Thursday, May 28, 2009

Free Bees or Catching a Feral Swarm

Makeshift Hive of Bees

Me with Bee Cluster in the Background
Festooning Bees Forming a Cluster
Swarming Bees Finding a Spot to Cluster
This past week, I was in the midst of dealing with some paper work at home, when I noticed that the air outside was full of some summer bugs. It took me a few seconds for the image to register in my head...not bugs, but a swarm of feral bees! I walked outside the house, amazed at the sheer number of bees that swirled around me. My first thought was "OMG! my new bees from this spring were already swarming! So, I took off running over the bridge, and up the hill to where the bee yard is. It took only a few seconds to see that they were contentedly going about their business of comb building and nectar collecting. I caught my breath, and ran back to the garden by the house. The feral bees, not wild because the honey bee is an introduced species, were starting to settle and form a cluster of very excited bees under an old tray- style bird feeder. No bees landed on me, but the air was thick with them. I went into the house and made a mister bottle full of sugar water. When bees swarm, its a complex behavior triggered by over crowding,hormone stress from multiple virgin queens or several other factors. Usually, the old queen will leave with half the hive-after they have gorged on honey from the old hive. All this activity uses A LOT of energy, so spraying the clustered swarm with sugar water calms them down and keeps them occupied taking food as well as cleaning their sister bees ( and some drones). Spritzing the forming cluster did indeed calm them down. I had to work fast because I was going to be late for work. I didn't have a spare hive body to get a cluster in, so I improvised with a honey storage super waiting to be used with the established hives. I used some tomato stakes as trim pieces, and cut some plywood for a top and a bottom for the temporary hive. By this time, I'm sweating bullets-for the time frame as well as the heat of the day! The bees were still forming the cluster, so I kept spraying them to keep them occupied and calm. I gathered my supplies (veil, mister bottle with sugar water, bee handling gloves, bee brush, long sleeved shirt and pants and last but not least, the smoker. Smoke is used to calm down a normal hive by announcing your presence, and causes the bees to engorge on honey for a perceived forest fire-eat all you can if you have to relocate. I positioned the temporary hive on a cooler below the bird feeder and lit the smoker to give them a gentle puff of smoke...bad idea. I guess I didn't read the part in the books about swarming bees...they get more agitated than ever because they are already on high alert! The crescendo of buzzing got much louder and you could tell someone was going to pay! Uh, that would be me. Some of the bees started to land on my veil, looking for an entrance way to give me my punishment, but to no avail. I quickly changed tactics and put the smoker out! I sprayed them lightly again, then put my hand into the swarm. Bees keep a year round temperature of about 97 degrees, and you can feel this heat through your cool. (or hot!) The queen was walking on the outside of the cluster, the largest insect in the hive. Drones are large with larger eyes, but the queen stands out. They festoon together, using their wonderfully adapted feet, forming chains of bees hooked together. If left to their own devices, scout bees would locate a permanent new home to set up the colony, and dance this message to the throng, and off they would go. This could be a tree trunk, an natural cave or your attic. The one important thing to do is retrieve the queen,so the colony can build it's self up asap. I balanced the make-shift hive under the cluster, about the size of half a basket ball...maybe three thousand bees. I used my trusty bee brush to gently drop the glob into the waiting box. Not all the bees go so easily, and you need as many as you can get to be successful in establishing a new hive. When most of the bees were in the temporary hive, I put on the lid and set it down for any errant bees to find their way, and went off to work. When I got home that night, I called a friend in the local bee society and asked what to do. He said I should get the bees in a permanent home as fast as possible, because they would build comb almost immediately. Robert had an extra hive body and new frames he said I could use, and met me half way to the city to get it. I rushed back to the farm with my goods, and ran about getting it set up to take the baby colony. Finally, I took the bees to the bee yard and attempted to transfer them into a proper home. Here's the other thing about moving angry bees..they don't like to fly or be disturbed after dark..woops. By the time I got back and ready to go, it was almost nine o'clock at night. I opened the lid and was greeted with very mad bees. How did I know they were mad you asked? well, they sounded like mad flies on hot shit...erratic loud buzzing, and at least four stings through my gloves,so angry that I'm not sure they don't have some African blood in them...yes, the killer bees are in parts of Kansas, so I don't know. If they are least they're supposed to be excellent honey producers, just very "touchy".Hmmm. I tapped the angry throng into the box and took off!! yes some followed me all the way back to the house. The next night, I was doing garden tasks and didn't notice that there was still a small number of bees clustered on the corner of the ice chest I'd used for the transfer the day before. It was eight thirty, and I had a feeling I was going to get stung AGAIN. I walked the chest up to the bee yard, and opened the new hive. You got it, more angry nighttime bees! I tapped the small glob of bees into the hive and took off again..., only one sting this time. The new colony would need all the bees to set up shop, so it was necessary to go in the second time. I've been feeding the bees to help them get established, and they seem like they are doing well. Next time, I'll "bee" more equipped to handle a similar situation...It's amazing that it happened less than fifteen feet from my door! The amazing power of nature...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Bird in the Hand...

