Top Bar Beehive Update

Last spring Ray and I built a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive and installed a package of worker bees and a queen.  Through the spring and summer, we have been reading up on how to

top bar bee hive installation

Here is Ray checking to see that the queen has been released from her cage. Yes! She was free!

take care of our bees (who knew you are supposed to rotate the top bars around?) and we think we have kept them well fed and happy.  Our favorite book, which we refer to often, is “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder.

All summer we have been on the lookout for native and purchased flowering plants that the bees would like, and avoiding plants that are poisonous to bees, such as azaleas and rhododendron.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few buckeye trees around, but there are none on our property.  The Buckeye tree pollen is mildly poisonous to adult honeybees, but it causes fatal wing deformity in the brood.  There isn’t anything we can do about the trees surrounding our property because they are  indigenous to our area, but what we can do is cultivate lots of safe and healthy plants for our bees.  We found a beautiful flowering plant by the side of the road that was completely covered with honeybees, butterflies and bumblebees.  Our son, Matthew, is a Forester and identified it as a  medicinal plant (for humans) called Yerba Santa!  We gathered some of the seed from the plant and hope they will germinate this coming spring so we can plant them in near the beehive.

We also planted a bush called Euonymus japonicus.  We had one at our valley home that was absolutely mauled every spring and summer by honeybees.  We planted the bush about 15 feet behind the hive so the bees will have a short commute.  We also planted two lemon balm plants (Melissa officinalis) because we read somewhere that if you plant lemon balm near a beehive, the bees will never leave.  After all, Melissa means “honeybee” in the Greek language! Even if that’s a wive’s tale, that’s okay, because I found that a sprig of lemon balm, a sprig of basil and a few stevia leaves in a gallon of water makes a wonderfully refreshing drink.  We also planted a pot with spearmint.

Top Bar Beekeeping

You can see the spearmint on the left in the pot and the lemon balm in the planter on the right. The two bushes in green pots behind the beehive are pomegranates.

Of course, next spring there will also be all our fruit and nut trees in bloom, along with the lavender and jasmine we have planted here and there around our new homestead.  We hope to have happy, well fed bees that won’t need much supplemental feeding in the future.

We enjoy showing our bees to our family and friends also.  When my sister visited our homestead, it was time to check on the bees and rotate any top bars that might need, well, rotating!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my sister Deana. Now I think she wants a beehive too!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my dearest sister Deana.

I let her put on my bee outfit and enjoyed watching her reaction as Ray lifted some of the bars for her to see the comb, brood, workers and (of course) the honey! I was truly surprised how brave she was. There she was, right in front of the hive, and she had no fear!  I will admit, however, that sometimes the wonder of it all erases fear.  Our grandchildren were a bit more timid, however, and chose to observe the hive at a fair distance. 🙂

It’s amazing how lucky we have been with our bees.  After reading other blogs about honeybees and several books on backyard beekeeping, it seems we have done a lot of things right, but an equal number of things wrong!  When we first installed our bees, we basically sat back and watched them fly in and out of their hive entrance, and after our second inspection to verify that the queen was laying eggs and comb was being made, we thought our work was pretty much done.  Then we read in Les Crowder’s book that you have to check the hive every other week to make sure the bees weren’t cross-combing.  Cross-combing?  What’s that?

Cross combing is when the bees don’t make straight, vertical comb.  It’s when the comb is rounded or crooked and runs into the next comb.  It’s when your bees have run amuck.

Kenyan top bar beekeeping

Wow! This comb is straight and absolutely full of brood and honey!

After reading this we ran to our hive (well, maybe we didn’t actually run) to pull out some of the top bars and find out if our bees were behaving poorly.  Nope.  Thank goodness, our bees all passed Geometry 101 and their comb was straight, vertical and perfectly shaped. Every single one!  Wahoo!  Of course, that is what lead us to do a bit more reading on what else we were supposed to be doing.

Hmmm…  Chapter 5 in “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder… apparently if the bees think their home is too small, they will swarm in the early spring. Not a total disaster (not all of the workers leave, and usually a new queen has been coronated), but swarming is something most beekeepers like to avoid because the colony that is left after a swarm is usually small and weak.  However it is possible for the hive to build back up, especially if there are still brood in the combs, the new queen is laying, and there is enough honey for back-up.  But, again, it’s not what a beekeeper wants.

How do you avoid a swarm?  Apparently you have to make sure the bees think they have plenty of room left in the hive for expansion.  You do this by moving some of the top bars around, putting empty top bars between full ones, and making sure there are always a few empty top bars in the back.

