Category Archives: Agriculture

First hive inspection

We inspected our beehives Sunday afternoon for the first time this season. Most beekeepers evaluate their colonies based on visual evidence: Are the bees active? Is the queen laying a nice brood pattern? How much comb have the girls drawn out? How big does the colony appear to be?

Those things are all worth considering, but I can usually determine the relative health of a colony the instant I open the hive cover.

A weak colony has a pungent, acrid odor that overpowers the natural smell of beeswax and honey and worsens in the presence of opportunistic parasites such as wax moths.

A strong colony, on the other hand, is the most intoxicatingly fragrant thing on earth. It smells of honey and beeswax, of course, but stronger, and with headier scents — exotic flowers, freshly mown grass, and something subtle and indescribable — mixed in. If somebody could replicate the smell of a healthy colony of honeybees, that person would almost certainly put Yankee Candle right out of business.

I knew as soon as I opened the outer covers Sunday afternoon that we had three very healthy colonies. We went ahead and opened the inner hive covers and pulled a few frames, just to confirm my evaluation for Ron, whose sense of smell isn’t quite as sharp as mine. Our findings are below the fold.

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Ask the Hippie: Artisanal Honey

Q. I saw an ad for something called “artisanal honey.” What is it, and is it worth an extra $15 to $20 a pound?

A. “Artisanal honey” is a misleading term that a handful of beekeepers with questionable scruples are using to take advantage of ignorant snobs who spend way too much time watching the Food Network and way too little time watching the Discovery Channel.

The term artisanal refers to monofloral honey (that is, honey made from the nectar of a single plant species), which is produced by placing a beehive in an area where a particular plant is blooming, then harvesting the honey as soon as the nectar flow ends.

While this practice gives the beekeeper a measure of control over the flavor of the honey — for instance, tupelo honey is very light and mild-tasting, while buckwheat honey is dark and intense — it does not make the beekeeper in question an “artisan.”

The word artisan refers to someone who is skilled at some type of handicraft: baskteweaving, pottery, metalsmithing, cooking, etc. People who render beeswax and use it to make soap or candles are artisans. People who take honey out of a hive and sell it are not artisans. They are simply beekeepers. There is no “art” involved in picking up a hive, putting it on a truck, and driving somewhere. If moving heavy objects made one an artisan, Mayflower Trucking would set up booths at craft shows and Ren fairs.

I hate it when monofloral honey is labeled as “artisanal,” because the term reinforces the false perception that beekeepers make honey. We don’t. We just give our bees a comfortable place to live, try to protect them from predators and parasites, and swipe a little of their honey now and then in exchange for our services.

I don’t have a problem with beekeepers charging more for better honey. If I end up with a frame or two of unusually flavorful honey, I want it to end up in a good home where it will be savored and enjoyed and not just poured over some toddler’s Chicken McNuggets, so I’ll probably charge an extra dollar a pound for it.

I will not, however, attempt to convince the buyer that I am an “artisan” just so I can overinflate the price. Local honey should cost about $4 to $8 a pound, depending on the kind and quality. Any more than that, and you’re probably getting ripped off, no matter how artistic the beekeeper claims to be.

Emily

Ridiculously busy week

OK … since my adventures on Route 66 last weekend, I’ve been pretty going pretty much hell-for-leather every single day: ballgame after school Monday, kempo on Tuesday, boatloads of grading on Wednesday, homework night on Thursday, ballgame Friday, honey harvest and a neighborhood block party today.

Thursday was our first homework night of the year. I’ve done this since I started teaching, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve come up with. About once a month, I’ll look at my calendar and the kids’ grades and call a “homework night,” which is really more of a catching-up session for the kids whose grades are suffering because of missing assignments. I provide after-school snacks and stay late — usually until 6 p.m. — helping kids catch up on their missing work. Anything they turn in at that time is graded and recorded on the spot so they can see how it affects their grade. I also do some tutoring in other subjects if time allows and the kids need it.

We set a record for homework night attendance on Thursday: 30 kids signed in, and I think I had two or three others who forgot to sign the sheet. I wound up staying until 7 p.m. Four kids were still working on things at 6:30, and two girls stuck around to shoot the bull and help me clean up the classroom. It was great.

