Thursday, October 23, 2014

Forest Products: Hard Maple Flooring

American hophornbeam for fencing
I have posted on more than one occasion, regarding the felling of trees, bucking and splitting to produce wood fuel, and chipping to produce mulch.  There is also American hophornbeam (aka ironwood, see under "Trees" on the Plants & Animals page) growing on the homestead, which makes great fence posts; I have perhaps 15 to 20 such posts air drying now.  Hophornbeam can also be used to make long bows and re-curve bows, which I intend to attempt in the future.  Of course maple syrup is another  forest product, and one we intend to expand our production of in the spring of 2015.  And the list goes on.

The first Sugar Maple felled with its intended
use as flooring.
The most ambitious forest products project yet started however, is to harvest sufficient Sugar Maple for the production of hardwood flooring for the house.  Geri and I looked at what I refer to as "manufactured hardwood flooring," because it consists basically of a thin hardwood veneer, which would allow the floor to be refinished once or twice, on an engineered wood substrate; these products ran from $5-$7 per square foot, plus installation.  We also looked at re-purposed barn wood, and again we found ourselves looking at $5-$7 per square foot before installation.
The home requires roughly 2,000 square feet of flooring, so before laying the product on the sub-floor we would be into the project for $10,000 to $14,000.  Beyond the numbers though, which I will admit resulted in sticker shock, it was simply the principle of the thing; buying wood flooring when I am living in 50 acres of old growth forest seemed to me to be inconsistent with the whole notion of homesteading.  Geri and I had a few conversations regarding the longer lead-time involved in doing it ourselves, though ultimately, the anticipated satisfaction of having done it ourselves, that pride of ownership, nay, the pride of actually crafted the flooring ourselves, won out.  And so, on 18 August, 2014, I felled the first Sugar Maple with the intention of using it for wood flooring.

As early as 25 June I was in conversation with a local sawmill, desiring to both understand the process and the cost of manufacturing our hardwood flooring, as fodder for our decision-making.  My notes from 30 June:

"Hi Chris,

details from our earlier phone conversations are below.  Please let me know if you agree.

$1,512.50 --  Mill 2,750 board feet of sugar maple @ $0.55/board ft (1 inch thick, 3-7 inches random widths)
   $151.25 -- 10% waste factor (Do I need this factor? I'm paying for the waste by paying to mill and dry 2,750 board feet and leaving with 2,475 board feet, it seems to me.  Help me understand.)
   $687.50 -- Kiln drying @ 0.25/board ft
$1,500.00 -- Planing (to 3/4 in thick, tongue & groove, no micro-chamfer, @ $50/hr, 30 hrs)
-----------
$3,851.25

Notes:
-- Calculate 20% loss from the log to floor (I should have about 200 sq ft left over)
-- Cut 16-26 inches diameter logs to between 4 ft and 8 ft 6 in long
-- Air dry, 3-5 wks (weather dependent)
-- 1100-1200 sq ft in the kiln, 3-4 wks, 2 batches
-- 1 wk for planing
-- 2 days milling
-- John would like to lend a hand in the process, if practical

Next Steps:
- John to research recommend max maple floor board width at the National Hardwood Flooring Assoc.
- John to get the logs cut and into position for milling
- John to measure moisture content of sub-floor"

The first logs, cut to the length of 8 ft. 6 in., ready for the mill
I am planning for the process to yield 2,200 square feet of 3/4 inch thick flooring, in random 3, 5, and 7 inch widths.  Assuming 20% waste, or loss, from log to floor, I need 2,750 board feet* of log on the ground; by my calculations I have about a fifth of that on the ground now.  I plan to participate in the milling, drying, and planing processes, as this type of work might provide a stream of income in the future.

*A "board foot" is 1 square foot, 1 inch thick, or 144 cu. in. of wood.  For example, a 3 in. wide (1/4 foot wide) floor board, 4 feet long, and 1 in. thick, is 1 board foot of wood.

At a high level, the process steps are as follows (estimated cumulative calendar weeks from start):

1) Mill the logs into boards of random 3, 5, and 7 inch widths, 1 inch thick, maximizing utilization (1 week)
2) Air dry the boards for 3 to 5 weeks, depending on the weather (4-6 weeks)
3) Kiln dry the logs in 2 batches, each requiring 3 to 4 weeks (10-14 weeks)
4) Plane the boards to 3/4 inch finished thickness, and add tongue and groove to long edges (11-15 weeks)

Per square foot, before finish and installation, the cost is estimated to be $3,851.25/2,200 sq ft = $1.75/sq ft.  And if in fact the "10% waste factor" is unnecessary, the total is $3,700/2,200 sq ft = $1.68/sq ft.  That amounts to 65-75% less than "retail."  Well worth the investment of my time, and of some money in additional equipment; a Peavy (Peavy Manufacturing) and a chainsaw-powered winch and accessories (Lewis Winch), both for moving/handling the logs, and felling wedges (Timber Tuff).  These tools will provide many years of service.

International 1/4 inch Log Rule [1]
So, one might ask oneself, how do you know how much flooring you have on the ground in the form of logs, or, how much flooring is in that tree over by 'der?  Needless to say perhaps, some smart folks have already figured that out for us.  There are many so-called "log scaling" rules, fortunately "only three, Doyle, Scribner,
and International, are widely recognized and in current use."[1]  Doyle is the simplest in terms of its formula, Board Feet Doyle = (D-4)2 x (L/16), where D is the diameter in inches, and L is the length in feet.  Unfortunately, since Doyle subtracts 4 inches from the diameter for "edgings and slabs," it dramatically underestimates the amount of wood in smaller logs.  I am taking down trees in or close to the specified range of 16-26 inches in diameter, and closer to the small end of that range.  At a log diameter of 16 in., the Doyle scale underestimates board feet by 20% compared to the scale regarded as the most accurate, the International 1/4 inch Log Rule.  "The International Rule was developed by Judson F. Clark in 1900 while working for the Province of Ontario. It is probably the most accurate of the current rules but has found little use. It is based on a very carefully researched analysis of the losses occurring during the conversion of sawlogs to lumber and is one of the few rules incorporating a basis for dealing with log taper. Based on studies of northeastern tree species, Clark made a conservative taper assumption of 1/2-inch change in diameter for every 4 feet of log length."[1]  Since I am not using the rule to establish price, rather only the quantity in board feet that I will deliver to the mill for processing, I intend to use the most accurate estimate available.  I have abbreviated the table; the full table can be retrieved as referenced.

