Sunday, May 20, 2018


We had another bear attack a few weeks ago, this one on the two hives in our own yard.  Eric did his best to slap the hives back together, and then I picked up queen cells form a local master beekeeper, to help the hives recover with strong, new queens.

This afternoon, after face painting and balloon twisting in Ramsey, Eric and I finally had a non-rainy, fairly sunny-ish day to check on the bees!  Miracle of miracles!

So we took advantage of the opportunity and checked to see what was doing.

In the first photo, you can see a big empty space in the hive, which the bees are filling in with honeycomb.  Bees don't like spaces, and fill it - the larger ones with comb, the smaller ones with propolis.  This space was caused by the mess Eric faced when he put the hives back together post-attack, and he wasn't able to get all ten frames in there.  We're really going to have to figure out what to do about that, but right now, we're happy to let them have it so we don't kill the pupae in there and diminish their impending population.  In that photo, you can also see the very top of the queen cell that Eric installed, that green plastic cap is what it's attached to.  In the second photo is the bottom view of the same queen cell, with a nice round hole.  The queen hatched out, and hopefully is prepping for mating or is working on mating. 

We question what's going on a bit, because although we saw brood, we also saw a LOT of queen cells on that hive, built by the colony's workers themselves.  They're sealed and not hatched yet.  You can see them in the third photo - the ones hanging down looking like peanuts.  The bees build them out and down like that because queen bees need to grow bigger than workers, and will need that space.

In photo 4, you can see capped over honeycomb cells, which contain worker pupae.  We can tell by the way the caps look.  They're tan, rather than white (which would contain honey), and flat, rather than bumps (which would contain drones).  In the open cells, you can also see larvae, white worm-like bee babies.  The ones that pretty much fill their cells are obviously older than the ones that have smaller larvae set farther in.

Happily, in one of the photos, I also got a really nice shot of a drone, photo 5.  Those are the male bees, identifiable by their rounder, fatter abdomens (not really visible in the photo), and also their HUGE eyes, which are visible.  Aren't they crazy?

The sixth and seventh photos are just great shots of larvae and capped worker brood, in which pupae are busy growing, respectively.

And the eighth and ninth photos are photos of foragers coming on back home.  You can see the bright yellow pollen packed onto their back legs, and if you look closely, you can see one with red pollen.  I'd love to know what flora that's from!

Somewhere in the middle of it all, I was being a bit of a brute, and took two stings to my upper, inner thigh through my jeans.  I'm glad to have the first ones over with, and with some apple cider vinegar topically and a dose of prednisone, I'm absolutely fine.

The end result?  Both hives look good, and we added honey supers, hoping that they give us a crop this year.  The resource hive that Eric used to make a small colony looks amazing, so we put on a second level.  And since we had so many more frames with queen cells (more than the one in the photo here), we took a few to try more colonies in two more resource hives.  Theoretically, we could have five hives by the end of the season.  That would be nice after all the losses!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Sheep & Wool

This past weekend was the amazing New York State Sheep & Wool Festival at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY.  And when I say amazing, I mean it.  It's huge, with a hefty attendance.

It made me think... just a year ago, I'd just taken up spinning, and attended with friends, on the hunt for some wool and mohair roving with which to practice before my first angora bun shearing.  This year, I went with the same friends on Sunday, plus more spinning friends, plus Eric, to show him why I was so excited.

I've been spinning for over a year now, and I've gotten good fast, if I do say so myself.  This year, I had a more narrow idea of what I was looking for.  First, I got a huge bag - 5.5 lbs! - of a raw fleece I've never tried before... Navajo-Churro, a threatened heritage breed.  I'm glad to buy the fleece to spin, as a market for it will give the farmer/owners the incentive and capital they need to maintain and rebuild the breed.

I was also in the market for some natural dyes for my yarn, and some naturally-dyed roving.  I got these really nifty Japanese mud-based dyes that I'm very much looking forward to trying.  Plus I got some of the roving pictured below, the green you see in the top middle, which is Corriedale dyed in yarrow and indigo, and a beautiful bright yellow you can't see in the photo, more Corriedale, but dyed in weld.

There was braided roving too, which I've never tried.  Didn't get any this year, either, despite the tempting prettiness.

For the knitters, crocheters, and weavers who may or may not also be spinners, there was a boatload of yarn too.  The colors... all the colors!  Amazing.

There were finished products, too.  Knitted and crocheted clothes and accessories, felted suit, ornaments, toys, and cat beds.  And hooked tapestries and rugs.  I was, of course, enamored with the Halloween ones.

