A Mothy Day

I had every intention of checking on the bees. I’d gotten the smoker out and everything. When I went to open the plastic bin we keep the bee suits in, however, I found some unwelcome guests. They were everywhere, and the bee checking had to be postponed.

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It wasn’t hard to find the source of the problem. We were storing the bee suit bin on top of another bin with some old frames of comb in it. And those frames, wouldn’t you know it, were completely full of wax moths.

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Wax moths are a perpetual threat if you’re storing used comb without bees to protect it. Fans of the blog may remember that our hive was infested with wax moths last spring, after it was abandoned. Wax moths are rarely a problem in active hives, because the bees will drive them out before they can take hold. But if the comb is unprotected, like in the empty hive or the shed, moths are almost certain to move in.

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Despite their name, wax moths don’t actually eat wax. A frame of unused foundation in the same bin was untouched. What the moths like is the thin, protein-rich skin that’s left behind on the cell walls by the bee larvae when they emerge as fully formed bees. Think of it like a bee amniotic sac. Moths lay their eggs in the wax, and those eggs hatch into grubs that burrow through the wax, feeding on these old protein skins.

Because they’re disgusting.

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I thought the bin we were keeping the frames in was tight enough to keep the moths out. I thought wrong. Here you can see a few of those little grubs on the move.

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And here are some adult moths.

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Will and I dragged the bins outside to clear them out. We wiped out all the bugs and their bizarrely stretchy webbing.

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The moths clearly started in the bin with the frames, but they’d been migrating. I found a few little cocoons in the bee suits.

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I picked off all the cocoons I could find and shook everything out. For good measure, I took the suits home and washed them. I sprayed the bins down with the hose and let them dry in the sun. I’m pretty sure we’re moth-free.

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As we were working, a few of the bees came over from the hive to see what we were up to. This one found a single globule of honey on one of the frames.

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Some others flocked to the honey that dripped out of the frames onto the ground. They will have drunk as much as they could hold, then carried it back to the hive to store.

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This wasp showed up for the free food, too.

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So what became of the frames? I didn’t want to keep them around so full of moths, but I couldn’t stand the idea of throwing away all that good wax. I brought the frames home and tried to render the wax in my kitchen.

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Stay tuned for that tale of hardship and woe.

Sauerkraut

My housemates wish I would stop fermenting things.

I’ve told them I don’t just ferment. Sometimes I bake cakes. Sometimes they’re good. Sometimes I feed them fresh, local, and organic vegetables and honey. I’ve told them to stop complaining.

But it’s true – I do ferment a lot of things. And this is one of those things.

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A while ago I made borscht and found myself with most of a cabbage leftover. This prompted me to try one of the easiest fermentations that I’ve never actually done: Sauerkraut.

I cut up my cabbage and removed the core.

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Then I chopped the rest into fine strips and threw the strips in a bow with 1 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt.

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I smashed it all around with my hands for about ten minutes. Perhaps ‘smashed’ is too strong a word. The recipes I’ve come across online are fond of the word ‘massage.’ After ten minutes of gentle massage, the cabbage released a lot of its water and became wilted.

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I plopped my wilted cabbage into a jar, tamping down with my hand after each plop to release air bubbles and more liquid.

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I covered the whole thing with a kale leaf to protect it from the air, and weighted it down with a jam jar full of water. The name of the game with sauerkraut seems to be keeping it out of contact with the air with a layer of water. At the moment the water released naturally from the cabbage is a little sparse. I may have to add more.

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I rubber banded a piece of fabric over the whole jar to keep critters away and stuffed it away in a cupboard. The pictures of that weren’t very glamorous, though, so I’ll leave you with beautiful shot of my sauerkraut to be.

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In a few days it should be ready to eat.

Beeing Along Nicely

Last week we went in to check on the bees and take stock. Things are looking good, though we did notice this beautiful and disgusting phenomenon underneath the hive. Some opportunistic spider has set up shop under our screened bottom board. Maybe he’s after mites, maybe he’s after bees. Whatever he was after, what he got was all that nasty debris that’s fallen down out of the hive. Poor guy.

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We swept out the cobwebs and opened up the hive. My last time in I’d taken off a “full” honey super and replaced it with a new one. Unfortunately, the full one was none too full, and the new one is filling up slowly.

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So where is that honey? Turns out a lot of it is in the top hive body. Whoops. This deep frame is totally capped.

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As is this one.

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The capped honey has such a satisfying, smooth look to it. I genuinely don’t know what this little huddle of bees is up to. Since the honey is all capped, I don’t think there’s any work to do in this part of the frame. They’re probably talking to each other, but about what? If anyone has a guess, I’d love to hear it!

