Monday, November 30, 2015

Getting started with beekeeping - Erik and Kelly from Root Simple

Over the past few weeks I've been running a series of interviews with other bloggers about getting started with beekeeping (see the list at the end for the other posts).  I have learnt so much from these posts, not just practical ideas but an insight into the philosophy behind different styles of beekeeping.

This week I am lucky to have an interview with Erik and Kelly from Root Simple.  These two have an excellent blog and podcast (and two books about homesteading).   I really love listening to their podcast, which occasionally features bees and lots of other homesteading topics.  They live in suburban Los Angeles, with a similar climate to me, but with neighbours to complicate things.  Here's what they had to say about beekeeping:


Farmer Liz: How long have you been keeping bees? What got you interested in bees originally? And how many hives to you have now?

Root Simple: We've kept bees since 2009. There were a number of reasons we got into it: love of nature, desire for pollination services and research for our second book, Making It. We've always kept two hives. I think that's a good number for an urban location. It's not too many but if you lose one you've got a backup.

Bees feeding on a poppy flower

FL: What challenges have you faced with keeping bees in an urban environment? And how have you overcome these?

RS: There have been surprisingly few challenges. I do think it's important to practice an extra level of caution given how close we live to our neighbors here. I'm a natural beekeeper and don't do a lot of inspections. When I do an inspection I do it on a nice sunny day in the middle of the day during business hours when most people our at work. If I'm doing a cutout (removing bees from a wall, for instance), I make sure that people have there pets locked up. That said, I've never had anything go wrong.

FL: While I inherently understand and agree with the concept of natural bee keeping and not inspecting hives more than necessary, I also feel that I am keeping my bees in a climate that they are not necessarily suited to, and with pests that challenge them. How do you balance natural bee keeping and the need to care for and protect the bees from pests?

RS: "Natural" beekeeping can mean many things. I define it as keeping bees without treatment and letting them form their own comb. I use regular Langstroth boxes but you can also go with top bar hives. I just don't use foundation and I keep inspections to a minimum--basically I just make sure they have enough room.

I think the question of whether to intervene or not is a difficult one. You have to follow your instincts and your heart. When a pest like small hive beetles come around it can sound kind of harsh to not resort to treatments. I think you should consider environmental conditions such as keeping things clean around your hives and placing them in a more sunny location, perhaps. But ultimately, when we keep bees, we are involved in a breeding program and I think it's a mistake to prop up weak colonies. Eventually bees breed resistance to pests. Strong colonies will resist intruders and pests. This is why I like feral bees--they have been living here for who knows how long without people taking care of them. They take care of themselves. I just have to give them a home and get out of their way. 

Feral bees living in a wall of a house

FL: Being in Southern California, you have a similar climate to me here in Queensland, Australia, where we don’t get a really cold winter. Most bee books I’ve found are written by people in cold climates, with very cold winters, from your experience have you had to adapt any of those cold climate beekeeping techniques to suit a warmer climate? Or have you found resources that deal with warmer climates?

RS: We've had to figure out a completely different method of beekeeping than is in the books. Timing of honey harvests is different and bees will swarm here year round. In addition we're in Africanized bee territory. Despite the propaganda, I've found Africanized bees to be healthier and not nearly as aggressive as the "experts" say they are. The Africanized issue has been very polarizing and contentious in the bee community.

FL: Is there anything that you’ve learnt so far that you wish you’d known right from the start?
When in doubt don't do anything. The bees know what is best for themselves. Oftentimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.

(That sounds very "One Straw Revolution"!)

Rehoming bees from a wall

FL: What advice would you give to readers who are considering getting bees?

RS: Find a natural beekeeper or natural beekeeping group in your are if there is one. The best way to learn beekeeping is hands-on. Learning to do cutouts and swarm captures has taught me a lot about how to work with bees.

FL: Thank you so much Erik and Kelly for taking the time to answer my questions, I need to get more confidence with just letting the bees do their own thing.  I am really interested in trying frames without foundation.  If you want to know more, head over to Root Simple, especially their bee posts, there is a lot of information about natural beekeeping and also native pollinators.  And if you're into podcasts, I encourage you to listen to the Root Simple Podcast, its my favourite.

