Friday, November 17, 2017

Drones at the edge of winter

Link to YouTube Here
"Never trust a woman, even though she has given you ten sons," Chinese Proverb

That's a fitting quote given that my hive is full of sons (drones). This is a heartbreaking event so late in the year.

While doing a little winter preparation, I opened up the first hive (Hive-VSH) and found that it was full of drones. I felt sick. It was also full of beetles. Though neither issue seemed to be effecting the health of the hive - for now.

I quickly checked the other hives in the yard and they all seemed fine.

Hive-B.1.1, despite having issues earlier, has managed to make a come back but is still a little on the weak side with only about 8 frames of honey.

Without removing any frames I looked for signs of brood but didn't see any. I suppose the queens have quit l
aying for the winter. It was a bad idea anyway but I thought I might stick an egg in Hive-VSH in hopes that they might make a queen before the frost set in.

However, after watching the YouTube video (the picture above is linked) I've decided to merge VSH and B.1.1 together. I was already leaning in that direction but the video pushed me over the edge. So if this causes both hives to die, then I'll blame that YouTuber.

The weather will be warm and dry again of the Friday after Thanksgiving and so I plan to make that my final visit for the year.

I have taken the next 9 days off from work for Thanksgiving. I plan to use the time to get my wood shop cleaned up (it got pretty disorganized throughout bee the bee season) and to start building hives for next year.

I also plan to build a new beetle trap and try it out over the winter. I've made a little sketch here.

Next Blog will be on how I merged the two hives. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Pear Mead: One Month Out

"In wine there is truth," Pliny the Elder... and with a name like that, you have to believe him.

I spent the weekend doing chores around the house. Of my many tasks, Sunday I bottled the Pear Mead I made on 9/24/2017.

Mistake 1: While I was preparing to bottle, I kept thinking there are 3.7 litters in a gallon - which is true. So I set out three bottles and a couple of 8oz. mason jars for the .7 litters - most of you may already see the error here.

So I sanitized all my equipment, set my corks to soaking, and then began siphoning (quite successfully I might add) the mead into the bottles. When the three bottles were filled, I still had a 1/2 of gallon of mead left. Dote!

I of coursed panicked and, in doing so, stirred the sediment at that bottom - not totally but enough to cloud the remaining mead.

In the end I ended up with three crystal clear bottles of mead and two slightly cloudy 8.oz mason jars. I placed the mason jars in the fridge to chill for tasting later that night. The rest went down the drain.

This is as far as I can push
it with my hand.
Mistake 2: I needed to cork the three bottles. I have an Italian Double Lever Corker (that did not come with instructions.) The last time I used it, I only corked two bottles and the corker was next to useless.

Now I might have mentioned this before but I am a rather large fellow. So to cork the bottles, I placed the base of the bottle on an oven mitt for traction, then I used my bare (bear) hand to force the cork into the neck of the bottle. Then I placed the Corker on the remaining 1/4" (and after about 20 attempts) I made the cork flush with the top of the bottle.


This time, I had the same trouble but after I had already forced the corks into the neck of the bottle by hand, I couldn't get the corker to drive them home.

So I did what I should have done in the first place - I YouTube'd it.

Wow, talk about feeling like the guy who tried to make orange juice by concentrating. It was too late for the three bottles I was working on but now I can't wait to try the corker out. (It took a lot of restraint, not to cork an empty bottle.)

Tasting Note - One Month Out:

The Pear Mead tasted very dry at first with a faint sent of pear and a strong sent of yeast. However, after allowing it to air for 40 minutes, it tasted a little less dry but had an acidic finish. I am hoping that time will reduce the acidity.

This was a sweat recipe with an added cup of pears (see previous blog: Mead - Mastering the basics)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Predator-Proofing my Chicken Tractor

"Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral," Frank Lloyd Wright

My first three months of chicken husbandry was a lot more work than it needed to be. Taking the chickens outside every day and carrying them back inside every night was a hassle and quite time consuming. Thankfully that is behind me.

