Sunday, 13 April 2014

Nocturnal garden visitor

We had a tawny frogmouth visit our garden the other night. Tawny Frogmouths are found throughout Australia, with the exception of desert and rainforest areas. They are often mistaken for owls but they are more closely related to nightjars. We think they are beautiful birds and couldn't resist taking a photo.  It's not the greatest of photos, but hey, it was taken in the dark!

There are a few of these birds in our neighbourhood and from time to time we are lucky enough to see them in our own garden. Often seen in pairs, the pair stays together until one of birds dies.

Tawny Frogmouths hunt at night and spend the day well camouflaged, roosting on a dead log or tree branch close to the tree trunk. They are extremely hard to see during the day. Unlike owls, the Tawny Frogmouth is almost exclusively insectivorous. They sit motionless on a perch waiting for food to come to them, catching it in their beak. When they visit us they seem to like to perch on the clothesline, as in the picture above. 

For those of you who have never seen one, here are some much better pictures:

And now for the aw-that's-cute shot:

Mother nestling behind her 2 youngsters

We're lucky here in Australia - we have an amazing amount of unique birdlife. Although sometimes being so lucky can have a downside - like when the native rainbow lorikeets descend and proceed to strip the leaves off our fruit trees  :)

Images: 2 | 3 | 4

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Hands-on beekeeping experience

There's a lot to learn about keeping bees. It's a really good idea to get a solid understanding of what you're getting yourself into before you commit to getting a hive of your own. Reading some books on beekeeping is a good start. Getting some hands on experience is the next step.

We all need to know what we're looking at when we open our hives.  Natural beekeeping places an emphasis on preserving the hive environment. While this translates into less openings of the hive, that doesn't mean natural beekeepers don't responsibly manage their hives. Understanding what you see when you open your hive is integral to responsible hive management. 

So where can you get some hands-on experience?  If you live in Melbourne then a good source of free beekeeping training is the Collingwood Children's Farm Apiary. We wanted to gain some experience opening a hive and knowing what to look for before we got our bees so that's where we went.

The Collingwood Children's Farm is a not-for-profit community resource which aims to provide country experiences for city people. It's located just 5 km from the centre of Melbourne along the Yarra River. Consisting of 17 hectares of paddocks, gardens and orchards, and with a large range of animals, it is open every day from 9-4.30 pm. It also has a cafĂ© and a Farmer's Market on the 2nd Saturday of each month which is well worth a visit.

The Apiary at the Collingwood Children's Farm is staffed by experienced beekeepers from the Melbourne section of the VAA. They kindly volunteer their time and effort to educate the public about bees and beekeeping.  It's open to the public on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month from 11-4 pm.  All you need is an interest in bees - protective gear and supervision is available if you want to get up close to a beehive.

The Apiary at Collingwood Children's Farm - with the city skyline in the background

An experienced beekeeper instructs a novice

For those content to view the action from further away there is a caravan with a window out onto the apiary. From inside the caravan you can view the beekeeping activities being undertaken. The caravan also has a window into an observation hive so visitors can get a close up view of bees inside a hive without the need to gear up or disturb the bees.

viewing the action up close and also from inside the caravan

We found that regularly visiting and volunteering at the CCF apiary was a great way to build up our confidence in preparation for getting our own hive. The experienced volunteers are friendly, patient and extremely knowledgeable - they're always happy to share their experience and answer questions.  These guys, some of whom have 30+ years of beekeeping experience, say there is no end to what you can learn about bees and beekeeping. 

We'd heartily recommend going along to the CCF apiary if you are thinking about keeping bees.  Suit up and get amongst it - you'll soon know if beekeeping is the hobby for you.

Images 1 | 2 | 3

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Wooden tables

We love a table that's been made to highlight the natural features of the wood.  These sort of tables work so well in all kinds of settings. Check out these beauties....

This rustic looking table looks right at home in an otherwise modern room:

Could this be the perfect coffee table?

Mark Tuckey 'oxo' coffee table in the home of Mark and Louella Tuckey
This simple style table is a perfect fit for a Japanese-style design aesthetic 

A lovely wooden table in a sophisticated kitchen:

Bar furniture not too far removed from its natural state:

Ace Hotel Rooftop Lounge/Remodelista
Rooftop bar, Ace Hotel, Los Angeles

And finally, how beautiful is this dining table by George Nakashima?

