Our Bees – The Good, Bad and Ugly

Ray and I are fledgling beekeepers – we are newbees! ¬†ūüôā

We started in this venture two springs ago with our newly built Top Bar Beehive.  We decided to use Top Bar Hives not only because we could make them ourselves (which saves money), but for quite a few other reasons you can read about on my previous blog post about top bar hives HERE.

I thought our first attempt at beekeeping would be successful, but noooo.  I circled in red some of the dead bees that were literally buried face first into the honeycomb, which indicates they were starving, yet there was honey still in the hive!

Lets start with the Bad. ¬†Our first bee colony died. ¬†We were so sad. ūüôĀ ¬†But we had been warned that this might happen, especially since we were new at this. ¬†So what did we do? ¬†We built another Top Bar Beehive and bought TWO¬†bee colonies to populate both the old hive and the new hive.

Those bees did great!  Although we had a serious problem of predation of the bees by bald faced hornets and yellow jackets this last summer, the colonies themselves seemed to be largely uneffected and both entered winter weather fairly strong in numbers.  In fact, to help them along, we insulated the hives with Рwell Рinsulation!  And, since too much moisture in a beehive is not good, we placed a few diapers over the top bars, hoping that they would absorb any excess moisture within the hive.  We were trying to cover our bases.  Apparently, this strange approach worked.  We had bees sunning themselves on their doorstep and even foraging on warm sunny winter days!

We packed the rigid insulation in pretty tight, right up to the comb furthest back in the hive, and planned to remove a couple pieces a week as soon as the weather started to warm in the spring and some flowers were starting to bloom.

The Ugly?

Well, this past winter when I was away visiting a friend, Ray decided to spray our orchard with a pesticide that killed tree borers. ¬†A couple of our fruit trees have boring pests in them and we were hoping the spray would help. Although we are trying to be as organic as possible, it was either spray¬†or have dead fruit trees. Our two top bar beehives reside in the orchard, and, unfortunately, Ray forgot to cover the hives before he sprayed. ¬†He didn’t even close their entrance holes! ¬†Uggggghhhhhh!

I wasn’t aware of this until the next day revealed untold carnage. ¬†I couldn’t figure out why our poor girls (all worker bees are girls) were dying by the hundreds outside of the hive! My first thought was that our neighbors, who are pot farmers, had sprayed their crops with pesticide. ¬†But it was too early to have “those” plants out! ¬†But then, when I showed Ray the carnage, he admitted that he had sprayed the fruits trees and forgot to close the hives for a day. Those poor girls weren’t even able to get back inside after they had found pollen for the new brood… they were just too weak from the poison.

These poor little girls didn’t have a chance! ¬†And they worked so hard for that pollen!

Ray endured¬†a few choice words from me, and they weren’t kind words. ¬†Lucky for him, somehow both hives survived, but were undoubtedly weakened.

We are now thinking that the hives shouldn’t actually be in the orchard! ¬†Right next to or even down the lane a bit, but if we ever need to spray ANYTHING on the trees to control a pest or a fungus, it would be better not to have the hives within the spray range.

mistakes in beekeeping

One of our local native bumblebees dancing in the blooming broccoli.

In the¬†middle of March both hives were still alive. ¬†It was still cold and rainy, so we didn’t want to open the hives to see how strong they were, but we certainly didn’t see many bees through the observation windows.

This picture was taken of the new hive (hive #2) after Ray had sprayed the orchard. There were bees still present, but not very many.

I actually thought we had made it through the winter, which is like winning a beekeeper’s medal!

WAHOO!  (happy dance)

Um

Nope

I was watching the hives right around the first of April and noticed that no bees were coming and going from the new hive (hive #2).  It was finally a warmish day, so Ray and I decided to open up the hive and see what was going on.

We were devastated. ¬†It was UGLY! ¬†There were just a few live bees left clinging together in a clump on the comb. ¬†Since they weren’t all dead, we thought it would be best to just close it back up, leave it alone and watch for a few days. Well, a few days later there were no live bees left in the hive. ¬†Bummer.