It took nearly three months to get around to it but I finally finished my chicken tractor. The original chicken tractor was done months ago but I wanted mine to be more predator-proof. So last Wednesday, despite being run down from two weeks of long office hours, I got a second wind and four hours later, it was done.

The extra step was to attach out-rigging to the base of the pen to prevent predators from digging under the edges. I think this is a pretty good idea.

I expected that lifting the out-rigging during moves would be an issue and had planned for an elaborate pulley system. Luckily the out-rigging doesn't cause any issues at all. I attached the pull rope to the front rigging so it lifts automatically. The two sides stay in the out position as the back edge never looses contact with the ground. And the tail end (that is identical to the front) just slides along as I pull. It works GREAT!

Chain link hinges
One problem I did have was that hinges are expensive. Not so much individually but I needed eight of them and that began to add up quickly. So (and I think this is one of my best ideas ever) I used links of chain instead. I simply took an old chain and cut sections of three links per hinge. Then I screwed them in place with washers (which I just happen to have exactly the right amount of in my scrap bucket - not that they cost much).

The out-rigging was made out of four pressure treated 2x4x10' that I ripped down the center. My coup is 4x8, so the extra two foot of left over was used as the end pieces of the sides. The front and end is 6' tapering to 4' (truthfully, this happened because I meant to use 2x4x12' but it turned out to look great). The final diagonal bits were constructed out of scrap I had from the original coup build.

showing the wheels engaged
Time will tell if my chicken tractor is truly predator-proof. However, I think this is great solution that only added $30 more to my overall cost. The best part is that now it only takes me about two minutes to feed, water, and move my chickens each afternoon.

I also attached some wheels that I haven't used since the night I first put them on. The tractor is light enough that I really don't need them.

So that's my predator-proof chicken tractor. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Failure: My First Hive Removal

He looked so happy...
He had no idea of
the carnage to come.
My fortune cookie Saturday night read, "Failure is the chance to do better next time." 

Saturday, Noah and I performed our first hive removal. While this could prove to be a good little side business, we didn't charge. One reason that we didn't charge, was because we had no idea what we were doing. The other reason was because I could really use the bees.

Intake and outgoing hose holes

I got up early Saturday morning and, with the help of YouTube, I built a bee vacuum out of a five gallon bucket. It was very simple and only cost about $25 total including the shop vac.

Step one: Get a five gallon bucket, an easy to remove lid, and a cheap shop vac.

Step two: Cut three holes in the lid; one for the intake hose, one for the outgoing hose, and a large one for a vent (to control the amount of suction).
Inside view of of intake and outgoing

Step three: Place #8 hardware cloth over the outgoing nozzle so the bees stop in the bucket and over the vent hole.

Step four: Secure all hoses and hardware cloth with zip-ties.

It's just that easy.

I also placed a loop of foam so that the incoming bees would have a soft landing as they came into the bucket.

#8 Hardware cloth over
outgoing hose end
Then, Noah and I headed to the scene of, what would later become known as, the scene of the massacre.

We suited up completely, since we had no idea how aggressive the bees would be. This turned out to be unnecessary as this was the gentlest hive I've ever seen. Absolutely nothing we did upset these bees. We tore down the outer wall and the bees didn't care. We cut out the comb and the bees didn't care. We vacuumed them up and the bees didn't care. It was amazing.

The hive seemed big at first but, after cutting it out, it only filled one and a half deep supers. However, we suctioned three gallons of bees!

I was so excited. The removal was text book and we now had a hive of Super Gentle Bees.

However the removal was exhausting. It took about four hours and even though it wasn't very hot, it was very humid. Since we took our time vacuuming the bees, I stayed in a squatted position for a large part of the time. Did I mention I'm fat and out of shape.

The last thing we did was to swing by Dr. D's and picked up a frame of eggs, just in case we had accidentally killed the queen. Then Noah headed home and I took the hive to my house.

