First honey extraction

Our beekeeping journey started 5 months ago when a nice fellow from the Beekeepers Society of SA delivered a nucleus hive of bees to our brand new hive box. It was a swarm he had collected some months ago and had had sitting in his backyard.

Ben observing the bees close up

Ben observing the bees close up

After a lot of hand wringing about the possible impact on neighbours and the risks of being around bees, it has been quite a pleasant experience having a hive in our backyard. Besides the “flight path” area immediately next to the hive, we have been able to co-exist with the bees quite happily.

The main differences we have noticed have been big increases in pollination rates for our vegetable crops, a large number of bees drinking at our front yard frog pond and a heady aroma of honey emanating from our hive into our backyard.

We have taken a fairly low impact approach to beekeeping: minimising the number of hive inspections and attempting to provide them with an environment in which they should thrive. Our main interventions have been on very hot days, when we have placed car windscreen reflective material over the hive to reduce internal temperatures, and have placed polystyrene boxes between the hive and an adjacent corrugated iron fence to minimise radiant heat.

The time finally came to do our first honey extraction. It’s something we were slightly reticent about, given the potential for becoming embroiled in a sticky buzzy mess. After watching a lot of YouTube videos on honey extraction, and with extraction equipment very kindly lent to us by our friends Di and Joel, we finally bit the bullet this weekend.

We were right: it was a sticky buzzy mess! There’s a lot of technique doing this right but our approach to new things is generally to just get into it and learn by doing. The things we’d do differently next time are:

  • Extract on a warmer day. Honey is much more viscous at lower temperatures, and a lot of the extraction process involves honey flowing from one vessel to another, so warmer temperatures make things much easier. Next time we’ll aim for a day between 30 and 35C. 
  • Always use smoke when working the hive. I’ve struggled getting the smoker to work well, but had my best ever success yesterday when removing the frames from the hive. After extraction, when putting the “stickies” back into the hive, I took a shortcut and assumed it’d be a quick and easy process to open the lid, drop the frames back in and close up again. Wrong! The bees worked themselves into a frenzy and managed to sting me twice through my gloves and bee suit. A very sobering reminder that bees are wild creatures and need to be carefully managed, and that proper risk management needs to include a full bee suit and also an active smoker. Lesson learned.
130317 Honey extraction

Brushing the bees off the frames

We only extracted 4 frames, and we left the other frames in the hive. Our focus at this point is less on extracting the maximum amount of honey and more on allowing the hive to grow and thrive next spring/summer, so we are leaving a decent amount of honey to keep the bees going through winter. And it still feels weird to rob the bees of their hard earned food, so we’ve taken a middle path approach this time.

4 frames yielded about 4 litres (5.75kg) of honey, so we’re confident that one hive in the backyard will be amply sufficient for our own family honey needs. Our thoughts will invariably turn to whether or not we should consider getting more hives, either in our backyard or elsewhere, to increase our production of honey and other bee products. It’s a question that would regularly come to mind for most beekeepers.

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Pollen panniers

We are now just over a week into our beekeeping journey. Overall, we’re surprised how comfortable we are co-existing with bees in our garden. Bees just do their own thing and don’t seem to readily become aggressive – even when we are opening up their hive and pulling out frames for inspection.

To get a better look at the bees as they come and go from the hive entrance, we are experimenting with a video camera. It can zoom in really close, and we can replay and pause the video on a large TV screen, so we can see the bees in much more detail than with the naked eye.

This morning we were tickled to see the bees returning to the hive with lots of pollen on their rear legs. Being a cycling family, it reminds us of panniers. Pollen panniers!

Here is a bee coming in to land with a full load of yellow pollen:

Image

And here is a bee laden with red pollen:

Image

The frames are filling up quickly with honey – the weight of some frames is noticeably heavier than it was a week ago.

We started our nucleus colony in just one hive box, but we’ll add a second box in a couple of weeks, when the number of bees should have increased. Then the bees should have plenty of space for brood and honey for the coming summer months.

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Bees!

Yesterday we took delivery of our long awaited and eagerly anticipated bees. After initially aiming to get a nucleus hive of Ligurian bees from Kangaroo Island, we ended up getting a local swarm collected several months ago by Peter from the Beekeepers Society.

Bees entering the hive

We’ve been interested in bees for a while, primarily for increased pollination in our garden but also for the honey. In winter, when we eat porridge virtually every day, we eat about a kilogram of honey a fortnight. Having our own supply of honey will be wonderful. We might even sell surplus honey at local markets.

