Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part III, Beekeeping

The initial bee install took place the weekend of 5 April 2014, and I added a box to the hive the weekend of 12 April, as documented in the post, "Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part I," dated 23 May 2014.  I checked on the bees regularly, and there was plenty of activity, with bees coming and going, and the bees were carrying in loads of pollen from their foraging activities.  The hive appeared to be very healthy.  I knew that I should be adding more boxes to the hive, and as the weeks went by I became more and more anxious that the colony might swarm because there was insufficient space in the hive for the growing colony.  Finally, adding the boxes rose to the top of my work list, and coincidentally Nathan was available to help me in the process.

Nathan (L) and I suiting up,
inactive hive box after step 1
just to my right in the back-
Proving again that dogs in their late adolescence (i.e., me) can still learn new tricks, I broke out the bee suits.  Actually, this is not so much about not being stung, it is about being less anxious of being stung, allowing us to be calmer in the midst of the bees, and feeling less hurried as a result.  Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.  Another change made to the process of hive maintenance, was to use a spray bottle of sugar-water, instead of the smoker, for calming the bees.  The smoker did not seem to have the desired effect at the bee install, and worse yet, we spent too much time keeping the smoker smoking rather than making progress in the hive.  The smoker is just one more thing to worry about.  In a sauce pan I mixed up the sugar (regular table sugar) and water in a 1:1 ratio, 1-1/2 C. of sugar and 1-1/2 C. of water.  Over medium heat the mixture was warmed while being stirred periodically, until the sugar was completely dissolved into the water.

  I then poured the sugar-water into a new spray bottle purchased for the purpose, and then put the bottle in the refrigerator to bring its contents back to approximately room temperature.  We also prepared two hive boxes, which involved applying beeswax to 16 top bars, 8 for each box, and placing the top bars in the boxes.  Other equipment we took to the apiary included a hive tool and a bee brush, the former for separating the existing boxes from the floor, and the latter for gently moving the bees about without agitating them.  With our preparations in order, and bee suits on, we made our way down to the hive.
At step 3, calming the bees
with the sugar-water mist
At the hive, Nathan and I followed the step-by-step process below:

1) Remove roof, quilt and top bars from the inactive hive; we will use the hive box as a rest for the active hive boxes while placing the two new hive boxes on the floor of the active hive (unlike the Langstroth hive, new boxes are placed beneath existing boxes in a Warré hive)
2) Remove the roof from the active hive; this is no problem, because the quilt is still between us and the bees.  I simply remove it because it adds unnecessary weight to the lift that will need to be performed, and because it would make the assembly of two boxes (and the bees, comb, brood and honey within them), the quilt, and the roof, top-heavy and more difficult to handle.
3) Lightly spray sugar-water onto the bees at the entrance, emphasis on lightly.  Bees do not like to be wet.  They will be occupied by cleaning themselves of the sugar-water, or at least that's the theory behind the method!
4) Carefully remove the two boxes (plus quilt), as an assembly, from the floor, and set aside on the exposed box of the inactive hive
Step 4, setting aside the active hive boxes and
quilt; based on how far the bees had progressed
in building comb, I would say these boxes were
being added just-in-time
5) One at a time, place the two new boxes on the floor, using the bee brush and the sugar-water spray to calm the bees and move them out of the way as necessary
6) Reinstall the two active hive boxes and quilt on top of the two new hive boxes on the floor, again using the bee brush and the sugar-water spray to calm the bees and move them out of the way as necessary
7) Reinstall the roof on the hive; addition of hive boxes is then complete

The process of adding the boxes went more smoothly than I probably had any right to expect; it was executed without incident.

I had planned to buy another package of bees for the now-inactive hive, but the delivery date of the packages was delayed one week and that caused an unavoidable conflict for Geri and I.  Still, I will investigate to establish that we can still expect success if we install another package this late in the year.

Step 6, reinstalling the two active hive boxes
Thanks to our iPhoneographer, Susan, for making the raw photos that you see incorporated.  She noted pointedly that she was the only one of us without a bee suit!  Fortunately she maintained a safe distance, and was not injured in the making of this post.

