Category Archives: beekeeping

Snow Day

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Here’s a rare thing… snow on the Farm! Our little town of Auburn is known for being “above the fog, below the snow”… but, once in a while, Mother Nature ignores our silly human sloganeering and sends a genuinely white Weather Event our way! The very occasional nature of such storms makes them extra-special, as everything familiar is frosted in ice and magically transformed overnight.

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Here’s the Harvest Party field, where we were celebrating on a warm end-of-summer afternoon, barely a couple of months ago! The tipi canvas is packed away for winter, and the chicken coop is snug and warm in the distance.

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And now, to the chicken house, where some of the more adventurous birds are outside — pecking for scratch in the snow and vying for a warmer foothold on the coop’s little ramp.

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This was quite a persimmon year — there are still plenty on the trees, even though we’ve eaten persimmons, dried persimmons, frozen them, given them away… this variety gets sweeter and softer after a frost, and the wild birds are enjoying what’s left on the tree!

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Nobody is home in this bluebird house; it sits under a cozy blanket of snow, waiting for Spring. It was built by Ron Brown, a longtime family friend, and founder of the “Bluebird Chain” — a series of more than 5,000 thousand numbered bluebird boxes that he built and distributed in the area to provide habitat for the Western Bluebird. (There’s a sweet article about Mr. Brown here.)

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The bees are warm and snug, too, in their field…

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…but a closer look reveals minute tracks in the snow in front of the hive: marauding Scrub Jays, who like to stand in front of the entrance, tap on it, and snack on the guard bees that venture out to see what’s going on. You’d think they would find plenty else to eat, what with the juicy persimmons and a whole hillside of glowing red wild Toyon berries… but bees are a nice source of protein, and the hive is such a convenient dispenser! And you do have to admire the birds’ ingenuity… nonetheless, we cover the hive fronts with wire fencing to deter the jays.

And speaking of wildlife… I love the way the snow keeps a record of all the feet that pass by — it’s a reminder of just how many creatures, great and small, call this place home.

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Honey Harvest — Part 2

We’ve spent the last few days extracting and bottling our honey harvest — all 300 pounds of it! Here’s how we get it out of the comb and into the jar…

First: getting ready. The labels are stamped, the extractor set up, the supers of honey stacked and ready to go. Ahh, everything looks so nice and neat and non-sticky… but that won’t last for long!

We begin by “uncapping” the combs, so the honey can run out. To do this, you use a heated knife to slice through the wax covers that seal the cells. The knife needs to be just hot enough to cut easily through the wax, but not to burn the honey.

An uncapped comb of luminous blackberry honey, ready to extract:

Next, the frames of comb and honey go into the extractor, which works kind of like a washing machine on the “spin” cycle. This extractor can hold four frames of honey at once, and is powered by elbow grease!

As the basket spins, the honey is pulled out of the comb by centrifugal force; then it collects in the bottom of the tank, where it runs out into a bowl or bucket. With this extractor, you spin the honey out of one side of the comb, turn the frames, and then repeat for the other side. Multiply that by 10 frames per super, 14 supers total… whew!

When the honey comes out of the extractor, it’s full of bits of wax from the uncapped combs. We pour it through a stainless-steel mesh small enough to catch  the wax flecks, but nowhere near so fine as to filter out the tiny grains of pollen in the honey — the good stuff!

It takes a good day’s work to get through all those frames… and the honey-extracting process does seem to attract an audience! Family and friends drift in until the little honey house is cozily crowded.

And, finally, into the jar it goes. Ready for the farmer’s market!

You can see all the action in this swell video Mikail made of the day’s work:

(We’ll be at the Foothill Farmer’s Markets in the next week or so — or drop us a note if you’d like to pick up a jar!)

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Honey Harvest — part 1

It’s that long-awaited time of year — the honey harvest! Tomorrow we’ll be up to our elbows (quite literally) in sticky delicious honey, but before the fun can start, there’s work to do… namely, collecting our haul!

The honey we’ll be extracting is in the shallower boxes, called “supers,” on top of the hives. Collecting them would be easy, except for one small problem: they’re full of bees! Since we of course don’t want to take the bees back home with us, we start by asking them politely to surrender the honey and head on out of the supers…. well, more or less.

We do get a bit of help in the communication department — see the black-topped little boxes on the hives above? They’re called “fume boards.” (Appealing, I know.) Inside is a sheet of cloth, which we’ve drizzled with a super-stinky solution that the bees absolutely loathe the smell of. Trust me, it’s nasty; I wish I had smell-o-vision here, except that I wouldn’t want to inflict upon you the horrid stench of bubblegum-meets-rotting-socks! A highly disturbing combination, and one which sends the bees running as quick as they can in the opposite direction — downward into the hive and away from the honey box. There are a few other methods of accomplishing the same goal, but they usually involve one-way “escape” doors that the bees have to navigate. These work, but they can take days, and there are always plenty of unlucky bees that don’t quite get the idea. We’ve found the “smelly” trick to be by far the simplest and easiest.

Even so, the exodus takes a bit of time; the usual suggestion is two or three minutes, but we find it takes a bit longer for everyone to find their way out. And we’re happy to cool our heels in the shade for a few extra minutes… and maybe a few minutes more:

photos by PB

Then it’s just a simple matter of loading the boxes into the truck and bringing them back to the Honey House. (Well, you usually have to stop for an ice cream somewhere along the way — it’s part of the deal.)

