Tuesday, 25 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.

Tuesday, 11 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?

Friday, 7 March 2014

Getting started keeping bees

Based on the discussions I had at the Sustainable Living Festival, keeping bees is something that seems to appeal to a lot of people. So we thought it might be useful to describe what's involved in getting started in beekeeping.  There's a lot more to it than just plonking a hive down in your backyard.  The information that follows is based on an article we wrote on that topic for Permaculture Victoria's magazine, PIE.  Hopefully it helps fill in some blanks for any prospective beekeepers out there.

People get into beekeeping for a variety of reasons. Some want to harvest their own honey, others want bees for the pollination services they provide in their gardens. Others, like us were concerned about the global decline in bee populations and the resulting impact on food security, and wanted to do something positive about it. The loss of honey bees has direct implications for our food supply and this of course affects everyone.  It’s not just honey we’re talking about here, it’s the large number of fruit and vegetable varieties that rely on bees for pollination. It seems that this worldwide decline in bee numbers is due to many factors.  One thing it has done is raise concerns about the use of chemicals in relation to beekeeping - those that are used on the plants that the honey bees visit, as well as those used in the hive itself to control pests and disease.  The decline of honey bee numbers and its flow on effects, got us thinking how we could do our little bit to help.  Learning that we could legally keep bees in our suburban backyard was the clincher.
bee on miniature peach blossom
Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby and one where the learning process never stops. As people who’ve kept bees for many decades will tell you, there’s always something new to learn about bees and beekeeping.
If you are interested in keeping bees, there are a number of practical steps involved.  First off, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re getting yourself into.  Fortunately there is a wealth of information available for the novice. A book like “The Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping” is an excellent place to start.  Written for the novice, it will give you a very clear picture of what is involved in keeping bees.  Just note that that it is a northern hemisphere book so you'll need to the adjust the seasons accordingly. "Backyard Beekeeping" by Courtenay Smithers is a good Australian book for beginners.
If you've done some reading and you’re still keen, then the next step would be to join a Beekeeping group such as Permaculture Melbourne’s Natural Beekeeping group or the Victorian Apiarist's Association (VAA). Here you will find people with experience in beekeeping who will be only too happy to help you.  Go along to meetings, ask questions, learn from others and take advantage of the knowledge that such a group can provide.  The Natural Beekeeping Group also runs training courses, which are a great way to find out what’s involved in keeping bees.
Getting some hands on experience working with bees is the next step. It’s one thing to read about beekeeping, but it’s quite another thing to be suited up and working the hive when the bees are flying all around you.  It’s good to feel confident about what you're doing before you get your bees.  For free hands on experience, you can attend the Collingwood Children’s Farm Apiary on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month.  This is an apiary whose purpose is to educate the public about keeping bees.  They have protective gear available so you can suit up and, under experienced supervision, look inside a hive.  Going along to sessions like this is a great way to build up your confidence and learn about what’s involved in looking after a hive. If getting to Collingwood isn't an option for you, then ask around in the beekeeping clubs you've joined. It's more than likely you'll find someone who would be happy to have you come along and watch when they next open their hive.  You'd need to buy or borrow some protective gear if you wanted to get close up to the action though.

The next step is to get your equipment and your bees.  Keeping bees can be done in a low cost, sustainable way, however there is still some equipment required.  Beekeeping supply shops stock all you’ll need to get started.  For a standard Langstroth style hive the shopping list would look something like this:

- top lid,
- hive bottom,
- one full depth 8 frame super (hive box, either assembled or flat packed),
- 8 full size frames, assembled or, most likely, in bits,
- if you intend to go with foundation - 8 sheets of foundation, wire, eyelets etc., ask the supplier,
- if you intend to go "natural comb" - one sheet of foundation,
- one emlock, complete
- one top mat

