Honey Bees


A quick update on my first “Honey”….S finally got see the surgeon.  Turns out he has torn tendons in BOTH arms!  One is worse than the other.  Neither tendon is completely torn from the bone, which is good.  He has no clue how he did it, though. For now, the surgeon is going to try PT to strengthen the tissues and muscles around the torn tendons to see if that will compensate.  They will re-evaluate in a few months, but it would be nice to avoid surgery.  In the mean time, looks like S will remain on domestic duty for some time yet.

In other news, we actually processed our first honey!  We sold our extractor when we moved, with plans of getting a better model.  Our other plans didn’t work out, though, so we were left doing it the “simple” way, using equipment we got with our first purchase of a bunch of hives and equipment several years back.

First, I have to collect the frames.

First, I have to collect the frames.

Next, S used a hot capping knife to remove the wax caps from the honey comb.  I didn’t get a pic of that.

I cut out the comb, leaving about a one inch strip at the top to guide the comb building next season.

I cut out the comb, leaving about a one inch strip at the top to guide the comb building next season.

All the cuttings fell into a straining box.  I then used a potato masher to smoosh all the comb up and release all the honey. 

All the cuttings fell into a straining box.  I then used a potato masher to smoosh all the comb up and release all the honey.

We sat the box out in the heat of the sun for a bit to warm everything (after sealing it up tight to prevent bees from getting in!)  Then, we let it sit overnight on the counter to allow the comb to dry out as much as possible.

We sat the box out in the heat of the sun for a bit to warm everything (after sealing it up tight to prevent bees from getting in!) Then, we let it sit overnight on the counter to allow the comb to dry out as much as possible.

The first box strains out the large chunks of honey, but lots of little stuff fall through.  Next, we poured the honey into a series of mesh strainers, with each strainer having smaller holes than the one before.  By the time the honey poured into the bucket below, all particles had been strained out.  This process actually happened much faster than expected.

The first box strains out the large chunks of honey, but lots of little stuff fall through. Next, we poured the honey into a series of mesh strainers, with each strainer having smaller holes than the one before. By the time the honey poured into the bucket below, all particles had been strained out. This process actually happened much faster than expected.

To ensure all honey flowed through the screens, I placed the bucket of honey strainers on top of my stove, which I had already heated up a bit.  That area between the stove and hood was nice and warm, but not so warm as to melt my bucket.  The warmth heated the honey enough, it flowed freely.

To ensure all honey flowed through the screens, I placed the bucket of honey strainers on top of my stove, which I had already heated up a bit. That area between the stove and hood was nice and warm, but not so warm as to melt my bucket. The warmth heated the honey enough, it flowed freely.

Finally, I poured the honey into jars.  This wasn't a big harvest, but it was a great first experience.

Finally, I poured the honey into jars. This wasn’t a big harvest, but it was a great first experience.  It has the richest, most amazing flavor!! Clearly it is a mixed wildflower, grass, and forage honey.

There was actually no mess. We simply dumped the scrap comb into our wax collection box (for processing wax later), and all the strainers and buckets simply got placed out in the bee yard, where the bees do a far more thorough job cleaning it than we ever could! The result is a clean kitchen, with no sticky residue! Easy peasy!  After the bees cleaned it up, we gave it a quick rinse, and put it away in the barn until next time.  We give it a wash with soap and water to remove dust and such prior to processing, but after the bee cleaning, that is very simple too.  Now, we have a little honey to sell (since I still have some leftover from previously), and plenty to get us through until next harvest.

If you happen to suffer from insomnia, I have discovered the totally organic, all natural, completely chemical/drug-free solution!  Just come work on our farm with us for a week!  I have had the best sleep of probably my entire adulthood from the work being done around here!  Now, it’s time to start catching up on the blog a bit.  There is sooooo much tell, I’m just gonna go story by story until I catch up….

First, I have to show off one of S’s first projects.  He had to remove an old, dead tree.  It finally succumbed this past year, and no green leaves appeared this spring.  It had to go before a branch fell on the house.

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He felt like it was a job he could handle, so with a little help from his brother, they got things set up.  They roped the most threatening of the big branches and winched it to another tree to pull the limb AWAY from the house.  S then donned his safety gear, including bee helmet and safety climbing harness, and headed up the tree to start cutting.

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The branch fell perfectly, right between the house, the cisterns, and the septic tank.  The process went so smoothly, they decided to move on to the next branch.   He’s slightly convinced he’s part ape.

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They repeated the process until all large branches were down, leaving only a large stump.