We’ll have photos of the spectacularly messy Part 2 soon — stay tuned!

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Foto Friday: bees and barns, in black and white

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Black Locust: the herald of honey…

It happens every year: I’ll be in the garden, pulling weeds from the lettuce patch or planting seeds for spring greens, and all of a sudden, there’s this fragrance. I think: Is that the daphne blooming? Loquat? No, it’s too late in the year… And then I’ll look up, and see this:

can you spot the bee?

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, a tree that spends most of the year cloaked in unassuming leaves and coarse gray bark, until one late-Spring day it throws on a crown of stunning white blossoms. But not just blossoms! These are flowers that fall in the Ephemeral Smells family, along with narcissus, jasmine, orange… the fragrance drifts, wanders, finds you even when you’re far from the tree.

A few interesting tidbits about black locust: It’s in the legume (pea) family, along with clovers, vetch, wisteria, lupines, and the beans and peas we are used to eating. Some people eat the flowers and cooked seed pods, although the bark and leaves of the tree contain toxins, so you might not want to try that at home without a bit of research. The trees are easy to spot even when they’re not blooming; just look for the rounded, opposite leaves and the dried seed pods, which often stay on the branches year round:

But, the real reason to pay attention to the humble black locust: its bloom is a signal for the all-important honey flow! When these trees start to flower, the other “honey plants” do as well: blackberry, clover, star thistle, in quick succession. Beekeepers in our neck of the woods watch locust trees like hawks in spring — as soon as the blossoms appear, it’s time to add empty boxes and frames for honey comb to your beehives. If you don’t add the supers in time, the bees will have nowhere to store all that nectar, and you risk missing out on much of your honey crop for the year.

This is, in a sense, phenology — the study of seasonal cycles and timing in the natural world. Scientists use it to observe variations in climate; gardeners follow natural cues to determine when to plant various crops; foragers use phenology to find mushrooms and other wild foods; and beekeepers know that that black locust acts as a crystal ball for the bees! Ask any long-time gardener about when to start planting this or that, and you’re likely to hear some phenological wisdom, often cross-pollinated with folk sayings, superstitions, and the like… but there’s real (and useful) science to it, not just tales!

Here’s one of our several black locust trees, growing in front of the Little House, where you can take in the full view and fragrance of the blossoms as you walk up the driveway. Honeybees go crazy for the flowers — they’re hard at work here, along with fat black bumblebees, little native bees, and all sorts of happy pollinators. All the more reason to have a black locust tree in your yard!

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Where We’ve Been Lately

…not blogging, obviously! I have to admit that the many and varied pursuits of glorious Springtime have been distracting me…

But, first news of all, our little farmer’s market stand is starring in a film!

Long story short: local filmmaker Raphael Hitzke needed a honey stand at a farmer’s market to film a scene for his new short film, BEE. And so, we found ourselves watching on a blustery April Saturday morning as camera and sound crews, makeup artists, and actors swarmed around our wee tent and table, filming scenes while fending off the market shoppers who desperately wanted to buy the honey we no longer have in stock. You’ll have to wait ’til July, folks; it’s up to the bees, not us!

(Funny little aside: the actor playing the beekeeper actually started making up astronomical prices for the jars of honey we had on display, and a few people apparently were ready to hand over $43 for a one-pound jar… don’t worry, we’re not getting any ideas.)

Then we raced home to get ready for company — our family and friends were making the pilgrimage from the Bay to the Ranch for Easter the next day!

Greek Easter, that is… a veritable Feast!

(Psst — it’s all about the German egg dye. Super brilliant colours, nothing like the wimpy pastel stuff we get in the grocery store here. For the traditional Greek red eggs, we usually go with the kind made in Greece — a harmless-looking little paper packet filled with harmless-looking powder that immediately stains EVERYTHING a very permanent crimson. No, really; if you let the steam out of the pot, you’re liable to end up with a pink spot on the ceiling. But for the multicoloured eggs, the German-made dyes are dynamite — and check out the wonderfully folk-psychedelic package on this one! Mushrooms! Toads! A rabbit in a bow tie! They claim to be non-toxic, though I’m not so sure… but it’s only once a year, right??)

Then it’s back to work. But even tilling and raking the garden is a happy task this time of year — especially when you have a flock of cheerful chickens that are only too eager to help…

…and everything is green green GREEN! Luminous!

The all-important task of sorting seed packets… I always end up with far too much of something. This year, we’re accumulated something like eight packets of zucchini seed. And don’t even get me started on the basil. Still, necessities of life, right?

The bees are foraging mightily, their wings dusted with this striking golden pollen — but that’s another post in itself. More springtime stories from the Farm forthcoming!

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Spying on Spring

I’ve been wandering with my camera lately … finding all kinds of Spring things:

bees and blue skies

miner’s lettuce and mushrooms

laundry on the line

apple blossoms shivering into eager bloom

hiking paths lined with buttercups and clover under toes…

…and I didn’t notice until I looked at the photos later that this gnarled old tree, on the way to Foresthill, had been looking back at me with equal fascination!

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