Another Top Bar Beehive and DWV

We lost our beehive last winter. Well, we didn’t LOSE the hive itself, it’s just that the colony of bees occupying it died, and their death was probably our fault!  We felt soooooo bad.top bar beehive death in winter

However, since we thoroughly enjoyed being beekeepers, we decided to just go all in, make another hive and order two sets (one queen and 3 pounds of bees in each set) so that we would have two!  Not only would we have more pollinators for our fruit/nut orchard and our vegetable/herb garden, but we would also enjoy more honey and bees wax with another hive.  Besides, it would also double our chances of success getting a hive to survive the winter!

new hive 1This spring, once Ray was up to it and well on his way to healing (that story here), he made another top bar hive box in pretty much the same manner as our last one.  We did change a few things so there would be better ventilation, but the dimensions are pretty much the same so that we can share the top bars with each other.  Making this hive took a lot less time because we knew what we were doing.  We will see how everything goes this year and if the colonies make it through the winter, but we are hoping to make our third hive next spring!  🙂 a new top bar beehive

We bought our bee packages from Oliverez Bees, just as we did last year.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the install.  I could give you some excuses, but the truth is that I was so excited and nervous that I simply forgot!  However, I did get a shot of the bees through the window viewing area just a few short weeks after they were installed.  Holy cow, these gals are building comb like gangbusters!

But then, one day about a month ago I saw this…

new top bar hive

Ugh!  Is that the deformed wing virus caused by the varroa mite?  I did a lot of research and, yes, it was probably the DWV.  UGH! UGH!  What were we going to do?  We wanted to have organic hives and not use miticide.  In fact, one reason we decided to use top bar hives was that the cells are smaller in Top Bar Hives (TBH), which produce smaller bees faster, which reduces the impact of varroa mites!  We knew that, unfortunately, there was probably no way to get around having varroa mites, which can kill a colony, but instead we could try to control them.

new top bar beehive

The California Buckeye, sometimes called Horse Chestnut, has a beautiful bloom and is a gorgeous tree when in full bloom. Unfortunately, the pollen causes Deformed Wing Virus in honeybees!

Another potential cause of the deformed wing virus, however, is pollen collected from the California Buckeye tree, which causes this deformity in brood.  And we have seen some California Buckeye Trees around.  If this was the cause, and all the brood was not effected, then the colony might be okay.

Well, when the bee with DWV was found, we were at the beginning of another honey flow.  There were lots of flowers blooming – especially the blackberries! And the weather report said that we were in for a week or so of 100+ degree weather down in the valley, though thankfully it wouldn’t get that hot here.

In researching miticides, I read that you do not want to apply during either a honey flow or during extreme heat, so even if our hive was being infected with the DWV, we had no choice but to watch it die right in front of our eyes.  The worst part of watching the hive die was knowing that the other hive would probably also be effected.  UGH!

So, the heat came and went!  Let me tell you, it was Hot Hot Hot!

When we checked on the hives a couple of weeks later, it was amazing!  They had literally doubled in size!  They weren’t dying at all, they were thriving!!

new top bar beehive

The colony as seen through the observation window in the side of the hive.

 

So…  how could this be?  I was actually prepared for another funeral!  Time for more research (don’t you just love Google?), and I think I may have found the answer.  I read on an entomologist’s research paper that while honeybees can live in 130-140 degree temperatures in the hive, the varroa mite cannot!  Wow!

So, if the DWV was caused by the varroa mite, the heat may have come at just the right time!  Of course, if the DWV was caused by the California Buckeye tree, then we will probably see some young bees with DWV every year in the future because we cannot cut down all the Buckeye trees within a honeybee’s foraging radius, nor would we want to.

Our tango mandrin in full bloom. The honeybees just maul this tree when it is blooming!

Our tango mandrin in full bloom. The honeybees absolutely maul this tree when it is blooming!

What we can do is plant more flowering fruits and vegetables and ornamentals that are good for bees, to keep them foraging at home.

Right now we have a small vegetable garden where our bees forage, and there are also numerous wildflowers around. In the spring the bees can forage from our fruit and nut orchard. Once our house is built we plan to have grapes, boysenberries and blueberries and will also plant a few more fruit trees here and there.  Furthermore, I want to expand our herb garden, which at this point includes rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender and sage, which I know the honeybees just adore!