My understanding of the terms "slab," "cant," and "edging" as they apply

to the milling of logs

I have felled three trees so far, yielding a total of nine 8 foot 6 inch logs.  For my purpose, to ensure that I put enough logs on the ground, I am rounding the length down to 8 feet, and the diameter down to the nearest inch.  The log diameters and board feet (from the table above) then are: 13/55, 14/65, 14/65, 15/75, 14/65, 13/55, 14/65, 14/65 and 13/55, for a total of 565 board feet.  Since I need to deliver 2,750 board feet to the mill, I have 20% of the total on the ground.  I am not taking trees for their size, rather I am taking the trees where I need to clear space for future buildings, including but not limited to, the sugar shack, outdoor wood boiler room, firewood shed, and workshop.  In those locations I have identified for felling some larger trees, so I hope I will need to put only 6-7 of the larger trees on the ground to reach the 2,750 board feet objective.  Which brings us to the question of scaling standing trees.

Again, there are numerous methods for determining the volume in board feet of standing trees (also known as "stumpage," in the vernacular).  For the sake of consistency, I will stick with what again is considered to be the most accurate method, and that is the International 1/4 inch Log Scale volume table, as adapted for Form Class 78.  To enter the table, the Diameter at Breast Height (DBH, 4-1/2 feet), the "merchantable height" (in 16 foot logs), and the "form class" (percentage ratio of the diameter inside the bark at the top of the first merchantable 16 foot log, to the DBH (outside bark)) are are required.
Gross Volume of Trees, International 1/4 inch Log Scale,
Form Class 78 [1]

"Form class can vary for a given species, age, diameter, and height. For the most accurate estimates, a separate form class should be determined for each diameter class and species tallied."[1]  Until I establish by measurement otherwise, I will use a volume table for the International Rule, based on Form Class 78, "the most commonly used class."[1]  I have abbreviated the table; the full table can be retrieved as referenced.

Simply stated, "merchantable height includes that portion of a tree from stump height to a point on the stem at which merchantability for saw timber is limited by branches, deformity, or minimum diameter."[1]

There is a long way yet to go on this project, and a great deal to learn along the way.  We are hopeful that we will have our sugar maple flooring installed by late spring, after the maple sugaring season ends would be convenient, though it is unlikely that the dates will line up to support our convenience, knowing Murphy as we do.

There is a new feature at the bottom of the page, where you can record your "reaction" to the post.  Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  I am learning, too.

 Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 23 October 2014
www.swmichiganhomestead.blogspot.com

[1] "Log and Tree Scaling Techniques," Purdue University, Forestry and Natural Resources, Web. Retrieved 22 October 2014.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Jackie Clay-Atkinson Homesteading Seminar, Summer 2014

Earlier this year, I had decided to give my wife for her birthday, the gift of attending a Jackie Clay-Atkinson seminar.  For those of you who might not know of Jackie, I submit the following from the Backwoods Home Magazine entry on Wikipedia, "Jackie Clay-Atkinson, an independent off-grid homesteader in northern Minnesota, writes articles on all aspects of self-sufficient living, from growing herbs to butchering elk. In addition, her "Ask Jackie" column answers questions from readers on many topics, with emphasis on home skills like safely preserving foods. She brings similar topics to her Backwoods Home blog."  To find a list of Jackie's articles at Backwoods Home Magazine, click on this link.  At first I had not planned to attend the 3-day seminar, but as time passed, and the date approached, I finally decided to see if there was room left in the seminar for me.  Fortunately there was, and in a effort to make it more than a purely educational endeavor, I decided to rent an RV and make a vacation of it.  Geri loved the idea of the RV, and on Thursday the 5th of June we headed for the far north of Minnesota, and the homestead of Jackie and her husband Will, just 90 miles from the Canadian border.

The trip was 12 hours more or less, with occasional stops for rest and to refuel.  On the drive, we listened to the audio-book Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, by Michael Pollan.  Audio-books, and podcasts, are both good ways of putting your daily commute, or a long drive, to productive or entertaining use; this book by Pollan was both entertaining and educational.  Pollan has written several other books, the most well know of which might be, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; you can check out Michael's author's page on Amazon at this link.  If you are in need of a laugh, listen to A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson, though you will be laughing so hard you may not want to be operating heavy equipment at the time!

Geri had researched nearby campgrounds ("nearby" is a relative term in the expanse that is northern Minnesota), and we decided to stay the nights in McCarthy Beach State Park.  We arrived in the area Thursday night, and set up camp, which did not require a whole lot more that parking the RV and plugging it in, and that was about all we were up for after the long drive.  The mosquito population was impressive to say the least, both at the park and on Jackie and Will's homestead, the worst they had seen in years.  We regularly slathered on Deep Woods Off, and did not have too much trouble.

On arrival at the homestead Friday morning, we were greeted warmly by Jackie, and were made to feel like long lost friends.  Aside from Geri and me, there were only five other seminar participants, Troy, Margie, Jessi, and Richard and Patty, which made for a great learning environment, and fostered friendships we hope to enjoy for years to come.  Included in the seminar agenda were:
  • Using carpentry tools and  chainsaws safely
  • Basic homestead building skills
  • Slip-form concrete work
  • Growing more challenging garden vegetables; getting more out of your garden
  • Veterinary care for homestead animals and poultry
  • Raising baby animals and poultry
  • Grafting fruit trees and fruit tree varieties for your orchard, and
  • Self-reliant living on a shoestring
Jackie showing us one of her Victoria rhubarb plants.  In the background on
the left is the structure of one of their hoop houses.  The green cone shapes
in the left of the frame are "Walls-O-Water" around tomato plants, these allow
planting up to six weeks earlier than otherwise.
The first day included a guided tour of the homestead by Will and Jackie.  This was of course more than just a tour, as we students were also asking questions throughout, and listening intently to the answers.  I took copious notes.

