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Home Beekeeping

Few gardening-related hobbies are as fascinating and satisfying as raising honey bees. Contribute to the health of your area's honey bee population. Buy this guide to learning bee culture and start your own bee hives.

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Raise adoring pets that pay you back with delicious and nutritious fresh eggs. This offer provides all the information you need to get started with your own backyard chickens. Click here today to get started in this rewarding hobby.

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Learn to preserve the produce you grow in your home kitchen garden. This home canning starter kit includes everything you need to can your first batch using the boiling water bath method for high-acid foods. Find it and other canning supplies at the Home Kitchen Garden Store.

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pollination

What’s Your Favorite Chore?

Please leave a comment identifying the gardening chore that you enjoy above all others.

As spring slowly gets rolling in my home kitchen garden, I’m doing a few gardening tasks that I particularly enjoy. I’ve finished pruning my fruit trees, and have made about three dozen grafts (here, in reverse order, are posts in which I wrote about pruning and grafting apple trees). I love pruning and grafting because it gets me outdoors in trees while most people are still indoors awaiting warmer weather. There are few times when unadulterated sounds of nature are so audible in my yard.

To pollinate squash or pumpkins, I pick a male flower, tear off its petals, and rub the stamen/anther structure around on the pistols of any open fruiting flowers. Since I started doing this, my squash and pumpkins in my home kitchen garden have been reliably prolific.

With the temperature finally climbing, I plan to lay out some rows in my garden, and start peas, spinach, lettuce, and, perhaps, cilantro during the weekend. The prospect of working in the garden has me a little jazzed, but I admit that I don’t care for some spring gardening chores. I don’t till the whole garden; I turn soil directly where I’m planting. However, I also dig out every weed that I ignored through last year’s growing season. I don’t enjoy weeding, so I reserve the job for early spring when I have greatest enthusiasm for gardening.

Chore Anticipation

As I’ve completed my cherished late-winter tasks, and I anticipate the early spring weeding and planting, I realize I’m looking forward to some specific gardening moments that won’t come until later in the season. Harvesting just about anything is right up there on my list of favorites. Even better is cooking with the harvested produce. I especially love to make new potatoes and peas (I meant to share this mid-winter, but now it’ll have to wait until I’m picking peas), and nothing beats this awesome tomato salad.

Still, there’s one gardening chore that I anticipate more than any other: pollinating squash and pumpkins.

Growing Squash and Pumpkins

A pumpkin surrounded by squash and (shudder) gourds from my home kitchen garden. In a moment of weakness, I planted gourds one season and they came back on their own for two more years. My attitude now: if I’m not going to eat it, I’m not planting it.

In my first year growing squash and pumpkins, I felt some despair when I’d notice a female flower blossom and then, a few days later, fall off the plant along with the fruit. Eventually, I guessed that only pollinated squash and pumpkin flowers grow into fruit, so I initiated the morning pollination patrol.

In the cool of each summer morning, I pluck a male squash flower and strip away its petals. Then I wade among the squash plants, and use the stamen/anther of the flower I hold to paint the pistols of any female flowers I find in bloom.

I listen to birds sing, I watch bees work, I enjoy textures and aromas of the vegetable plants, and I bask in the cool that will soon wilt under the rising sun. It takes about three minutes to spot all the squash flowers and pollinate the ones that fruit. Still, it takes about a half-hour for me to return from this gardening chore that I most enjoy.

What’s Yours?

Please share! Leave a comment describing the one garden chore that you enjoy above all others.

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There are not yet blossoms on my apple trees… and if there were there’d be no bees to pollinate them. This year, my bees will miss the apple blossoms, but next season, they’ll be first in line.

Some weeks ago I started this discussion about getting beehives for your home kitchen garden. Then, I posted a video that describes a starter beekeeping kit and I promised more videos that show fine points about assembling parts of a beehive, and that show how to install a mail-order package of bees in a hive.

If you’re in hardiness zone 6 or below (farther North), plan to start bees in May. Unless there’s a local retailer who sells hives, you should order gear now so you have time to assemble it in April before your bees arrive.

I’ve browsed dozens of videos on YouTube in search of some to help explain beekeeping and show how easy it is to do. There are plenty, each with its own quirks. The two I’ve embedded here show typical steps to starting hives. I’ll be starting at least one hive in May, and will share my experiences as they unfold. But this blog isn’t about beekeeping, so, as the growing season approaches, I’ll present other topics of use to all home kitchen gardeners.

Whether you’re starting bees in May along with me, or visiting to learn more about growing, eating, and preserving your own produce, please visit often, leave comments and questions to move the discussion along, subscribe to my RSS feed, and bookmark to show your support. I’m looking forward to a productive season in my home kitchen garden as I hope you are in yours. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos about beekeeping.

