Preparing for bee swarm season

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A custom base to convert a couple of boxes into a 'bait hive'.
A custom base to convert a couple of boxes into a ‘bait hive’.

Winter brings a respite from many beekeeping-related activities, but it also provides an opportunity to make some preparations for the season to come.

For me, this includes creating some custom beehive bases, that form the basis of new bait hives. These are empty boxes that hopefully attract bee swarms, rather than them ending up in roof cavities, inside walls or inside ventillation grills.

The bait hive is created by taking the special base, then adding two hive boxes on top, and then capping it out with a flat lid.

This season I’m planning on scattering these throughout a bunch of locations in the Inner West, saving me the effort of constantly chasing bee swarms. Wish me luck!

A bait hive in place, in the empty convent land next to our house.
A bait hive in place, in the empty convent land next to our house.

Death gets in the way of life

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An instant jungle behind our house, and a living legacy of mum's passion for gardening.
An instant jungle behind our house — a living legacy of mum’s passion for gardening.

The Lewisham House blog has been very quiet in recent months. This was due to my mother, Andrea, suddenly passing away at the end of April. At the age of 67, we had no warning, and were expecting to have her with us for many decades yet.

Mum and I had a shared passion for gardening, swapping produce, seeds, and assistance. Her large apartment had a wrap-around balcony on all four sides, packed with hundreds of plants of every type.

One of the challenges was to find a home for these plants. This ultimately turned into an opportunity for her gardening passion to live on.

Her fruit trees went into the guerrilla gardened food forest out the back. The natives went into the guerrilla gardened strip alongside the railway station. And the rainforest plants created an instant jungle behind our back fence, shown above.

It’s nice to think that these will live productively for many years, tended as carefully as she would have…

Enjoying then preserving our apple crop

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With our first good crop of apples this year, there have been plenty of apple-based recipes. This includes a delightful apple and marmalade cake from River Cottage: Fruit every day!, plenty of apple crumbles, apple pies, and the like.

Still, two people (even with friends) can’t easily get through four buckets of apples. So onto preserving!

I started by creating some jars of apple and mint jelly, using a recipe from Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2.

Apple and mint -- yum!
Apples and mint — yum!
Straining the liquid overnight, to form the basis for the jelly
Straining the liquid overnight, to form the basis for the jelly

The apples are cooked down whole, pips and all, until soft. The pulp is then strained through a muslin cloth (or equivalent) over night. The resulting liquid (thick with pectin) is then cooked with sugar until it sets (this took a bit of convincing!). The result is a light jelly with an enjoyable hint of mint — perfect for roast lamb!

Another pile of apples, ready to be processed
Another pile of apples, ready to be processed

I then moved onto apple sauce. I hunted through my collection of cookbooks, and Canning for a new generation had the simplest and easiest recipe (most of the other ones involved whole days of cooking down the fruit!).

The apples cooked down to a soft pulp, skin, core, pips and all
The apples cooked down to a soft pulp, skin, core, pips and all
Passing the apple pulp through my passata machine, to create a smooth sauce
Passing the apple pulp through my passata machine, to create a smooth sauce

Again, the fruit is cooked whole until soft. It was then passed through my passata machine, which separated out all the pips and skin. The pulp is heated until boiling, and then put into mason jars. These are processed in hot water until properly sterilised.

The final preserve was a straightforward fruit wedges in syrup, using instructions out of Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. This was the quickest process of all: peel and core the fruit, and cook briefly in a light syrup. Then jar and process in a hot water bath for 20mins.

Filling the pantry with apple-related produce.
Filling the pantry with apple-related produce.

I’m pleased with my collection of apple preserves, and I’m looking forward to using them throughout the cold winter days to come :-)

And the storm came pounding in

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We were glad to make it back before the storm hit. As the sky darkened, rain started sheeting down. We were watching through our back windows when — look — it’s hail! How exciting is that!

