Monday, April 29, 2013

The Bees Arrive and Are Hived

Two weeks ago, I interviewed  beekeeper Ed Simon for my new radio show, Prairie Air (it's on a grassroots, volunteer streaming radio station, the COBB Radio), where I interview local artists, farmers and  interesting characters and play local music. It is also podcast, so you can hear past episodes, including the bee episode with Ed, at

Ed has written a book about building your own bee equipment and also sells equipment he has built. I have been wanting one of his a top bar hives (because I am no carpenter), so after the interview I ordered one. He called me up a few days later to tell me it was done - just in the nick of time because the very same day I got a call to come pick up my bees, several days earlier than expected.

Ed paints the hives, but for me the gray color was too boring, so I gussied it up with some vivid spring green paint and a sunflower/bee design. I found a sturdy old shelf I used to use for chicken nesting boxes in the barn, and it was a good height, so I set the hive upon it for a temporary base. I still prefer the architecture of the cute little Warre hives to the aesthetic of the top bar hives, but the top bar hives have some advantages in handling and none of my Warre hives have survived the winter yet, so I wanted to try the top bar style. I planned to have one hive each: Top Bar, Warre and Langstroth, but I thought one hive would survive the winter that didn't and only ordered two  packages of bees. So, I am putting the Warres into storage and hoping to acquire a swarm or a nuc (a very small starter hive of bees that some beekeepers raise to sell) later this spring.
The package of bees, ready for hiving.  It is resting upon a few of the bars that will go across the top, beneath the hive cover. Ed has glued popsicle sticks into a groove in the bar to make a ledge for the bees to start construction of their comb. (The  bars are set across the top with the ledges facing down and the bees construct their cone hanging from  them.)
I was installing the bees solo this year, so didn't get any photos of pouring the bees in or releasing the queen. (I had to work very fast and everything was too sticky to handle my camera.) I sprayed the bees with a little sugar-water so they wouldn't fly, then poured them into the right side of the  hive. I released the queen from her little box and quickly placed the bars over the top. There is a queen excluder in the partition, with openings large enough for the workers to pass through but not the queen. I put several large pieces of last year's comb with honey and pollen in that side to provide food until things start blooming.
The second package of bees, destined for the Langstroth hive.
Installing the bees in the Langstroth hive was less stressful than the top bar  because I have done it a few times now and felt like I sort of knew what I was doing. Since this hive did not survive the winter, I took advantage of a fresh start to change over from the  deep boxes I previously used for brood on the bottom to shorter boxes which are much easier to handle and move. Those wooden boxes get very heavy when full of wax and honey and bees! Beekeeping can be hard on the back.

The bottom opening is closed off and plugged with grass to prevent the bees from  flying out immediately - I don't know why they would, though; this hive is stocked with frames of honey and pollen and drawn comb, all ready to settle in and start raising new bees. The log on top is to prevent a strong gust of wind from lifting the top off the hive.
Both hives have had bees busily coming and going the past couple sunny days, although there has been no evidence of anything blooming for them yet. Perhaps they are finding  pussywillows in the woods or somebody in the neighborhood has crocuses blooming. (This morning I see we have squill starting to bloom, so at least they will have something to forage in our yard.)
The front of the hive has an observation panel, a window beneath my painting, so I have been peeking in daily. I am very concerned about this hive because there is still a big cluster of bees in the corner, three days later, presumably around the queen, with no drawn comb yet. My beekeeping mentor Tom will stop by later this morning to try to help me figure out what is going on. I will be so disappointed if something has happened to my queen.
This is the silly bee whiligig I also bought when I picked up my boxes of bees last Thursday. It will be the mascot of the bee and butterfly garden I am building outside the dining room window, near the hives. It pretty much whirls constantly and hopefully will deter any errant chickens from scratching up the tulips that are already planted there.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Overdue Post-age on Blog

Long time no posting.  So I will try to catch up a bit with recent farm goings-on.
I had to a start with this photo because this lamb is so heart-meltingly adorable!  It is one of  Don and Betsy's (our neighbors) two surprise early lambs -- a ram jumped the fence.
Here are both the ewes and lambs. Although these sheep don't really relate to our farm, they sort of relate to one of my recent endeavors. I have become a radio host for a show  called "Prairie Air" on the COBB Radio, a fledgling, streaming, grassroots radio station in Rochester. (They put out a call for people interested in hosting a radio show and I offered  to interview farmers and artists -when else am I ever going to get to be a radio host?!)
So here's the connection--Don was my very first radio interview, about raising and shearing sheep. You can actually hear my shows via podcast at  - click on "most recent Podcasts" on the right.  Be kind - I am a total novice!  Garrison Keillor and Terry Gross can breathe easy for a while.  But the interviewees are great!
We are also still collecting and boiling maple sap like crazy. We thought the season was all over when it warmed up to 60 degrees one day, but thankfully (just kidding) it got cold again and the sap started running again.  We only have silver maples on our farm, for which 60 gallons of sap boil down to make one gallon of syrup. But it turns out Don and Betsy have several mature sugar maples which they offered to let us tap - sugar maple sap is twice as sweet, so 30 gallons of sap make a gallon of syrup; it will save us much time and  fuel.
On a cold and windy day we set up our sap cooking operation on the dock of  the fish gazebo  (a little greenhouse we built over our  silo pond of our future aquaponics operation.)  It smells so wonderful in there now, sort of like vanilla and marshmallows.
 Cadence and Israel have been playing son jarocho music all over the place -- they are pictured here with their awesome percussionist,  Martial, after performing at the World Festival. This weekend they will be the musicians at the opening reception for the Rochester International Film Festival.  They are gaining quite a following, but Rog and I are surely their biggest fans, trying to catch all their performances.
All the flats of seed starts in my office  are getting  huge and want desperately to be planted in the garden , but it has been too cold and snowy and wet. I put the brassicas and onions out in the high tunnel, though, to get hardened off and to free up a bit more space in my office for the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. I am really proud of the tomatoes --they look so strong and healthy, with thick stems. I leave the lights on  a 24 hours per day and run a fan on them a bit each day so they  don't get wimpy. My poor peanuts and artichokes (experiments, not your usual Minnesota crops) seem to be languishing a bit, however.
It is supposed to start to get warm and springlike tomorrow!!!!!!!!!  However, it is extraordinarily muddy in our heavy, saturated, clay soil, and will be a while before we can till or plant. or even walk in the garden.
See what I mean? This is the middle pasture between the  barn and loafing shed a few days ago, not at its worst (which is probably today.) Yesterday, I was taking the cows their hay and sank down in the mud deeper than the top of my mid-calf muck boots, resulting in very muddy socks.  Just now, I went out in the pouring rain to herd the goose and ducks (who were happily playing in the puddles) into the coop for the night and I put Rog's muck boots on because they are taller than mine, knee-high. Bad idea! It was like wearing huge suction cups -- both boots got stuck in the mud and I ended up accidentally stepping out of them entirely, ankle deep in mud, and had to extricate my feet by sticking my hands down, wrist -deep, in the muck.  It was not pretty!
Last night, I tried to  assist the drainage of the pasture by doing some unCivil Engineering, carving channels with a garden hoe from hoof-print-puddle to hoof-print-puddle down the slope. It worked!  A little, anyway. But now it is pouring rain, and the cows have created many new deep hoofprints, so I am dreading walking out there tomorrow.

