Beekeeping Blues

Well, we lost another hive. It’s a situation I’m becoming all too familiar with. After increasing to eight hives two years ago, we’re now down to three. We lost several hives last winter, one this summer, and one last week. I’m learning a  good hive can fail fast.

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The pitiful remains of a tiny cluster of bees that froze to death

We had a  drought this summer, and that was  rough on the bees. No rain equals no nectar equals no honey. Despite feeding sugar syrup, the bees never seemed to build up a large population. I’m sure varroa mites probably played a part. So far, I’ve taken the “head in the sand” approach to varroa, hoping that the tiny mites weren’t there or that our bees, which we caught from swarms, were somehow more resistant than normal bees. But, in my gut,  I know varroa is there and playing a part. We had a booming hive last spring that collapsed this summer. That’s a classic varroa sign. And to make matters worst, we not only lost all the bees, but we also lost their comb because wax moths (another pest) destroyed it. A lot of people have had success with the treatment-free approach for varroa, but obviously I’m not doing something right. This year I’m going to monitor mite levels and treat if need be with essentials oils, like thymol, and natural acids, like oxalic acid.

Overall, I just need to do a better job taking care of the bees, from feeding them (sugar and pollen) in times of dearth, to monitoring mite levels, and checking for queen productivity. Natalie is helping me now; she has her own bee suit. Having a second pair of hands while checking hives has made things a lot easier. If the three remaining hives make it, I’m going to try my hand at grafting and raising queens to increase our number of hives again.

It’s disappointing to lose another hive, but hopefully we can learn from it and become better beekeepers. I know it’s no fun to keep losing bees.

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Bad Carrots

This year Stephen maxed our garden spot to capacity. For weeks we were loaded down with lettuce, carrots, butter peas, brown peas that I don’t have a name for, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers – and this year we wanted to try and save some of our favorites items to use throughout the fall and winter.

Lots of lettuce ready for the picking

There were some successes and failures….we’ll start with the successes because the failure story is a little rank.

All form of beans were nicely blanched, bagged, frozen, or dried. They are all safely stored in the pantry or freezer.

Onions and garlic were harvested, dried, and hung in the barn loft. Now that most of the hay is gone, it is pretty easy to get up there and move about.

And then, there were the carrots. Our carrot crop didn’t do very well this year, but we still had a good plenty to store up. We had heard once that you were supposed to store carrots pretty much the same way that you store potatoes – and I still have no idea how true that is.

Most people around here just store potatoes under the house. Well, to successfully get under our house you need to be about the size of a small child…and since I wasn’t too confident that my cousin would jump at the chance of volunteering her three year old for the job…we decided that another solution needed to be found.

Stephen and I thought about it for awhile, and figured we’d try using an extra styrofoam cooler. After all, coolers are dark, dry, and are easily sealed up. Looking back, I think it was the easily sealed up part that got us in to trouble.

A few weeks later I’m in the kitchen fixing supper and I smell this horrible stink – and I mean unbelievably horrible. Then I notice this toxic brown slime dripping to the floor – where the heck is this coming from!

The carrots…

Carrots can not be stored in a cooler. They will rot and mold beyond belief – colors and stink that you did not know existed! The toxicity of the slime will be great enough to rot through a styrofoam cooler. I thought styrofoam could not be biodegraded!

Stephen was heartbroken. I promptly sent him outside to get rid of the carrots; he was still speaking out in denial between dry heaves and gagging at the deadly stench radiating from that box.

So friends, what have we learned about food storage and life in Pleasant Hill in today’s post?

  1. Carrots cannot be successfully stored in styrofoam coolers, just stick to the under your house method or preferably whatever a legitimate carrot farmer suggests.
  2. Stephen’s hair really is like mad Bob Ross hair when it hasn’t been cut in several months….and yes his eyebrows are just as big.
  3. We may have discovered a solution to the problem of non biodegrading styrofoam in our nation’s landfills – just seal it all up with some fresh carrots and let nature do it’s thing….if you can handle the eye watering odors that it will emit.
  4. Onions and Garlic in the barn are really nice…plus you feel all old timey when you go cut one down to cook with. Good idea Stephen!

Chickens and Horses

For years, Natalie’s Poppaw has kept horses, and occasionally he’ll rotate them into the chicken pasture. Chickens are entertaining creatures in their own right, but add horses to the mix and you’re guaranteed humorous antics.

Natalie’s Poppaw can tell the story of a stray hen that “took up” in the barn and made a habit of riding around on horseback, Napoleon style. Apparently, it was a win-win situation: the hen pecked free meals off the horse, and the horse got his back scratched and relief from flies.