Wood really is such a perfect, sustainable and beautiful material.

Images 12 | 3 | 4 | 56

Monday, 24 March 2014

Separating the bees from the honey - take 2

After our failure using sweet almond oil to separate the bees from the honey, this time we went back to using a tried and true method: a bee escape board. We wrote about using one here, but this time we tried one of a different design. Also made by the convenor of our Natural Beekeeping group, it had 4 cone shaped exits made out of flywire:

The super to be harvested was placed on the base and the lid with the cone exits was placed on top.

It took a few minutes for the first bees to exit via the cones.

It wasn't long before we observed a steady stream of bees exiting the box. In the picture below you can see bees leaving from all 4 exits:

We left the box for 4 hours which was probably overkill.  I spent some time watching the exodus and it was interesting to see that no bees attempted to enter the box - it was one way traffic only. When we went back to collect the box there was only 1 bee in the box that we could see. She kindly crawled onto my glove and I was able to place her by the hive entrance. 

As mentioned previously, because the primary beekeeper in the PragSust partnership is sensitive to bee stings we followed a similar procedure to last time. Just in case there were any bees still in the box we placed the super inside a plastic tub with a secure lid like the one below and placed it in the shed in the dark.


We leave it like this for a day or two before taking the whole lot, as is, inside the house for processing.  This leaves any bees remaining in the box in a slow and drowsy state and makes it much easier to catch them and release them outside.

So how did this bee escape lid design compare to the other one we'd tried? 

Based on our experience this design is definitely the winner. There were no bees in the box when we took it out of the tub.  You can't ask for better than that!  This is a really stress-free and easy way to separate the bees from the honey.


Monday, 17 March 2014

Sweet Almond Oil - an update

Since our last post we've had some feedback from a couple of people who have had success in using sweet almond oil to separate the bees from the honey. Here's how they went about it.

Rather than leaving the box on top of the hive as we did, they took the box away some distance from the hive. The box was placed on a base and the oil spotted tea towel was laid across the top of the frames at an angle, leaving a corner open for the bees to escape from. 

Success using the above method ranged from having a handful of bees in the box after several hours, to having a reasonable number still in there.  There was also variation in results with one person finding that it worked really well the first time they tried it and not so well the next. Most people had only tried this method once or twice - it'd be interesting to hear how well it works when people have tried using it a few times.

Either way, we think the bee escape board method is a proven winner and we'll probably stick to using that. Here's a picture of the bee escape board we used this time - stayed tuned for more details!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Separating the bees from the honey using sweet almond oil - without success

Some things work and some don't. We think it's worthwhile sharing the failures as well as the successes if it helps others to avoid encountering the same problems. 

It was time to harvest honey from our hive.  Previously we'd separated the bees from the honey using a bee escape board which we posted about here. That worked really well. But, being scientists by training we're always happy to investigate further, so this time we thought we'd trial a different method.  We'd heard that using almond oil worked well so we thought we'd give that a go.

First off, it's important to note that there is more than one type of almond oil. The sweet almond tree (prunus dulcis, var. amygdalus) is the source of the almonds we eat. Sweet almond oil is derived from the kernel whereas pure almond oil is taken from the fruit. Then there is the bitter almond tree.  According to Wikipedia the bitter almond tree (prunus dulcis, var. amara) also produces an almond, but broader and shorter in shape, containing about 50% of the fixed oil that occurs in sweet almonds.  It also contains the enzyme emulsin which, in the presence of water acts on soluble glucosides, amygdalin and prunasin yielding glucose, cyanide, and the essential oil of bitter almonds, which is nearly pure benzaldehyde. Bitter almonds may yield from 4–9 mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond.

We were advised to use sweet almond oil, so that's what we did. Sweet almond oil is essentially odourless to humans and is used in cosmetics, hair care products, aromatherapy etc. It seemed like a fairly benign substance so we were happy to give it a go.  Bitter almond oil, on the other hand, sounded quite toxic and it wasn't something we'd ever consider putting in our hive.  

