Don’t Fear the Swarm

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It begins this time of year in early spring.  You may glance over your shoulder or try to peer around hedge.  Could one be over there?  Nope.  Just a grouping of brown leaves.  Wait… what’s that noise?  The hum of a motor?  An overhead light buzzing? You ponder staying indoors for the next month or longer.  Surely those late-night science fiction movies on this very topic you’ve watched in the dark are based on science, right?   But before your fear inhibits your enjoyment of the outdoors, just breathe deeply and repeat after me, “Don’t fear the swarm”.

One of the most mesmerizing images in nature is a honey bee swarm.  It is a ball of living, breathing bees all tightly clustered together.  Often in odd locations.  Hanging off the side mirror of a car.  From the bottom of a mailbox.  A branch of a dead tree.  Perhaps even the gutter of a house?  Forget the horror films that vilify a swarm, in reality, it is truly a sight to behold.

honey bee swarm

honey bee swarm

Just what is a swarm you ask?  It is a natural event in which a colony of bees creates a new colony.  Overcrowding is what kicks off this event.  There just simply isn’t enough room in the colony (hive) for the growing number of honey bees.  At this point, some of the workers begin to create queen cells or cups (in which new queens will grow).  These cells are quite distinct… they are typically hang vertically from the lower portion of the honeycomb and are much larger than the cells from which a worker bee will emerge.  And if the large cells aren’t enough of a clue, they have another distinguishing feature…. these cells look like peanut shells, dimples and all.

As the queen cells are being made, other bees begin scouting flights… searching for a potential new home.

Prior to swarming, the departing bees will gorge themselves on honey.  Think of it as one-for-the-road.  It may be a day or two (after they leave the colony) before they settle into a new home.

When a swarm happens, approximately 50% of the bees (workers as well as drones) leave the colony with the old queen.  The air is filled with bees as they exit their home… whether it is a hollow tree or a beekeeper’s hive.  This mass of bees travels together like a cloud.  Generally a short distance from their old home, the bees cluster together, hanging off of an object such as a tree branch.  Within this cluster, the queen is in the middle… protected.  Scout bees leave the cluster in search of a new home.

honey bee swarm on tree branch

honey bee swarm on tree branch

Some people are terrified when they see the cluster.  They believe that the bees are just waiting for them.   But unless you start swatting or poking at the swarm, they are content to leave you alone.  They are ‘homeless’ for the time being and therefore not defensive about their location.  Remember those scouting bees?  The cluster is waiting for them to return and do their dance to indicate potential new locations.

What are the scout bees looking for?  Specifically a place that will provide protection from the elements.  Also… the new location must have not only enough space for the swarm, but also for the new bees that will be hatched from this homeless colony.  And once a place is found, the cluster will break apart and travel as a cloud of bees to their new home.  (Finding a new location may only take about an hour upwards to a day).

So friends, don’t fear the swarm.  It is a natural event that begins in spring.  These bees are simply looking for a new place they can call home.

Natural Finish for Beehives

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Natural Finish for Beehives

Keeping backyard bees is one of my greatest pleasures.  Sitting on the patio with a cup of coffee in hand, I watch their comings and goings daily.  Foraging bees return with water, pollen, and nectar.  Departing bees head out in a direction based upon the dance they watched in the hive.  In spite of the activity, they never fly into each other. It is very much like watching the planes at a very busy airport, but on a much smaller scale.

Besides being a beekeeper, I am also an organic and sustainable gardener.  All of my actions are thoughtful and deliberate.  A healthy environment is good for man and insect.  With a newly constructed hive waiting for a finish, there is no doubt that the coating will be natural and non-toxic for the soon-to-be inhabitants.

To start off the process, I consulted our small library of beekeeping books, read through various bee forums, and consulted with long time beekeepers.  The one finish that was referred to over and over was a combination of linseed oil and beeswax.

Why linseed oil?  It a natural product made from flaxseed.  This oil has been used as a wood preservative as well as providing water resistance for centuries.  As far as beeswax goes, it has been used as a wood conditioner for ages.  It helps keep wood from drying out and also protects against moisture.

But before you create your natural finish, please be aware that there are a few potential issues when working with linseed oil.  (For me, the benefits far outweigh these issues).

Potential Issues for Linseed Oil

  1. Surfaces may attract mildew.  Not as much of an issue in drier climates.
  2. No protection against ultraviolet light so wood fibers can deteriorate.
  3.  It can be difficult to remove from wood if you change your mind and want to apply something else.
  4. And most notably… it takes a long time to dry.  It may take from a few weeks depending on how thickly it was applied.  For best (and quick) results, apply in very thin coats.

    applying a thin coat

    applying a thin coat

It is worth noting that the type of linseed oil I used is raw, not boiled.  It was my personal choice to stay with raw linseed oil.  Boiled linseed oil has metallic dryers added which help speed up the drying process where raw linseed oil has no driers added.  Examples of oil-soluble metal salts include: manganese with zirconium, cobalt, and lead per  Steven D. Russell.

