Sunday, 14 September 2014

Weighing the hive

One way to get an indication of what's happening inside a beehive without having to open it up is to weigh the hive. There are several reasons why this useful.

Firstly, weighing a hive can be done regardless of the weather. This is especially useful during winter when it's too cold/wet/windy to open the hive. Regular weighing allows the beekeeper to assess the amount of stores the hive has. This information can then be used to assess whether supplementary feeding may be required.

Secondly, weighing the hive does not disturb the hive environment. Understanding the importance of the hive temperature and humidity, how this affects hive health, and how to use this knowledge to look after your bees is important. Bees expend considerable energy to maintain the ideal temperatures and humidity inside the hive. Opening a hive and especially moving comb can cause rapid and dramatic shifts in both those variables and cause undue stress for the bees. According to David Heaf in his book The Bee-friendly Beekeeper, every opening of the hive that lets the heat out forces the bees to repair the damage - repropolising and repairing comb that may have been broken - and to restore the 'thermal structure' of the colony by extra heat producing activity. In winter, the cluster can take as much as 3 days to return to normal. Depending on the extent of comb manipulation, even in summer the restoration of the pre-opening condition could take as much as a day. Thomas Seeley, the well-known bee biologist, found in his 2007 study, Honey bees of the Arnot Forest: a population of feral colonies persisting with Varroa destructor in the north-eastern United States, that feral bee colonies left alone were able to better co-exist with Varroa mites than those managed in a more conventional way.  So while it is tempting to want to open your hive frequently to check for problems and progress it's worth bearing in mind that bees carefully manipulate the environment inside their hives and any disruption to that environment can cause or exacerbate the very problems that you are checking for.

The system we use to weigh our hive was invented by Andrew Janiak, convenor of the Natural Beekeeping group, of which we are members. Andrew and his clever beehive scales were featured on the ABC New Inventors television program where his scales won the Peoples' Choice award.  More details and a short video showing how the scales work can be seen here.

Essentially the system consists of a simple hinged timber platform that sits permanently under each hive, and a light weight portable frame that holds the scale. The scale is inserted between the two halves of the platform (at the rear of the hive) then the handle is moved to determine the weight.

Here are some photos of the platform. The hive is positioned on the base so that the entrance is above the hinged edge. (The hinged edge is on the left side in the first picture below)

Here's a picture of our hive sitting on the base:

The scale consists of a light-weight metal frame which is easily carried from hive to hive. The platforms are very cheap to produce, costing only about $4-5.00 each.

Here's a picture of the scale positioned on the base, ready to be used. A 'hive' consisting of a couple of empty boxes is being used here for demonstration purposes. You can see that with the handle in the down position the hook is raised. The legs of the frame are sitting in the metal guides. The metal guides can be seen more clearly in photo 2 above.

Frame sitting in position on base

Zero the scales before engaging the hook

To measure the weight of the hive you firstly position the scale so that it sits in the metal guides in the platform. The next step is to zero the scales and then lift the handle to allow the hook to move down so it can be manually attached to the platform. Once the hook is engaged, the handle is gently pushed down until it can move no further. Pushing the handle down raises the hook and thus the platform. Once the handle is in the fully 'down' position the weight is recorded. The scale has leverage of 1:10 so you only need to lift a tenth of the weight of the hive. It is also impossible to lift the hive more than a few cm, meaning there is less chance of disturbing the bees or toppling the hive.
Move the handle down to weigh the hive. This will raise the hook and in doing so, lift the base.
When handle is fully extended downwards and scale light stops flashing the weight is recorded.

The amount of force required to push the 2 halves of the platform apart determines the weight of the hive. The scale is actually set to show 1/2 of the weight of the hive, then you can multiply to get the whole weight.

