24 February 2012

Bees: One More Time

Despite our best wishes and intentions,... despite acquiring all The Right Gear,... despite some brave attempts at catching Bees as documented on the Blog,... we have, to date, been spectacularly unsuccessful1 as Apiarists. It's all very strange, really, since we are surrounded by neighbours who have acquired Bees without any such difficulties2.

Well, we will not be accused of quitting, though it does, admittedly, sometimes take us a while to get around to retries. (Like about 4 years!)

The catalyst has been some new neighbours moving in next door. Owen is a well-known professional local apiarist, and has long offered to help us get catch-boxes set up so that we can acquire our own swarm or two. I finally got around to taking him up on it this morning.

I took one of our catch-boxes for Owen to "paint" with Propolis - the sticky, resinous stuff that Bees manufacture to glue their hives together and protect them. The smell is (supposed to be) irresistible to them when a young swarm is looking for a new home.
Propolis melting. It has a strongly resinous, tarry aroma.
The catch-box is just a half-size box holding 5 frames of wax instead of the normal 10. Swarms that split off from established colonies of Bees tend to be quite small, so it is very difficult for them to maintain their preferred hive temperature if they are placed in a full-sized box, hence the use of the smaller catch-box. The box I'm using lacks a metallic protective cladding on the cover. I'll rectify that over the coming weekend. Owen also believes - though he freely confesses a lack of hard evidence - that the reflective cover usually placed on beehive lids also helps to attract Bees and help them orientate themselves on the hive. He says that the few times he's used other-colour lids are the only times he's been unsuccessful in catching swarms.
Cleanup of frames. Catch box in the background.
The 5 wax-frames were first cleaned. Old wax was hacked out, the support wires tensioned up to banjo-playing twanginess, and new wax strips placed in the frames. It is better to put only a small strip of wax foundation into the top of the frames, since full-sized foundation sheets restrict the movement of the Bees too much while they establish (hopefully!) their new home, refurbishing to their own preferences and spreading the aromas of their queen about the box. A touch of current from a car battery across the support wires heats the wax foundation just enough that the wire becomes embedded in the wax. Too much heat and the wires will melt all the way through the wax, breaking the foundation sheet. The top edge of the wax strips are fixed into the wooden frame by pouring a little molten wax (or Propolis, as in our case) along the groove that seats the wax sheet.
Newly rewaxed frames.
The box itself was them liberally smeared with the sticky, tarry Propolis, paying particular attention to the corners, edges and hive entrance.

Finishing touches.
Not neglecting Propolis under the hive lid, we're now ready to place the hive in a good catch location. Some discussion with Owen indicates that the top of the Pergola on the west side of the house is likely our best bet. Right outside my office window, where I can easily keep a close eye on the box. That part of the house is also right smack in a long-established Bee-path. For reasons not well understood, Bees tend to repeatedly swarm along fixed paths. Some magnetic field line? And we had the poor judgement to place our house right at the edge of one such path.

Right, now everything's in place. Surely we can't fail this time?

You'll notice that, unlike past reportage, this post is not titled with some weak Bee pun. I'm not superstitious; I don't believe that the twee names jinxed things in the past. But I'm taking no chances.
Keep your fingers crossed!

[1] More charitable critics might say "unlucky".
[2] And, in some cases, without much clue about what they need to do, either. We, on the other hand have researched extensively and read widely in an attempt to become reasonably educated about the care and feeding of Bees. There seems to be some sort of perverse inverse-square law at work, here.

22 February 2012


Tamarillo (a.k.a. Tree Tomato or Solanum betaceum) always do well for us. They're largely disease-free, and pests don't seem to like them much, either. Well, except for a Baboon, once...

The only problem they suffer from is wind. The branches are very brittle, and have a tendency to break in strong winds. Or when occupied by a Baboon. Or when heavily laden with ripe fruit, as they are right now. On the other hand they seem pretty much immune to the predations of birds and stinging insects thanks to their tough skins.

For some time I have been contemplating growing up a bunch of them to plant as avenue crops further downslope from the veggie garden. This would give us a low-energy-input harvest, and put more of our (sorely under-utilised) land to better use. Low maintenance harvests seem more and more important to me the older I get!

I would like to alternate the Tamarillo rows with Granadillas (which also grow spectacularly well in our soil and climate) and perhaps grain avenues between the rows in Winter. Or possibly interplant the Tamarillos and Granadillas in the same rows! After all, the Tamarillos are much taller, whilst the Grandillas would shade out weeds and grass from the base, and the wire supports needed for Granadillas might help to stabilise the Tamarillos against wind.

