New Heights for the Hello Kitty Hive!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My thanks to some new friends over at Hello Kitty Hell for a bit of shameless self-promotion that set the Sacramento Vegetable Gardening hit counter soaring to new heights.

It always pleases me to see ten to 15 people access the blog daily. It means I'm reaching someone. Hopefully, I'm teaching them so new tricks or at least making them laugh. It's all I've got people. You go with what you know.

But -- when the fine folks over at Hello Kitty Hell discovered the Hello Kitty Hive and published this entry? The hit counter hit the roof! Eight thousand hits over the space of 24 hours? Exsqueeze me? Even the blog counter Technorati confirms that I am officially a "big deal" now. The blog that is Sacramento Vegetable Gardening went from the 754,975 thousandth most important blog to a mere 705,867.

My friends -- this is power. Who cares about those other 706 thousand clowns anyway? I bet they don't have a Hello Kitty Beehive. All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup!

Let's just say I owe those fine folks at Hello Kitty Hell a bottle or two of Hello Kitty Hive honey, which will hopefully be available next year. I imagine the folks that actually license "Hello Kitty" will jump into the honey line as well. I can't blame them. When you've got a hit like Hello Kitty on your hands -- you take advantage of it.

Not to change the subject (but I am) -- many of you have come to know that the wife that is Venus and I are first-time beekeepers. The scientific term is "newbs." The Latin term is E. Pluribus Newbium. We've never done anything like this before, and each day with the hive is a learning experience.

Unfortunately, it seems there are a few other beekeepers who show absolutely NO SHAME WHATSOEVER in capatalizing on the fortunes of Newbie Beekeepers. Case in point? A Sacramento area beekeeper by the name of Brian Fishback.

I've had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Fishback once or twice before during the monthly meetings of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (we all get together to show off our bee stings and drink wine made from honey). I've actually heard him speak on the subject of bees -- although to be honest -- most of what he told me went straight over ye olde cranium.

But Mr. Fishback knows what us Newbie Beekeepers are going through these days. He knows that we are encountering nightly scenes like this in front of the hive. He knows that Newbie Beekeepers like the wife that is Venus and I are getting stung on a daily basis. And he knows that some of us "Newbs" are having second thoughts about owning a servicing a hive on a daily basis.

Not everyone -- it seems -- can put up with the welts.

What has Mr. Fishback done?

The September edition of the Sacramento Beeline (cute) -- a monthly publication of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association -- arrived in my email inbox the other day. It was packed full of useful information regarding all things bees -- and also contained this little advertisement from none other than Mr. Fishback. It reads (and I quote):

"To bee or not to bee, that is the question I ask of thee. If you have purchased bees, equipment, supplies and have discovered that this may not bee the time for you to bee raising bees, I would like to purchase your hives or supplies. Please give me a call: Brian Fishback (916) 709-XXXX.

How utterly quaint of him. Fishback knows the bees have turned on us a bit (all hives do when pollen sources start to dry up in the fall) and is looking to swoop in and captalize on OUR hard work, OUR bee sting welts, OUR hives, OUR summer sweat and hard work, and our FEARS as Newbie Beekeepers.

He knows -- all too well -- that approaching a hive that looks like this one to your right can be a bit -- well -- unsettling to normal folks. And he's right. I still have a hard time approaching the hive when the bees are out in force like this. You can't even see that feeder jar in front, can you? Notice how it's kinda covered with bees? Bees that you need to flick off to retrieve the jar in question so you can refill it?

Not a job for the squeamish -- I'll admit. And I'll also admit that the wife that is Venus has commented on more than one occassion that "maybe beekeeping wasn't such a good idea after all."

And then she saw the ad from Brian Fishback. Suddenly, her views shifted. So did mine.

So -- we have a message for our fellow beekeeper in arms: FORGET ABOUT IT FISHBACK.

How would San Francisco Giants TV Color commentator Mike Krukow put it? Oh yes -- that's right. He'd say something snide like: "Grab some pine, meat."

Thanks, but no thanks, Fishback. We built this City. We're not giving up. There's only one Hello Kitty Hive that we're aware of. And those bees ain't going nowhere.

Shame, Shame, Brian. Back to the bench for you!

Monster Moon & Stars And the Vole Hole Mystery!!!

Monday, September 7, 2009

I'm pleased to report that MELON season is now kicking into high gear in our North Natomas backyard -- but somewhat displeased to also report that Bill & Venus aren't really benefitting all that much.

Now -- to be perfectly honest? We did enjoy this MONSTER Moon & Stars Watermelon this morning for breakfast. I don't know how this melon got into the 25 lb. range. It certainly isn't supposed to get this large. But it did -- it was -- and boy was it ever good.

