Memphis Backyard Farmer

Bees Love Camelias
February 20, 2012, 2:25 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping, Gardening, Memphis | Tags: , , ,

My wife and I lived in Charleston, South Carolina for a few years after our wedding. While there I became acquainted with camellias. They were beautiful and you could find huge plantation gardens full of them. When we bought our house in Memphis, camellias were a must-have plant (along with gardenias, another S.C. favorite). Besides the beauty of these early bloomers, another benefit is that the bees love them. When the weather accommodates, they’re a great early pollen supply for your bees.

This girl, along with many of her sisters, are enjoying this sunny, 50 degree day in Memphis by crawling over my camellia bushes.

December Hive Update
January 3, 2012, 4:38 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping | Tags: , ,

To say it’s been a weird winter in Memphis so far would be an understatement. Last week we had consistent days over 60 degrees, and the week before was solid 50’s. Today it’s 43 degrees, and we’re expecting it to dip down in the 20’s.

Since the temp was so high on Friday (65), I decided it was a great excuse to go visit all the hives. Bees will become active when the temp is in the 50’s, and my bees in the back yard were licking up some combs (I extracted some honey the week before). I don’t like to go into the hives in winter unless I have a good warm day. If you open a hive on a cold day, you risk breaking the cluster – where heat is generated – and risk killing a large number of bees. So Friday was perfect.

What I found was mostly good news. I left plenty of honey stores on the hives this fall and, surprisingly, they were still quite full. I say surprisingly since the bees have been so active. It’s a novelty to see bees out flying in the winter. It’s nice, and I enjoy watching them. But the truth is, it’s also dangerous. The bees are out looking for forage, and at this time of year there’s little to offer (although my leatherleaf mahonias are providing a little food due to the unseasonably warm temps). And since there isn’t much to eat, they’ll turn to the one food source they have – honey stores. So I really thought that they would have eaten more of their summer surplus. I brought sugar syrup along to supplement, but only had to feed one hive.

Which leads me to another subject. I’ve said before that I like to use Russian bees. They don’t produce as much as Italians, but they overwinter well, and because they’re hygenic, they have proven – in my apiaries – to resist mite infestation. And true to form, these hives are strong. I also started a hive using a queen from Wolf Creek Apiaries this year. Their bees are small-cell bees, and are “mutts” – crosses of feral bees from middle-Tennessee, Russians, Italians, and Carnolians. This hive was strong as well. My Italians, however, were performing as expected: poorly. Honestly, I never thought they’d make it through last winter, but they did. I’d take bets that they won’t make it through this winter. The cluster was extremely small, with little honey left, and they had a smell that’s characteristic of a sick hive. I fed them and pulled the empty honey super off the hive to allow less room for the invasion of critters, and to give the bees less area to heat. But I’m betting that by the time I check a gain in January these gals will be dead. I’m a little sad – they were good honey producers this summer. But I’ve never had good luck with Italians.

That’s this month’s hive update. How are YOUR hives faring so far?

Pesticide Risk Assessment for Pollinators
October 20, 2011, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Bee Keeping | Tags: , , , ,

This is a review of a recent workshop by The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry regarding pesticides and pollinators. Read this review carefully. You’ll see many instances where the fox is guarding the hen house. Major sponsors of the conference were the usual suspects: Dupont, Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, etc. and so their companies were well represented. Meanwhile, scientists who had views critical to those companies and their products were excluded from the conference altogether. As you might expect, the bottom line was not “we have a problem”, it was “we need to study this more”. It really seems to be a nasty business.

Read the review for yourself here, and view the report from the conference here.

Liquid Gold
August 1, 2011, 8:58 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping

We made a second honey pull today. 3 supers of liquid gold!

First Fruits
July 4, 2011, 8:18 pm
Filed under: Bee Keeping

There’s a concept in the Hebrew scriptures called “tithing”. It’s the setting aside of the “first fruits” of your harvest to give as an offering of appreciation to God. It imitates Abel’s example (of Cain and Abel fame, the first sibling rivalry) of giving the first born sheep of his flock as an offering. Evidently, tithing has always been somewhat contentious, because Abel got himself killed for it. Eventually in scripture, tithing becomes institutionalized, but not in a solemn, ritualized, “pass the plate” kind of way. God makes a party out of it. It’s one of the three great feasts that God calls his people to celebrate. And we see in the Judeo/Christian scriptures that this tithe becomes a way to provide not just for the priestly class, but also for those of each town who are in poverty.

As a little farmer, and as a Christian, I take this idea of tithing seriously. Each year when the first harvest comes, I begin trying to find a way to tithe from my “first fruits”. I have a friend who is a missionary in Mozambique. It’s not unusual for him to receive a live chicken in his offering plate at church on Sunday. But in our American culture and context, it would baffle the preachers and teachers, the elders and the budget men, to receive a jar of honey in the offering one week. So my wife and I examine our relationships to see who would be most blessed by a jar of honey. The first year we did this, we literally tried giving a jar to the preacher at our church, only to discover that he and his wife didn’t eat honey. To a bee keeper, that was heartbreaking on so many levels. We’ve given to young couples who enjoy good food, but as single-income parents with several children, just couldn’t afford to splurge, even on something as simple as honey. So they won our annual lottery.

This year our winner announced himself.