Getting started with beekeeping
Getting started with beekeeping - Leigh from 5 Acres and a Dream

Getting started with beekeeping - Sally from Jembella Farm

Getting started with beekeeping - Vickie from Making our Sustainable Life

Getting started with ducks

Getting started with homestead dairy

Getting started with chickens

Getting started with growing vegetables

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Swallow this - book review

In Joanna Blythman's book "Swallow This", the author has somehow gained access to the food industry's inner circle.  She attends trade shows and obtains information about the hidden ingredients in processed food that you will find shocking.  The food industry is onto us consumers, they know that we are reading labels and avoiding weird ingredients and anything with a number, so their latest technique is "clean labels".  Complex and unnatural ingredients are shown on clean labels with familiar or safe sounding names, such as "yeast extract" or "modified starch" or "beetroot extract", this means its getting even harder to read processed food labels and avoid eating artificial ingredients.

eight acres: book review - swallow this - serving up the food industry's darkest secrets

I've taken key points from each chapter in the book, however there is so much detail, if you are interested in this subject I recommend you read the book yourself.  It is written from a UK and EU perspective, I can only imagine that the situation in Australia and New Zealand is similar and in the US probably even worse.

Describes the sugar lobby's attempts to hide the reality of sugar, if anyone is still in doubt about sugar, the fact that the sugar industry is covering up research findings has to be a clue that they know something is wrong.  And don't think that artificial sweeteners are any safer

"With sugar, as with everything else in life, we can't have our cake and eat it too.  However you try to dess up and repackage it, sugar is bad news, and candidates to replace it, no better."
While it is now generally acknowledged that saturated fats are the healthier fats, liquid polyunsaturated fats are cheaper for food processes to use.  They are not stable at high temperatures, so other chemicals are added - these are "processing aids" and not declared as ingredients.

Flavours can be artificial or "natural", with the artificial flavourings being either nature identical or with a chemical structure that is not found in nature.  Even the "natural" flavours can be "from the named source", "from the named fruit", or "with other natural flavourings", none of which needs to be declared on the label.  These flavours can be modified, enhanced and processed to be very different from the flavour chemicals found in the original food.  Food processes are trying to come up with ways to include flavours without having to call them "flavours", to avoid the scrutiny of careful label readers.

eight acres: book review - swallow this - serving up the food industry's darkest secrets
I tried to find the link for this image that I copied from facebook,
I guess its somewhere on, I found some other articles but not the link for this image

The problem with processing food is that is often looses some of its natural vibrant colour when its frozen or heated for long periods.  The food industry uses added colouring agents to trick us into thinking that processed food is fresher and tastier than it really is.  Since artificial colours were shown to cause behaviour problems in children in 1990s, food manufacturers have started swapping artificial colours for natural colours (in the UK anyway), however the definition of "natural" is owned by the industry and they use it to their advantage.  Even more worrying is a trend towards using "colouring foods" which do not have to be declared directly on the label as colouring agents.
"The bottom line here is that the boudary between 'natural colourings' and 'colouring foods' is clear as mud, and exists only in the form of meek industry guidance, not meticulously defined by law"
This includes such ambiguous terms as "beetroot extract" and "carrot concentrate", which sound safe, healthy even, but the process used to create these colouring foods may be anything but benign.

Pumping meat and other processed food full of water is a age-old trick to cheaply increase the weight of the product.  The catch now is that the food industry has developed binders and other chemicals to keep the water in the food.  The giveaway is the weird texture of these foods, the slipperiness and gumminess is a result of all that water and gelling agent.  Many of these ingredients are classed as 'processing aids' and therefore do not appear on the label.  This includes phosphates, which conveniently also make the meat or seafood seem fresher for longer.

Modified starch sounds pretty innocuous, however, when you consider that starch can be modified by such methods as processing with acids, bleaches, enzymes, heating, drying, oxidation, cross-linking with fats, conversion to esters or ethers, bonding with phosphates, it becomes a very broad term that covers a multitude of actual products.  The key point is that starch is cheap and has many properties that will cover up cheap and low quality ingredients.  If you see modified starch on a label, it is a clue that the food processor has skimped on other ingredients.

Tricky - enzymes
Food manufacturers are using enzymes in the production of foods such as breads, cheeses and fruit purees to speed up processing.  Enzymes are also used to recover blood and meat from carcasses to be used in canned soup.  They are also used to tenderise meat from older animals.  Once again, enzymes are considered processing aids and will generally not appear on the label.  This is another case of an ingredient used as a shortcut to cover up poor quality ingredients and processing.  Unfortunately without labeling, we don't even know the enzyme is in our food, let alone whether is is natural, or produced from genetically engineered bacteria or chemically.  Even worse, enzymes are considered natural ingredients so are not tested or regulated before being added to our food!

The aim of food manufacturers is to extend shelf-life of food for as long as possible.  This is why preservatives are needed, however most of us know to look out for preservatives and while the food industry have done their best to justify the use of preservatives, they are looking for safer-sounding alternatives.  This includes changing the atmosphere inside packaging (ever wondered how those wraps can stay "fresh" for so long in the pantry?), pre-washing vegetables in chemicals to inhibit bacteria, using 'edible coating technologies' and films, enzymes that extend "sensory shelf life".  And the newest technology is extracts from herbs such as rosemary, thyme and garlic, which sound very safe, but there are doubts within the industry that they will actual preserve food as well as the food industry have come to expect!  If its not the chemicals, it will be the food poisoning that makes us sick instead.

