Friday, May 27, 2016

A Fact About Swarms No One Tells You


Before I started keeping bees I read a lot of books and went to a lot of beekeeper meetings. I had a pretty good grasp on how to manage bees and what they are likely to be up to at certain times of the year. Or so I thought.

A colony of honeybees is the most organized collection of females on the planet and that's why sometimes they can change their minds. Which is exactly what happened a couple of years for the first time.

I was in the beeyard around lunchtime when one of my hives swarmed. I figured I'd lost them since they were high in a neighbor's oak tree. In the evening while I was working in the garden I heard a swarm (you usually hear a swarm first) but I was thinking it was completely the wrong time of day for them to be doing that. I watched while they returned to the hive from the tree. I had the same experience this spring.


bee swarm

The girls swarmed and headed to this cedar tree by the potting shed. My husband, who happens to be the best beekeeper assistant ever, dragged the trash can over to it and I placed the nuc on top. I baited it with lemon grass oil. A nuc is a small version of a hive. You put the nucleus of a colony inside to get them started, hence the name.

catching a swarm

The bees were pretty interested and I was stoked about not having to be on the roof trying to figure out how to catch them.  As more gathered I began to think it might work. It was a warm sunny day on the scent of the lemon grass oil wafted through the air.

nuc/lemongrass oil

I was so engrossed in getting these photos that at first I didn't realize that the number of bees interested in the nuc was dwindling.

nuc with lemo grass oil

While I was wondering if they had decided to stay in the tree I caught a glimpse of the hive they'd come from. They were returning!

bee swarm

I went back to the cedar to see if the swarm was still there. Sometimes when the air is filled with thousands of bees it takes some observation to find out what is actually happening.

cedar tree

The swarm was completely gone! They had returned giving me a chance a couple of hours later to split the hive and trick them into thinking they had swarmed (at least this is what beekeepers think) and start them off in a new hive in the new apiary at my neighbor's house.

So why would the bees do this?

This phenomenon can occur for several reasons. The queen doesn't lead a swarm, she leaves with the swarm.

If they swarm and she doesn't  accompany them for some reason they'll come back. She could also have been killed somehow during the swarm.

It's also possible that the new virgin queen flew out on her mating flight and the bees got excited and left with her, returning when they realized it was a false alarm.

Whatever the reason you can bet that it is one happy beekeeper who can just split (divide the colony in two) the hive instead of wrangling a swarm. This colony is doing great in their new home!

About a week later another hive did the same thing. I also caught two swarms and those four colonies make up the new apiary, Margaritaville. Surely they won't ever want to leave, right?

The name will make sense in a future post. 


Monday, May 23, 2016

The Recycled Garden

 I have this sickness. Or a super power. Some days I'm not sure. It's the ability to see a piece of junk on the side of the road or in a neighbors trash pile and imagine it as something funky, fun, and useful for the garden. My husband loves this ability when I'm not buying sixty-dollar trellises at Lowe's but not so much when I drag something home and he doesn't know what I'm thinking. What I'm thinking is how lucky he is.

When a friend and I were cleaning up from her yard sale her husband tried to put this 8 foot wooden ladder in the trash but she had him wrangle it into my SUV instead. My husband used it for several years to pick blueberries but this year a rung cracked so it's been reassigned as a trellis for beans. I have some other cute ideas for it too.

beans on ladder

 My son inherited this super power. He recently moved out and needed a box spring for the new mattress he bought on Amazon. He dragged one home from the side of the road and I had to explain the boundaries about reusing other people's stuff. We draw the line at bedding. Of any kind. So the big ugly thing sat in my carport for a week while we were waiting to put it out for the trash. One day I was bringing in groceries and suddenly realized that it was the sturdiest trellis ever if I just removed the fabric covering. I had originally envisioned taking it apart and having the metal trellis for this Carolina Jessamine and staining the wooden part to use to create a screen in my woodland garden. Y'all, this thing was made to withstand a nuclear holocaust! So the whole thing went next to the honey shed and when it fills in it will be beautiful. The look has already improved since the metal rusted almost immediately.  You know about my love affair with rust, right?

boxspring trellis and carolina jasmine

I'm guessing that you already know to never ever throw out a broken pot. This fern is supremely happy in this one near the rain barrel. 

broken pot fern

One day I saw this mail box post with finial out for the trash up the street from me. Um, no. I mean what is wrong with people! I combined it with a window my son rescued from a dumpster because he's my child. He brought home nine of them! It reminds me of some saying about apples and trees or something.


You have to keep your eyes open and be ready to put your flashers on. I found these shutter doors with the door frame attached one day and couldn't wait to get them home and find a use. I put a piece of metal fence across the top and placed it at the gate to the chicken pen for a charming entrance. It will soon be covered with Confederate Jasmine.  By the way, the gate here is also a road side pickup.

confederate jasmine on shutter trellis

 For some reason someone was throwing away this sidelight. I was a little disappointed that there wasn't a pair. It added a bit of charm to the potting shed.


 Sometimes you find things that can be taken apart and used separately. The pedestal for this statue started life as a table base. The top of the table became a piece of art for the porch. You can read about that project here: Makeover Time Table


 My neighbor across the street asked if I wanted some tomato cages she was discarding. I used several for my tomatoes but turned two of them upside down to use as topiary forms for a couple of rosemary plants I have in pots at the beginning of a path. The loose wires are then on top and dangerous that way so I took a pair of needlenose pliers and curved them under. Free and easy topiaries.

inverted tomato cage topiary

inverted tomato cage

It's not uncommon to find shutters of various sizes. I painted these turquoise and used them to lend a bit of charm to the window of the workshop. I am secretly thinking what a darling greenhouse I could turn this into. The copper color trellis hanging there is actually the faux pane panel I took out of the back door of the cottage to clean it and I liked the cleaner window look so much I never put it back. I gave it a coat of copper colored spray paint to give it a metal feel.

