Tools of the Trade and an Attempt to Re-Queen a Hive

Farley has been usurped, and I’m back at the keyboard for a bit since the rain has forced us indoors but not before lots and lots of work was accomplished this weekend. Yesterday was an extremely interesting day for me as an apprentice beekeeper but first I have some other details to share on efforts we made around the farm using some of our favorite tools, some of which we have named.

The Hori-hori knife is about as useful as any hand tool we have used for weeding. The point is sharper than most trowels and the serrated edge is extremely helpful. I think that it is more efficient to use for weeding because it is not as wide as a trowel and also not scoop shaped so it lets you get ‘down to business’ faster and easier.  Ours looks like this but many versions are available in gardening stores and catalogs now. We call it the Hari-kari, which is both the misspelling and wrong pronunciation for Hara-Kiri, the ritual Japanese form of suicide. Just try using this tool without thinking of that!  photo 7One of our next favorite tools is new to us but we are already in love with it and wish we had purchased one years ago. It is called an Action Hoe which you quickly find on line by that name but it is based on the old fashioned Dutch hoe mechanism. This makes hoeing very efficient and twice as ergonomic as a regular hoe since both sides of the blade are sharp and mounted so it swivels on both the pull and push action of your stroke which is very effective. We have not sharpened ours yet but if keeping this sharp is the only difficulty, it will still be well worth owning and using this tool. So far, we have not called it anything funny, just the action hoe. We like using it so much, we may have to get another one so that we don’t get into fights over who gets to hoe with it! If that isn’t a recommendation, I don’t know what is! It looks  like this. vegetable-garden-2010-action-hoeWe have lots of other effective tools, but this weekend in particular I was focused on grinding away at our wrought iron flower pots and re-painting them so they would look sharp for the wedding. Here are a mere half of the urns I was looking to work on.IMG_5828 What a daunting task! I had an old metal brush with a wooden handle that was probably my dad’s but I nearly fainted at the thought of how long it would take to clean the rust from the urns using it alone. My arms would have been rubber by the end if Dave had not suggested that I try to use his power drill with a special wire brush attached. Here is what I used instead. Brush vs. Power tool – no contest!IMG_5829This made easier work of the task of getting these ready for fresh paint but it was still a chore since the power tool needed to be grabbed by both hands to control it and keep it on the metal surface and not my skin! Despite the fact that this has little to do with the farm or our plants, it brought to mind a concept that I was first introduced to after college when I was working as a paralegal in New York City. This was not a super challenging job but most of the law firms hired new graduates from prestigious colleges to do whatever menial tasks the lawyers didn’t want to do. Of course there was a pecking order of sorts amongst the paralegals and as the new person on the job, I started out being assigned some of the most basic and boring assignments. I endeavored to complete all the tasks that came my way with swift and thorough precision so it didn’t take long for my boss, Bernadette, (a brassy New Yorker and the head paralegal) to take me aside and explain the error of my ways. She basically told me that the wise way to approach menial tasks was to do them poorly. In other words, if I didn’t want to be assigned to that task again, I shouldn’t excel at doing it. Hmmm. This was the first time I had been introduced to this concept. I don’t think I ever quite subscribed to it, but must admit it was hilarious to hear my co-workers from Harvard, Yale and Princeton saying things like “no, I can’t file those ’cause I can’t alphabetize” or spell or type or whatever it was that they just didn’t want to do. Anyway, I was reminded of that concept yesterday when I was cleaning the rusty urns and realized I still don’t like the theory. I get a good amount a satisfaction from getting things done under my own steam. After a morning of wire whisking with the drill, I spent an afternoon painting and all the urns are now beautifully ready for their new plants. Pics to come.

Okay, ready for the bee keeping update? Jurgen came by yesterday to check on the queens that we had liberated about 10 days before so I jumped up from my paint brush and donned my bee veil and joined the examination. We were looking to find either the queen herself or evidence of her presence (egg laying) in both hives. (Only one queen per hive.) We opened hive #10 first and Jurgen used what must be one of his favorite tools called a hive tool. It looks like this and has functions on both ends plus more. Kent-Williams-Hive-ToolIt is handy because bees ‘make’ – they actually collect resins and saps and add another ingredient from their bodies – a substance called propolis which is a sticky, gum-like material that bees use to seal cracks in the hive and even to help “winterize” the hive. Beekeepers have to pry the hive boxes open at times and then frames apart from each other since the bees are using this material in lots of places in the hive. Here is Jurgen using his hive tool to separate the frames.IMG_5852And also to clean some of the unneeded comb structure from the bottom/sides of the frames.IMG_5862

