Monday, July 8, 2019

How to Make an Emergency Robbing Screen for Your Bees

Supplies: staple gun and 1/8" hardware cloth, or window screen if you can't
get the hardware cloth in time.  1/8" is the largest size that bees can't get
through, so max air flow while still keeping robber bees out. I put more
suggestions for things that would work near the end of the article. Cut pieces
as shown (one longer piece can be used instead of the two long ones.)
It's almost robbing season here in Spicewood (Central Texas, just northwest of Austin), and I don't just mean me robbing the bees.  I mean bees robbing bees.  Yes, bees robbing bees.  They really do that, the little assholes.  When the rain quits and the flowers die off, nectar is hard to come by.  In the beekeeping world that's called a dearth, and that's a depressing and dangerous time to be a bee.

As I'm writing this, it's raining.
So hopefully that will keep things flowering for a while yet.  The mesquites are still blooming, have been for a while now, and this bit of manna from heaven might kick start the gallardias again.  With forty acres of each here, the bees are plenty busy putting all that up.  But if we don't get more rain, and it's not likely that we will since this one was quite the pleasant surprise, it won't be long before all those wither and die with nothing to replace them.  That's the summer dearth, and that can spell real trouble if you're not ready.

Wintertime is a dearth as well, but that's a different sort of dearth than the summer one.  It's less dangerous because in winter there may be just a few thousand bees in each hive and they're busy keeping the queen warm enough to survive through the cold.  They huddle up inside, clustering together to produce warmth, using the stores of honey gathered last year for food.  The only time they come out is on a warm day, above fifty degrees or so, and that's only to take cleansing flights (that's a nicely delicate way of saying "take a shit". *giggle*).

Staple the small pieces to the sides of the hive, one on each side.
If you look inside the hive during this time, it's a scary sight.  At the winter solstice there is no brood and it looks all the world like your hive is dying out.  If you've ever lost a hive so have seen this before, it'll strike terror in you for sure.  But if you just grit your teeth and wait it out (bourbon helps), it won't be long before the queen begins laying again.  It's just a small patch at first, small enough that the few bees in the hive can care for it, feeding the larvae once the eggs hatch, capping them once they begin to pupate.  After those few hatch, the queen can lay more because now there are more bees to care for more eggs and brood.  When those hatch, she can lay more still.  And those hatch, and she lays more.  And on and on, exponentially making more and more bees as spring approaches, and then summer. This is called the "spring build up" and it's timed so the colony has a large enough population to do all the work of collecting all that nectar and pollen once warm weather arrives.

By now, just past the summer solstice, they are at their peak population.  There are literally tens of thousands of bees out there in my bee yard.  Come to think of it, with six colonies at the moment, there are probably over a hundred thousand.  And there are likely tens of thousands more in the wild.  At the moment they're all busy collecting nectar and pollen, but imagine what's about to happen when all that dries up and ALL THOSE BEES are now out of a job.  They're going to get cranky and desperate, looking everywhere for anything to bring back home.

Bend them back to make room for the front screen pieces.
It's a biological imperative for a worker bee to fly out of the house and collect something.  It's their very reason for being.  They CAN'T NOT do it since they know their colony's survival depends on gathering as much food as possible in the warm weather to withoutadoubt have enough to make it through winter and build up a healthy population again next year.  So now you have a hundred-thousand-plus bees roaming around feeling desperate, but nothing for them to collect since there are painfully few flowers.

It's only a matter of time before they find other colonies in the area.  They can smell those colonies' stores, and with nothing flowering, that's just flat irresistible, so they'll attempt to get inside that hive and take it for themselves.  If your colony is strong, they will likely be able to put up enough of a fight that the robbers will go elsewhere for easier pickings.  But if there are enough robbers to overwhelm the guards, if an extra strong colony is in the neighborhood or even in your own beeyard, the smaller colony is doomed.  The robbers will make their way inside through brute force, fighting and killing as they go, their prize being the stores they know are there.  Once they find them, they rip open the wax cappings and grab all they can, then head back to their own hive, offloading and returning for another round.

Robbing screens stop that.  They are screens attached to the front entrance of the hive, rerouting the actual entrance to another spot higher or to the side of the real hive opening.  They work because the robbers will try to get in where the scent is coming from, so will keep trying to get straight in, but find the way blocked and give up.  Your bees, the ones who live there, will know the secret key.  It'll take them a bit to figure it out when you first put them on, but they will eventually.  They don't give up because that is home, so they'll keep trying to figure out how to get in much longer than robbers will.