That's a serious amount of hail, now blanketing our back yard and still coming
That’s a serious amount of hail, now blanketing our back yard and still coming
Hail covering our back deck
Hail covering our back deck

The hail kept coming in, pea sized, but overwhelming in numbers. Before long, the ground was white, as if it was a European winter scene.

The front garden, as if in a European winter
The front garden, as if in a European winter
The whole suburb was hit, including serious local flooding
The whole suburb was hit, including serious local flooding

And then — water — it’s leaking! — and then pouring! into the house through the ceiling. Damn!

It was the ice piling up on the flat roof, and causing the water to flow up, over the flashings and into the ceiling. Up I went onto the roof in the middle of the storm, with a stiff-bristle broom.

For 30mins I swept the hail into piles, away from the flashings and other vulnerable points. The roof simply wasn’t designed for this, and anywhere it could get in, it did.

By the time I came back down, water was still pouring through the light fittings, and we’d been plunged into darkness. Thankfully the ceiling held, unlike some of our neighbours, who had their gyprock ceilings collapse on them while watching TV.

Pounded by hail into oblivion!
Pounded by hail into oblivion!
The carrots didn't fare any better...
The carrots didn’t fare any better…

The garden suffered badly. While the big trees were stripped of leaves, the smaller natives shrugged it all off. The vege patch and herbs, however, were destroyed. Pounded into the ground, until a mush.

These used to by daikon, surrounded by cabbages...
These used to by daikon, surrounded by cabbages…

Some will recover, but some won’t. There goes much of our winter crops…

The sorrel will undoubtedly survive, but it ain't pretty
The sorrel will undoubtedly survive, but it ain’t pretty

The life of an urban farmer isn’t an easy one. They say this was a once-in-40-year storm. Considering we’d suffered a once-in-a-decade superstorm (600mm over 48 hours) earlier in the same week, I’m not putting money on it…

Rescuing bees from a rotten poplar tree

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A bee hive at home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree.
A bee hive at home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree.

A week ago I received a call from Gavin, my bee buddy, about a wild hive in a local tree. The bees had made their home in the hollow trunk of a poplar tree, one of a row of trees that were all marked to be removed as part of a native revegitation activity by Marrickville Council.

The arborists were up for helping remove the hive, as long as some beekeepers were ready to deal with the actual bees.

Off comes the top of the tree!
Off comes the top of the tree!

The starting point was to take off the top of the tree, which the arborist did at the highest point he could reach. The hollow extended past the fork of the tree, and a small number of bees immediately started using their new hive access…

The tree now cut free at its base.
The tree now cut free at its base.

With the support of the on-truck crane, the arborist (equipped with a borrowed veil) cut through the base of the tree. It was then laid down on the ground, read for us to start work.

Yup, that's a hollow tree!
Yup, that’s a hollow tree!

It was amazing to see how rotted out the tree was, and apparently this is a common problem with poplars. (Of note, there’s research that says that bees benefit from fungi, which assists their immune systems.)

Once the tree was on the ground, I started vacuuming up the bees using a ‘beevac’. This is essentially the same as a sawdust collector that catches material before it gets to the vacuum cleaner, only in this case it’s a collector for bees. (Sorry, no photo of this, I was too busy using the beevac!)

Cutting open the tree.
Cutting open the tree.

With the further assistance of the brave aborist, we opened up the hive, by chainsawing off slices of the trunk. We were then able to cut out and remove the comb, which was a mix of brood and honey.

The remains of an amazing natural hive.
The remains of an amazing natural hive.

Once we’d worked our way along the full length of the trunk, it became fully apparent how large the hive was. It was a very healthy colony, with no signs of pests or diseases, and plenty of activity.

The bees transferred into a new hive.
The bees transferred into a new hive.

Once finished, we emptied the box of vacuumed-up bees into a Kenyan top-bar hive, along with the brood comb. We then left the bees to hopefully settle into their new home.

What surprised everyone was how relaxed the bees were. Despite attacking their home with a chainsaw over the period of an hour, they didn’t go on attack. The aborist received one minor sting on his wrist where his glove had pulled up, but there were otherwise no stings at all.