Here are the the frames that Jurgen pulled from the hive to examine. IMG_5844

Yeah, lots of active bees, but he was really disappointed that he did not find evidence of newly laid eggs in the first hive he opened. We examined each active frame carefully, looking for the queen. She is quite distinctive from the other bees since her abdomen is longer and not hairy nor striped like the other bees. Here is what we were looking for. See her in the middle?queen-beeSo, it seemed the queen we had introduced into the first hive was no longer there. Bummer. After thoroughly searching but not finding her, Jurgen temporarily closed the that hive and opened hive #11 and found good news. There were newly laid eggs present which meant that the queen had been hard at work, serving her roll in the hive and the chief egg layer. Can you see the bright yellow pollen still on the legs of one of the bees? He has just arrived from collecting and hasn’t ‘delivered’ it yet. IMG_5849A visual search for her also was positive which was really good news since our queens are un-marked and the only way to spot her is with keen eyes. I think Jurgen would agree that this time, I actually spotted her first which was a very proud moment.  So Jurgen pulled out a queen isolating or secluding mechanism from his jacket and promptly scooped her inside this small cage like structure with a couple of other bees as well so as to keep her captive for the next step.  Here is what that looked like. IMG_5859It was then that Jurgen explained his plan to me. With the queen temporarily excluded from the second hive, he was able to lift out some of the frames from the queen-less (and therefore egg-less) first hive and replace them with frames from the second hive that had eggs already present. We just swapped some frames and gave the first hive a fighting chance at having their own new queen.IMG_5836Apparently, if a hive is queenless but has eggs between 1-3 days old available to them, they will adopt the eggs and make their own queen from one of them. If the queen starts to get too old to be an effective egg layer, the hive will also decide to get a new queen this way. I had to go to my text book and read all about this but apparently the bees start to treat one of the eggs with special care (only if it is between 1-3 days old, not more) and create a queen cup or specialized cell for housing the growing queen and eventually feed the larvae in this cell the royal jelly which is the special queen food. All of this is very complicated, but in the end, after 16 days, we may have a new queen which is how long it takes for a new queen to emerge. We will check next week for the presence of the queen cup and I will up date the progress. This was a very exciting episode of bee keeping due to the need to re-queen one of our hives (it is also one of the reasons it is good to have two hives) which was made all the better since Kate taught me how to take pictures with my iPhone while wearing gloves. In camera mode, you can use the volume control on the side as the picture taking button. Go out and learn something everyday!  IMG_5853



Farley as Substitute Blog Writer

Greetings and a big woof, woof, and arf, arf to you readers of the Seven Oaks Farm blog! My humans, Nancy and Dave, are so busy these days that they don’t have much time to write so I thought I’d give it a whirl. I’m their precious dachshund, Farley, whom most of you already know as the ‘Twelve Pounds of Terror’ who rules the roost at Seven Oaks Farm. I’ve been a part of every, single stage of the work that has happened here at the farm for the last three and one half years, so it is about time that you get a taste of things from my perspective.

Plain and simple, they say I’m a dog with nine lives…or maybe more since lately I’ve had my share of old age problems. Sure my back hurts, my teeth are broken (indeed, some have most recently been extracted) and I’m as grey as Richard Gere, but I’m still the enforcer here! I defend this place like it is the Taj Mahal and my people really appreciate it when I make it clear to any stranger who comes to the door that I mean Business with a capital ‘B’ or even a ‘G’ for Grrrr!

Nancy and Dave left me to guard things today while they went to their favorite composting site. Sure, they have a new and fancy twin composting unit behind the driveway, but when they want to recycle the big stuff, or the nastier stuff, like poison ivy, they haul it away in Dave’s pick up truck. Today they went to St. Louis Composting for a large drop off. They think it is a very fun field trip every now and then. Dave likes to show Nancy how strong he is when he hoists the bags into the mountainous pile of debris. Nancy says he has a cute butt…but is it cuter that mine????IMG_5781 The operation at the site they visit is wonderfully active with trucks dropping off waste material that can be composted into the most fabulous of recycled material. The operation is fabulous to observe as loaders and backhoes work and grind their way through all the dropped off deposits until they are ready to be picked up and hauled away as renewed material. IMG_5785 Wouldn’t you know, International Compost Awareness Week is May 5-11 and they are all about that. Details can be found at and a ‘Lunch and Learn’ is offered at the 3 facilities that St. Louis Composting runs at Valley Park, Belleville and Fort Bellefontaine. Woohoo…Nancy and Dave are such nerds! They love this sh_t!

