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Bee wrangling and so on


And so our first season as professional bee wranglers comes to a close. Actually, we now wrangle bees and farm our small holding in Western Washington full time. I believe technically we are now officially bumpkins.

We plant, tend, harvest, and distill lavender in very small batches of essential oil and lavender water, and harvest cedar and big leaf maple using sustainable woodlot management practices. I've been woodturning small useful items like honey dippers with the maple as well as scrounging scrap wood I glue up and turn. My lathe skills are getting better. My welding skills still suck, but I built a bench that would resist collapse even if Bigfoot stood on it. We've developed the papermaking and I have to go ahead and do a run of hemp-and-blackberry fiber paper today, if it doesn't rain.

Rain has been an issue. We had plenty of rain last winter but it wasn't cold enough for snow pack, so there was a drought when unseasonably high temperatures hit us in June and July. It was horrible. It was great for the bees and plants until everything bloomed at once and there was no water. We had a dearth of nectar so the bees had to eat what they'd already gthered and we all got sad. Even the deer looked a little depressed there in the sunshine, stripping the leaves off of the cherry trees.

Four head of cattle escaped a neighbor's new fence---two steers, a bull and a cow I named Evelyn. The bull was still young but anyone who would keep a bull but can't even build a decent fence is an idiot. Evelyn was cute though. She came right up like she wanted to come in and one of the windows got cow boogered.

And then the neighbors horses got out---the horses are old and don't run fast, and I'm pretty sure I could hear them laughing as they escaped the neighbors (haha, "neigh" bors, get it?), but they ran back to their gate to be let in.

We are busiest with our own tiny livestock. We've expanded to nine hives but had to combine two, Boris and Natasha, and renamed that one Notorious. Healthwise, they are doing well, with our hive Bullwinkle again absolutely stuffed with bees. We tried a couple of top bar hives, Itchy and Scratchy, but I think we'll combine them into one---they just aren't thriving, though we've done everything we're supposed to. Ah, well.

We've got to work the bees today and tomorrow. Bees don’t like to have their homes disturbed. You learn to move mindfully and quietly, sweating a lot in your coveralls, hat, and veil, transfixed by the scent of wood and honey and the tree sap the bees haul in to use like caulk in the hive. You look for the queen, study the brood pattern, and look for any sign of disease, swarming, or other trouble. And when you smell green bananas, you know one of the bees has given the alarm.

They are on to you.

So you get out of that hive and move onto the next, counting, assessing, taking notes, and always watching the bees.

Watching bees never gets old. During honey flow, fistfuls of foraging bees streak away from the hive and spread out like fireworks. And they come back, spattered with pollen and full of nectar. They give the nectar to the house bees and then shoot off again. The house bees take the nectar, now mixed with an enzyme that comes from the bees themselves, and store it in the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb, where it will be ripened by the heat of the hive and air circulated by bee wings.

Nectar isn’t honey until its moisture content falls below 18.6 percent. There are two ways to know when honey is ready for harvesting. The first is to check the moisture content of samples, using a refractometer. The second is to wait until the bees cap the filled comb with wax. We rely on both methods, though honestly, best course of action is to trust the bees and harvest only when capping is complete. The bees know best—they’ve been doing this a lot longer than people have—and the result is great-tasting honey.

Which might be why we keep winning awards, the latest being two blue ribbons, a Chairman’s Award, and an Award of Excellence for our wildflower and knotweed honeys. Well, not our honey---the bees' honey. We just steal it.

Anyway, we've started officially selling all of these products. Our company is called Hex (don't be looking for the website as it isn't up yet). We were invited to sell at a farmer's market in Duvall, Washington and are there every other Thursday. People are buying our products (we're pretty popular, actually) but the difference between selling things you actually make and selling your services and experience is unreal. Spectacularly so. I had to install a drip irrigation system for all the plantings and I was up at 5am laying out tubing and sweating like people you read about in books, working hard, and realized that my hourly wages for this work was less than zero. Money isn't the only way to measure things but reading about differences in compensation is different than standing there, back aching, doing the math and knowing what it means cash-wise.