Did I mention you can't have too many windows? I was at a yard sale last year buying some shutters--FOR A DOLLAR-- and I heard the lady say they'd be replacing their windows soon. I gave her my number and a few month later...jackpot. Can you imagine the wall above torn out and replaced with a bunch of vintage windows.

I can...

garden window

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Crazy Busy Swarmy Beautiful Spring

If you have been following this blog for some time you will have noticed that my writing has been sporadic this spring. Please refer to the title of this post. 

Here's what's been going on:

Swarms. It has been an unusually swarmy season. Out of three hives I had eight swarms. Even though I reversed the hive bodies during the first spring inspection, made splits, gave them plenty of room and added honey supers earlier than I ever have. I contacted a local bee wrangler to see if something unusual was going on and he said he had received 30 calls to catch swarms by the middle of April.

Of the eight times the bees swarmed twice they came back which thrilled me because they had congregated on branches sixty feet up.  

Twice I caught the girls and their queen. I now have another apiary in a neighbor's yard for a total of seven. Four in his yard and three in my garden. Read the story of the swarm in the photo above here.

Four times I watched them swirling and buzzing off into the wild blue yonder and wished them well.

A swarm is the birth of a super organism and even if I'm sad that I've lost them it is also thrilling and I feel a bit like a mother sending her child out into the world. Hopefully to live in a hollow tree and not in someone's attic.

In other news our son moved out. And took his stuff! My daughter and her husband bought a house. Do you know what that means? Y'all! They can come and get the stuff we've been storing for them while they lived in a sleek downtown loft that they didn't want to clutter up with the things they brought here. I am two weeks away from having another whole closet!

My mother passed away. Did I tell you that? If you have lost a parent you know about all that is entailed in sorting everything out after that. It was a blessing to have all these activities going on this spring to help take my mind off.

I have also been working like mad to get in the required volunteer hours for my Master Gardener certification. I passed the test. Do you know how long it's been since I took a test that wasn't administered at the doctor's office?

The rest of the time has been spent reading gardening books, planting and weeding my own gardens, and giving museum tours.

Occasionally I eat and sleep.

Just kidding, spending this much time outdoors makes for luscious sleep at night. If you are a person who doesn't sleep well you might try planting a garden. And of course those microbes in the soil fight depression and anxiety. Here's the scientific reason gardening makes you happy.

What are you up to this spring? I'd love to hear about it!

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Bee Story

 As the first rays of sunlight think about peeking over the horizon in the apiary the bees stir deep in the warm darkness of the hive. Sunlight falls across the entrance to the hive providing just a sliver of light. Inside foraging bees emerge onto the landing board ready to make the first flight of the day. One bee flies off in the direction of the sun making one of fifteen or so flights she'll complete before dark.

During these flights she will only travel as far as necessary to gather what the colony needs. Though she could possibly travel as far as five to ten miles, in the suburban neighborhood where she lives she will likely not even have to travel one. The residents surrounding her beekeeper's home are avid gardeners and there are many vegetable gardens and flower beds from which to choose. White clover dots a nearby field and dandelions are not seen as the enemy in a neighboring lawn.

Whatever flower she forages from first is all she will harvest from on this run, returning to the hive with only one kind of pollen. An ancient thicket of blackberries along a fence row makes a good starting place. She lands on the blossom and uses her brushy legs to scrape the pollen from her body down into her pollen bags which are a bit like built in saddle bags. She is able to carry about half her body weight in pollen. She'll fill them and then return to the hive to unpack them into a honeycomb cell deep in the darkness of the hive. She'll leave again on another run.

This is the most solitary part of a bee's life.  Having worked within the hive alongside her sisters she has been part of the clean up crew, been a nurse to baby bees, done construction, circulated air through the hive, and been on guard duty. Now in the next part of her life she will go out alone every day to find and bring back what her sisters in the colony need to survive and prosper.

She will perform this final job until her death. She must avoid many dangers and traps on her travels. She must evade hungry birds and sticky spider webs. She will have no way of knowing if she is foraging from flowers that have been sprayed with dangerous chemicals deadly to her and her species. She is little threat to humans as she single mindedly performs her duties. She is reluctant to sting sensing the deadliness of the action. But if crushed under a bare foot while she delicately works a white clover blossom she will have no choice. If she avoids an untimely death then one day while her pollen bags are full of nutrient rich protein for the hive she will grow tired, her wings giving out after visiting up to 2,000 flowers a day over the course of several flights, returning to the hive after visiting 50-100 flowers.

One warm sunny afternoon she will stop to rest a moment before continuing her mission to deliver her stores to the hive. Not having the energy to continue her tiny wings worn out in the service of the hive she will die. Or she may return to the hive and die inside in which case her sisters whom she has worked so hard for will carry her out of the hive during routine housekeeping.

In her life she will have produced 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. It takes the life's work of about 12 honeybees to produce that small amount.

Meanwhile a local gardener adds a hive to his garden and at farmers markets customers buy local honey from beekeepers thereby helping them maintain and expand their apiaries and thus helping the bees. In another part of town a woman plants a pollinator garden to attract honeybees and help them in their search for pollen and nectar. At a nearby field a farmer has traded his chemical laden farm techniques for organic methods and in the process increases the survival rates of the bees in his area. In a local school children are taught the importance of the honeybees in protecting our food supply.

The bees need our help and you are the hero of this story. Buying local honey, planting a garden, and foregoing heavy chemical applications to lawns and gardens are just a few ways that you can help to save the bees.

Meanwhile that first sliver of light is creeping into the darkness of the hive again and the bees have work to do.