The cantaloupe harvest -- however -- has a somewhat different story. More on that in a moment. I haven't finished bragging yet about the Moon & Stars.

Venus and I harvested our first whopper of a watermelon two weeks ago. This was also an heirloom variety called a Tom Watson. It promised melons in the 40 lb. range -- and this vine hasn't disappointed. However, we also picked the first melon a tad early. I knew it as soon as I'd split it open. While the center was indeed a nice ruby-red color, it's clear the melon would have benefitted from another week or two on the vine.

So we left them on the vine.

That wait paid off in droves on this Labor Day Monday. The vine connecting to the monster sized Moon & Stars melon had mysteriously died off. I wouldn't find out why until today. But, since the vine had died off weeks earlier, it was time to bring it in and cut it open.

Splitting this monster in two brought the biggest smile to my face -- and the photo will clearly show why. The melon was -- indeed -- at its peak ripeness. It wasn't under-ripe. It wasn't over-ripe. The flesh was sweet, crunchy and refreshing. It's just one of those "melon moments" from the garden. The melon that I had watched grow with anticipation all through the summer delivered a knockout punch of taste.

But the best part is -- there's a lot leftover. And the seeds from this "Monster Melon" will be saved for next season.

When the vine that produced this monster first started to die back two weeks ago -- I was more than concerned. Why that vine? What went wrong? Why didn't the other vines die off? Why just that one vine? Was it chemical? Was it critter? Those answers would come today in the form of a surprise.

We've been picking ripe cantaloupes for the past month, without giving it much thought. Some were on the small side -- but there were also a few "champion" cantaloupes that I've been watching grow with anticipation. The time to pick one of those melons came just this morning -- and boy was I disappointed.

When I felt the undersides of these cantaloupes -- my joy and anticipation vanished. What greeted me was a shock. They were soft. They had rotted through. I had waited too long -- or so I thought.

When I attempted to harvest one of these cantaloupes with the hopes of saving something -- that nice, firm, orange rind suddenly collapsed inward. The melon was GONE -- or as the photo to your left clearly shows -- half gone. What had gone wrong?

The answer lay underneath each cantaloupe in my raised bed. Do you know what I found? A critter hole! A family -- or several families -- of Voles (mice) had not only invaded the raised bed -- they managed to avoid the detection of the four hunter-killer cats that regularly patrol the backyard.


The voles had avoided detection by digging a series of tunnels up from the main home to just underneath the cantaloupe target in question. From the underside -- they managed to easily pierce the cantaloupe and muskmellon rind -- and proceeded to literally clean out the inside of each melon.

From the top view? Everything looked fine and dandy. I saw ripening melons. But underneath? A different story completely. The moles had been hard at work. Telltale holes are everywhere underneath the melon patch -- and it was there where I found the remains of the Moon & Stars vine that produced the giant melon pictured above.

As it turns out -- the moles couldn't pierce the rind of watermelons like the Moon & Stars -- but that didn't matter. They ate away at the root system of the vine instead -- until it eventually died off. Mystery solved. It wasn't chemical. It was critter.

There's not much I can do about this now. The voles are safely ensconced inside of their new, raised bed home. But the protection will not last. Revenge will come in the form of fall when the vines are removed and the voles will be forced to leave the protection of the raised beds to forage for scarce food supplies.

At that point they will come under the watchful eyes and teeth of the four hunter-killer cats that patrol the backyard. Once the cats begin to figure out where the mole families are located -- well -- it's the beginning of the end. A few will survive. They always do.

Will we plant melons again? Do voles like cantaloupe? This is -- by far -- the most awesome year of watermelon and cantaloupe production that I have ever experienced. Never before have Venus or I grown melons this large or this tasty. And the season still isn't quite over. The voles can't split open the melons like they can with the cantaloupe. They can try -- but the rind is just too tough for them.

Moon & Stars is an heirloom variety melon that grows well in just about any set of conditions and will serve you well in your Northern California backyard. Seeds are available from just about any mail-order supplier -- and if you're lucky -- you just might be able to snag a pack from your nearest Home Depot, Lowes or any other big box store. You can also find them at various nurseries such as Capital Nursery and Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply in Nevada City.

As for us? We're already set for next year. The monster melon pictured above produced a bumper crop of large seeds.

The Hello Kitty Bees Turn Aggressive

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I can smell it. Can you?

It hits the olfactory senses the hardest in the morning when you step outside after a good night's sleep. You take a deep breath of that crisp morning air. Yep, there's no doubt about it.

The lovely lady known as Summer is waving goodbye. Old man Winter is right around the corner.

You can smell the change in the air.

The bees in our Hello Kitty hive seem to sense this as well. The seasons are a changing. Those wonderful sources of pollen are now a bit harder to find. The production of honey that will keep the hive going through winter is slowing down.

