Twenty Thousand Guests for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Snacks

My guests  include lots of gals, some dudes and a couple of queens.  Lest you think I’m that interesting, my guests are Apis Mellifera, or honeybees– two packages of honeybees from BeeWeaver Apiaries; there are 10,000 bees in a package.  Yes, you can buy honeybees and keep them at your home–for honey production, for pollination of home gardens and urban farms, or because they’re cool.  I’m going with cool. I love bees–in all stripes and colors. In my post of January 29. 2012  I described the beginning of our journey to beekeeping.  It’s taken over two years, with many fits and starts to this project, to finally hive two packages (artificial swarms) of bees into our garden.  We had to finish our frames

and augment how the frames would fit in the hive.  Originally, we made top bar frames with sides, but decided to use simple top bars.

For the bars,  I melted beeswax (purchased from The Herb Bar here in Austin), to add to the bar so that the bees would have a place to start comb-building.

That was a long afternoon over a hot stove–not my favorite thing to do!

I ordered the bees last fall and we picked them up a couple of weeks ago.  Here they are, in their plastic cages, ready for transport.

Bee buses–aren’t those cute?

We placed the full hives where we wanted them in the garden,

though in preparation for hiving, we limit the hive to only one super (box) where the bees are deposited.

If all goes well with these hives and they grow, we will add the other supers.  Additionally, a box is placed on top of the super with sawdust and cotton material–this is the quilt box and is needed for insulation and cooling for the hive.

We prepare the hives for imminent transfer of bees.  BeeWeaver suggested we close the opening to the hive for 24-48 hours, so we stapled screening to the entrance.

We remove four of the frames to make room for the queen and her bees.

Now, to the task of hiving bees!  We ready our materials, including hat and veil, bee suit or jacket, gloves and smoker.

We light the smoker, smoke the bees in the first Bee Bus and begin the process of opening the Bee Bus of the first hive.

We remove the queen from the Bee Bus–isn’t she lovely?

She’s marked with a little green dot.   Package BeeWeaver queens come mated and with clipped wings.  BeeWeaver bees are bred for Varroa mite resistance and gentleness. However, they are still bees: they get cranky and will sting. They sting when annoyed, threatened or in the wrong place and the wrong time.   When working with the bees, I always wear the hat with veil and gloves.  Only when opening the hive do I don the full bee suit.

We hang the queen cage on a middle frame.

There is a candy plug at one end of the cage that she eats through to enter the hive–it can take one day to a full week for that to happen. After smoking bees and swearing (not necessarily at the bees), we dump bees onto the queen cage and into the box.

Shake! Shake! Shake!

Once we’ve removed as many bees as we can, in as short a time as possible, we quickly add the other frames to the super and close it up.

Lots of bees.  And they’re not particularly happy bees at that moment–and they fly!  Dammit!

We do the same with the second Bee Bus hive: remove the queen cage, open one end of her cage and hang her in a middle frame in the hive, then dump

With both queens installed and as many bees as possible in the hives, we close the second hive.

Because the bees arrive without any honey stores, we must feed them a 1:1 ration of syrup.  I’ll be buying lots of refined white sugar (this is the only thing bee keepers should feed new bees) over the next month or so and they are eating  about a quart/day.  With our Warre hives, our only practical option for a feeder is the Boardman feeder which is set on the entrance board of the hive.

It’s convenient for us and more importantly, we don’t intrude on the bees much as we’re feeding them, but robbing can occur with outside feeders.  Robbing is when a bee from another hive visits, discovers an easy food source, returns to her hive, “dances” the directions to the hive and then all the freeloaders show up, stealing the syrup, or  honey if there is some.  Nature is cruel.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed that doesn’t happen–it can doom a hive.

Other than checking each hive 48 hours after hiving to assure that the queens left their cages (both had!) so each can start laying eggs, we haven’t opened our hives.