You won't believe this, but there are also chemicals used in the packaging of food, for example to provide an ;anti-fog' effect, and none of these appear on the label.  You've heard of Bisphenol A, an additive in plastic, the latest issue is with nanoparticles, which are used to decrease the permeability of plastics.  Its probably non surprise that these nanoparticles end up in the food and we have no idea what sort of damage them do.  Read more about that here.

OK so I know some of you are thinking I'm a paranoid nutter that avoids all food (what did Michelle Bridges call us?  Freaks?).  I know its impossible to avoid all processed foods, but if you cook as much as possible from scratch, you can avoid a great deal of these hidden chemicals.  Its certainly made me reconsider certain foods that I previously considered relatively safe (such as salted potato chips - what is in the oil? and anything with modified starch or yeast extract).  Processed foods were never "good" to eat compared to real food, and this just gives me more reason not to eat them.

If you need any tips on eating real food, here's a link to all my posts on real food.  And there's an Amazon affiliate link to the book "Swallow This" below if you want to know all the details.

What do you think?  Do you avoid processed foods?  Is it worth the effort?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Getting started with beekeeping - with Leigh from 5 Acres and a Dream

In the third of my series of interviews about getting started with bees, I'm chatting with Leigh from 5 Acres and a Dream.  Leigh and her husband homestead on five acres in the foothills of the Southern Appalachians.  Their climate is very similar to mine, with a relatively mild winter, and hot humid summers.  Leigh's book "5 Acres & A Dream The Book: The Challenges of Establishing a Self-Sufficient Homestead" is a great resource for anyone thinking of homesteading.  But today we are talking about bees, which are a recent addition to Leigh's homestead and she's chosen to use a different hive, this time the Warre Hive.  

In the previous interviews I talked to:
Sally from Jembella Farm in South Australia and then Vickie from Making Our Sustainable Life, who lives in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Leigh from 5 Acres and a Dream


Farmer Liz: How long have you been keeping bees?

Leigh: We set up our first hive on the homestead this past spring.

FL: What got you interested in bees originally?

L: My interest in bees started about 40 years ago when I found a book about them in the public library. I was immediately fascinated, and got my first beehive the following summer. Unfortunately I had to move before I ever had a honey harvest and I couldn't take the bees with me. That little taste of beekeeping, however, left a lifetime impression on me.

FL: How many hives to you have now?

L: We still have the first one and I'll be adding two more hives next spring.

FL: Can you tell us a bit about Warré hives and why you chose to use a Warré rather than the typical Langstroth hive?

A. When I started preparing to add bees to the homestead, the first thing I did was to read and research their needs and care. At that time I was only familiar with the Langstroth hive. As I visited various beekeeping websites, I found one which advocated natural beekeeping. He used horizontal top bar hives and after reading about his philosophy and practices, I set about on another internet hunt for more information. From that I learned that there are several styles of top bar hives. There are two types of horizontal hives (Kenyan with sloping sides and Tanzanian with straight sides) and a vertical top bar hive. The vertical top bars are typically Warré hives.  (FL: Vickie from last week's interview uses a Kenyan Top Bar Hive)

The Warré hive was developed in the early 20th century by a French priest named Emilé Warré. He was an avid beekeeper who thought that beekeeping should accommodate the bees rather than the keeper of the bees. He also believed that beekeeping should be economical enough for anyone to practice. In accordance with those beliefs he developed what he called "The Peoples' Hive, " which we now know as the Warré hive.

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Leigh from 5 Acres and a Dream
The Warre Hive

The size and structure of the Warré hive mimic what a colony of swarming bees would find in a hollow tree. Left to their natural way of doing things, the bees will start building comb at the top of the cavity and work their way downward. The queen will immediately begin to fill the new comb with eggs and work her way downward as well. After the new bees emerge, the cells are filled with honey. Warré beekeeping facilitates this behavior by adding hive boxes at the bottom (nadiring) rather than at the top (supering).

"Top bar" refers to the use of bars rather than frames and foundation for comb-building. A thin strip of melted beeswax is painted along each bar as a starting point for the bees to begin their comb. Without the bars, the bees would build one long continuous comb from top to bottom. The bars are the one concession for the beekeeper. Warré beekeepers commonly harvest honey with the crush and strain method. This gives the additional bonus of a wax harvest.

FL: My biggest concern about using a “different” type of hive as a beginner is that we would find it difficult to get help from other beekeepers if we had any problems. Have you found that this is an issue?

