The Day the Village Died

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A week ago we became suspicious.  They had been flying here and there and buzzing in the trees fine a few weeks ago.  I meant to get into the hive on the next nice day.  The last really nice day may have been Easter and I didn’t do it.  What made us wonder about the health of the hive was the fact that there were so many dead bodies on the front porch of the hive that a few were having trouble getting in and out.  The icy wind kept howling and the temperature wasn’t quite right at all this past week so I just moved the door minimizer and used a stick to move some of the bodies out of the way.  I suppose we were too late at that moment.

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The air was cool yesterday morning as I gathered dandelion flowers.  Doug came out and resolved that he would look in the hive.  It seemed too cold but we had a dark feeling about it all anyway.  He suited up and opened the roof of the hive and began to pull off each slat.  Each empty slat.

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Each slat had an empty honey comb on it.  The closer he got the front we noticed the heavy combs were black.  Not sure what that means.  The combs were empty all the way to the front of the hive even though we had left them nearly twice as much as is recommended to get through winter (17+ frames after we decided to not get any honey).  Apparently not enough.

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It was a sobering sight to see six inches of dead bees across the bottom of the hive, piling out onto the front step of their village.  The nanny bees died where they stood, stuck to the comb surrounding the last small section of brood.  Died in place as if a great disaster in this medieval kingdom brought their lives to a stop in a just second’s time.

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The hive was so prolific for most of the winter that they must have eaten more than a smaller village would.  I should have checked earlier to see if I should supplement sugar water.  Perhaps I could have saved them if I had checked on Easter.

There is no place for procrastination on a homestead.  I should know this by now.  Whether it is checking a bee hive, getting the produce harvested and preserved, getting a free load of wood to the house before someone else takes it.  Homesteading is all about timing.  One can so easily miss the window of opportunity.  In the busy months of homesteading one ought to be prepared to be up until one in the morning canning, or drop everything to drive to Denver in a broken down truck to get precious wood, or be up at dawn watering the gardens.  This life runs our schedule for the next three seasons and this loss only reminds me to pay attention and focus on each task as it calls.

Next time I will not use the top bar hive.  I will buy a traditional Langstroth hive.  There are so many more colorful, comprehensive books on the subject, and many more bee keepers to ask.  Most folks didn’t know how to answer my questions because the top bar method is just not that popular.

Well, if life is all about learning, and a homestead is its own classroom then I have learned valuable lessons this week.  But at the expense of a beautiful village.

Tales of a Terrible Bee Keeper

I’m more of a cat person, really.  But as a farmer, I love pollinators.  Birds, butterflies, especially bees help to ensure that we will have crops.  I wanted to help them out in any way I could (and perhaps have a bit of honey for my tea) so I set up a hive.

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My friends were using top bar hives so I did too.  The problem is that one of those friends is now deceased and the other probably tired of my questions and problems.  No one else I know, bee keepers from all over, has any clue about top bar hives.  Books exclude them.  A general shh surrounds the subject.  This is a problem because as you know from reading my adventures I can surely make a mess of things if not shown properly how to do it in the first place.  Such was the occasion yesterday when a mini-size Revolutionary War occurred on the grasses of our new homestead where now lie dozens of dead bodies and a meager pot of beeswax.

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It started out with good intentions, Brett told us to go check the hive now that we had moved it.  Make sure the combs hadn’t fallen down, make sure the queen is alive, make sure…oh, I don’t remember what else.  They were busily working on their nineteenth frame.  Imagine that!  Such a good year for bees.  Originally we heard to save them ten frames to get through the winter but with the talk of an upcoming hard winter, fifteen became their larder.  Four for me.  Luckily, or not so luckily, one of the combs had indeed fallen down.  Doug went inside for a large pot and some tongs.  We realized how fragile the comb was as it continued to break into pieces which made it very difficult to get it into the pot, honey dripped everywhere, bees trapped in their own creation, the rest growing in increasing anger.  We moved the next frame and part of it broke off.  I panicked, sudden vision of all of the combs breaking under the force of our knife trying to see if everyone was alright and inevitably smothering the whole bunch.  We took out the frame we had just messed with, content to harvest two frames and leave the kingdom alone.  Not so easy.

