Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Clan's beehives

Now that you know a little bit about bees, what they are, what they do, etc, it’s time to talk about the second most important part of beekeeping. After bees, the most crucial part of beekeeping is the beehive.

Wild colonies of bees generally take up residence in cavities in trees or other places where they are sheltered from the elements and relatively safe from predators. Beekeepers, who don’t usually have hollow trees on hand, substitute with conventional beehives. In America, the standard beehive is the Langstroth hive. You've probably seen these beehives before, since nearly every beekeeper uses them.

Dad started out using standard beehives, but after he got the hang of beekeeping, he decided to try some of the alternative hive options out there. So far he's only tried two, but I'll just tell you a bit about how they're different from standard hives and why we do (or do not) use them now.

Standard (Langstroth):

These are the hives Dad started out with. The hive is made of stacked boxes. Inside these boxes are frames.
Box full of frames
The bees build their honeycomb, raise their brood, and store their honey in these frames. When bees fill all the frames in a box with honey, the box is removed and replaced with an empty one. The stack of boxes is topped with a lid, and the bees enter and exit through small entrances.
The hive boxes are painted to help them last longer. And green was the color we had lying around.
Inside the hive
A big hive
Sometimes these hive can get a little tall.
And that’s a conventional hive. Dad still uses these hives for 80% of his hives because it's easiest to get the kind of honey yield he's looking for out of them. They're fairly easy and simple to maintain, they're not difficult to open up so that he can inspect the colony, and the frames aren't difficult to extract honey from. And since that's part of the reason we keep bees at all (besides it being Dad's hobby) these hives are the best choice for us. 

But just because we're using 'normal' beehives doesn't mean we're becoming more 'normal'. Don't get any crazy ideas.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Article shared on Facebook -- by Hank the Cowdog!

Last week, the subject of my article for the newspaper was Hank the Cowdog. Hank the Cowdog is the name of a book series by John R. Erickson, a bunch of stories about a dog living on a ranch in Texas. The Clan really likes those books, so it was only a matter of time before I was going to write a review of them and recommend them to anyone who reads my writing. I won't entirely rehash my newspaper article (you can read that HERE), but in case you've never heard of Hank the Cowdog, here's what I'm talking about.

Hank the Cowdog is the Head of Ranch Security on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Assisted by his screwball co-worker, Drover, Hank tries to keep the ranch safe from monsters and just one step ahead of disaster. Each adventure of Hank's is more ridiculous than the ones that came before. From the time that he is tricked into thinking some old dirty corncobs are actually a priceless treasure to the time he tries to prevent the sky from falling, Hank is never short of cases to solve and villains to catch.

The Clan likes these books because not only are they absolutely hilarious, they're all just plain fun to read. Hank can be arrogant, over-confident, and a real troublemaker, but you can't help but root for him at the same time as you're laughing at his mistakes. John R. Erickson also has a great sense of humor and an even better sense of how to blend serious stuff with hilarity. You're going to laugh at Hank the Cowdog, but you're never going to feel like the books are a stupid kind of funny.

Erickson has written 65 Hank the Cowdog books, and each and every one of them has also been made into an audiobook. The Clan likes listening to the audiobooks over breakfast, and we've heard the ones we own many times over. As a result, we can quote whole passages word for word and sing quite a few of the songs. Hank is always part of our day. We like him very much at my house.

When I wrote the article, I had no idea it would receive the kind of response that I got. Two days after the article was published, I was excited to learn that it had been shared on Hank the Cowdog's Facebook page!

And no, I'm not kidding. The proof is right here.

From an article in The Spring Valley Tribune: "Most of the kids in the Clan like to read. Not all of us would devour a...

How cool is that? Hank the Cowdog shared my article! That's one of the most exciting things that has happened since I started writing—right up there with getting to write for the newspaper! I'll be interested in seeing what kind of response I see in the next few weeks and if people follow the link and read the rest of the article. You never know, right?

So, yup—I am very excited that Hank the Cowdog found my article. I'm sure someone somewhere actually gets paid a salary to search the Internet for Hank related stuff, but I'm just thrilled that my two cents showed up on a web search and was deemed worthy of sharing. Getting noticed like that wasn't what I was shooting for when I wrote the article, but it's definitely a great bonus.

Hank sharing my article has a deeper meaning that just straight publicity, though. The truth is, since he quoted me, I'm more famous than Hank the Cowdog now.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Honeybees (Apis mellifera)

Beekeeping has been a Clan activity for so many years that it’s become one of those things that I consider totally normal. Of course, most of the things that I consider normal are, in fact, fairly un-normal as far as most other people are concerned. And since part of the reason for this blog is explaining some of the things we do, I should probably do more than mention beekeeping in passing.