Staple the long pieces across the front, bending them as needed to make a
"runway" for the bees. This is shown better in the next photo.  If you have to
use two pieces of screen, like I did, be sure to overlap them well so
that there are no holes robbers can get through.
If you notice a lot of activity at your hive's entrance, especially during a dearth, stop and watch for a while.  Don't be alarmed initially though.  Orientation flights look a lot like robbing at first glance, but if you watch closely and see bees flying in figure eight patterns just a little ways out from the hive and doubling back to it, coming and going relatively peacefully, that's orientation - new foragers flying out just a bit to find landmarks, learning where home is so they can find their way back.  If you listen, you can hear a peaceful hum that just sounds busy, not bad.

But if you see a frenzy, fighting at the entrance, bees walking back and forth along the cracks between your boxes looking for a hole, bees dipping a bit immediately after takeoff (because they are heavy from being so full of honey), and hear an angry roar like you heard when you dropped that brood box that time, you better do something FAST.  It can take just a few short hours for robbers to completely decimate a hive, leaving nothing but a bunch of wax dust from ripping open the cells, a few dejected live bees, and lots of dead ones.  It's really sad.

If you ever see this going on and panic because you still aren't ready even after reading this post, just remember this: grab a sheet off the bed and a sprinkler, throw the sheet over the hive being robbed, and turn that sprinkler on so it hits the sheet and the hive.  That will buy you some time to calm down enough to think and round up your shit to make that screen.  As soon as you uncover that hive though, the robbers will be back, so use that time wisely.  And don't dilly dally - leaving them too long like this can make them overheat this time of year from all their ventilation being blocked.  The longest I've ever left them like this was a little more than half a day (mad dash to the hardware store takes a while when you live in BFE), and I left the sprinkler on to help keep them cool, so do that.  But hurry every chance you get.

Bend the small piece you put on first so that
it forms a tunnel for the bees to go through.
Robbers will try to come straight in the front,
but your bees will know the secret key
to get in.
Last year I learned the hard way you've got to get those robbing screens on before the dearth starts.  Watch what's blooming carefully, noting when the flowers start to fade, and remember how long it's been since a good rain.  At the first instant your gut says it's drying up, get those screens on.  Don't wait, or forget to pay attention like I did last year.  I lost seven little colonies I had made from splits earlier that spring.  They were building up nicely, then WHAM, the dearth hit extra early and dumbass me didn't pay attention.

This year I swore I'd be ready!  Last year, my bee buddy Karina and I made a bunch of robbing screens, and I had them staged out there right next to the bee bench so I wouldn't even have to go get them from the bee house when I needed them.  Today was the day.  I was going to install those screens so I didn't have a repeat of last year.  BUT!  But of course there's a but!  As I was trying to put them on all the hives, I realized that the new bottom boards I got from a beekeeping friend aren't standard, so the screens don't fit on a couple of them.  Yeah.

Shit.  Gotta' get creative then.  At least I found out about this now, instead of later as I stand in the midst of a robbing frenzy in the beeyard.  Another round of that and I might just be so disheartened I give up beekeeping.  (Yeah, it's that bad when you experience it.)

If you find yourself in the same boat as me and can't wait for your Mann Lake order to come in, or just can't afford enough screens for all your hives, read through the photos on this page to learn how to make one quickly and easily on the cheap, no saws needed.

Buy 1/8" hardware cloth now because it's usually a special order thing, and most times that Mann Lake order will beat it to the post office.  If you just can't afford that either, then use some window screen - cut one off your house if you have to.  New window screens are about twenty bucks, and you know how much a colony of bees is$$$$$$.  Or are you a crafter?  I've used plastic canvas as a robbing screen before.  Looked funny. Worked great.

About that staple gun - if you have one, look it up and make sure it works now.  If not, get another one.  And make sure it's loaded and you have plenty more staples in reserve.  In an emergency, trim nails, duct tape, or even thumb tacks driven in WELL with a rock would work, but I'd secure it better later, as soon as you can.

Go ahead and cut pieces of whatever you're using so it'll be a cinch to put them on when you need them.  Most window screens can be cut with regular scissors, though they won't be good for cutting anything else after that.  Hardware cloth is a bit tougher, so takes wire cutters plus a lot of time, or sheet metal snips.  Keep those pieces along with a staple gun and staples in a box near the bee yard, threatening anyone else with "NO HONEY FOR YOU!" if they use it and don't put it back.  That's why I have a nuc box on my bee bench right next to The Asshole Hive just for storing things like this - even though I live alone, I have people over occasionally who help me do projects, but my tools will always be right where I left them, in that box, because no one's going near that.  (Speaking of that, you know inside beehive tops is a great place to store important things you don't want stolen, or don't want prying eyes to see, right?  Works great.  Just ask Sherlock.)

Better yet, just go ahead and put those screens on your hives now.  You won't regret it.  But The Voice Of Experience here says you just might regret it, OH how you'll regret it, if you don't.

One of my sweet Italian colonies, all zipped up tight!  No chance of them being robbed out, heart wrenching crisis averted, no extra bourbon needed.  