L: Oh yes. When I first became interested in top bar beekeeping I mentioned it to my area beekeeping supplier. The response was instantly negative, so I knew there would be no help there. Other top bar beekeepers have had similar experiences.

I think this is always the case, however, for those of us seeking sustainable alternatives to the modern commercialized production model. There will always be some who will be critical and discouraging. I'm sure many of you can relate to what I'm saying. It is sad that much of the world does not appreciate the land-based agrarian way of living, but thanks to the internet, there is worldwide help available!

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Leigh from 5 Acres and a Dream
Warre hive top bars

FL: What resources (online/books/in person) have you found useful in learning how to manage your Warré hive?

L: I have found numerous resources in books and websites. At the end of this post there is a link to my blog where I've created with a list of resources and links.

FL: Is there anything that you’ve learnt so far that you wish you’d known right from the start?

L: Well, when I first bought my equipment I delayed on getting gloves, because I figured I wouldn't need them until honey harvest later in the season. When I installed my package of bees, however, I couldn't find the queen cage. I quickly called the bee supplier (this was one time the type of hive didn't matter), who told me to simply catch the cage as I dumped the bees into the hive! How I regretted not getting those gloves! I ended up using my husband's welding gloves. They were awkward, but I managed to catch the queen cage as it tumbled out. I was then able to proceed in the usual manner.

FL: What advice would you give to readers who are considering getting bees?

L: Do your research and then make a start. As in all of life, the true learning of a thing is in the doing. Whenever I start something new I assume I'm going to run into unexpected problems and make mistakes, but by doing the best I can, I know I'll learn from these and will be the better for it.

Thanks Leigh, I love your philosophy and I agree, its difficult to go against the mainstream, but we are so lucky to have the internet to connect like-minded agrarian rebels all over the world!  If you have questions or are interested in learning more about Warré or top bar beekeeping, please visit Leigh's blog 5 Acres & A Dream The Blog.  Leigh is happy to answer questions, and will have links there to her own beekeeping blog posts plus lists of books, groups, and websites to help get you started.  

Getting started with beekeeping
Getting started with beekeeping - Sally from Jembella Farm

Getting started with beekeeping - Vickie from Making our Sustainable Life

Getting started with ducks

Getting started with homestead dairy

Getting started with chickens

Getting started with growing vegetables

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How I use herbs - lavender

Lavender is an essential herb in any garden because it is relatively easy to grow and has so many uses.  There are several species, with similar properties, but each suited to different climates.  The species considered to have the best "quality" essential oil is Lavendula Augustifolia, however it can be more expensive as it has lower yield that other varieties (and the quality just refers to the pleasantness of the smell).  Any of them grow well in the garden and smell lovely.  I am pretty sure my plant is French Lavender (Lavendula Dentata), I also have an Italian Lavender (Lavendual Stoechas) next to it, but it has hardly grown.

How to grow lavender
I got my lavender plant as a small plant.  I have tried growing lavender from seed with no success.  I think its better from a cutting or by layering.  I haven't had any success with cuttings either so far.  I really need to work on this because I'd love to have more lavender in my garden.  Lavender once established (and if you find the right one for your climate) is rather hardy and prefers not to be waterlogged, its best in full sun with well-drained soil.  It does need to be trimmed to keep a nice shape, mine has got out of control lately and has a very woody stem and uneven growth due to being buried under a choko vine for most of last summer!

eight acres how I use lavender

How to use lavender
Its hard to know where to start with lavender!  It really has so many uses... I use both dried lavender flowers and lavender essential oil.  Here's a list of examples:

  • Pest repellent - I use the essential oil as an ingredient in my insect repellent and I put paper bags of dried flowers in wardrobes and drawers to protect clothing from moths
  • Relaxation - a few drops of essential oil in a bath, or rubbed on my forehead if I feel a headache starting.  I also put dried lavender flowers in the wheat heat packs I made.
  • Itch calming - I find a little essential oil rubbed on an itchy bite helps the itch
  • Wound healing - lavender essential oil can be combined with other healing herbs to help with healing of cuts and burns.
  • Digestion - tea made with lavender flowers aids digestion (and ice cream with lavender syrup is yummy! - our local lavender farm Potique makes the syrup)
  • Lavender flowers can also be used to flavour vinegar, oils or honey (I want to try flavouring honey with herbs as soon as we harvest some honey)
  • And honey bees use lavender as a source of nectar, pollen and essential oils that can help them fight pests in the hive too, another reason I want to grow more lavender!

When my plant is flowering I cut all the mature flowers every few days to encourage more flowers.  I dry the flowers in a basket and store in jars.  I buy my essential oils from Sydney Essential Oil Company and that is not even an affiliate link!

Do you grow and use lavender?  Which variety do you have?  Do you use essential oils as well?