A Frame and Foundation

This video shows a man assembling a frame and installing foundation on it. You’ll see such assembled frames in the next video as the beekeeper there fills a hive body with them.

Low-Impact Installation

I like the installation technique in the following video. Traditional beekeepers often bang the bees around severely and shake them into the hive. This video shows a gentle aternative: putting the shipping container into the hive box and letting the bees emerge from it in their own time. If you use this approach, you’ll need to go in in a week or two, remove the shipping box, and insert frames to fill the space.

If you don’t like to get stung by bees, WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR! There’s no shame in it, despite the daring beekeepers who work without gloves and bonnets. I’ll be dressed heavily when I work my bees!

 

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Bees become active in the spring even as the very earliest flowers blossom. However, in zones 5b and colder, it’s best to wait until May to start new hives. A young colony will grow quickly when there’s plenty of food to gather nearby.

At then end of 2008, I vowed that Your Home Kitchen Garden would become an advocate for honey bees. In a recent post titled Home Kitchen Garden Beekeepers, I shared some of my childhood to encourage gardeners to become beekeepers. Since then, I had a conversation with my dad in which he agreed I could acquire some of his beehives and beekeeping gear.

I want to start a bee colony or two in my home kitchen garden in May. This means acquiring his gear, inspecting it and cleaning whatever is still usable, upgrading some parts to take advantage of improvement in bee culture over the past 30 years, and ordering bees so they arrive in early-to-mid May.

Bee Emboldened

Before my dad decided to raise honey bees, he knew almost nothing about them. He picked up a book or two and read… as did my brother and I, and he got his hands on a catalog from a company called Dadant & Sons. During maple sugar season, he assembled hive bodies and frames from mail-ordered kits, following the directions that came with them. My dad wasn’t a professional carpenter, but he made the assembly look easy.

Nearly all of our beekeeping knowledge came from those books, and from asking questions of neighbors and friends (one of my dad’s work associates was a beekeeper). You have far greater advantages. There are far more books about beekeeping available today, there are more manufacturers and suppliers than ever, and the Internet provides ready access to dozens of useful sources—including enthusiastic beekeepers who are happy to answer questions.

Did you know that an apple will form even from an unpollenated blossom? Unpollenated apples are much smaller than pollinated apples. Interestingly, sometimes a bee pollinates only part of an apple. When that happens, the pollinated lobes grow large while the unpollinated lobes remain small; you get a rather strange-looking apple as a result. If you raise bees, chances are that food-producing plants in your neighborhood will produce better.

Beekeeping References

In my youth, the standout books about beekeeping were The Hive and the Honey Bee written by L.L. Langstroth, and The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture by AI Root and ER Root. Both books have been around long enough to become seriously out of date. However, recent updates make The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture completely relevant (revision 41). For kicks, an old copy of The Hive and the Honey Bee (most recent revision was in 1992) is still a good read, but I’d look to more modern publications for serious guidance.

When you commit to beekeeping, get The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture and consult it often. But to get started, choose a book specifically written for beginners. I’ve added a section on beekeeping to Your Home Kitchen Garden store where you’ll find several appropriate books to help you get started. Also, biggerbooks.com has a decent selection of books about beekeeping.

Beekeeping Really is Easy

I’ve spent several hours in the past few weeks reviewing videos that give a clear understanding of basic beekeeping activities—and that reveal how simple beekeeping really is. I wanted a video that reviews the components of a modern beehive, that explains how to assemble the pieces, and that shows how to install a new package of bees. I couldn’t find one I like.

I did find several videos that, taken together, cover most of these topics reasonably well. The first, embedded here, is more of an advertisement for a beekeeping supply store than it is a robust do-it-yourself tutorial. Still, it shows a beehive unassembled so you have some idea of the parts you’ll need to nail together if you buy a kit through the mail.

Please have a look, and check back soon. In my next post, I’ll include a video showing the finer points of assembling components of a hive, and video in which a beekeeper installs a new shipment of bees into a fully-assembled hive.

 

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When a beehive gets crowded, the queen departs with several tens of thousands of workers. We spotted this swarm clumped on the trunk of a young spruce tree and installed it into one of our working hives.

In a recent guest post on the Northwest Garden Show blog, I suggested that if you have a Home Kitchen Garden, perhaps you should take up beekeeping. With our honeybee population beleaguered by Colony Collapse Disorder, foul brood, wax moths, and mites, every gardener should be concerned.