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

When to pick bluebonnet seeds

I get asked this often and I tell them, "When the pods are green, they're not done yet. When they just start turning brown, keep a close eye on them every day. When they're very brown, it's time."

But what kind of brown?  Pecan brown? Chestnut brown? Chocolate brown? If so, what kind? Milk chocolate? Dark? Or maybe it's just sorta'-kinda'-dry-looking brown?

Mud brown.  Light dirt mud brown.  That's about right.

Even when I try to put it clearly like that, some people think they know, but later, when they show me what they picked, they didn't quite get it.  Others, I can see by the look on their faces that they're not quite sure right then and there.  It's important to get it right when harvesting seeds to make sure the maximum number of seeds are mature enough to sprout later.  So...

Thank all the gods for pictures!  In both of the photos, you can see the progression and pretty much the right shade of brown.  Left to right: green (don't pick), sort of green and beginning to turn brown and kind of yellow sort of (watch closely 'cause it's any day now), and brown (It's TIME!).

Too green.
Once they reach this point, they're close to splitting open and throwing the seeds.  It's really cool how
they do that - the pods "pop", curling open quickly, spitting the seeds away from the mother plant.  Mama Nature, you're so cool.

An interesting aside: I've read that if you're near when they do that, you can really hear the pop. I haven't ever. Maybe I need to spend more time in the bluebonnet patch.

Almost done.
At that point, you can:
1. ... pick them, plant and all, and put the whole thing in a brown paper bag to dry and catch the seeds when the pods pop.  Some people say you can pick the whole plant earlier than this, but I like to wait to make sure the most seeds possible have reached as close as they can to maturity.
2. ... or you can put netting around them, tied at the bottom like lollipop wrappers, to catch the seeds when they pop, though this can be a pain in the ass if you have a lot.
3. ... OR, by now, they're mature enough to just pick outright, just the pods.  If you do pick just the pods, put them in a paper bag or pillowcase and shake them every day to make sure none are sticking together so much that they mold. Once they're this dry that's unlikely, but just to be on the safe side, shake ... your booty. Ahem.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Introduction to Beekeeping Class Notes

Introduction to Beekeeping

This class is NOT enough instruction to allow you to be ready to keep bees. This is just to point you in the right direction of where to learn more. I recommend learning as much as you can during the rest of this year including finding an opportunity to open a hive to experience it, and maybe even get stung, before deciding if beekeeping is for you. If so, order your bees this fall. I highly recommend Italians for their gentleness. Though many a new beekeeper got started by catching a swarm, I don’t recommend it since you never know what you’re going to get and very well could end up with extremely mean bees.

A note about stings: Many people say they are allergic to bee stings when they’re really not. Normal reactions to a sting are severe pain, swelling, redness, fever, and itching in the sting area lasting for a few days. A true bee allergy involves signs and symptoms that show up away from the sting site and is a true emergency. These occur in only 5% or less of the general population - fatal allergies in only 1% of children and 3% of adults.
Beekeeper’s Wife Allergy: Long-term exposure to the dried venom while not being stung can bring about an allergy. Usually, being stung keeps this from developing, but sometimes can actually bring about the allergy.
You never know when or if a true allergy will develop, so be aware of the signs and symptoms in case this happens to you. When in doubt, call 911, then head for the hospital.

Colony’s Social Structure: Workers, Drones, usually one Queen.
Life cycle: Egg, Hatch, Larvae, Capped brood, Emergence, Nurse Bee, House Bee, Guard Bee, Field Bee  (See more below)

Colony: The group of bees themselves. Consists of mostly workers, drones, and usually one queen.
Hive: What the bees live in.
Apiary: Beeyard.
Hot” hive: MAD and agressive bees. Any bees can be aggressive, even docile European types.
Foundation: Pre-formed sheets made of wax or plastic with honeycomb pattern stamped on. Thought to give the bees a head start in building comb.
Foundationless beekeeping: Letting the bees build all comb.
Natural Cell Size: What the bees build naturally. Usually smaller than standard foundation size.
Bee space: 3/8” - The space between combs, which must be that specific width or bees will build burr comb.
Burr comb: Sideways or otherwise “out of place” comb.
Nuc: “Nucleus”- a small but complete colony with four or five frames of brood and honey, bees of all stages, and a queen.
Package of bees: A “box o’ bees” containing one queen in a queen cage and a few thousand bees. They are usually sold by the pound, with about 3,ooo bees per pound. The more bees a package has, the more workers, therefore the faster it will build up large enough to make a surplus of honey.
Queen: The only bee that lays fertile eggs. She can sometimes be identified as the one with the longer abdomen, though in winter when egg-laying slows severely, her abdomen can shrink, making her harder to spot.
Flow: When flowers are blooming and bees are making a lot of honey.
Dearth: When flowers aren’t blooming and bees aren’t making a lot of honey.