- Nails, screws for assembly

Later on you’ll need additional boxes (called ‘supers’) but the list above is pretty much it for starters. Assembly instructions for your hive can be obtained from the supplier. We bought our gear from Bob’s Beekeeping and his website has hive assembly instructions. Once assembled, the exterior of the hive will need several coats of paint or other weatherproofing material and this will need to be done well in advance of getting your bees.  You’ll also need some beekeeping tools – at a minimum this would be a good sized smoker, a J-hive tool and a metal bucket in which to place your lighted smoker when you’re not using it (to reduce the risk of fire).
With your hive built, painted and in place now it’s time to get your bees.  The best way to get your bees is to put your name down on a ‘swarm list’. Swarming is how bees reproduce and during Spring beekeepers are often busy taking phone calls from the public and removing swarms from backyards.  These bees then need a new home, hence the swarm list.  You’ll find that being a member of a club will give you the opportunity to get your name on such a list.  In this way, not only do you get your bees for free, you are doing a public service in housing an unwanted bee colony.  In preparation for getting your swarm you’ll need to have your hive set up and ready to go.  Having the correct site for your hive is very important.  In Victoria you must keep your bees in accordance with the guidelines in the Apiary Code of Practice.   The document is free and can be downloaded from here. Amongst other things, it contains information as to how hives are to be positioned so that they do not cause a nuisance to your neighbours or to the general public. In urban areas, this is extremely important to get right!
Our hive - the second box was added 20 days after the swarm was installed

Once you have your swarm settled in their new home, they will need around 4 weeks to settle in.  During this time the bees will build comb so the queen can start laying. Use this time to observe your hive and become familiar with your bees.  It’s also the time to look into getting some protective clothing such as a suit and gloves and getting a second box so the hive has room to expand.  Do some research and buy the bee suit that meets your needs.  Don’t skimp by getting something cheap that doesn’t do the job – you need to be calm and relaxed when you work with bees.  Knowing you are wearing good protective clothing goes a long way to help you achieve this calmness.  We have these suits and reckon they are totally worth paying a bit extra for.
And in beekeeping there is no substitute for experience – learn from others, avoid their mistakes and adapt what you learn to your specific situation.  Small scale suburban beekeeping  is very different from keeping bees in a commercial apiary so what works in one case is not always suitable for use in the other.  We endeavour to keep our bees in a natural and sustainable way as described at www.naturalbeekeeping.org.au.  The more we read about beekeeping, the more this approach resonated with us.  The US beekeeper, Michael Bush, provides a convincing argument as to why natural beekeeping is the way to go in his excellent book The Practical Beekeeper.  The following statement really hit home:
"The other side of helping bees with treatments of pesticides and antibiotics is that you keep propagating bees that can't survive. This is the opposite of what we need. We beekeepers need to be propagating the ones that can survive. Also we keep propagating the pests that are strong enough to survive our treatments. So we keep breeding wimpy bees and super pests."

Makes sense, doesn't it?
We’ve certainly enjoyed our beekeeping journey so far and look forward to learning more about these fascinating creatures.  There are lots of fantastic books out there on the subject.  Some books we found useful were:

Permaculture and keeping bees are a natural fit in many ways. If you are prepared to put in the time and effort required to learn how to responsibly keep bees then you’ll surely find it a rewarding experience.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Seed saving

In our garden we always leave some plants to go to seed - now's the time of year when much of our seed is ready for collection. Once the seed heads and stalks have dried right out the seed is ready to collect.
There are plenty of reasons for saving your own seed. Firstly it's a good way in which to keep growing those varieties of plants that you know grow well in your own local conditions. You are getting seed from plants you have successfully grown, and in the process becoming more locally resilient.

Secondly, saving your own seed also saves money.  If you start off buying heritage seeds and then save your own seed from the plants you grow, you end up only buying seeds once.  That's much cheaper than buying seedlings from a nursery.

Thirdly, it's nice to be able to give away or swap seeds with other gardeners. If you join a permaculture or gardening group you'll find plenty of people to swap seeds with.  Being part of a local group is a fantastic way of finding out what else grows well in your area. It's also a great way to discover new varieties and get the chance to try things that perhaps you hadn't thought of growing.  You'll also be able to learn heaps from the amazing amount of knowledge that the members in these groups have.

Here's some of the seeds we've saved recently:

Continental parsley - this plant produces a bumper seed crop

Continental parsley seeds from just one bush!

Celery - these seeds are tiny.

Celery seeds


Cos lettuce

Cos lettuce seeds amongst the seed cases


Silverbeet seeds

Florence Fennel - You can see how dry the seed head and stalk needs to be before the seeds can be harvested.

Silver wattle 

Silver wattle seed pods

There's lots of information available about how to save and store seeds from particular plants.  If you're interested in finding out more information about saving seeds, here are some books we've found useful:
Seed Savers Handbook - One of our favourite resources. Michel and Jude Fanton's book contains detailed descriptions of seed collecting, propagation and kitchen uses of more than 100 vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. 

Links to help find a seed saver group near you:
Permaculture Victoria - many local groups actively save and exchange seed

Other links of interest about saving seed:
Save our Seeds - Organic Gardener article

Saving seed is easy and has many benefits - why not give it a go?