Ben was absolutely fearless around the bees. Mostly because he hasn’t experienced the pain of a bee sting, but also presumably because of the protection from his full body bee suit.

Ben observing the bees close up

We visit our new bee hive many times per day to observe the bees going about their business. They are fascinating creatures, and they are going to be an important part of our permaculture journey.

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Me druthers

Wish I could spend all week in the garden! Here’s what I’d do (in no particular order)…

  • Shift a compost bin so that its contents can cheer up a feijoa tree that was transplanted a few months ago and has been a bit mopey about it.
  • Plant a mandarin tree where the compost bin is now.
  • Spread a lot of compost and manure under all the fruit trees, and top it with lucerne hay.
  • Add a bit of potash for the fruit trees.
  • Get over my mental block about spraying, and do a bit of targeted organic pest management.
  • Plant some more summer seed in punnets – chillies, eggplant (Rosa Bianca and Long Purple this time for a change from Black Beauty), butternut and golden nugget pumpkins, Roma tomatoes, basil, lettuce (it hasn’t done well direct in the soil this time – must have dried out here and there), capsicum (Purple Beauty), broccoli, radish, squash.
  • Plant some sweetcorn in a block direct in the garden.
  • Weed the verge garden – it doesn’t need much work now that native shrubs and groundcovers have filled most of it, but it gets a messy little grassy fringe just as all the flowers are looking their best (pink and cream pigface, blue flag flowers, hot pink geraniums, heirloom sweet peas in two-tone crimson and deep purple)
  • Treat everything to a drink of worm wee !
  • Tidy up around Andrew’s espaliered apple trees so that he can reach them for a nip and tuck.
  • Transform the backyard winter garden beds into summer ones… gradually out with the greens and in with the climbing tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, capsicums, chillies, rockmelon, watermelon, honeydew. Need to erect some trellis on the fences first, and feed that soil!!
  • Hill up the potatoes.
  • Stop now and then to celebrate the start of daylight saving with a sundowner on the porch.
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Thank you very mulch…

Just when I thought I’d make a blogging comeback, yet another camera has died. So my apologies for the lack of photos of utterly riveting recent events like…

  • Home brewing engineer-style (it’s precise, it’s methodical, it’s taking off)
  • The long-awaited return of the worms to their reconditioned bathtub worm farm. Yay!
  • Renovation of an ornamental native garden on the leafy side of town
  • All systems go for bees this spring… or maybe summer
  • New front garden design that’s all curves, baby
  • Frog pond. Ribbit. Just needs a few more rocks, some plants, and then tadpoles.
  • Slimline garden shed. It’s new, it’s shiny, and it’s got all my tools and stuff sorted. It fits on a side path and still leaves room for the wheelbarrow to get through. And it was cheap and fun to assemble.
  • The Trees the Postie Brought, now springing into life (that’s a Tropical Beauty apple and a Corella pear), along with a new persimmon and a couple more mandies. Seems Mum was right and you really can always squeeze in another fruit tree. (So far that’s 31 fruit trees, 2 passionfruit vines and 3 grapevines on a block that’s 400+ m2 including the house, and we haven’t even started seriously espaliering yet)
  • Marion Market stall 1st and 3rd Sunday morning of the month – Greenpatch organic seeds, fresh home-made muffins, cargo bikes, garden design and special guests (last week Rod with superb home-grown avocadoes)

Yeah, it’s been a quiet winter 😉

Actually I’ve been pretty preoccupied with researching gardening topics of interest and making an effort to observe and record some of what happens in our garden. I’ll share some more notes in upcoming posts. For now, here are some observations on mulching from the past few years:

