The garden in August

Cephalanthus O. has expanded into a multi-trunked thicket down by the lower driveway in the culvert ditch that leads to the swamp. Over the years the seeds (which are really “nutlets”) have dropped into the run-off in the spring, traveled through the culvert and seeded themselves along the stream into the swamp in a meandering trail of white, puffy blossoms buzzing with bees. The Buttonbush, or Button-willow, is a member of the coffee family and native to the NE US.

Bouncing Bet, or Soapwort, is in full bloom and covered with bees in the afternoon. They don’t seem to like it as much in the morning, perhaps it needs to warm up to produce a nectar flow? The plant contains up to 20% saponin (careful- toxic!) in the roots while in bloom, and even the leaves and stems will make a nice lather.

The peaches are coming along in the front yard. I expect the first ones to ripen in 3 weeks or so. Anise hyssop (for tea) and calendula o. (for salve) surround the tomato beds in the background.

Meadow-sweet has spread through the wild garden as cattails have increased the ratio of soil to water over the years. Next year I’m going to try harvesting the cattail shoots. The bees are all over the meadow-sweet which, like goldenrod, blooms in the heat of high summer.

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.

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!



Winter honey

Bee colonies die over the course of the Maine winter for all kinds of reasons. The most common is starvation. We have a short summer of very long days and the bees are well, busy, from April when the maples throw their nearly invisible flowers through early November and the last of the goldenrod. Some summers we have a drought in August that kills off any chance at an autumn honeycrop, and that’s what happened in 2010. I encourage goldenrod in my garden and have even planted a few hybrid varieties to lengthen the season, and I grow Japanese buckwheat and autumn blooming clematis, but sometimes it’s just not enough.

Some winters a colony doesn’t make it through for other reasons. My autopsy of “Stripey” found a medium number of dead bees and a lot of honey so- not starved. I couldn’t find the queen but that’s not unusual in a dead hive. There were some pupae and larvae in evidence but not nearly enough. The colony may have been weakened by a late season swarm that I missed, or the queen may have been old. In any case, it was time to clean house. Mice and red squirrels will nest in a hive that has honey comb and no bees to defend it and they make a terrible mess of the equipment.

I opened the hive, lifted out the frames and scraped the comb into a 10 gallon food bucket with a petcock in the bottom. I cut the comb up into chunks with the flat end of my hive tool and let it sit overnight in front of the Rinnai heater. There was no evidence of disease in the hive, so I wrapped the scrapped frames in plastic and put them in the freezer. I’ll feed them to the new colonies that will be arriving in early May. This afternoon I drained the honey out of the bucket into jars through a strainer. It was much slower work today than it was last July, when the summer heat made the honey flow like water. This batch is very dark, with flavors of buckwheat, goldenrod and asters.

I filled 8 pint jars and had enough left over for honey cake. Honey cake!

For the Cake

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced orange or lemon zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon ( or 1/2 teaspoon for a more pronounced cinnamon flavor) and 1/4 tsp cardamon
  • 1/2 cup matzoh cake meal and 1/2 cup all – purpose flour
  • (I add 1/2 tsp baking powder. The addition of leavening to the recipe, at this time of year, means this isn’t traditional! My apologies to Julia, who gave me this recipe.)
  • 1 and 1/2 cup finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds or walnuts, or a combination. Black walnuts are very nice.

For the Syrup

  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously grease a 8″ square pan.

Using a wire whisk, beat the granulated and brown sugars with the oil and eggs until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. (If you’re a little impatient and don’t get them quite to the “pale yellow” stage it’s OK – you’re using baking powder!) Stir in the remaining batter ingredients. Turn the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is light brown and set. Cool for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the syrup ingredients together in a small bowl. A whisk is helpful for blending the honey and OJ.

