swarm cell killing the larva inside. There were no other swarm cells, nor were there any eggs to create an emergency queen. This left us scrambling to locate a queen for sale and to re queen the hive.

Beekeepers hate swarming and employ various methods to prevent it. They may clip one of the queen’s wings to keep her from flying or try to trick the bees into thinking they have already swarmed by doing what are called “splits”. They will continue to add supers, manipulate the brood boxes or even destroy swarm cells. All of these methods may post pone swarming, but it may not stop the inevitable.

This past summer we caught our first swarm of bees! Yea, free bees! It was easy since they were wrapped around one of the legs of our hive stand. Could it had been a swarm from one of our hives? Who knows? Either way we were able to scoop them up along with the queen and place them into a nuc box. (When catching swarms, you must catch the queen or the hive will not stay.)

As we enter into fall foraging/ nectar sources are becoming more scarce and swarming should be behind us, hopefully. Of course there is always absconding, when ALL bees in a hive leave in search of a new home.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"If you want to gather honey, don't kick over the beehive" Dale Carnegie

Raw, "wild flower" honey from our hives.
Uncapping fork and knife.

Our hives.
Removing the waxed cappings from the frames....
...to reveal the honey inside the comb.

Perforating the honey cells with the uncapping fork  This helps the honey to flow out of the cells during the extraction process.
Once uncapped the frames are placed into the extractor. 

It's time to give the extractor a spin....for 5 minutes!!!  Our extractor is a hand cranked model!

The honey is run through a strainer to remove any leftover wax or other particles.   
The aftermath. 
A by-product of harvesting honey, the cappings can be melted down and used for other purposes.

Bees cleaning up anything left on frames.

"If everything is honey
And I am what I eat
I must bee made of honey
And life is very sweet"
From Winnie The Pooh - Everything Is Honey

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


It's spring! The days are getting warmer and bees can be seen buzzing about in front of our hive. Forager bees head out in search of food (nectar and pollen) and water sources and return with brightly colored pollen packed into their “pollen baskets”. With temperatures in the 50's, sunny, and not to breezy, it's time to do our first full hive inspection of the new year. We have been patiently waiting all winter to take a look inside and this inspection will allow us to see just how well this colony has overwintered.

A few puffs of smoke from the smoker and we pop off the top. The bees appear gentle which is a good sign since past experience has shown us that an aggressive hive is a queen-less hive. The bee population/cluster looks fairly good and we do not see signs of disease or pest. As we continue to work our way through the hive, we will be looking for the queen along with eggs, larva and capped brood. All signs that our girl is doing her job.

Now we are faced with a decision, do we re-queen our hive or keep our existing queen? So let's look at the role of the queen and reasons why you may re-queen a hive. The queen is the matriarch and only female capable of laying fertilized eggs. She is the heart of the hive and without her the hive will fail to thrive. Her only role is to lay eggs, laying between 1500-2000 eggs a day. She emits pheromones which controls the bees-behavior in the hive and gives the hive its identity, but she makes no decisions. She is cared for by worker bees who tend to all her needs and a queen can live for 5+ years. Compare this to worker bees who live for 6-7 weeks in the spring and summer and up to 4 to 6 months in the fall and winter. If she starts to falter in her egg laying duties, becomes to old, has diminished pheromone output, or becomes diseased, the hive will replace her by a procedure known as “supersedure”

Many beekeepers do not wait for the queen to “age out” and for the hive to re-queen itself, instead opting to replace their queen every year or two. Older queens tend to swarm, taking 50%-60% of the hive with them. In nature, swarming is natural, but considered a loss by many beekeepers. Re-queening with a new young queen seems to reduce the need to swarm. Egg laying is more prolific the first year or two, thus older queens lay less eggs, more drones and the brood pattern may be spotty. This will effect the strength of the hive as well as honey production. Another reason to re-queen a hive is to introduce new genetics since a hive that re-queens itself transfers the genetics of the mother queen to her daughter.

Our queen was a “banked” queen. She was pulled from a hive and replaced with a new queen by a fellow beekeeper who re-queens his hives every year. But instead of killing this “old queen”, the beekeeper kept her for “just in case someone needed her”. That was the case for us with the sudden loss of our queen late last summer.

Spring is a good time to re-queen since the colony is usually smaller and it's normally easier to locate the existing queen. Some beekeepers re-queen in the fall with the idea of having a strong young queen for the fallowing springs buildup.

So, it appears that our hive has made it through the winter. The activity out front is fierce and all is well inside. This queen saved our hive last summer. Do we save her?


Sunday, March 13, 2016

St. Patrick"s Day and Growing Potatoes.

