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Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

The call it ‘belt and braces’ when you undertake two control measures where one should do; but small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) is a complex ecological problem in the complex dynamics of a beehive and not just a matter of keeping your trousers up. The complexity then couples with desperation, and frankly, an inexperienced mug like me will give anything a go. To extend the belt-and-braces metaphor, I’m in overalls, with an elastic waist band and then the belt and the braces. On top of that, I’m learning to accept that low hanging trousers might be confronting but not obscene, and that mostly what I am after is that they don’t fall down altogether (by which I mean colony collapse).

While the lowlands around Sydney have some of the highest densities of SHB of anywhere in the world (supposedly higher than in its original African homeland), there was some hope that my mountain hive might be spared. Basically, it is in the sort of country that commercial apiarists retreated to when beetle smashed the Sydney Basin industry in the 1980s – higher and dryer than the squelching mid-summer humidity on the coast that beetles thrive in. And mine is about as remote as a hive can be in terms of other managed hives. But I am not spared, and so here, in order of my (as yet only slightly informed) view of effectiveness, are the defences.

Defence #1: The bees themselves

The European honeybee  - Apis mellifera

The European honeybee – Apis mellifera

Clearly beetles can live in my area, but perhaps not ideally. When coupled with the ‘natural beekeeping’ of a Warré hive, this presents Defence #1 –the bees themselves. With husbandry that aims to be more supportive than exploitative, bees could be the best managers of their own colony health. When bees are disturbed they produce stress pheromones. Beetles, the all-too-well adapted buggers that they are, smell it and come to capitalise. Every time you open a hive you stress the bees, so even though you might have their welfare in mind, opening the hive if just to curse the beetles might do more for them than the bees. That said, if you leave the hive uninspected, unattended stores that you are going to take later anyway may be a haven for beetle – while bees cannot kill beetles they do harass them when they can, and can do so more effectively with higher ‘bee to comb ratio’. Comb that the bees don’t patrol is the crazy wild west where lawless beetles have their way. The other thing on my side is some proper freezing winter nights and cold days during which beetle numbers should fall more so than the bee numbers.

A lot of people in Sydney with Warré hives are finding that they can co-exist with beetles, just as long as the numbers can be kept low. Without supers, queen exclusion and other interventions, the bees organise their comb as they see fit, and this seems to provide for them to more diligently harass beetles. If you get rid of them altogether they will only come again from somewhere else, so it is a matter of helping the bees rather than toxically taking over the fight for them. This means traps, most of which rely on the beetles being smaller than bees and having a habit of hiding away in nooks and crannies.

Defence #2: Beetletra

'Beetletra' hive board

‘Beetletra’ hive board

Garden lime, hive junk and dead beetles in the Beetletra trap insert

Garden lime, hive junk and dead beetles in the Beetletra trap insert

Beetletra ‘beetle boards’ was my first order when I discovered that I had SHB. It took some time to get a hold of as they are made specifically for Langstroth hives rather than Warré  and I needed to wait until the only guy who adapts them (Tim Malfroy) had some ready. It went in this Spring and seems to be working. Instead of timber, you have a steel base with laser-cut slits that the beetles take as an ideal cranny to hide from the bees in. Once inside they find that it contains oil, lime or diatomaceous earth, any of which will mess with their breathing gear, suffocating or drowning them. When I had all three traps going at the same time, the Beetletra trap seemed to catch the most.

Defence #4: ‘Die Ya Bastards’

'Die Ya Bastards' small hive beetle trap

‘Die Ya Bastards’ small hive beetle trap

You have to love the name – if you’ve had them mess with your bees and your honey at least. This is an easy to use trap that is simply a plastic envelop with beetle-sized slits and diatomaceous earth inside. You just slip it in the hive entrance so that it sits on the bottom board. Beetles hide, beetles die. It is perhaps redundant if you have the Beetletra board in, but it still caught some when I used them simultaneously.

Defence #4: AJ’s Beetle Trap

'AJ's Beetle Trap' - to be filled with oil or diatomaceous earth

‘AJ’s Beetle Trap’ – to be filled with oil or diatomaceous earth

'AJ's Beetle Trap' inserted between Warre frames

‘AJ’s Beetle Trap’ inserted between Warre frames

When you open a hive with beetles in, you will often see them scurrying away in that first second or so. After that they often do a good job of staying hidden from you and you can easily get the impression that the top of the hive is beetle central, possibly just because that is where you tend to see them.

Maybe these will work for you if you are a very frequent hive-opener, but if not, they have a down side – the bees build comb onto the traps and then every time you take it out you damage some comb. Bees get annoyed, get some extra work to do and presumably get stressed; which is then a slight tip in the balance towards the beetles. If it turns out that the other traps are doing a reasonable enough job of catching beetles, this suggests to me that perhaps the AJ’s Beetle Traps are not ideal.

