Encaustic Painting, Act 1 Scene 1

The supplies are corralled on the new, plastic-draped, work surface and I had to take some photos because nothing you see here will ever be this shiny ever again.


The first step is to make the plain wax medium: beeswax and damar resin in a ratio of 8 : 1. Or 10 : 1 or absolutely no more than 9 : 1, or possibly just until the mixture “looks right”. Every source I found had his or her own convictions. Beeswax is the medium that will carry the pigment to the surface and the damar raises the melting point of the wax enough to fix the result. Too little and the painting will react to moisture in the air with a white “bloom” and never fully dry, too much and the surface will crack and peel.


I’m using beeswax from our hives because we have pounds and pounds of the stuff. It’s like a natural resource around here. This first batch is a mix of yellow and white – the lighter wax was bleached by longer exposure to sunlight. It took me the entire summer to figure out that I could get lovely white beeswax simply by forgetting a batch in the solar melter for a few days but by that time it was September and the days were too short to re-engineer the yellow batches. Encaustic painting uses such thin layers that I don’t think the tint will make much difference, but we’ll see. I admit that I like the gold color produced by all those tiny bee feet tracking  pollen and propolis around the hive interior like children on Grandma’s kitchen linoleum.

I never noticed that our kitchen drop scale (pictured by the double boiler above) is calibrated in Newtons. Fortunately I was working from a ratio so all I cared about were the markings but seriously, Newtons?

The first batch is done and poured off into small stainless steel “monkey cups” to cool. It did indeed take longer than I thought it would for the damar to melt into the wax. The online boards repeatedly warn not to short-cut this step; “It takes as long as it takes!” The gentleman who insisted that the wax has a different “feel” once the resin is incorporated also had a point. The transition was not unlike testing custard or jelly on a spoon – difficult to describe but easy to see in practice. As with my first forays into beekeeping lore I feel more confident in the source material now that I’ve seen it in action.

Tomorrow I can pop out the solid wax and clean any sediment off the bottom in preparation for melting it again and brushing a thin coat on the painting surface. Act 1, Scene 2 coming up!



Bees, headed for a Fall

I was still traveling (unexpectedly) on Saturday and missed that warm, sunny window of opportunity to put the bees to bed for the winter, but that’s what happens to Beekeepers with Day Jobs. I’m not at all sure I could make a living wage by keeping bees, so it all evens out but still – it was so hard to spend Saturday looking out at the warm autumn landscape from an Amtrak car  en route to Portland.

Sunday was cooler and blowing a steady 15 – 20 mph out of the NW, but we managed.  I took the Styrofoam feeder boxes off the top of the hives and put a layer of newspaper right on top of the frames.  The newsprint does a great job of soaking up and holding moisture from condensation in the hive.  I keep a top entrance going all winter (until the bees close it themselves with wax and propolis) so the paper is retracted just a bit under the hole to allow easy access to the comb.  The bees will chew some of this paper away and  I’ll replace it with a big piece of hard candy on some warm day during the February thaw.

Then the top board goes on and the insulated hive wrap is taped up around it, followed by more newspaper. I smoke the hives and wear a full suit for this chore because the bees don’t like change in general and the sound of duct tape ripping off the roll in particular.

An active colony will have built comb all the way up to the feeder over the course of the summer. These were empty of sugar syrup, but drain them if you have to and tip them upside down so the bees can rescue any honey from the scrap comb.

Fortunately temps were in the 60’s on Sunday and the field bees were still bringing in bright orange pollen from some hidden stand of asters. Tonight it’s raining hard and 45, but I think the hives are set for their long sleep until I check on them during the spring thaw.




Monhegan wild gardens

Yesterday we made an impulse trip to Monhegan Island. The forecast for Sunday called for calm and bright so we packed water, apples and granola bars, windbreakers and extra camera batteries, a watercolor pad each and made reservations for the ferry.