Other posts about herbs in my garden:

How I use herbs - Mint, Peppermint and Spearmint

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

How I use herbs - Basil

How I use herbs - Ginger, galangal and turmeric

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter taragon

How I use herbs - Soapwort

How I use herbs - Comfrey

How I use herbs - Nasturtium

How I use herbs - Parsley

How I use herbs - Borage

How I use herbs - Herb Robert

How I use herbs - Purslane

How I use herbs - Chickweed

How I use herbs - Neem oil

How I use herbs - Rue, tansy and wormwood

How I use herbs - Brahmi

How I use herbs - Yarrow

How I use herbs - Arrowroot

How I use herbs: lucerne (afalfa)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Getting started with beekeeping - with Vickie from Making Our Sustainable Life

Last week I interviewed Sally from Jembella Farm in South Australia about her bees, this week I'm talking to Vickie from Making Our Sustainable Life.  Vickie and her husband live on acreage in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, just east of the Sacramento Valley.  Even though they are in a different country, with a different climate and bee habitat, I think there's much to learn from beekeepers all over the world.  The things that particularly interested me about Vickie's bees is that she uses a horizontal top bar hive, which is a totally different type of hive from the common langstroth hives that we use.  Here's what she had to say:

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
The top bar hive


Farmer Liz: How long have you been keeping bees?

Vickie: We have had bees only since this past Spring 2015, though we have dreamed about keeping bees since we bought our land (which would become our current homestead) more than ten years ago.

FL: What got you interested in bees originally?

V: The original reason for getting bees was for pollinating our orchard. Right now we have 2 cherries, 2 peaches, 2 apricots, 2 apples, 2 walnuts, 2 almonds and a French prune tree. We have a 3-in-1 pluot and a 3-in-1 pear tree on order to be planted this winter. That is why our first beehive was placed in our orchard! Secondly, as we are trying to live self-reliant lives, we were looking for a natural sweetener, and honey was the answer. Though I have a wonderful Stevia plant and I am starting to experiment making our own sugar with sugar beets, honey is my favorite sweetener. Finally, the beeswax can be used in both candlemaking and in making lotions and creams

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
inspecting the hive

FL: And how many hives to you have now?

V: We only have one hive – our first. We are building another hive (maybe two) this winter and will be buying another package (or two) of bees (1 queen and 3 pounds of workers) this spring.

FL: Can you tell us a bit about top bar hives and why you chose to use a top bar rather than the typical langstroth hive?

V: We have done quite a bit of research on all types of hives, and attended several classes and workshops on beekeeping. The main reason we chose the top bar hive was because it is the most natural type of human made beehive. The varroa mite and the tracheal mite are two reasons (among others) beekeepers are loosing so many hives, called colony collapse disorder. When bees draw comb in a traditional langstroth hive, they are following a pattern already set in the frame. Each cell of the comb will be about 5.2 mm, which is not natural for European honeybees. 4.7 to 4.8 mm is natural. Mr. Langstroth (the hive developer) thought that if the cells in the comb were bigger, then the bees would be bigger. They are! He also figured bigger bees, more vigor, more honey. Not necessarily true, but a good theory. The problem is that a tracheal mite will not fit into the trachea (in the abdomen) of a smaller “natural” bee, but easily fits into the larger bees produced from the Langstroth hive. Also, the varroa mite reproduces within the cells along with the pupating bee. The larger bees from a Langstroth hive require 2-3 days longer in the cell to develop, therefore more varroa mites are able to develop along with the bee! Because of this, the top bar hive will naturally have fewer varroa mites than in a Langstroth hive. It is true that with a top bar hive, the bees need to spend more energy and resources drawing out honeycomb instead of honey, which is why commercial beekeepers prefer the Langstroth hive. We decided we would prefer to have a bit less honey and a healthy hive, rather than have to use pesticides or lose our hive to the mites.

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
A top bar frame - the comb is all built by the bees

FL: My biggest concern about using a “different” type of hive as a beginner is that we would find it difficult to get help from other beekeepers if we had any problems, have you found that this is an issue?
V: We were lucky to have a friend who is both a Master Gardener and a beekeeper! Kim has tried several types of beehives and, like us, prefers the top bar type. When we attended one of her beekeeping workshops, she gave us plans to build a Kenyan Top Bar Hive, which is what we used to build ours! You can see how we built our Kenyan Top Bar Hive here.  We also found a great book on beekeeping called Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health by Les Crowder (affiliate link). Just about everything you need to know about top bar beekeeping is in this book.

FL: And what resources (online/books/in person) have you found useful in learning how to manage your top bar hive?