I definitely learned new things, and things I already knew were reinforced, chief among them that I can succumb to making things a lot more involved than they need to be.  Sometimes it is more productive to just "go," be done with the planning, "just do it," and learn by the doing.  For example, I was struck by how close Jackie and Will were to satisfying all of their electric power needs with only a small (400W as I recall) wind generator, and an even smaller (about 200W if memory serves) photovoltaic array.  This system was a prime example of "self-reliant living on a shoestring."  Is the system perfect?  No, and as has often been said, "perfect is the enemy of good enough."  Jackie and Will are learning by experimenting, while most others are still thinking about it.  They were running a generator for a couple of hours a day, though with a little more "green" energy generation and storage, they will leave behind the need for regular use of the gasoline-powered generator.
Left: Will describing the design and build of the hoop houses; dimensional treated lumber, "1 in. S40 Rigid PVC Conduit Max 90 deg C Sunlight Resistant," and greenhouse plastic, are its primary constituents.  Just at Will's right shoulder, in
the background, is one of their Boer/Nubian-cross goats for milk production.  Right:  Will demonstrates the use of a Oscar 121 wood mill, as Troy looks on.  The base for the mill makes use of a re-purposed mobile home base-frame.
The orchard was another opportunity to ask myself the question, "what on earth am I waiting for?"  No doubt we have all experienced it; we are stopped by fear of the unknown, or fear of failure, when having finally made the move, if ever, we find that it was not close to as bad as we thought it might be.  In the orchard I am specifically referring to the process of grafting.  First of all, it had never occurred to me to graft onto the 20 or 25 crab apple trees that are already established and thriving on our homestead.  Maybe I should take another step back; at first I did not know that grafting was required!
One of the trees in the orchard.  See the trunk
protector.  What appears to be hay around the
base of the tree is in fact hay mixed with
manure.  The orchard is protected from deer
by 2 in. by 4 in. mesh, 6 ft high fencing, on
8 ft. posts that were placed 15 ft. apart.
 Most apples that you buy at the store, I dare say all, will not grow "true" from seed.  That is to say, if you save the seeds from a Pink Lady apple, one of my favorites, and plant it, it will not grow to produce Pink Lady fruit.  The way to grow Pink Lady apples, is to get scion from a tree that is yielding Pink Lady apples, and graft that into the stock of another tree, which has been selected for its hardy root stock.  According to Merriam-Webster, a scion is "a detached living portion of a plant (as a bud or shoot) joined to a stock in grafting."  Grafting is "the technique most commonly used in asexual propagation of commercially grown plants for the horticultural and agricultural trades."  Grafting onto our crab apple trees is high on my list for the spring of 2015.

The group asked many questions during the tour, and we had a lot of conversation about many of the productive plants growing on the homestead, including asparagus, onions, cherries, tomatoes, apples, and so on.  Invariably the following phrase was heard when on the subject of creating fertile soil, "mo' pooh pooh."  We heard this so often that I believe it can be said to have become the class motto!

On Saturday we learned about canning, cheese-making, dehydrating, seed saving, and chicken-keeping, among other things.  At the end of the day, I wrote the following in my notebook:
          "Day 2 take-aways
Jackie in the canning process, Patty in the
background.  Note the All American 921 on
the front left burner.
          - canning is not rocket science, go do it
          - canning meat is no big deal
          - dehydration, no problem..."

Does that sound familiar?  Of course it is a big deal, to the uninitiated, as was the grafting we had learned about on Friday.   It became much less intimidating after working with Jackie in the kitchen.  I was especially interested in the process of canning meats, like chicken for example.  You can read all about canning in Jackie's books on the subject, which you can find on my references page; look under the "Gardening / Food Preservation / Cooking" heading.  And, this is also the day that Jackie bailed me out, because one of other gifts I had given Geri on her birthday was an All American 921 21-1/2-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner.  When I gave her the canner, Gina and Peter agreed that the only thing less appropriate that I could possibly have given would have been the proverbial vacuum cleaner!  From my point of view, as an engineer, this piece of equipment is a masterpiece of engineering, a simple yet elegant solution, beautiful to look upon, and functional, not to mention bulletproof; it will literally last a lifetime, and more.  Seeing Jackie in action with her own 921 was thankfully enough to redeem Geri's respect for my gift-giving abilities.

Jackie adding milk to the pot in the making of
lemon cheese.  She's working on a propane-
fired range, check out the old wood burning
stove to the left of the frame.
Jackie separating the whey
from the lemon cheese curds
using the old t-shirt.
We also learned about
cheese-making, in perhaps one of its simplest incarnations, so-called lemon cheese.  This cheese takes no more than a large pot, a spoon, a thermometer, milk (in this case raw milk provided by Troy), lemon juice, and a cheese cloth, or, when living on a shoe string, an old t-shirt.  The result is a ricotta-like cheese of very mild flavor.  There are also all sorts of uses for the whey, so that by-product of the process can be saved.

Throughout the weekend, our food needs were well met by two of Jackie's close friends, Jeri, not to be confused with my Geri, and Linda.  As Jackie had assured me in an email leading up to the workshop, "We provide a huge country-style meal around noon each day...nobody ever leaves the table hungry!!"  Jeri and Linda delivered on that promise.  These two were just a hoot, and being homesteaders themselves, brought a lot to the seminar aside from the delicious meals.  We were all impressed when Linda pulled out her homemade electric spinning wheel and began to spin wool yarn from washed fleece.  It is truly humbling to see how things were done by so many just a few short decades ago, and are still being done by a few today.  I think we all had fun watching, and listening to Linda describe the process.

Linda spinning wool and teaching, while Geri
listens and learns.
On Sunday we got some training in administering meds to animals or humans by injection, and to suturing.  Jackie has years of experience in caring for animals, and it was great be able to pick up even a little of what she has learned.

We split up later on Sunday, I and a few others went with Will to learn about slip form concrete work.  Will is building a barn, and is including a concrete and stone knee-wall on the perimeter.  One or more slip-forms is built, and then used as a form into which the concrete is poured.  When a section has been poured and set, the form is then removed and re-positioned to create the next section of the wall.  It is customary to coat the form with some sort of releasing agent, such as used motor oil, to make it easier to remove the form from the wall after it has set.  Several of us worked with Will to pour two sections of the wall.  Will had already poured the footing and put the slip forms in place, so we selected stones and positioned them in the form, and then mixed and poured the concrete.

Looking down into a slip form, the footing
is visible; reinforcing bar (re-bar) strength-
ens the structure.  Also, note the twisted wire,
which prevents the sides of the form from
bowing out when the form is filled with 
concrete.

Stones positioned in the form
Will showed us how to mix the concrete, using cement, sand and gravel from their property, and water.  The mixer was powered by a portable generator.  This was our last "class" of the weekend, and gave us a chance to get our hands dirty and actually help, if only a little.

During the seminar I had collected the email addresses of the participants, and promised to share those after we returned home.  It is hard to describe how good we felt then, so I will simply quote from my email to Jackie and Will, and our fellow seminar-goers:  "There were some wet eyes as we departed Jackie and Will's homestead.  We learned so much, and it was so comfortable to be among kindred spirits.  We felt like we were leaving old friends.  I have not even begun to review and take action on all the notes I made during the seminar.  So, to Jackie and Will, our heartfelt thanks, for both a great education, and a great time, on your homestead.  I miss the conversations the most.  And please extend our thanks to Jeri and Linda; the food was simply amazing, and they also introduced us to a number of other skills."
Will and Troy preparing the concrete

Perhaps we will have a chance to repeat the experience in the future, or maybe even to host our own seminar.  It would be almost impossible to match either the homesteading experiences, or the hospitality, that we enjoyed at the hands of our hosts, Jackie and Will.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

 Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 11 August 2014
www.swmichiganhomestead.blogspot.com

Jackie Clay-Atkinson and Will Atkinson's Homesteading Class of June 2014
L-R: Jessi, John, Geri, Jackie, Troy, Will, Margie
Not Pictured: Richard, Patty

Monday, August 11, 2014

Beekeeping: A Short, Cautionary Tale, From a Beginner

In recent weeks I have thought of the need to add a 5th box to the bee hive; I have been seeing many bees congregating at the hive entrance, and was worrying that they might have expanded to fill the available volume, and bee looking to swarm.  Since Nathan was around as an able assistant, having helped me to add the 3rd and 4th boxes back in June, the time to add the 5th box had come. After adding the 3rd and 4th boxes, I summarized the event in a blog post by stating, "The process of adding the boxes went more smoothly than I probably had any right to expect; it was executed without incident."  As it turns out, I indeed did not have any right to expect that it would go so smoothly.