Baltimore Oriole Taking flight
Male Ruby Throated Hummingbird taking off...
Cheeky Baltimore Orioles
I am astounded at the speed of the season..I just can't keep up! On the lucky days that I get to work at home,I leave the door open to the garden more often than not. Yes, bugs may get in at times, but especially in the spring, there's no need to worry very much. I've always loved birds, even as a little one, my first word was "dicky bird", a kind of sparrow in Scotland where we lived when I was a toddler. I've had exotic finches(Lady Gouldians), Grass Parakeets,Canaries, and of course Chickens. A few years ago, I even talked an African Gray parrot out of a tree one cold February day-St Valentines day,'04!

One day last Spring, I saw a flash of orange dart deftly into my house- I'm lucky to have quite the avian paradise here at the farm, and Orioles are one of the most brilliant. When I realized that the oriole was not coming out, I ran in to help it. I scooped him up in my hand and headed outside to let him go and terrorize the humming bird feeder. I grabbed the camera and snapped a few shots as he flew away.

This year, I ran upstairs at my house to get something, and I heard the excited squeeks of a male Ruby throated hummingbird, confused by the blooming plants in the house, and the glass windows in front of him. I tried to shoo him out, but he would have none of it! I gently caught him and let him go with excited chirps. What does a humming bird feel like in your hand? like a tiny dinamo,almost amazing. As I was wrighting this, I was reminded of when I was selling my former home. It was Christmas time, the worst time to try to put your home on the market. I had found the farm, and the only way to get it was to sell my house as fast as possible. So, being a florist and designer, I put my skills to the test by decking the house with lush fresh greenery and winterberry. I used a door basket packed with the fresh red Winterberries, beautiful... I had come home from work to get some paper work, and when I ran in the house, a splendid Nightingale that made my garden it's home, had decided that this stuff was his!! As I came around the corner and saw him, he flew to the staircase instead of going outside. He contentedly ate berries while I finnished my errand...working his way upstairs. I had to leave, and caught him in the window on the third floor! I have to say, I felt like it was a good omen, I was leaving the property in a week or so, and I wanted to take the Mockingird with me! I did consider letting him go at the farm, but my better judgement ruled and I opened the window and watched him sail to his customery spot at the top of the ancient cedar.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Denizens of the Shade

The Bladder nut, Staphylea trifolia
Golden bleeding heart
Thomas Hart Benton's hardy Ginger

Ursula's Red Japanese Painted fern
Eastern Maidenhair Fern
I am always amazed at the atmosphere that ferns create in a garden. The shady areas of the garden are full of early Spring ephemerals, then the prehistoric ferns make their appearance. I have three or four native ferns at Hiddenfield,luckily for me, the stunning Maidenhair is one of them! I've added many types of fern over the years, the Japanese Painted fern is one of the standbys, Ursula's Red, a lovely cultivar, doesn't seem very red to me!! I always add a lot of compost to the planting area,then a nice mulch of shredded leaves and a drink of water to get them settled in.

The structure that ferns give a shady area is immeasurable, I also cut fronds for simple displays in the house,clear glass vases suit them best. I don't like using fern as a "filler", to me they work on their own as elegant accents for the table. If I hadn't planted so many ferns and Hosta in the shade garden, I'd have a very sparse garden for the majority of the year! The nice thing about the Hostas is the added bonus of blooms later in the season,that the Hummingbirds seem to love!

I try to use a lot of native plants when they make an impact. The native hardy Ginger that I have originally came from artist Thomas Hart Benton's garden in Kansas City's Roanoke neighborhood.My father was good friends with Tom, and as all gardener's know...sharing is the thing to do, tomato starts,Iris and occasionally, hardy Ginger. It's fun to have some K.C. history in the garden!

When taking a walk a few Springs ago, I found a colony of bladder Nuts in the deep woods at the farm. I waited until the trees were dormant, them moved several to the shade garden by the house. Now, they bloom luxuriantly in the Springtime, tempting butterflies and bees with their nectar.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lilac Time is Here, Sorry-No Scratch and Sniff Available...!