When I was cleaning out the hive and trying to figure out where we went wrong, I found a huge dead yellow jacket queen in the hive. ¬†She was big and we couldn’t figure out how she had squeezed herself into the hive, but somehow she did. ¬†Worse yet? ¬†There was no brood. ¬†None. ¬†Nada. Who knows how many times the Yellow Jacket queen had come and gone. ¬†Worse yet, there may have been more than just the one yellow jacket queen. ¬†I guess the main reason we are sure the Yellow Jacket(s) was responsible is that while there was no brood, there was still a lot of honey. ¬†Yellow Jackets are huge predators because they are carnivorous and feed insects (or pieces of your picnic hotdog) to their brood. She must have either killed or taken our honeybee queen (we never found her), and stolen all the brood to feed her own.

bull hornet

This is a picture of a Bald Faced Hornet that I took last year. Between this bee predator and the huge queen Yellow Jackets we have, our poor beehives are constantly under attack!

Urrrrgggghhhhhhh! ¬†ūüôĀ

We figured this probably happened because the hive was weak due to the spray Ray had used a few weeks before.

Nuts!  Shoot!  &%$#@&%!

I’m not sure what we are going to do about this problem in the future. ¬†We have reduced the entrance to the hives and we have hung numerous wasp traps, but the yellow jackets and hornets keep coming. ¬†We haven’t seen any hornets yet this spring, but we know they will be coming soon. ¬†Anyone have any ideas, because we are just stumped.

The good?  We decided not to give up.  Not yet.  We are almost there, but wanted to try one more time, so we bought one more package to replace the dead colony.  We will be installing those next week.

Installing bees into a top bar hive

Here’s a picture of Ray installing a bee package (3 pounds of worker bees and a queen) last year in the new (#2) hive, which is the one we need to replace. We hope to be successful with the install this year also!

So the saga continues. ¬†We need prayers, good thoughts and some old fashioned luck sent our way, because if we lose these two colonies, we will have to just give up beeing beekeepers! ¬†It’s sad, but sometimes you just have to understand your limits. ¬†Besides, each box of bees and a queen is costing $125, which can make beekeeping a fairly expensive hobby.

Please don’t let me discourage you if you would like to keep bees. ¬†Each situation is different, and I think living in a forest with all the wild creatures to contend with, our situation may be more difficult than others. ¬†However, if you have been a follower for very long, you know that I always “tell it like it is” and prefer not to “sugar coat” anything. ¬†Why tell a story if you can’t tell the truth?

So… any suggestions?

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Growing Amaranth – An Ancient Grain

One of the luxuries I have had over the last couple of years since retiring is the time to garden.  We have been planning (and planning) our new home here on our fledgling homestead for a while now, and we are hoping (and praying) that our local officials will grace us with an approved building permit soon.  But, between all the planning and preparing, one thing that keeps me grounded is my vegetable garden and orchard.

Harvesting Sunflowers

My grandson, Caden, in the garden.

Our homestead is in Northern California, at 3,000 foot in elevation, and in USDA zone 8 or 9 ish, depending on what map you look at. Our growing season is fairly average, with our last frost date around April 1st through 10th.

Growing Amaranth

We got our amaranth seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of my favorite seed companies.

Since my husband and I are trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, we are trying out new plants in our garden.  Last year our new plants were Fava (broad) beans and Amaranth.  You can read about our Fava bean adventure HERE.

Why Amaranth? ¬†Read this article about the 13 health benefits of Amaranth on the website Sunwarrior HERE. ¬†See? ¬†That’s why. ¬†ūüôā

I started the Amaranth seedlings in 3 inch peat pots and they were the second plants of all my garden plants (the Favas were first) to germinate.  I was so encouraged!