Laying down cardboard for
vegetation suppression
Informed by what I have read, it seems best to keep the vegetation down in the apiary.  A reason is that when the bees return to the hive fully loaded with pollen, and if they miss the landing board, it can be difficult or impossible for them to "take off" again if they are in deep vegetation.  So, Nathan and I also took on suppressing the vegetation by laying down cardboard and then covering it with wood chips.  (We are doing the same in the garden, and it is amazing how much cardboard can be "re-purposed" in the fashion.)  This is certainly not a permanent solution; it will require ongoing maintenance.  At some point before winter I will also be installing a fence/windbreak to protect the hives from the cold winter winds.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at

-- John, 18 June 2014

Before and after weed suppression by cardboard sheet mulch and wood chips

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part II

By mid-April, spring was in full swing, and I began to think again of working in the woods.  The cleared area around the house, in the shape of an egg in profile, with the fat end uphill and to the south and the small end to the north reaching to the lake, the yard if you will, totals between 2.5 and 3 acres.  Surrounded by old-growth trees, American Beech, Sugar Maple, and Tuliptree dominate, as well as some more recent introductions, 20 to 25 crab apples, and several willows closer to water's edge.  It seems the forest would overtake the yard in just a few short years were the property to be abandoned.  Occasionally, it adds up over time, trees would fall, or branches would break off and fall into the yard, for a variety of reasons.  Since none of the woods was being put to directly productive use, the idea seemed to be to make the "problem" go away; the result of clean-up of the dead fall being large piles, 3 to 4 feet high, of brush and larger branches and main stems having been dragged just into the forest, and surrounding the clearing more or less completely, anywhere from at the yard's edge to 20 feet into the forest.  I have made it a mission to deal with the piles more effectively.  Specifically, anything that is dry and 1 to 3 inches in diameter is used as stick fuel, green and 3 inches and less in diameter is chipped for use as mulch or on pathways, 3 to 4 inches in diameter and larger is bucked and split for firewood.  Odd-shaped pieces in the larger diameters are set aside for use in the fire pit, wood too rotted for use as fuel is set aside for use in Hügelkultur.  Virtually all of the wood can be reused in one form or another; waste not, want not.

Last year I acquired a Husqvarna Rancher 460 chainsaw (here is where you channel Dr. Tim "Tim the Tool Man" Taylor's grunting), a Gränsfors Bruks Large Splitting Maul (imagine Schwarzenegger as John Matrix walking out of the woods with a log over his left shoulder in "Commando," and cue more grunting), and a DR 16 hp wood chipper (think "Fargo.")  All of these tools are basic necessities in forest management.  I bought the chainsaw new, and it has performed flawlessly, as should be expected.  The splitting maul, well, it's pretty hard for it not to work, so long as you can swing it.  Having said that, Gränsfors Bruks has perfected the splitting maul in design and manufacture; it is truly the standard by which all others are measured.  The DR I bought used, barely used, though it is about 10 years old.  When I bought it the seller had trouble getting it to run for any length of time, and we ended up having to drain and replace the gas and clean the fuel filter before it would run continuously.  I used it last summer and fall without incident.
DR Wood Chipper Model C163 on day of purchase
Fast forward to this spring, and I could not get the machine to run for over a minute without dying, almost as if I had turned it off.  I will not bore you with the details, suffice it to say I was in and out of the carburetor times to numerous to count.  It was indeed a fuel problem, the fuel had "gummed up" over the winter.  I had treated the gasoline with Sta-bil, which should have prevented the formation of gum and varnish, and allowed me to avoid draining the system, but alas, such was not the case.  The bottom of the float bowl was covered with a substance that I can best describe as looking like custard, or better yet custard-colored small curd cottage cheese, and the fuel metering main jet was completely obstructed.  (Break out the carb cleaner, rags, etc.)