Pour the syrup over the cooled cake, poking holes in the cake with a fork, to permit the syrup to penetrate. Allow it to stand for 2 to 4 hours to absorb the syrup. Refrigerate so that while it is absorbing the liquid, it is also firming up.  Serve small pieces on splayed muffin liners. It’s also very nice served with sliced strawberries and drizzled with more honey.

Fedco tree order for the 2011 season

The main reason I started this blog three years ago was its value as a personal gardening record. I’ve made many failed attempts at keeping track of plant varieties, dates and success/failure rates: spreadsheets, journals, copies of correspondence (I write to other gardeners every chance I get) and odd scraps of paper in the pockets of my out-door clothes, smudged with ink that turned out not so waterproof.

Nothing works as well as posting my experiences online in this little forum, listening to the comments down the line, and being able to search my own writing for information I’ve forgotten or decided willfully to ignore. For example, how many times have I decided NO MORE ROSE BUSHES because given my soil, climate and ability to pamper them they are nothing but expensive annuals? Six times, including the ones in this order for 2011. Oh well.

Quoted text is from the searchable Fedco Tree catalog.

2562 – Anne Raspberry

I am a new convert to “all season” varieties of small fruits. The Seascape strawberries that we planted in spring 2010 bore fruit after six weeks and continued until Thanksgiving. That might have been enough (strawberries! at Thanksgiving!) but they were also delicious. That experience led me to order “Anne” raspberries:

Late. JEF-b1 (Amity x Glen Garry) Flavorful everbearing yellow raspberry, ripens earlier than Kiwigold and is actually yellow, not a washed-out pink. Large cohesive fruit with good flavor. Tall rangy productive plant may sucker less than other everbearing types. Mulching or adding organic matter to the soil will encourage more suckering which should, of course, improve yield. Like other everbearing types, you may cut it right down to the ground after the season. Z4.

2700 – Royalty Purple Raspberry   My first set of Royalty canes produced beautifully for 10 years. This summer I dug them all out along with the Killarney Red, which were fine but not spectacular and are therefore not being replaced. We’ll go with the yellow Anne and purple Royalty and see if the resulting color jam is beautiful, or disgusting. Either way it will taste great.

2787 – Seascape Strawberry  We tried this variety in 2010 and have been delighted with it. Fifty more plants, please.

3485 – Pinus koraiensis Korean Stone Pine  For bonsai. And many decades hence, for pine nuts.

4927 – Abelia mosanensis Fragrant Abelia  For the bees, and the swampy, acidic parts of the garden:

4-6′ x same. Delicate showy exceedingly fragrant pink campanulate (bell-shaped tubular) white-centered flowers. Somewhat loose plant with graceful arching stems. Best as a specimen or hedge planting. Blooms in late spring. As fragrant as hyacinth or even Korean spicebush. Glossy green foliage turns orange-red in fall. Full sun to partial shade. Easy to grow. Prune after flowering. Tolerates most average soils but prefers acid, moist and well-drained. Native to Korea.

5204 – Itea virginica Henrys Garnet Virginia Sweetspire

3-5′ x 5-6′ Swarthmore College, PA. Spreading shrub with an erect clustered branching habit. Fragrant white flowers on upright racemes up to 6″ long in early summer. Bright green foliage, brilliant reddish-purple fall color. Will form colonies. Henry’s Garnet has both superior flowers and fall color. Winner of the prestigious Styer award and the 1999 Michigan Growers’ Choice award. Recommended for moist or wet areas although quite drought tolerant as well. Sun or shade, pH adaptable. Species native to eastern U.S.

5474 – Rosa Magnifica Rose  Here I go again. . .

4×5′ R. rugosa x Ards Rover. Dr. Walter Van Fleet introduction, U.S., 1905. Large clusters of 3–5″ loose double deep fuchsia-purple-red flowers with showy bright golden stamens, spicy fragrance, and 30 petals per bloom. Dense shrub with large glossy dark green foliage and a vigorous wide-spreading habit. Orange-red hips. Very disease-resistant. Walter Van Fleet (1858-1922) was a physician who dropped out of medicine at age 35 to follow his passion for plants. Twelve years later he introduced Magnifica, an unusual cross between a rugosa and Ards Rover (a fragrant red pillar rose from Ireland just introduced in 1898). From 1910 until his death, Van Fleet worked as a breeder for the USDA.

