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The milk house sits at the end of the old barn. When my parents bought the property, the barn was already very old. My dad made windows for it, repaired missing and broken boards, built storage rooms, and created space for the horses to come and go. Horses still come and go at the far end of the barn, and I imagine the loft holds hay. Other than that, I don’t think the barn sees much action; my brother’s family focuses attention around their house.

Way back in February, Your Home Kitchen Garden started cheerleading for kitchen gardeners to take up beekeeping. While I promised this blog would not become exclusively about beekeeping, I also vowed to install a beehive in my own home kitchen garden some time in May.

I’ve been a bit quiet about beekeeping lately, but I have been pursuing the dream. In May, I made a day trip to Ithaca to pick up my dad’s beekeeping equipment. I began my trip with high enthusiasm. And, while the trip got me much closer to the goal of starting a bee hive, it was also a significant setback.

The Old Farmstead

I grew up in the city of Ithaca in upstate New York. When I say “city,” I mean I lived in a house in the city. Ithaca is a small city, and things turn rural quickly when you drive away from city center. When I was in my early teens, my parents bought a farm about 15 miles from our house, and we commuted to the farm on weekends and occasional weeknights.

The home kitchen garden of my youth was a masterpiece painted by tractor, plow, and disc. We hauled horse manure, my mom planted and hauled water, and we mulched the whole thing with black plastic. The garden now hosts impressive stag horn sumac trees and some underbrush.

The farm has about 100 acres of mostly wooded land, with only about four acres of fields. A stream cuts through the property and passes within about thirty feet of a big old timber-frame dairy barn. There’s a tiny shack we referred to as The Milk House at the street end of the barn. This used to house a refrigeration tank to hold freshly-harvested milk where a truck could pump it out and transported it to a processing plant.

We had converted the Milk House into an intimate bunk house with a tiny coal stove (in which we burned wood), had fenced the fields and some of the woods to serve as horse pasture, and had established a large in-ground garden bed along one side of the barn. There was no electricity, no running water, and only a portable chemical toilet.

Despite the inconveniences, we spent nearly every weekend visiting the farm to ride horses and do chores. My mom took control of the home kitchen garden—or can I call it that since technically it wasn’t at our home? My dad oversaw maintenance, and he managed beehives.

The Farmstead Today

Many, many years ago, one of my brothers installed a mobile home at the farm and lived there until his significant other’s job took them both to Boston and later to Maryland. Then another brother built a modular home where the mobile home had been. There, he’s raising two daughters and a menagerie of domestic critters.

To illustrate the passage of time, the spruce trees in this photo were between three and four feet tall when my parents bought the property. We fenced in the hillside on which the trees grow and referred to it as the lower pasture. When the horses were bored, they’d eat the spruce branches. The trees have put on close to 40 years’ growth since I first saw them.

My mom died 12 years ago, and my dad’s interests shifted from the barnyard area to the woods. He’s trying to grow various hardwood trees, I guess so he can harvest and sell them to lumber mills when he reaches 145 years of age. My brother’s priorities have never quite matched those that drew us all to the farm when we were kids, and the kitchen garden and the beehives have received no attention in many years; my mom’s garden bed is now home to a stand of sturdy sumac trees.

The Cost of Free Beekeeping Gear

I get back to Ithaca, perhaps, three times a year, but I rarely poke around the barn: I park in my brother’s driveway, and visit inside the house… or I stay with my dad in the city. It was a bit surprising to see that my brother’s horses have kicked a hole in the side of the barn. Other than that, things looked a lot as they had when I was involved with the farm twenty years ago.

Actually, it was uncanny that so many things in the barn seemed to be exactly where I’d seen them 20 years ago: the workbench, some trash cans, saddles, tools… all still in place, but now covered with a thick layer of dust. These are things that, understandably, offer no utility to my brother.

My dad stacked most of the hive bodies, supers, frames, covers, and bases in the barn many years ago where they’ve remained untouched by human hands. Unfortunately, mice had colonized the hive boxes, destroying old honeycomb and building nests in its place. It made me sad, but not in a judgmental way: Priorities change. I’d paid no attention at all until Colony Collapse Disorder emerged and bees were all over the news.

