Honey bees suffer terribly from varroa mites: parasites that feed off adult bee bodies and even invade their cocoon to feed on them.

There’s plenty of other pests and viruses and whatnot out there trying to get the bees, but the varroa mite is the first to pay attention to. It’s also almost guaranteed to be in your hive. That’s why they say you can’t eradicate it, you can only manage it: keep its numbers down.

That’s why beekeepers do mite counts. There are several methods for doing such a count, one of which is the powdered sugar roll. This one appealed to me most because (1) it gives a pretty reliable result, (2) it doesn’t kill the bees that you do the test on and (3) I had all the necessary tools and ingredients handy.

I found this powerpoint slideshow on the net. It made it seem pretty simple.  The first step is to find a frame with lots of worker bees on it: a frame with open (uncapped) brood. Then you shake the bees off this frame into a bucket, from which you can then scoop half a cup (about 300 bees) into a mason jar with a mesh screw cap. It’s best to collect workers from 3 frames. Through the mesh you push 2 teaspoons of powdered sugar. Then you shake the jar to coat the bees with the sugar, during which process whatever mites are there are dislodged from their bodies. Then you you shake the sugar and mites out onto a white sheet or bowl, and count the mites. You return the shaken but still living bees to the hive. Et voila.

Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t that simple!

The bees were hard to shake off the frame, and boy did they get MAD. The moment they hit the bucket, the whole hive rose up in anger. I forged ahead, bees swarming all around me. There were still bees on the frame, so I returned it to its place in the hive.  By the time I had done that – as quickly as I could – most bees had flown out of the bucket. I shook down those still in it, so they balled up at the bottom, but then scooping up half a cup wasn’t so easy either, and all in all I got less than 2/8 cup into my mason jar.

Then I thought, well, I’ve gone through this much trouble, and the hive is in turmoil anyway, and they anyway recommend collecting bees from more than 1 frame, let’s shake another frame. This was even more difficult. The bees were all over me. And opening the mason jar again to add the new scoop allowed bees already in it to get out. Altogether I had gathered only 3/8 cup, perhaps even less.

Calm was quickly returning to the hive, and I didn’t have the nerve to do it again, so I aborted the attempt. I released the captured bees and had no trouble closing up the hive again. And I didn’t get stung, which is miraculous I should say. I just prayed I hadn’t enervated the bees into “balling” the queen (a theory is that they get so protective of her that they hug her to death). And I hoped that all those bees that I shook all over the place onto the ground and into the grass would find their way back.

This happened yesterday morning and I felt really bad about it the whole day and throughout the night. I guess this was one to learn the hard way. Next time I attempt it, I hope to have an extra pair of hands helping me, preferably the hands of an experience beekeeper. In the meantime I will buy some sticky board and mite screen, to do easier counts.


I felt much better after I did a normal hive inspection  this morning. It was good to get right back on the horse, and to see that the bees bore me no grudge. A hive inspection calms me, as all my movements are slow and flowing, and it feels like a meditation. I am so concentrated on the bees, I forget everything else around me. I hope the pure wonder of it will not go away as I get more experienced.

And the bees are so docile. They were going about their business as if nothing had happened. The queen was alive and well, the patterns of brood, honey and pollen beautiful. Some of the caps on the brood (brood caps are yellow,  honey caps are white wax) had been broken open, which means the first new bees must have hatched, but I have yet to see a major jump in population. There were still two frames that were entirely empty of comb: I moved one of those closer to the where the activity is. Once they’ve drawn out 7-8 frames I can add the second brood box.

I also added 1/2 gallon of homemade syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water by volume). What was not nice was scooping all the drowned bees out of the frame feeder. Note to self: add a small teaspoon to my hive kit.

As for the mites, I decided to start mite treatment anyway. I use a natural product called Apiguard, which is a thymol fumigator that will also help against tracheal mite and chalkbrood. Usually two treatments of Apiguard are used in the Fall, but my bee teacher uses one in the Spring and one in the Fall. I am following his advice.

The rain came, in a thunderstorm at night. It has cooled everything down a fair bit and saves me from having to water the garden this morning, for which I am thankful. But it barely half filled four of the five  (food-grade) barrels (the second barrel in the line up on our most capacious downspout remains empty, because the first one in the line needs to fill up to overflow into it). Let’s see how long it lasts.

The bean beds (three of them) are looking neat. When Amie looked out the bedroom window she said: “The beans have finally squished out!”  And isn’t that exactly what beans seem to do?

Here are some pictures, for your comparison.

This is what the veg garden looked when we moved in (summer 2008): leaves, stones, rusted pipes and fencing, lots of broken glass, poison ivy and pachysandra.

This is March 2009, when we had barely made a dent in the above jungle, but I love this picture so much:

I wish I had a picture of the peak of last summer – our first summer gardening. I’ll look around for some shots to cobble together. But this now is today:

I made a mistake in my calculations of the square footage of the garden yesterday. It’s not 650 sq.f. but 930 sq.f.  of beds (which includes the terraced beds and some herb beds by the side of the house, but not the as yet untouched lower front garden or the area with the berry bushes and hazels in back).