There’s definitely a lot I could say because Dad has been keeping bees since 2000, before we were even a Clan. (Only five kids!) I may not be the resident bee expert, but I know that I know more about bees and beekeeping than most people do. My plan is to write a few of those this summer, and hopefully they'll be interesting or even informative to you. They shouldn’t get too technical, but I'll try to give you an idea of what keeping bees is like and share some of the basic, practical knowledge that the Clan has regarding bees.

I don’t intend to replace all the books and articles and blogs and etc. on beekeeping with a few posts on my blog. Instead I just want to talk about the things that I know. Like I said earlier, I’m not a bee expert. But I know some things after watching Dad keep bees for fifteen years. In my posts I want to focus on the things that the Clan has tried and done and experienced since Dad first started this beekeeping game. Most of what I have to say will come straight from what I know about beekeeping (occasionally supplemented by Dad’s know-how), and will be fairly simple. But there are going to be some terms and phrases that I’ll throw out there that you might not know. ["Box of bees" for instance. What even is that?] To begin with, I want to go over what I would consider the most basic facts about bees: what they’re like, what they do, etc.
First of all, the bees I’m going to be talking about aren’t just any bees. They’re specifically honeybees. Believe it or not, there are many other types of bees out there—bumblebees for instance. The entire bee world is much too big a topic for me to tackle, so for my beekeeping posts, just remember that whenever I say “bees,” I really mean “honeybees.” And now, down to the hard facts.


Honeybees are social insects, living in large groups called colonies. Every bee in the colony works to make sure the entire colony will survive. In a bee hive, there are three different sub-types of bee: the queen, the drones, and the worker bees. All belong to the same species of bee, but they’re physically different from each other and have specific roles to fill in order for the colony to survive.

To start with, there are the worker bees, who are the vast majority of bees in a colony. As their name indicates, they do most of the work in the hive, from collecting nectar and pollen, building the honeycomb, guarding the hive, feeding the bee larva, cleaning the hive, etc, etc. They are equipped with stingers to use in defense of the hive. These stingers have a barb on the end, so when a worker bee stings something, the stinger and venom sac are left behind—killing the bee. Worker bees are the smallest bees in a hive, and they’re also all female. The only male bees in a hive are the drones.

Drones are fatter and wider than worker bees, but not as long as the queen. They don’t have stingers, so if you’re going to practice picking up bees, you should practice on drones. Drones have only one job in a hive, and that is to mate with the queen. Since honeybees have to store up all the food they’ll need for the winter, keeping the drones along for any longer than they’re needed can be a real drag for the rest of the hive. That means that when the drones have fulfilled their purpose, the worker bees will kick all the adult drones and any drone larva out of the hive and not let them back in. With no way to feed themselves, they quickly die.

The last type of bee in the hive is the queen, and her job is to lay eggs. You can tell the queen apart from workers and drones because she’s considerably longer than them, and narrower than the fat drones. Like the workers, she has a stinger, but her’s is smooth so that she can sting multiple times. If multiple queens hatch out at the same time, they'll fight each other until there's only one left. There is only one queen per colony.

In other words, be glad you’re not a bee. They have it tough sometimes.
What is the purpose of a bee? Well, they're not just honey-making machines. Bees are pollinators, which means they transfer pollen between flowers. This enables these plants to reproduce, making what we call fruits, seeds, grains, etc. How does this process work? Well, without giving you a mini-biology course on bee anatomy and reproduction in plants, here’s the fast explanation.

 Pollen (that fine dusty stuff you're allergic to) is the sperm cells of a plant. For reproduction to occur, the pollen has to be taken from the anther (male organs) of the flower to the stigma (female organs). Bees do this when they visit flowers to collect nectar. And since the average honeybee can visit something like 5,000 flowers in a single day, they're pollinating a lot of plants.

And if you think about it, they’re not just pollinating the plants we would call "flowers." Almost every plant produces some kind of flower that has both sperm cells and female reproductive organs. In order for that plant to produce seed, it has to be pollinated. That means we’re not just looking at geraniums and violets. Crops need to be pollinated in order to produce anything, and so do trees. Where do you think acorns come from? When you start doing the number crunching, you start to realize just how valuable and important honeybees are. It's not just honey, people!