V: The book has been extremely helpful. It is also nice to have a friend who can answer questions, and Master Gardener Kim from Berry Creek Station has been a great help. Top Bar Hive beekeeping is becoming more popular for the backyard beekeeper, and I have found more and more resources online for building, using and maintaining top bar beehives. There are also quite a few You Tube videos on top bar beekeeping.

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life

FL: Is there anything that you’ve learnt to far that you wish you’d known right from the start?

V: I do wish we had read the book “Top Bar Beekeeping” before we actually got our bees, but instead, we did it the other way around! We had no idea we were supposed to move bars around inside the hive every few weeks, nor did we know all the different problems to look out for. We jumped into beekeeping before we really knew what we should have known! Luckily, our bees seemed to know how to take care of themselves, to a certain degree. One mistake we made (before we got the book) was when we felt sorry for the bees in our hot summer, so we erected a tarp to give them some shade during the heat of the afternoon. Then we got the book and read that bees actually like a certain amount of heat and the shade was a definte “no-no”. We are still learning a lot about beekeeping, and I am sure we have a lot more to learn!

FL: What advice would you give to readers who are considering getting bees?

V: Do your research! Attend a class! Make friends with other beekeepers! Then, decide why you want bees. For the honey? A Langstroth hive produces the most honey. For the wax? Top Bar Hives produce the most wax. For pollination? Any beehive will do. To help keep the honeybees from going extinct? In my opinion, the Top Bar Hive is the most natural, therefore the best for the honeybee as a species! Your answers to these questions will help you decide which type of hive is best for you!

eight acres: getting started with beekeeping - with Making Our Sustainable Life
bees love sunflowers

FL: Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Vickie!  I can relate to wanting to use the bees for pollination and beeswax as well as honey production.  I didn't know about the size of the bees causing them to be more susceptible for different parasites, that's a very good reason to let the bees make their own comb.

If you want to leave a comment of question for Vickie please head over to her blog Making Our Sustainable Life (also check out her other sustainable activities!). 

Getting started with beekeeping
Getting started with beekeeping - Sally from Jembella Farm

Getting started with ducks

Getting started with homestead dairy

Getting started with chickens

Getting started with growing vegetables

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Keeping bantam chickens

I recently came into the possession of some bantams and they are ridiculously cute.  They also have a job to do.... I'm hoping they will hatch some eggs.  I thought I better find out a bit more about them first though!  Here's what I've learnt about bantams....

eight acres: all about bantam chickens

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, November 9, 2015

Getting started with Beekeeping - Sally from Jembella Farm

Pete and I recently got bees (if you've been following, you'll probably be sick of me talking about it!), and lately I've been connecting with other bloggers who have bees (by connecting I mean asking heaps of questions!).  I thought this would be a good topic to continue my "getting started" series.  I've previously asked other bloggers about growing vegetables, keeping chickens and dairy animals.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Sally and Brian's beehives
My first "getting started with beekeeping" interview is with Sally from Jembella Farm. Sally and her husband live in the Barossa Valley (South Australia) in a 100 year old house on sixteen acres with 2 dogs, 7 cows, 2 alpacas, 5 geese, 35 chickens, 78 sheep & a few bee hives.


Farmer Liz: How long have you been keeping bees? What got you interested in bees originally? And how many hives to you have now?

Sally: It had been on my bucket list to have bees one day, so for my birthday in October 2004 Brian gave me a hive that he bought second hand from his uncle. On that same spring day, we got a phone call from people up the road, telling us that they had a swarm on their fence post. Word travels fast in a small town! We called in the help of Brian’s uncle, and with make-do bee suit clothing, Uncle Murray guided us in moving the swarm from the post into our hive. That hive is still called the Birthday Box.

We slowly built up our hive numbers. Brian made more hives using a template from a purchased hive that was in pieces. (Ikea bee hive! Just joking, I don’t think Ikea do bee hives do they?) Now we have 15 hives, but they vary and sometimes, for many possible reasons, a hive dies out and has to be built up again.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Brian making frames

FL: You have a lot of experience with harvesting and selling your honey, so I was hoping you could tell us more about that process. Let’s start at the beginning, how do you decide that a frame is ready for harvest? And how do you decide that is time to process a whole lot of frames?

S: In South Australia the flow (of nectar) starts in spring with the first of flowering paddock and garden weeds; Sour Sobs and Cape Weed in September and then a bit later, Salvation Jane. These first flowers strengthen the hives after winter. We don’t start extracting too early though and never open the hives during winter. In Spring, we would not open unless the temp is above 24 degrees, then Brian checks the hives regularly (every week, or two, once the weather warms up) watching for capped honey, checking that bee numbers are high and if there is a lot of brood in the cells. This tells us that the hive is strong and healthy.