While they were out, they passed by the Valley Park Elevator facility which is where the potato starts came from. It is a quaint old building with lots of history.  IMG_5789

But back to me! I do have a gentile side to me which is evident when I photo bomb most of their photo shots. Here is a recent example…Nancy and Dave were planting more peach and nectarine trees in the orchard today and they were transporting them in the utility cart. I try to show them the way…do I have to do everything???IMG_5792I’m like their scout, showing them the right path to take. When I’m not photo bombing, I’m doing selfies with Nancy. IMG_5750Gosh it was gorgeous out today! Wherever I looked, I was surrounded with visions of everything greening up and blooming against a blue sky. Advice to humans, remember to stop, smell the air and look up! Here is one of the blooming apple trees from my view. IMG_5806I like to avoid the bees that are buzzing all around the blooms these days but Nancy is always snapping pics of the bees…as if they are her current favorite subject! Here is one of the avid pollinators working its way through the orchard. They say that the presence of bees contribute to the pollination of fruit trees by 90%! Imagine that! Youza, Arf, arf!IMG_5803

It doesn’t seem to faze Nancy that she recently did a bee visit to the new hives and found that the funny feeling inside her shirt was that of a bee meandering about. She doffed her shirt (Oh My!) and found this lovely specimen lingering around at the collar but this gentle bee did not sting her. Reminder to all, honey bees are harmless and do not want to sting you, so do not react in their presence if you can help it! IMG_5696

Thank goodness Nancy and Dave have gotten many of their vegetable seeds planted already. The weather cooperated last weekend while Kate was in town and they were able to plant seeds for Swiss Chard, Turnips, Cabbages, Pak Choi (aka Bak Choi), Radishes, Kale, Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts, 2 types of Carrots, 3 types of Lettuce and 3 types of Spinach. Yahoo, the potatoes and peas have sprouted already! Can’t you see I’m so excited? Yawn! IMG_5757But the day never ends with these guys…they just keep working and working. Like today, late in the day, Nancy planted something like a million of her petunia plants. It seemed like a million to me anyway since it was hours and hours of work. Here is just a sampling.IMG_5791She thinks these will look great on the terrace for Kate and Jason’s wedding. Can you say SNOOZE? I plan to sneak away for that whole weekend and play with my Aunt Mary Ellen and Uncle Imre. They offered to entertain me for a couple of days while their sweet dog, Duncan, is away at doggie camp.  Wow, I’m so lucky! I will keep you all posted whenever Nancy and Dave let me post some more about the farm!

A Hive of Activity Keeps Us Bizzy!

Our weather has finally turned spring-like but because the season was so delayed, we are feeling as if we are playing catch up before we even started the growing season.  The good news is that hardly any trees or plants jumped the gun and bloomed too early only to be caught with a frost. That happens often enough in our growing zone but so far, it looks like we may have seen our last frost. Since I last posted, we had torrential rain (along with nearby tornadoes) which brought more than 4 inches of precipitation (including marbles of hail) in a short span of time. We were glad our fields were plowed and tilled but the rain meant we had to wait to do any vegetable planting. So, we occupied ourselves with other chores and found plenty to do. We finished pruning all of the roses and hope a late spring will mean they will be blooming wildly for the June wedding! In addition to pruning and feeding the roses, I found time last week to pick the stones out of the beds which had been left behind by the driveway guys!IMG_5587

Dave built the twin compost set that we ordered last winter and we quickly set it in place at the end of the driveway. We see this as accommodating much of the “green” waste from picking and processing our fruits and veggies in the spring/summer and our “brown” waste in the summer/fall as the plants die back, dry up and get shredded before being added to the mix. Of course we will contribute our daily coffee grounds and a few other things not from our fields but we hope to produce a wonderful compost to use in the future.  IMG_5581

On April 1st, Dave also made the trip to Stark Brothers Nursery in Louisiana, Missouri, something that we have been doing every spring now for the last four years. You can find the retail catalog on line at  but the commercial listings we use for buying are fascinating since they include all of the root stock details as well as other information about each hybridized variety of plant or 1

The purpose of the trip was to pick up some replacement and additional trees – peach and nectarine – for our orchard. We look forward to this hour plus drive through the Missouri countryside at which time we see the local farmers plowing their fields and getting ready to plant. This year, Dave had time to look around in the cave like facility where Stark stores many of the young plants. He also saw a truck being loaded with 1200 bare root apple trees that was headed to Washington State, at least two thousand miles away, where apples are king! It is fun to think that some orchard-ist in Washington has chosen the same place that we did to buy fruit trees!photo 3

He loaded his pick up with young trees and covered them with a tarp for the ride home. photo 2As we add them to the rest of the orchard, we see evidence that all the trees are transitioning from budding to blooming but this varies significantly even among the same varieties. IMG_5639While it was still too wet to work in our fields, I kept busy getting the blueberries ready for their annual mulching and dosage of sulpher. They look wonderfully productive at this point. As soon as I get done cleaning them up and minimally pruning, we will once again apply the bird netting in case any deer find their tender buds too irresistible and attempt to munch on them.