Here it is mid-summer, and during a hive inspection I took a picture of some of the comb while Ray was lifting them up.  Although we didn’t plan to harvest any honey, we felt it was necessary to take one comb from the larger hive (the new one) as it was almost full. new top bar beehive The bees already had comb on about 2/3 of the top bars! A full hive is one that will potentially swarm, which is something you definitely do not want!  We also moved a few empty bars in around the center of the hive, to let the bees see that there was still a lot more room in there.

We chose one comb that had mostly capped honey and very little brood.  I extracted the honey by crushing the beeswax comb and hanging it in cheesecloth above a bowl for about twenty-four hours.  Once most of the honey had drained out of the comb, I put the beeswax on a paper plate and set it outside about 20 feet away from the beehives.  The bees clean the honey off the wax in a day or two.  I flipped the wax over and the bees obligingly cleaned up the rest of the honey.  I put the almost clean beeswax into the freezer and will finish cleaning it up later.

new hive 4

We got about a cup of honey from this small harvest.  This honey is very sweet and a bright golden yellow – perfect for cornbread!  Yummmmmm…

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Our Beehive Fail

I have always promised to tell the truth.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  This one was both bad and ugly.

There is just no other way to say it…

top bar beehive failure

Our bees died this past winter.

We aren’t really certain what happened, but we have a few ideas.

First and foremost, we weren’t at the homestead to see the first of the dead bees piling up on the ground in front of the hive.  When we were able to get back up to the homestead, it top bar beehive death in winterwas already too late.  They were all dead.  When I saw all the bees piled up I had a feeling of dread, but I also knew that some bees die, even during winter, and it is normal for the dead bodies to get kicked “to the curb”.  I didn’t want to open the hive if I didn’t have to, because that would expose the bees (if they were alive) to the cold, so I put my ear to the hive to hear that comforting, reassuring hummmmmmm.  I didn’t hear it.

🙁

When we opened the hive we saw that there was a lot of capped honey, a lot of uncapped honey, and a lot of dead bees inside clinging to the comb, the walls and on the floor. Not much brood, but that’s normal.  Hmmm………

Although all the bees were dead, there was still lots of capped honey

Although all the bees were dead, there was still lots of capped honey.  There was also quite a bit of uncapped honey!

It wasn’t wet inside, although there was some mold growing on the outside, especially around the entrance and where the bees were piled up at the door, so apparently mold wasn’t the problem.

Then we found the queen.  She must have been one of the last of the bees to die, because she was at the top of the pile on the floor in the middle of the hive.  So, the problem wasn’t due to a queenless hive.

I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb!

I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb! You can also see with the circle on the left that there were brood, and I even found a few eggs, so the queen had still been laying.

What we did find was some of the bees head first into the comb, with their little bee butts sticking out.  In fact, there were at least two dozen that we found that way.  That was our first clue as to what may have gone wrong.  When I did some research on the internet about what will kill bees during the winter, bees head first into the comb reveals that they may have starved to death.  Starved to death?  With all that honey still in the comb?

Yes.

Why?  Because they couldn’t get to the honey!  You see, the worker bees all cluster around the queen on cold days and flap their wings to warm up the small area around the queen, between two combs.  The bees will not leave their queen and the queen will not likely leave the area of the brood, and so if there is no honey to be had in that small area, the bees will starve.  Ones that do venture out of the small warming zone to find honey get too cold and die, right then and there head first in the comb!

But wait…

We live in an area of the country that rarely sees temperatures below 25 degrees Fahrenheit!  A lot of beehives survive temperatures much colder!  What happened?

Well…  I guess that was our fault, being beekeeper rookies.

top bar beehive

This was at a happier time, during the fall, when the weather was still warm and there was still lots of pollen and nectar to harvest.