Basic equipment: A smoker, a veil or suit, a hive tool, and a hive – cost ranges from $200 to over $2000. Cheaper: building a top bar hive and wearing thick, light-colored clothing that covers every inch of your body, along with a purchased veil. Not as cheap: purchasing a Langstroth hive that consists of two or three hive bodes (“boxes”) filled with frames, along with one bottom and one top (top can be a simple piece of plywood, so long as it seals along the top edge).
Notice no extractor. Small beekeepers can crush and strain, use gravity extraction, or borrow their club’s.

Types of Hives:
Langstroth – the white boxes.
Pros: Most common, so very easy to find parts to borrow/buy, including resources to strengthen a weak colony. Much easier to find a solution to any problem (feeding, excluding, robbing, etc.). Also easier to get advice.
Cons: Expense, weight (10-frame deeps can weigh 80+ pounds when full of honey, though you can use all mediums or even 8-frame mediums.
Top Bar –
Pros: Cheap and easy to build (Les Crowder’s plans are online for free). Easy to work if you have problems bending or lifting. Not being able to exchange equipment with other hives can stop pest or disease infestations.
Cons: If you have only one and need a frame of brood, you can’t just “borrow” one from a fellow beekeeper who has Langstroth. Some problems are hard to find a solution for, such as queen excluding should you need to.
Long Hive – a long (3-4’) box that Langstroth frames fit in. Sort of a top bar and Lang hybrid.
Pros: Much better for beekeepers with a bad back.
Cons: Can’t find available retail easily, so will likely have to be home built.
Flow hives – A recent innovation that allows the honey to be harvested without opening the hive. Still unknown if it’s practical over the long haul. All other beekeeping practices are the same – doesn’t lessen any beekeeping work except harvest.
Pros: Lessens work during harvest.
Cons: Expensive and untested.
Observation hives – A hive with a “window” in the wall to see inside. (Also, a glass/lexan “box” that you put frames of bees in temporarily.)
Pros: Incredibly interesting teaching tool. Interesting for those wanting to see the inner workings of their hive. Inspections are very easy since there’s no need to suit up completely and use a smoker – you can just look in.
Cons: Expensive to buy. Heats up too hot if you forget to close the cover.

What I use and why: Both 8-frame and 10-frame Langs (mediums and deeps) and a couple top bar hives. I prefer Langstroth 8-frame mediums because they are easier to lift, and having all the same frames means I can move any frame to any other box/hive in the beeyard. 8-frame boxes also make great nuc boxes for starting small colonies.

Timeline of work (Beekeeper’s Calendar)
I constantly watch them come and go from their entrances and notice what flowers are blooming when.
Spring: Inspect for stores (honey and pollen both), brood buildup, queen cells (indicator of swarming), make splits if needed, and test for mites, then treat. Monitor flow and add super (extra box on top) if needed.
Summer: Watch for dearth and install robbing screen. Inspect stores of honey and harvest if there’s a surplus. If low, feed through summer. Test for mites and treat before September.
Fall: Most times we have a fall flow when flowers bloom again. This is usually left on the hive for the bees to eat during winter, though at times there’s a surplus that can be harvested. Test for mites and treat.
Winter: Feed if they run out of stores. Test for mites and treat.  Fix equipment, order/build more.

Site selection for the hives: Preferably facing east or south, morning sun, and sheltered from the north winds.
Inspections (things to look for): stores (amount of honey and pollen), brood (capped, larvae, eggs if you can see them), queen cells (to know if they will swarm soon or if they’re replacing a queen), and signs of disease or pests (varroa mites, viruses, small hive beetles, wax moths, EFB, AHB). Each of these things would mean you would intervene to help solve the problem noted.
Feeding bees – Use only refined pure cane sugar, not organic sugar since it contains impurities. May need to feed pollen substitute as well at times. And water. With salt can be good.

My favorite sites:
Natural Beekeeping:
Les Crowder – top bar hives
Local resources:
Tanya Phillips:
Tara Chapman:
Austin Area Beekeepers Association: – Florence, TX, just north of Georgetown – bees and some supplies – free shipping if you spend $100 – also free shipping if you spend $100

Colony’s Social Structure
Queen: Only fertile female member of the colony. The “Mother of All”. Lives for a few years or more.
Workers: Infertile females who do all the work in the colony except laying eggs. Live six weeks or so in warm season, longer during winter. They hatch, then become
Drones: Haploid “males” who develop from an unfertilized egg. Their only purpose is fertilizing queens from other colonies.

