Blueberry Rescue Vehicle

It’s getting to be the time of the year where things are budding out and spring is showing signs of its imminent return. I’ve pruned all the fruit trees (just in time) and at long last I was able to turn my attention to the blueberries. They have been lurking in the back of my mind for some time, occupying that awkward space between guilt and adoration. Guilt, because I planted them at the farm on Miami-Foley four years ago, and have neglected them absolutely since we moved to this new property two years ago. Adoration, because I love blueberries so much: their taste, their cheery fall foliage, their slow and patient growth.

blueberrie_SMLuckily for me, one of our buddies is a Blueberry Expert who’s worked with them in the horticultural department at Oregon State. She was more than willing to do a work-trade with us, and show me how to move, transplant, and prune them. Here we see EV posing with our berries in the “blueberry rescue vehicle”, AKA my dad’s old blue truck. The truck is significant, too. When I was a kid living in Michigan, dad would take us to pick blueberries in his truck. Now, his truck brings them to us!

When we bought the berries originally, we planted four different types, with the idea that we could see what did well in our area. Also, the four varieties (Earlyblue, Bluecrop, Chandler, and Darrow) have different flowering times, so we though it would be a good way to extend the harvest. We never really had much of a harvest to extend, but the first idea was useful. Turns out, in the years since we planted them, the Bluecrop has grown twice as large as the others. That’s interesting, though EV pointed out it’s not quite enough evidence to plant only Bluecrop, since we haven’t yet seen how it yields. On some varieties, smaller bushes yield better than big ones.

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Disaster strikes- again

Hello all! Sorry it’s been so long since I posted. Something bad happened, and to be honest, I’ve been too bummed out to deal with blogging about it until now.


Depending on which news source you watch, you may have seen that we were hit by a  Biblical Flood in mid December. Thankfully, our house is pretty high up a mountain so we were relatively unaffected, except for being trapped here for three days. In fact, we didn’t even lose electricity, because we run on solar power. Many of our neighbors didn’t fare so well; this guy down the road had some cleaning to do afterward, and the corner store was a huge mess. Most of our farmer friends did what farmers do- get the animals safe, and groan as fences get torn down and tractors float away.

road_out_smAt Nehalem River Ranch, the Nehalem River swallowed the Ranch. Farmer Jared sent me a text towards the end of the flood that said something cryptic like “sorry about your bees”. This is a text that make a beekeeper want to vomit. A few days later, when the roads were again passable, I drove down to the apiary located on his farm to check out the damage.

jared_smHere we see Jared, and the pile of hives he and Hilary were able to collect from their final resting places in the various hedges and logjams around their property. They said it wasn’t even the river that got them; a nearby creek exploded unexpectedly with a sudden gush of water and carried the whole apiary away.  That creek is also very close to their house, so I’m glad it didn’t wreck that too. Their neighbor across the street was less fortunate; he lost an entire pole barn and all the equipment in it. It just “went away”. Jared was apologetic, and helped me load the hives into the truck to I could spend the weekend hosing mud and dead bees out of them, and store them for next season.

flooded apiary_smFrankly, I’m devastated. Those hives were my oldest, best ones. Each was just brimming with bees, and years worth of comb and honey stores. I estimate about a quarter of a million lives were lost in the event, too. Tiny lives, but lives that are important to me. One bright spot in all of this is that a single hive somehow survived. The flood waters picked it up, moved it around, and set back down on a different hive stand. Not believing, I opened it up and was greeted by a bunch of REALLY MAD bees. I slammed the lid closed in the half second of confusion before they realized they should be stinging my face, and literally jumped for joy. A survivor!

flood_bees_smThis all begs the question “what now?” I’ve been pondering it for a few weeks. Obviously, the Nehalem River apiary will not be giving me any useful data for the Cozy Bee Project. To make things worse, there have been hiccups with the data collection computer at the other site, so I still don’t have any usable data from the Foley Creek apiary either. ARGH!!!! I need to face the reality that the entire project is going to be set back a year. I’m sorry, everyone.

As far as my bees in general, I was planning on setting up my third apiary this year. Now it looks like I will be back to setting up my second apiary, all over again. Though, obviously, in a different place. I thought I’d escaped my brush with fate in November, but apparently it was not to be. The good news: I recovered most of the flooded hives. The bad news: I have to buy about $800 worth of package bees to replace those killed, do days of work setting up a new apiary, and lose a year or two of work on the part of the bees making comb and stores.