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You might be wondering why safety gear included a bee helmet.  Well, just about 3 feet under S’s right arm is this:

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Look inside.  See them?  Since S is allergic to bees, he allowed me to climb a ladder to get this photo for him–without a helmet, just so you know.  He’s so sweet.  Anyway, the remaining trunk is full of a feral honey bee hive.  We like feral honey bees.  These got a little upset with all the chainsawing, as was expected and hence the reason behind the bee helmet.  We also weren’t sure how high up in the branches the hive went.  After the branches fell, though, the bees quickly calmed.  Overall, they proved to be quite a mellow bunch, and we are hoping to re-locate them to one of our hives.  That’s a future project, though, so in the mean time, they get to keep their trunk.

This project was a huge success, everything went well, and we now have lots of firewood sawed and ready for splitting.  In fact, of all the “what ifs” that could have happened, but didn’t, there wound up being only one casualty.  Unfortunately, it was my favorite spruce tree.

Before

Before

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After

Oh well, guess I can’t complain too much.  S may be destined to be a lumberjack yet.

We’ve arrived!  After many years of waiting, wondering, studying homesteading, preparing the farm, we finally made it!  I cannot express to you how wonderful it feels.  As you read, we had a few unwelcome adventures along the way.  There’s nothing like a leaking fuel line, an unexpected layover at a small-town repair shop, on a hot day with a trailer full of overheating livestock from a cold climate, and a loose and stubborn chicken running around a parking lot , being chased down by 2 kids and 2 helpful truckers, to get the blood pressure up a bit!  I drove the truck and trailer, and a girl-friend drove my minivan with the kiddos.  She was such a God-send through the whole ordeal, and for the whole week after!  What should have been about a 15-18 hour trip turned into a 22 hour trip.   We arrived at almost 2 in the morning, got the kids in bed and began unloading animals.  We had to walk each of the goats, dogs, and donkeys about 200 feet from the trailer to the barn, through the tall hay field.  The tall grass was so foreign to them, not a single animal attempted to take a bite!  They didn’t know what to think of this stuff brushing against their bellies!  Oh, what an adventure that day was!!

While Will, our resident house pet knows and seems to enjoy the place, he doesn’t leave the front porch much.

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The other animals, to the contrary, are still trying to figure out this place.  Some seem to think they have died and gone to a heaven far beyond anything they could have dreamed of, while others are still trying to figure out whether they are in heaven or some kind of purgatory.

Honey bees:  definitely think they've died and gone to heaven!  I've never seen such full pollen sacs on the workers' legs, and when we checked today, the queen has gone crazy laying eggs.  The workers are building up honey and pollen stores, and are so content foraging, they showed no signs of aggression as we inspected the hive today.

Honey bees: definitely think they’ve died and gone to heaven! I’ve never seen such full pollen sacs on the workers’ legs, and when we checked today, the queen has gone crazy laying eggs. The workers are building up honey and pollen stores, and are so content foraging, they showed no signs of aggression as we inspected the hive today.

When we first arrived, the chickens weren’t quite sure what to think.  Until today, they were living in the stock trailer, using it as a makeshift coop until we could get theirs’ finished.  Notice the rabbit cages are also still in there, until we get a permanent area set up.

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It took a couple of days for the hens to learn to go INTO the trailer at night, rather than hide out UNDER it.  It also meant that M has stayed busy hunting eggs when they decide to lay in the grass or under the trailer, rather than in the makeshift nestboxes we put in the trailer.

Look closely, they're under there, enjoying the shade.

Look closely, they’re under there, enjoying the shade.

Hens foraging the hay field.  They have definitely decided they are in hen heaven!  Their feed consumption has dropped by half I think, and their crops are always stuffed with bugs, seeds, and whatever other treats they are finding out there.  Our egg yolks have already turned a bold orange color from all the greens they are consuming.

Hens foraging the hay field. They have definitely decided they are in hen heaven! Their feed consumption has dropped by half I think, and their crops are always stuffed with bugs, seeds, and whatever other treats they are finding out there. Our egg yolks have already turned a bold orange color from all the greens they are consuming.

The donkeys aren’t sure what to think.  Probably depends on what time of day you ask them.  Most of the day, they hang out in their spacious stall together.  I added a few toys to keep them entertained.  In the late afternoon, they get to go out to the trimmed pasture as we wean them on to the rich grass here.  As long as the grass is short, they enjoy it, but if you ask them to go into the longer field grass, they get pretty nervous.  They don’t seem to realize it is food as well.  In addition, the bugs are driving them batty.  I have had to start using a bug repellent ointment in their long ears due to all the bites they were receiving.  After a few hours in the buggy, humid outdoors, they are usually standing at the barn doors waiting eagerly for me to let them back in to their cool, bug free stall.

Donkeys:  Too short to see over the rails!

Donkeys: Too short to see over the rails!