Life cycle of a worker bee 

Days 1-4: Egg
Days 4-8: Hatch, Larvae
Days 9-15: Capped brood
Day 16: Emergence
Days 1-11: Nurse Bee
Days 12-17: House Bee
Days 18-21: Guard Bee
Days 21-death: Field Bee

Colony Reproduction
In spring, new queen cells are made and new queens reared. As soon as the first queen cell is capped, the old queen leaves with a group of workers to find another home. Sometimes the first queen to emerge from a queen cell leaves the hive with more workers – this is a secondary swarm led by a virgin queen. Once this type of swarm find a suitable home, the queen goes on her mating flight.

A queen mates only once in her life, within a couple weeks of hatching, and hopefully with many drones.  A few days after hatching she flies to a drone congregation area and breeds, usually many times over a few days, then comes back and never leaves the hive again unless she leaves with a swarm.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Baker Creek Seeds Supports Racism

As many of you know, I teach seed saving and seed starting classes at The Natural Gardener and elsewhere.  One of the sources of heirloom seeds I used to recommend is Baker Creek Seeds.  I won't be doing that any more because they have decided to host Cliven Bundy as a speaker at their spring planting festival this year. [UPDATE: They have since uninvited him and taken down their entire speaker list. At right is a screenshot of what it did look like earlier today.)

If you don't know who Cliven Bundy is, Google him.  He is a racist thug who has said black people were "better off" when they were slaves.  He and his family and friends destroyed Native American sacred spaces and artifacts when they decided they didn't want to pay the grazing lease fees they owed "because they had ancestral rights" to the land, so they took over a wildlife sanctuary and bulldozed Pauite burial grounds that were there.

Saying Cliven Bundy is a "land rights activist" is like saying there were "good people on both sides" in Charlottesville.

So unless Baker Creek Seeds de-invites him and puts out a sincere apology to people of color and Native Americans, I will never again recommend them.  Quite the opposite, I will tell people NOT to buy from them, and will also tell them why.

Other good sources of heirloom seeds are 
and especially Native Seeds Search.


I sent an email to Baker Creek about this issue.  Below is the email I just got in reply.  Note no apology to any kind of people of color.  No apology at all actually.  Just words about how they were "naively unaware of the controversy surrounding him".  I find that hard to believe since they posted this story on their website about an ancient Native American watermelon that Mr. Bundy also grew, including how they visited him in prison to interview him, and even writing about why he was in prison.  And look - here's a video of the story even, with some of it shot right outside the prison.

So yeah, I ain't buyin' their story.

Hello Linda,

So sorry for the slow reply. I have just been given this information by our management team.
Cliven Bundy will not be appearing at our Spring Planting Festival next week. After a long discussion, both Bundy and Baker Creek staff agree that his presence could cause a safety issue and other concerns for all participants.

We thank everyone for sharing concerns and thoughts about our speaker lineup. We recognize that many of you have passionate concerns on many sides of issues that have come forth. We appreciate the information and many points of view that people have shared about the situation. A few Baker Creek staff members became acquainted with Bundy while researching an heirloom seed variety, and we were unaware of many of the controversies surrounding him. We are committed to thoroughly researching the issues raised by our friends and customers during this discussion.

Baker Creek is a supporter of diversity. The company was founded on the idea of saving the diversity of seeds. We believe just as strongly in the diversity and equality of all people. We would never consciously do anything that could be construed negatively toward any culture, color, religion, etc. The Gettle family itself is a multicultural American family, with Hispanic, Chinese, German, and Jewish heritage. We celebrate diversity in both our family and our business. We strive to include many cultures in our speaker lineup, our catalogs, and other publications, because we believe a diversity of cultures and ideas is what makes this nation great. In recent years, we have substantially supported humanitarian work in many nations with out regard to people's religion, culture, or color.

A staff writer met Bundy while visiting farmers in Nevada. Several told her that she needed to talk with him because he was the longest-running organic farmer in the area. He had been commercially growing heirloom melons for over 40 years. That was our only connection to this farmer, who told our writer many stories of his past seed saving and plant breeding practices, and about his work in the valley to preserve the local seeds of the area. He volunteered to speak about his seeds and dry farming practices at one of our events.

Our staff thought these sounded like great topics, and we invited him to participate in our Spring Planting Festival. As is the case with all of our speakers, he volunteered participation without receiving a stipend or honorarium. Although we had seen a few news clippings over the years, we were naively unaware of the controversy surrounding him. We do believe in rights of free speech and letting people be heard, even if we disagree with their ideals. But at this time, due to security and other issues raised by many of you, all parties think it would be better to research the situation, read the information that has been sent to us by customers. We apologize for any ill feelings this has caused, this certainly was not our intention.

As the festival date approaches, we will be updating our speaker schedule with other changes.

The Baker Creek Staff

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Rd
Mansfield, MO 65704


So Baker Creek said they uninvited Bundy because a group of protesters were "threatening their vendors"?!  I saw that post on Facebook - a woman said she and some friends were planning on bringing some signs to protest outside their planting festival if Bundy was allowed to speak.  How in the WORLD is that "threatening their vendors"?!  I'm so done with Baker Creek.  SO. DONE.  