The only trouble with this fantasy is that Tree Tomatoes are a relatively unknown crop in SA, and I'm dubious about the idea of producing something that requires me to first educate the market. History shows that the first-mover in such markets almost never makes a success story; that usually belongs to the second comer who enters the already-educated market...

Tamarillos are really easy to propogate. Just sow seed saved from really, really ripe fruit into seed-trays, pricking out into pots or tubes when they reach a size where they're easily handled. I've even had plants self-seed and grow successfully. Transplant into their permanent homes can be as soon as they 15 or 20cm tall. They're not what I would call Long Lived plants, so (like Granadillas/Passion Fruit) I would probably embark on a 3- to 5-year rotation scheme, planting only 1/3 to 1/5 of the total cropping area each year.

We have two different strains of Tamarillo, one being shorter, but I don't see any real advantage to the shorter strain. They don't seem to have been any better at handling wind or fruit loads. I'll probably have to consider planting a wind-break to try and protect them a little.

We use them to make Chutneys and Jams, which are turning out to be really popular barter items at the local weekly swap-meet, since the two of us really cannot consume the fruits of even a single tree. I also munch a whole lot of the fresh fruits while working in the garden, but it hardly makes much of a dent in the crop.

Perhaps I need to buy a Tractor to help with all the work I have in mind... certainly there's much more than I could possibly tackle by hand. I'd probably only hang onto one for a year or two while I carry out all the transformations I'd love to make before selling it on, so I don't view it as a huge money-sink. Hmmmm...

08 February 2012

First Ever Rheenendal Blitz Barter

The brainchild of some neighbourhood friends, the Rheenendal Blitz Barter is aiming to become a regular, weekly event where we can all get together to trade or surplus supplies. The main aim is to have a venue where we can regularly trade surplus produce, skills and supplies, without trading fiat currency (which is in short supply everywhere!)


Of course we were expecting everybody to arrive with their surplus Tomatoes (it being That Time Of Year) but in the event, only one person there had fresh Tomatoes. We doubted, at first, that anybody would want them, but it wasn't long before they'd been traded away.

The light rain and cool weather deterred nobody. We were all extremely happy at the turnout, while still hoping that the event will gain momentum (and many more barterers) in the coming weeks and months. More than 10 people arrived, despite a complete lack of advertising. We really need to get a banner attracting attention to it and some notices on local noticeboards.

Personally I was looking for someone who would be willing to barter our goods (homebaked Rusks, Jams, Muffins and a selections of vegetable seed varieties, organically grown) in exchange for a lube job for my pickup. (The day I start fiddling with mechanical things, you can reliably declare them Dead.) In the end I traded some of J's Rusks for Olive Tapenade ( which we love) and a jar of preserved Figs. The Chocolate Cherry Muffins mostly traded for cash - not quite the spirit of the thing, I guess, but nobody could resist the aroma of muffins fresh out of the oven! ;-)

I don't think we'll be able to make it to next week's barter session, since we're on our way to Gansbaai and points West for a week or so, but I certainly look forward to future Blitz Barters. Our community so sorely needs a place where we can get together without an overt agenda. A Village Green. Without a common space for casual gatherings, any community is doomed, and a growing segment of the Rheenendal community are really keen for us all to get onto a more sustainable path. I certainly aim to support the Blitz Barter as much as I can, and I have high hopes that it will be a great community-builder.

We're very grateful that Portland Mini Mark - our best-by-far- community shop, selling everything from Chicken pieces to Tractor Oil - is willing to host our barter events, since the shop is such a visible, central venue. They're a true pillar of the community!

03 February 2012

Anansi Rainbringer

Frequent visitors when rain is on its way, Rain Spiders prefer to find a warm, dry place to stay until rain passes. I believe that their "official" name is the Huntsman Spider, but we have always known them as the rainbringers.

They're supposedly quite poisonous, but their mandibles are not strong enough to bite us (or so I'm told.)

I find Rain Spiders to be quite chilled-out characters, and they are not aggressive if handled gently and calmly. We frequently let them hang around the house for ages after they've found their way in. The only compelling reason to move them back outside is if they're in a bad place - somewhere where they're likely to suffer injury or accidental death - like the inside of door jambs. Or if we have spider-nervous visitors. Hi, Dad. Rain Spiders grow quite large - as big as my palm, in some cases, if you include the span of their legs.

They're a more reliable forecaster of rain than the local weather services, and welcome in my house anytime! It also helps that they are voracious predators on moths and Christmas Beetles (and, probably, the tribe of Geckos that live in the roof and walls.)

Perhaps this one pictured above got a bit confused by the Butterfly ornament hanging on the wall?

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