 

Dogs:  Totally in heaven here!  As soon as I let them out every morning, they run and romp and chase each other until they are almost overheated.  The fighting has decreased significantly, and even then, it is typically only when I put them back into the stall together at night.

Dogs: Totally in heaven here! As soon as I let them out every morning, they run and romp and chase each other until they are almost overheated. The fighting has decreased significantly, and even then, it is typically only when I put them back into the stall together at night.  The only problem so far is that my white dogs have turned a clay-orange color since we are in the midst of a very wet, muddy spell here. 

Like the donkeys, the goats’ thoughts seem to vary with the time of day.  At night, or when the donkeys are out, the goats are stuck inside a stall/alley area.  They have plenty of room, but get very bored.  Latte tends to bully Joy to no end during those times (hence the reason I allow them 2 areas to roam).

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Mocha and Caramel, growing as fast as IL weeds, and drinking almost a gallon a day of Latte's milk!

Mocha and Caramel, growing as fast as IL weeds free-choice nursing on almost a gallon a day of Latte’s milk!

The girls are definitely in caprine heaven when we turn them out.  They run and leap and romp almost as much as the dogs at first.  They have also worked up to staying out for about 8 hours a day now, and seem to be thriving.

The girls are definitely in caprine heaven when we turn them out. They run and leap and romp almost as much as the dogs at first. They have also worked up to staying out for about 8 hours a day now, and seem to be thriving.

The only issue the goats have had is that the stress of the move combined with the heavy milking from Joy and Latte caused them both to drop a lot of weight.  To make matters worse, none of the goats were eating their portions of grain like they used to.  As a result, I was forced to purchase my first non-organic feed in the form of Calf-Manna.  This is a product that contains a load of B vitamins that work to stimulate the appetite, as well as high carbs to help with weight gain.  Despite the non-organic nature, it is a pretty good product for such issues.  It works.  Faith is due to deliver next week, so I am eager to see how that goes.  She also shrunk in size SIGNIFICANTLY, but I can’t tell if she has lost weight, if the baby shifted, or what happened there.

We also have 3 new faces around the farm.  Two days after our arrival, my friend and I were working on cleaning out the barn when we saw several mice run out of their hiding spaces. The next morning, I called the local small-town animal shelter and told him I was in need of some barn cats.  I told him I would take ferals or otherwise unadoptables, but couldn’t pay a lot of money in adoption fees since they were destined to be barn cats and I had no idea if they would stick around.  He told me to come on over for a visit.  M and I went over, and came home with 3 new kitties.  The added bonus is that all 3 are SOOOO sweet and lovable!  It’s a bit hard to milk with a kitty intent on helping, but we are getting by.

Sarah

Sarah

Shadow, testing out the new hen nesting boxes we were working on.

Shadow, testing out the new hen nesting boxes we were working on.

Katie

Katie

A few other random Red Gate Farm happenings, and some of the projects that have kept us busy this week (in addition to the normal unpacking associated with a move):

My first hay!  My friend and I cut it with a scythe, raked it and fluffed it for 3 days while it dried, and then S helped me get it into the barn for storage.  It isn't much at around 150 pounds, but I'm pretty proud of it, and the animals seem to approve.

My first hay! My friend and I cut it with a scythe, raked it and fluffed it for 3 days while it dried, and then S helped me get it into the barn for storage. It isn’t much at around 150 pounds, but I’m pretty proud of it, and the animals seem to approve.

S and JR working on the chicken coop.

S and JR working on the chicken coop.

The hay field, desperately needing cut, but the weather won't cooperate.

The hay field, desperately needing cut, but the weather won’t cooperate.

My garden!  I built the square foot garden boxes and planted the seed while I was here in March.  Many of the seeds sprouted!  We are already eating radishes, and looking forward to harvests of sunflowers, spinach, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, onions, beans, kohlrabi, corn, and more!  There are plenty of squares that didn't grow, so I have ordered plant starts from Azure Standard to fill the gaps.

My garden! I built the square foot garden boxes and planted the seed while I was here in March. Many of the seeds sprouted! We are already eating radishes, and looking forward to harvests of sunflowers, spinach, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, onions, beans, kohlrabi, corn, and more! There are plenty of squares that didn’t grow, so I have ordered plant starts from Azure Standard to fill the gaps.  We also plan to expand on these beds quite a bit. 

Chicken coop got finished today!  I will have better photos later.

Chicken coop got finished today! I will have better photos later.

Fruit in the orchard.  Some of the trees seem to be having a problem -- blight maybe?--so I treated with some copper sulfate.  Oh, how we would all love to eat our own fruit this year!!

Fruit in the orchard. Some of the trees seem to be having a problem — blight or leaf curl maybe?–so I treated with some copper sulfate. Oh, how we would all love to eat our own fruit this year!!