5723 – Symphoricarpos orbiculatus Coralberry  It has four common names, which is a sign I should have a specimen. Also, a bit of Devil’s Shoestring over the door keeps out zombies.

3-5′ x 4-8′ Also called Red Snowberry, Buckbrush, Indian Currant and Devil’s Shoestring. Low-growing spreading arching shrub. A good wildlife plant for banks and hillsides. Dense clusters of small pinkish or purplish-green flowers in early summer followed by clusters of small purple-red berries that persist into winter. Will attract insects, bees and birds. Some say unattractive to deer, but others say otherwise (hence the name Buckbrush.) Red fall foliage. Adaptable to most soils, moist or dry. Shade or sun. Native eastern U.S., west to OK and north into parts of Canada.

6741 – Perovskia atriplicifolia Russian Sage  This plant has only increased in popularity over the last five years – it’s everywhere but in my garden, until now. The bees will love it.

6871 – Verbascum Caribbean Crush    You can’t have too many giant, towering, gaudy variaties of verbascum.

6972 – Scrophularia nodosa Figwort  This plant sounds like something I must have – although I had never heard of it before.

A slim stalk studded with many small waxy dark maroon flowers with yellowish centers. The flowers look like little open mouths singing in unison. Toothed leaves and square stems. Aerial portions infused to make a massage oil that benefits the lymphatic system. We do not recommend internal usage without consulting a seasoned herbalist or naturopathic doctor. Also an excellent plant to attract pollinators. Lauren says, “I have never seen any plant more covered in bees when it is in bloom.” Holly has seen these lovely European natives growing wild in the woods near Sand Beach on Mount Desert Island.

7022 – Verbena hastata Blue Vervain A beautiful bee plant.

North American native with tall branching flower spikes of a deep green-grey hue. Tiny bright purple-blue flowers whorl around the spikes one ring at a time. It will re-seed readily in the garden and around your yard. Commonly used as a nervous system tonic, mild sedative, for a variety of menstrual problems, neck tension, and many other complaints. 5–7′ tall.

Prospect, ME

Tonight I drove across the Verona Island Bridge, past Fort Knox and out to the Prospect Community Hall for the Tri-County Beekeepers Association Annual Meeting and Pot Luck.  First order of business was to honor Genevieve for her 20 years work as our treasurer with a carrot cake from Frank’s. You’re a Honey!

Speaker for the evening was Tony Jadczak, the Maine State Apiarist. Tony’s talk was centered around 2010 weather: the warm, early spring followed by a terrific summer honey crop, then a drought setting in for July and August and a dearth of honey this fall. A long dry summer means no goldenrod, and that means the bees eat their winter stores early. In 2009 we had one of the coldest, rainiest summers on record but the rain stopped in early September and the vegetation was lush. Hives put on a lot of honey and the bounty carried many weaker hives, and even some wild colonies, through a very mild winter. Tony took us through the consequences of “reinfestation pressure” and predictions for 2011, touched on new virus research and the ever increasing threat of mites, and talked about the people all over Maine who make their living (and their kids tuition) by the bees.

While I was there I noticed that renovations to the Prospect Community Hall continue. Sometimes I think every building in Maine is a product of retrofitting: the Hall has three layers of ceiling, two front doors (leading directly to the shoulder of Rt 1A) and a new bathroom.

I miss the old bathroom with its irregular toilet and the sheet of polished steel as a mirror, but the flowers are a nice touch.

Like the beekeepers, the Hall is ever-changing in an effort to keep up with the times; to be useful and purposeful and bug free as much as possible.