Once they went into the garden, they took off like wildfire.  I had eight Amaranth plants, four planted on each end of my green beans.  I had no idea what to expect in terms of how tall or wide they would grow, and I thought it might be a good idea to plant them with the beans in case they needed to be tied up.growing amaranth in zone 9

I was surprised at how early I saw the flowers start to appear! ¬†I thought our honeybees would be obsessed with these plants and the amount they were flowering, but I was wrong. ¬†I never saw one honeybee visit the Amaranth. ¬†I did see a few bumblebees and some orchard mason bees, but no honeybees! ¬†Unfortunately, I also saw some yellow jackets and some bald faced hornets, but that’s another story.

amaranth - ancient grain

The flowers start early. This plant isn’t even a full three months old!

The plants grew and grew and grew!

Aren’t these plants beautiful? ¬†Too bad our honeybees didn’t think so!

Luckily the stalks grew thick and sturdy as the plants grew tall, so they were pretty much self-supporting. ¬†I did have to stake one up after a nasty wind blew through, because it almost broke in half, but that trooper survived despite it’s near fatal accident! ¬†I was blown away ¬†ūüėČ

growing amaranth

It’s harvest time! These plants did very well, in my opinion. Plus, they are so beautiful that once we have our new house built, I will plant them in my flower borders!

Once it was harvest time, in early October before the rains and when I noticed some of the seeds starting to dislodge from the plants, I cut the heads off and set them upside down in an open paper bag. In no time at all, the seeds started to dry and fall off of the plants. ¬†But quite a few of them actually held on. ¬†I’m not sure if this is usual, or if I may have harvested too soon, but I harvested right before a week of heavy rain, so I think I made a good call regardless.

After a bit of research I found that it was easiest to use garden shears to cut the seed heads from the thick plant stalk, and then with a gloved hand, you can rub the seed heads between your hands to dislodge the seeds and the chaff. Then, to separate the seeds from the chaff, I gently blew on them… the chaff blows away in the wind and the heavier seeds stay put. ¬†Stay upwind of the chaff, however, lest you get a facefull of the chaff… it isn’t pretty.

ancient grains - amaranth

The seed heads have been pulled off the plant stalk and dried. Now to rub between my gloved hands to release all of the seeds.

I have heard that some people blow off the chaff with a fan and, believe me, that’s what I will do next time.

One batch down, three to go.

Also, don’t try rubbing the seeds off the stalk without wearing gloves. ¬†The seed heads have little tiny stickers which poke like minute thorns into your fingers. Even though I put on a pair of gloves after that first batch, my hands were sore for days!

I didn’t get a WHOLE lot of seeds. ¬†In fact, when judging my harvest with the size of the flowering seed heads, I thought I would get a lot more. ¬†But then, seeing the size of the seeds, I realize that I actually got a decent harvest, considering. I guess I will just have to grow more amaranth!

Harvesting amaranth

Out of eight plants I got almost one quart of Amaranth seeds.

So, what did I do with the Amaranth? ¬†I found this really cool method of popping the amaranth seeds, like popcorn! ¬†It’s on this website I found here: ¬†http://www.edibleperspective.com/home/2012/7/23/popped-amaranth-cereal-puffmaranth.html

This was my first attempt at popping amaranth. Let me tell you, that stuff pops! Right out of the pan and onto my kitchen floor! ¬† ūüôā

I also added the amaranth to some muffins by just adding it into the batter. ¬†The amaranth added quite a crunch to the muffins… ¬†still not sure I like that. ¬†Perhaps I should pre-soften the grains in water first, before adding to the muffin batter, or maybe I should use the popped amaranth. I also found a protein bar recipe I would like to try once I have more amaranth, and I will be doing a lot more research for bread recipes using amaranth.

Will I grow amaranth again?  You Betcha!

It was easy to grow, I love the popped amaranth, and the plant itself is quite beautiful. ¬†In fact, this could easily be a statement piece in a flower garden and most people wouldn’t be aware that it is actually a food crop. ¬†You should try it!