Growing up my father would plant potatoes on St. Pat-rick's Day, the traditional planting date in Ireland
Growing Potatoes....
Potatoes can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked or when soil temperature is around 45 degrees.  Start with certified (disease free) Seed Stock for  best  results. Using potatoes from the super market may produce smaller potatoes or yields, be prone to disease, or may be treated with chemicals to prevent sprouting.  Once sprouted, new foliage is susceptible to frost damage so you may need to cover with garden fabric if temperatures dip. 
About 2 weeks before you plan to plant outside place seed potatoes in a warm area (60-70 degrees) with light to encourage sprouting.  1-2 days before planting, cut seed potatoes into 1 1/2-2 inch pieces, with 1-2 "eyes" per piece.  Smaller potatoes can be planted whole.  Allow the pieces to "cure" to create a callus over the cuts, which helps to prevent rotting when planted.  Plant in well drained, loose soil with a  pH of 5.2-6.0.  Full sun is ideal but they will also grow in partial or dabble shade but size and yields may be effected. Potatoes need  about 1"- 2"  water per week.  Reduce watering when foliage begins to die back. 
Planting/Harvest Times
mid-late March.......June/July harvest
early to mid April........July/August harvest
mid to late April...............August/October harvest
Baby or new potatoes are ready in about 10 weeks after the vines stop flowering.  Or, wait for the vines to die back to harvest late or mature potatoes.  However, potatoes can be harvested at anytime in between.  To store potatoes brush off excess soil and store potatoes in a cool (35-40 degrees),  dark, dry location with good ventilation.   

Cut into pieces.
1-2 eyes per piece. 

6-8" deep and 12-15" between rows and 4-12" between pieces

To protect from cold weather and frost.
Build soil up around foliage....green potatoes are poisonous
New potatoes.
Mature or late potatoes.


Monday, March 7, 2016


The potato,  A.K.A. Irish potato, spud, white potato, tater.....
Growing up my father being of Irish decent would plant potatoes on St. Patrick's Day, the traditional planting date in Ireland
 The potato originated and grew wild from the area of Peru and has been around for nearly 10,000 years.   There are roughly 5000 cultivate varieties and 200 wild species.  The Inca Indians were the first to cultivate these starchy tubers for agricultural purposes. They even developed a technique of dehydrating the potato for storing, which could then be eaten during leaner times.  The word potato is derived from the Quechua (ancestors of the Inca's) "papa" and the Spanish word "batata". 

The Spaniards were introduced to the potato in 1536 when they arrived in Peru.  They used the tubers for food rations on returning ships and realized that the sailors who ate them did not suffer from scurvy  (45% Vitamin C).   Around 1570 they brought the potato back to Europe where it was first used to feed farm animals.  The idea of growing and eating potatoes for human consumption slowly spread through Europe over the next 4 decades.  Eventually the potato became the most important food group of the 19th century.  
 British explorer and historian Sir Walter Raleigh is credited to introducing the  potato to Ireland in 1589.   Many farmers began to grow this single crop (monoculture) for export. and as a staple in their diets replacing the  turnip.  However, the practice of mono-cropping, can lead to an increase in pest and a rapid spread of disease.  Due to lack of crop rotation and diversity in the 1840's the famous potato famine hit Ireland.  A blight caused by an airborne fungus (Phytophthora infestans), first started in the US in the early 1800's and spread to Europe.  This late blight was responsible for catastrophic damages, both in the economy and in lives. It's estimated that over 2 million men, women and children died or emigrated from Ireland as a result of the famine.  The long term results was the Ireland's population declined to about half by 1921. 
The potato was introduced to the colonies in the 1600's, where it became known as the "Virginia Potato."  It wasn't until 1719, when Scottish-Irish immigrants starting planting potatoes in New Hampshire, that it's popularity spread across the U.S.  In 1872 the famous "Russet" Burbank variety was developed.  Idaho's rich volcanic soil, warm days, and cool nights make it ideal growing conditions for potatoes.   
The potato is the  leading vegetable crop in the US, (with Idaho leaving the way) and the 5th largest food crop after sugar cane, corn, wheat, and rice.  More then half of potatoes grown are used for French fries, chips and other potato products. 
To pay homage to over the one million individuals who died in the famine between 1843-1852,  it's tradition to make IRISH POTATO CANDY for St. Patrick's day.  This candy resembles a tiny potato!

Monday, February 1, 2016


Hard to believe that groundhog day is tomorrow!
Our "Phil" of Phyllis?

And according to folklore, if  "Phil" see his shadow, there are 6 more weeks of winter remaining.  (Since 1886, the groundhog has seen his shadow over 100x).  So, if it's a sunny day on February 2nd, the groundhog will see his shadow and retreat back down his hole for 6 more weeks.  However, in western Pennsylvania, where the famous groundhog "Punxsutawney Phil" resides, the forecast is cloudy skies, which should mean no shadow, warmer days, and a early spring!  Fingers crossed!

