After a Storm

The night before last was horrible for me … I felt attacked and as if I had to defend myself … so I didn’t get much sleep. Then yesterday felt horrible (tired and achy). Tonight I didn’t sleep much either but I wasn’t attacked again and so I did manage to get some rest. I’m feeling better today. So,before I do anything else today I wanted to share this panorama image taken a couple of weeks ago. A short lived rain storm has just passed over us and the sun broke through the clouds again. This images is facing east … the dark storm clouds with the sunset-lit greens is one of favorite color palettes (you are welcome to click the image for a larger view).

 

another loooooong day … started earlier in the morning to get a head start on the heat … made good progress in shoveling composted manure onto the raised beds.

paused when heat and tiredness kicked in …Β did some website work in-cool-doors … rested …Β  went to the workshop and started cutting up the lumber for the mobile chicken coop … and then joined Andreea (who earlier also attended a[nother] funeral) back at the raised beds … managed to get 3 out of the 5 covered with manure and as I write these words Andreea is finishing (mulching) covering them with hay (not the best mulch material, but its what we have) … so that when the rains arrive moisture will go in but not out πŸ™‚

wood is burning in the boiler (can’t wait to get started on the solar hot water experiment) … soon showers … and another day gone by πŸ™‚

strange day … startd with a visit to the market … which totally drained me … I’m not sure I started off with much energy but I am pretty sure not much was left after the market .. which, byt the way, is getting livelier as spring moves into summer … the crowds may have something to do with my energy … no stiu

then we got home and I wanted to rest a bit … BUT … 37 uprooted trees were waiting in their holes in the field waiting to be planted and it was hot and time was not on their (or our) side … so a nice breakfast (duck eggs!) and then out to the field. Using a bulldozer to dig out planting holes was very efficient and easy … however getting all the dirt back in was not. The holes were detinitely an overkill … we didn’t close them up completely … we put in just enough dirt to replant the trees … which now benefit from a small ditch to collect water for them (rains are expected during the weekend). It was hard work but we managed to get it done. Very satisfying to see a long line of planted trees marking our property line πŸ™‚

THEN a quick shower followed by much coveted rest. Then we went to visit Ildi and Levente and meet with Levente’s uncles who are joining Cutia Taranului making another 10 boxes available in Cluj. Finally we made our home … and though we missed the post-death-pre-funeral meal we stopped to say hello and offer our respects … they were happy we came and we found in ourselves (because we simply couldn’t get out of it) in a small post-[post-death-pre-funeral-meal]-meal … that was interrupted by a visit from the vet who, at our request, came over to give our dogs shots against ticks & fleas.

AND … now we are home, making tea and about to let this day come to a soft end πŸ™‚

wow what a day … sooooo many things happened all at once … is was a tractor day … Florin our fantastic tractor bulldozer guy was here for a day πŸ™‚

the main project was covering the raised beds with earth … where did we get the earth you ask?Β  from our small new lake of course πŸ™‚ more words and images to come on this ongoing project … when that was done we had him move over one of our piles of hay and a pile of fertilizer we had sitting next to the barn (from last year when our neighbors cows were housed in it) … both to be used on the raised beds.

in the background both our neigbors were busy hand-plowing / tractor plowing, seeding their fields in straight lines … there was a huge contrast between their tried-and-true traditional methods and our mostly-uknown-somewhat-rebellious methods … if our efforts work (as I expect they will) this time next year we will be drinking coffee (or conducting some other strange experiment) while they will be doing the same hard (for them and for the land) work … as they have been doing for years …I’m very curious πŸ™‚

as he was finishing this part of the work the mayor appeared to ask if he could steal him for half an hour (which turned out to be almost 3 hours) … and got a quick tour of some of our experiments πŸ™‚ we also had a chance to show him Cutia Taranului so that hopefully he too can spread the word.

when Florin finally returned we fed him (poor guy was starving) and got back to work:

  1. scratching weeds and some top-soil (leaving bare surface) of an area of a field near the raised beds … that is for an experiment that Andreea has in mind … I don’t know enough about it yet πŸ™‚
  2. closing some of the open ditches from last years water infrastructure installation
  3. digging a new ditch and hole for our grey water treatment,
  4. uprooting lots (~50) young ash trees all around the house.
  5. discovering and uprooting large surfaces of concrete that we discovered just under the surface of the ground.
  6. carrying the uprooted out to the field
  7. digging 40+ holes for the trees in what will be an initial wind-break and property line.