" Backwoods double"
"Krasavitsa Moscovy"
"Charles Jolie"
" Sarah Sands"
"Monge" ( click any lilac for close up)
These last two weeks have sped by at lightning speed. Every day, the garden changes and speeds toward a full Summertime crescendo. So many things need done ,all at the same time! Tomatoes were planted, as were peppers and culinary herbs. I planted a clients terrace pots,beautiful combinations of sun and shade plants. This family has a gorgeous home over looking a serene lake. I'll take some photos, and show how they'll fill out during the season. I took them to the Hiddenfield greenhouse for planting and a settle in period. Mother's day week was a blur of wonderful fresh flowers and beautiful design work. The staff at Bergamot and Ivy pride ourselves in the craft and art of fresh flowers. We all love the garden product and love sharing that with others. So leading up to that, I haven't had a second to write about the garden and farm. I didn't get the chance to plant my beets or the spinach...bad gardner...It's getting late!! There just isn't enough time in the day! a truer statement couldn't be made. The most important project I have going this month is the hybridizing of the Lilacs. I've been making crosses for five or six years now, quite a few plants by now! At least 200 shrubs are in line to be planted out in the field. The bloody weather has been so hard to deal with! sooo much rain and the wind! In order to have a worthwhile crossing,you need calm air and good humidity. I carefully remove 30 or 40 individual florets, just as they are about to open. The pollen parent is chosen, and the crosses are made. Each blossom cross will produce two seeds, if it all goes well. A group of identical crosses gives you a greater chance of creating a special, different plant. Very me anyway! There are at least 50 or 60 named hybrid lilacs in the collection, lots of good choices for good parents and good hybrids, I hope. About one in a hundred seedlings might be special and worth introducing. There is a very small window of hybridization. I did ten major crosses in two days...that's a great deal of hand work, but I think it's worth it! The amazing fragrances and color of the better hybrids, make these Spring weeks so valued for me. The evening air is thick with the heady fragrances. Each selection has a unique scent, just like a rose. walking through the lilac walk this time of the year is a treat I savor even more because of the brief window of enjoyment. Did I say I love Lilacs!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Garden Silk and Swallowtails

beetle pollinated Paw paw blooms
Zebra Swallowtail butterfly- I call these" Paw Paw Swallowtails"
Linda Hall Library, Kansas City Missouri -Peony Collection

Tree Peony "High Noon"


Not Kentucky Derby Silks, Chinese tree Peony silks!
"Royal Carriage"
With so much rain here, it's been hard to get important tasks done! Seeds need starting, Lilacs need crossing and all the tree Peonies need to be enjoyed! I have a dozen Chinese and Japanese tree peonies in my garden, but the big show of silks is at Linda Hall Library on the campus of the University of Missouri, Kansas City. I've stopped by a few times in the last week or so...the rain never let the petals open fully until Saturday. They have some amazing seedlings from prominent breeders in the U.S. as well as some ancient Chinese selections. The ancient Chinese would plant the special tree Peonies on man made "Peony mountains" for viewing...a garden hill of exquisite blooms. When in bloom, the individual woody Shrubs would have sun parasols erected to shield the transitory blooms from the elements,The often poetic names of these venerable shrubs always make me smile. " Jade Concubine", "sleeping Crane" get the idea.

The other special bloom this week are the native Paw Paw trees. I love Paw Paws for their large sub tropical foliage and the cool burgundy blooms in the Spring. They are pollinated by beetles, but I've never witnessed that, maybe this happens at night? I'm not sure. The other great thing about Paw Paws is that they are the larval food for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly-I always call them Paw Paw swallowtails, but that's just me. They look black and white at first, but upon closer inspection, they are actually a pale turquoise and black, with cherry red accents. The generation that hatches out of their chrysalis in the spring has the longest tails...subsequent generations have shorter and shorter tails until the end of the season. It's hard to find the larvae of this Swallowtail, they leave the Paw Paw foliage during the day, and return at night to feed in solitude. Paw Paws (Asimina triloba) make interesting under story trees, they also produce oblong fruits that have an interesting banana custard like taste. I've tried them, but the wild varieties that grow at Hiddenfield farm are not the best for eating. If you want to plant some for eating, several good varieties are on the market..."Sunflower", "Pennsylvania Golden", "Mango" are some you can locate easily through mail order nurseries. They grow and like the same conditions that American Red Bud trees like(Cercis canadensis) Moisture, dappled light-not hardy beyond zone Five. They seem to like loamy soil, not good in heavy clay. Several trees planted in a group will improve pollination and fruit set.