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Perennial Herb Garden

Last summer I started a perennial herb garden just on the other side of our orchard.  Although I grew up eating fairly bland food and have cooked that way myself for years, as I get older I realize that I enjoy herbs and spices more than I thought I did!

Perennial herb garden

Here is my Perennial herb garden looking from East to West, with the oregano section in the foreground.  The oregano started out as one small plant, but has spread and will probably fill in the bed this year.

I decided to start a perennial herb garden because I found that buying fresh herbs at the market can be quite expensive.¬† Even when I find the price reasonable, sometimes I have to buy too much for the recipe I am following and end up wasting some of the herb.¬† So, I decided to start growing my own. ¬†Of course I will continue to plant basil seeds every year, and red peppers to make my own red pepper flakes, but the perennial herbs seem to take care of themselves. ¬†In fact, it’s rare that they get bugs. ¬†That’s probably because of the aromatic oils in the plants themselves. ¬†My only problem has been with our &%$#(@# vole that insists on tunneling right through my beds!

The rosemary plants look pretty good. They are fairly drought tolerant and have virtually no pests, but our honeybees will absolutely maul the rosemary blooms when they appear later this spring,

I grew rosemary for years at our old house and ended up with huge rosemary bushes that weren’t very well tamed.  Our kitty cat used to sleep under the rosemary during the hot summer afternoons and she would come into the house smelling like heaven!  I am just learning to cook more with rosemary, and made a delicious rosemary sourdough cracker a couple of years ago.

I have also tried growing oregano before and really enjoyed learning to make Italian and Mexican dishes with fresh oregano.  However, I have never grown sage or thyme, which I had heard are fairly easy to grow, especially in my 7B/8A climate. In fact, when our new house is finished being built, there is a hill right behind our covered patio where I will be planting thyme, as it is supposed to be a great ground cover.

I decided to locate the garden right behind the log retaining wall that is terracing our orchard because many herbs are deterrents to deer. In fact, my research reveals that deer detest rosemary! ¬†We haven’t had a real problem with deer in our orchard/garden, but I’m all for double purpose plants!

So, I decided to plant the herb garden with the four basics:¬† oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. Did I just hear Simon and Garfunkel in my head? ūüėČ ¬†All of these are perennials.¬† Up in the garden I also have a few other perennial herbs including lemon balm, spearmint and lavender.

Growing lemon balm in a perennial herb gardenThe lemon balm is in a planter right next to the bee hives.¬† There is an old folk tale that bees will not abandon a hive (swarm) where lemon balm grows, so that is why we planted it there. ¬†We also have another lemon balm plant right next to our bee watering pond, so you can see I put a lot of faith in some folk tales! ¬†We‚Äôll see how it goes this year. ¬†Lemon balm was once called a “poor man’s lemonade” plant, because not very many pioneers had¬†lemon trees, nor could they afford lemons, but lots of people can grow lemon balm!

I am keeping the spearmint plant contained in a large pot.  Spearmint is known to spread willy-nilly and is hard to get rid of once established.  That is why, even though it is crowded, I am keeping it in a pot.  I will find a wider pot for the spearmint later this spring, however, so it can spread it’s roots a bit more. But I must warn you, my plant kept trying to escape this past summer by producing runners down to the ground seemingly overnight!  Of course, these runners are what I snipped and used for my kitchen. I love putting a few bruised spearmint leaves in hot water with a touch of either honey or a few stevia leaves, letting it cool, then drinking it over ice.  Ahhhhh.  So refreshing on a hot summer day! Growing spearmint in a perennial garden

The lavender is located just above the log retaining wall, near the strawberries.  Lavender lavenderinfused water is also yummy, and I just love putting a few dried sprigs in my drawers for a fresh, clean scent.