so lots of stuff … very satisfying, rewarding and much happiness … and though the tractor did most of the work we are dead tired … it’s been a long day … the wood-boiler is fired up … looking forward to a warm shower.

tomorrow we plan to visit the market in the morning … then we’ve been invited to another customary post-death-pre-funeral meal at a neighbor whos mother passed away tonight … and sometime very soon we need to go back out and plant all the uprooted trees lying in open holes in the fields … rains are expected during the weekend … perfectly times to saturate the beds, water the trees … all around greatness πŸ™‚

Bee Week

One of our intended projects for this spring was to get started with bees. One reason is that we consume a lot of honey so it made financial sense to pay once for getting started with bees and then enjoy our own honey for the rest of our lives. Another reason is that bees play a crucial role in gardening and developing a landscape – they fertilize plants by doing what they do naturally … carrying pollen. It’s easy to take them for granted (I did) but without bees there wouldn’t be much food (not naturally anyway).

So this past week+ has been about bees. We had two high-priority projects two choose from: (1) a mobile shelter and mobile electric fence for the chickens and (2) bee hives. We decided to start with the chickens but as I set out to work I changed my (and our) mind to bees. At the time we still did not find a source of bees. This meant I could take my time in building the hives, which I did. Then Levente told us he found bees at a great price and suddenly everything was moving very fast.

Getting Bees

On Tuesday afternoon we went to bring home to bee families. Though there are a lot of beekeepers in Romania there isn’t (at least we couldn’t find) an organized market place for bees. We asked Levente and he asked around until he came across someone that was willing to sell 10 frame colonies. We didn’t want such a large colony … we preferred to get a nucleus colony (a small package of bees wit a queen)Β  – but that didn’t work out. So we went to purchase two colonies together with Levente (who wanted to purchase one colony) and Valentine his brother in law (who is a professional grower who wanted to purchase 7 colonies). Valentine was generous and loaned us two standard hives to make the transition.

It was about a 20 minute drive to get to the beekeeper. It was impressive to see hives that have been working for 60 or 70 years … though he himself admitted that is was time to retire some of the boxes.

When we arrived Valentine was already at work opening hives and checking the colonies. Each hive was opened and smoked to get the bees to retreat inside. He then looked frame by frame to see that there is a healthy queen, good broodΒ  developing and to check for Varroa mite infestation levels (for the first time we saw a mite riding on the back of a bee – though there weren’t many).

All of the hives he examined were OK and one by one he and Levente transferred the bees from their existing hives into new ones .. frame by frame … transferring them in the same order and same orientation. Bees have very keen navigation and always return to the same place looking for their hive opening … so … together with their hive they are moved aside and a new hive is placed where the old one was. The flying bees automatically return to the old location = the new hive. Meanwhile the frames from the old (set aside) hive are moved one by one into the new hive.

Once the hives were prepared all that was left to do was wait for darkness and for the bees to retreat into their new hives. One by one the hives were closed off and tied off in preparation for the journey back home.

We chose in advance the location for our new aviary … a partially shaded, south facing space with some wind protection. We setup up an ad hoc stand for the temporary hives. We arrived after dark and used the car lights to put their hives in their new place.

Top Bar Hives

Originally we thought to begin our beekeeping journey with two standard hives (do it like everyone else does). However we realized that it would be a pretty expensive and complicated endeavour. We first came across Top Bar Hives at Beesource.com. At first it appealed to us because of its simpler do-it-yourself potential but there wasn’t enough information there to get us started. So we did more searching and came across Phil Chandler and his fantastic work at Biobees.com. We highly recommend Phil’s book The Barefoot Beekeeper in addition to his freely available articles on getting started with beekeeping and download-able plans on how to build your own Top Bar Hive.

