Lessons Learned


Spring time is here. The rain is falling, the flowers are blooming, and the blueberries are ripening. I like to the check on the bees every two weeks or so during the Spring, and last Wednesday was the only semi-clear day available, so I packed up the truck and headed out bright and early. It brings a smile to my face every time I turn down the dirt road leading out to the property. When I first arrive I like to take a few moments to enjoy the feel. It’s a feeling of serenity and freedom, like waking up on a Saturday morning and realizing that you’ve got the whole day ahead of you to do whatever you want to do. The peace of the place settled on me, and then I was ready for a new adventure. In this case “adventure” meant learning new things, and sometimes we have to make mistakes to learn something new.

Ava wanted a full report on the wildflower seeds we planted a few weeks ago. I strolled around the cleared area, which we tilled over the Winter, and noticed that it is mostly green. I quickly found the spot where I threw down some clover seFlowers Sproutingeds which were sprouting out into their first two little round leaves. The flowers were harder to find. There’s definitely a lot of new growth, but it’s mixed in with all the other plants that naturally grow there anyway. I think about 1/3 of the seeds we threw out actually germinated. It was dry when we planted them, and I think the recent rain is finally causing them to germinate. It looks like we’ll have fewer flowers than I hoped, but it will still be neat to see them blooming. Lesson learned: Rake seeds into the tilled soil, and seeds need water. Duh.

I decided to fire up the tractor next and mow the area around the hives. I like to keep their flight paths clear, and I also wanted to set up a spot for the new hive stand. As I take the tarp off the cutter I remember that I had been meaning to grease it, so I pull out the manual. Um, apparently I’m supposed to grease this thing every 8 hours of use. We’ve probably used it for 80 hours, so I guess it was due. I had no idea what I was doing. The little pictures on the manual were no help, and the Internet was spotty. How did we survive with YouTube tutorials back in a day? So, trial and error, and I eventually discovered that the nozzle on the grease gun is made to fit these little knobs on the joints. Who knew? I felt really accomplished afterward, then realized how simple that process was and how long it took me to figure out. Lesson learned: Tractors need maintenance. I’m such a noob.

I pulled the rest of the tarp off and fired up the tractor. The front end loader was full of water, so another lesson learned there. I dumped it out and then noticed some movement on the ground. I looked down as a black snake slithered away from the tractor and under the shed. We’ve seen snake skins, and a small garden snake, but this was the first full sized snake we’d come across. Of course, I didn’t harm him. I checked and he was just chilling under the shed so I drove out and did my mowing. I came across him again a couple of hours later as I was walking around checking the bees. He was gliding slowly down the hill toward the woods. I followed him for a bit and managed to get this picture. Lesson learned: There are snakes. Tread carefully and wear boots. (Here’s a picture as he heads toward the woods. He looked bigger in person.)

Black Snake

The sun came out so I decided it was time to check the hives. I’m going to get a little inside-beekeeper here, so bear with me. I am trying to let them build their own comb. The theory is that, for any number of reasons, it is better for the hive if they build out their own comb naturally. So, I took some frames I had with old wax in them and cut out all but the top inch or so of wax. Then I put those mostly empty frames between two drawn out frames to guide the bees as they draw out the new comb. It is working, kind of. They are building out the new frames, but they are also expanding the wax around the edges of the existing frames on either side of the new frames, and filling them with honey. Honey cells can be any depth, so they are making use of the empty space where the new frame is, and creating deeper honey cells. It’s not a big deal, but it means that the new comb they are drawing out is blocked by these large honey cells, and the new comb doesn’t connect to the frame on all four sides. I was checking one of the new frames for eggs and brood, but the new wax was only attached at the top. I almost broke the new wax off with all my flailing around. Lesson learned: Be careful with new, drawn out comb, until it is securely attached to the frame.

It looks like I’m dealing with some swarming, despite the fact that I’ve created splits to keep the brood box open. They are doing so well that they fill out the empty frames quickly. I think I lost a really good queen to swarming. In one hive I saw over 10 swarm cells, but I couldn’t find the queen. I left a couple of swarm cells in there and they’ll hopefully be OK. My split from last time didn’t have a queen either, so I put a frame of swarm cells in there. Then I created another split with 3 frames from the strongest hive. Lesson learned: Since I can’t check the hives regularly, I need a different approach to swarm control. I think I’m going to try adding brood boxes. I should be able to stay ahead of the overcrowding that way, in addition to splitting as needed.

I also noticed that the hives didn’t get full sun until very late in the morning, in part due to a copse of “weed” trees nearby. That causes them to get a slow start to the day since it takes a while to warm up the cold overnight air. We’ve been chopping down those trees anyway, so now we’ve just got a little more motivation. Any pictures you see of the kids uprooting or otherwise destroying healthy trees, those are the infamous weed trees. Speaking of, we’ve been wondering what those trees are. They have small trunks, and they sprout up quickly and close together. They leaf out at the top, but don’t seem to produce any notable flowers or fruit. They are everywhere. I grabbed a sample of the leaves to take home and did some research. The Virginia Department of Forestry has this awesome tree identification guide. I learned all about leaf margins and placement, and palmately and pinnately leaf structures. I eventually narrowed it down to either the Black Walnut, which I know we have on the property, or the Tree of Heaven, which I’ve never heard of. The distinguishing characteristic was the number of leaves, and the leaves on the Tree of Heaven stink when crushed. Some say it smells like burnt peanut butter. I crushed one of the leaves in my hand, brought it to my nose, and what do you know? Burnt peanut butter! It turns out we have a major Tree of Heaven infestation. They are invasive, ornamental trees, that can grow anywhere, also known as Chinese Sumac. They don’t make good honey. The wood isn’t useful. I don’t even think they look pretty. Now we don’t feel bad at all for chopping them down. They have all gots to go. Lesson learned: Tree identification.

Work From the Tractor

I gained a lot of knowledge that day, but I was most excited by my ability to identify those trees. I’ve often looked at trees and wondered what they were, the understanding hidden from me, locked up in the mind of an aged arborist sitting behind a desk in an extension office somewhere. Well, it is locked up no more for I have found the key, in the form of a pdf file from the Virginia Department of Forestry. So far I haven’t found anyone who shares my excitement over the discovery, but that doesn’t bother me. I won’t let their lack of wonder curb my enthusiasm.

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