Mulch discoveries at home…

  • Broad beans can grow through the winter right where you need mulch in late spring (e.g. under fruit trees, around perimeter of garden beds).  Slash and spread. You can even cut them twice and let them regrow for extra value. Dig them in as green manure or cover them with compost and pea straw…
  • Sweet peas grow happily up fences and sprawl over garden beds in late winter/early spring and are more mildew-resistant than other peas. The flowers are fragrant in the garden and useful as cut flowers. They also self-seed for the following year. When the flowers start to die off, the plants make heaps of great pea straw for mulch. This year they harboured millions of aphids though, and started to die off early. Great news if you’re a ladybird.
  • Council workers clearing up fallen trees will happily drop a load of fresh, fragrant mulch in your driveway if they are too busy to take it back to the depot between jobs. Share the love with the road verges and neighbours.
  • Fresh woody mulch may draw down too much nitrogen to be used on garden beds with hungry plants, but is perfect for mulched paths and over time will add lots of carbon to the soil and keep worms happy.
  • Pigface (native succulent ground cover with pink or yellow daisy-like flowers) is a great living mulch but can get very vigorous and compete with other plants. It’s easy to prune back with hedging shears, or remove by simply pulling out the runners, and cuttings or whole plants transplant readily (e.g. to neighbours’ verges). Best used away from other low-growing plants (under 45cm). Brilliant flowers in spring and occasionally through the year.
  • To suppress weeds, use thick cardboard (flattened cartons) overlapped by 10cm, then woody mulch on top. This is far more effective than just mulch as it blocks the light. However, cardboard breaks down very quickly under acidic mulch like pine chips, and then kikuyu and soursobs can make a resurgence. Still, it’s much easier to pull kikuyu from moist mulched soil than from dry exposed soil.
  • Sugar cane mulch is excellent around smaller seedlings as fine texture makes it easier to place between plants without smothering them. It does provide hidey places for slugs and snails though – combat them with beer traps and/or coffee spray or coffee grounds around the plants.
  • Beware of mulching too deeply if relying on rainwater or sprinklers – light watering can’t penetrate far through it and a deep soaking is needed so it doesn’t necessarily save water. Thick mulch is fine over drippers though. Pile it up on paths where it will compress and break down faster.
  • Native shrubs can provide much of their own mulch – give them a light haircut twice a year and leave the cuttings on the ground. Most of them respond with sturdy, bushy growth instead of becoming sparse and lanky.

…and in other people’s gardens…

  • A truckload of composted mulch is expensive (like over $500). Use it wisely.
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Filling the cavities

While we’re on the topic of energy efficiency and retrofitting … another really worthwhile thing we’ve done is insulate our wall cavities. 

Our house is one of the early brick veneer houses constructed in Adelaide. It has a brick on the outside and an early form of plasterboard (incorporating horse hair) on the inside. There’s a pretty hefty gap between the brick and the plasterboard, and we’ve filled that gap with Rockwool insulation. 

Rockwool is made from volcanic rock melted at high temperatures and spun into either batts, mats or loose clumps. I dread to think of the embodied energy of this product, but we preferred it to the fibreglass or cellulose alternatives, all things considered. 

In our case, loose Rockwool clumps were blown down into the wall cavities with a special hose, like a fire hose. The installers just lifted roof tiles above our walls and blew the Rockwool in. It only took a few hours. (We needed to do some preparatory work first though, like sealing up the old external wall vents, and removing internal fly screens from our old sash windows, so we could properly insulate under the windows.)

And boy, what a difference the insulation has made. Our place used to have freezing internal walls in winter, which sucked out any heat and kept the rooms really chilly. Now, the walls are much warmer, and we often notice that we need to turn heaters off because it gets too warm. It’s a really noticeable difference, and it makes a difference in summer too, and it helps suppress outside noise. It’s arguably one of the best retrofits we’ve done at our place.

Installing wall insulation is probably not the sort of thing which one would do if planning to move houses after only a few years. I guess that’s why so many houses are so poorly insulated – people don’t think it’s worth the money, so they put up with badly insulated homes which get really cold in winter and hot in summer. In our case, we’re planning to stay put, and we value the extra comfort as much as the reduction in heating and cooling costs.

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It’s a great SolaMate day

A couple of years ago we saw a New Inventors segment on the SolaMate, a new solar air heater designed by a chap in Melbourne.

There are other solar air heaters on the market, but they look boxy and ugly. SolaMate seemed to be an impressive new design with a slick looking panel, so we thought we’d give one a go. So we installed it ourselves next to our solar hot water and solar PV panels.

As well as the panel on the roof, the system includes a medical grade air filter, an air fan, insulated ductwork, ceiling mounted air diffusers (outlets) and a control panel. Our control panel is mounted on the wall in our kitchen, where we can review and adjust it easily. Our outlets are in rooms along the southern side of our house, which have always been colder in winter than rooms on the northern side.

We’ve had our SolaMate running for a couple of years now, and we’re really happy with it. Whenever the sun comes out on cool days, the panel blows warm air into our house. Importantly, the air is filtered, so it’s blowing in warm fresh air, which reduces winter stuffiness and condensation. And the southern rooms get noticeably warmer than they did before the SolaMate.

On very cold cloudy days when there’s no direct sunlight, the SolaMate doesn’t work well (and sometimes, it doesn’t work at all). A rule of thumb is that if you sit in your car outside with the windows up, and if the car doesn’t warm up, the SolaMate won’t work. If there’s enough warmth in the sunlight to heat the car up, the SolaMate will work also.