By keeping regular weight records over the year the beekeeper can get a picture of how the hive is performing. Of course, to ensure consistency it's best to take the measurements at the same time of the day, preferably early evening when everyone is back inside for the night. That way your results will be comparable. The weight going into and out of winter is very useful to help determine how much in the way of stores the bees used over winter. Also, if you have several hives you can use this method to help identify any hives that may be struggling, allowing you to take the appropriate action before it's too late. Weight data is also a handy way to identify if there is a honey flow on as the hive will quickly put on weight.  We use weight data to help identify when a super is ready for harvesting.

While not removing the need for occasional inspections, weighing the hive reduces the need to continually open it up and disturb the bees. We've been weighing our hive on a weekly basis for over a year now, and thanks to Andrew's scales, it's quick and easy to do.  The information we're gathering is helping us better manage our bees and in our opinion it's definitely worth the small amount of effort involved.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Spring is here

Spring is here at last!  The garden is starting to bloom and our hive has become very active. The girls are out and about collecting pollen for the spring build up and the hive is putting on weight nicely. Here are a few shots of what's happening in our garden.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Hungry wildlife

Winter was a tough time to grow veggies in the garden.  The local wildlife, in particular the possums, were hungry. We have large numbers of possums in our area and our garden is on their nightly dining menu.  

Possums are extremely well adapted to suburban areas, where gardens offer a wide variety of food. It's not just edible plants that come under their hungry gaze - roses and some other ornamentals are also high on their list of favourites.

Unlike the possums in the US, the ones in our suburban Melbourne backyard are pretty cute. Here are the 2 species we have visiting us:

Common Brushtail possum mother with baby via
Ringtail possum mother and babies via

However when you go outside at night and all you can hear is a chorus of chomping, they rapidly start becoming less cute. Mr PragSust chased three brushtails out of our loquat twice on one night. They don't take long to come back though.

This winter with food being scarce, the possums ravaged our garden, stripping the leaves off our edible plants. Bye bye silverbeet, parsley, loquat leaves and pretty much anything else green.  

Fortunately we have a LOT of silverbeet so there was still plenty left for us.

They also started to eat the rind off the lemons and oranges. We were able to harvest most of those before it was too late.  A tree full of nude lemons is a pretty sad sight.

Possum or rat damage to lemon via

The new shoots on the fruit trees are a BIG favourite of theirs, especially those of our plum and apricots. Needless to say, these trees struggle to fruit. The possums will even eat the bark off fruit trees. When we first moved in to our home we planted some small fruit trees, one of which was a mandarin tree.  Within a couple of nights all the leaves on the mandarin had been eaten.  I thought that was the end of it, but no, the possums came back the next night and ate all the bark off the poor tree. We quickly knocked up some chicken wire enclosures for our other little fruit trees and they survived the onslaught. Branches on the large avocado tree we grew at our previous home were systematically ring-barked by the little devils.  Constant attention like this eventually kills the tree and I'd been out in the yard when large, ring-barked branches fell from the tree.

As well as doing plenty of damage in the garden, possums often like to nest in your roof-space, making a hell of a lot of noise, mess and damage.  Their wee really stinks and leaves nasty stains on the ceiling. Possum wee on the garden furniture strips off any protective finish you may have applied and leaves them horribly sticky. Unfortunately, all of this comes from personal experience :(

Where we live it's illegal to relocate them. The trapping of common brushtail possums living in buildings is permitted. When trapped, possums must be released on the same property within 50 metres of the capture site. Licensed wildlife controllers are also authorised to trap possums but they will not relocate them to another site. Common ringtail possums remain fully protected and may not be trapped. In addition, possums are territorial - when one goes, another will quickly move in and take it's place.There would be an endless supply of willing replacements in our neighbourhood.

So what can you do about these pesky critters?  Well here are a few suggestions:
Net the trees or totally enclose your fruit and veggie garden. We are increasingly using nets, however nets do tend to discourage bees so it's best to wait until pollination has been achieved. 
Grow decoy plants. We use silverbeet with some success.
Spray the affected trees - use a mix fresh crushed chilli seeds, garlic, olive oil and detergent and spray it on the young leaves and early fruit. The drawback is that you need to keep re-applying if it rains or if there is a heavy dew. And sometimes it doesn't work - some possums seem to like chilli - a friend lost an entire bush full of chillies to possums. Good grief. 
Dogs scare the possums from coming down onto the ground, but a dog that barks at possums all night will not endear you to your neighbours.

The Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) recommends the following course of action:
  • Build a floppy fence around the garden. Use 80 centimetre wide, heavily galvanised chicken wire, bury the bottom 20 centimetres into the ground and support the remainder on vertical lengths of flexible, high-tensile fencing wire. Bend the wire to curve the upper section outwards. When the possum attempts to climb the fence it will bend over and then spring back.
  • Use collars to protect fruit trees.


We're seriously thinking about following that advice.

Do you have trouble with critters demolishing your edibles?  What works for you?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Eye candy

We love wood here at PragSust - wooden homes, interiors, furniture, household items - we love it all. If you do too, then here's some eye candy :)









Friday, 13 June 2014

Becoming more sustainable: things you can do around the house

There are lots of ways to be sustainable around the house and many save you money too.  Here are some of the sustainable features and practices at our place

1.  Rooftop PV panels
2.  Solar hot water system
3.  Insulation installed in roof
4.  Insulation installed in sub-floor
5.  Home heating unit replaced with efficient wood heater. Waste wood collected from local arborist is used to heat the house. Wood ash saved and used on the garden.
6.  Signed up for 100% Green Electricity with energy supplier for the residual electricity used after what we generate
7.  Signed up for 100% Green Gas with energy supplier. The Green Gas scheme uses offsets from voluntary carbon emission reduction programs but at the very least sends a message
8.  Replaced incandescent globes with compact fluorescent and led lights
9.  Switch off appliances at the wall when not in use
10. Hills hoist "solar clothes dryer". During winter we also dry clothes on a rack in front of the wood heater. We do have a dryer that we use occasionally but we're on Green Power so no emissions.

11. No air conditioner. Close blinds when hot, installed flyscreens on all window so they can be opened up to let house cool
12. House is painted a light colour, absorbs less heat
13. Single car household
14. Walk and take public transport in general

1.  Installed two 9300 litre water tanks

2.  Grey water from laundry used to water garden. Landfax Labs recommended detergent is used so wash water is safe for garden use.
3.  Mulch garden to prevent moisture loss. The mulch is sourced from local arborist waste so this reduces landfill
4.  Water from shower and kitchen sink saved to water garden during periods of minimal or no rainfall
5.  Front loading washing machine purchased when the old machine died. This reduced water/load from around 200 litres  to 50 litres  

1.  Grow organic fruit and vegetables
2.  Planted 43 fruit trees, 8 fruiting shrubs (e.g. guavas etc), 7 kinds of berries (raspberries, boysenberries etc)
3.  Buy organic foods
4.  Make our own honey, jam, marmalade, preserved fruit, bread, beer, vinegar and soap

5.  Cook from scratch - e.g. making our own muesli, trying not to buy much in the way of processed foods
6.  Composting system consisting of 5 large compost bins. Collect on average 8 litres of compost each day from workplace to add to our bins, in addition to the compost generated at home. Also use large barrels  (ex-pickle barrels) to kill persistent grasses by submersion (which would survive composting) and produce liquid manure
7.  Reduce waste, try not to buy overly packaged food and other goods
8.  Happy to buy second-hand stuff and repair existing things, thus reducing embodied energy
9.  Use environmentally friendly washing products
10. Tools such as chain-saw, lawn mower are electric (household is on green power) rather than petrol engined
11. Buy in bulk to save money and trips
12. Always have a pile of re-useable shopping bags in the car, and one in the handbag

13. Thinking twice about what we want and if we really need it, saving up for stuff that really lasts, instead of cheap things that won't
14. Knitting jumpers, socks and other items of clothing for ourselves, family and friends
15. Using a sewing machine to repair and alter clothes
16. Displaying a "No Junk Mail" sticker on the letter box. This saves us around 40 kg of junk mail each year.