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The entire outside of the frame was sticky and a hundred or so bees would not let go of the comb.  Meanwhile in the pot where the four pieces of comb and honey lay, another several dozen bees tried desperately to get the honey back out.  As we placed the other comb on top (or threw it, I can’t remember, the bees were really mad at us at this point) the bees on the bottom layer melted into the honey and buzzed to their death.  The bees would not leave the pot.  In the middle of the night we went out and tried to scoop them out, they fell here and there, died in their sticky grave, huddled together in a swarm.  They were not giving me one ounce of honey.  I had not read about any of this.  Books make things look so seamless.

What I ended up with.  I have the rest back to the bees.
What I ended up with. I gave the rest back to the bees.

I have bees because between the fight against genetically modified crops and mass use of chemical pesticides we have killed a vast amount of the bee population.  I care about their survival.  I care about my own Queen Victoria and her hive.  I care!  Yet for a few tablespoons of honey I inadvertently killed a hundred bees.  Was it worth it?  I think I must have done something wrong…

Note: After writing this, I spoke to a few different bee keepers that said, “That’s all the bees that died?  You did good!”  Uh.  I guess I know more than I think!

Chronicles of a Nervous New Beekeeper (with a top bar hive)

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I happened to be sifting through Facebook when I noted that my friend, Luis, who I went to the bee keeping class with was excitedly announcing that he was picking up his bees that morning.  …What?  I checked my email, but did not have an email telling me to do the same thing.  Others were talking about their soon to be filled hives as well and I began to panic.  I called the bee company and sure enough, mine were in a parking lot an hour away.  I had until noon to retrieve them.  Doug had just woken up and I was in a manic scurry.  What do we do??  The bees are coming!!

Despite the books and the class and badgering my poor mentor, Brett, with questions, I felt completely unready.  It did not feel like bringing home baby ducks.  A bit more could go wrong with 10,000 new bees.  I called Brett.  What do we do??  The bees are coming!!

Brett is the epitome of calm and collected.  He is a handsome, shy, eighteen year old who knows everything about bees.  He would come over after he installed his three hives.  I acted as if I were preparing for a baby to come home.  What do I need?  I pulled our bee jackets and veils from the packages and laid them out on the table.  My bee keeping book useless to me at the moment since nothing I could find helped me figure out a top bar hive.

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Do I need the smoker?  Brett would see how the bees were, but probably not.  (Too bad in hindsight, I still have no idea how to use it and I will have to go out and check on their sugar water!)

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I made the sugar water as he instructed.  50/50 water and sugar until dissolved.  Don’t burn it!

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I filled a five gallon bucket with water near their hive and floated wine corks for balance.

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I put the sugar water in a Tupperware container with lots of rocks and twigs so we don’t drown on our first day at the new digs.

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The bees arrived in the back of the Volvo.  Doug went by himself in case we had a few escapees and the baby in the back seat together.  None did and they were pretty preoccupied with freeing the queen.  Bees are ever so medieval.  I rather love that.

Finally our knight in shining armors arrived.  An unknowing neighbor looking on would suspect a fencing match or a trip to the moon with five of us wandering about in our bee suits.  Brett and his father, Lance, got right to work with photographer brother, Brandon, helping and taking pictures at the same time.  We were really much more in the way, so Doug took pictures as well and I stood nearby in the cacophony of bees taking in that mesmerizing sound.  I was not scared in the least in my bee suit.  They were not interested in me and I have never heard that many bees.  It was really quite magical.

First they took off the can glued into the top that holds sugar syrup for the ride over the mountains.  A few bees got out but gravitated towards the box.  They did not want to leave the queen.  A few got crushed when the cardboard came down and covered the hole.

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The queen was dangling in a box anxious to see her new kingdom.  It was held onto the carton of bees by a piece of metal.  Brett deftly (in large leather gloves even) took the box and stapled it to one of the top bars with a staple gun.  This was after he took out the cork and replaced it with a tiny marshmallow that the workers can eat through.