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This frame is closer to the center of the box, and it’s much busier. The very top right corner has some capped honey, but the bulk of the frame is full of brood. Some of it is capped, but you can just make out the white grubs in a few of the uncapped cells. You can also clearly see a drone with his big eyes and body, a third of the way from the top. Winter is coming, and this poor guy doesn’t have much time left. Pretty soon he’ll be too much trouble to feed and will be driven from the hive.

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We managed to spot the queen, busy laying in one of the middle frames. The white thing is the remnant of one of our Hop Guard strips, with another week and a half left in its 30 day period of effectiveness. I’m no expert, but it looks to me like its effective days have passed. I’d read about Hop Guard I and the need to replace it when it dries out, but I was under the impression that Hop Guard II (what we’re working with) was an improved version that would last for the full 30 days.

Whelp. In a few days the month-long period will actually be up, and I’ll do another mite count to see if it’s been effective or not.

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This strip isn’t as empty, but it looks pretty dried out. In fact, it looks like the bees have covered it up with wax… I have to say I’m skeptical that this is doing much. On the plus side, our mite count was so low to begin with that it may not even matter. But we won’t know anything for sure until we take stock of the current mite population. If worse comes  to worst, we can always treat again in the fall.

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No great changes were made during this inspection, but we got a good sense of where we stand.

We know that the bees are storing just as much honey in the hive body as in the honey supers. Next time we go in, we’ll take a couple of those full deep frames and swap them for empty ones. We’ll get some honey, and hopefully the queen will lay in the empty frames. In the meantime we’ve left both honey supers on top of the queen excluder, so with any luck they’ll fill those up some more.

We’ve seen that the queen is healthy and still laying and doesn’t seem to have been hurt by the mite treatment. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen that the mite treatment may not be living up to its potential. Only time will tell on that front.

In any event, the colony itself seems healthy and productive. The bees’ numbers have soared since we got them in the spring, and just like last year’s colony they’re extraordinarily cooperative.

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I’m coming up on two years of beekeeping without being stung.

 

Strawberry Wine Forever

Back in May I started 5 gallons of strawberry wine. It’s September now, which means it’s time to bottle!

Actually according to my post-it, I should have bottled back in July. But a little extra ageing never hurt anybody.

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I siphoned all the wine into my huge bucket. I had hoped that using extra strawberries during fermentation would leave some residual sweetness, but I hoped wrong. It was extremely dry.

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I like sweet wine, and I think the strawberry really benefits from the sweetness, so I mixed up some honey in warm water and added it as the wine was siphoning.

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I put in 5 Campden tablets and 2 1/2 tsp potassium sorbate to keep the yeast from going after the new sugar source.

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With a bucket full of wine, I started bottling.

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My parents drink more than I do (though that’s not saying much), and they diligently save their empty bottles for me. I like the motley look.

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The bottles full, it was time to cork. Technically, I have a corker. In the strictly legal definition of the word, I do. It is, however, terrible. With one hand you have to squeeze two handles together to compress the cork, and with the other you have to press down on a lever to drive it into the bottle. All while not shooting your open bottle of wine off across the room. I tried to use it myself. I really did, and I just didn’t have the strength. My roommate Will stepped up to the plate and just barely managed it. What a man!

My birthday’s coming up, and I think I know what to ask for.

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It was a real struggle, but we got there in the end with 8 regular bottles and 8 double-wides. I’ll have to order up some new labels.

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I think I’ll call it Uncle Beth’s Fancy-Ass Wine

Concord Grape Juice

Storm’s comin!

New England has been battening down for Tropical Storm Hermine. So far she hasn’t brought much more than a dreary break in the stunning fall weather, but Monday had some high winds that got me worried about the fruit in the garden. The perimeter fence has a few big old concord grape vines that belong to no one in particular. This year I decided (with the garden manager’s permission, mind you) that at least some of them belong to me. So I braved the pre-Hermine gusts and rescued the ripest ones.

I didn’t weigh at the time, but I’d guess I picked about ten pounds.

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My initial plan was to make a big batch of wine. The king of concord grape wine is Manischewitz, which I’ve always had a soft spot for because it tastes just like grape juice. I followed that logic and asked myself: wouldn’t it be nicer just to have grape juice?

Yes it would.

My parents have made grape juice for years. I think it might be my grandmother’s recipe. The jars line a shelf in the basement, and a couple always get brought up for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Gosh is it good. The ingredients, emailed by my mom, are:

  • 1 heavy cup concord grapes
  • 2/3 cup white sugar
  • boiling water

And that’s it! Since it’s not fermented, it has to be processed in the canner. I heated up a bunch of quart jars to sanitize them.