Benefits of linseed Oil

  1. Seeps into the wood which enhances the look of the grain.
  2. It is water-resistant.
  3. Easy to apply.
  4. Continues to protect as the wood expands and contracts depending on conditions.

Linseed Oil/Beeswax Recipe

  • 1 ounce beeswax, shredded or in pellet form
  • 4 Cups linseed oil

Melt the beeswax slowly, taking care not to take it over 160F.  It is combustible at that point.  You can melt the beeswax  and linseed oil in a double boiler or you can melt it in a pan on the stove, but at a low temperature setting.  You could also melt the beeswax separately, but it will begin to harden in clumps once the cool oil is introduced to the pan.  By melting them together… no more clumps.  Even when the mixture cools, there are no clumps of beeswax, it is one unified blend.

melting beeswax with linseed oil

melting beeswax with linseed oil

You are now ready to apply the mixture to the exterior of the hive.  A brush or a rag work equally well.  Remember to apply a thin coat to the unfinished wood of your hive.  Once it has dried, you may add another coat, but be prepared to wait a week or more for it to dry before you can apply the second coat.

unfinished hive with cloth and linseed oil beeswax mixture

unfinished hive with cloth and linseed oil beeswax mixture

Add this recipe to your natural beekeeping arsenal.  This mixture is non-toxic to bees, provides moisture protection, acts as a wood conditioner, and wood preservative.  Sure it may take some patience as you wait between coats for the finish to dry, but your efforts will be greatly rewarded.  What you end up with is a beautiful finish that will last for years that enhances the natural wood grain.

cedar beehive with linseed oil-beeswax finish

cedar beehive with linseed oil-beeswax finish

Perfect in Pink: Flowering Almond

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Spring gently wakes us from our winter slumber.  Her kiss is warm and gentle.  Against our ears, she sighs, whispering verdant promises.  We in turn open our eyes, rubbing away the sleep and memories of snow, cold, and blustery days.   Oh… spring, you are a seductress.  You float heady aromas of freshly turned soil, newly mown grass, rain showers, and hyacinths.  And to top it all off, you display you finest, soft pastels.  If spring could be just one plant, in my mind, she would be a Pink Flowering Almond.

This charming shrub is one of the mid-spring bloomers (April – May).  As the name implies, the flowers are pink.  A soft, pastel pink. And she is a prolific bloomer.  This plant doesn’t coyly lift a slip to give us a peak at her ankle.  This brazen shrub rips away her bodice to show off full-frontal blossoms cascading down her branches.  The blooms are even more spectacular since there is no competition with the foliage as the plant leafs out after the pastel pink display.

Profusion of double flowers

Profusion of double flowers

It is for this very reason, this shrub deserves a spot in your garden.  She will not only wow you, but your neighbors and anyone else who passes by as well.

Now for the specifics.  Her latin name is prunus glandulosa and she is a shrub and not to be confused with prunus triloba which is the flowering almond tree.  Nursery staff will let you know that this plant ideally grows in USDA hardiness zones 5 – 8.  This is a very broad range,  spanning most of the United States from coast to coast.

When selecting a place to plant this shrub, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Size: Pink flowering almond is approximately 4′ to 6′ high and the same width.  This would make it a great border plant (but don’t tuck her away in the back where she can’t be seen) or even a specimen that is located front and center in your landscape.

    Pink Flowering Almond shrub

    Pink Flowering Almond shrub

  2. Sunlight:  This plant prefers full sun, but will tolerate partial shade.
  3. Soil: Neutral to just slightly acidic works best for this plant.  If you are unsure about your soil’s pH, go ahead and have it tested.  And speaking of soil, well-drained and loamy is ideal, but this plant will tolerate other soil types.
  4. Moisture: This plant is known for tolerating drought conditions, but don’t expect this plant to thrive in a xeric landscape.  Pink Flowering Almond prefers moist, but not wet conditions.

This plant is easy to prune so you can control the size of the plant.  But with such a showcase of blooms… let the plant reach its mature size for maximum impact.  Careful site selection at planting will help ensure you don’t try to squeeze this plant into a space that is too small.

double pink flowers

double pink flowers

So for those of you waking from your winter’s slumber… it is not a dream.  Spring is here and she has taken the shape of the beautiful Pink Flowering Almond.