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One wouldn’t release the queen immediately as the kingdom may not be pleased and promptly kill her.  It takes awhile for her scent and the bees to all get to know each other and realize that they are family.  By the time the marshmallow is gone, it will be like they were never apart.

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Now at this point we were taught to bang the box down so all the bees fall to the bottom then dump it upside down into their new apartment complex.  Brett finds it easier to cut the screens with a sharp knife rather than try to fit everyone through the hole on top.

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Then they are turned upside down and literally poured into the hive.  If you could envision the sound of a “pfoomph”.  And the bees were in.  Now they are everywhere and Brett and Lance carefully replaced the top bars.

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Immediately the bees went to work.  Some had their backsides in the air calling the bees home that had run off.  Some were cleaning the dead bees out of the hive that didn’t make it.  The clamor of bees making a home was fascinating.  They had no interest in us whatsoever.  Just in making their new pink house a home.

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Welcoming Honey Bees

Welcome Honey Bees!  I’ll have a sign,

I hope they think their new digs are fine.

I feel excited like Winnie the Pooh,

We’ll have lots of sticky honey,

for sweets and a cup of tea too!

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I painted the bee hive a lovely raspberry pink.  Welcoming but not over the top.  I have read several books.  I chickened out last year.  I went to a bee keeping class Sunday that reiterated everything I read in books.  I feel I know nothing!  But when I am holding that box of rumbling bees and their medieval queen, I assume that everything I have read and seen will come back to me.  That is the hope.

A year and a half ago we had a young man build us a top bar hive.  I got cold feet last year when I got the email that the bees were in after not having enough money to buy the bee keeping accessories so I sold the bees to the bee hive builder’s brother.  The hive sat over the winter and pieces of the wood are separating and expanding.  I should have sprayed it well with a protectant.  This year I painted it a spiffy color, and sprayed it with a coating that it is now well dried and should last, since once the bees move in I won’t be doing much creative maintenance to the outside of the hive.  It looks lovely.

It is under the large oak tree.  Typically one would like to face a hive south east to avoid our winds but that would face directly into the cars on the driveway.  South is the back yard, west is the goat yard, north is the neighbors house, east is the only way to face it.  The bees have two large gardens before they have to cross the street so hopefully they stop and play in the flowers instead of running into semis.  That wouldn’t be good.  The tree will provide shade while allowing bright morning sun to hit the bee apartment complex. In the winter the old oak tree will let in all the sunshine to make the little buggers happy.

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The books and the class are rather down on top bar hives.  Why?  No one has given me a straight answer but I am forced to take all the information I have stored and transfer it to a top bar hive.  Shouldn’t be too different.  These wooden blocks on the top have an edge that we rub beeswax on so that the bees will know to start their combs across the edges.  After ten wooden blocks are filled, the ones after have honey on them for us!

I will be stacking straw bales on the north side to keep the hive incognito from our neighbor.  Not that he cares, but he has a lot of friends that come over that might.  After a few beers, I certainly don’t want it to become a shooting range.

I have my smoker.  Supposedly the best material for burning is old coffee burlap sacks.  I believe Emily’s boyfriend’s family (being in the coffee business) can help me with that one.

Doug and I got two suits, jackets with zip up masks to keep our pretty faces safe from stings.  Don’t want to look like we got in a fight.  And thick gloves joined our artillery too.

Interestingly, there are over 890 types of bees in Colorado.  Most are stingless.  I did not know that.  In the class we were inspired to forget the image of Winnie the Pooh being chased by a swarm of bees.  While working in the hive, most will not care that we are there.  Just don’t wear fur.

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The thing that is keeping me from panicking this year is that at the end of last summer we were standing in a friend’s garden and I leaned over to see the herbs that were planted there.  It was a tiny garden in the city.  I glanced up and realized I was right in front of a bee hive.  Another one stood a few feet from me.  The gentle hum of working bees filled the air but they were so preoccupied (as I was) with the herbs that they had no interest in me.

In a few weeks, we welcome honey bees!