The bees can smell it alright. They're going to protect what they have inside that bright pink hive. The little buggers have gone from "quite indifferent" to our presence to downright nasty and aggressive.

I first noticed this change about two or three weeks ago when I was going about the normal routine of changing out the sugar water feeder. The hive has now settled down to a normal routine of going through one or two pints of sugar water per day. They never gave me trouble for the simple act of picking up an empy jar and returning with a full jar a few minutes later.

That was -- until the other day. When I completed the quite normal task of retrieving the empty pint jar I suddenly found myself in a cloud of angry buggers, angrily buzzing around my head. But that's not all.

One of them landed directly on my temple and stung me. I was shocked as I coughed and ran from the hive at the same time -- doing my best to avoid the bees who were flying after me. This had simply never happened before. I had been stung a couple of times for the act of removing burr comb buildup from inside the hive -- but that's normal. The bees thought we were destroying their home -- and reacted in a way that insects will react to intruders: defend the hive.

But in this case? I wasn't attacking. I was merely retrieving the sugar water jar from the feeder at the base of the hive as I'd done daily all summer long. They had never bothered me before. Why now?

The wife that is Venus -- of course -- did not believe me. She's like that you know. She didn't believe me until the very next day when she went out to retrieve the empty feeder and was suddenly caught in a swarm -- and then stung on the arm.

What in the H-E-Double Toothpicks was going on here? Our suddenly passive, likable bee buddies had turned on us. They were angry. They were aggressive. Walking anywhere within a six foot vicinity of the hive entrance suddenly invited an angry buzz of activity.

I guess you can call this the "next step" in the "education" we were receiving as "Newbie Beekeepers." Other beekeepers, like Howard Mann, explained that this aggressive behavior was, in fact, quite normal. Other beekeepers from across the country related similar stories.

As it turns out -- when pollen sources begin to dry up -- bees take up a defensive posture. They're guarding against ants who can smell the honey stores inside the hive. They're guarding against Robber Bees who are also seeking to raid that precious honey.

But that's not all that they're doing. When Venus and I switched to night feedings in an attempt to avoid the inevitable, angry swarms that followed (bees do not fly at night), we encountered this to your left: a mass of bees outside of the hive. They do this every night now.

My friends -- I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult it is now to approach a mass cluster of bees like this -- put your hands within inches of it -- and retrieve the sugar water feeder that is located at the base of the entrance. You can see it to your left -- can't you? That white piece of plastic with a hole in the middle? And -- at the bottom of that hole -- another cluster of bees?

The end of summer and pollen season isn't the only thing that a hive of bees can smell. They can also smell the fear of beekeepers Bill & Venus as they approach the hive nightly to change out the sugar-water feeder. But -- retrieving that empty bottle isn't the hardest part of the job. It really isn't.

No -- the hard part is returning that now-filled jar back to the feeder. Bees feel the slightest vibration. They know when the jar has been retrieved. And they can defintely feel it when the jar is placed back onto the feeder.

That -- my friends -- is the hardest part of the nightly job.

The moment that the sugar water feeder is turned upside down and begins to drip -- the bees in the well of the feeder suddenly erupt into a buzzing frenzy. The thousands of bees on the outside of the hive pick up on the same message -- and start buzzing as well. What had been a fairly quiet hive is now screaming with intensity. It's almost as if the bees in the feeder well are telling their brothers and sisters: "another vat of whiskey has arrived -- belly up to the bar."

And suddenly -- the bees are not only all over the feeder -- but on the jar itself. Understand this much: you've got less than a second or two to not only place that full jar of sugar water on the feeder -- but position it correctly and move away. If you dilly dally? Your hands will be covered with bees.

Can you see them on the jar in the photo to your right? That was taken just seconds after I'd put that full jar back on the feeder and stepped away. Some nights we place the jar on the feeder correctly -- but some nights we don't. And if that jar isn't placed on the feeder correctly? There are no "do overs." It stands where it stands.

There is no tried and true "Bible" for beekeeping. If you ask ten different beekeepers for the same advice, you're likely to get ten completely different answers. Some beekeepers feed the bees year-round. Others cut off sugar water feedings during the fall months. Still others don't feed bees at all -- preferring to let nature "take its course."

My hope is that our hive survives through the quickly approaching winter months so we can prepare for honey production in the spring. But -- one really never knows what will happen in this game. The clusters of bees in the front of the hive during our warm August and September evenings are proof positive that we have a strong hive now.

Will they survive? Venus and I have taken every precaution to protect and nurture them. There are no guarantees in the beekeeping business. While the signs are encouraging now, I've never forgotten the warning that 75% of all new hives fail in the first year.

In this business? Never Say Never.