Defence #5: Everything else but poison

Of course I will kill a small hive beetle on sight for one thing. I have also tried to put my new hive location on a hard substrate so that it inconveniences the beetle larvae who hatch out and bury themselves to pupate (siting a hive in a chicken coop is said to be good because the chooks stand a chance of nabbing them during this process). And I don’t do any composting near the hives because I have heard that beetles will live in compost bins – this may have been people seeing similar beetles in compost, but like I say, I’ll try almost anything. Except chemicals.

And then I will just keep on reading, listening to others and picking up on whatever else I can to give the bees the best chance I can. It is not too much of them to ask of me – I’m going to steal some of their honey after all. Any further advice or comments are more than welcome.

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Ripe and ready black mulberries (Morus nigra)

Resolving to make a bumper Spring of this year’s foraged mulberry (Morus nigra) crop, means a bumper Spring of ways to preserve them. They are thin-skinned, picked ripe and sticky and already incubating the wherewithal for mould and decay on the tree; so they will only last a day or two in the fridge. Freezing is obvious enough and the first solution; the next cab off the rank is mulberry jam. Mulberry cordial (sharab el toot) posted here, and mulberry wine here.

When picking mulberries for jam you can get a little extra acidity and pectin by taking a few unripe red berries as well.

When it comes to using mulberries for jams, they seem to lack some of the acidic sharpness of things that you might otherwise use. For this recipe using 1.5 kg of fruit, I added lemon juice (Citrus x limon), some quince (Cydonia oblonga) pulp (cooked down to mush but not all the way to the ruby wonder of quince paste) that was hanging around in the freezer and (perhaps most importantly to the recipe) honey instead of sugar. The lemon acidity needs no explanation, the quince has good pectin and quite a sharp tang that I would guess to be malic acid, and honey is naturally more acidic than the pure sucrose of cane sugar (some even suggest adding bicarb to buffer acidity when substituting honey for sugar). With only half a kilo rather than the sickly sweet usual jam recommendation for equal weight as the fruit, the combined tang of all of this has ample opportunity to come through. Last year I used rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) to bump up the acid tang, another good Spring crop, and will probably use that for the mulberry winemaking.

The ‘brewing honey’ – delectable enough, just not as pretty as some

The honey was my ‘brewing honey’ the stuff that came out lacking the golden clarity of my best stuff (see here), seemingly because I froze whole combs for a couple of weeks until I had time to process them. Until now it has been used for making alcohol. The quince was from a roadside forage somewhere out near Blayney (on the road from Bathurst to Cowra) and the lemon I would like to say was foraged over a fence, making the whole thing a foraged product. But I’ll admit that it was from the shops.

Mulberries are low in pectin, generally picked very ripe when that small amount has lost its gelling properties, which then combined with the low acidity means that you have to add pectin to get a jam to set well. I used the store-bought stuff, which came with some citric acid and a little caster sugar as a carrier for it all.

The start of a mulberry jam

Ingredients:

1.5 kg mulberries

0.5 kg honey

Juice of 1 lemon

1.5 cups of cooked quince pulp

2 packets of pectin (‘Jamsetta’) – use at least half again as much as the packet suggests

Directions

Combine all in a thick bottomed pot and bring to boil. Mash the berries as they soften. I keep a fan blowing on the pot to add to the evaporation (using honey instead of sugar makes things moister). Keep a bubbling boil without causing anything to stick on the bottom and keep stirring for 5-10 minutes. Test dollops on frozen saucers until it crinkles when you push a finger through it. Pour into sterilised jars. Promise yourself that next time you will forage some lemons and also use them to home-make the pectin, so that it is 100% foraged (I argue that honey is foraged, even though it is done by my bees and not me).

13 jars of mulberry jam. Our foraging year is likely to have at least 3 jams in it (out of mulberry, fig, blackberry, plum and strawberry with various additions of crab apple, quince and rhubarb), plus it competes with our honey at the breakfast table; so I now favour small jars that work for having a few flavours open at once and which can be doled out as little gifts.

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Beekeeping attire: A proper veil and the rest cobbled and sewn together as best as possible

I haven’t gone and stolen my bees winter stores out from under (or over) them in the dead of winter, I have just been slow to write this up – the first honey harvest, done back at Easter. To be honest I didn’t actually know that I was going to harvest at the time – I was really just making the most of the fact that my neighbour, who unlike me actually has some beekeeping experience, was available to come over and give me a hand.  I thought that at most we might perhaps grab a comb if possible, but there was more than expected and we are now stocked with honey to last right through until a hopeful future harvest next mid-summer.