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I dealt with the jars one at a time. I removed one from the canner, dumped in the sugar and grapes, and filled it almost to the top with boiling water. The water turned out to be the limiting factor, since my kettle only held three jars’ worth.

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The jar full, I fitted the screw top lid and put it back in the canner. Once all the jars were done, I added more water so the jars were completely submerged. I raised the heat to a hard boil, put the lid on the canner, and processed for 20 minutes. During those 20 minutes I made an unsettling discovery – my canner is so big it has to straddle two burners, and with the water high enough to cover the quart jars, it spills over the sides… straight onto the open gas flames below. Twice I had to turn off a burner when the flame went out completely. I can’t imagine this is good for the stove, and it sure wasn’t good for my peace of mind. Maybe I’ll have to invest in an outdoor camp stove.

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I processed two batches, making for a dozen jars and 3 gallons of juice. At this point I ran out of quart jars (and patience watching for gas leaks). I had about 3 1/2 pounds of grapes left, so I mixed them up with some sugar and yeast. We’ll have about a gallon of knockoff Manischewitz after all!

There are three distinct layers in the jars, but I have it on good authority from my mom that this is normal: “Do not stir or shake the juice. You’ll think you’ve screwed up because the grapes and sugar will sit in the bottom. As times passes, the grapes will move, the sugar dissolve, and the juice turn pink/red.”

Well, my grapes are on the top. Hopefully that doesn’t matter.

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Of the twelve jars, one didn’t seal properly for some reason. Since I can’t store it, I’ll just have to drink it. I shook it up to mix in the sugar and poured a glass. It’s not as dark or as strong as the goal, but the taste is perfect. Three gallons may not be enough.

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Glass courtesy of Endless Brewing, my beloved hometown brewery. Go see them and tell them I sent you. You probably won’t get a free beer, but you’ll almost definitely get a smile of recognition. And the beer is worth it.

Garlic Forever

I harvested my garlic a month ago, and since then it’s been dangling from strings wherever I could find space in the basement.

It’s time to consolidate.

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I hung the whole plants, bulbs down, in three bundles spaced loosely enough to allow good airflow. Since the plants are good and dry now, I can cut the bulbs away. I just snipped through the stalks  with a pair of scissors about an inch above the bulbs.

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I also trimmed off the excess roots, mostly for aesthetics and to keep the bulbs from tangling with each other.

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Here they are nicely shorn.

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Last summer I harvested about half a dozen bubs. If I keep expanding at this rate I can go into production soon.

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I’m not going into production yet. (I’m not even sharing with my housemates!) But I do want my garlic looking its best. I gently peeled off the outer, dirty layer of papery skin.

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And that’s it! I tucked them an old mesh onion bag and hung them from a nail in a dark alcove of the cellar. Last year’s garlic lasted all winter like that, so I have high hopes. Around Halloween I’ll break up one or two and plant the cloves – I’m excited to get a multi-generational crop and finally become garlic self-sufficient.

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I’m using “self-sufficient” very loosely. There’s no way this is lasting a year.

Bacon

Sometimes I think that we as a culture are going a little overboard in our glorification of bacon.

And then I eat bacon.

And I realize we’re right on track.

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Lunch today: kale, summer squash, peppers, and basil sauteed with bacon and salt.

 

 

Mite Fight

It’s hot out. So hot that I’ve been afraid to go into the hive. The last thing I need is to pass out face first in a pile of bees.

This morning, before the sun got too high, I went down to the hive to do some much-needed maintenance. Since I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I brought along my boyfriend Ben to do the heavy lifting.

It was his first time going into the hive, and he was a little nervous.

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Our first order of business was to replace the honey super. Last week we’d put a triangle board under the honey super to clear the bees out. The triangle board gives them an easy way out of the super, but an almost impossible way back in. It’s really effective if you want a bee-free honey super, but I was worried that if we left it too long they might get crowded and be in danger of swarming.

They did look tightly packed through the screen of the triangle board, but it may just have been early enough in the morning that the foragers hadn’t left for the day yet.

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We removed the honey super and set it a few hundred feet away so the bees wouldn’t steal it right back from us. Then I removed the triangle board.

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I removed most of it, anyway. The bees sealed it tightly to the frames below with propolis and wax, and a whole side of the triangle pulled free of its nails when I lifted it off. This is coming out of their wages.