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A close call

Almost a year ago today, I had the biggest bee disaster of my life: a bear attacked my apiary, killing 7 colonies. It was a sad a dramatic day I will never forget. This November, though, my luck seems to have changed. During a freak lighting storm a few days ago, a bolt struck a giant spruce tree mid-height, exploding the wood and sending the top half of a big tree tumbling down towards my Foley Creek apiary. My friend Ryan showed it to me yesterday, when I was making the rounds.

treefall1You always have to get nervous when someone stars the conversation with “I have something to show you, but the bees are OK…” Turns out that by some miracle, the tree fell between my apiary and the orchard, narrowly missing both. It completely destroyed the deer fence around the orchard and also squashed the electric bear fence around the hives. Honestly, that’s not a bid deal. In fact, the bear fence was a portable type, and I may  not even have to replace any parts… it’s hard to tell right now, because it’s under a giant tree. But I couldn’t be more relieved. If the tree had fallen about 15 more degrees to the west, it would have bullseyed all 8 hives, putting “tree” even higher on the list of bee-killers than “bear”.

treefall2As it is, I still have some work to do. Farmer Ned offered to put a chain on the tree and drag it away with his tractor, but that’s not a good plan, as the limbs are all entangled with the hive stands, and it would probably knock half the hives over. So I’m going to go back out once the weather clears up a little, with bee suit and chainsaw, and cut that thing up so I can get the fence fixed and even get to the hives (the tree is also across the access road).

treefall3I’ll gadly take two hours of chainsaw work in a bee suit over picking up destroyed hives any day.

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Salmon return

2015salmonSMNovember is always a special time around here, because the salmon return to our creek. We were a little concerned this year, because we’ve received so little rain. Our annual average is normally in the 90-100 inches range, and we’re on track for about a third of that this year, putting us in the same class a Sacramento, CA. In fact, in August the creek actually dried up to gravel for about 30 yards in one stretch. Maybe that is why it’s named Gravel Creek? But this last week we got a lot of rain, something like 6 inches in less than a week, so the creek is back and with it come the lovely fall salmon. Splishing, fighting, darting around, lurking like sharks unde the bridge. Many of them are longer than two feet. Welcome back fishes!

2015_fall gardenSMWe got the fall garlic in just in time, too. Planting in the rain was a pretty miserable experience last year, and this year we dodged that handily. Here we see Emily putting some finishing touches on the garlic patch. She says that she likes the garden when it has all these colors on it, because it looks like a quilt.

Our rain around here is normally slow, but steady and persistent. We actually got thunder and lighting a few days ago, though, which is really. And that lead to something interesting I’ll talk about in the next post…


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Varroa sampling accuracy

First, a little backstory. There has been a problem in beekeeping since the 1980s, causing massive bee die-offs and (back then) prompting fears that bees would go extinct. It’s a parasite by the biological name Varroa destructor, or simply “varroa”.  If the name wasn’t a clue as to what is does, it’s a parasite that lives on bees and sucks their blood. They multiply rapidly, our honeybees (Apis mellifera) have no defense against it, and if left unchecked it will destroy a colony in a year or two. It’s thought that it got into our hemisphere a few dacades ago from asia via a bee shipment, and in the years since, has killed 98% of wild honeybee colonies in north america.

Varroa destructorThe good news is that if beekeepers are really vigilant, manage their colonies carefully, and treat with miticidal agents, we’ve taken the loss levels down to about 30%-32% annually. That still sounds pretty dire, but by splitting hives in the spring to recoup the losses, it is sustainable for now. The big research effort in beekeeping today is to breed bees that are capable of battling this pest on their own. Some asian species of bees do fine against it, but they don’t produce any honey for humans!

As part of handling Varroa, beekeepers are encouraged to sample their colonies for infestation levels. The current thinking is that if there are more than 3 mites per 100 bees, you should treat your bees (I am GREATLY simplifying a much debated subject, for sake of brevity). Being a responsible guy, I have always done so a few times a year; you can read about the process here. With the Cozy Bee Project, however, there is greater cause to do it more frequently and with greater care.