Nathan and I assembled the necessary materials; the 5th hive box with top bars, a bee brush, the sugar-water spray, and a hive tool, suited up, and headed for the hive.  I took off the roof of the hive, leaving the quilt and 4 boxes sitting on the hive floor.  Nathan sprayed the bees at the entrance lightly with the sugar-water mixture.  I was worried about how heavy the hive would be.  When using a Langstroth hive, additional hive boxes are typically added above existing boxes, however with a Warré hive the new box(es) are added below the existing boxes.  Of course this requires that the existing boxes be lifted off of the floor to enable the addition of the new box(es).  And by now I expected those boxes to be full of comb and honey.  Keep in mind that honey is heavy, while water weighs 8.3 lbs. per gallon, honey weighs 12 lbs per gallon.  In the four existing boxes there could easily have been 80 to 100 lbs. of bees, comb, brood, and honey.  Of course the consequences of dropping the hive while attempting the move it, is not something I enjoy imagining.  Fortunately the hive did not seem to weigh more than 50 or 60 lbs., although my sense of the weight might have been off substantially, as I was more than a bit distracted.  No sooner had I lifted the hive off of the floor than the bees attacked with a vengeance.  With 50 or 60 lbs. of hive in my hands, I was unable to defend myself, or even to run for my life, so in short order I took four stings to the head and two to my right leg, but who's counting.  The bees were exceedingly unhappy with me, and would not let up in their defense of the colony.  Six of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  I went ahead, with great haste, and looked into box 4 to see if it was full of comb.  Box 4 was unexpectedly found to be empty of comb, so as quickly as prudence would allow, I replaced the hive on the floor, returning the colony to its original arrangement, without having added the 5th box.  After putting some distance between ourselves and the hive, Nathan and I discussed the need to put the roof back on the hive.  I thought it would be no problem, because with the quilt in place the hive is closed up, from the bees point of view.  I got within about 30 or 40 feet before they renewed their attack.  Discretion being the better part of valor, Nathan replaced the roof on the hive.

A reasonable person might ask, "well, dummy, how is it that you got stung with the bee suit on?"  And, that would be a great question.  The answer is that I did not properly don the bee suit, while Nathan did, and he escaped unscathed. In short, the top of my head was exposed, and there was another vulnerability in my preparations where the bee suit met my boots (see picture below).

I got lucky at the June install of boxes 3 and 4

The picture is from the June install of boxes 3 and 4, and it is exactly as I was also ill-prepared for the install of box 5.  If I had been wearing a hat, and if I had better secured my pant legs at my boots, I would not have been stung. Still, I was amazed at how quickly the bees found the gaps in my protection; it took only seconds, and very few of those.

By the time we got back the house Geri had two Benedryl capsules at the ready, and I took them immediately.  Then I asked her to get her tweezers, which she did, and she pulled four stingers out of my head, while Nathan pointed out where he had seen bees burrowing into my hair, and another two out of my right leg, just above my boot.  I do not know if pulling the stingers out is supposed to help, intuitively it seems like the right thing to do, but I do know that within a half hour I felt just fine.  Aside from a little itching, there has been no lasting discomfort.

All involved got a large dose of adrenalin for the day.  Which reminds me, we have stocked our medicine cabinet with two EpiPens to treat anaphylaxis if necessary (Epi is short for epinephrine, which is another word for adrenalin).  Obviously I am not allergic to bee stings, but we occasionally have guests who are, and it seems like a good idea for beekeepers to have EpiPens available.

Another lesson learned is that I need to find a mechanically advantaged method for lifting the hive off of the floor, it is simply too risky to be doing it by hand.  I could easily have panicked and dropped the hive boxes full of honey and bees.  I will be doing some research on how others are adding boxes to their Warré hives.  More generally speaking, it was yet another humbling reminder of how much I have to learn.

Did you know?  "...about 50 U.S. physicians report good results using <bee venom> to treat not only pain but arthritic conditions, multiple sclerosis, and other health woes."

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

 Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 11 August 2014

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Home Improvement - Heat Loss Prevention

Last winter, our use of propane was exorbitant, and with propane prices high and climbing, and availability limited, the situation presented real financial hardship for many.  Fortunately, Geri had locked in low propane prices when we moved in, otherwise it would have been literally twice as painful to absorb the cost.  In two deliveries, we put almost 1,600 gallons of propane in our 1,000 gallon tank, between December and February.

One day in mid-February, I was walking towards the back of the house, and with fresh snow on the ground, it was a beautiful scene; I took the picture below, and almost instantly recognized that something was very wrong.  As you can see, there is much less snow on the left half of the roof, than on the right half; this was absolutely counter-intuitive, because the right end of the roof is over a vaulted ceiling, and the left end is over an attic.  You can see actually see where the roof rafters are on the left end, by the effect of the insulation they provide to the roof deck.  I had fully expected to lose more heat through the vaulted ceiling, though obviously this was not the case.  The attic is sufficiently well insulated.  I had already corrected one major problem in the attic, that being that insulation had been stuffed down into the soffits, preventing air flow from the soffit vents to the ridge vent, resulting in high temperatures and excessive moisture in the attic.  The attic fan was controlled by a thermostat set for 105 deg. F, and a humidistat set for 35% relative humidity; it ran almost non-stop in the summer.  I removed the insulation from the soffits, and installed soffit baffles to ensure good air flow under the roof deck from soffit vents to ridge vent.  Additionally, the floor of the attic is decked with plywood, and there were four access holes cut through the decking to can-lights below; I removed the backing from fiberglass insulation to prevent fire, and laid about 18 inches of insulation over the can lights.  Clearly though, there was another problem, or problems.