There is a Paul Bunyan legend that explains that Minnesota's 15,000 lakes were created by Babe the Blue Ox's hoofprints. I now clearly understand how that legend arose!

My bees arrived today, so I have been busy preparing the hives, we are partnering with a young couple on the aquaponics system,  I am still working ceaselessly on the  Mega Upholstery Project, and we have a few more  exciting ventures in the works --  I will post about all of these soon!

Wordless Wednesday: The Winter that Won't Let Go (photos from the past few days)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

April Shower of Updates

I debated whether to  use this photo, thinking the snow may be too depressing to start this post with, but this is how it is this year (This is how it was last year on April 11th!) We still have big patches of ice and snow, but they are  disappearing fast and the main paths are lovely mud.
Unlike the photo from last year, which had blossoming apple trees and tulip blooms nearly open,  only a few tulips closest to the house have even broken through the ground (of course most are still beneath snow.) No apple blossoms in sight yet.

No green yet, although if you squint really hard you can almost imagine a tinge of green in the bare patches of lawn. We  hope to paint our house this summer, and I have decided it should be a color a bit  more vivid than its current drab mud color. Perhaps dark teal or spruce with an ochre-colored fence. That would make me much happier this time of year.
This morning, one of the silver maples filled two buckets with sap since last night!
The buckets fill surprisingly fast, considering they are filled drip by drip.
This is our low-tech sap-boiling setup.  It takes 60 gallons of silver maple sap boiled down to make one gallon of syrup, so it is a bit costly fuel-wise, but the delectable syrup is worth every penny.
The high tunnel is very warm inside and because I watered last night, very humid.  Entering this morning, both your glasses and camera lens fogged up.
There, a clear view. Cadence planted most of the greenhouse last weekend with early spring crops (peas, carrots, scallions,  spinach.)

 The southwest corner  has three kinds of beans, which like it warmer and I will cover if it gets cold at night.  We are watering the straw bales to get them to decompose a bit for strawbale gardening.  We are experimenting with the idea of planting squash and melon starts in them in a few weeks. They should like growing in the warm greenhouse and take off. When the greenhouse sides are permanently opened for the summer, Cadence plans to train the vines to grow outside and sprawl into the yard. Or else we will just move the entire row of bales outside.

The chickens and ducks are loving being outside, scratching around in the leaf litter and mud.
Lucky birds, they get special treats a  few times a week from the restaurant where Cadence is working: ends of romaine, trimmings from brussels sprouts and other veggies, eggshells, stale bread (and sometimes cake)... I do make them share with the cows, who also greatly appreciate fresh greens this time of year. Nobody really likes the onion or citrus remains, so they go to the worm bins.

The seedlings  are growing gangbusters. I have 20 flats growing so far, but four are for Sontes Restaurant, which is constructing a rooftop strawbale garden. I still have some seeds to start - I better get cracking.
I am very excited about the Virginia peanuts, one of my crazy experimental crops this year.
The artichokes are looking good, too. I understand they need a cold period so they think they have been through a winter. I am not sure when or how best to do this, so if anyone has cold-climate artichoke-growing experience, please advise!
Exciting news! This is my new radio broadcasting studio!! I am going to be hosting a radio show called "Common Roots" on a new grassroots. all-volunteer streaming radio station called The COBB (Creatives Offering Better Broadcasting - a nod to the  landmark corn water tower in Rochester.)  We radio hosts are just getting lined up and  regular programming will begin to air in a couple weeks. My show will be interviews with farmers, artists, artisans and other interesting characters, with local music and maybe a few Squash Blossom farm stories. I am using my unassuming iPad and a very impressive microphone to  record the interviews. I have just  completed my first interviews and am now figuring out how to use the software to edit.
My equipment fits into a vintage train case - have recording studio, will travel. If you know somebody who would be a great interview subject in SE Minnesota, please send me contact info!  This is so much fun!  The  shows will also be podcast so once they are up I will post links in case anyone wants to listen.  I am aspiring to be like my radio heroes: Terry Gross, Garrison Keillor --hope my show doesn't sound more like Wayne's World!