We’ve been in the neighborhood going on fourteen years now. In that time, we’ve raised many more children than just our own. Every kid on the block has been in and our of our house. Some feel enough at home that they walk in, unannounced, rummage through my cabinets to get something to eat, sit down, and chat. One such young man just came home from over a year in prison. At nineteen, he made a few too many bad decisions and found himself with a felony charge. We lost him to a state prison too many miles from home. He arrived home a few weeks ago with a much more serious look on his face, a face that was much thinner than it had been, having lost any baby fat that might have been left from puberty. I heard he was back, but for over a week I couldn’t coordinate my schedule so that we could see each other and chat. When we finally ran in to each other two weeks ago, the only question he had for me was, “Do you have any honey?”

Like many of the kids on the block, this guy knows how quirky this white family is. We raise food in boxes in our yard. We hang our wash out to dry. We have big piles of compost in the yard, and we raise bees. Several of these guys – this one included – have made trips to the bee yard with me. This particular young man has seen me hive a swarm. Most have hung around during extracting, baffled by the process, but captivated by the smells and tastes nonetheless. Fresh out of prison, this young man wanted a jar of honey.

Cha-ching, you win.

Growing, producing, and harvesting has brought me to an appreciation of the God of the Bible in a way that I’m just not sure I could have if I only sat behind my desk, typing and tracing and emailing and projecting. I pray all year for the safety and health of my bees. I ask God to bless the seeds I put in the ground. I plead anxiously for rain, and yet ask again for him to hold off the floods. And when the time comes, I give back to Him a portion of what I’ve asked for and what He’s delivered, the sweet, golden crop. Even so, giving of that very first goodness we’ve worked and hoped for is hard, much harder than writing a check on Sunday morning as the plate passes by. But we give, in appreciation and trust that the God of harvest will bring forth plenty.

Spring Bees
May 28, 2011, 10:36 pm
Filed under: Bee Keeping

It’s been a crazy spring this year. In case you haven’t heard (where have you been?) Memphis, home of the Blues, Elvis, and all things bar-b-que, has been submerged under a big stream called the Mighty Mississip. In all honesty, it was considerably less exciting than how it was portrayed in the media. But we really have seen more than our share of rain. It’s been hard on the bees. They haven’t been able to get out as often as they’d like. And my main field has been swamped to the point where it was all but impossible to get to my hives. So I haven’t seen my hives – except from the road – since early April when I put this year’s honey supers on.

I’ve been in high gear this weekend since it’s a long weekendand we’ve had great weather. We built 3 new supers to add to those already on hives. We inspected the hives here at the house and they look great. And today my number 2 son and I got to inspect the hives out at the field.

We have honey! We’re just a little behind last year’s production, but we should have our first “pull” in a few weeks.

Something about bee “breeds” that might be worth noting: I’m a huge fan of Russians. I’ve been running Russian bees for about 5-6 years. I moved to them because they over winter well and they’re resistant to mites. As we’ve tried to move away from chemicals and antibiotics, a hearty bee is an absolute must. Italians, on the other hand, have not been great for me. My first few years with them were bad. I lost more than a few hives each year. So when I found out that I had picked up a hive of Italians last year, I was disappointed. They didn’t build up much last year (never went beyond 6 frames), and I was sure they wouldn’t make it through the winter, but they did. Not only that, but they’ve built up faster than the Russians, which is unusual. But Italians have a reputation for putting up a lot of honey, and they are definitely doing that. My Ruskies are getting there, they’ve got honey in the comb, but my Italian girls have stuffed it in every cell and covered it over with a layer of pearl. I hope they’re able to stay healthy and fight off the critters, but in the mean time, I’ll enjoy what they’re known for and pull that sweet stuff off next week.

My Carport Is Swarming With Bees!
April 17, 2011, 8:16 am
Filed under: Bee Keeping

 I’ve been a bit down and out since I lost two hives since last fall (see my last update). When you only have five bee hives, two is a big loss. Fortunately, I was able to order a queen to do a split from one of my remaining healthy hives. However, after a trip out to the bees about a week and a half ago, I found that one of my hives was preparing to swarm. They had built several queen cells on a couple of combs, and had several drone cells built out as well. Since I had a few extra boxes with me in the car, I decided that now was the time for the split. I grabbed the two frames with queen cells (along with fresh brood and lots of bees),shoved them in a box, and took them home. They’re now in my kids’ tree house.

Four hives now, with a queen on the way. I’m happy.

But then something even more remarkable happened. When it comes to swarms, I typically wait for someone to call me. Inevitably it happens, someone gets a swarm in a tree, wall, or even car, and they call me to come rescue them (that’s a vague pronoun – you can guess who needs saving). But I’ve heard that if you take an old hive containing one or two frames with comb out in the woods (or even close to someone else’s bee yard), then when a hive nearby swarms, they’ll smell your hive and make it their new home. But really, that’s too easy, right?


I keep a stack of old equipment on my carport; hive bodies, old frames, feeders, etc. When the weather gets warm, I always have bees poking around, licking up the old comb, stealing wax to take home as building material. Spring is no exception. But when I got a frantic call from my wife last week about the bees in the carport, I knew this was even more unusual. When I called her back, she told me that a whirlwind of bees had appeared from the sky outside our upstairs window. The kids ran outside just in time to see them light on my stack of equipment.

“What do we do?” she asked, somewhat exasperated.

“Let them in!”

So – my wife, my 11 year old and my 13 year old suited up, went outside, and just “tipped” the lid that sat atop the boxes outside the back door. Sure enough, the bees dropped right in. I inspected them yesterday morning, and they are an incredible hive of bees with – truly – the biggest queen I have ever seen. I haven’t had time to cart them off to one of the fields, but they’ve been gentle with the neighborhood kids coming in and out of the carport, so right now we’re all peacefully coexisting.

So if you’re looking for free bees, this is the best darn way of hiving a swarm that I’ve ever tried. And now I’m up to five hives, and still have a queen on the way. Sweet!