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A Homesteading Store Field Trip

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It’s housed in an old building with large sunny windows.  The young woman that greets us is always there, I believe her to be the owner.  She is always smiling, never overwhelmed. You may have a store like this one near you.  I could order everything online but if there is a store somewhere within an hour’s drive, I would rather support a family, an entrepreneurial adventure, a fellow shop owner.  Buckley’s Homestead Supply is also cheaper than what you can buy online.  That really seals the deal, and Doug and I have a half day field trip of homestead supply shopping and lunch at the Tapateria in Old Colorado City!  Tough day in the life of a homesteader, I tell you.

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I needed a bee keeping suit.  And a smoker.  And a hive tool.  And I did not want to wait until the bees came to get them!  Remember what happened last year?  Fiasco.  I didn’t have anything ready.  I chickened out and sold the bees right before they came to my young mentor.  This year I want new farm animals.  10,000 of them.  Buzzing around.  I ordered them a few weeks ago and they will be arriving to Pumpkin Hollow Farm in April.  Doug and I tried on bee keeping jackets with the head piece and veil attached and each bought one.  Along with a smoker we don’t know how to use and a hive tool.  Doug decided he is going to be a Scottish bee keeper this year for Halloween.  He will wear the jacket and veil with a kilt.  He spent the next half hour speaking in a brogue accent making jokes about bees and nethers that had me in fits of laughter.

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We picked up soap making supplies for a class that I was teaching.  A lid for our canning jar that makes it a water bottle also went on our growing pile.  A small book on making cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products since I will soon be in milk.  And one on how to make wine.  And a strainer for our herbal medicines that is finer than the present one.

cheese pressWe priced out the cheese press, and drooled over all the other items there while putting several on our wish list.  We finished the trip by signing up for a beekeeping class at the beginning of April.

We walked out $270 lighter including paying for the class.  A steal, I tell you!  If you live in Colorado, head down to Colorado Springs and see the nice, young woman that owns Buckley’s.  It is worth the trip.  She can help you accomplish all your homesteading goals this year.

One stop shop.

Buckley’s Homestead Supply

http://buckleyshomesteadsupply.com

1501 W Colorado Ave, Colorado Springs, CO 80904
(719) 358-8510

This Year in Farmgirl School…

I am inspired by so many things and people.  From the Amish countryside to the Tuscany hills, there are people and principles there that appeal to me.  Perhaps the aspects that I so desire are the same.

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I am inspired by simplicity.  In having few material items.  More meaningful open spaces that are easy to care for and easy to feed a crowd in.  The openness and simple beauty of an Amish home.  The old worn villas in Tuscany where the doors and windows stay open, if possible, and streams of light and outdoors dance across the tiles of the homes filled with family and friends and wine.

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An emphasis on family, friends, and spirituality from Catholic to Amish, a love for community, a devotion to family, a loyalty to friends, and a love for God all speak to me.  To take the time to sit down and enjoy the company of those close, to pass a loaf of homemade bread, to pour another glass of wine or lemonade.  To be interested and care about what is happening and to share in the richness of these various ribbons of people gifted to our lives.

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Homemade food.  Tapestried gardens, local, fresh, healthy farmed, real food.  The taste of just pressed olive oil, or crisp kale from the garden, of earthy potatoes baked with cheese, or chicken just roasted with sprigs of rosemary and sage.  Locally made red wine or glasses of refreshing iced tea.  Things grown from our own hands or from a local farmer or artisan.  Knowing where our food comes from, proud of its origin in the back yard, or from nearby.

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Self sufficiency, or better, local sufficiency.  A can-do spirit.  I can get eggs from my back yard.  I can grow a bit of wheat.  I can put up vegetables.  I can harvest my fresh fruit.  I can grow mushrooms.  I can savor my own herbs.  I can….As my friend put it in a recent post when describing her grandparents’ farm, “The life of self sufficiency turned into a life of dependency.”  Profound words to me as most of us have been born into a life of dependency.  Being an incredibly independent free spirit makes me desperate to be able to provide more for myself and my family.

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Arts and beauty.  From paintings and pottery to home spun yarn and homemaking arts, I am inspired by them all.

