Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stations of the Beeyard: Autumn

One old beeyard with chicken under the old apple tree.

I've been keeping bees for many years and if I've learned one thing really well, it's the rhythm and pace of the seasons. Bees have a way of becoming patient teachers for anyone wanting to learn about the natural world in which we live. Bees also teach us how to be in relation with each other and Creation. Bee behavior changes over the course of the seasons and the beekeeper will be ignored (working bare-headed and bare-armed in an open hive) or attacked with the fury of King Richard the Lion Heart's hives against the Saracens (just run, don't ask questions!) or simply tolerated. I've noticed that humming or quietly singing helps to quiet a worried hive during a winter check. In summer, loud baying coonhounds can stand directly in front of a hive and are no more paid attention to than the weed whipper or mower at their front door, but have a single European hornet land at the entrance and look out! Mowers, dogs, chickens, people should remove to a safer place.

Entrance exam - a newly hived swarm inspects its new home.

Right now the gardens are beginning to shut down around the neighborhood. Studies have been done in England, Ireland, and Scotland that show village hives going into autumn are heavier in honey stores than hives in more rural areas. The bees in my home yard enjoy neighborhood gardens as well as the surrounding Amish crop fields, hay and clover meadows, and deep pasture where handsome Brown Swiss cattle graze. My own orchard and the orchards of neighbors hang heavy with peaches and apples where the beeyards are placed. Woods nearby are filled with flowering trees that start blooming as early as mid-March, but honey locust trees set my hives into a frenzy come June! The state inspector (a former student of mine!) says my honey supers were some of the heaviest he's ever lifted. Nice! Now all that honey has been put up and the hives are readying for winter. I'll leave a full super on each one as well as supplement with nutritious feed to help keep them strong and healthy as the days turn colder. Honey supers, some weighing as much as fifty pounds, are stacked in the bee barn out back ready for extracting. But first - before the reward - comes the work. It's time now in October to get ready for March.


Before the honey is extracted and drawn for bottling, I build the hive bodies, honey supers, lids, and inner covers to put into inventory. Freshly painted and coated in polyurethane, this new woodenware will be ready to go when I see that my wintered colonies are beginning to increase in spring. If I'm lucky - like I was this year - I'll have enough boxes, lids, and bottom boards to start a new hive with swarms I'll capture. This was a good year, as I caught/rescued three wild swarms and made three splits just in my home yard. It helped to be able to sell the splits in order to put money aside to buy the wood and paint for what I'm doing now!

A wild-caught swarm from May now calls the home beeyard, well, home!

The old apple tree, damaged so badly in last year's ice storm, has to come down this winter. This means I'll need to move the three heavy hives that sit under it over to the garden yard where the captured swarms from this year live. I'll try to save the rootstock and hope it comes back, practicing a bit of orchard nursing that my cousin Peter taught me. This tree makes a great Granny Smith apple and I hope it'll stump sprout so I can train three strong shoots to serve as new trunks. Peter saved three heirloom apple trees from the northern forest about twenty years ago and the rescued rootstock turned out to be New Hampshire rarities according to an orchard historian. Yes, there are orchard historians. The Eppig heirloom orchards are doing very well, and I brought home a grafted tree from his farm in Antrim NH in 2012 that is going gangbusters here in Pennsylvania.

Monkshood, false Solomon's seal, foamflower, redbud

As the gardens and woods behind my house settle down for the winter I can observe the success from past rescue missions to save plants. In 2007 I dug up a single wild monkshood from a patch of woods that is no more (another sprawling Royal Farms convenience store and gas station) and tucked it lovingly beneath a rescued redbud  (from a neighbor's scrubby sideyard - now manicured lawn). The redbud is one of my favorite yard trees and I'm hoping to plant more. The monkshood has multiplied like crazy, occupying several areas of my woods gardens on their own and is a favorite for late foraging bumble bees and my honey bees. How it spread I don't know! But now I have ten plants that burst into rich purple blooms each October in both the front and back woods gardens.

Hay-scented fern

Cleaning in and around the bee yards I pay attention to fall colors. I'm inspired to paint the new hive bodies these gorgeous hues of orange, green, yellow, and brown so that I can keep some of the beauty of autumn in my yard year-round. Not so the orchard yard up the road. The manager there prefers my hives are painted white so that he can see them while mowing and pruning. No matter, I love white hives too. The feeder buckets are scrubbed white again, ready to fill with winter syrup. And the white bottling pails sit expectantly on my kitchen counter, free of summer debris and bee poop - from a summer free-for-all gleaning honey from the emptied pails!  