Back of the house, mid-February 2014

After a bit more investigation, it seemed clear to me that a large part of the problem must be the ladder access to the attic from an interior hallway.  Also in the picture above, just to the left of dead center, at the peak of the roof, you can see that the shingles are actually exposed; that area is directly above the attic access ladder.  The structure of the pull-down ladder was not insulated, and not only was there no seal around the ladder when stowed in the up position, there was no easy way of rectifying that particular problem.  The solution I have had in mind for months was to put some sort of
Ladder access to attic
insulated box on the attic floor, over the ladder when it is in the up position.  (In the up position, the folded ladder protrudes about 8 inches above the attic floor.)  When ascending the steps then, the box would be hinged on one side so that it could be push up and over, out of the way.  When descending the ladder, the box would simply be pulled over the opening, before stowing the ladder.  I had made a few measurements, and also discussed the proposed solution with a couple of friends; it is always a could idea to get at least a second opinion, if not more.  This was a good project for a cool, rainy day.

At first I visualized a thin plywood box, lined with 2-4 inches of "blue board" insulation.  More recently, as in the night before construction was to begin, I decided it might be easier to construct the "box" as a framework of 1 x 2's, and that is what we built.
Completed box frame
My good friend Nathan came by, and suggested that we construct the walls of the box as stud walls are constructed, which was a wonderful idea, and really simplified the process.  In addition to the five 10 ft. 1 x 2's, we used 1-3/4 inch and 2 inch finish nails, and glue, in the construction.  With the box frame complete, we then laid in two layers of 1.5 inch thick, R-7.5, foam board.  The foam board is secured to the frame with construction adhesive.  The outside dimensions of the box are 5 ft. 9 in. L x 3 ft. 4-1/2 in. W x 13-1/2 in. H, allowing room for the folded ladder, after the 3 inches of foam board are attached to all interior surfaces.

We then centered the box over the opening, and marked the floor of the attic for hinge attachment.  Thanks to the stick-frame construction, the box is surprisingly light and easy to maneuver.  I do not suppose this is the most elegant solution that could have been devised, but it is simple and effective; I am confident that it will significantly reduce heat loss through attic.

Insulation installation in progress
View of box interior from bottom of ladder
I would encourage everyone to have a critical look into attics, and other possible escape routes of warm air from the house.  For example, bathroom or microwave/range hood vents that terminate in the attic, or pass through the roof or a wall.  The warm air is simply looking for the path of least resistance to climb, as we know heat rises.  Those examples I just mentioned are future projects at the homestead; a bathroom vent that terminates in an attic, and a microwave/range hood vent that passes through roof.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

 Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 03 August 2014

Monday, July 14, 2014

The (Early) Education of a Homesteader

I have heard several questions along the lines of, "how did you learn how to do that," "where did you learn to do that," "when did you learn to do that," or "did you grow up on a farm," and so on.  The short answers to the "where and how" questions are, between the covers of books, on YouTube, or by trawling the internet, and by asking folks who know more than I do, either in person or in on-line forums.  The answer to the "when" question is, recently, in most instances.  And to the final question, the answer is "no."

In fact, in my inaugural post I stated:  "I also realized that what I do for money, provides directly for precisely none of my or my family's needs, in fact I am quite practiced in doing nothing that can be bartered for anything, except for money.  This last piece of the puzzle is tantamount to having one's "man card" revoked, or at least it was in my opinion.  Until 1995 I had never had a vehicle in a repair shop, I had never had a maintenance man of any sort in a home I owned, I had never paid anyone to mow my lawn, I was a fairly proficient welder with oxygen and acetylene, and could recharge my air conditioner properly with Freon, I had fairly recent memories of successfully hunting and fishing, and if I dug deeply enough, trapping.  Until only recently though, I had done none of that for the better part of 20 years.  And for food that is grown from the earth, I was almost completely blind to its sources; I didn't know that broccoli was a seed head, or that Brussels sprouts were a bud and the plant a cultivar of the cabbage group, and worse."

So in short, my ignorance, and lack of skills, or at least a lack of recently practiced skills, were key to my decision to homestead.

Now, when I reflect a bit more on the subject, I will tell you that I learned quite a bit in my idyllic childhood; on the subjects of cooking, camping, boating, hunting, fishing, canoeing, and trapping to name just a few, with family and friends.  It seems like every few months I dredge up a great old memory of my childhood and share it with my Mom and Dad.  I learned a great deal from my parents, and from my aunts and uncles, who were more than generous with their time, experience and wisdom.  Oh the stories of adventure, and misadventures, they would tell, and do tell.  My eyes moisten just thinking about it.  Later, I became enamored with machines.  Motorcycles at first, then cars of course, and engines in general, all things mechanical; I had a great thirst for knowing how things work, and still do.  Most things electrical are still a mystery to me, even though I remember building more than a few Heath Kits.  It still amazes me, that radio I once built from a kit, on a small circuit board, with no speaker, only an earphone, and it worked without a battery!  Amazing.

And so it is meaningful that I often tell people, that when on the homestead I feel like a kid again, and large parts of that feeling I suppose, have to do with spending all day most days outside, until the dinner bell rings, and to having the opportunity to learn so much so quickly.  Yes, we have a dinner bell!  I just walk around with a smile plastered all over my face the bulk of the time.  I am well and truly blessed.

Boy, have I digressed!  Before I started this post I imagined it to be of four or five lines, simply introducing the "References - Sources - Links" tab at the top of the page.  I will finally get on with it then.  On the "References - Sources - Links" page I have pulled to together some of the resources that Geri and I have referenced in making a start in southwest Michigan.  I hope you will find it informative.

Click on the tab near the top of the page
 We all know much less than we don't know, though I usually have a hard time admitting that.  I almost always reach for a book first when I want to learn something, and so you will find many books on the list.  I have also found that there is such a thing as "YouTube University," and while you might not find it by that name, the breadth and depth  of information available on YouTube is impossible to quantify.  And podcasts are a great source of information on many, many topics, and can turn your commute into class time.  I have linked to Amazon for the books that can be purchased there, for two reasons: 1) I am inherently lazy and it is an easy way to connect you to more information on each book, including alternate forms of the book (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, etc.), and 2) because I get a small cut of the action.  There, I said it!  Of course you do not have to buy through Amazon, that is your choice.

Pull down at the arrow
on mobile devices
My cut is 4 cents on the dollar if you do choose to click through the link I provide, and purchase one or more items.  The price to you is not increased.  If you want to know how to also become an Amazon Associate, let me know.  To access the "References - Sources - Links" page, click on the "tab" near the top of the page on your desktop or laptop computer, or pull down at the arrow on your mobile device, as shown in the graphics.  I will update the page from time-to-time, as additions to the "virtual bookshelf" are made.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

 Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 14 July 2014



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part III, Beekeeping

The initial bee install took place the weekend of 5 April 2014, and I added a box to the hive the weekend of 12 April, as documented in the post, "Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part I," dated 23 May 2014.  I checked on the bees regularly, and there was plenty of activity, with bees coming and going, and the bees were carrying in loads of pollen from their foraging activities.  The hive appeared to be very healthy.  I knew that I should be adding more boxes to the hive, and as the weeks went by I became more and more anxious that the colony might swarm because there was insufficient space in the hive for the growing colony.  Finally, adding the boxes rose to the top of my work list, and coincidentally Nathan was available to help me in the process.