My dresser drawers, silly. ¬†ūüôā

When Ray and I went on a farm tour a couple of years ago, we visited a farm that specialized in aromatic herbs including lavender, clary sage and lemon verbena. ¬†In their gift shop they gave away lavender cookies and let me tell you, they were absolutely delicious! ¬†As you can see in the picture to the right, I haven’t cleaned the lavender bed yet, but I will get to that soon. ¬†My husband gave me the beautiful garden armillary for our anniversary several years ago, and my father made the concrete pedestal. ¬†When the lavender is in bloom, this is such a beautiful vignette in the garden. And the armillary actually keeps pretty good time! ¬†Speaking of thyme…

Thyme

This is the thyme, which has spread triple from what I planted last spring.

All of the herbs survived well over the winter, despite all of the wind, rain, hail and snow, and are showing signs of good spring growth.

The sage is ¬†the herb in my garden that looks the most winter worn, but it is showing signs of new spring growth, so I have faith it will do just fine. Ray and I can’t wait to try a new sausage recipe that uses fresh sage. Yummy.

I pinched a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme the other day for one of our new favorite veggie cooking with rosemary and thymedishes:  roasted root vegetables!  All I had on hand this time were potatoes and carrots, which is just fine, but parsnips, rutabaga, even radish works in this dish. Just a couple sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped fine, salt and pepper, drizzled with olive oil, and the vegetables come out browned and caramelized, seasoned to perfection. What temp to set the oven?  Just about anything from 300 to 425, so you can roast meat or bake bread while roasting these healthy and delicious root vegetables Рjust knowing that they will cook faster at higher temperatures  MMMMMMMMM…

 

And the cute little kitty reclining on a rock that you may have spied near the sage?  That is in memory of my sweet kitty, Missy, who was queen of our neighborhood for 15 years and will remain forever in our hearts.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

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Growing Fava Beans

As a fledgling gardener, one thing I have been trying to do each year is to grow something new, so that I can expand my gardening knowledge and broaden my culinary horizons!

This past year I decided to try fava beans. ¬†Why? ¬†Because I was in a natural food market and saw these beautiful, huge, marinated, wonderfully flavored beans. ¬†They were in one of those “help yourself” bars along with marinated and/or pickled olives, mushrooms and peppers. ¬†They were so good!

There wasn’t a sign anywhere saying what kind of a bean they were, but a friendly customer next to me said she thought they were fava beans. ¬†So, I decided I would try growing my own fava beans and find a recipe for this wonderful, flavorful snack!

growing broad beansTurns out I was misinformed. ¬†The marinated beans were not fava beans, but a type of lima bean. ¬†Oh well. ¬†I had already bought the bean seeds and they had germinated by the time I figured this out. ¬†Speaking of the seeds…

I found a wonderful seed company that I just adore!  They are based out of Chico, California and I had the opportunity to visit their store recently.  More about that in another story to come soon.

So, on with the fava beans!

The beans were very quick to sprout and were setting their first true leaves within 10 days!  Of course, I attribute some of this to my homemade kelp fertilizer, with the natural gibberellic acid in it, which is a growth hormone for plants.

I started the beans in an enclosed patio, about 4 weeks before the beginning of spring, because fava beans are much like english peas, they are somewhat of a cool weather crop and would be harvested sometime in May or June. ¬†I had a picture of the seedlings growing in their pots, but alas, my camera got run over by our truck (don’t ask) and I was unable to retrieve all of my pictures. ¬†ūüôĀ ¬†But, once I put them in the ground, they started growing…growing broad beans

and growing…

I should have had some type of support for the plants, even though they are a bush type of bean, because some of the stems that were about 2 feet long started to twist and droop as they grew, I guess from their own weight. ¬†A few even broke. ¬†I’m not sure if that is the nature of the plant, or gardener (me) error. ūüėČ

growing broad beansOnce the fava bean plants began to bloom, I was totally in awe! ¬†The blossoms are gorgeous! ¬†The white with beautiful lavender throats¬†really stood out. ¬†To me, they resembled an orchid. Apparently the pollinators thought they were pretty cool, also, because it wasn’t long before small, tiny bean pods developed. ¬†In fact, in the picture on the left, you can see a butterfly (or is that a moth) with it’s head plunged head into the flower! ¬†You can click on the picture for a better view.