The Monhegan Boat Line has made three trips a day from the island to Port Clyde and back again (weather permitting) since 1914. It’s a small, sturdy boat with a stalwart captain who will slow down to allow the birdwatchers to get a good look at the bald eagles roosting along the shore and a rotating crew of very hardy high school girls wearing MBL sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Maine shag haircut. You couldn’t be in better hands. Especially Sunday, when the slightly rolling seas flashed with sunlight and the temperatures stayed in the balmy 60’s.

The trip takes about an hour. We were delayed for a few minutes docking to allow a man to ferry a cow in a rowboat across the inlet from Manana, the tiny island next to Monhegan. As we left they were ferrying goats who seemed much more unhappy about leaving their summer pasture, or maybe about being in a rowboat – it was hard to tell.

We hiked from 11:30 – 3 with a break for lunch. Monhegan is renowned for its rocky headlands and breathtaking cliffs; Black Head, White Head, and Green Point, but my lasting impression on a hot September mid-day trek was the vast amount of plant and animal life. Asters, several varieties of goldenrod, feverfew, and late roses were all in full bloom. The bayberry bushes and ash and apple trees were heavy with fruit and wasps, there were kinglets and cedar waxwings gorging on seeds and berries and making a ruckus.  We saw three varieties of butterflies  and in every warm hollow filled with flowers there were dozens of Italian honey bees. I didn’t see any hives in passing through the village, but perhaps there’s someone out there? It seems improbable that a colony would survive a Monhegan winter in the wild, but who knows – it will be worth investigating when we make the trip this spring.


A combination of very high temperatures this afternoon and a mature colony  may inspire “bearding”. The bees are out in front of the entrance, cooling themselves off and ventilating the hive. They aren’t swarming, although the density and agitation certainly look like it.

I removed the wooden spacer at the back of the hive and, with better air circulation, they went back to business as usual.

Wildlife – herpetology chapter

We have a pesticide free garden. It’s difficult to use insect-killing preparations when you raise insects – the bees are just as susceptible to Safer Soap and tobacco solution as mites and aphids. I use Surround CP almost exclusively for spraying and after that I lean heavily on passive prevention techniques: sticky girdles around tree trunks, red balls for apple maggot fly, traps for Japanese beetles, etc. Surround is made with clay and forms a chalky barrier on leaves and fruit. It doesn’t seem to bother the bees at all. After a few years of keeping the grounds poison free, we have an abundance of amphibian and insect life.

I’ve been keeping a list of species observed since this spring and plan to continue recording for a few years. Our swamp provides a buffer of permanently damp soil, but summers on the island differ widely in temperature and rainfall and I’ll be interested to see how the populations changes over time.

Observed so far in 2011:

Green frog (above, sunning in the mulch hay near the pumpkins), spring peeper, gray tree frog, bull frog, pickerel, wood frog, mink, Northern leopard, American toad

Spotted turtle, box turtle, snapping turtle

Eastern and Maritime garter snake (very pretty), Ribbon snake (not sure if it’s an Eastern or a Northern, very shy), Smooth Green snake,Eastern milk snake

Eastern red-backed and spotted salamanders – I’m sure there are more salamanders out there I haven’t seen yet.

Next year we’ll start cataloging insects!


Bear 1, Beehive 0

Last night we had all the windows open and around 10 I heard something fall over outside. We’re under a waning crescent moon and I couldn’t see anything past the halo from the kitchen light, so I decided not to go investigate. I’d hate to trip over one of our suitcase-size raccoons.

In the morning, I found this –

Evidently the bear that has been taking down bird feeders in the neighborhood found the empty beehive at the edge of the yard. It contained a few frames that had been built-out with beeswax, but no honey. Probably still smelled good, though, and bears have excellent noses.

My colonies are in the lower garden behind an electric fence. Tonight I’ve left the fallen hive parts where they lie, hoping the bear will realize there’s nothing there of interest for him or her and discourage him from searching further. I guess we’ll see if I’ve out-thought a bear.


