Archive for February, 2010

Mary Beth: I have been avoiding the gardens for the last few months and with good reason; they are a mess! I didn’t do any fall clean-up this year — makes me squirm just admitting it.

There are piles of leaves and debris everywhere that never quite got to the compost. Worse still is I almost talked myself out of digging up the beautiful dahlia tubers I’ve grown for the last 5 years. Luckily, I was so overwhelmed with guilt that I ran out and pried them out of the ground just before the freeze. As I packed them up, I grumbled “Why bother, I won’t be here.” (Regular readers will remember that my husband and I are moving back to Colorado, though we’ve postponed our move from December to April.)

I’ve been staying out of the garden since the last rose bloomed; trying to detach myself I guess. But now the whispering and the nudging starts, and I think about the witch hazel we planted in the far end of the garden in memory of my father. It’s just around this time of year that the witch hazel starts to slowly unfurl its lemon zest petals. So I pushed through the garden gate, ignoring the cold as I stepped over the discarded vegetable plants that I’d carelessly tossed in the paths last fall. I’ve only come here to see the witch hazel, to see if it’s in full bloom yet.

But something has been happening during these visits. With each new bright, crinkly lemon-colored bloom my cold indifference seems to be melting away. Slowly I gaze around thinking about what the new season will bring and about the work I know I’ll do before I leave — even if I won’t get to see the garden come back to life this year. I check my back pocket wondering, “Where are my Felcos?” My hand flexes. Spring is going to be here soon. Time to get ready.

What About Witch Hazel?

Barbara: Witch hazel, also known as winterbloom or snapping hazel, is a fascinating plant that is indigenous to the Northeast and Central United States. Its name comes from the Middle English wiche which means “bendable” or “pliable” and refers to the early settlers’ use of forked twigs from this plant as divining rods to locate water, precious metals, and lost objects underground.

Its horticultural name, Hamamelis, means ‘together with fruit’ because this plant’s fruits, flowers and next year’s leaf buds are all on the branch simultaneously. Its other names refer to its early bloom time and its habit of snapping, or spitting, its seeds far from the mother plant, a strategy that ensures a less-crowded environment for the offspring.

Witch hazel extract from the bark and leaves of Hamamelis viginiana has a long history of use as a natural remedy. Native Americans boiled the stems to create a distillate and used it for insect bites, skin rashes, poison ivy, poison oak, sore muscles, bruises and hemorrhoids. The first settlers learned about witch hazel’s healing properties from the Native Americans and in the 1870’s it began to be produced commercially by Thomas Newton Dickinson. Amazingly that brand still exists. The next time you’re in a drug store look for Dickinson’s Original Witch Hazel.


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Mary Beth: It was a year ago that I got serious about beekeeping; I had just put in my order for a package of honeybees and I was so excited. But I really had no clue about what I was getting myself into (neither did my husband!). Sure I’d read a lot and spent countless hours learning as much as could, trying get a feel for what it was going to be like. And you newbies will do the same thing. Be forewarned though, all the research is very helpful, but beekeeping is really a hands-on kind of thing. No amount of research is going prepare you for the rush you’ll get when you see them for real in their screened box, or when you dump them in their new hive, or when they start to build the first honeycomb, or… I could go on and on.

As I went through this first year of learning to be a beekeeper, I kept reminding myself to make note of the important things I wanted to pass on to those of you who are thinking of getting your own hives — you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to get stung, and there will be times when you’re going to feel seriously overwhelmed. But you are going to love those bees!

Here are more tips and some words of encouragement to all the newbies scrambling to get every piece of information you can before your bees arrive.

Ray building the Top Bar Hive

  • Consider a Top Bar Hive, you’ll spend a lot less time and money preparing for your bees. Did I say a lot more money?!  I cringe at what I could have saved if I’d known at the beginning what I know now about the TBH.
  • Have your hive set up before the bees arrive.
  • The hive entrance should be facing the south to southeast if you can.
  • Bees will fly into and out of the hive in the direction that the entrance is facing, so make sure the bee flight path is directed away from sidewalks, streets, etc.
  • If you have to deal with close neighbors or walkways, etc., place a fence or a barrier a few feet away from the hive entrance. That will make the bees fly upwards and out of harm’s way.
  • Spray the right amount sugar water on your bees before dumping them into the hive. It’s not a soaking spray, but it should be enough that they will be too busy licking themselves off to start swarming around your face and distracting you as you get them into their new hive.
  • Use your protective gear. I tried not using any protective gear that first day. Although the bees weren’t aggressive — they didn’t have anything to protect yet — I got so nervous when I was dumping them into the hive that I had to stop what I was doing to run for my suit. The whole operation would have been much smoother if I hadn’t been so worried about getting stung.
  • If you’re using a smoker don’t rush preparing it. It’ll take 20-30 minutes to get it going and to have a decent amount of coals to get you through your inspections. There’s nothing worse than seeing the girls lining up to take a shot at you and finding that your smoker is out.
  • When it’s time to inspect the hive, think about what you’re going to be looking for BEFORE you open up the hive. Are you saying, “DUH, Mary Beth!”, right now? Well maybe, but I was often so fascinated, distracted, or rushed to get things done that I didn’t remember to check for important signs during the inspection. Write it down so you’ll remember. I stressed myself a few times, realizing after I’d closed the lid that there was something I forgot to do and you really don’t want to have to go back in again. It’s not good for you or the bees.

The most important thing to remember as you do your research is an old saying that goes, “Ask 10 beekeepers the same question and you’ll get 11 different answers.” Keep in mind that every region has different challenges be it pests, weather, nectar flow, or any number of other things. Your best bet is to absorb all the information you read and then use your best judgement and follow your gut. That’s the way to make sure you’re doing your best for the bees.

A lot of this information, plus pictures illustrating the process from building the hives to installing the bees and more, is in earlier posts on this blog, along with some great resources that I found very useful.

One thing I know for sure is that you are going to really enjoy this journey. Good luck and, please, if you have any questions, just ask. I would love to help you out.
The Hippie Shack Bee Update

I checked on the bees through the TBH window and found it was warm enough today for them to break cluster. I also noticed they still had food left. They were feeding and roaming around slowly, and a few were taking a cleansing flight. I was happy to see that there seemed to be quite a few bees in the hive. I went inside feeling very hopeful that they will survive this cold winter!

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