As you can see, the hoop house has its new poly cover. The plastic arrived yesterday and we installed it in the evening.  After pulling off the old plastic and putting on the new one DH and I were covered from head to toe with pollen. The stuff coated everything, until the rain washed it away. Something else to be thankful for.

It’s 10:30 am and I just came in from an hour of watering the garden. And from the heat. It’s 87 F (30.5 C) and the sun’s a scorcher. Most plants are holding up well, except for the brassicas. The kale especially is doing some spectacular wilting.  The beans are coming up nicely, in more-or-less straight lines, and all of them together. In a day or two I’ll spot the empty spots (where the squirrels or chipmunks dug ’em up) and will tuck in replacement seeds.

And I used up all the water in my three 60 gallon rain barrels. I concentrated on the veggies and the new transplants, and was very stingy with the bushes, trees and canes. Still, it was all gone in a matter of days.

So yesterday I hooked up another 60 gallon barrel, and today I’ll try to rig up the large drum that was given to us last year. It’s made of metal, is rusting  a fair bit, and it was painted, so in contrast to my plastic  food-grade barrels, I’m hesitant to use it on the veggies. But it will do where I plan to put it, in the “utilitarian” part of the property, where it will serve for rinsing pots and whatnot. Then I have a fifth, 40 gallon barrel (food-grade) that I still need to find a good downspout for.

I water with a galvanized 4 gallon watering can, which I refill from my barrels (which are slow when they’re low), so it takes me a while to work my 650 930 square feet of beds. We’ve been thinking about putting in soaker hoses, but the cost is prohibitive, and anyway I like my daily hour visiting each plant personally with a drop to drink. That way I know what’s going on with them on a day to day basis. And I stop to weed a bit, and to train the peas to the trellises…

Yesterday NOAA promised a 40 to 60% chance of rain tomorrow and the day after, but today I see all that welcome rain has evaporated to a 20% chance of thunderstorms. I know those: a sprinkle and that’s it. Water is going to be an issue this year!

The tubs you see in the picture is the bees’ water supply.

Bees need water to cool the hive (by evaporation), to feed brood (brood food is 70% water), and to dilute their own food (honey, sugar syrup or nectar). It is the main task of some bees to find and bring in water (they make about 50 trips a day for 0.000881 oz of water per trip). If the hive is short on water, other foragers will stop collecting nectar and pollen to help with the hydration effort. When it’s very hot, a colony needs about half a gallon of water a day.

The conscientious beekeeper had better supply some water, the closer to the hive the better, not just for the bees’ health and the honey production, but also for keeping the peace in the neighborhood. If bees bother the neighbors, it’s probably because they’re looking for water, on laundry on the line, in swimming pools, in the trays of potted plants or gutters.

Hence, the tubs. The first experiment was the galvanized tub on the right. It is filled about 1/4 with stones, arranged in a slope so bees can gradually approach the water without drowning, even as the water level goes up and down with rain and drought. Within days of installing it, it got grubby with leaves and insects. I am dumping it out at my next hive inspection.

So I added another tub (on the left). Its “beach” is simply a small plank held down by a stone. It holds two oxygenators: a floating water hyacinth that will also provide a landing platform, and a submerged Hornwort. I also added some capfuls of natural enzymes that are meant to keep bird baths clean. The product is called Birdbath Protector, by Carefree Enzymes and it’s safe for all wildlife. Let’s see how this one does.

Running electricity to the tub for a pump would be problematic, but at some point we might want to run a line into the veg garden anyway – for ventilating the hoop house with fans, for instance.

I did a quick hive inspection today. It was hot – at 10 am – and I had forgotten to tie my long hair back, thinking the hat might keep it back, but no… So I made it quick, and just pulled out the frames to check on the pattern of brood, honey, pollen, and drone cells, and to find the queen. The powdered sugar test for mites will have to wait till next time.

capped brood

these frames were really heavy


(Thanks to DH for the pics!)


I did the bee talk at my daughter’s preschool last week. The kids loved it. I came in all dressed up in veil and suit and gloves. I had brought one deep brood box with the undrawn frames in them, as well as the burr comb I pulled out earlier. My smoker was still smelly from going into the hive right before and stealing a drone, which I put into the old queen cage for them to see. They were so careful with him when they passed him around.

They had so many questions and, of course, stories about being stung, or not being stung. We talked about how to be safe around bees, and about how generous and hardworking they are. Fascinating, how the minds of 3, 4, and 5-year-olds work. Especially the boys were concerned about the fact that a colony is basically a sisterhood. “But then there’s no room for brothers!” said a little guy (a brother). I assured him that in the human world there is lots of room for brothers, but not so much in the bee world. They’re just different.

They, and I, had a great time playing a game that illustrates how bees use pheromones and scent to recognize each other. I had put one of 4 strong-smelling things (banana, garlic, oregano and tiger balm), 5 of each in old yogurt container (20 kids), then strapped a paper napkin over them so they couldn’t see what was inside (note to self: cloth next time!). They had to sniff their own scent and then buzz around to find the other members of their colony.

