Friday, February 28, 2014

Low Tunnel Greens

At Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery, we like to employ low tunnels over about 1/2 our beds in the fall and winter.  We get some hardy greens through the winter this way, and protect the soil from pounding winter rains and wind to boot.  In the past we have overwintered arugula, spinach, chard, mache, kale, collards, leeks, and even lettuce.  This winter has been harsher than the last few, but our kale and spinach are still showing signs of life and the mache is as green as ever, the hardy little suckers.  There are so many ways to do this and many materials to make the tunnels from.  This is what works for us.  

18" rebar stakes places every 3' - 4' along bed

1 1/2" gas pipe hoops placed over rebar

Gas pipe hoops provide sturdy support for row cover

Heavy duty row cover offers about 5 degrees of frost protection to greens planted in fall.  Black locust lumber we have on hand weighs down the sides and cinder blocks weigh down the ends.

Though the kale and spinach has died back under the cover, the hearts of the plants are still green and may regrow for an early spring crop

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Beehive AA R.I.P. (And a Recipe for Bee Candy)

In my notes about my hives I refer to them simply as Hive A, Hive B, Split A, and Split AA (which was two splits from last year combined into one).  It works for me.  Sadly, a week ago I discovered Split AA had died, so I am down to three hives.  This is my fourth year keeping bees; that was my first loss and I shed some tears I do admit.

Bees cluster in the winter.  There must be sufficient bees to keep warm, though they do lower their body temperatures in winter, with the bees in the outer part of the cluster maintaining a temperature of only about 50 degrees F. Food must be very close to the cluster so they can access it.  In cold weather, clusters cannot move more than a few inches to get to fresh stores.  Hooked on knowing more on winter clusters?  Check out this webpage: Winter Clusters

The cluster in Split AA was of good size, spanning 5 frames in a medium super.  They were out of honey that they could reach, but I had been feeding them sugar bricks.  The dead cluster was right next to their sugar brick.  As I took the hive apart, I saw bees head-first in the honeycomb, trying to scrape honey from the bottom of the cells that just wasn't there.  Breaks your heart, and is a sure sign that cause of death was starvation.  But why couldn't such a strong cluster move to access the sugar that was within reach?  Something else may have been at play here.  I found the queen, a small one, that I remember marking this summer with a small dot on her thorax.  She was small for a queen, but a good one just the same, and had made a strong hive of daughters.  On the bottom board of the dead hive I found many dead bees.  I found no brood in the hive, though this time of year brood would usually be present for spring growth.

In preparation for winter beekeepers make sure their hives have lots of bees, lots of food, and NOT lots of varroa mites, which can weaken the bees and spread disease, though unfortunately they are present in every beehive in the U.S. to some degree.  This hive, though populous, had a heavy mite load in the fall so I had treated with oxalic acid, a natural mite treatment.  With all the evidence, my mentor and I decided the large cluster may have been weakened by mites or the viruses they carry, and finally succumbed.  I will be sending a sample of the dead bees to a lab to identify possible factors that contributed to their demise.

The queen of Split AA, found right in the middle of the cluster that was trying to keep her warm and fed.  

On a happier note, I have finally found a sugar brick recipe that I am happy with and other beekeepers might find useful if they have had any trouble making finicky sugar brick.  This is used for emergency feeding of bees coming out of winter if they are out of honey or can't reach it.  Bamboo Hollow has a great recipe which I follow.  The full version can be found here:

Here is the quick and dirty recipe:

  • 4 parts sugar by weight (4 lbs)
  • 1 part water by weight (1 lb)
  • 1/4 tsp white vinegar per lb of sugar (1 tsp)
Heat ingredients in a pot, stirring frequently with lid on, until boiling.  A heavy bottom pot works well.  Continue to boil with the lid off until the syrup reaches about 240 degrees F (Soft ball stage on a candy thermometer).  Then, boil for 15 minutes at that approximate temperature (I usually turn heat down to simmer and syrup continues to boil at the correct temperature).  Then, turn off heat and pour mixture into kitchen aid mixer, or leave in pot to beat with hand beaters.  Cool to about 190 degrees F, then beat until white.  I usually have to keep stirring while it cools to keep it from clumping up and cooling irregularly.  Then, pour quickly and carefully into molds ( I use square 9" x 9" baking pans lined with wax paper).  Let alone to cool.  