When we first got our bees we did a lot of research and read several books about top bar beekeeping, and learned that if a colony of bees thinks their hive box is too small, they will swarm to find a bigger home.  That’s not good.  We read that to prevent bees from swarming a hive they might think is too small, you have to show them that there is a lot of room in the hive to keep the colony growing, by moving some of the top bars around. So, in early fall, during another small honey flow, we moved three of the combs full of honey toward the back of the hive and put three empty top bars in their place, not all in a row but spaced out within the hive.  Our mistake was not making sure that the center of the hive, where the brood comb usually is and where the queen usually stays, stayed clustered together.

We also neglected to pack the empty space at the back of the hive in preparation for winter. Why is this important?  So there is very little empty space within the hive during the winter and the bees don’t have to work so hard by flapping their wings to keep the queen and themselves warm.

Who knew?  Unfortunately, we didn’t.  Live and learn. I actually felt so guilty about killing our bees that I cried.

Getting ready to harvest what we could from the beehive.

Getting ready to harvest what we could from the beehive.

But, after the first shock of our disappointment, we realized there was still a lot of honey in the hive.  We knew the capped honey in the comb would be fine.  The problem was that there was still larvae (baby bees) in some of the comb, and although the weather had been pretty cold, they may have started to get moldy.  Eeeeeewwwwwww.

What we did was harvest most of the comb and separated it into comb with capped honey only and then comb with some brood along with the capped honey. We also saved four bars that had just comb with some capped honey and put it in the freezer, to help jump-start the next hive.

Honey harvested from our top bar beehive!

Honey harvested from our top bar beehive!  Isn’t it pretty?

I first extracted the capped honey and got almost four pints.  The honey extracted that had some brood in it (I cut out the comb with brood) gave us two quarts.  I have been using

This is my redneck, low tech way to extract honey from the comb. Hey - it works!

This is my redneck, low tech way to extract honey from the comb. Hey – it works!

this honey for baking and it is absolutely delicious!  We ended up wasting some of the honey because I was too squeemish to have dead bee pulp in my honey, and a lot of the uncapped honey was just washed out of the comb.  Later I found out that the uncapped honey is perfect for making mead. You learn something new every day!

So, we need to do some more reading and research, consult with our favorite beekeeper Kim (she lost a few hives this past winter also) and carry on.

All was not lost.  Yes, we were upset we had lost (killed) our hive, but we learned more about beekeeping and we got some delicious honey.  It’s always good to look at the bright side.

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Getting Ready to Build!

http://www.clipartof.com

http://www.clipartof.com

We have been working with an architect and an engineer to design our house plans, and were finally able to submit the plans to our building department last month.  They wanted a small fortune in building fees, but our biggest shock was the $8,500 + impact fee to our school district.  Holy cow, I think we just paid for half a classroom!

In the meantime, we have been getting bids for the final excavation and foundation work.

Wowza!

The estimates are much, much more than we anticipated.  The problem is that we are essentially building a three story structure, so the foundation under the basement is requiring 7 foot wide footings and a poured in place concrete wall 8” thick and 35’ long!  Holy Cannoli – we can’t afford that!  Especially since the concrete trucks are tacking on a premium to bring the concrete up the mountain to our property.  (Some silly thing about diesel costing a lot 😉 of money)

This is one version of the main floor of our house plans. I can't wait to live in this house!

This is one version of the main floor of our house plans. I can’t wait to live in this house!

Hmmmmm…  So, we thought long and hard about this.  Why do we want a basement?

  1. The back third was going to be walled off and turned into a root cellar.
  2. Storage – canned goods, household stuff and, of course, junk.
  3. A cool place to sit on a hot afternoon.

We decided (no brainer) we can always build a root cellar elsewhere.  Also, going up and down stairs when I am 85 years old to get my canned goods and stuff – well, let’s just say it’s not something I am looking forward to!  Besides, this is supposed to be our final forever home, and we need to have everything required for everyday living on one floor!  The upstairs only has two bedrooms and a bathroom, so I will only need to go up there when we have guests!

Therefore, we decided to send the plans back to the architect and engineer and nix the basement.  Besides, they had LOTS of changes to make for the county plan checker anyway. Let me tell you – California has some crazy codes that we must adhere to!  More about that later.  Now, if you look at the floor plan above, maybe we could turn the area where the stairs going down to the basement would have been into a nice long pantry? What do you think?  We will see what the architect says.