Iris, peaking over the gate into the front of the barn.  She likes to know what's going on at all times.

Iris, peaking over the gate into the front of the barn. She likes to know what’s going on at all times.

That’s it for now!  I’ll post more as I have time.  Tons of work to do around here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s high time for a farm report!

Some of the hens going after a fresh treat of hay on a snowy day.

Some of the hens going after a fresh treat of hay on a snowy day.

Hens:  All our hens finally made it through molt, and all the chicks from last summer finally got big enough to lay.  Out of 20 hens, we are up to about 16 eggs a day–the most we’ve ever had!  Winter cold and short days interfered with their starting to lay quite a bit.  Originally, we installed a light in the coop, on a timer, to counter the short days.  Unbeknownst to us, though, it came unplugged at some point (I generally don’t make a habit of waking at 4:30 a.m. just to check the chicken’s light.  My commitment has its limits!).  So, the short days had its effect on the girls.  Nonetheless, a new one seems to be coming on line every day now, as the day length increases, and the weather warms slightly (we are up to 20* nightime lows!).  Five of the girls will soon be going to another home.  The other 15 are on a list with the state vet lab to be blood tested for Pullorum Typhoid (a particular strain of salmonella) when the testers come through our area in late March/April.  This test is required for any poultry crossing state lines, and since we are moving all the girls with us, it is required by law.  After all the testing and efforts we are going through to move these girls with us, I just pray the stress of the move doesn’t send them into another molt and delay laying by several months!  We might need to use eggs as bribes to our new neighbors as they adjust to our menagerie of animals and unique sounds that come from a farm like ours (nothing like a donkey braying for her dinner at 8 p.m.!)

Shiloh (front) and her jenny, Asha munching some breakfast.

Shiloh (front) and her jenny, Asha munching some breakfast.

Donkeys:  The donkeys are doing well.  They are probably the closest thing to pasture ornaments I’ve ever had at this point though.  Asha is a pistol at 9 months old–totally full of herself!  I haven’t worked with her as much as I’d like to thanks to the cold, but she is doing well despite that.  Shiloh seems to be enjoying her days, eating and caring for her youngster.  She is still very protective and will totally spaz out if Asha is taken from her (though she is fine with being taken away from Asha–go figure), but she gets better the more we work on it.  Asha is still nursing, so they are pretty close.  There really is no reason to discourage it at this point in time.  When I do saddle up Shiloh (maybe once a month right now–everything else is just bareback–she spends the first 30 seconds pouting, walking funny, and generally trying to convince me she’s never had a saddle on before.  When I threaten to make her trot a circle or two, she suddenly changes her mind and agrees to give rides to the kids.  She’s such a goof!  I love her personality–so gentle and sweet, yet so quick to let me know what she is thinking!  I am envisioning riding my draft horse (to be purchased after we move) down the trails at Red Gate, as my children follow closely on their donkeys.  I also have harnesses toward the top of my “to-buy” list, for after this CO house sells.  I hope to turn them into driving donkeys, so Asha will have a job until she is rideable in another 3 years.  I can also use them for smaller pulling tasks around the farm that way.  I recently trimmed both girls’ hooves.  I am getting increasingly confident with doing that job, and enjoy knowing that I’m saving a good $70 every two months!  It will probably save me more once I get my draft team (since most farriers charge more for the big ones).  For the sake of my out-of-shape and injured back though, I think I will have to learn to space hoof trims between the goats, donkeys, and horses, in such a way that I do about one animal a week instead of trying to pile them all into a day.

JR's colored buck, Jupiter, wanting out of his cage for some play time.

JR’s colored buck, Jupiter, wanting out of his cage for some play time.

Rabbits:  The original plan was to move 4 rabbits–2 does and 2 bucks.  Recently, however, a new doe that JR had raised (a kit of his favorite doe that died last year), was pregnant and contracted sniffles.  The day before she was due, she died.  JR was heartbroken.  We are down to 1 doe and 2 bucks now, and he is debating trying to get another doe out of one of his remaining litters, or just wait until we move and try a new line entirely.  He is really hoping to add some more color to his herd, so he is waiting to see if this colorful buck produces any colorful does in the next litter.  Our last doe is pregnant by him, due to kindle in about 2 weeks.  Her last litter is running free in the colony with Pelham, our American Chinchilla buck (the best babysitter anyone could want!), and they are due to be harvested in about 4 more weeks (we harvest at 12 weeks).

Faith (yellow collar), daughter Joy, and Latte in the back.

Faith (yellow collar), daughter Joy, and Latte in the back.