Even on very cold days, you can pop open the top of your beehive briefly to see if the cluster is at the top of the hive.  If they are, they have moved up through their honey stores.  I start checking this at the end of December.  Place the sugar brick (removed from mold) right on top of the top bars, then place a 2" wooden spacer, then the inner cover, then the outer cover.  Depending on the size of the brick, check back soon to see if they need more or need it moved closer to them.  I check about once a week on a non-windy day without snow or rain.  Cold is OK.

I hope those sugar bricks get the other 3 hives through the winter safely.  And maybe I'll buy a bottle of Wigle Whiskey's Landlocked PA buckwheat honey "rum" and pour a splash on the site where Split AA once stood.  The dead bees have all been deposited into a garden bed, where they will go back to the earth and help the spring flowers grow.  Rest in peace lil bees from Split AA.  Til next time,  Hannah.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tracks in the Snow

Winter Golf Course

In summer golf courses can be a mess of unfortunate chemicals to keep that turf looking tidy and uniform.  In winter, however, the golf course next to our house is our urban wonderland.  A romp in the snow reveals tracks from all the creatures that passed through recently.  I need to improve my critter track identification to tell who has been there!  Deer tracks prevail, that I can tell.  Wild turkeys call down from their favorite roosting tree, high on the hill over the course.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Snow Chickens

Easter Egger hen at Garden Dreams with the flock close behind.  She always has a bit of a "dinosaur look" about her to me.   A feathered velociraptor.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Winter Beehives

When is it warm enough for bees to fly in the winter?  If they have been really cooped up for a long time (as these girls have for several weeks), 45 degrees is plenty warm enough to come out for a quick stretch and bathroom break.  Especially if it is sunny and not windy.

 I have 4 hives, overwintering either with 3 or 4 hive bodies/supers.  I usually overwinter in 3, but I left some extra honey on this year.  The boxes that compose the hives are referred to as either supers (filled with comb holding honey) or hive bodies (generally the lower boxes on the hives full of comb holding brood and some food stores).  In winter there is no brood in the boxes, only frames of comb, holding honey and pollen, and empty comb space for the bees to cluster together and stay warm.  Often bees overwinter in 2 "deeps", but I run all "mediums" so I leave more boxes total since mediums are smaller than deeps and hold less honey.

Winter preparation starts in late summer and fall, making sure the bees have strong numbers, enough food and are not carrying a heavy mite load (varroa mite) or suffering from disease.  Bees in winter are balled up inside the hives, hopefully close enough to honey that they can reach it to eat it, and rotating so no bee is on the cold outside of the cluster for too long.  This is why strong hives are important going into winter; you need the cluster to be big enough to keep itself warm.  I leave at least 100 lbs of honey on each hive.  And even then, sometimes I have to feed some extra sugar candy this time of year, because it is so cold, the cluster can't move a few inches over to reach honey that is still there.

Also in the fall, mouse guards go on.  You can see one in the picture below, a piece of metal with holes large enough for bees but too small for rodents.  This keeps out any curious mousies in the fall who think the bottom of a beehive might be a perfect place to nest up for the winter, eating and pooping merrily throughout the hive.  The blue tarp is in place loosely around the bottom of the hive to block winter windy blusters from blowing up into the hive, but still allowing airflow into the screened bottom board of the hive.

Ok, ready for the craziest thing about winter bees?  Spring and summer worker bees only live about 6 weeks, working so hard they just peter out and are replaced by new baby bees.  In winter, there are no baby bees being born, and no back-breaking work of gathering nectar, so winter bees live at least 4 months, maintaining the cluster and keeping the hive alive through the winter.  They are working less I suppose but shivering away in the hive all winter long still seems like work not play if you ask me!  They never cease to amaze me.

45 degrees and sunny - time to come out and poop!