People warned us that this was a very long, frustrating process, and let me tell you…  they were so right!

This is what the Shelterworks Faswall block looks like.

This is what the Shelterworks Faswall block looks like.  You can see lots of beautiful homes built with these blocks on their website – which is also where I got this picture!  🙂

In the meantime, we have already purchased the Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICF.  We decided to go with a company called ShelterWorks and their product called FasWall.  We have done a lot of research for a few years now, and these FasWall ICFs are probably the easiest to work with, the most insect and fire resistant, and breathable insulated forms on the market today.  FasWall is also easier to build with because regular carpenter tools are used and, unlike the plastic ICF, you can actually screw or nail into the form at any place.  One more reason we were sold on FasWall is that the wood used in the form is made from mineralized and recycled shredded wood from old wooden pallets.  The ICFs are stacked together like Legos, with rebar placed vertically and horizontally within the cavity of the ICFs, and then concrete is poured into the cavity.  Essentially, this makes a waffle grid of concrete within the walls, and gives the effect of superior insulation and stability.

Doesn’t that sound fantastic?

It does cost a bit more (5-10%) to build a home with these forms than it does a stick built house.  However, the payback comes with the energy savings.  The houses built with these forms are solid, very energy efficient, almost sound-proof, and essentially pest (think termite, carpenter ant, mouse) proof!  Also, the fire resistance of these ICF walls is important when you consider that we are living in the middle of a forest here in Northern California, where wildfire is not at all uncommon.  We have been working with Paul Wood, one of Faswall’s representatives, who has been very helpful in getting our building plans moving forward.

This big old Douglas Fir just had to go. So sad. We wanted to use the wood in our house, but California code required that it be graded and certified by a professional - timely and costly. Yet another one of those "codes" run amuck!

This big old Douglas Fir just had to go. So sad. We wanted to use the wood in our house, but California code required that it be graded and certified by a professional – timely and costly. Yet another one of those “codes” run amuck!  Grrrrrrrrr…

In the meantime, we have been getting our building site ready.  We had some beetle killed trees that needed to come down, and a couple other smaller trees that were right where our living room will be, so they all had to go.  We had a massive Douglas Fir that we wanted to save (above), but sadly, after some excavating and figuring right where the house would go, we realized that it was going to be too close to the house for fire safety.  Not to mention the fact that it was leaning right toward where our master bedroom was to be.  Since the tree was too big for Ray’s chainsaw, we called in Clyde, a Professional and Licensed Logger to drop the tree for us.

The beginning of excavation to make a flat building site - first you have to remove the tree stumps!

The beginning of excavation to make a flat building site – first you have to remove the tree stumps!  These guys made it look too easy.

The initial excavation has also been done.  The excavators popped out the tree stumps we had cut, scraped the lot clean of brush, and then cut into the hillside a bit so that the land would be level.  They were wonderful to work with and very respectful of our property, keeping clear of the septic tank so they wouldn’t damage it.

All of the brush was piled into a huge pile, so later Ray and I burned most of it, and cut up for firewood what was large enough to bother with.  It took us several days to get that accomplished, and we were able to get the brush burned before our burning permits were restricted for the fire season.

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. We have been busy burning duff and forest debris, trying to get the house site "fire-safe". It sure is a lot of work!

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. We have been busy burning duff and forest debris, trying to get the house site “fire-safe”. It sure is a lot of work!  The ashes are about where the kitchen will be, and the trees will be the view looking south-east out our front windows!

We are also busy raking up the forest duff, pulling out small bushes and trees, and laddering up the trees that will remain, so that the immediate area thirty feet around our house will hopefully keep a wildfire from getting too close to our house, and help firefighters to defend it.  Nancy, from our county fire department, will be up soon to tell us how we are doing and what else we need to do to make our home fire safe. Unfortunately, getting homeowner’s insurance in our neck of the woods is nearly impossible, so we want to make our home as fire safe as possible!

So, wish us luck, send good thoughts, or even a few prayers that our architect and engineer don’t take too long to get the changes and corrections made to our plans!  I would really like to at least have our foundation poured this year – God willing!

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