Feeder pails ready to go

This year's hive body color was matched to some wood fern (another rescue!) that has nearly taken over the front woods garden. For a week it flared a deep orange and now it is a glowing ochre. I took a frond of it with me to the home improvement store and it was a lot of fun to search through the paint chips to find the match. Sometimes it helps to have hives color-coded or uniquely marked. This is very true for hives that are moved around in a small area, like my home bee yard. When a hive is moved a short distance the foragers will continue to return to the original site and worry around where the hive once was. They may or may not notice their home just a few dozen feet away, as they don't clearly see or smell the unique identifier for their hive. A sudden rainstorm, predators like flycatchers and hornets, and cold weather can decimate a confused cloud of foragers. Providing them with clues and landmarks helps get them back inside quickly. I've had to move my home yard around five times in seven years for cleaning up after a hurricane, tree cutting, building/paving, etc., and I'll have to move it again soon to take the old apple tree down. Having unique colors or stickers (I hate stickers though!) helps foragers relocate quickly without having to re-orient the colony by closing the hive in for days.  It's not so important with the big yards out in the orchards, as they all stay in place for the year, and when they get moved they go miles not feet. I think this burnt fern orange will be a good color for next year's swarms and splits.

New hive bodies built and painted

Another ritual of autumn is visiting Ike over at Forest Hill Beekeepers Supply. Like many of the people I do business with, Ike is an Amish farmer.  He bought some wood working equipment from an old friend of mine who retired from building hive ware. It's fun to visit with Ike, Mary, and their kids while looking at the old saws and planers I used to work with at the shop near Baltimore. This stuff has certainly found a great home here. And Ike's place is so much closer! So, like all the other chores that come before bottling honey, I picked a rainy Saturday to go visit and stock up on glass bottles, frames, and foundation. Ike was busy flushing out a new stainless bulk tank he just got for buying honey from all us side-liners to bottle and market to some bigger grocery stores in the area. We dickered over his bulk prices and I am considering selling surplus bulk to him. I am happy to say I have a lot more honey than I can bottle and stock in my little (and cold) honey room. So this seems like a good deal.

Fitting, gluing, nailing hive bodies

The last chore before extraction is to call another Amish farmer-with-a-business, Dave, and have him come over and service the old pellet stove so I can start heating the kitchen up. Can't extract cold honey from cold frames. Soon my kitchen will be cluttered with heavy boxes of framed comb, warming up inside so I can skim the caps off with an equally warm (and super sharp) decapping knife. Into the (warm) extractor will go the dripping frames, warming the body with some a good hard spins on the hand crank (the motorized extractor is 'resting'), and watch the (warm) honey flow into the (warm) waiting pails. Some people argue with me that heated honey  isn't as good as 'raw' honey and honestly, I don't know what that means except that I'm pretty sure the one arguing with me has never tried to extract cold honey from cold frames using cold equipment. So Dave comes over, works a while, and lights the stove anew for the first autumn burn. We chatted some about what makes a good 'elixir' for colds and allergies, while I watched the indoor temperature climb to 70 then 80 degrees. "Warm enough to make that honey flow?" he asks, and it is. We say our goodbyes and with all the other beeyard chores almost done, I can finally think seriously about what comes next.

New lids and inner covers

There is still so much to do before I can even think about extracting, though. But once the kitchen is set up, and all the supplies are in place, we'll begin and not stop for nights on end. Many orders have already come in with many more to come as holiday gift and baking season arrives. Then the winter stock will be kept warm and fluid in the kitchen as family and friends come by to chose a jar or two. Over the summer my granddaughter and I polished off the last of the 2013 stock, swiping our fingers along the inside of the jar until it was gone. "I can't wait for October!" she laughed. She helped with hiving a swarm earlier in the year and asked if all the work of beekeeping wasn't like singing a song over and over again. "I remember doing this last year!" Like a song, the rhythms of beekeeping do cycle with the seasons, but each year has a slightly different melody as she grows in confidence and ability,  the next generation of beekeeper to take on the seasonal stations.

A heavy frame of bees for the youngest beekeeper of the family.

So autumn rattles on and I check off the chores one by one. Today the the sky is filled with Canada geese winging south. The redbud tree out back, the first inspiration for a mineral-green underleaf color of the home yard hives years ago, shimmers against a chilly evening sky as I emerge from the bee barn with yet another white pail to wash. I think ahead to next fall, should I be so fortunate to see another turn around the sun, and wonder how that light blue-violet of an October sky or the deep indigo  of monkshood might look on a beehive.

Under the redbud at sunset.

No comments:

Post a Comment