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Pruning: WHACK IT!

I recently taught a couple classes on pruning with the wonderful Stacie and the fabulous David, both from the grounds crew at work.  They were a hit!  We got some wonderful feedback on both of them, especially the Saturday one.  It was a blast!  I love teaching, especially when everyone is really engaged and learning, including me!  (Yep, I often learn things during the classes.  LOVE that part!)

During both classes, two things came up repeatedly: the question on just how much to cut back, and then surprise at the answer of most things get cut to the ground!  At least once I even heard audible gasps.

I know it's scary.  Terrifying even to some.  So I cracked jokes to put people at ease: "Know how to fix your fear of cutting it that hard? Shot of bourbon." ... "Get in touch with your inner Red Queen and off with it's head!" ... "It's okay, y'all. It's not going to die, but even if it did, it's not a puppy." 

Even so, I still sensed some reticence.  We explained that half the plant was underground, so cutting off the top really wasn't that big of a deal.  We explained about the energy transfer that goes on when a plant goes dormant - as each cold snap hits it, a plant slowly transfers it's growing energy into it's roots for winter, where it stays stored until it sprouts back out in spring, so you're really not cutting off anything of great importance.  And we explained that most of the stuff above was dead anyway, and even what wasn't would be hard pressed to sprout leaves anywhere but the top, and that would lead to the plant having to push all that energy aaaaaaaallll the way up those spindly branches, wasting a lot of it in the process.  But still, many found it hard to digest that you really do cut most things all the way to the ground. 

In an attempt to show everyone that it really will be okay, here are some before and after photos of our butterfly garden at work.  The before ones were taken last fall when it was rockin' in there.  The after ones were just last week and they show exactly what the garden looked like this time last year.  I'll try to remember to get a few of what it looks like this fall and post them as well, just to show that everything really is okay.

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And one last one, the most dramatic of the bunch.  See that 5+ foot tall 
firebush just behind the clump of grass?  It's gone!  Mama Nature's 
Winter took the other one further down the path with it.

This is all that's left...

So don't be afraid!  Grab some gloves, some pruners, and some bourbon, 
and head on out to WHACK SOME STUFF!  Later this year you'll be 
really glad you did.

~ * ~

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fermented Vegetables: Class Handout

Here is the handout for Neil Schmidt's Fermented Veggies class.  If you're interested in taking this class, keep an eye on The Natural Gardener's events calendar for the next time Neil will be presenting it.  


Lacto-Fermented Veggies
(Class Notes)
by Neil Schmidt
Education Coordinator & Presenter
The Natural Gardener

Brining the cabbage
Food Preservation:     Lacto-fermentation is due to Lactobacillus bacteria that produce lactic-acid in anaerobic environments.  These bacteria are found on the surfaces of vegetables and the digestive systems of humans and other animals. Lacto-fermentation not only retains the nutrients in the veggies but they are more easily digested since they have been slightly broken down. Most food processing for storage decreases the nutrient content of the food.  Lacto-fermentation allows for medium to long term storage without losing nutritional content.  It is also less resource and labor intensive than canning or freezing. On top of these benefits the microorganisms in lacto-fermentation are highly beneficial probiotics for intestinal health.

Whole cabbage leaf to hold down smaller pieces.
Traditional Fermented Foods:  Every culture on Earth has developed some types of fermented foods.  We will focus on the veggies!  Pickles, Sauerkraut, Kimchi and Escabeche are just the tip of the iceberg!

                                          Container w/ lid Fermentation vessel needs to be large enough to hold all veggies and at least 1-2” of brine above.
            Weight Ceramic, glass, sterilized rock, wedged chopsticks (anything to keep the veggies submerged)
            Large Metal Bowl Large enough to mix veggies with salt and squeeze thoroughly.
            Jar Funnel Helps keep the area cleaner and easier to pack jars.
            Large Spoon – Used to get veggies in and out of the fermenter and jars.

Fermentation vessels each with a different airlock system.

Process:  3 rules to keep in mind: Use fresh organic produce, keep it salty and submerged.  If you follow these tips your finished product will be delicious!
1)      Clean all equipment thoroughly.  It does not need to be sterilized.
2)      Cut veggies to desired size, place in large metal mixing bowl and coat with salt. Massage salt into veggies and squeeze out all liquid possible. Let sit for 2 hrs.
“The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting.” Sandor Katz
(I prefer to leave the veggies in larger pieces so the bubbles can escape to the surface keeping the veggies from lifting out of the brine.)
Kahm yeast – edible but can impart off flavors. 
Increase salt content of brine and the issue should go away.
     3)      Squeeze out all liquid again.  Then spoon into fermentation vessel pouring brine on top to cover veggies. More brine can be made and added if there isn’t enough. 1 tsp-1 tbs/cup of cold clean water.
     4)      Cover the surface of veggies by layering whole cabbage leaves to keep pieces from floating to the top. Place weight on top on cabbage leaves.
     5)      When the desired sourness is achieved (5 days- 2wks) skim all growth from the surface of the brine and unpack fermentation vessel.  Pack into clean jars, fill with brine and refrigerate.