There were all sorts of tools I recognized, like carders, Turkish spindles, and even antique wheels.

There were even vendors of beautiful pelts.  Something for everyone, for sure.

But then I saw something I'd never seen before.  It was so cool!  It was a mini tabletop spinning wheel... that works like a walking/great wheel!  You draft with one hand while spinning the handle with the other.  I did try it, but stopped for fear of making a mess of their yarn.  It was hard!

And of course, the sheep part of Sheep and Wool... and goats, too!  It's settled, I really, really, really need angora goats.  Their fleece is mohair.  And they're adorable.

And they like to be scratched behind the ear, just like Jack.  In fact, this one tilted it's head just like Jack when Eric scratched it.

Look at that 'do!  Before they're sheared, they look like they have no eyes.  It's awesome.  I need them, I tell you.

And there were cashmere goats.  So soft!  These kids were adorable.

Of course, can't have a Sheep & Wool Festival without sheep.

The personality!

The bangs!

And?  Alpacas & llamas!

Alpacas are awesomely ridiculous looking, but llamas are really pretty.  Love those ears!

Check back here at Reef Botanicals, the Facebook page, and in the Facebook group to see what I do with my new acquisitions!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Maple Tapping: A How-To

In case anyone else wants to try this.  Instructions courtesy of Eric:

Step one:  Determine if your trees are maples (or otherwise tappable).  It can be hard to tell during the winter, but the branching patterns can help you determine what type of trees you have.  Oak trees, which are common here in New Jersey, have an alternating branching pattern, while maple trees have an opposite branching pattern (see image, below).  You can also tap walnut and birch trees, but they have a lower sugar content, so you'll need more sap to get syrup, but it will be equally tasty.  Obviously, if you're allergic to walnut, avoid tapping walnut trees.

Step two:  Order equipment.  You'll basically only need a few things.  Your taps, or spiles, are what go into the tree.  You'll need one tap for each tree over 12" in diameter, and 2 taps can be put into trees over 18".  Don't tap anything smaller than 12".  There are different types of spiles, metal and plastic, but they all work similarly.  Below is a photo of the ones we ordered.  Depending on the spiles you order, you may also need tubing to direct the flow into your container. Our spiles came with 2' lengths of tubing attached, as pictured.

You'll also need buckets to collect the sap.  You can use 1 gallon milk jugs or water bottles, but you'll need to collect the sap frequently.  We did this last year, and, sadly, probably lost a ton of sap to spillage without even realizing it.  We learned from our mistake, and this year are using 5 gallon pails with a hole drilled in the lid.  In just a day or two, we found that we already had 20 gallons of sap in 4 full buckets, so if you keep up with it, you can get quite a bit!

Step three:  Tap trees when temps are freezing at night and above freezing during the day.  You'll need a drill and a 5/16" wood bit for this.  Mark the bit at 1.5" with either tape or a thick sharpie marker.  You want to drill no more than 1.5" into your trees.  Don't skip the marking of the bit, as you don't want to go too deep and damage your trees.  Use a new bit, or one that has been cleaned well and wiped with alcohol to sanitize it.  Drill into your tree at a very slight upward angle to 1.5".  If it's a maple and the temperature is right, you should have sap flow almost immediately.  (When we tapped ours this year it was still a bit too cold, so there was no instantaneous flow, but it started the next day.)  Insert your spile, and carefully tap it in with a hammer, or (better yet) a rubber mallet.  Choke up on the hammer, and tap it in lightly until the hammer bounces back when you tap it.  Put your tubing in the bucket and you're done.  Wipe your bit down with alcohol before moving to the next tree to prevent possible disease transmission.

Step four:  Collect your sap frequently, and store it below 38 degrees.  If you have to leave it outside, cover it and try to keep it in a snow bank, or pile snow around it.  Sap should be used within a week.

Step five:  Freeze your sap.  We skipped this step last year, thinking it'd be a waste of time, and of course learned the hard way that it's actually a time saver.  This step separates much of the water out of your sap, and speeds up the boiling time.  We're definitely doing it this year; 10 gallons are already in the chest freezer.

Step six:  Clear your day.  Pour your sap in a large pot. (This is best done outside, on a large propane burner, or your house will become a rainforest, complete with dripping ceilings.  For real.  Don't ask me how I know this.)  Bring the sap to a rolling boil and watch it throughout the day, adding more sap as necessary to keep the pot 2/3 full.  Once it all boils down to a smaller amount, you can transfer the sap to a smaller pot and finish the boil indoors.  The sap is officially syrup when it reaches 219 degrees.  It takes up to 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, so seriously... Clear your day and start early.