Nathan (L) and I suiting up,
inactive hive box after step 1
just to my right in the back-
ground
Proving again that dogs in their late adolescence (i.e., me) can still learn new tricks, I broke out the bee suits.  Actually, this is not so much about not being stung, it is about being less anxious of being stung, allowing us to be calmer in the midst of the bees, and feeling less hurried as a result.  Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.  Another change made to the process of hive maintenance, was to use a spray bottle of sugar-water, instead of the smoker, for calming the bees.  The smoker did not seem to have the desired effect at the bee install, and worse yet, we spent too much time keeping the smoker smoking rather than making progress in the hive.  The smoker is just one more thing to worry about.  In a sauce pan I mixed up the sugar (regular table sugar) and water in a 1:1 ratio, 1-1/2 C. of sugar and 1-1/2 C. of water.  Over medium heat the mixture was warmed while being stirred periodically, until the sugar was completely dissolved into the water.

  I then poured the sugar-water into a new spray bottle purchased for the purpose, and then put the bottle in the refrigerator to bring its contents back to approximately room temperature.  We also prepared two hive boxes, which involved applying beeswax to 16 top bars, 8 for each box, and placing the top bars in the boxes.  Other equipment we took to the apiary included a hive tool and a bee brush, the former for separating the existing boxes from the floor, and the latter for gently moving the bees about without agitating them.  With our preparations in order, and bee suits on, we made our way down to the hive.
At step 3, calming the bees
with the sugar-water mist
At the hive, Nathan and I followed the step-by-step process below:

1) Remove roof, quilt and top bars from the inactive hive; we will use the hive box as a rest for the active hive boxes while placing the two new hive boxes on the floor of the active hive (unlike the Langstroth hive, new boxes are placed beneath existing boxes in a Warré hive)
2) Remove the roof from the active hive; this is no problem, because the quilt is still between us and the bees.  I simply remove it because it adds unnecessary weight to the lift that will need to be performed, and because it would make the assembly of two boxes (and the bees, comb, brood and honey within them), the quilt, and the roof, top-heavy and more difficult to handle.
3) Lightly spray sugar-water onto the bees at the entrance, emphasis on lightly.  Bees do not like to be wet.  They will be occupied by cleaning themselves of the sugar-water, or at least that's the theory behind the method!
4) Carefully remove the two boxes (plus quilt), as an assembly, from the floor, and set aside on the exposed box of the inactive hive
Step 4, setting aside the active hive boxes and
quilt; based on how far the bees had progressed
in building comb, I would say these boxes were
being added just-in-time
5) One at a time, place the two new boxes on the floor, using the bee brush and the sugar-water spray to calm the bees and move them out of the way as necessary
6) Reinstall the two active hive boxes and quilt on top of the two new hive boxes on the floor, again using the bee brush and the sugar-water spray to calm the bees and move them out of the way as necessary
7) Reinstall the roof on the hive; addition of hive boxes is then complete

The process of adding the boxes went more smoothly than I probably had any right to expect; it was executed without incident.

I had planned to buy another package of bees for the now-inactive hive, but the delivery date of the packages was delayed one week and that caused an unavoidable conflict for Geri and I.  Still, I will investigate to establish that we can still expect success if we install another package this late in the year.

Step 6, reinstalling the two active hive boxes
Thanks to our iPhoneographer, Susan, for making the raw photos that you see incorporated.  She noted pointedly that she was the only one of us without a bee suit!  Fortunately she maintained a safe distance, and was not injured in the making of this post.

Laying down cardboard for
vegetation suppression
Informed by what I have read, it seems best to keep the vegetation down in the apiary.  A reason is that when the bees return to the hive fully loaded with pollen, and if they miss the landing board, it can be difficult or impossible for them to "take off" again if they are in deep vegetation.  So, Nathan and I also took on suppressing the vegetation by laying down cardboard and then covering it with wood chips.  (We are doing the same in the garden, and it is amazing how much cardboard can be "re-purposed" in the fashion.)  This is certainly not a permanent solution; it will require ongoing maintenance.  At some point before winter I will also be installing a fence/windbreak to protect the hives from the cold winter winds.


Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

Please "follow" the blog by clicking on "g+ Follow," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."   Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 18 June 2014


Before and after weed suppression by cardboard sheet mulch and wood chips

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part II

By mid-April, spring was in full swing, and I began to think again of working in the woods.  The cleared area around the house, in the shape of an egg in profile, with the fat end uphill and to the south and the small end to the north reaching to the lake, the yard if you will, totals between 2.5 and 3 acres.  Surrounded by old-growth trees, American Beech, Sugar Maple, and Tuliptree dominate, as well as some more recent introductions, 20 to 25 crab apples, and several willows closer to water's edge.  It seems the forest would overtake the yard in just a few short years were the property to be abandoned.  Occasionally, it adds up over time, trees would fall, or branches would break off and fall into the yard, for a variety of reasons.  Since none of the woods was being put to directly productive use, the idea seemed to be to make the "problem" go away; the result of clean-up of the dead fall being large piles, 3 to 4 feet high, of brush and larger branches and main stems having been dragged just into the forest, and surrounding the clearing more or less completely, anywhere from at the yard's edge to 20 feet into the forest.  I have made it a mission to deal with the piles more effectively.  Specifically, anything that is dry and 1 to 3 inches in diameter is used as stick fuel, green and 3 inches and less in diameter is chipped for use as mulch or on pathways, 3 to 4 inches in diameter and larger is bucked and split for firewood.  Odd-shaped pieces in the larger diameters are set aside for use in the fire pit, wood too rotted for use as fuel is set aside for use in Hügelkultur.  Virtually all of the wood can be reused in one form or another; waste not, want not.