Goats:  We have our 3 Alpine does–Faith, daughter Joy, and Latte.  I am only milking once a day right now; Latte is producing about 3.5 lbs. a day (almost 1/2 gallon), while Faith is only giving about a pint.  I want to keep her going until I know she is pregnant.  Joy has been confirmed pregnant, and is due to kid around March 28.  She is our first scheduled, so we have a while yet.  I have asked S for a specific, 4th doe for Valentine’s (assuming the owner is willing to sell outright instead of trade like we had originally discussed).  Not sure if he’s taking me seriously.  After all, “goat” and “Valentine’s gift” aren’t usually too synonymous, I guess.  If that did happen to work out, the new doe is due to deliver about week after Joy.  I plan to blood test Latte and Joy next week, just to help me with my planning around the move.  After all our struggles getting them all bred and pregnant, I really hope they finally settled.  Neither has cycled since their last breeding, though, so I am hopeful.  I have my theories as to why they didn’t settle the first time or two.  IF they conceived, then Latte is due May 2–two weeks before we move!  Faith would be due June 7, meaning she would be traveling while pregnant, and then deliver at Red Gate.  That also means that, as hoped 2 breeding seasons ago, my former buck Stallion would be the sire of the first kids born at Red Gate!  It has also worked out that I have Joy and Latte, both daughters of Stallion, meaning that Stallion is essentially the foundation sire, and his line, Mamm-Key, will help build the basis of my dairy herd!  Other amazing lines in my girls include Harmody, Redwood Hills, Jailhaus, Cherry Glen, and Tempo Aquila.  If you know much about the Alpine lines, then you can understand how exciting it is that I have managed to tap into the hard work and careful breeding associated with those lines, all of which are known for high-quality, high-producing goats, many of which go on to win championships and/or milk stars.  I am just thrilled to be at that point as we head east where other lines are better known, and these girls will be considered “new blood.”

Athena, the ever-faithful, always-on-duty LGD

Athena, the ever-faithful, always-on-duty LGD

LGD:  Athena has a won a place on our farm for good!  In fact, she has probably won a place for livestock guardian dogs in general on our farm.  We have never had an issue with a predator when she was on duty, and we haven’t lost a single animal since S shot the rogue (possibly diseased) fox earlier this year.  In addition, we are pretty sure she has deterred a couple of humans possibly trying to steal a goat or two.  Her guarding brings us such piece of mind.  Back at Red Gate, there has recently been 2 sightings of cougar within 1/2 mile or so of our farm, and last year, a calf carcass was found in a tree not too far away.  We also just found out we now have a resident bald eagle, not to mention the surplus of raccoon, opossum, bobcat, coyote, fox, skunk, and deer–all of which enjoy at least one variety of the animals or crops that we plan to grow.  She’s a great dog, highly intelligent, and will likely have her work cut out for her there!  I am so thankful we took the opportunity to raise her here so she was ready when we moved.  Her only downside right now is that, at 18 months old and around 100 lbs., she still acts like a pup–albeit, a very large pup.  Her only playmates are the goats, who easily tire of her playful antics.  On occasion she also barks, we suspect, out of boredom. That fact, in addition to upcoming kidding season, in addition to the much larger acreage and increased wildlife she must patrol back east, we are considering getting her a playmate that will also help her patrol.  I am being choosy though, as I want a pup almost identical to her.  I am looking for a young (under about 4 months old) female pup that is 3/4 Great Pyrenees and 1/4 Anatolian Shepherd.  I LOVE this cross.  It has proven itself so well here in CO, that there are some folks trying to make an official breed out of it known as the “Colorado Mountain Dog.”  Unfortunately, their popularity here in CO makes their price outrageous.  I was very blessed to get Athena for the price I did, because the seller didn’t understand what exactly he had.  Therefore, if you happen to know of anyone selling a litter of this cross for an affordable price, and the pups will be around 2-4 months old AFTER April, please let me know.

A few live hives, and a few empty ones.  We are storing the empty ones outside just because we have no other area to put them at present, plus it looks better for home showings.

A few live hives, and a few empty ones. We are storing the empty ones outside just because we have no other area to put them at present, plus it looks better for home showings.

Honey Bees:  The bees seem to be hanging in there.  We have 3 hives that seem to have survived the winter.  I think we are past the danger zone at this point.  We are likely going to sell one before we move–a very hardy hive whose genetics have survived at least 3 CO winters (a VERY rare feat around here!).  Because they are so adapted here, we aren’t confident they would survive the heat and humidity of Red Gate.  We are probably going to move 2 other hives back east.  I have been working on getting more comfortable with the bees, as I replenished some of their honey stores, and learned how to handle some of the tools.  I will basically be having to handle them alone this summer and fall, so I want to be sure I have a clue what I’m doing.  Guess I will soon be able to add “Bee keeper” to my lengthy job description.