Top Bar Hives are part of a more natural approach to beekeeping. There are many benefits in Top Bar Hives both for beekeepers and bees. The one example I have been using most to demonstrate the essential difference is through the question of winter-feeding. Standard industrialized (on any scale) beekeeping is designed for maximum honey yield. This means that most of the honey the bees create is taken from them. Then as winter comes there arises a question of how to feed the bees? “Generous” beekeepers will leave them just enough honey frames … others will leave them insufficient honey supplies that are instead complemented by artificial feed (sugar syrups which are cheaper then the equivalent supply of honey). In natural beekeeping this issue is re-solved by re-framing it … some honey is taken in summer but the rest is left for the bees winter-needs and only what is leftover in spring is taken from them. This is to say that Top Bar Hives are not just a different beehive architecture but they come with a very different approach to beekeeping … an approach that is better aligned with our values, more accessible to us and so much more appealing then standard beekeeping.

Hive Construction

So we built 3 top-bar Chandler hives – one for each colony and one more for a potential split (when a singly colony’s swarming instinct is used to create a new hived colony). Building the hives again reminded me of the different realities of our life here in Romania. In Phil’s instructions it is taken as obvious that properly dried and pre-planed lumber is readily available. Though it is available here too the price is very high … so I’ve been using more readily available and affordable rough-sawn (construction grade) pine. Anyways that’s how I set out to build the first hive.

I also wanted to experiment and build a hive with thicker (2 inch / 5 cm) side-walls to see if that would be better for the bees during our cold (-25c) winter. I quickly learned that unlike our furniture the “simple” top-bar hive requires a fairly high level of planing precision. The follower-boards need to form a tight fit against the sides … and the boards I used were not quite flat … so the fit was not very good. There were other subtle aspects that I learned to appreciate and I managed to get the first thick-walled hive built.

However for the other two hive bodies we purchased (for a more reasonable price) a package of soft-wood flooring panels. Oddly they were cheaper then the planed boards and they were a perfect size. They also had a ready made tongue-to-groove joint which made assembly of the larger panels easier. They seemed too good to be true sitting there alongside the more expensive pre-planed boards. They worked our great and made construction very easy to do (they are 27mm thick so that should be sufficient for the bees).

Phil’s hive construction PDF is thorough, precise, easy to follow and a relatively simple design to implement.

Moving Bees into a Top Bar Hive

Yesterday we finally went to move one colony from its temporary hive into a top-bar hive. We weren’t absolutely sure how to go about it. Most of the instructions in Phil’s book spoke of transferring nucleus (small) colonies. Ours were full 10-frame active colonies in peak activity. From the moment I opened the hive we ran into difficulties.

First I should say that we didn’t purchase a smoker because we didn’t want to aggravate the bees. We preferred to use a water spray bottle – supposedly the bees think its raining and go back inside. The bees were very aggressive and defensive of their hive and they did not respond to water spraying at all. While I could understand their anger (we were about to mess up their home) my understanding did not matter when I got stung numerous times (through my clothes and gloves) in just a few seconds. I walked away to let the excitement (both mine and the bees settle). I was very proud of Andreea who stayed close to the bees and projected light and love … and didn’t get stung at all (though to my defense she wasn’t the one who opened the hive nor was she standing as close to it as I was).

So improvised smoke (an old pot filled with burning materials and mostly covered by clay roof shingles) – also Andreea’s idea. We then moved to transfer a first frame. Of the options outlined in the book we attempted a sewing technique where the comb is cut completely from the standard frame and then cropped to fit into the shape of the top-bar hive inner space and then sown on to a new top-bar. That didn’t go too well either. Between the sewing and the wires running throughout the comb (wires are typically used in standard frames) the top of the comb practically got torn off. We left it in the hive but in the end decided to take it out and throw it out … it was too clumsy and would have prevented the bees from moving freely inside the hive.

So we deserted that option and moved to a chop-and-crop technique. In this approach the comb is left attached to the top-part of the standard frame (the rest of the frame is cut away). The comb is then cropped to a size that fits in the inner space of the top-bar hive and inserted as is. We used this approach for the rest of the bars.

It was not a pleasant thing to do.Β  The frames were filled with brood (cells with bees in different stages of maturity) which we had to cut through. We also inadvertently injured quite a few bees (and apologized to every one we noticed). Andreea was heart-broken. I was confident that it would be for the better. We also went through a difficult transition when we moved out to the village and we are now grateful for a better life here. I am confident that the same will happen for the bees.