Once there are sufficient fully capped frames in the hive, we can see that the hive is strong, and if there are follow up beneficial flowers in the paddocks and trees, he will only then, make the decision to extract from the full frames. Never taking honey from the brood box, this is left for reserves for the bees to survive on in the event that there isn’t enough follow up flowering. A hot spell can spoil the pollen and nectar in the flowers, a cold rainy spell can do the same or prevent them from getting out to forage. Some years we can be extracting as early as September, but other years we need to wait until November. It all depends on the conditions of the weather and the hives. Here in SA the climate is harsh and we need to be very careful not to let our hives get weak. In the summer of 2013-2014 we didn’t take any honey at all. There were not enough flowers about for the bees. If we had taken their honey they would have starved.

Brian does most of the physical and heavy work with the bees. He’s the most hands on. I sometimes wish I was doing more with the actual bees, as I used to, but I must admit that on those hot days when he’s up in the paddock in full bee suit and it’s 45 degrees I’m quite happy to be doing my bit back in the shed getting things ready for extracting.

I do all of the marketing, design and make the labels, put the honey into jars and tubs. I operate our Farm gate stall and take orders from our few local outlets, do the deliveries and generally keep the contact with our customers. We are happy with the size of our little enterprise and have no desire to expand. We never thought at the beginning that our honey would become so popular, and we remind people that it’s the bees doing the work, we are only facilitating them.

We have two places that they are situated throughout the year. In September/October the Salvation Jane is flowering on our neighbour’s properties so we bring them home to our farm and generally do two to three extractions at two week intervals while they are here. When the flowers finish around here, we move them into the outskirts of our local small town where they have access to flowering gums and domestic gardens.

As we are not getting any younger and bee boxes are really heavy, Brian has bought three old trailers so the hives remain on them all the time. When it’s time to move the hives we can close up the doors at night time and drive them to a new location.

We always provide a water supply for the hives wherever they are. A large drum with floating corks works well but if you don’t work in a winery, as we do, light pieces of timber floating on the surface will also work.

FL: I know there are a few different methods to remove the bees from the honey frames before harvesting, with commercial producers using blowers. What method do you find works best for small-scale home honey production?

S: We use a smoker using hessian or pine needles to make a cold smoke. Also use a horse hair brush.  Brian drives the ute up to the paddock and checks the condition of the hives. If they pass all of the above criteria, he smokes and brushes the bees off then puts each full frame into a spare “super” that has a piece of light tin nailed on the bottom. They fit along the box snugly and can carry 9 frames in each “super.”

Another point here as I think of it, we always have 9 frames in each of the 10 frame supers so they are not squeezed in tightly, the bees can draw out the wax a bit further which makes it easier to cut the capping off when extracting.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
The bee brush and smoker

FL: When you have the full frames back in your shed ready to extract the honey, what sort of process do you use? Who does what and how long does it take? Any tips that you’ve learnt along the way?

S: So we carry all of the super boxes into the shed and shut all doors and windows to prevent bees getting in. It’s really hot, the honey flows best on a hot day, and using a shed is a perfect ambient heat. We have an old fan blowing onto us from 3 metres away which makes a huge difference to our enjoyment of the task.

While Brian is out in the paddock getting the frames in his bee suit, I’m in the relative comfort of the shed making the preparations. I have buckets ready with the straining cloths tied on. We use food grade plastic 10 litre buckets with lids that we get from our local bakery for a nominal fee. Maybe a jar of honey. Honey is really heavy so 10 litre buckets are the largest we use. I use old curtains from the op-shop. Can’t remember the name of the fabric, very loose weave that is see through. Depending on the open-ness of the weave, I will use a double layer before tying on with baling twine. We only want to sieve out large bits of wax and the occasional dead bee. We want small bits of propolis, wax and pollen to go into the honey to add to the flavour and quality. Hence my label states “Raw unfiltered honey that may contain traces of beeswax, propolis and pollen”. Our customers are educated to know that unfiltered honey is the purest and tastiest.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Filtering the honey for large debris

I also have a bucket of clean cold water nearby with a clean towel next to it. This is for washing my hands regularly to remove the sticky honey and prevent covering everything in stickiness. Taking extreme care to dry my hands and not to let any water drip into any of the honey. This would cause it to candy or ferment.

The hot knife, for capping, is connected to the “Reducer” via an old pressure cooker. The steam is what heats our knife and in turn heats the reducer. This is where the capped wax falls into and separates the wax from the honey that comes with the capping. It’s a lovely old utensil that we bought from an auction sale. Because this small amount of honey is heated, we keep it for cooking purposes only.

eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
The uncapping knife is heated with steam
eight acres: getting started with bees - Jembella Farm
Uncapping the honey comb
All of these things are ready by the time Brian gets back with the frames. We need to work efficiently to get the honey out and replace the frames as quickly as possible. Brian does the uncapping with the hot knife making it look much easier than it really is. Strength is required!