We did lose a fair number of bees initially, about 2-3 cupfuls.  How does one count bees??   I think that’s normal and there is constant and natural attrition to bee hives–that’s why there are undertaker bees in hives–to remove dead and dying bees.  Also, bees are known to fly out of the their hive in altruistic suicide missions–to die outside the hive so as not to infect the others.  Aren’t bees grand?

We’ll check soon to see if there is comb-building and if there are eggs and larva, but our philosophy is not to bug them (pun) too much.  Let bees be bees.

From the outside, all seems well.  I’ve observed the little guard bees checking out all the visitors and have even seen them tackle bees who didn’t belong.

There is lots of traffic in and out of the hive by foragers as they bring pollen into the hive.

And many bees in my gardens getting nectar from flowers, as well.

My girls are very gentle–I can sit very close the entrance and they pay no attention to me and that’s even more true as the foragers are at flowers–they have a  job to do, I guess and I’m not as interesting as flowers.

I’ve been stung twice, on the afternoon we hived, though not as I worked the bees.  A little while after hiving, I was observing from (what I thought) was a safe distance.  I didn’t realize how many bees were crawling on the ground and rested my hand on the ground and one stung me.  Later, I was sitting on the patio with a bee jacket flung over the back of the chair and a bee got me on my arm– I think there was a bee on the jacket.

Lesson learned.

Other than those two times, they haven’t bothered me.

Tina and Steven: neophyte, though intrepid, beekeepers.

The learning curve is steep with successful beekeeping–learning terminology, understanding bee biology, decisions made about type of hive, feeder, equipment and most importantly, philosophy of why one keeps bees. I’m both excited and apprehensive about my little guests–I feel a great responsibility toward these bees. Bees are complex and remarkable insects.  I remind myself that bees have been doing their bee thing  for millions of years and beekeepers have kept bees for thousands of years–surely I can do it.  But, there are many variables in beekeeping.   Hopefully  we will learn to offset potential and fatal problems with our hives.

Many thanks to Andrew Shahan of BeeWeaver for his excellent class and advice when we received our bees and to the Austin Area Beekeepers Association for their dedication to home beekeeping and their interesting meetings. Thanks also to my good friend and neighbor, Pam Ferguson, for taking the photos as we hived our bees.

That’s the buzz for now–more as our foraging flights continue with honeybees!


Wildflower Wednesday, April 2014

Celebrating all things wild…well just all things wild and flowery, here are some of my wild ones this beautiful April in Austin, Texas.

The luscious Yellow or Hinckley ColumbineAquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana, is still showing off after a month of blooms.

A favorite of my honeybees is the Coral Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens.


Though this year, I haven’t spied any hummingbirds sipping nectar from those tubular blooms.

The Lyreleaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, sports a color I can’t quite capture with my camera–a rich blue-purple.  This tidy little Texas native blooms for about a month, then sets interesting seed heads for the summer.

The sunny blooming Engelmann’s or Cutleaf Daisy, Engelmannia peristenia, is so bright that it almost overpowers its native companions– the deep pink Hill Country Penstemon    Penstemon triflorus, to its left and the ‘Henry Duelberg’ Sage, Salvia farinacea, on its right.

I love that combination and look forward to it every spring.

Thanks to Gail at clay and limestone for hosting this wildflower party every month!

The Green Tower

On a trip to Oregon last fall, my good friend, Dr. Linda Hardison who is the director of the Oregon Flora Project took us to visit Oregon State University’s Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.

A wonderful place to visit and with so many interesting things to see, one of the more impressive was The Green Tower.

The G.T. is a vertical gardening tower, primarily for vegetable and herb gardening. In viewing this magnificent monstrosity, I realized that it could be the answer to my veggie dilemma back home in Austin.  I have only a few spots on my property that receive full sun, year round.  My real gardening love is native plants and wildlife gardening, so that type of gardening is my priority.  But I do love fresh veggies, so if I can limit the square footage of veggie gardening space, yet still produce veggies year round in that smaller space, gardening vertically is my answer.