So, a few weeks ago I sent bee samples to the honeybee lab at Oregon State University for testing. Dr. Ramesh Sagili and his technicians have volunteered their resources to help my research. They test for levels of nosema, a nasty bacteria that also harms bees, but while they were at it they said they would also count varroa too. I almost said “don’t bother, I already do it” and boy am I glad I didn’t. When I got the lab results back on Friday, I was shocked.

20151023_varroa_graphCheck out this graph of the difference. I think I’m pretty careful about things technical, but WOW, look at the discrepancy in results! And I know that the OSU numbers are good, not just because they are professionals, but because they counted every single bee in the sample.  I am not kidding. Down to the last bee, with a microscope, and I sent them thousands. Thousands.

If my data are so inaccurate, how the heck are we supposed to expect that backyard beekeepers can hope to have a reasonable handle on  varroa levels in a home environment? It’s something to ponder. That aside, I’m kindof excited that the Cozy Bee Project has already produced this useful insight into the beekeeping world, even though it’s not directly related to the main research. I guess that’s the fun part in science, when you accidentally discover something that wasn’t what you were looking for.

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Cozy Bee Gifts are on the move

Good news! For all of you who supported the Cozy Bee Project, the thank-you gifts are on the move. We’ll be sending out stickers, lip balm, and two different flavors of honey to folks all over the country, and candles will be following in a month or two. It’s the best way that the bees and I can thank you for supporting the Cozy Bee research with your hard-earned dollars. Here we see the bees hard at work, exercising to get ready for the long flight to carry all these gifts from my house to yours.

bee_exercise_SMI also have some good news to share: the honey harvest went so well, I’ve decided to upgrade the honey gifts of those who donated at the $100 level and above. Instead of one jar, you will get TWO. Both flavors, the golden honey and the knotweed. For those of you who went big and were on the list for two jars already, I will be sending you full pint jars of each flavor instead of the half pints. It’s a honey fiesta!

Numbers and statistics have interesting stories to tell. That’s part of why I like doing this project. I’m also interested in the visual representation of data. Here’s a map I made of the various locations of supporters of the Project. The darker the blue, the more supporters reside in that state. Oregon is orange because there were a LOT of donors from Oregon, where I am located.

US_CBPmap1024As happens, I learned some interesting things by presenting the data this way. Many of my supporters are clustered in the midwest. Some of them are known to me, many are not. Could it be that there are more bee-interested people in the midwest? More Kickstarter users? Or simply that my midwest friends were good about spreading the word to those around them?

Massachusetts was a big surprise. I’ve lived in all corners of the country, but have no connection to Massachusetts that I can recall. Yet it was (by far) the largest concentration of donors outside of the Pacific Northwest. What could that mean? Regardles: thanks Massachusetts!

My data is flawed, too, I only have donor location information from those who are receiving a physical prize.  That leaves out a great many of you who donated smaller sums, are receiving .pdf reports, or donated a lot but requested no gifts.

Hopefully, once I start looking at the hive telemetry data, similar graphical presentation will help me find interesting and unexpected trends in bee health.

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2015 honey production stats

Honey extraction is done. Whew! That’s a lot of work. I guess I shouldn’t complain, though- it’s the beez that are doing most of the hard part. This year was very productive, by coastal standards, and I averaged 31.1 pounds of honey per colony. That’s up from last year’s 25.9, and in line with the accepted norm of ±30 pounds per colony on the Oregon Coast. Compare this to the midwest, though, where the summers are hotter and the spring/fall are drier, and those guys average 60 pounds or more.

2015_honeyproductionHere we see the totals in graph form. There is a big jump from 2013 to 2014; that’s when we received the IDA grant to buy a dozen new hives. 2015 saw the addition of more hives for the Cozy Bee Project, and that jump would have been bigger if not for the bear attack that happened after the harvest in 2014. That took a lot of work to recover from, and without the Cozy Bee support, we would have actually seen a decrease in production in 2015.

Now I have to finish bottling. There are Cozy Bee gifts to be mailed out next week, return customers to supply, and three local merchants (Manzanita Market, Nehalem Beehive, and North Fork 53) have asked to carry my honey as well. Looks like there is still plenty of room to grow! Next year I  am going to follow some advice I read in a beekeeping book somewhere, and throw a honey party. The idea is you invite a few friend over, they help you bottle and extract, and you send them home with some honey for their trouble.