Solar wax melter, part II

Earlier today I posted photos of the solar wax melter in the side yard, hard at work in the hot July sun. Several people asked for more detailed pictures and dimensions.  My first melter was a small, quick version – just a wooden fruit crate with a cookie sheet as a drip surface and an overhanging piece of window glass. It worked, but I immediately wanted something better. And bigger. When I started keeping bees I had no idea just how much wax they were going to contribute.

There are plans online here that look good. I admit, I went out and bought the one I have now as a kit. It’s just the right size – big enough to melt a pile of comb and trimmings and just at the limit of what I can comfortably carry around and store. $60.00 at Dadant and Sons Beekeeping. Whichever way you go, be sure to paint the inside of the box black.

I think that the the wax from this old, very dark comb is a lovely color – imagine how many bee footsteps it took to turn it brown. The sun bleaches it a little bit as it melts, but it’s nothing like the sterile white blocks sold in craft stores. The yellow candles give off a honey scent as they burn, subtle and not at all artificial. I use votive candle molds. They’re easy to fill and use. This is a handy list of molds and burn times from Busy Bee. These molds are silicon rubber – no release agent needed.

And welcome to the Maine mind-set, where every summer day affords another chance to be ready for winter.

Hot hot hot

When I lived in Philadelphia I never thought of Maine as a place that would be too warm – and compared to Philly on a July afternoon that might be true. Absent that perspective though, the island is baking this afternoon. The thermometer on the south side of the house reads 101.7. It’s exaggerating, of course, but I won’t argue because that’s how it feels to me too, out working in the garden.

The weather will cool down tonight and perhaps there will be fog as the ocean air moves in. Meanwhile, it’s perfect weather to put the solar wax melter out in the perennial bed and cook the old black beeswax down to liquid gold for winter candles.

So much to do.

The days are just packed! And we’re still getting more than 16 hours of daylight.

Lady’s Mantle, elecampne, and willow fences line the path into the garden.

Little green apples beginning to form on the “Westfield Seek No Further”. The tree is covered with them – good work by the bees.

“Portland” roses from the Flanagan house in Portland with angelica in the background.

Fedco’s “Beneficial Insects” mix is in full bloom.

The bees are busy hoarding pollen, nectar and sunlight.


The Package

The Package is an excellent movie with Gene Hackman chasing Tommy Lee Jones (the package) all over Germany. I won’t be spoiling the movie for you if I tell you that Hackman wins. Sort of. I had to go to IMDB to check the release date and yes, it confirms that I’m old – 1989.

Bees are also sold as packages. Last fall I ordered Buckfast bees from R. Weaver in Navasota, TX. Buckfast bees were bred by Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England and are adapted to cool, damp climates with long-lived, fecund queens and high honey production. They are also remarkably sturdy. They shipped last Monday from Navasota and arrived Saturday morning – five days of grueling cross-country travel. It was 50 degrees and drizzling here when I picked them up and they were a cold, compact mass around the can of sugar syrup and queen cage in their wire box.

I soaked the outside of the box with a sprayer filled with sugar syrup, and as the hoop house slowly warmed up to 60 degrees they began to move around the box and buzz loudly. We fed them several times during the day. By 4:00 p.m. it was really as warm as it was going to get and we installed them in the hive. I don’t normally have assistance with the beekeeping chores, but R. has expressed an interest. Here he is spraying more sugar syrup on the boxed bees, keeping them sated and calm while we put them in their new home.

There are many good tutorials on installing packaged bees in a hive, but I’d say my biggest revelation was to not smoke them. They don’t have a home to defend at this point, and you don’t want their new home (the hive) to smell of smoke and interfere with their adoption. The process went smoothly, the queen was lively in her little screened box, and it was great to have a second pair of hands.

Only a few casualties! A front piece fell out of my bottom board – these things happen – and I had to block the new, going-nowhere, entrance off with hay. Later I found the piece and taped it in (they can live with some duct tape as long as they’re not going to ever be on the sticky side) and blocked the main entrance down with hay for warmth and ease of defense. We filled the feeder with sugar syrup and let them settle in.

Buckfast bees from R. Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, Texas. They’ve once again proved to be incredibly hardy and wonderfully social – thanks, Risa!