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn't it beautiful?

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn’t it beautiful?

So, that’s what we did.  We moved some of the bars around, in a pattern suggested in Les Crowder’s book.  But, while moving the bars around, Ray noticed that one bar had come apart and the weight of the honey in the comb had made it drop to the floor of the hive.

Darn.  Shoot.  Bad luck.  Well, I guess all we could do was harvest that one.

Of course, I’m being facetious here.  We were actually more than happy to get a sample of our honey!  Besides, our Beekeeper and Master Gardner friend, Kim, said we should harvest some honey.  Why?  “Because”, she explained, “it’s like deadheading a rosebush. If you keep clipping off the spent roses, the plant will continue to make more roses.  So if you harvest some honey, the bees will be stimulated to make more honey!”


Harvesting honey from a top bar beehive

Here is the honey dripping from the crushed honeycomb through the paint strainer into the ice cream bucket. High tech harvest!

My mom had given me some nice ice cream buckets, which I assumed were food grade, so we used a paint strainer and the bucket to separate the honey from the comb.  I had to crush the comb a bit while it was in the paint strainer, but I was lucky that this comb only had raw and ripe honey, no brood.  I would have felt bad if there was brood in it, but apparently there usually is, so I will have to get used to sacrificing a few brood to be able to harvest honey.

Since this comb had raw, unripe honey in it (honey that hasn’t been capped yet and therefore has more water in it), I knew we had to use it right away.  Honey that hasn’t been capped is likely to ferment, which wouldn’t be so bad, because fermented honey is Mead!  Although we do plan to make our own Mead next year, we decided to use our fresh honey instead drizzled on biscuits, French toast, waffles…

I may be prejudiced, but I think our honey was the best tasting ever!  It was dark and fairly thick, and Master Gardner Kim informed us that it probably was cedar honey, which made sense!  We have cedar trees on and around our homestead, and the dark color with a slight hint of “forest” in the honey led us to believe she was probably right.  Although we harvested only one small comb, we got about ¾ pint of honey.  It didn’t last very long 😉

Natural beekeeping

This is our first harvest of beautiful golden, tasty honey. I can’t wait to harvest more next year!

During our observations of the hive, we have noticed the bees coming in with various colors of pollen.  For a while in June, they all carried heavy bags of yellow pollen.  A few weeks later the pollen was a darker orange.  In August, we noticed the bees carrying an almost pure white pollen!

Then, it happened.  While watching the bees coming and going from their hive entrance, observing the color of the pollen they were bringing in, I guess I got too close.  I got stung.  On my eyebrow.

Since I haven’t been stung by a honeybee in years, I didn’t know what my reaction was going to be.  So, I ran into the trailer (screaming like a little girl) and took a Benadryl, an aspirin and put an ice pack on the sting.  The truth is, it hurt.  A lot!  After about an hour, however, I knew I was probably not allergic to bee stings (I was still alive), and the pain started to fade from there.  I think the anxiety of a possible allergic reaction may have exaggerated the pain.  But the next morning, when I looked in the mirror, I saw quite a site!  The entire area around my eye – the eyelid, my cheekbones, the inside of my nose and my crow’s feet – were all a bright pink color.  Not just bright pink… iridescent bright pink!  It looked like a four year old put some hot pink eyeshadow on me in the middle of the night!  Disco Fever anyone? Every time Ray looked at me for the next couple of days, until the color faded, he would chuckle.  So did I.  It was really quite funny.

Keeping Bees Naturally

Aspirin, Benadryl and an ice pack – recommended remedy for bee stings.

Up until I got the bee sting, I was becoming more and more comfortable around the bees.  That’s probably why I got stung.  I had become too complacent.  I was foolishly standing less than two feet from the entrance to the hive without any protective gear on and no smoke.  Also, I was aware that the hive had successfully fended off a few attacks by yellow jackets, and so were probably at high intruder alert.  That bee sting was totally my own fault.  Too bad a bee had to give her life because of my stupidity.  Lesson learned.

So where are we now?  It’s autumn here on the homestead and the days and nights are getting cooler. The bees are still coming and going, bringing back pollen and a deep reddish brackish color of pollen, which I actually think may be propolis.  Propolis is used by the bees as a sort of glue to help shore up any holes in the hive, preparing for the winter cold.

We will probably open the hive only one or two more times before winter actually sets in.  We plan to give them some sugar water during the winter just in case they didn’t get enough honey to last through until the first honey flow in the spring.  So, there isn’t much more we can do at this point but wish them luck and pray that they make it through the winter.0001

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My Garden Thief!