Out here, folks do tend to move a bit slower, have less material items, and are comfortably Christian without the annoying evangelism.  They are friendly, and community minded.  I farm in town so that perhaps more people will be inspired to grow their own dinners and see that it can be done out here.  I do have dinner with friends and close family often.  I have many more arts to master.  This will be an even better year.

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This year in Farmgirl School we will be learning a host of new things.

We’ll become bee keepers.  We will not be afraid of a few ten thousand bees.

We will create a corn fence around the front yard.

We will grow an entire garden’s worth of produce in five gallon buckets.

We will create a portable orchard.

We will learn how to be market growers.

We’ll show you how to start a farm from a business perspective and succeed with farm diversity.

We’ll be playing midwife and welcoming in new kids next month.

We’ll master the art of creating hard cheeses along with other dairy products.

We’ll be shearing large unlovey animals.

We’ll master the art of spinning.

We’ll color roving with plants.

We’ll create lovely fibers and then learn how to make sweaters and socks and they will be straight and even!

We’ll be hoping for farm hatched chicks.

We’ll expand the Apothecary garden and teach you more about natural cures.

We’ll visit a local Amish community.

We’ll host a food swap.

We’ll entertain more.

We’ll have some laughs, some mishaps, some roaring successes, and we’ll learn.  Come learn with me.

Welcome to Farmgirl School.  This year is going to be fun!

Bee Keeping Mama (soon to be)

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There is a bee hive on the very tip top of the hundred-plus year old building across the street from my shop.  If you stand in my doorway you can see them busily working.  Among the ornate swirls of wood, they have made their home.  I have always had a fondness for Victorian architecture myself, can’t say I blame them.  Throughout the year we help them detour out of our shop.  Enticed, no doubt, by one hundred different types of herbs and the essential oils used in the beauty products, they come in for a sniff of the lotion or to seek an unexpected flower.  They always end back up by the window desperately trying to make their retreat.  Using a saucer and a paper cup I ease them into the vessel and set them back on track outdoors.  They have never stung us or any of our customers.  They just want to get back to work!

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Homeowners and shop owners call in the companies that guarantee your yard will be beautiful and sheepishly place those little yellow flags with the woman and child and dog with a slash through them (that doesn’t mean keep off the grass, it means it will kill you!); they usually have no idea what harm they are doing.  Doug was guilty of this himself, bringing in Weed and Feed trying to keep up with the neighbors in our old neighborhood.  We just didn’t realize the impact of such a simple thing.  Weed and Feed is available everywhere this time of year.  It does cause cancer and upper respiratory ailments in humans as well as wipes out birds and butterflies and lady bugs and….bees.  The lady who owns the building next to my shop loves to spray her yard.  There are always little yellow warning flags that the bees missed scattered throughout.  And at least three dead bees a day in front of my doorstep.  Many times the bees are disoriented and wander aimlessly in front of my store as if looking for directions to get across the street before their demise.  I could make myself crazy with thoughts of the Colony Collapse Disorder and all the Weed and Feeds on the market.  I could picket the girl next door.  Or I could combat this in a positive way.  By getting a bee hive.

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Luckily for me, my friends are going to help me.  Bryan just built me a beautiful bee hive to house the new family.  His seventeen year old brother, Brett, has been giving me a bee tutorial.  Since I learn by watching and doing, he will have to come back and walk me through it!  He keeps telling me, “Order your bees, or you’re not going to have any!”  I finally have the cash today so I will get online and order a family of bees with an Italian queen.  Feels rather medieval.  Brett is teaching me organic beekeeping.  I will not take too much honey so not to break into the bees’ store for winter.  I will let them flit to and fro from plant to plant and not scream and run when I see them.  I will not be afraid of bees on masse.  I am sure it will take a minute to get used to standing among hundreds of bees but my love for them will hopefully conquer any fears!  Only .01% of the population actually has  reaction to bee stings and I am not among that number.  I am just a bit of a baby when it comes to pain.  But saving the honey bee in any way I can is more important to me!  Offering a safe home to them in an area that doesn’t use many pesticides (love this town…it’s not the same town my shop is in) is going to be great and they in turn will pollinate my trees and garden.  I’ll keep you posted on this venture!

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