I spent most of today harvesting honey, extracting it, and rendering beeswax. We ended up with about 35 pounds of honey, which wasn’t quite as much as I’d hoped, but probably more than I had any right to expect after the heat wave and monthlong drought we had this summer.

Hope your week was good.

Emily

Beeks and frogs

This evening was awesome. As soon as Ron got home from work, we put the dogs out and then headed up to Mannford to pick up a new beehive. Ron had made arrangements to buy a colony of survivor stock from a guy who catches feral swarms for a living.

Our host was an old hippie who lives at the end of a gravel road way out in the sticks and is in the process of building an igloo-shaped honey house out of concrete and native stone. His property is heavily wooded, and there are beehives everywhere you look. I could smell bees as soon as we got out of the car. It was awesome.

Two other beeks — both rookies — joined us while we were out there, and we spent a long time looking in hives and talking shop while we waited for all the girls to come in for the night so we could take our hives. It was very cool.

If somebody would make beehive-scented perfume, I would wear it all the time. Nothing in this world smells nicer than a healthy beehive. It’s positively intoxicating.

We came home to find our neighborhood practically echoing with the sound of frogs calling to each other. I fed the dogs while Ron put our new hive out in the bee yard, and then he called me outside to see something he’d noticed on his way in:

This little guy was just hanging out on Smeagol’s head, singing his heart out. It was too dark for me to get a very good picture, but you get the idea.

Hope your evening was as nice as ours.

Emily

Ladybugs!

Tuesday was a good day. First, I went for a jog along the River Parks trail. Plan A was to go three miles and call it a day, but as I was crossing the 23rd Street bridge, I decided the pedestrian bridge at 31st Street looked so cool and shady that I just had to run it, so I added another mile to my workout.

When I got home, I discovered that the ladybugs Ron had ordered from Gardens Alive! were in, so I insisted on taking pictures of them while he was putting them on the rugosas:

I like the little one on the left, perched on that piece of excelsior that’s sticking out the side.

Ladybugs are hard to photograph up close, as they move too fast for me to keep them in focus long enough to take the picture, but I managed to get a couple of usable shots.

Notice the feet. I love itty-bitty bug toes.

We went to dinner at Hickory House Bar-B-Q in Sapulpa, which has a great salad bar that includes plenty of tabouli and pasta salad — perfect for refueling after a run — and then headed over to Best Buy to play with iPads. When we came out, I discovered that a random stranger had signed the chalkboard on the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcar. I’d been hoping that would happen, and it finally did. Yaaaaaaaayyyyyyy!

Speaking of the car, we took it out to the Sidewalk Highway on Sunday. Ron got a photo of Riggy and me hanging out on the road.

Riggy does not enjoy traveling as much as Scout did, but he hasn’t had as much practice, either. I imagine he’ll get the hang of it one of these days. I try to make sure he gets a special treat wherever we go so that he’ll learn to associate the car with fun road trips and nice things to eat. Right now, he just gets nervous. He’s much more pack-oriented than Scout was, and I think it just freaks him out to be away from the other dogs.

Have I mentioned lately how much fun I am having with this car? Kids keep walking up to me in the hall at school to tell me how much they like it, and even trips to the grocery store and the gas station are more interesting now that random strangers stop to ask me about it. I’ve always loved art cars, but I never imagined so many other people did, too.

Emily

Springtime in Red Fork

This is what our deck looked like a few days ago:

In case you are wondering, wisteria smells heavenly. For a few glorious days, our deck was an utterly gorgeous place to be. (The bumblebees thought so, too, and were rather assertive about guarding the blossoms.)

A closer look at one of the blossoms. They look and smell a lot like the royal paulownias that were blooming all over southern California when we were there last June.

I discovered this little guy in a hanging basket that’s been enveloped in wisteria vines. One of his siblings didn’t make it — I found it on the ground — but Ron found another one the deck a little while later and put it back into the nest. I’d been concerned that the nest was abandoned, but Ron said the mama bird sat nearby, giving him the skunk-eye and yelling at him, when she saw him pick up her baby.

Our front flowerbed was a sea of purple when the grape hyacinths and violas started blooming at the same time. This was a few days ago. The hyacinths have since faded, but the violas are blooming even more profusely now and have been joined by native violets. My great-grandmother would be proud. Purple was her favorite color.