I was tired and it was beginning to rain slightly, so I covered the vent hole in the bucket with a bandanna, and went in the house for a break. An hour later, I placed the hive on its new stand, and dumped the bucket of bees into it.

Dead. They were all dead.

Three gallons of bees, were all dead. It seems that even though we thought we were using low suction, we had actually pureed the bees.

I was so tired (and defeated) that I just closed the lid and went inside for the night.

The next morning I got up, and retrieved the honey - no point in losing everything... or so I thought. It seems that leaving three gallons of dead bees on the honey overnight somehow tainted the honey and as I was extracting it, I began smelling a foul sour smell. The 2-3 gallons of honey was ruined.

In the end, all I got for of my trouble was a couple of pounds of wax and some much needed experience.

Lessons learned:

For the most part, the removal had gone very well. The biggest surprise was how long it took. Some beekeepers charge as much as $300... I now see why.

As for my bee vacuum: I plan to add a clear smooth bore hose on the incoming side. This will not only allow me to see how fast the bees are being sucked in but it will also keep the bees from being sucked down a four foot long washboard.

Lastly, and I keep learning this one the hard way, being tired (or defeated) doesn't mean you are done working. Had I immediately cleared the dead bees from the honey and took it inside for extraction, I would have had at least $200 worth of honey. It would have only taken another hour but I gave up.

From now on I will end my workday by asking myself, "Are you quitting because you are finished or is your business finished because you quit?"

Friday, October 6, 2017

Mead Note: One month tastes

This is our new stray cat, Buffy
She looks like I feel.
"If you can't explain it simplyyou don't understand it well enough," Albert Einstein

I posed a simple question on Facebook's Mead Makers page. What should I expect a semi-sweet mead to taste like at the one month racking?

Almost all the answers were the same: "You will get a feel for it over time."

While this may be true, it is condescending and the most useless answer I can imagine. 

In fact it takes me back to when I learned to drive a stick-shift. If anyone ever taught you this, they said the same thing: "You have to push the gas at the exact same time you let off on the brake... you will get a feel for it over time."

Well, that's bull shit! The truth is that you actually give it a little gas before you let off the break or it will stale. Sure, over time you "get a feel for it" but that is what is actually taking place.

So if you don't know the answer to a question, don't answer it.

All that being said, I want to make a few notes about my first three meads. I have quit using a paper journal to keep these sorts of notes so I now put them here... read at your own risk:

Mead #1 

We tasted my first mead after a year of aging last Christmas. It was strong but fairly tasteless. To describe it a little better it was very dry and only had the faintest hint of honey. 

Two days ago (after two years) I decided to bottle it and found that the airlock had gone dry. I tasted it. To my surprise it didn't taste like vinegar. More surprisingly, it didn't taste like much of anything. The dry tasteless mead now tasted like it had been watered down. It still tasted fairly dry (though not as strong) and tasted as if it had been diluted with at least 3/4 water. 

I poured it down the sink.

Mead #2

I just made #2 (#2 hehehehe)  mead about two months ago. I racked it at week 4 and tasted it as I did. The alcohol taste was overpowering and I couldn't taste much else.

Since I had only made 1.5 litters on this one, I decided to put it in two screw top bottles (I later read that screw-tops don't seal too well). Just the same, I left one bottle as is and added a 1/4 cup of honey to the other bottle.

After two weeks, I again racked the two bottles into fresh ones (they both had a lot of sediment) and I added distilled water to fill them up. I tasted both.

The "as is" bottle tasted sweet and the alcohol taste had gone away. Looks like this one might be good by Christmas.

The one I had back sweetened was too sweet - like drinking pure honey. I don't think this one will be drinkable.

I corked both.

Mead #3

This mead stopped bubbling after a very vigorous week (I didn't hydrate my yeast and that may have made it stale). So at a week and a half, I racked it. I did not taste it but I will wrack it again in a couple of weeks and make notes of the taste then.