I got stung a few more times in the process. Andreea got stung once. We are both relieved to know that neither of us are allergic to be stings. Andreea got stung by something that looked like a bee (but probably wasn’t) a few years ago and had a very strong allergic reaction … so we didn’t know what to expect. Now we know πŸ™‚

We also had some difficulty getting the roof onto the hive. The tops of the standard frames were longer then the width of the roof of the hive. TIP: in Phil’s design, change the size of the top width of your hive to match the standard frame size in your part of the world. Some of the standard frame-tops also have nails sticking out of them preventing them from creating a good seal at the top of the hive. We left it as is and will see what to do about it in the future.

Anyways one hive has been transferred. I expect the bees have a lot of cleaning up and rearranging to do. We will leave them along for a week or so and see how they are doing then. We do not want to repeat the process a second time. It was difficult, strenuous and unpleasant for all the living creatures involved. For the 2nd hive we are looking at building some kind of transitional hive as demonstrated Phil’s video … and we’ll most probably be using a smoker!

Was I that Ridiculous?

At one point Loui (our younger dog) got to close to the action and was chased away by one or more bees. It was hilarious to watch. He ran, jumped, barked, twisted and turned as he was trying to get away from the bees. As I was laughing at him I wondered to myself if that was what I looked like when I was in the same predicament πŸ™‚

 

 

After yesterday’s sudden storm we had a beautiful and warm day … all day long. I am in a happy-tired place πŸ™‚ I completed assembly of two of the new top-bar hives and while I moved on to the 3rd one Andreea applied two coats of boiled linseed oil to the outside of the first two boxes. We set the boxes outside next to the two temporary (standard) hives:

If for no other reason (and there are quite a few) then just for their visual appearance … these hives fit so nicely into their surroundings … compared to the clumsy box-hives. Anyways … what really counts is how the bees will make the transition and how they feel in their new homes. Maybe tomorrow we will also attempt to transfer the bees from one of the temporary hives into their new permanent home πŸ™‚

I am almost finished with the third-box … but can’t quite complete it because the wide-hole drill bit is … umm … destroyed … so that will have to either (a) wait for out next city visit or (b) be done in some improvised way that I don’t know of yet or (c) be done using a larger diameter (then prescribed) drill resulting in larger entrances.

… anyways about to have a dinner with our first home-grown freshly picked salad leaves πŸ™‚

Sudden Storm & Resiliency

I was having a (mostly) fruitful day in the workshop working on the top-bar-hives (our bees were very busy today getting oriented in their new world). Though the day was for the most part partly cloudy with plenty of sunshine … at one point … from a distance we saw dark gray clouds approaching and they arrived very fast. Then, all of a sudden, a storm broke out … intense winds and a powerful hail-storm … within minutes there was no visibility. I was still in the workshop with plans to continue working … but the rain blew into the workshop … so I quickly closed it and ran to the house.

I’m inside now and I’m stuck with one powerful image. Our western windows are covered with white-looking stains … these are flower petals that came off a tree in the hailstorm. That means that we won’t be enjoying much (if any) fruit from this tree … most of the flowers were destroyed within just a few minutes.

We have been reading a book called The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe. The first part of the book goes into detail about the kinds of challenges that modern day food-growers have to deal with and then goes on to outline mitigating strategies that lead to resiliency. When it comes to climate Carol suggests that the obsession with global trends like global warming are irrelavant to gardening (despite global warming, the last decade has been one of the most climatically stable and abundant periods in the last few thousand years). Averages don’t mean much to plants and gardeners … extremes do.

It took a few minutes of hail to almost wipe out most of the food-production of a tree. Last year it took one late frost to kill all the flowers on local prune trees – no prunes were to be had. We have an orchards of hundreds of trees behind the house … and we didn’t see a single fruit. Prunes were very expensive in the markets – we had to buy some to make some jams and compote.

It’s one thing to read about these forces and another to witness them at work. We managed to cover our little improvised green-house just as the storm hit us. A few minutes later and we could have lost all of the fragile plants growing in it. It continues to be an englihtening process of discovery for us: direct experience draws a very different picture then abstract theoretical concepts.