Honestly, it didn't take long to do the math because nothing times zero is zero, and the result was not a surprise. So I got over it pretty quickly. Instead, I just breathed in the scent of the flowers and watched the bumblebees and the carpenter bees on the lavender (our honey bees didn't work the lavender this year). The carpenters were all business and made those plants hum with activity. The bumbles, though---it was like they were visiting opium dens. They'd stick their heads in the small flower on a lavender spike and just stay there. I had to pick them off the flower and move them. Then they'd fall over and kick their legs in the air. When they got over their buzz (hahaha bee pun), they'd get up and sort of stagger fly away to another lavender spike and do it again.

The vegetable garden was pretty successful, though the carrrots sulked. Tomato bonanza and the potatoes are doing well. We'll let them go until later in the fall and harvest them after the skins have set.

We'll be mowing a small cleared area in the back in the next few days for another bee yard and be putting in at least three if not four new planting areas for anise, poppies, and wintergreen. The anise we distill for anise oil used in old timey recipes, the poppies for the seeds (and possibly oil if we get a seed press), and the wintergreen as ground cover and for the berries and leaves (also for essential oil). I have some old bathtubs to fill and plant mint in---mint is an invasive species here so we'd like to restrict it's growth. Those will also be for essential oils.

Did I mention the distilling? Damn, that's fun. Mad science all the way. We harvested the lavender and distilled it within a couple hours of cutting and it smelled dreamy. That's another part of all this---how good it all smells.

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Submitted by ohio on

Idyllic till you have to pay the phone bill. Then we all get the sads again.

Too bad the nice people at the phone company don't take cow booger in lieu of cash. We'd be totally set.

Oh and the fab GF just got stung on the palm of her hand. That has to be mean something, right? 'Cause when you're palm itches, you're going to come into some money. And hers really itches. Except...doesn't hair grow on the palm of your hands if you masturbate?

I'm not implying you have personal experience in either situation, just wondering idly, thought idleness is also something to be wary of as idle hands are the devil's workshop. But busy hands will make you go blind.

It is a conundrum.

Hope you are doing well, dcb.

Submitted by ohio on

Well, we're both kind of used to the stings now. It doesn't happen very often and the worst bit is the bee dies. We have Epi-Pens in the toolkit as beekeepers can become allergic and quick.

The lavender is a field of joy. I have several bunches of dried lavender in a vase in the hallway that smell so sweet. There are more in the woodshed drying, including some for culinary use. That's a great link, btw. I will investigate that further. I'd heard of some of these clinical trials, but I'll have to look into it further. But I agree, surround yourself with lavender, y'all.

The money sucks, though. We're continuing to expand our product lines and we're a year ahead, so the farmer's market thing is more of a pilot project. We're both learning a lot and people are responding to what we're offering, so there's that. We're considering doing a park-a-hive kind of thing, small-scale pollination services for suburban or even urban gardeners. We'd add a teaching unit to it as well. For example, you can rent one or two of our hives and we come in to teach you how to manage a beehive. If/when it's time to extract honey, we come in with our extracting equipment and show you how to do that, too.

There may be some dough there and we may help people decide if they really want to do this. There's a lot of Easter chick syndrome with bees---you know, when people buy a baby chick in the spring because it's so cute, but then it gets big and they don't want it any more. That happens with bees, too.

OTOH, we may offer small-scale pollination services to local farmers as there is a lack of such services up here and there are a lot of small farms. Srsly, there are about 80,000 registered hives in the state and we need about 470,000. Most beekeepers across the country go to California for the almond bloom because they can earn more money, even with the associated costs, than stay here and work with their neighbors.

We're not interested in hauling a semi full of hives south, so this may be a workable situation, economically and agriculturally. Lots of organic farms around here and even the veg farms can use pollinators for seed creation, like for carrots, onions, and so on, in addition to the berries and other crops. We extract based on the primary nectar source of the varietal, so this could work for us and our customers as well.

blues's picture
Submitted by blues on

The background sounds are something else. Freaked me out totally at first. This has got to be one of those newer whatchumcallit microphones. I did something like this a couple years ago. The microphone seemed to lose its sensitivity, so a new one might be needed each year.

Oh and I hear dogs barking in the distance. And frogs jumping into a pool. Also some serious 60Hz with out-of-the-ballpark motorboating harmonics. Or maybe one of those triangular UFOs?

9:45PM, 9/7/15.

Submitted by ohio on

Yes, my audio is working fine.

I didn't add any audio to this blog post. I don't know what you're listening to.