Thursday was a beautiful day and I had it off from work (thank you, Uncle Dwight, who was a Chosin Marine). I checked on the bees and “Stripey” was doing very well – lots of full comb and traffic, some bees were even landing with dark orange pollen. I’ve given up trying to figure out where the flowers are at odd times of the year; I’m sure some wealthy summer person’s gardens are full of alpine poppies down in Northeast Harbor, blooming orange and purple in mid-November. It wouldn’t be the first time I wished I could travel with the bees.

I realized I was in trouble when I took the top cover off to check the level of sugar in the feeder box. The syrup was shot through with green mold that looked like seaweed and smelled like vinegar. The bees hadn’t touched it and all the previous week while I was hoping they were happily stocking up while trapped in their hives by wind and rain. The week of damp, 65 degree weather might have encouraged mold, and this year I bought cheap, store brand sugar for 1/3 the price of Domino’s in 15 lb bags so perhaps that was a factor, too. In any case, I pulled the feeder box off the hive (heavy!), cleaned and bleached it, dried it in the sun and then refilled it and went to check on Hive Two (Two Bee).

Two Bee, sadly, was empty. The top box had comb on only three frames, so I took it off and poked around a bit. The remaining boxes smelled good – honey and beeswax – so I put the top cover on, blocked the entrances and walked away, figuring I would use the set-up for the new package bees on order from R. Weaver Apiaries in the spring. My only excuse here is that this is normally the time of year I lose a hive and I was rushed.

Yesterday was another beautiful day – 60 degrees and perfectly still – and the bees in Stripey were out and about in force. I went out to check the sugar level (about two days depleted, perfect) and then realized I heard buzzing – from both hives. I knocked the wooden door cover off the “dead” hive and bees immediately boiled out. And kept coming. Pissed at having been cooped up all day Friday, they formed a cloud in front of the hive and began making foraging sorties, and boy, did I feel stupid. I ran in the house and made them a batch of fall syrup, grabbed the clean feeder box out of the hoop house and promptly made my second mistake in two days.

Lore and practice suggest wearing white, smooth clothing while tending bees.  Popular reasoning goes that most bee predators are dark and fuzzy: bears, skunks, raccoons, etc. I’ve never had a problem wearing work clothes around my hives, but I do “dress up” in a white beekeeping outfit with a full hood when doing anything invasive. Yesterday morning I was wearing a dark red long-sleeved shirt and a black skirt with black tights and shoes. When I popped the cover off the second hive to put a shim and feeder on top four guard bees immediately settled on my right forearm and stung me as a group. I had the feeder box in my hands and couldn’t brush them off for a few seconds – it felt like my arm was on fire.

Now, Sunday evening, my arm is red and swollen hard from elbow to about 2″ above my wrist. I don’t typically react very much to bee stings, but perhaps four at once was a shock to the system. I’ll try not to do that again right away.

Sugaring the bees

Sunday was a nice fall day by Maine standards; 65 degrees and calm, the sun hidden behind thin clouds and a few flowers still blooming. Now is the time to feed the hives up – while the temperature is still warm enough for the bees to freely move around and store the sugar in the hive body.

I use BeeMax Polystyrene hive top feeders. They’re about $20, weigh 8 lbs and are practically indestructible. Betterbee suggests painting the exterior with the same latex paint you’re using on wooden ware. The bees are protected from the bulk of the syrup by a plexiglass sheet at one end of the box and I find this also protects the hive from cold drafts on the late fall days when I’m opening the top to add more syrup.

Use a two-to-one mix of water to sugar for the fall feeding. Try to keep the box from running low – evidently a wax and wane of food can encourage the queen to produce new brood just at the time the hive should be tapering off for the long winter ahead. Here is a close up of the box with the plexi shield in place and about a gallon (one batch in my stew pot) of sugar syrup.

The asters are the last full crop of flowers we’ll have for 2010 – a beautiful conclusion.