I experienced this view all too often during the chipper
repair process.
And, I had to blow air back through the fuel line and into the fuel tank, dislodging more gum from nooks and crannies (those are technical terms for you newbies) inside the fuel tank, and drain and replace the fuel.  I received some good advice from Dennis Goss, which led to the blowing of air into the fuel tank, thereby removing a blockage which proved to be the last piece of the chipper dysfunction puzzle.  I also replaced a broken PVC (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) hose between the crankcase and air cleaner, and the float needle, because its "rubber" sealing surface had rotted off.  That all sounds simple enough, and naturally I wasted the better part of three or four days over the course of two weeks making the repairs.  Lesson #1 learned:  Drain the fuel tank and run the carburetor dry before storing for the winter.  Lesson #2 learned, again: It takes a lot less time to do it right the first time.

Nathan manning the wood
chipper.  "Many hands make
 light work."

Having repaired the chipper,  I was able to process some large downed trees and limbs just south of the house, and together with Nathan Douglas and Meredith Mancuso we put up 3 large piles of wood chips, I would estimate a total of five or six cubic yards in total, a substantial pile of rotting wood suitable for Hügelkultur, and the better part of a cord of fire wood, stacked and split.  Not coincidentally, the forest was looking much more pleasing to the eye after having made this progress.

There is truly no end to this type of work on the homestead.  I am focusing our efforts in an area generally to the south of the house, to create a more park-like setting in the general vicinity, and to allow more sunlight to reach the house and future greenhouse in winter.  Even this relatively small area of 3 to 5 acres, depending on how ambitious I am, would require a huge amount of future effort to maintain.

The products of clearing the forest of dead fall
I also transplanted a clematis from our Chicagoland home to the homestead in mid-April.  You can literally watch this plant grow; on some days I have photographic evidence of it growing over 3 inches in a day.  It now has a prominent place on the east side of our Michigan home.  I had expected some so-called "transplant shock," but there is no evidence that the plant lost any time in putting on spring growth.  It went from being cut back to the ground to having a 1 foot high shoot in two weeks, and then it really took off, putting on about 4 feet of vertical growth in the following two weeks.
Clematis "time lapse" photographs.  That lump in the lower right-hand corner of the left-most image is the clematis root
root ball on "transplant day."
Assembled raised bed frames
Finally, closing out the month of May, Nathan, Dennis and I were able to build five raised garden beds for Geri.  The beds are constructed of 2 in. x 12 in. x 12 ft. pressure treated lumber, are 2 ft. deep, and have outside dimensions of 4 ft. x 8 ft.  We used three, 3 in. stainless steel deck screws, and waterproof wood glue, at each corner.  The structure of the beds should last for 7 to 10 years, or more.

I hired some help with a Caterpillar 299 skid steer (also known as a compact track loader) to clear a garden area approximately 50 ft. x 33 ft., on the east side of the yard and reasonably close to the house.  Meredith put her critical eye on my layout of the garden, and perhaps needless to say that resulted in a complete do-over, thankfully.  Meredith had it right, a good eye, and Geri was pleased with the result.  After placing the beds in the garden, and putting in each a layer of the harvested rotting wood, we filled them one-by-one with 2 cubic yards of topsoil with the help of our Cat 299 operator.  Geri, Meredith and Susan then planted our first southwest Michigan homestead garden.  (Susan also did a great deal of weeding about the house, as is her want, and it looks much the better for her efforts.)  Geri had spent the better part of the prior day traveling the back roads of southwest Michigan in search of best herb and vegetable plants she could find, and with great success.  The next day, I installed a simple, and temporary, 2-zone irrigation system.
Garden installation, from earth-moving to installed, planted and irrigated raised garden beds
I think I can speak for Geri when I say that we have never slept better than we do at the homestead.  Long days of work in the home, garden and forest, days that to me feel more like play, days often punctuated by a jump in the lake, some paddle-boating, paddle-boarding, or fishing, and great meals, and all of that in the company of great friends.  This is what it means to me to be truly blessed.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please "follow" the blog by clicking on the "g+," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."

Also, "Like" us on Facebook at

-- John, 12 June 2014