A truly amazing morning, and great experience for a new beekeeper such as myself.

(Postscript: the bees decided they didn’t like their new home, and the flew away the following day. Ah well, at least they were saved from the woodchipper, and hopefully they’ll find themselves another good home. Better luck next time for us beekeepers!)

Concrete slab in the chicken run versus rats

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Evidence of rats trying to tunnel into the chicken run
Evidence of rats trying to tunnel into the chicken run

As anyone who has chickens in an urban setting knows, the big enemy are rats. They’re cunning and determined, and given a chance they’ll eat all the chicken feed, and anything else they can find.

Three years ago we ran wire underneath the whole chicken run, in order to keep the rats out. The wire has held up very well, but there’s been a renewed push from the rats in recent months. This includes creating a number of underground tunnels and burrows, testing whether they can get access from underneath.

Concerned that they would become motivated enough to chew through the wire (which they can!), I decided to implement a more permanent solution.

Clearing back down to the chicken wire base.
Clearing back down to the chicken wire base.

The first step was to clear down to the layer of chicken wire running across the bottom of the chicken run.

Wire mesh in place as reinforcing for the concrete slab.
Wire mesh in place as reinforcing for the concrete slab.

I then laid down a grid of galvanised iron, to provide reinforcing for the concrete slab. This is held off the ground by a series of spacers.

IMG_3534
Fourteen bags of concrete

The day before I’d headed to the local hardware store, and picked up fourteen bags of ready-mix concrete (thank goodness I’ve now got a ute!).

The concrete slab, just poured.
The concrete slab, just poured.

I mixed the concrete in my wheelbarrow, 2-3 bags at a time. In total, the whole process took about four hours, from the initial clearing through to a freshly-poured slab.The total cost was about $160, including the concrete and wire.

It was also good exercise!

The concrete slab in action.
The concrete slab in action.

At first the chickens weren’t sure about the slab, and were hesitant to walk on it. They’re over that now.

I’m also expecting the concrete slab to be re-buried underneath soil and mulch within a week, once the chickens get scratching. (The wire was previously buried under a foot of accumulated material.)

The plan is also to progressively pour further slabs, working up the chicken run.

Update: within 24 hours the rats gnawed a hole through the wire above ground to get in to the chicken run. Doh! Further reinforcing has been done, and I’m going to pour a little more concrete in some key areas of weakness.

I may have won this battle, but the war against rats continues…

Making things with bamboo

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Bamboo poles, lashed together to form useful garden structures
Bamboo poles, lashed together to form useful garden structures

As part of a book order last year, I picked up a copy of Bamboo Rediscovered by Victor Cusack. This wonderful book draws on decades of experience to show that bamboo doesn’t have to be an invasive monster, and that bamboo poles are tremendously useful, in the garden and elsewhere.

So when it came to protecting our apple harvest against fruit flies and other pests, I turned to bamboo. I sourced a bunch of 3m long poles from All Stakes Supply, who had them delivered to me in just a few days.

Now, how do I actually tie bamboo stakes together into useful structures? Youtube to the rescue, with several handy tutorials on tying square knots. These are the instructions I ended up following:

The first use was to create a support structure for my tomatoes. (It’s enormously high, by the way, so I didn’t have to cut the bamboo poles, thus retaining them for later uses.)

A frames for my tomatoes, made using bamboo poles
A frames for my tomatoes, made using bamboo poles

I also created box frames around my key apple trees, covered by insect netting. The result is rather impressive looking, I think.

Protecting my apples trees against fruit fly, using a bamboo structure and insect netting.
Protecting my apples trees against fruit fly, using a bamboo structure and insect netting.

Full disclosure: my knot skills are still pretty patchy, so some of the frames held up, and others slowly slipped apart. Practice makes perfect!

I now have a good collection of robust bamboo poles, which should last many years, and be useful for a dozen different projects.

(Inspired by the book, I also planted out a number of clumping bamboo varieties in the land behind our house. These should grow to give us better screening from the railway line, and I’ll blog about them at a later date.)