In other bee news, I’ve winterized the hives in the Foley Creek apiary, and will get to the Nehalem River apiary as soon as the downpour subsides. As a parting gift, I present to you the Winterization Checklist, for your entertainment:

  • test_apiary_SMUpdate weatherproof hive label on bottom board
  • Check roof sensor
  • Install entrance reducet
  • Open hive
  • Collect sample for varroa destructor
  • Collect sample for nosema spp.
  • Inspect colony & record observations
  • Count mites and apply Apiguard if infestation rate >3%
  • Set sensor in hive
  • Add supplemental food if stores are low
  • Replace roof, and verify configuration for CBP study
  • Add roof weights (Nehalem River apiary only)

…and then repeat 7 more times for the other hives in the apiary. Thankfully, my energetic apprentice EV helped, so it only took about 2.5 hours to do.  It looks like my other apprentice Allyson might help me with the Nehalem River apiary; if not, I’ll keep you posted on how long this takes with one person.

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Wildlife abounds

From time to time I like to post collected pictures of the various beasties that can be found lurking in the woods surrounding our cottage. The first picture is a little blurry, because it was taken in a great hurry with one hand while carrying firewood.

2deers_SMThe deer here are pretty fearless; last week we were having a bonfire on the garden and I’d left the gate open. A big buck noticed the open gate and tried to get in, until Emily intervened and we shouted and waved our arms. He grudgingly left as I chased him to the treeline, but once I was gone he sneaked right back and I had to chase him out all over again.  A few days later, these two bucks were found standing at our front porch. Were they trying to get into the house? Who knows. What I DO know is that I now regret my decision to not by a deer tag this hunting season. In Oregon, you can’t buy it once the season has started (a few days ago).

coyote1_SMThis next picture is also a bit blurry, but for a different reason, so I will provide you with before-and-after. To the left we have the south end of the garden, as seen from our kitchen window at about 10:00 in the morning. Emily was making coffee, and said, “hey, there is a coyote in our yard in broad daylight.” They are pretty reclusive, though we know they are around because they can be heard howling late at night about once a week or so. She must have pretty good eyes, huh?

coyote2_smHere is a closeup of that same picture, enlarged (and grainy) clearly showing that wily face peeking at us from behind the vegetable washing table. He loped off seconds after I took the picture.

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Things viticultural

When one thinks of wine being produced, usually France and California spring to mind. Maybe with a little Argentina, New Zealand, or Spain thrown in for additional flavor.  Oregon and Washington, however, have been developing their wine industries for several decades and there is some pretty good stuff coming out of the Willamette valley and Walla Walla area.

pressingSMI’ve long been interested in fermenting, so when our friend Burt asked if we wanted to go help him pick grapes at Courting Hill Winery just like last year, we jumped at the chance. It’s a guaranteed good time, frolicking in a vineyard at one of the prettiest times of the year.  This year had something extra, though- Burt suggested we buy some grapes of our own, and follow him through the process of making Chardonnay. He’s been making his own wine for years, and is interested in passing along his skills.

We looked at the budget, and decide we could afford it, so I told Burt we’d love to. I had some of the equipment on hand already, and bought a few small items like tubing and yeast at the brewing supply store. Bill gave us a few of 5-gallon glass carboys that he had laying around in his garage, and we were off to the races! As I write, I can hear the gentle blup-blup of bubbling fermentation locks on the wine fermenting in the mudroom, right next to the hard cider.  Five gallons of wine is a lot for us, 24+ bottles, so I don’t think there will be any shortage of spirits in the coming year. Plus as much cider, and several cases of wine we’ve been given by various friends this month… maybe we need to build a wine cellar.

jasonlettSMThen, last week, I got an email from a friend of mine. Jason is a professional second-generation winemaker in the valley, and we’ve been kicking around ideas for a new winery building design he wants me to help him with. His family brought Pinot grapes to Oregon in the sixties, starting the wine business in this region. They’re well known in the winemaking community, and their Eyrie Vineyard produces high quality wines. “We’re crushing grapes this week”, he said. “Would you like to come spend a day with me and see the operation?”