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I was determined to do a successful sugar shake mite check this time, since my last attempt… left something to be desired. I shuffled through the top hive body frames for one full of brood. It took me four frames, because the first three were solid capped honey! It’s a good thing we didn’t leave the triangle board any longer – it seems like they’ve really been stocking up.

When I finally found a brood frame, I gave it a good shake over a pot. The bees dropped in, and I knocked them all into one corner and scooped ’em up in my measuring cup. I got a slightly shy half cup, which I dumped into a mason jar and set aside for later.

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Today we went for the slightly unorthodox method of treating for mites before testing to see if we needed to do it. Is this responsible beekeeping? Nope. But the day was getting hot and the bees were getting ornery, and it was a lot easier to test the bees in the shade after closing up the hive. For philosophical musings on why this probably is okay, hold out til the end of this post.

We dug deeper and lifted off the top hive body, because the mite treatment has to be applied to both. A while ago we put a shim between the two, hoping for some cool burr comb. The bees have been playing along, making this very cool structure that’s about the width of the frames but almost perpendicular to them.

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I cleared away the burr comb and applied the Hop Guard. What it is is a pack of foot-long cardboard strips soaked in something with the consistency and messiness of hot molasses. This stuff oozed everywhere. The packaging is covered in warnings about getting on your skin, but by the end of the day I had it all over my hands and legs. (That being said, I washed it right off and seem to be fine. I don’t condone eating a spoonful of the stuff, but the danger may be over-hyped).

The instructions said to apply two strips per 10 frame hive body, draped 4 inches apart over two central frames. There they are!

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We replaced the second hive body and draped two more strips in that one. Then we topped it off with the queen excluder and a fresh honey super to catch the fall honey flow. We closed up the hive and beat it out of there. All that was left was to give those bees in the jar a good shake.

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The round piece of screen I was given at bee school fit perfectly into a wide mouthed canning jar. The mesh in the screen is just the right size to let mites out and keep bees in.

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Even if the bees really want to get out.

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We dumped a few tablespoons of powdered sugar through the screen and shook the jar up for a couple minutes. It was a like a grotesque snow globe.

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Once the bees were good and coated, we turned the jar on its end and shook it hard over a white piece of paper.

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Between the white paper and the white sugar, the dark mites stand out pretty well.

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Reasonably well, at least. Can you spot the one in this picture? Zoomed in this much, he’s actually hard to distinguish from the tiny sugar clumps’ shadows. He’s in the horizontal middle, just south of the vertical middle. If you look very closely you can see his little legs in the air.

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In case you were worried, no bees were killed in the testing of these mites. They were a little dazed, to be sure, but they came out of it okay.

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I dumped them out right next to the hive. Once they got their bearings, they should have flown right back into the hive. They’ll have a wild story to tell their friends as they get licked clean. This day will pass into bee lore, and the powdered sugar will probably be turned into honey.

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So how many mites did we find? 4. From a sample of 300 bees, that’s an infestation rate of 1.33%. For this time of year, that’s actually remarkably low. In all honesty, we probably could have held off a while on treating. Given the way it went, though, I’m glad we did.

The thing is, all hives have mites, and the reasons to delay treatment hold a little less sway over us than usual. A lot of treatments are toxic to humans, meaning it’s a good idea to continually test mite levels while collecting honey, then harvest the honey and treat only when the mites get out of hand. Hop Guard, on the other hand, supposedly does not contaminate the honey, so there’s no need for strategic timing.

Another reason to wait is that mite treatment can be pretty hard on bees. If by some chance your mite levels never get high enough to have to treat, it’s better not to treat. Supposedly Hop Guard is gentler than other products, though, so it should be okay.

We got burned by mites last year, so we want to go in guns blazing this time. Our number one priority is getting these bees through the winter, and hopefully this knocks their mite levels low enough that they stand a fighting chance.

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It was a good and productive day. It was only a little sweltering, and Ben survived his first bee excursion. He says he even had fun.

Burr Comb and a Failed Scoop

I promised we’d be back with the bees soon, and here we are!

When we last left our heroes, we’d given them a honey super and some more time to build burr comb in the shim between the hive bodies.

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They’ve been hard at work since. About seven of the ten honey super frames have been filled up – this one is mostly capped. The honey starts out very moist, and the bees leave it open to evaporation until it’s distilled down to about 18% water. At this point they cap it with wax to stop the evaporation. We don’t want to harvest honey that’s mostly uncapped, since it’s likely to ferment. This frame’s probably alright, though.

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Setting the honey super aside, we tackled the top hive body. Our plan was to cut out some of the burr comb and put it in a jar to display for educational purposes. Unfortunately most of it was full of brood, but in the name of educational purposes you can let your scruples slip a little bit. We lifted a few of the frames, one at a time, and cut away the burr comb from the bottom.