In other farm news, in preparation for moving, we bought our truck and have ordered our custom trailer, which will hopefully be here in about 4-6 more weeks.  I look forward to loading all the animals up for some trial arranging to see if our planned set-up will work for the move.  I am also working on a grain order to re-stock all our barrels prior to move.  I will lose my custom-grain source once we leave CO, and it is too expensive to ship.  I haven’t been able to find another source of organic grains closer to Red Gate, so I’m not sure what I will get when this is all gone.  Finally, we are still working on selling our house.  We have begun minimal packing to help eliminate any clutter and better stage the house.  We are continuing to work on needed repairs and improvements.  We show the house quite frequently, which makes us confident we have priced it right, and we have even received one offer.  Unfortunately, it was from a “city” guy who had no appreciation for the value of the land rights we have, as he didn’t care about animals.  He literally wanted to buy JUST the house, at a price just slightly above what we paid for it 2 years ago as a FORECLOSURE (which he got from public records).  S tried to explain that things don’t really work like that.  He is welcome to buy the place, and welcome to make a FAIR offer, but he couldn’t just buy the house and have us discount for everything he wasn’t interested in. In addition, he also wanted us to remove ALL fencing, shelters, and everything we had setup for animals.  That doesn’t bother us, as we could easily sell it around here.  It just didn’t seem to be a very good offer in general, so we declined.  We have had a couple folks return multiple times to look.  Most of the viewers are folks who still have to sell their house before they can get financing.  We have also had several requests to rent or to owner-finance, neither of which interests us.  We just want a no-hassle, easy sale and be done with it.  We are praying the right family will come along–perhaps even one that has dreams of taking that “next step” like we did, who can appreciate the work we did here, and who desire to be more sustainable and less dependent on the economy.  Who knows what God has in mind?  If we don’t get an acceptable offer by March, we will be listing it with our realtor (and raising the asking price considerably–closer to the realtor recommended–as a result).  We’ll see what happens.

Of all the pests and diseases that can weaken or kill a honey bee hive, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about raising honey bees through our first year, it’s that winter is one of the hardest things for the bees to endure.  The fact that we live at 7600 feet altitude, with winter temperatures lasting roughly 5 months, certainly doesn’t help.  As a result of this, you can imagine our elation when the established hives we had purchased in the fall of 2011 pulled through the first winter relatively unscathed.  As it turned out, they were so healthy and vigorous, we had two hives swarm (our fault for not being more knowledgeable and preventing it!).  We caught one swarm and purchased 2 bee packages in the spring of 2012.  They were able to build up just enough honey stores to get them safely through the winter, but not enough for us to harvest.  Even if they have enough honey to get through the winter, however, there are dangers.  To understand these dangers, you must first understand a few things about bee behavior.

A cluster of bees.  In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.  Source: Internet Stock Photo

A cluster of bees. In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

As winter arrives, the female worker bees chase all the male drone bees out of the hive, essentially causing them to die. The girls don’t want any extra mouths to feed (and we all know how much boys can eat!!).  When temperatures dip below 50 degrees (F), it is too cool for them to fly, so they stay inside the hive.  As the temps continue to drop, all the workers gather into a clustered ball around the queen, who temporarily stops laying eggs.  This clustering ensures the queen is the warmest, most protected, and has the easiest access to food (honey) stores.  The cluster of workers rotates their bodies throughout the ball, so all have a turn at eating and being warm, and all have a turn at exposing themselves to nearly frigid temps on the outside of the cluster.  Except for the motion of the workers rotating, though, the cluster itself does not change position in the hive at all.  When temps rise over 50*, the workers will fly out of the hive for a “cleansing flight” in which they will eliminate all their stored bodily waste materials, as well as “clean house”.  They clean out any dead bees or other foreign things they don’t want in the hive by tossing them out the front entrance.  The warmer temps also give the queen and the workers a chance to move upward or sideways to new honey stores before the next freezing temps arrive.  As long as winter temperatures have periodic warm spells (like we did last winter), this process is repeated throughout the winter–flying on warm days, clustering on cold days and nights.

This sounds like a great system until you understand the dangers of that stationary cluster.  If the temps remain cold enough to keep the cluster in position long enough, then the honey stores run out.  They literally starve to death, while surrounded on all sides with rich, capped, honey that they couldn’t get to.  This is called “Honey-bound,” and is a very common hive killer at these cold altitudes.

Unfortunately, we had an unseasonably warm November and December, which means the bees did a lot of flying, thus burning calories, but there was no food to eat except their honey stores.  Therefore, they ate more honey than normal by mid-winter.  Then, just before Christmas, we were hit with absolutely frigid temperatures that lasted almost 6 straight weeks.  The temps never got warm enough during this time for the bees to uncluster and change position or perform a cleansing flight.  You cannot open the hive during these cold periods.  The clusters of bees produce an incredible amount of heat that remains in the hive.  If we opened the top, it would release that stored heat.  The only real way to check for life is to bang on the outside of the hive, and listen for buzzing inside.  Pretty scientific!