So I did just that. It was fun to see the differences and similarities between making 24 bottles of wine and 100,000. The equipment is of course much larger and more expensive, such as the press in the picture below. Bigger than a car and several times more expensive, this press and ones like it come from Italy and are the centerpiece of the winery. It has a computer to control it, as it cycles through the grapes several times to get the most juice possible.

bigpressSMBut the general process is the same, and hasn’t changed in millennia. Jason took me to punch down red wine in the early stages of fermentation, an extra step not required on white wines like the Chardonnay in my mudroom. Using a glorified plunger, one pushes crushed grapes down into the fermenting mush, to keep them moist and deter the “bad” bacteria while encouraging the good, hydrophilic yeasts.

He then took me into the barrel room, to listen to the wine.  Yep, listen. In a dark barrel room, you can actually hear a sizzling sound as millions of tiny bubbles rise in the wine. He took a cork out of a barrel, and we peeked in with a flashlight to see the golden liquid and millions of tiny effervescent bubbles. Wine Magic!  As he continued explaining the biology and chemistry of the wine, I moved to another barrel, this one apparently a red from the staining around the bung. Curious to see the difference, I leaned over and pulled out the cork… and the wine exploded everywhere, showering my face and head with a spray of bloody red alcohol.

There was an awkward pause in Jason’s monologue, and we looked at each other. I was worried I’d offended him by spraying his hard work all over the cellar, and he was probably worried I’d get mad that I was covered in red wine. “That’s why I take them off slowly,” he said with one eyebrow raised.  We both smiled, shrugged, and we got a bucket of water to wash me (and the barrel) clean.

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Honey harvest- GO!

AnyoneHomeSM… and the other reason I’ve not been chatty lately is that the honey harvest is on. It takes more and more time each year, for a few reasons:

  1. I have more and more hives each year. Right now, I have almost 20.
  2. The colonies inside them are becoming more mature, and able to gather and store more honey than a newer colony.
  3. The Cozy Bee Project is taking a portion of my available bee time.

knotweed_arrivesSMBefore I talk about that third item, I want to show you something interesting and educational. What you see here is a capped honey frame I pulled out of one of my hives a few days ago. In this part of the country, we have two distinct honeyflows: “wildflower,” or basically anything the bees can get, which is probably more than half Himalayan Blackberry. They gather this all summer long, starting in May or so and going until mid August. Then, about the time all the other flowers dry up, the Japanese Knotweed sets flowers. This happens in the last week of August and the first week of September, and the nectar is dark like molasses. You can se it distinctly in the middle of the frame… look at that color difference!

The second interesting thing here is the pattern. Honey frames like this one are located towards the top of the hive, and the bees fill them in from the upper corners inward. You can see how far they got by the third week of August, When the honey they were bringing in suddenly changed colors. Usually, it ends up being that a frame is mostly one color or the other, but this one is a pretty even mix and makes a great showpiece. It is inconvenient, though, for extracting the honey, because I sort the frames by color before I spin out the honey, so that I can have two distinct types to sell. What to do with this one? I don’t know.

apiary_newSMBack to the Cozy Bee Project. Now that the honey has been harvested, I’m working on bottling up all the Tasty Gifts ™ that my backers will be getting in a few weeks, printing cool stickers, making lip balm, and all that jazz. In the next few days, I also need to do a lot of work with the bees, to get ready for the winter:

  1. Move several hives, so they are all in the new apiaries.
  2. Inspect all the hives, to be sure they are strong, and consolidate any that aren’t.
  3. Sample the varroa infestation rate to determine which need treatment.
  4. Take bee samples from each colony to mail to OSU’s honeybee lab for Nosema analysis.
  5. Test the software update on the Bee Certain temp/ humidity trackers. We’ve been having some technical problems with it, but Bob the engineer is working diligently and says the new units should be ready by Friday.
  6. Buy and install a second electric fence charger at the Nehalem apiary, because someone saw bear sign and I don’t want to take any chances.

As you can see, IT’S CRAZY RIGHT NOW.  Luckily, my energetic young apprentices Allyson and Emily have volunteered to help me get it all done! But in a month or so, things will slow down to a standstill when the bees go dormant and I’m sitting by the fire, out of the chill Northwest drizzle.

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