By all means, if any mead makes read this and have any "actual" answers, please leave a comment.

Monday, October 2, 2017

What if my alpacas get flees and other insane thoughts

“It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.” Thomas Fuller, circa 1650

I woke up at 3:30am and my first thought was, “What if my alpacas get flees?” It would be a reasonable question… If I had alpacas!

It all started partly because my wife is afraid that opossums will eat our beloved chickens. In turn, for the past 2 or 3 months, every morning I am forced to hump the chickens out to their pen and every night I have to drag them back in to the brooder. Mind you, the chickens are fully grown.

So I researched chickens and that led me to Justin Rhodes’s farm video tour, who did a video about a family that raised sheep, to get the wool, to spin the yarn, to knit the hats… In The House That Jack Built.

That sounded really interesting, so on a whim I looked up wool and that led me to alpacas who turn out to be great guard animals for… wait for it… chickens!

We won’t be getting alpacas. I live in town and the bees and the chickens are already pushing the limits of the city ordinances. I give the neighbors honey (and eggs when they start laying) but not a lot of people would be swayed with the gift of an alpaca fleece. However, one day when we buy a place in the country… well… who knows.

Here in the real world:

Noah and I visited both of the apiaries Saturday and all the bees are doing well. I also added an empty super of freshly waxed frames to Hive-B.1.1 - that gives all the hives two deep supers at Dr. D's.

I harvested a deep super of honey from the old farm. The odd thing was that there were supersedure queen cells in that hive – though they seemed a little old and there was still plenty of brood. I think it's okay.

I’ll still need to winterize the hives this month but for now, it is still in the 80’s and the goldenrod is in bloom.

Final Count – 8 hives.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mead - Mastering the basics

"Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy," Benjamin Franklin

Bees make honey but men make mead - the latter being the more remarkable. Mead is extraordinarily simple to make and fairly idiot proof as I myself have proven.

I have taken to making my mead from the cooked honey that I get when I melt my wax. This past weekend I racked my second attempt and then made a third batch. I tasted the mead as I siphoned it and it tasted pretty good - at least it didn't taste off. It was a bit dry but I had used a dry recipe.  The simple recipe I am using is from and is as follows:

Dry Mead
  • 12 lbs. of Honey 
  • 4 gallons of spring water
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast (or a suitable replacement)
Medium Mead
  • 15 lbs of Honey
  • 4 gallons of spring water
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 5 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast (or suitable replacement)
Sweet Mead
  • 18 lbs of Honey
  • 4 gallons of spring water
  • 2 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 2 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast (or suitable replacement)

However, I don't make five gallon batches as that is just too much honey to waste on an experiment. Instead, I make one gallon batches and alter the recipe by parts. Like this:

Sweet Mead
  • 1.5 part Honey (1 quart)
  • 4 parts spring water (2.75 quarts)
  • 1 teaspoons of yeast nutrient
  • 1 teaspoons of yeast energizer
  • 1 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 yeast

I keep my mead in a warm area for the fermentation and cover it with a towel to keep it in the dark. After wracking it, I move it to an area near the A/C and store it at about 68͒. I know I should keep it at around 58͒ but I don't have that kind of setup yet.

Now my first batch is nearly two years old. We tasted it last Christmas and it was very strong and dry. The second batch is a little sweeter but still dry. When I racked it, I added a half of cup of honey to one of the bottles to back sweeten it. That may have been too much. To make sure it didn't begin fermentation again, I placed a rubber glove on the bottle over night. After 24 hours (and no sign of gas build up) I put a cap on it.

I created a third batch this past weekend and used the "Sweet" recipe but I also added a cup of pears.

When my wife and I were in Ireland we tried Bunratty Mead at the Bunratty Castle. That mead was infused with pears and was amazing. It wasn't too sweet and the pear flavor added a soft layer of fruitiness. I can only hope my mead comes out even half as good. Only time will tell.