As the cold weeks passed, S got an increasingly sinking feeling that he was going to lose all his bees.  We haven’t seen any sign of life for so long.  I finally convinced him to go out today and at least tap and listen.  We went, and found that two hives had audible buzzing.  One was strong enough that they stand a chance of survival now that we are through the worst of the cold temps.  The other was rather weak, and we aren’t sure of their future.  We couldn’t hear any buzzing in the remaining 4 hives, which means they are either all dead, or enough have died that there is little to no chance the remaining clusters will survive.

If the forecast holds true, then around mid-week, our temps should be warm enough to allow the bees their first cleansing flight since before Christmas (imagine not using a toilet in 6 weeks!).  The activity we observe that day will give us a much better feel of their condition and overall health and energy.  We also plan to open all the hives and check for remaining honey stores.  If they are running low, we will add some frames of honey we set aside last fall for just such a problem.

We like to be optimistic, and find the good in things.  In this case, although 2 hives out of 6 is not exactly something to brag about (if that’s what it turns out to be), it does mean we might have extra honey to harvest–as much as 40-80 lbs.  Due to our drought this past year, we were not able to harvest any for ourselves.  The bees were only able to make and store enough to get them through the winter.  We had a few extra frames full of honey, but decided to store those in the freezer in the event of a long winter.  That may prove to have been a wise choice.  In addition, it means we will have fewer active hives to move back to Red Gate when we move.  That wasn’t going to be easy!

Even though the bees really are more of S’s project, it’s kinda funny how much of an interest I’ve started to take.  I truly rejoiced with him today when we discovered at least 2 hives still hanging on.  We are both so eager to see what the warm weather inspection will find.  I really do hope they survive.  It’s really like losing any other animal on the farm to lose the bees.  Their pollination service and their honey are very valuable on a homestead, plus they really grow on you after a while!!

We have been busy around the farm this summer, trying to find the balance between getting things set up for another frigid and long winter, living temporarily, and preparing for our move in the spring.  Unfortunately, my busy-ness has decreased my blog readership by about 60%, so I guess I really need to make blogging a priority again.  Since farm-related topics seem to be the main topic of interest, I will start there this week.

We had to purchase our hay in 3x3x8 foot bales this year.  Thanks to the severe drought, there just wasn’t much to choose from.  In fact, to give you east-coasters some appreciation for real drought, a 55 lb. bale is currently going for around $13.50, while 70 lb. bales are going for $15.  The 800 lb. round bales I used to buy in GA for $30 cost about $200 here.  It is absolutely insane!  Thus, anticipating steeper prices and more shortage as winter arrives, we calculated out how much we would need to get us through the move, with a little left over for weaning onto pasture.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have a place to store bales of hay that big, so we built a cheap shelter out of cattle panels, t-posts, a tarp, and bulletin-board tarp.  It’s ugly, but it works, and can be torn down in about 30 minutes. I will probably do an separate post on the shelter for anyone interested.

Between the hay prices and the move, we have cut down on our animals.  So, our farm, which has done a complete turn around from the animals we had this time last year, now consists of 2 milking does and a spring doeling.  I recently submitted bloodwork from all 3 for several different tests, as these particular does had never been tested (just their parents before I got them), and, as expected, they were negative for everything–always a good thing!  I also plan to submit manure samples from them, just to see how our natural deworming regimine is working.

American Alpine, Latte, is a 2-year-old second freshener, producing just under a gallon a day currently. She peaked at 1.5 gallons. She is, coincidentally, a daughter of Stallion, our buck from last year, and a sweetheart to boot!

American Alpine, Faith, is a 1 year old first freshener, producing about 3/4 gallon a day this year.

American Alpine, Joy, is a spring 2012 doeling out of Faith (above) and Stallion, our buck from last year.  She is a very nice and correct doeling, and I am excited to see how she produces next year!

Of course, Athena is a keeper.  I am still toying a bit with improving her training slightly, but we absolutely adore her.  Her instinct to protect her animals and family are just fascinating to witness, just as her instincts to keep the peace are entertaining.  She always happily alerts us to any deer, squirrel, or fox that comes around (yes, that also means she is a bit noisy at times), but we haven’t lost any animals when she is on duty.  If the does start fighting over something, she is quick to break it up, either by grabbing a tail or leg and hauling the offender away to the other side of the pen, or just by getting in the middle and barking a scold at them.

Athena, the livestock guardian dog. She is 3/4 Great Pyrenees, 1/4 Anatolian Shepherd, and 100% sweetheart!