To be fair, I should point out that honeybees aren't the only pollinators in the world. The wind can carry pollen, and birds, bats, and other insects that visit flowers also help. But the majority of pollination is done by honeybees.
So there you are. Hopefully you learned something from that, because in later posts I’m going to assume you know what I’m talking about. No pressure, in other words. (wink) My next beekeeping posts aren’t going to be anywhere near as technical as this one, though, so don’t worry. Now that I’ve got the groundwork laid, I can feel free to talk about what it’s like to keep bees without worrying that you don’t understand what a bee actually is. My next topics will probably be beehives, equipment we find useful, things we've learned about bees, and how we get at the honey. Look for those, but expect them scattered throughout the summer. I’ll probably be using them as backup when I start to fall behind again. We all know it will happen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Grandma Camp

     I’ve written before about how the Clan goes camping frequently over the summer. This weekend we just got back from the first camping trip of the year, and now that we’re unpacked and getting back to a semi-normal routine, I figured I’d blog about it.

     The Clan has been going on family camping trips two or three times a summer since 2004. In the past we’ve always visited the state parks along the North Shore of Lake Superior, particularly Gooseberry Falls and Tettegouche. Over the past two years, however, we’ve started to broaden our range and visit some of the 65 other state parks in Minnesota. I mean, why limit ourselves to just two - even those two are pretty awesome.

     The Minnesota State Parks system has several programs aimed at attracting visitors. One of these is the Hiking and Passport Club, which we started doing last year. Hikers get rewards for hiking the specific trails in each park - rewards like free nights of camping, engraved plaques, and patches, etc. We’re not really into plaques and patches, but free nights of camping are right up our alley. And the Hiking Club gives us a good reason to start visiting other parks in other parts of the state. We’ll choose one park to use as our base camp, and then each day of the trip we’ll load up in the van and drive to other parks nearby to hike the Hiking Club trails.

     On last week's trip, we hiked at three different state parks down in the south-west corner of Minnesota. There’s definitely a difference between the terrain down there and the kind of rocks and trees we’re used to seeing up north. Instead of volcanic rock and coniferous forests, we had long grass, flat prairie, and some bluff country.
We don't see these kinds of flowers on the shores of Lake Superior!
They were both equally smelly and sweaty, so nobody cared.
     Another thing about last week’s camping trip that was different from our previous trips was that we didn’t actually stay at a state park. Because my grandma happens to live near the part of the state where we planned to do our hiking, we just set our tents up in her backyard and stayed there.

     We camped at Grandma Camp once last year, too, and we liked it a lot. We don’t get to see that particular grandma very often because of the distance, so we always enjoy going to stay at her house. Since we don’t spend the entire day hiking, we have plenty of time in the afternoon to visit with her and play games on her lawn. Camping in grandma’s backyard also has some advantages over staying at a state park. At the end of a day of hiking in the sun, we can come back to an air-conditioned house with running water and a bathroom. Those are definitely perks.

     For the most part, our stay at Grandma Camp wasn’t very eventful. Although we spent a lot of time at her house, we also did most of our normal camping things. We slept in our tents, wore our camping clothes, ate our camping food, and even got rained on a few times. The casualties for this trip, though, were unusually severe. We can verify the passing on of upwards of six thousand mosquitoes, a few hundred ticks, and one cell phone.

     I’m happy to report that it wasn’t my cell phone that got dropped down a pit toilet, though. That prize goes to Dad. Interestingly, it took six hours for the phone to get wet enough (or submerged enough) to stop working, because Mom called it several times and heard it ring. I do find myself wondering, though, what the people walking by thought when they heard a cell phone ringing down the pit toilet.

     As for the bugs, we had quite a time with them. When we go camping up north, we hardly every put on bug spray, but once you get away from the big lake, it’s a different story. Everyone got sprayed down at the start of each hike, and we still had issues with mosquitoes. The words: "I wear the bodies of my enemies," took on a whole new meaning. It turns out there's a certain point when you don't care that you have mosquito legs sticking to your arm.
We're standing in front of the state record cottonwood tree - and although you can't
see them, we're surrounded by mosquitoes. It was a mosquito pit down there.
     And as for ticks, we found a few of those as well. After we spotted the first one, though, we were on high alert and thoroughly checked ourselves over after we hiked. Those little guys are no fun.

     But now that we're home, I can definitely say it was a good trip. I still prefer camping up north where it's cooler, less buggy, and where we can see the lake, but the prairie wasn't too bad either. There were lots of bugs, but it was nice.
Note: I didn't actually take any pictures on this trip because I hate bringing my camera places. There's something about the act of carrying it around that I don't like, and since I can't just summon it from thin air when I need it, I generally don't get pictures taken while we're camping. Thankfully M and Mom had cameras along, and happen to be way more inclined toward picture-taking than I am, otherwise I wouldn't have any pictures at all!