Kahm yeast again.
Contamination by mold or other harmful organisms is not very common when the 3 major tips above are followed.  If mold is found or the veggies have started to disintegrate and become mushy you will want to discard that batch!  Basically when in doubt through it out! However, strong smells do not indicate a problem.  I have found it always smells worse (stronger) during the ferment than once it is harvested. Kahm yeast is a common organism that can grow on the surface but presents no problem other than slightly off flavors.  If Kahm yeast becomes a problem make your brine a little saltier. If the batch seems too salty or vinegary the veggies can be rinsed and new less salty brine added to the jars when putting them in the fridge.

More information from Sandor Katz's website

Now go ferment something!

Thursday, May 17, 2018



See?! EGGS!!! Those ickle bitty white things in the cells near the bottom.

Here they are!

Late last month, the same day I brought those Africanized foragers home, I split one of my honeybee colonies into four (five counting the Africanized forager one). A couple weeks before, I'd also taken a little split from another colony, the one in the top bar hive I got from Sarah and Justin (Hi, Sarah and Justin!).

Checked them today and four of them have eggs! That means QUEENS!! The fifth looks like it should any day now, and the sixth - well ... it's made up of those Africanized foragers, and it's all the way across the creek. I should check them, too, but they're all the way across the creek, and they're assholes, so I don't wanna'.

I don't know if I told y'all, but I had health problems early spring last year (all better now!) and didn't notice my hives getting robbed out 'til it was too late. So I started this year with one little colony I cut out of the floor of a storage building in South Austin last fall, and now I have six and possibly eight colonies. Life is SO good! Despite it being 91 degrees right now here in Spicewood. (Why yes, I did get into my beesuit nekkid today.)

I have a young friend who wants to get into bees, and I told her if I'm lucky with the splits, I'll share. I'm going to have so much fun texting her that SHE'S DEFINITELY GETTING BEES!


Update: I texted her and SHE'S ABOUT TO POP, TOO!! What a good day.

See that black blob? That's a bee who wanted her closeup.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

How to Change an Aggressive Colony of Bees from Demons to Angels.

Well, that was fun.

A friend of mine "inherited" a honeybee colony when she bought her property a few years ago and they came with it.  They'd always been gentle little things, causing no more trouble than drinking from her birdbath and drowning in it occasionally.  She'd enjoyed watching them flitting around her butterfly garden and pollinating her squash.  She's not (yet) a beekeeper, but felt strongly that her property benefited from them being there, so she called other beekeepers out to check them every now and then to make sure they were healthy.  Life was good.
After my inspection. Man, that's a lot of bees!

That changed this spring.  They started buzzing her up at the house a couple hundred feet away, fifty or so at a time, getting caught in her hair and stinging the dogs.  Something was wrong.  So she hired me to come check them, to see if the little jerks at her house were from her hive or a feral colony.  I suited up, lit my smoker, and dug in.  It didn't take long to find out that yep, it was her hive.  I got bumped by a couple bees twenty feet from the hive, and man did they boil out as soon as I took the top off!  Ever seen three hundred tiny little faces lined up along the edge of a beehive box, glaring at you with much malice in their beady little eyes, vibrating with malevolence while five hundred of their sisters dive bomb your face?  I have.

Thanking the Lord for xanax, I gritted my teeth and went through the whole thing anyway, checking for swarm cells so I could squash them and forestall these genetics from escaping into our local area more than they already have, giving us time to figure out how to deal with them.  The five boxes took me well over an hour to look through, and I got stung through my suit fourteen times that I could count.  Three of those were on my face, so I spent the rest of that day looking like I'd had a bad collagen injection from a cut-rate plastic surgeon.  (Not to worry - I was all better that evening, after a swig of liquid benadryl and a nap.)

They were scary mean, so I knew and she knew they had to be dealt with.  How they got this way we'll never know for sure, but it's likely her old gentle queen was superseded, and the new one bred with some drones from a mean queen in another colony.  I told her we should requeen with a more gentle one, and we set about finding her.  BeeWeaver was all out for the season, so she called Tanya Phillips of Bee Friendly Austin to see if she had any available.  After describing to her what I told my friend I'd gone through, Tanya strongly recommended she get Les Crowder to do the requeening.  Of course I jumped at the chance to tag along!  So I called him and we made a plan.  I installed queen excluders between all the boxes so he could find the queen easier the following week, and we met up at my friend's house five days later to do the deed.