Groundhog burrow entrance.
The first day of spring is March 20, however, the average last frost date is April 15, (April 7th has a 50% chance of frost, with April 23 having less then 50% chance of frost).  Some (cold tolerant) seeds such as peas, spinach, lettuce, chard, beets, radishes, carrots, and onions can be direct sown, weather permitting, in the garden, in March.  But you can jump start your spring garden by starting many seeds indoors, to be transplanted later, after the danger of frost or under hoop houses.

My growing zone is 7a.  Knowing your zone assures that you start seeds indoors, transplant, or sow seeds outdoors, at the correct time, based on your first and last frost dates and using the information found on the back of the seed packets. 

Groundhog day is about 10-11 weeks out from the average last frost date in my area.  Indoors, I have already started celery, peppers, and onions (seed) due to their longer growing requirements (12+ weeks). This week I will be starting kale, cabbage, head lettuce, and collards. 9 weeks out, I plan to start cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.  And towards the end of February, eggplant, flowering milkweed, and tomatoes. 

Not good.
   There may be snow on the ground, but there is plenty of gardening to be done in February!

And February 2nd, all eyes will be on a rodent named "Phil"!


Tuesday, January 19, 2016


With the above normal temperatures in November and December, we were seeing a lot of activity in front of the hive, not typical for this time of year.  We watched as bees brought back pollen in December (from where?) and what appears to be orientation flights (20 day old bees) more typical of summer.  Although it is great to see our bees buzzing around (our hive is alive!) , I do worry if they may be a bit confused on what time of year it really is.

December 2015
Now that the weather has turned frigid, the question I am most often asked is "what do your bees do in the winter"?  It wasn't until my husband and I started keeping bees ourselves that I new the answer to this question.

Prior to becoming a beekeeper, I assumed that honey bees died off or hibernated like other cold blooded insects (or went south for the winter!).  With our native bumble bees, newly mated queens hibernate below ground through the winter months.  All workers, males and the mother queen die with the cold.  Come spring the queen emerges and begins again with building a new colony. 

Honey bees never really hibernate or sleep.   Instead, they clusters together around the queen, within the hive, maintaining a temperature of about 96 degrees (and 50% humidity). Within the cluster, the bees flutter their wings, which helps to generate heat.  The queen is always in the center warm and toasty, as female worker bees take turns rotating in and out of the cluster.  (The male drones are kicked out of the hive before winter).  They will remain in this cluster as long as temperatures are below 50 degrees. On warmer winter days, they may break the cluster and venture out of the hive for cleansing (bathroom) flights and to move the cluster upward towards honey stores.  The bees need to re-cluster prior to drop in temperature or risk freezing.

As beekeepers, the goal is for your hive(s) to survive the winter. This may seem obvious to most, but with the loss of 30-60 percent of hives between January and March, not an easy task. In nature, honeybees often build hives in hallows of tree (away from mice and other pest) with a single entrance at the bottom.  They utilize propolis (a sticky resin) to seal up the cracks.  The trunk of the tree absorbs excess moisture, which can be used later if needed.  To give their bees a "stinging" chance, some beekeepers choose to "winterize" their hives.  There is a saying "if you ask 10 beekeepers a question, you will get 11 answers".  So how this is done will vary among hobbyist and commercial beekeepers. 

My husband and I came up with our own "winter survival plan" for our bees. One of our hives was weak with little possibility of coming through the winter alive.  We combined it with our stronger hive, in hopes of giving that hive a better chance of survival.  Before putting our "bees to bed for the winter" we treated our remaining hive for varroa mites.  Varroa are parasites that attach to both adult bees and bee larvae, sucking their blood, transmitting viruses and weakening the bees immune system.  If left untreated, varroa infestation can lead to the death of a hive.  Bees need plenty of "food" (honey) to get through the long winter months.  It's important to leave enough honey in the hive, about 70-100 pounds.  We added fondant or bee candy as a back up food source.  To protect the hive from strong, gusty winds, we put up a tarp to act as a wind break behind the hive.  We also decided to wrap our hives in Styrofoam insulation for added warmth.  To help with excess condensation within the hive (which drips cold water down onto the bees) we added straw, ventilation at the top and a screened bottom board.  A mouse guard keeps unwanted critters out.   

Our set-up
Winter can be difficult time for our bees, and a season of worry for the beekeeper.  I hate "the not knowing" what is happening inside the hive.  If we get a nice sunny day in the 40's with no wind, we will take a quick peak (we do not want to chill the bees or upset the cluster) and take any action that may be necessary.  Although there are no assurances, we are hopeful they will pull through the winter!. 

So for now, we hibernate inside the warmth of our house, sip hot tea with honey and wait for springs arrival!
Infra-red sensor on a I-phone.  The large red area is the bee cluster.