A note - that was how we did it last year.  This year, we've bought an evaporator pan.  We'll be building a trough out of cinderblocks and placing two propane burners in it, with the pan over them.  This allows for a shallower, longer, wider surface and two burners rather than one, and is reputed to be much faster.  I'll be posting once we get to boiling, which will be Friday or Saturday, so watch this blog for more photos and updates!

Step seven:  Filter your syrup through a few layers of cheesecloth, and pour into pre-warmed canning jars (if you put 219 degree syrup into cold jars, they can crack, so make sure you warm them in a pot of hot water beforehand.  Wipe the rims of your jars, put the lids on, and screw the bands finger tight.  As they cool, the lids should pop in, and you can store your syrup at room temperature for a year or more.


Friday, January 6, 2017

There's a Reason I've Been So Quiet

Lots of reasons, actually.  They boil down to:  We've been busy!  Insanely busy.  And I've been downright lazy about keeping up here.  But at least now you get a ton of photos!

We had a warm spell back in the winter/early spring, which got the queen bees laying new brood early... and then a really cold snap that kept us from getting into the hives to do splits.  And then warmth... and then rain that again kept us from getting into the hives.

As a result, were dealing with swarms from all our hives for the entire spring and into the summer, in addition to the nucs we bought.  It was exhausting.  Eric was working from home a lot, and our friend Carol, who was a brand new beek and our mentee this season, also works from home, so they spent every day chasing swarms all over town.  We have one tree in the backyard we dubbed "the swarm tree," and at one point, it had three swarms in residence.

We weren't able to catch them all, and lost a lot of bees.  On top of that, we had bear attacks that took out six of the twenty-four hives to which we'd built up.  We tried combining, requeening, and did what we could.  It was a tough season that resulted in much more work and less honey than we anticipated, and us being down to eight hives now.  Fingers crossed they all make it through winter!

Agriculture is rough.  Love it anyway, even through the occasional tears.

On top of all of that, there's We Bee-lieve!  Eric and I have formed a NJ domestic nonprofit corporation to bring bees to kids and vice versa.  Feel free to visit the site or Facebook page (and "like" it to keep up with our doings!  We're on Instagram too!  The plan is doing bee talks, which we've already started (photos on the Facebook page and Instagram), plus put hives in depressed areas and teach kids everything from how to make seed bombs and what pollinators do all the way up to how to be beekeepers.  We have our five inaugural hives on the roof of the old Uniroyal factory in Passaic, NJ, and our initial investor is the land developer who owns that property.  It's amazing, and so far the girls up there are flourishing.  The hives are facing the Passaic River, where there must be a ton of forage, because over the spring and summer they were working their little wings off bringing in nectar and pollen.

In case we weren't missing enough sleep (Who needs sleep?  Sleep is boring!), we've taken on some new endeavors too!  First of all, Eric has gotten into fine woodworking.  You can see his wares at Blades and Board, and like his Facebook page if you're interested in also seeing his stuff that doesn't get listed for sale.  He's really amazingly talented.  In addition to the stuff on his site and FB page, we had a joint effort... he turned apple wood and walnut ornaments, and I painted them!  We got a ton of custom orders, which was fun but harrowing.  These are a few of the ones we did...

Of course, I couldn't let Eric have all the fun!  I've taken up some new avocations too!  It just so happens that Eric and I made some new friends from whom got these angora buns...

Washburne William, a/k/a "Wash"

Malcolm Lassie, a/k/a "Mal," together with Jack

How freakin' cute are they?... and this drop spindle...

... and what felt about two seconds later, I had this spinning wheel.

She's a 1960-something Ashford Traditional, named Serenity (you nerds will get the connection if you read the buns' names), and I made some more new friends in the process of the purchase!  This was in October, and I've been spinning ever since!  I'm completely addicted.  I even got to spin with some help from Santa when Eric and I were vendors at a holiday festival.

And for Chanukah, Eric got me the best gifts ever.

Those right there are two yarn dyeing books, which I plan to start reading imminently.  I'm really looking forward to putting the one on the left to good use right away, and the one on the right, which is about creating natural dyes, to good use come spring when things start blooming.  Apparently tickseed makes an amazing red-orange that Eric is really looking forward to.

In the middle is King Gumdrop, an out-of-print antique book (1916) I had as a kid, which has old candy recipes in the back!  And that little thing there is a remote shutter control for my DSLR.  Expect some amazing photos of the bees come spring!

Meanwhile, I think in the not too distant future, there will be yarn for sale!
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