Then we had a hail storm!  Shoot!  Nuts!  The hail absolutely destroyed some of my garden plants and heavily damaged others.  Luckily, the fava bean plants seemed to be fairly resilient. Though they were pretty well bruised, the leaves healed and recovered fairly quickly!growing fava beans

Within another month the bean pods were huge.  I mean H U G E! You can see in the picture at the left that the pods are bigger than my fingers!

growing broad beans

Once the outside of the pods started to show the bulge of the beans inside, it was time to harvest. Since I only had four bean plants (which I originally thought would be plenty to experiment with), I decided to dry them in the pod, as it didn’t seem like I was going to get very many actual beans. ¬†I harvested each pod as it appeared to have mature beans inside, let it dry in the pod, and then shucked the beans into a bowl.¬†Oh, by the way, most other people in the world call them Broad Beans!

Okay.

 

Let’s get real here. ¬†The plants grew well. ¬†The flowers were gorgeous. ¬†But this is all the beans I got?

Seriously?

growing fava beans

Then, I went online to see how to prepare the beans.

Um………….

I found this on Dr. Weil’s website:

Cooking time: 60-120 minutes

Liquid per cup of legume: 3 cups

How to cook fava beans: Soak overnight. Drain water. If your fava beans were not already shelled, you should be able to slip the outer skins off after soaking by squeezing the beans between your fingers. Once favas are shelled, fill pot with fresh, cold water for cooking. Place on stove and bring to a boil in a pot with a lid. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer, tilting the lids slightly to allow steam to escape, and leave to cook for one to two hours, until tender or desired consistency.

Whaaaaaaaa….? ¬†I have to soak overnight and slip the outer skins off of EACH BEAN! That seems like a pretty time consuming task to me! ¬†These puppies better be worth it!

So, I soaked my meager bowl of fava beans overnight and then tried to “slip” off the skins. Umm… nope! ¬†The skins did not slip off in any way, shape or form. ¬†Then I started wondering if I had skinless beans (could I be so lucky?), and dug with my nail into one of the soaked beans to see.

Skins.

growing and cooking broad beans

Yeah – not very pretty. I guess this is what happens when you soak your fava beans longer than overnight, so that the skins will “slip” off. NOT!

Except mine were so thick they would not slip off. ¬†So, I decided to soak them for a little longer. ¬†Still didn’t work. ¬†I went ahead and gouged each skin off (not very carefully, as I grumbled the entire 1/2 hour it took me to do it), and finally boiled them for almost an hour.

The result?  They pretty much turned to mush!

I guess the extra soaking didn’t do any favors for the texture of the cooked bean, because they all split apart and were almost unrecognizable as beans. ¬†Harruummph!

Were they good? ¬†Well, I guess so. ¬†I like beans, and these tasted like… well… beans!

But, rather than eat mushy beans, I decided to puree them and use them as a dip that is very similar to hummus.  I found this recipe on the Whole Foods website.  It was good!  Not great, but good. If you try this recipe, I would recommend making the hummus at least an hour ahead of time and then let it sit for a while, allowing the flavors to meld.

broad bean hummus

Fava bean hummus. I tried to make it look pretty. . .   really I tried.

My take on all of this? ¬†Well, let’s just say I am not going to grow fava beans this year. They took up waaaaaaaaayyyyyyy too much garden space for such little result.

One bowl of hummus. ¬†ūüėČ

And since we didn’t swoon over their flavor and texture, why bother?

Was the experiment worth it? ¬†You bet! ¬†Now I have a better knowledge of what fava (broad) beans look like and taste like, how to grow them and how to prepare them. Who knows… someday I might have a larger garden and want to try growing then again, and ¬†I also have a greater appreciation of those who DO grow them.

Here is the party!

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