Lastly there was snack (very important!). Amie had designed a bee for the cookies and had helped cut some out. She was chosen to distribute the snack to the class. She was so proud. Of course she knew the answers to all the question I had for them, but she let the other kids answer first.

strawberry bed

I was skeptical about my strawberries but (again) nature proved me wrong, or rather, made up (again) for any bungling on my part. I bought 25 crowns from Nourse Farms and planted them the day they arrived in a well-prepared bed (it was crawling with worms). The instructions were to plant the crown so half of it is in and half of it is out of the soil.

Honestly, I had no idea where that mark was, the crowns being so short, and I was in a hurry to get them in as it was getting dark and threatening rain and Amie didn’t have much patience with my gardening that particular day (when so many other plants had gone in as well). Later I forgot to water them a couple of times, since their bed is (as yet) outside the high traffic part of the garden. I checked yesterday and all the crowns have acquired new, healthy-looking leaves.

Also the currants and gooseberries are doing well, as are most of the free raspberry transplants, the kiwi vines (the male in particular) and the hazelnuts. Only my Gamma pollinator hazelnut seems dead, as well as one of the two paw paw seedlings. I still have no clue how to prune and harvest my Sochi tea plants: any ideas?

I poked around in the mushroom bed, but see no mycelium as yet.

In the veg garden the peas and favas are flowering, the overwintered pepper plants have beautiful white blooms and even a couple of tiny peppers. Also one of my tomato plants already has a little tomato.

The new hoop house plastic is arriving next week.

The carrot bed is a pain to weed and some animals (chipmunks?) have been digging for the newly seeded beans. Jacob’s Cattle seems to be their favorite, and who can blame them? I imagine the beans displayed in all their glory on their credenzas, dazzling the guests.

asparagus (Purple Passion) pushing up spears

The mints L gave me survived the transplant. I put them in the small bed next to the house that used to have the daffodil bulbs (which are all drying out so they can be stored and replanted in Fall). The bed has a couple of ornamentals (a hosta, a columbine, a couple of coneflowers) but it is Mainly Mint – ideal, since it is bordered on all sides by concrete.

I went back to L and S’s on Saturday morning to help them put in my leftover asparagus and to clear a patch for a veg bed. L is going to grow tomatoes again! She showed my her defense against cut worms. But that’s for another entry.

Thank you again, Freecycle!

A while ago I put up a wanted notice in my local Freeycle group for comfrey plants. My first contact fell through, and then I forgot about it, until yesterday, when a local man contacted me. I went by this morning and discovered… heaven!

L and S live in a cul-de-sac that is all lawns. Azaleas and arbor vitae abound, but it’s mostly grass: sloping, cut very short, and sprinkled. Then you get to L and S’s place which… stands out. Their tiny bungalow is hardly noticeable in the dark jungle that is the front yard, darkened by towering pine trees and scraggly, half-bald spruces, all overgrown with vinca. There’s a rusted old car in the driveway, and paint cans. It smells sweet: something is flowering, but you can’t quite see what…

Now follow a side “path” of rotten boards sunk into the mud to enter the backyard and have your mind blown.

It used to be all raised vegetable beds, L tells me, but she could no longer work them, so they decided to let it grow into a raspberry field. And boy, did the raspberries oblige! There is also mint of all kinds gone rampant, and lovage, and wildflowers. Oh, and comfrey. Patches, like islands in a sea of raspberry canes, of two varieties, near to a hundred of them, some as tall as me!

I dug and lifted while chatting with L, hoping she wouldn’t find me greedy, but thinking they might need help clearing the comfrey a bit. Now I know what they mean by invasive, uncontrollable, and “compost crop”. L says by June these plants will be even bigger, leafier, fatter…

After a good half hour I had hardly made a dent, but it was all I could fit into my station wagon. L also gave me some of each of the four kinds of mint she could find, and some lovage.

Such dear and interesting people. They were the first to know what I was talking about when I explained the intended permaculture setup at our place. L and S went all the NOFA meetings since they started and saw J.I. Rodale speak. For decades they grew their own vegetables, organically of course, but now they are happy with their 400 pounds of raspberries each year. Only they and their friends are getting on in age and can no longer do all that picking.

I offered my leftover asparagus plants in return for the comfrey and will go and help L clear a patch for them. And they invited me to come and help pick raspberries, and we’ll split the pickings!

I’ll get a picture of the transplants when it stops raining. I am so glad for the rain: my barrels empty out too fast now that all the beds are in operation, and the transplants do well in the rain.

Again, mostly pictures. Too tired to write a lot of words.

Gooseberries and currants growing all along the back fence

Soon to be cleared winter beds, garlic and rhubarb in back

Raspberry bed – free transplants

Cherry tree in stone circle – currently with wild irises, soon to be permaculture guild

Slightly grumpy child (in PJs, again)