After capping he hands the frame to me to place into the extractor. We recently bought an electric 4 frame extractor, but have used a home built, hand wound, 2 frame extractor until now.

I get a bit terse with Brian if he gives me 2 frames that are very different in weight. The uneven-ness makes the extractor wobble uncontrollably so he tries to de-cap 2 frames of approximate equal weight for me to spin. But now, with the 4 frame extractor, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Now to start spinning the honey out. Spin the first side at half speed and only for a few turns to release half the honey in that side. Then stop, remove each frame, turn it around to its other side and replace into the extractor so the honey is being spun from the other side of the wax. Then spin the honey out gradually gathering more speed. Then turn the frames back to the first side again to remove the remaining honey in that side. This is to prevent breaking the wax as the weight of the honey and the centrifugal action forcing the frame to the outside is too heavy for the wax to remain in one piece. The least breakages in the wax means the bees can spend less time repairing the wax and spend more time gathering nectar and pollen to make honey.

The gate on the extractor is left open while I’m spinning the honey, with a bucket placed underneath (with the curtain fabric tied on). Frequently I have to stop spinning and tilt the extractor to drain honey out. Never allow the honey to build up in the extractor to the point where it is being moved around. The least amount of movement of the honey is best for its purity.

As each frame is emptied it is placed back in the super box ready to be taken back to the hive when we are finished. After we finish the last frame we load the boxes of empty frames back onto the ute and Brian returns them to the hive boxes.

I educate our customers to never place the honey in a microwave to liquefy it after going candied. I was horrified when speaking to a small apiarist last week who told me he melts his candied honey in the microwave before selling it. People buying raw honey need to ask questions of their apiarist and stay well away from anyone using a microwave. All honey goes candied and the gentlest way to liquefy it again is to place the bucket into a larger pot of hot water on a slow stove top. It will take a few days because the temperature should not reach higher than 32 degrees.

It takes approximately one hour to extract a box of 10 frames. We often extract from 50 or more frames which takes maybe two hours. We lose track of time, we enjoy extracting, so I don’t know exactly how long it takes. More time is spent setting up, checking the hives and collecting the frames. Then cleaning up takes time which is the least enjoyable part of the day. A bit like unpacking from a holiday. We always put aside the day and make a start in the morning after the farm chores are finished. Usually around 9am and the day is warm to hot.

Cleaning up the extractor is easy. Remove the inside workings, which usually come out in one piece after undoing a couple of screws on the sides, (we use wing nuts for ease of removal) and place in a clean wheelbarrow. Put the wheelbarrow out in a clear space away from human activity and where the bees can clean it up. To clean the drum, use a cake scraper to scrape down the sides and allow to drain through the gate (tap) into the collection bucket. It may take ages for the honey to drain through the fabric sieves so I always have two buckets going at the same time. Exchanging one for the other as the honey threatens to overflow.

When buckets are full remove the cloth sieves carefully and allow to drain, or squeeze gently to get the honey through. Wash the fabrics in water and dry in the sun. Put lids on the buckets and weigh them. Write the weight and date on the lid, adding anything you might want to remember ie, where the hives were, what kind of flowers were most prominent at the time etc.

When the bees have finished with cleaning up the insides of the extractor, wash with warm water. Wash the drum with warm water and allow to dry in the sun. Don’t use any detergent.

FL: Is there anything that you’ve learnt to far that you wish you’d known right from the start?

S: We don’t use Queen excluders any more. The first year of beekeeping we used them and found that lots of bees got stuck in the excluder resulting in the hive becoming very weak from the great losses. Now we know that the brood generally stays in one box, the brood box, especially once the honey flow really gets going.

FL: What advice would you give to readers who are considering getting bees?

S: Bee keeping is not a fad or a “set and forget” hobby. If you decide to take it on you have to work at it and be serious about the welfare of the bees and the biosecurity aspect.

For example, the flow hives new on the market are not popular with experienced apiarists. It’s not just a matter of turning on a tap to get honey at will. Bees are truly complex and fascinating creatures so it’s imperative that the new bee keeper studies every possible means of information available to gain knowledge. The hives must be inspected regularly for disease, so the bee keeper must be aware of what to look for.

Bee hives are extremely heavy so consider your strengths and abilities.

FL: Thanks so much for sharing your experience Sally!  Its really interesting to learn how you do things (and you've answered a few things we were wondering about, like whether to use 9 or 10 frames in a super!).  Please head over the Sally's blog to leave a comment or more questions (and check out what else she gets up to on her farm).  She's posted about catching a swarm of honey bees, so there's even more to learn about bees over there!

Next week I have an interview with Vickie from Making our Sustainable Life, who has a top bar hive.

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