Our chickens and the horses

So far, our chickens and the horses get on well together, too. The usually overprotective roosters don’t appear the least bit threatened by their much larger companions, even though the horses sometimes nudge the chickens around the pasture with their noses, as if dribbling soccer balls. Sometimes the chickens walk back and forth beneath the horses, or stand behind them and pull their tails. All in all, the chickens and horses seem to be good pals.

Perhaps the funniest episode between the chickens and horses occurred when Goldseeker got into the coop. At the time, it wasn’t funny at all, but looking back on it, Natalie and I laugh. Instead of wings and wattles, Goldseeker has hooves, a mane, and a very good sense of smell. One day, this sense of smell led him to the chicken coop.

The coop is rectangular, 6 feet wide by 10 feet long. A hen house is on one end of the coop and a door, 2 feet wide by six feet tall, is on the opposite end of the run. We often  leave the door open so chickens can go in and out to get food and water when free-ranging in the pasture–never dreaming that any of the horses could actually FIT through the door itself. Evidently, Goldseeker smelling the chicken feed just squeezed right in and made  himself at home.

Natalie and I had a horrible time getting him out of the coop. Since his rump was blocking the door, I had to squeeze between Goldseeker’s backside and the door frame to get into the run. Thankfully, he didn’t kick me. Once in there, I had little idea what to do. First, I tried turning him around, but he wasn’t cooperating and there wasn’t enough room anyway. Then, I tried removing the feeder. Goldseeker was batting the hanging feeder around like a piñata to spill the feed, which he then licked up off the ground. Natalie brought some hay to the coop to lure him out, but Goldseeker was determined to lick up every single pellet.

So, for what seemed like ages, three chickens, myself included, were trapped in a coop with a horse oblivious to anything but chicken feed. After he had eaten his fill, Goldseeker simply put himself in reverse and moonwalked out of the chicken coop.

In the end, I don’t know who was more thankful to get out of that coop–the chickens or myself! I know for a fact it wasn’t Goldseeker.

Gold and the chickens in the pasture

Fledgling Farmers

Natalie’s great-great grandparents

My wife, Natalie, and I live in a white clapboard farmhouse built in the 1800s, and slowly but surely, we’re learning about farm life—by trial and error, by research, by watching my wife’s Poppaw.  He lives next door, and we rent the farmhouse from him.

My wife’s Poppaw comes from a long line of farmers, living in Shelby, NC, the self-proclaimed “City of Pleasant Living.” His grandfather built our house in 1893, when just about every square inch of the region was farmed for cotton. Now widespread cotton fields and ubiquitous fiber mills are gone.  But Shelby is still a pleasant place to live.

On some evenings, from the front porch, we watch three goats play beside a stoic quarter horse. The goats and horse live together in the pasture of our neighbor, Asa. We watch barn swallows hunt insects over the pasture, as the sky changes from blue, to pink, to purple. And as the sun retreats over Asa’s red barn, we talk about our dreams of raising sheep and alpacas, of selling produce and eggs at the Shelby farmer’s market.

My wife and I are in our mid-twenties, and we were raised in a generation mostly separated from the farm. Sure, our families had gardens, but food came from the grocery store and our parents’ livelihoods came from jobs unrelated to the soil.  Unlike our parents, who were born of cotton and tobacco farmers and who can remember the horses and cows and chickens, my wife and I remember other stuff—like my video game Age of Empires, in which tiny medieval farmers plow and harvest fields at the right-click of a mouse.

To say the least, we’re a little detached from farm life. But we’re trying. Although Natalie and I will probably never quit our day jobs, we like working in the garden and raising chickens in our free time. Indeed, in the past year, we’ve learned about several old farmstead activities, like making lye soap.  At an arts and crafts sale at a local university, our Bishop’s Tallow: Handcrafted, Hand-milled Soap was one of the biggest sellers there. After creating several fragrant varieties, from milk and honey to lavender and rosemary soap, we learned that soap-making is mostly a down and dirty process and that rendering tallow (a euphemism for purifying beef fat) renders the kitchen smelly, at least until you wise up and do it outside.

Wising up is what we’re trying to do. We like living in an old farmhouse. We like learning that deer aren’t eating our tomato plants, but cutworms are. And who would have thought that night crawlers aren’t the best composting worms because at night they have a tendency to crawl out of the compost bin and dry up on the floor? Indeed, while living in this old farmhouse and trying our hand at hobby farming, we’ve learned a lot from making mistakes. Most importantly, we’ve learned to have fun making them.