How is the almond oil method supposed to work? The oil is sprayed on a tea towel that is laid on top of the super you want to harvest. Bees do not like the smell of almond oil and will move away from it, vacating the box you want to harvest. Once the tea towel is removed the smell disperses out through the hive entrance.  It all sounded fair enough.
So now to the harvesting. The first step of honey harvesting is to make sure that you are leaving the bees enough honey to get on with things.  As responsible beekeepers we should only be harvesting excess honey, always leaving behind enough for the bees' needs. When we harvest our honey, rather than harvesting individual frames throughout the season, we like to harvest a whole box. We find it's easier for several reasons:
- you go through the entire harvesting process fewer times,
- you have less bees flying around when you are doing the actual harvesting because it's quicker to take the whole box than individual frames, 
- it's less messy as you aren't trying to brush bees off frames of honey. 
- also, ideally, you have few or no bees in the box when you take it inside to process - this is where separating the bees from the honey using a bee escape board comes in....or potentially using almond oil to do the same job.

Once we'd established that the box was okay to harvest we got a clean tea towel and our sweet almond oil. 

Sweet Almond Oil and a clean tea towel

Then we put a few blobs of almond oil on the tea towel.  We were told that you don't need to soak the tea towel with the oil. We couldn't smell it but supposed the bees could, and they wouldn't like it.

Putting a few blobs of sweet almond oil on the tea towel

 Lay the tea towel over the top of the frames.

Placing the tea towel directly on top of the frames

Now put the lid back on and walk away. Make sure there are no bees under the lid when you put it back on.

Lid goes back on and we come back in a couple of hours

The idea is that over the course of the next hour or so, any bees that were in the top box should move down into the hive, away from the smell of the oil.  Two or so hours later the bees should have completely exited the top box enabling you to remove it for processing.  The person who kindly told us about this method had only 1 bee left in the box after an hour. That was the kind of result we hoped to emulate. A quick look on the internet confirmed the success of this method. This site said the almond oil technique cleared a super in 5 minutes although it didn't specify what type of almond oil was used.

So how well did it work for us?  Unfortunately, it didn't work at all.

 An hour and a half later the box was still chock full of bees.  They didn't seem to care two hoots about the oil splattered tea towel.  Maybe we hadn't put enough sweet almond oil on the tea towel?  Maybe we needed to wait longer? Hoping that that was the case we removed the tea towel and re-applied the almond oil, this time much more generously. Back on with the lid and away we went......again. Four hours later with our fingers crossed we came back and had a look. Still no good. The box was still just as full of bees and they were actually crawling on the underside of the oil soaked tea towel. Obviously it hadn't had the anticipated effect.

From this spectacular lack of success it seems likely that sweet almond oil is not the type of almond oil people use for honey harvesting.....or if it is, then there was something wrong with the batch of oil we had. 

Our next step was to check with Mr Google for some answers.  From the research we did we found people who have used almond oil to assist in harvesting honey either:
- didn't specify what sort of almond oil they used (it was just referred to as 'almond oil'), or 
- indicated that oil of bitter almonds was used. 

As we mentioned above, oil of bitter almonds is nearly pure benzaldehyde - it has a strong odour and can burn your skin (not nice!) so as proponents of natural beekeeping there's no way we would use it in our hive - it just doesn't sit well with us. If bitter almond oil is the only type of almond oil that works then this method is definitely not for us, nor would we want to be seen as recommending it to others.  We had hoped that all almond oils would work. We were wrong.

If anyone knows more about using almond oil to harvest honey we'd love to hear from you. In the meantime we'll go back to using a bee escape board to separate the bees from the honey and use our sweet almond oil for making soap...but that's a subject for another post.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Current reading list

Here's a snapshot of what's on our reading list right now:

A heap of publications that came with our latest subscription to Earth Garden:

Small Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon. This book is about learning to grow healthy whole grains or beans alongside fruits and vegetables in a large garden or small farm situation. All the basics are covered from planting and dealing with pests, weeds, and diseases to harvesting, processing, storing, and using whole grains.

Isa Does It - Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. The title pretty much sums up this baby. It's been extensively bookmarked so we can cook our way through it. All recipes tried so far have been winners.

What's on your reading list?