Speaking of purple, here’s an extreme close-up of one of the chive blossoms. I just have them in a smallish container on the deck. They don’t seem to mind; they’ve come back two years in a row.

We planted tomatoes yesterday evening. We bought only seven plants this year — less than half our usual number — but I’m hoping for a record harvest anyway, as we are really babying these plants: The raised beds are full of horse manure and barn litter, and we bought some red plastic mulch to lock in moisture and stimulate growth. I’ll probably treat them with seaweed tea before it’s over, too. Tomatoes love seaweed tea.

I love rugosas. They’re tougher and less temperamental than regular roses, they smell absolutely wonderful, and they produce intensely flavored hips as big around as quarters — wonderful for making Red Zinger tea. (Speaking of which, I need to get some hibiscus and lemongrass for the corner flowerbed in the front yard.)

A closer look at a rugosa blossom.

Last but certainly not least, here’s the bee yard. We planted buckwheat in the garden next year to give the girls a convenient nectar source (and hopefully produce darker, richer honey).

A closer look at the bee yard. The hive in the middle is in its third or fourth year (I’ve lost track) and is populated with golden Italians. The hive on the right is in its second year and is occupied by a colony of feisty Buckfasts. The hive on the left houses a brand-new Buckfast colony.

I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this already, but we have a new chicken. A couple of weeks ago, we bought a buff Orpington rooster from a lady in Beggs. We named him Bond, of course. He’s very pretty and has fairly decent manners — not too loud, and not inclined to crow at night. Guess we’ll keep him around for a while.

Hope your spring is as pretty and productive as ours….

Emily

Recipe

Recipe for a perfect spring day:

1 morning spent checking a hive at Living Kitchen
1 trip to the feed store
1 drive through the countryside 
30 minutes hanging out with two extremely cool people and their beautiful horses
1 pickup load of half-composted horse manure (thanks, Zaphod!)
1 trip to see the Tomato Man’s Daughter on opening day
1 hour working in the bed of the truck with a manure rake
1 trip to the hardware store

Mix all ingredients and bake slowly under a dazzling Oklahoma sky until slightly sunburned. Serve with snow cones or fudge bars.

Emily

Fuzzy friends

We went down to Nuyaka to move a hive of golden Italians tonight. The location is great for the bees, but it’s so far away that we can’t really keep an eye on them as well as we’d like.

Despite the lack of assistance from us, the girls seem to have made it through the winter just fine and are doing a nice job of building up brood for this season. We took them to Living Kitchen and set them up with a jar of sugar water. We’ll take them a Brood Builder patty (think of it as a sort of Clif Bar for bees) and check the bottom hive body on Saturday morning. We wanted to leave them alone and give them a chance to settle in tonight, as they’d had a stressful evening.

We had to get to Nuyaka while it was still light out to make sure everything was OK with the hive and get set up to move it, but we waited until dusk to do the actual move so the bees would be back in the hive and wouldn’t get left behind. We’d parked very close to the hive, and it was cool to watch the girls fly around the car. Some of them kept looking in the windows at us. If I’d had better light, I would have taken video, because it was cool to sit in the car and watch them.

The Buckfasts we installed yesterday are quite vigorous and seem to be a rather feisty lot, which is how we like them. I’m looking forward to getting our Russians and Carnies.

The Italians we have in the garden are looking a bit lethargic, so I think we’re going to requeen that hive if it doesn’t perk up soon. We’re looking at either Minnesota Hygienic or survivor stock. We’ll see how that goes.

Emily

Poor little chick

I came in this evening after school and discovered that five of the chicks had ganged up on the sixth one and pulled all the feathers off her back. Poor little thing looked like Steve Carell’s chest in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

I rustled up an empty gerbil cage and turned it into a makeshift holding pen for the hazing victim. She is not happy about being separated from the flock, but I’m afraid the other chicks will hurt her if I leave her with them. She can go back once her feathers have grown in, but that bald spot is just too easy a target for sharp little beaks right now.

Emily

Chick update

The chicks have figured out the water bottle I attached to their cage yesterday and have become quite adept at using it. This is a very good thing, as they kept knocking over their water dispenser and fouling the water by kicking litter into it. When we switched to a trough, the water really got nasty. The hamster bottle mounted to the outside of the cage solves both problems. I highly recommend it for anyone trying to figure out how to supply clean water to young chickens.

Emily