Reuse and Recycle  
1.  Store food, lunches in reusable containers - no need to use gladwrap!
2.  Asking our friends to save glass jars and beer bottles for use when we harvest honey, make preserves and home-brew
3.  Saving Moccona coffee jars - they make excellent jars for storing dried foods and spices

4.  Save newspapers and cardboard for use to suppress weeds under mulched paths and in creating no-dig garden beds
5.  Buying goods in second-hand stores, and checking ebay to find pre-loved furniture, clothes and other items
6.  De-cluttering and donating things we no longer use
7.  Bartering goods (eg produce, home-brew, preserves and honey) with neighbours and friends

None of the above things are rocket science and most are super easy to do. In fact, you're probably doing a lot of these things already!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

In the garden ....

A few pictures from our winter garden ...

Our Meyer lemon has a good crop

As do the orange trees

The pepino is fruiting

We've had a good crop of feijoas (pineapple guava)

Silverbeet is springing up everywhere, including taking over a patch of the lawn

The jonquils are already starting to flower................and winter has only just started!

What's happening in your garden?


Monday, 2 June 2014

Cleaning really dirty wax

Borrowing from the Warre style of beekeeping, at the beginning of spring when the hive starts to put on weight, we place a new box at the base of the hive to give the bees room to expand.  Adding boxes this way results in the older boxes gradually moving up the hive, eventually becoming honey boxes, which are then removed and harvested. 

We use the 'crush and strain' method to harvest the honey and then purify the wax from the leftover crushed comb. We do this for a variety of reasons - crush and strain is low tech and easy, but it also helps to reduce the chance of disease occurring in a hive by not reusing comb. This harvesting method results in a lower honey yield, as the bees have to direct more resources into building wax rather than storing honey, but that's okay with us.

When we packed down our hive into 2 boxes for winter this year (see here) we removed the top box.   Not all the frames in this box were filled with capped honey - parts of the comb were empty.  The frames towards the centre in the harvested box contained very dark comb - not surprising considering that this was the original brood box and had been on the hive for 3 years.  If it had been earlier in the season we'd have left the box on the hive and harvested it later. However we were packing down for winter so the box needed to come off. The box below had nectar and enough capped honey for the bees over winter. We'd noted that the hive had not really been putting on much weight over late summer and autumn - it had been holding steady for the most part. Being novices we wondered (rightly or wrongly) if as the nest moved down the hive over summer (we don't use an excluder), the bees would be less likely to continue to fill the uppermost box if there was ample room above the nest in the boxes below. I think they may have also used some of the stores in the top box.  Whatever the reason, there was some empty comb in the box we removed. 

We cut out the honey-filled comb from each of the frames and crushed and strained that.  That left us with some empty, very dark coloured comb.  This was the first time we'd had empty comb to deal with - in previous years all the frames had been filled out with honey.  So what to do with that rather dirty looking comb?  Well, after asking around here's what we did.

Firstly we mashed it up and added it to some water, then put it all in a double boiler on the stove.  Here's what it looked like:

And here it is a bit later when the wax had melted.  As you can see there was still lots of lumpy stuff in there that didn't melt.

Next step was to make a funnel-shaped strainer out of some metal flyscreen and suspend it over a clean plastic bucket with some water in it.  The hot mixture was poured into the flyscreen funnel. The lumpy junk was caught in the strainer and the wax and water mixture dripped through.

We left it for 24 hours to enable the wax to properly solidify. There was a surprising amount of junk left in the strainer. 

The wax separates out from the water as it cools. What you end up with is a disc of wax floating on dark coloured water in the bottom of the bucket. Being plastic, the bucket is nice and flexible so it's easy to get the wax disc out.

The wax had a bit of gunk stuck to the bottom, most of which was easy to scrape off. 

It's now ready for the solar purification step...........when the weather warms up again.