Last year I acquired a Husqvarna Rancher 460 chainsaw (here is where you channel Dr. Tim "Tim the Tool Man" Taylor's grunting), a Gränsfors Bruks Large Splitting Maul (imagine Schwarzenegger as John Matrix walking out of the woods with a log over his left shoulder in "Commando," and cue more grunting), and a DR 16 hp wood chipper (think "Fargo.")  All of these tools are basic necessities in forest management.  I bought the chainsaw new, and it has performed flawlessly, as should be expected.  The splitting maul, well, it's pretty hard for it not to work, so long as you can swing it.  Having said that, Gränsfors Bruks has perfected the splitting maul in design and manufacture; it is truly the standard by which all others are measured.  The DR I bought used, barely used, though it is about 10 years old.  When I bought it the seller had trouble getting it to run for any length of time, and we ended up having to drain and replace the gas and clean the fuel filter before it would run continuously.  I used it last summer and fall without incident.
DR Wood Chipper Model C163 on day of purchase
Fast forward to this spring, and I could not get the machine to run for over a minute without dying, almost as if I had turned it off.  I will not bore you with the details, suffice it to say I was in and out of the carburetor times to numerous to count.  It was indeed a fuel problem, the fuel had "gummed up" over the winter.  I had treated the gasoline with Sta-bil, which should have prevented the formation of gum and varnish, and allowed me to avoid draining the system, but alas, such was not the case.  The bottom of the float bowl was covered with a substance that I can best describe as looking like custard, or better yet custard-colored small curd cottage cheese, and the fuel metering main jet was completely obstructed.  (Break out the carb cleaner, rags, etc.)

I experienced this view all too often during the chipper
repair process.
And, I had to blow air back through the fuel line and into the fuel tank, dislodging more gum from nooks and crannies (those are technical terms for you newbies) inside the fuel tank, and drain and replace the fuel.  I received some good advice from Dennis Goss, which led to the blowing of air into the fuel tank, thereby removing a blockage which proved to be the last piece of the chipper dysfunction puzzle.  I also replaced a broken PVC (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) hose between the crankcase and air cleaner, and the float needle, because its "rubber" sealing surface had rotted off.  That all sounds simple enough, and naturally I wasted the better part of three or four days over the course of two weeks making the repairs.  Lesson #1 learned:  Drain the fuel tank and run the carburetor dry before storing for the winter.  Lesson #2 learned, again: It takes a lot less time to do it right the first time.

Nathan manning the wood
chipper.  "Many hands make
 light work."

Having repaired the chipper,  I was able to process some large downed trees and limbs just south of the house, and together with Nathan Douglas and Meredith Mancuso we put up 3 large piles of wood chips, I would estimate a total of five or six cubic yards in total, a substantial pile of rotting wood suitable for Hügelkultur, and the better part of a cord of fire wood, stacked and split.  Not coincidentally, the forest was looking much more pleasing to the eye after having made this progress.

There is truly no end to this type of work on the homestead.  I am focusing our efforts in an area generally to the south of the house, to create a more park-like setting in the general vicinity, and to allow more sunlight to reach the house and future greenhouse in winter.  Even this relatively small area of 3 to 5 acres, depending on how ambitious I am, would require a huge amount of future effort to maintain.

The products of clearing the forest of dead fall
I also transplanted a clematis from our Chicagoland home to the homestead in mid-April.  You can literally watch this plant grow; on some days I have photographic evidence of it growing over 3 inches in a day.  It now has a prominent place on the east side of our Michigan home.  I had expected some so-called "transplant shock," but there is no evidence that the plant lost any time in putting on spring growth.  It went from being cut back to the ground to having a 1 foot high shoot in two weeks, and then it really took off, putting on about 4 feet of vertical growth in the following two weeks.
Clematis "time lapse" photographs.  That lump in the lower right-hand corner of the left-most image is the clematis root
root ball on "transplant day."
Assembled raised bed frames
Finally, closing out the month of May, Nathan, Dennis and I were able to build five raised garden beds for Geri.  The beds are constructed of 2 in. x 12 in. x 12 ft. pressure treated lumber, are 2 ft. deep, and have outside dimensions of 4 ft. x 8 ft.  We used three, 3 in. stainless steel deck screws, and waterproof wood glue, at each corner.  The structure of the beds should last for 7 to 10 years, or more.

I hired some help with a Caterpillar 299 skid steer (also known as a compact track loader) to clear a garden area approximately 50 ft. x 33 ft., on the east side of the yard and reasonably close to the house.  Meredith put her critical eye on my layout of the garden, and perhaps needless to say that resulted in a complete do-over, thankfully.  Meredith had it right, a good eye, and Geri was pleased with the result.  After placing the beds in the garden, and putting in each a layer of the harvested rotting wood, we filled them one-by-one with 2 cubic yards of topsoil with the help of our Cat 299 operator.  Geri, Meredith and Susan then planted our first southwest Michigan homestead garden.  (Susan also did a great deal of weeding about the house, as is her want, and it looks much the better for her efforts.)  Geri had spent the better part of the prior day traveling the back roads of southwest Michigan in search of best herb and vegetable plants she could find, and with great success.  The next day, I installed a simple, and temporary, 2-zone irrigation system.
Garden installation, from earth-moving to installed, planted and irrigated raised garden beds
I think I can speak for Geri when I say that we have never slept better than we do at the homestead.  Long days of work in the home, garden and forest, days that to me feel more like play, days often punctuated by a jump in the lake, some paddle-boating, paddle-boarding, or fishing, and great meals, and all of that in the company of great friends.  This is what it means to me to be truly blessed.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please "follow" the blog by clicking on the "g+," or by e-mail at  "Follow by Email."

Also, "Like" us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/swmichiganhomestead.

-- John, 12 June 2014


Friday, May 23, 2014

Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part I

It has been almost 8 weeks since I made a post, and I offer my humblest apologies; really, there has been little to write home about.  Well okay, perhaps, just maybe, that is a not entirely true statement.  Actually, the homestead has been a veritable hive of activity, in fact our life has been very busy over the past several weeks, and that level of activity seems likely to continue into mid-June.  And, it is wearing on me a bit that I have two blog posts to complete, "Warré Bee Hive Construction - Part II," and "Winter 2013/2014: Lessons in Hardening Homestead Electrical, Potable Water, and Heating Systems."  I will get to those eventually, promise.

Meanwhile, I will start where I left off, at the last post containing
homestead content, which was in late March, 26 March to be precise.  The weekend of 29 March offered the opportunity to evaporate yet more sap to the state of delicious maple syrup.  The yield was 16 cups of syrup.  While we stopped collecting sap on the 6th of April because temperatures were routinely staying above the freezing mark, and because sap had largely ceased flowing as a result, the business of evaporation continued through the weekend of April 12th; at that point there was no more snow to maintain the sap for extended periods of time without refrigeration.  In fact, we still have about 30 gallons of sap in the chest freezer awaiting processing.  We learned a great deal about maple sugaring this season, and I hope to be able to expand the operation significantly next year.  Our first season was great fun, and allowed us to connect with so many people while engaging in such a traditionally American endeavor; we will treasure the memories.