We have now had a couple of days of sunshine and the soil has both dried up a bit as well as warmed enough to do some planting. This was not a year to follow the traditions of planting potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day since I’m afraid the wet, cold soil would most likely have rotted the potato starts by now. Instead, we are (as we were last year) about 3 weeks behind but it was ideal today after having prepared the potatoes in advance. First, we bought the Yukon Gold and Pontiac Red tubers from Valley Park Grain Elevators, and cut them into pieces that included at least two ‘eyes’ and left them to dry or ‘heal’ for a day. IMG_5675Then, we sprinkled them with agricultural sulpher which will help protect them from fungal disease and hopefully ward off potato beetles while in the ground. IMG_5676We did a bit of last minute prep of the rows since the soil was finally workable again. IMG_5682This year we planted seven, 22 foot long, rows or approximately 145 potato starts. Some books say you can get as much as 10lbs of potatoes per plant, so I would say it is safe to expect we will harvest well over three hundred pounds from the crop this year. Here are the starts in place before we covered them up with soil.IMG_5684

Today was also a good day to plant the peas which are really good ‘companions’ to the potatoes so they went into the next rows. For these, we actually took at temperature reading with our new instant read thermometer. I usually use this for cooking, but why not stick the probe into the soil to get a good temperature reading? Everyone says you can plant peas very early and that is true, but if you plant them in 40 degree soil they will take 30-40 days to germinate whereas if you plant them in 60 degree soil, they will germinate in about 10 days. So, my thermometer readings today ranged from 63-67 degrees at about 6 inches below the surface. Perfect for peas! We planted two double rows of Easy Peasy seeds which are a self supporting variety from Burbee. Here is my Thermapen with an indication of the ambient temperature this afternoon. photo 6We also planted two rows of one of our varieties of green beans today and will continue to plant these in spurts throughout the summer so as not to be overwhelmed with too many tasty green beans at once.

So now for the biggest and best news of all…the bees finally arrived yesterday! Last Sunday our bee mentor, Jurgen, arrived and put the empty hives in place. We knew he was going to ‘split’ his hives and buy additional queens for the new hives located here as soon as the weather and the bees were ready. I provisioned with gloves and a specialty veiled jacket as well as a couple of other handy items. If you look closely, you can see one of the hives thru my veil screening. Farley is not sure what is going on but is happy to pose for any camera.IMG_5650

So Jurgen arrived yesterday with the bees in transport boxes in the trunk of his car along with a smoker to keep them calm. He quickly loaded them into our utility cart and off we went to introduce them to their new homes.  IMG_5646He opened up the new, awaiting brood chambers or deep supers, which had 4 or 5 new, empty frames inside. He brought with him about 4-5 additional frames with established bees from one of his other hives and popped these into the waiting boxes next to the empty frames. The bees will start to expand into these new frames as soon as they feel at home and when these are filled (10 frames per box) we will add another box on top to fill with more frames of bees. IMG_5645It was an amazing experience to have the bees flying about just outside of my protective gear. I think I passed the first test of being calm and not feeling any fear. The worst part of the experience is that my gloves prevent me from taking photos on my phone! After he got the bees all settled and the boxes re-assembled, Jurgen left but came back later that day with the queen, her attendants and some food for all. The queens are in little screened cages with just a couple of attendant bees who actually feed her! Isn’t that the life! Here is what they looked like. The white part is where the food is located. photo 4Then, Jurgen re-opened the hives and placed one queen container into each hive between two frames but didn’t let her loose since the bees need to become accustomed to her first. He will come back in a few days to evaluate if they have accepted her and I will give more details about that interesting aspect of bee watching then. In the meantime, he also fed the bees by putting some sugar solution (along with some more ingredients) into the upper super. Here is what the hives look like in place. We got up early this morning to investigate, but bees are late sleepers so they were not really out and about until around 7am. IMG_5659As we all get accustomed to the presence of the bees, I decided to warn the neighbors with some signage…like the bright yellow hive boxes aren’t telling enough????IMG_5671This is such an active time of year for us that we are exhausted before the sun goes down. I can think of at least a dozen other things that we have been working on lately but perhaps I’ll have time to write about them tomorrow…especially if it rains as predicted! Stay tuned!