We also have Shiloh, the jenny, and her 3-month-old jenny foal, Asha, who we have decided to keep–seeing as how we do have 5 children that want to ride.  I have been slowly increasing the amount of time I work with Asha, teaching her basic manners, and Shiloh is getting ridden one to two times a week right now.  We are hoping to increase that to 3 or more.  Of course, it is my limited time that slows us down, as I have to bridle her up for the kids to ride.  I trimmed both girls’ hooves today, which I am quite proud of (and quite feeling it tonight–I’ve never done 8 hooves in a single afternoon!)

Shiloh and Asha, the standard donkeys (or burros, depending on which part of the country you’re from).

JR has had quite the rabbit enterprise this year, learning all about advertising, customer service, support-after-sale, dealing with difficult customers, and more.  He has sold about 15 rabbits this summer alone, some live, and some dressed. I have also perfected a couple of rabbit meat recipes that our family really enjoys, so I think the rabbits have earned a permanent place on the farm.  After we sold off all our extra breeders and then JR’s favorite breeding doe developed severe mastitis in one of her teats (I didn’t even know that was possible!) and had to be put down, we are down to just 4 rabbits, 2 does, and 2 bucks.  One of each is currently breeding age, and the other 2 are still growing as replacements.  The youngsters give us a back up in the event we lose a breeder over the winter, but we are hoping to move all 4 to give us a good start at Red Gate Farm.  The breeding doe currently has a litter of 5 week old kits, that will be weaned in the next couple weeks, and harvested after Thanksgiving.  We hope she will keep us supplied until we get settled and start breeding the new girl.

Pelham, our American Chinchilla, and current sire.

Hope, a Harlequin rabbit, and our current breeding doe.

Our up-and-coming buck, Jupiter.

Our still-growing doe, Mars.

Our current litter of kits. All are already reserved for meat.

Then there’s the chickens.  We lost all but 8 of our layers from last year to the fox (who has since been dispatched), then we were gifted 5 more layers early this summer, giving us 13.  Of course, half of them started molting mid-summer, so we have been getting about 6 eggs a day for several months now.  In addition, we were given 12 more chicks in early summer, most of which are pullets we are raising as layers.  Some of them are Americauna’s, meaning we could finally get a few green/blue eggs mixed into the batch.  Depending on how many wind up being roosters, I may sell a few of the pullets this fall.  I was hoping to take a few with us when we moved, to hold us over until we could raise a new batch, but I have discovered several states we will be driving through may require certain tests for poultry.  So, depending on the process and price, we may just sell all the girls next spring and just start over.

Of course, I can’t forget the honey bees.  We have 6 hives now, which we will maintain through the winter.  If all survive, then we will sell 3 hives, mainly to get rid of the larger sized boxes.  S has really spent this year focusing on regressing his bees and using natural, non-chemical methods.  While the process has been very successful in terms of producing healthy hives, due to the regression process, the severe drought (meaning minimal nectar flows), and the fact the previous owner harvested too much honey last year, we aren’t sure we will get to harvest any this year.  It’s kind of borderline at this point.

Finally, just for kicks, we recently had a visitor.  A very smelly, rutty visitor, who reminded me why I sold Stallion last fall.

Meet Marcus, a very well-bred American Alpine buck from Harmody Alpine lines. Notice the incredible bouffant hair do….

You see, this little buck was just born this spring.  Chances are, that hair will keep on growin’, until Marcus resembles his dad, Elvis….

Elvis was quite the king of the herd. Look at that hair!  And he was only a yearling when this pic was taken last year.  I borrowed this pic from a friend’s website. Our black Alpine doe, Onyx, was bred to Elvis last year, but we wound up selling her twin boys. I am rather hoping to keep a little buckling out of him if I can get my hands on one.

Don’t you just love the resemblance?

Well, guess that it’s for now.  Wait until you read tomorrow’s post about a quite unexpected adventure we had in the middle of the night!  Let’s just say it involved a drunk guy, several accomplices, our woods, Athena, and several sheriff’s deputies wielding spotlights and shotguns!

My hubby likes to look tough.  He has found his bees help him out–especially the one he has now dubbed Apollo Creed.

The problem here is that it seems after about 8 months of bee-keeping, my dear husband seems to be developing an allergy to bee venom.  He has been stung about 8 times now, and 2 times ago, his hand swelled up pretty well around the sting.  The last time, he was stung on the forehead, and within 1/2 hour, the swelling had spread throughout the left side of his face.  He also developed a strange strawberry-type rash around the sting itself that is just now going away a week later.  In addition to his appointment with an allergist who may prescribe an epi-pen, it looks like he will also be having to wear his protective bee suit from now on.

 

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