Who stole my sunflowers?

You can see one of our Italian honeybees right in the middle of this beautiful sunflower. Sunflowers are so pretty, aren't they?

You can see one of our Italian honeybees right in the middle of this beautiful sunflower. Sunflowers are so pretty, aren’t they?

I had six beautiful large heads of sunflowers growing in my orchard.  The bees were enjoying them, I was enjoying them, and I had the perfect recipe lined up to use the seeds. Then, one night, the largest sunflower disappeared.

Harrumph…  🙁

Well, I never…

Do you see something missing here?

Hmmmm…   something seems to be missing.

Do you see how it looks like the top of the stalk has been chewed off?  That was the first piece of evidence I saw.

who stole my sunflowers 4Then, throughout the orchard in no less than six separate spots, I found piles of cracked seeds. Strange that the thief would move from spot to spot to eat the seeds, but then (of course) there may have been more than one culprit!

It’s a real shame because I have a really neat recipe I couldn’t wait to try out using the sunflower seeds.  I was going to use the honey from my beehive, with ground almond flour from my almond trees, along with chopped toasted almonds, dehydrated apricots and cherries from my orchard.

I was going to use egg whites from my neighbor’s chickens (we will be getting ours next year) and some pine nuts from, well, pine trees!  We are surrounded by Sugar Pines and if we can get to the cones before the squirrels do, the nuts are mighty fine!

I found this recipe many years ago when our homestead was just a dream.   I didn’t write down the name of the book, so I can’t give credit to anyone.  Sorry.  Then, in my shortsightedness I didn’t write down specific amounts either – just ingredients.  What was I thinking? So, this recipe will have to end up as another one of my experiments. Apparently, however, the base of the bar was to be made with frothy egg whites into which almond flour is folded, then poured into the base of a rimmed cookie sheet and baked  for some amount of time. I would assume about 8-10 minutes – just to get it to set.  A mixture of chopped dried fruits, seeds (my missing sunflower seeds), chopped nuts and honey is spread on the base, then baked for another amount of time until done.

Doesn’t that sound good?  The best part is that I will be able to produce every single ingredient called for in these delicious (I think) and nutritious bars!  I may even add pumpkin seeds to the mix.  For a different variety, wouldn’t dried apple and pear chunks be good with toasted walnuts?  Maybe even acorn flour!  Yum.  I can’t wait to try this, but alas, I have no sunflower seeds.

Speaking of squirrels…who stole my sunflowers 8

I think this may have been our thief.  We have lots of them in our trees.  In fact, our neighbor lady (who recently moved) fed them!  I know this isn’t a great picture, but the silly things won’t stay still for a photo!  😉


However, this may have been the culprit…

Steller's Jay

Did this Steller’s Jay eat my sunflowers?

The Blue Jays have been hanging around a lot lately.  We have had a terrible drought here in California and it seems our bee waterer may be one of the only sources of water around for all the forest critters to slake their thirst. Sometimes they go through more than a gallon of water every day!

Nonetheless, I would assume the bird would have just landed on the stalk, eaten the seeds and dropped the shells below the plant.  Besides, chewing the entire seed head off the stalk would have been difficult for a Steller’s Jay. Since there are no shells directly below the plant, and Jays don’t have teeth, I don’t think the culprit was the Jay.

Yeah - right outside my window! Sneaky little thief!

Yeah – right outside my window! Sneaky little thief!

The evidence speaks for itself –

Mr and Mrs Squirrel enjoy sunflower seeds!

I am glad that right now I don’t have to feed myself and my family completely on what my dear hubby and I grow and raise here on our fledgling homestead. I would like to be food self-sufficient soon, however, and if TEOTWAWKI happens (as many people think it will) we will need to protect our food sources more carefully.  So, the squirrels gave us a valuable lesson today. (Um – thank you?)  We need to protect our permanent garden much better than we have protected the temporary garden we have set up in our orchard.

If we plan to be self-sufficient when it comes to fruits and vegetables, nuts and herbs, we must build our permanent vegetable garden like a fortress and reinforce our orchard!  The garden will have metal fencing at least 7 feet high (so my tall hubby Ray can walk upright in the garden) with a metal roof (chicken wire?) over the top, and at least 1 foot deep into the ground to prevent tunneling critters.  This should keep out the squirrels and Jays.  It sounds like a lot of work, but I believe at this point it will be an absolute necessity!

Especially after we found jack rabbits in our compost pile!

How do you keep critters out of your vegetables?


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