It is safe to say that we have hundreds of sugar maples on the property, though expanding from 13 taps to even 100 would require a much higher capacity and more sustainable evaporation process than that we have currently provided for.  Based on the production of our trees this year, 100 trees would deliver more than 2,000 gallons of sap, resulting in approximately 50 gallons (800 1-cup bottles) of syrup.  If I assume a 5 week season, 400 gallons of sap would need to be processed per week, or about 115 gallons every other day.  To put that in perspective, we collected, in total, approximately 250 to 300 gallons from 13 trees this year, processed in batches of about 25 gallons, each batch requiring a full day (sunrise to well beyond sunset) to be reduced to syrup.

The weekend of 5 April was fun-filled, to say the least.  First off of course, more maple sugaring was on tap (pun intended); I lit the burners early in anticipation of receiving a "come pick up your bees" phone call around midday.  Sure enough, the call came in.  Unfortunately I was on my own at the homestead that weekend, and picking up the bees entailed a four hour drive round-trip to Chicago and back, so I lowered the burn rate to ensure that the fires under the sap would not go out before my return, and so that I did not return to evaporators full of burnt maple sugar.

Greg Fischer installing package bees in
Langstroth hives.  Smoker on the ground
to his left.
I picked up the bees at a warehouse in Chicago operated by BevArt: Brewer & Winemaker Supply, and I also received some instruction from its owner, Greg Fischer, on how best to install the bees. Greg is the beekeeper at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and Geri and I took a four-session beekeeping course from him last year.  Greg manages about 100 hives in Chicagoland, and runs Wild Blossom Winery & Meadery, the only meadery in Illinois; their "meads are made from locally produced honey and are international gold medal winners."  You will notice in the pictures that Greg installed his bee packages in one "deep" Langstroth hive box.  Since I use Warré hives, which incorporate significantly smaller boxes, I asked how many boxes I should use, and Greg answered that I should also use one box.  The reasoning behind that recommendation is solid, and is basically that "hey, it's cold out, the bees have no comb and no honey stores, and they need to keep all of that space warm, so keep it as small as possible."  Having said that, if I have it to do over again, and I will, I would use two boxes.


Five packages, somewhere between 60,000
and 75,000 bees, in the back of the Jeep for
the 2-hour ride to the homestead.
So what happened?  I picked up the bees in five "packages," a package includes a can of food (sugar water), a queen in a cage, and three pounds of worker bees (approximately 12,000 to 15,000 bees)), and headed back to the homestead.  Aside from a few bees flying around inside the Jeep, I had no issues, and even those bees gave me no trouble.  On arrival, I moved the bees into the house, since they would not have survived the expected overnight low temperature without the shelter of the hive.  Peter Coombs and I had already prepared an area for the hives, which included a 2 ft by 2 ft paver on which to set the hive floor, and placed the hives on the pavers.  The front of the Warré hives face due East; rise and shine ladies.  The next day, Sunday, I enlisted the aid of Dennis and Tristin Goss to install the bees in the hives.  Throwing caution to the wind, as men will, and in the face of almost total ignorance, I decided that we should leave the brand new bee suits in their packages and "just do it!"  Thank you Nike.  Between Dennis, Tristin and I, we collected 9 bee stings for our efforts, and I think, permanently eliminated any bee-phobia we might have been victims of.  At the first hive I accidentally brushed the smoker (smoke used to calm the bees) against the prepared quart zip-lock of sugar water, holing it, and dousing the hive in sugar water.  Since there were not yet bees in the hive, I was able to clean it up fairly well, though I did not actually notice that I had melted a hole in the bag.  I thought the zip-lock had come open, so I closed it and laid the bag on top of the bars.  Forging ahead, I removed a few top bars to facilitate getting the bees into the box, and shook them from the package "into" the box.  Then, I removed the cork from the queen cage, and hung the cage from one of the top bars.  Finally, I put a "pollen patty" on the top bars, also as food for the bees.  It was not long before we knew we had a problem, as Dennis noticed the queen (there was a green dot painted on her back) outside the hive.  Not good.


We thought she made her way back into the hive, and so I put the "quilt" on top of the box, upside down to make room for the food bag and pollen patty, and then put the roof on the hive.  On to the next hive.  Installation into hive number two seemed to go more smoothly, in fact there were so many bees about that we thought perhaps the bees from the first hive had made their way over to the second.  And, crucially perhaps, I did not melt the bag of sugar water.  Finally, on to the third hive, which is of the "honey cow" type, and hand-made by Dennis.  We took the same approach, and again seemed to have trouble keeping the queen inside the hive; one time I picked her up from just outside the hive with the flat side of my Swiss Army knife blade, and put her back in the hive. Still, hive number three seemed to have gone more smoothly than hive one, which is not saying a whole lot necessarily.  At completion, we had some serious concern about hive one, and thought we had probably achieved success with hives two and three.

Upon checking the hives on 12 April, it was perfectly clear that the bees had abandoned hive one and the "honey cow" for whatever reason(s.)  I have to say that was very disappointing, not to mention expensive.  By the end of the day I figured I was batting .333, not bad, at least in baseball.  On the 13th I had planned to add a second box to the only active hive, hive two.  First, I planned to remove the roof because I wanted to remove the food (supposing it had become unnecessary), turn the quilt right-side up, and then planned to add the second box below the existing box.  I found most of the bees, including the queen, up in the quilt, and I found that the bees had built comb all around the queen cage that I had left hanging in the single hive box at the install.  I decided to not attempt removal of the queen cage, and to simply add the second box on top of the first; I assumed the bees would "move in" to the higher, top box.  I did remove the food bag, and left what remained of the patty in the hive as the bees can be expected to completely consume it.


As of this writing, all seems well with hive two.  I thought I had pretty well made a mess of things, though I suppose it is not any worse than the inside of a tree.  I plan to add a third box, under the first two boxes, on 31 May; hopefully the colony will not already have outgrown the space available and swarmed.

Next time, I will do several things differently, using the process below:

1) Use two hive boxes under the roof and quilt, instead of one
2) Put the bottom box on the floor, with the top bars installed
3) Cover the hive entrance
4) Instead of making slits in the zip-lock I would poke holes with a small nail or large needle; the slits I made this first time were too long, and allowed bees to enter the bag and drown
5) Place the food on the top of the bars in the bottom box (bag and patty)
6) Put the second box, with half (four) of the top bars installed, on top of the bottom box, effectively to use it as a funnel
7) Shake/dump a third of the bees or so, into the open-top second box, and onto the waiting pollen patty and food bag on the bottom box
8) Pull the cork on the queen cage and shake the queen into the top box; do not leave the cage in the hive
9) Dump the remainder of the bees into the top box
10) Install the the remaining four bars in the top box
11) Install the quilt, "right-side up" on the top box
12) Install the roof
13) Return next day and uncover the hive entrance

Since this post will grow to longer than I would like, I am going to split it into two parts, and end Part I here.  As always, your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please "follow" the blog.

-- John, 23 May 2014