How to haul bees with a Miata.  Who needs a truck anyway?
Les is a soft spoken man who just feels good to be around.  He worked the bees so gently, taking care not to squash any if at all possible, taking his time easing each frame out, working slowly and methodically, waiting for the bees to get out of the way before doing the next thing.  I like that.  I'm the same way.  Part of it is self-serving - the more bees you kill, the madder and more likely to sting they get - but a bigger part of it is the guilt I feel for killing them just so I can hurry up and get things done.  Yeah, yeah, there's over twenty or forty thousand of them in the hive so what does it matter to kill a few.  Well, there's over half a million minutes in a year, so what does it matter to kill a few of those instead?

I was ready with my little bottle of alcohol when Les found the queen (I bet she makes a great swarm lure!).  We talked a bit about what an amazing animal she was, such a strong queen to make such a productive and healthy colony, how Mother Nature sure knows how to breed things better than we can.  Of course we both knew what had to be done, and into the alcohol she went.

Beeswax makes a great entrance plug.
Les proceeded to move the hive to a new spot further from my friend's house as I gathered up tools and set a box on the original spot to catch the foragers so I could take them away that night.  On Les's suggestion, I'd brought a frame of open brood with eggs from my Sweetheart Hive, a darling little feral colony I'd cut out of the floor of a storage shed in South Austin last fall.  We put it in a box with a few frames of capped brood from the aggressive hive, and I set it in place.  Taking some of the capped brood and the majority of the foragers would lessen the numbers of aggressive bees my friend had to deal with while waiting the month and a half for the new queen's more docile daughters to take over, and if all goes well I'll end up with a new colony headed by a daughter of my Sweetheart queen.  Nice trade for being willing to deal with the jerkiest of the jerks for a month or two.

Les told me where the queen cage was so I can find it easily when I come back in a week to let her go, and we left, glad to be away from that colony.  Man, they were not fun.

And the vibrating begins.
I'm so glad my friend called Les to do this.  Not only was it fun to work with him (yes, him - not those bees), but I learned things, AND he saved me from making a big mistake.  If it had been me, I'd have let them release the queen in a few days, or released her myself in three.  Les said with Africanized bees, which these very well may have been, that's too early.  They'll likely kill her unless you leave her in the cage for at least five days, or better yet a week.  So yeah, my inexperience with Africanized bees would have at best cost my friend more money and frustration having to find a new queen and having this done all over again, or at worst doomed her colony.  Crisis averted!  I'm so glad I got to avoid screwing up and dealing with the guilt that would come along with it, especially because I'd told her, before I found out how mean they were, that between the two of us we could absolutely handle caring for this hive without having to call anyone else in to help.  Ooof.

A cold front blew in last night, so I decided it'd be best to wait 'til just before dawn this morning to go get them.  It was perfect - almost all of them were in the boxes, and it was so cold that the few left outside couldn't put up much of a fuss.  I plugged the entrance with a wad of beeswax,
I wonder if Joe knows what's in the boxes.
ratchet strapped the whole thing together, carried it to my car, ratchet strapped it to the trunk, and away we went.  With thoughts of what would happen if they slipped on the way, or worse yet I got into a wreck, I used two one-ton-test straps to hold the boxes together and five to strap it to the trunk, then oh-so-carefully and oh-so-slowly putted all the way home.  Yep.  Seven tons of ratchet straps.  I probably would have used more had I had them. *snicker*

As if riding four miles on the back of the Miata wasn't enough to piss them off, they got loaded into the tractor bucket when I got home and, as daylight broke, we slowly vibrated our way across the creek to the spot I'd carefully picked out for them, Joe Dog following behind.  Their new home is a few hundred feet from my house, a hundred more than that from my beeyard, across the creek and through a bunch of brush and trees.  I would have put it even further away, but wanted to keep it a good distance from the county road back there.  Bicyclists ride by there fairly often and I didn't think they'd appreciate SURPRISE BEES!!!1!!  Though I guess it would have made them pedal faster ... more cardio, yes?

Before I opened them up, I turned the tractor around and headed it towards home, still running, so I could make a quick getaway, or at least as quick of a getaway as one can make on a tractor. Man, they were
Opened up and all done! Yes, I took that photo while hiding on the tractor.
Mama didn't raise no fool.
mad. Good thing it was still cold or me and Joe would probably have gotten nailed a few times again.

It feels good to have accomplished this.  I'd always wondered if I could take working a really aggressive colony.  Living in an area Africanized honeybees have definitely infiltrated, that's a very real possibility.  My friend said Les told her this was one of the most scary-aggressive colonies he's encountered in this area.  With his decades of bee experience, that's saying something.  So now I know.  I'll be fine.  So long as I have xanax.


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