In designing our own Green Tower, my husband and I used the basic information from the OCCUH website. (See photo above.)  Unfortunately, that  YouTube video is no longer available, but you can view this one:   The video was helpful in a general, rather than specific way–we redesigned our tower because we don’t need one as large as is demonstrated.  Still, the idea is innovative and it was an excellent start to our Green Tower adventure.

We reconfigured size dimensions, appropriate for the amount of vegetables/herbs that we want to produce.  OSU’s Green Tower is a bit larger  and wider than our 4.5′ tall and 4′x3′ footprint tower.  The Husband bought, cut and wired together metal rebar pieces. We then hired a welder to weld together the frame.

We dug the frame into the ground for additional stability, making sure the G.T. was level.

We wrapped landscape fabric and wired it to the frame.

To tighten the wire, we used pliers.

The extra ends of the wire are clipped, then turned inward, so that the ends won’t scratch working hands.  I still get scratched and poked, so attention to those sharp ends is advised.

We did the same with chicken wire–wrapped it around the frame and wired it through the landscape fabric and to the frame. Because the frame is larger at its base (4′X3′) than at its top ( 3′X3′). some folding of the landscape fabric and crimping of the chicken wire is necessary to fit well around the frame.

Inside the G.T. we placed a tube for aeration  and watering.

Before completing the G.T., we moved it to a different spot on our property.  I  finished wrapping the landscape fabric and chicken wire–more crimping and folding and not advisable to do a windy day!

The supervisor in the background approves!

I didn’t have enough of my own soil and compost to completely fill the G.T., so I purchased Hill Country Garden Mix from The Natural Gardener.  We shoveled in 1 cubic yard of soil mixture in the tower, but as the soil settles, will probably need more. I’ll add my own compost to the top, as needed.   As we added soil, I placed a 10 foot soaker hose roughly in the middle of the tower, then added more soil, filling  to the top of the tower.  Once done, I cut through the fabric and wire so that I can attach a hose to the soaker for watering,

and placed another 10 foot soaker hose at the top of the tower.

Planting on the top of the tower is obvious.

To plant along the side, the first step is to cut through the chicken wire with very sharp scissors or better yet, wire cutters.

Pull the wire away, then slice through the landscape fabric.  I’ve learned that it’s best to make the cut at what will be the bottom of the opening, to minimize soil escaping.

I  remove some soil, then plant a four-inch sized veggie.  I haven’t found it necessary to tie together the wire to keep the plants in place as the OSU video suggests, though it’s a good idea.

I deposit excess soil on the top of the G.T when I plant along the sides.  There has been some leakage of soil, especially in those first couple of weeks, but not as much as I expected.  I planted the usual spring/summer veggies:  tomatoes,  peppers, zucchini, yellow squash,  cucumber, basil, mint and cantaloupe.  I planted green beans on the top and they’ve germinated on schedule. I planted some of the beans along the sides, but none of those germinated.  I think one valuable use of the G. T. will be for seed germination at its top, then transplanting developing seedlings along the sides.

Watering is tricky because some parts of the soil in the tower don’t  receive enough water, though most of the plants haven’t had any issues with drying out. I suspect gaps in the soil are the culprit and once the G.T. soil settles, irrigation will be even.  I’ve only watered three times since planting in late March. Since then, we’ve received enough rainfall to water the tower thoroughly.   I used the aeration tube for the last soaking and it worked well, though there is water leakage from the bottom of the tower–that’s a problem I’d like to correct as don’t like wasting water.  Watering slowly should help and we’re considering placing a tube with holes straight down the middle if irrigation problems continue into summer. I want to get through one vegetable growing season before adding that and any more soil.