Please at least employ gardening practices that encourage pollinators and that protect them from harm. This means eliminating chemicals from your gardening activity, or learning to apply them so they present the least possible danger to pollinators. It means growing a variety of plants that produce flowers in all seasons. It means going easy on weeds that provide pollen and nectar to bees. It means letting your herbs and vegetables flower even when you’re done with them. It means providing places in your garden that provide shelter from wind and rain. And it means leaving dead spent vegetable plants to die, dry, and winter over in your garden. (I’ll expand on these suggestions in a later post.)

Best of all, Become a Beekeeper

That’s my dad to your left, and me to your right. Yes, those are 1970s-era bell-bottom denim pants. It’s a pain to stuff bell bottoms into your socks. The white box to my dad’s right is a bee hive, probably newly-started with mail-order bees only a few weeks earlier.

Becoming a beekeeper is the most outrageous suggestion I made in that guest post. Honestly, it’s not all that outrageous a suggestion. Preparing for a honeybee colony requires a bit of do-it-yourself savvy, but an active bee hive requires far less attention than a housedog. And, while your bees won’t be nearly as cuddly as a dog, learning about how bees behave and getting to know their idiosyncrasies is both entertaining and satisfying. What’s more, with surprisingly little effort, even one bee hive can return many quarts of honey in a season.

Been There, Done That

When I was in my teens, my brother convinced my dad it would be a good idea to raise bees—though I think we called it raising honey. Being mildly allergic to bee stings, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, and I was kind of detached as my dad received beekeeping equipment via mail-order (close to 20 years before the Internet happened), and assembled bee hives in our living room.

When I learned that bees would arrive in the mail, and somehow end up in the boxes my dad built, I started to take notice. Once his beekeeping operation was in full-swing, I was hooked: those critters were fascinating. I enjoyed working the bees, and I enjoyed reading about bee culture.

We Captured a Honeybee Swarm

In coming months we’ll explore the honey-raising experience. I’ll share some memories, and we’ll look at modern beekeeping methods. Right now I want to tell you about capturing a swarm. The story touches on several details of bee culture that we’ll explore in-depth in upcoming posts.

Once the queen bee finds her way into the bees’ new home, some worker bees face the entrance and jut their rear ends into the air. The swarm flows like liquid into the hive’s entrance. The entrance here is in the middle of the bees, and you see some order in the bees’ alignment.

Bees swarm when their hive gets crowded: they manufacture some new queen bees, and the existing queen leaves the hive along with a whole bunch of worker bees. Oddly, it seems the bees leave the hive before they’ve decided where to go.

This swarm lands somewhere—often not far from the original hive—while various scouts search for a new home. The attentive beekeeper can capture the resting swarm and install it in an empty hive box. Amazingly, you can also install a swarm into a hive that already holds an active colony; the bees will get along (don’t just dump a swarm into an active hive; there are steps to take to ensure a hive’s workers accepts the new bees); the photos in this post are of a swarm that we added to an established hive.

Early in our beekeeping days, we found a swarm on the trunk of a small tree near our hive boxes. Capturing the swarm was simple: we cut the tree off near the ground (we had to run the saw through the ball of bees, but they obligingly moved out of the way), shook the bees off onto the top of an open hive box, and watched the bees move into the box. It was that easy… and watching them was very cool; I saw this phenomenon many times during our beekeeping years. It goes like this:

Honeybee Verse

The farmer who plowed my mom’s home kitchen garden each spring recited a rhyme that expressed the importance of timing for starting bee hives:

A swarm in May is worth a load of hay,

A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon,

A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

So, use the next month to read up on beekeeping and order your first hive. You’ll want it assembled and waiting when your bees arrive for installation in May. Follow this link for a how-to manual that will prepare you for this fascinating adventure, and visit this blog as it evolves for encouragement.

For a few minutes, there’s a blob of bees writhing around on—or in front of—the hive box. (Sometimes we’d stretch a bed sheet in front of the hive and dump the bees on the sheet. The bees found their ways into the front of the hive box.) Naturally, some bees wander into the box. Scan the swarm carefully and you might spot the queen bee; her attendants will eventually usher her inside.

Bees who know where the queen is, stand in place pointing in her direction. Other bees fall into line also pointing toward the queen. (To point, the bees face the Queen and extend their butts upward.)  Soon, the bulk of the swarm is streaming into the hive past several dozen or hundred pointing bees. Finally, even the pointer bees head into the hive.

Seeing a swarm communicate so rapidly and effectively gave me a lot of respect for them. These and other bee behaviors were truly awe-inspiring, and I never got tired of seeing bees in action.

I’ll continue to encourage you to raise bees, and I’m looking forward to the day when I establish hives in my own home kitchen garden. I hope you’ll come back here to share your experiences as you get started with your own hives.

 

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