Incidentally, the capped cells all have the larger, bumpier look of drone brood. Varroa mites tend to prefer latching onto drone brood, as their development in the cells takes a few days longer. One very low-impact means of varroa treatment is to give the bees special frames designed for drone brood, wait until it’s all capped, and then destroy it. So we may have inadvertently done a little mite treatment of our own.

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Speaking of mite treatment, I was anxious to try out the sugar shake method for myself. I’d brought a half cup measurer, and I was somehow under the impression that enough bees had fallen into our tub with the burr comb that I’d be able to scoop them in easily.

I was wrong. They were too spread out, and the comb kept getting in the way. I got more bees on me than in my little measuring cup, and they were getting angrier by the minute. I could understand why – I felt like some kind of deranged god shoving them around in their own honey.

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Next time I’ll do it right and knock a whole frame into the tub. Turns out bees in small numbers don’t move as a liquid.

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As we were moving through the top hive body we spotted the queen. It was very good to know we hadn’t knocked her off with the burr comb.

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At the end of the day it was a messier hive dive than we usually have. A little bit of honey spilled on the deck got cleaned up immediately.

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Likewise, a bee who didn’t survive the manhandling got cleaned up immediately by a passing wasp. Wasps can be carnivorous, and this was an easy meal.

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I found another wasp on the outside of the hive. I was worried that the honey spilled while collecting the burr comb might attract invaders. But at the time of writing this, almost a week later, the bees seem fine.

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Even if robbers are about, our colony seems pretty tough and capable of defending itself. Here are two little guys shaking their butts outside the hive to mark their territory with pheromones. They, unlike the happy bee on our sign, mean business.

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We’ll be going back in again soon. I’d like to do a sugar shake that isn’t an embarrassment and, assuming it’s going to show that we have too many mites, we want to get treating. I’ve just ordered a shipment of Hop Guard, a relatively new mite treatment regimen that’s derived from hops. It’s only just legal in Rhode Island this year, but I’ve heard good things from beekeepers just over the Massachusetts line where it’s been available longer. It’s supposed to be gentler on the bees than some other options, but still effective. And it doesn’t contaminate your honey, which is a big plus.

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I’m not advertising for Hop Guard. In fact I’ve already read complaints that its instructions are unclear and it dries out so quickly that you have to apply it three weeks in a row for it to work. But I’m excited to try. If all goes well, maybe this will turn into and advertisement – both for Hop Guard and for its necessary workarounds.

Geraniums in Need

I don’t deserve my houseplants.

In college I bought two geraniums at a plant sale. I’m reasonably sure I’m watering one of them in this short film my friends and I made in 2008.

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I since gave one to my dad. It’s beautiful and lush and is living out its days on the front porch. The other one stayed with me, and I’ve been treating it with an attitude that could very generously be called laissez-faire.

Here it is.

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It’s been wasting away in the window of our living room for a few years. This past spring I finally got it together to give it a dash of fertilizer, which inspired it to grow this long tentacle off to the right.

To its credit, it’s been blooming more or less constantly all this time. I’ve been hoping to collect some seeds, but while I’ve gotten a few fluffy spikes from the spent flowers, no actual seeds have appeared.

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Deciding I owed it to this plant to try and make things right, I took a few simple but decisive steps. First of all, I cut off the tentacle. It was the newest growth, but it was unsustainable. It could barely hold itself up and was only going to get longer.

For curiosity’s sake, I stuck it in a bucket of dirt to see if I could get it to take root.

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I removed all the flowers (and, since, a few of the leaves) to help it focus its energy on root-growing.

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I trimmed up the main plant a bit and gave both containers a big dose of kelp meal and water. I set them in the dappled shade for a few days, then moved them to fuller sun.

Now it’s been a little over a month and, against all odds, both plants are alive and kicking.

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I’m especially impressed with the tentacle which, with four leaves to its name, has produced a big clutch of flowers and buds.

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If I’d known this thing was going to make it, I might’ve taken a little more care planting it – like cutting it down or sticking it in better soil that wasn’t infested with mulberry seeds.

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I’m not about to mess with now, though. I’ll give it some more time either to establish or exhaust itself, and then I’ll take stock.

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The main plant is looking much better, too. It’s still on the spindly side, but it’s a lot greener and blooming more vigorously.

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I’d say Project Geranium was a success. They have another good month or two outside to build up their strength, so hopefully it’s only up from here.

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If they hold on long enough, they just might get to star in another movie.