The opening of the hive

The beautiful bees

With the pair of us kitted up, the hive opened and a little puff of smoke delivered, comb after comb was lifted with a few surprises:

  • First that the entire top box was pretty much full of stored honey and no brood. They had had a rough start as a colony in the spring with a lot of their delicate founding comb destroyed driving the hive in on our horrendous track and I thought they might have struggled to even get themselves set up with stores for the winter – but they had clearly done some great catching up.
  • Second was that our bees are calm according to my experienced neighbour, something that delights me in a way that I imagine it might to have a consistently well behaved child (the Boy is, let’s say, ‘strong-willed’, in a way that fills me with both admiration and exasperation).
  • Third was the recurrent surprise to look down at myself all kitted up above an open buzzing hive looking for all the world like something I hadn’t yet quite come around to perceiving myself to be – a beekeeper.
  • And finally, and very worryingly, I was surprised to learn that we have small hive beetle (Aethina tumida). I had hoped our remote highland setting might have saved us from this curse of lowland beekeeping, but I was wrong (in itself not a huge surprise from my position of some ignorance). With winter putting everything on hold in the hive, I can only wait with crossed fingers and hope that the beetle hasn’t destroyed the colony before it gets active again next spring and I can put some control plans into action.

Harvested honey, secreted into tupperware, hoping the bees hadn’t tracked us – they had and I spent the rest of the day shooing the recovery mission out of the cabin

Virgin comb (used only ever for honey and not previously for brood) separated for eating as comb

But back to the honey, extracted in the ultimate low-tech way (see here for Malfroy’s Gold / Milkwood’s low-tech and mid-tech options; high-tech honey extraction apparently not an option with this foundationless Warré-style comb). It was simply squashed up by hand and dumped in a colander to drip through over hours. At the end we had jars of beautiful honey, our very first, and a messy pile of squished comb that still held honey that had neither squeezed nor dripped out. To this was added four litres of preservative-free apple juice and the whole thing boiled until the wax melted. Once cooled, the wax and attached gunk (‘slumgum’) was removed and frozen for future use as swarm bait, and the honey enriched juice used to make a ‘wine’ (loosely speaking) with the addition of elderberries (sugars + yeast = alcohol + CO2, the honey, apple and elderberry providing the character). Not a bad concoction as it turns out: 50% cider, 50% mead, 50% elderberry wine; totalling, against all mathematical possibility, 150% of home-made hooch. This was then fortified with vodka to make something potentially leg-wobbling, but which is actually more safely warming when diluted with soda water and lemon juice.

Low tech honey filtering – all colanders and pots

Beekeeping is one of those things where when you jump you find that there is only a deep end and the most pressing thing that you learn is about how much you have yet to learn. For this reason, I find the Warré style a little forgiving because of the way that it sets out to provide the bees an environment in which they can ideally do their thing naturally. You can at least go some way towards acquitting yourself of your responsibilities to them just by letting them be. But the beetle issue goes beyond this. With beetle I have to act; for the bees, for my future honey and for the rest of the beekeeping public – harbouring a serious pest, my hive is a threat to others. So onwards and upwards on the rather precipitous learning curve, comforted at least by the succour of my own amazing honey and four and a half litres of pretty serious booze.

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My beehive amid tea tree in blossom as though dusted with midsummer snow

As a forager you tend to view much of the world with your eyes wired to thoughts of eating it: ‘That one will fruit soon’, ‘the sea is calming down well for fishing’, ‘this rain will germinate my planted seeds or bring on the mushrooms’, that kind of thing. Different things zoom in and out of focus depending on their utility. Once you get a beehive, countless flowering plants join the list, because you are now working with tens of thousands of foraging friends who can use things beyond your reach and tongue size. With a previously reasonable interest in botany, I am now determined to know all my local eucalypts better, right down to the first (by which I mean Latin) names and their season.

I am now slowly working out how to forage alongside them, albeit of no assistance. Sitting quietly by the hive I watch them come and go, moving every so often to improve my angle of view to catch glints of them at as great a distance from the hive as I can, trying to map the direction of their flight. And then I walk, scanning the gum tree tops with binoculars in hope of finding them enjoying a good eucalypt nectar flow. Although any one bee will likely only net me a few drops in her lifetime (a 12th of a teaspoon I have read), whenever I see a bee on a flower, that flower ceases to be just an ordinary blossom and enters my foraging world and the future of my larder.

I have yet to harvest from my bees, but when I do it will be foraged food to me; from beyond my boundaries, beyond the species which I can otherwise eat, beyond many things that I know. And I will take a lesser part, the rent if you will, leaving the majority with my 50,000 foraging friends for their winter’s nights.

UPDATE: The first harvest described here.

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