My Green Tower doesn’t look like OSU’s Green Tower. This is Texas, not Oregon and contrary to popular belief, not everything is bigger and better in Texas. (Believe me, as a Texan, it hurts to say that.)  Currently I don’t have much planted, though what I’ve planted doesn’t take up as much square footage in the tower as it would in a traditional ground garden.  I could definitely plant more.  I haven’t utilized the sides as expected in vertical gardening either, which defeats the purpose, of course.  I probably will add some zinnias or other drought tolerant annuals to pretty up the G. T. as we move into summer.

Yeah, flowers.  I can’t get away from that it seems.

Weeding isn’t an issue and I’m pleased that as the soil is settling, I’m not watering, though that will change with summer heat and drought.  I think the G. T.  will be especially valuable to me in the fall and winter, since the cool season plants can be started at the top by seed, then transplanted throughout the tower.

Not including the $18 I’ve spent on plants, The Green Tower cost about $400– including materials and soil and hiring the welder and a handyman to help move the soil.  I felt like that was pricy for an experiment (and it might be, time will tell), until a neighbor told me that she’d paid her lawn company $800 last month for winter clean up and first spring mowing.  Wow!! Are lawn services that expensive?  (I suspect that cost was an outlier, but I know  people who pay $50-100 a month for lawn service.)

Get rid of your lawns!  Plant perennials and natives and vegetables–in  vertical gardens or otherwise.

More adventures to come as The Green Tower grows!



Foliage Follow-up, April 2014

Spring has definitely sprung here in Austin and though blooms may be foremost for most garden lovers, foliage loveliness deserves a shout-out.   Here are my foliage favorites for April.

The summer and fall blooming Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggiisports deeply lobed foliage, giving rise to one of the common names for this hardy ground cover, Palmleaf Mistflower.


Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has beautiful foliage year-round.  It’s delicate, fern-like and spreads well (sometimes too well).  Yarrow is evergreen, hardy and drought tolerant.

It brightens this shady spot.

A perennial favorite of mine and one I’ve profiled before, Mexican Feathergrass (Nassella tenuisima) is at the zenith of beauty in the spring.

The lone green Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)  in my back gardens apparently wasn’t decimated by butterfly larva last year.

With soft, graceful foliage, it’s a wonderful addition to the mixed perennial garden.

Globe Mallow (Spaeralcea ambigua)  is such a show-stopper with its combination of orange blooms and arresting, pale gray-green, fuzzy leaves.

I like this combination of  Pale-leaf Yucca (Yucca pallida), Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata) and the bright green Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii).

The Pale-leaf Yucca appears blue against the backdrop of the greener Skullcap ground cover  and the Autumn Sage’s is a bright green punctuation situated further in that same ground cover.

The Wild Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) not only has beautiful blooms in spring, but interesting foliage year-round.

New growth from a young American Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus), promises more beauty as it matures.

Lastly, I can’t resist the photo of the Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea, who has visited my garden this past week as he rests on the green branch of Retama (Parkinsonia aculeata).  Plumage and foliage–you can’t beat that!

Thanks to Pam at Digging for hosting Foliage Follow-up for April.


Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day, April 2014

Joining garden bloggers from around the world, here are my picks for Bloom Day, April 2014 from Austin, Texas.  The Hill Country Penstemon (Penstemon triflorus), thrust upward its bloom stalks during January, but waited until March to unfurl its fuchsia beauty.

My Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) has bloomed this past month and shows no signs of slowing down, much to the delight of the honeybees.


The  ‘Brazos’ Blackberry   is in full flower now, with berries to follow.  I can’t wait to eat the berries from the vine in May and June.

A beautiful cool season bloomer here in Austin is the Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).


And there are lots of Columbine this spring.  The Hinckley (or Yellow) Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana) is in full glory.

Blooming alongside another native Columbine, the Wild Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis),

these two will  rampantly hybridize to create lovely variations of themselves over several seasons.

Lastly, the Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) blooms are opening daily.

Happy Spring!

And thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day.