Main components of the beehives stood in several stacks to one side of the barn. Some components hung on hooks over the workbench, and others were in the drawers of the workbench. I began sorting through the stacks to find enough parts to assemble two hives. Essential components of a hive include:

  • A base
  • A hive body or brood chamber
  • A second brood chamber
  • Supers—as many as four or five by the end of a good season
  • An inner hive cover
  • An outer—or floating—hive cover
  • Frames to fill the brood chambers and supers

I also wanted to find the following items:

  • Queen excluders
  • Adjustable hive entrances
  • Bee escapes
  • Hive feeders
  • A hive tool
  • A frame lifter
  • A smoker
  • A pith helmet
  • A bee veil

For this post, I’ll leave you with the “shopping list.” I’ll explain what these things are in a later post.

A single brood chamber had broken away from the stack and tried to escape the barn. Apparently, it tripped on its way toward the exit and spilled its insides on the floor. The brood chamber’s attempted escape saved it from contamination by the mouse colonies, but it still needs a serious cleaning before I set it up as a bait hive.

The point of my story is that I found nearly all of these items. However, the essential components were in especially bad shape. As I removed brood chambers and supers from the stacks, I found two mouse nests inside the chambers. The mice had climbed to the tops of the stacks, chewed old honey comb from within the frames, and built large nests in the mined spaces.

At least one mouse nest had been there long enough that a whole bunch of mouse litter had sifted down through the lower hive boxes, contaminating everything with poop and pee. When I lifted the super containing the newer-looking mouse nest, a mouse fell out onto my foot, scurried up a cement wall, and disappeared under a heap of frames, hive bases, and hive covers.

Not a Great Start

I spent several hours sorting through hive bodies, pulling frames, busting the old (contaminated) beeswax from them, and stacking them in my car. Amazingly, my dad still had boxes of foundation—prepared sheets of beeswax or plastic that you mount on the frames and place inside brood chambers and supers. (There are hexagonal impressions pressed into the foundation sheets that provide a blueprint the bees follow when they build honeycomb.) Not so amazingly, a mouse had spent some time messing with the foundation; many sheets were stained with urine. Still, I found enough usable foundation to fill one brood chamber and one super; perfect to get started before having to buy any.

A brood chamber stands empty with a few pieces of useful gear on top. The bent metal object is a hive tool. You can use either end to pry frames from the hive, and to adjust frames once they’re in the hive. You can also use the tool to scrape off honey and propolis that the bees lay down in inconvenient places. The round metallic items are lids that fit on canning jars. Fill jars with sugar water, invert them in the wooden blocks you see holding the covers, and slide the blocks into the entrance of a beehive: you’ve just provided food for a young hive that hasn’t yet built honeycomb. The wooden sticks on the left are adjustable hive entrances. I’ll explain how they work in an upcoming post.

I scored two of everything on my list but a smoker, a pith helmet, and a bee veil. Except for foundation, I have enough essential components to start two hives, and can return to Ithaca to pick up more supers and frames should my bees require expansion space.

Here’s the rub: dealing with fifteen or more years of neglect was discouraging. I remember my dad assembling new, clean hive components when he started beekeeping, and that memory is way more romantic than the reality of working with dozens of mouse-damaged pieces caked in old, dried-out beeswax.

I estimate it will take a dedicated afternoon to clean a brood chamber and frames, mount foundation, and situate the hive near my garden. I’d have started this project in January had I anticipated the condition of the gear; there were no pressing gardening tasks to deal with in January.

So, I’m getting around to my bee operation about a month later than I’d wanted to. I still have inertia from my visit to Ithaca. There’s one more extenuating circumstance: my gardening budget can’t support the cost of packaged bees this year. So, my new goal is to set up the hive and bait it to attract a wild swarm. Conveniently, my dad offered up a partial frame of comb honey I can use as bait. Here’s hoping it attracts honey bees without also attracting bears.

 

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