On autumnal days like today, which are cool but sunny, the SolaMate works like a charm.

We have a saying for such days: “It’s a great SolaMate day!”

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Eggs are always in season

Thanks to Mum and her nine lovely ladies in the backyard, we have a fairly continuous supply of beautiful, home-laid eggs.

Every now and then I crack one of these fine eggs and mix the yolk with some milk, vanilla, sugar and cornflour in a saucepan to make a quick custard. I had never made a baked custard in my life. But suddenly the other morning, when the pizza oven was still “hot” (about 100C) from a roast the night before, it occurred to me to try it. I dug out Mum’s ancient recipe books – the kind that have a whole column of the index devoted to Invalid Cookery (Fricassee of Brains; Tripe and Onions, etc.) – and found a recipe for Plain Baked Custard.

And while the rest of my family went on a long bike ride, rescued a fallen cyclist with concussion and returned home feeling cold and tired but virtuous, I whipped up second breakfast and felt, well actually, hungry most of that time. Because as it turns out, 100C in a pizza oven is no substitute for the 400F specified, even if you do leave it in there for TWO FREAKING HOURS! While 10 minutes on Defrost in the microwave turns out to be just sweet perfection after those two hours of waiting and salivating and checking. Honestly, this custard was so light, delicate, perfectly set and utterly soul-nourishing that I had to eat the lot and destroy the evidence before the family came home.

So here it is – my first and hopefully last microwave recipe:

PLAIN BAKED CUSTARD (adapted from ‘Cooking the Electric Way’ 2nd edition, 1950-something by Edith Kinnear, Joyce Johnsen, Beryl H. Young and M. Jane Willington). Do you suppose I’ll live to see a new generation of Ediths, Joyces, Beryls and Janes? Imagine them all with their little backpacks and hats on for their first day at school…

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • dash of vanilla essence (no-one had vanilla beans in the ’50s, did they? Or microwaves for that matter)
  • nutmeg

METHOD

  • Beat eggs and sugar, add essence
  • Warm milk (microwave in a heatproof jug) and pour over eggs, mix well.
  • Pour into a greased pie dish; grate (or just sprinkle) a little nutmeg over the top.
  • Microwave on lowest setting until almost set – give it a few minutes at a time; then allow to cool to just lukewarm if you can possibly wait that long.
  • Serve with a very sharp, old-fashioned silver teaspoon to appreciate its silky smooth set texture.
  • Lovely with good old-fashioned preserved fruit too.

Andrew's 'dome tent' versions of chook dome, c.2005, with annexe.

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Life beyond Pizza

Yes, there is! Amazing, eh? Of course, it still includes the pizza oven. Here’s how…

POACHED QUINCES

Apparently quinces have a short season. And hardly anyone grows them any more. So I was impressed when both my Mum (who doesn’t grow them, even though she grows everything) and some people I barely knew turned up bearing quinces on the same day. We had friends over for dinner that night, and had neither time nor energy left over to supervise pots of quinces on the stove for hours to make jelly or paste. What we did have was residual heat in the wood oven after cooking tandoori chicken and Andrew’s bread. Hey presto (or should I say larghissimo) – poached quinces. They were piping hot, sweet and ruby red at breakfast time, all ready to serve with fresh porridge, yogurt and honey – mmm, bring on winter!!

  • INGREDIENTS: Quinces, sugar, water, cloves.
  • Wash quinces, rubbing the brownish down off the skin.
  • Cut into quarters or eighths, depending on size, and cut out cores. Try to get all the grainy core bits out. A heavy cleaver and a sharp little pointy knife helped here – I had never realised how hefty a fruit this is, and my apple corer would not have been up to the task.
  • Boil kettle.
  • Pack quinces into a baking dish. Sprinkle generously with sugar and 2/3 fill dish with boiling water. Drop a few cloves into the water.
  • Cover tightly with foil and leave in low oven overnight.
  • Could be bottled in sterilised jars if organised enough when you wake up. They do look gorgeous. Easier to just eat them though 🙂
  • Skin peels off easily after cooking so no need to bother peeling first.

Another happy discovery about wood oven cooking is the value of charcoal. If the oven is closed up with plenty of coals still burning, we are sometimes left with enough charcoal to cook another meal next time we fire up – not enough to reach the heat required for pizza, but sufficient for tonight’s fish, for example.

I adapted Luke Nguyen’s recipe for Chargrilled lemongrass Telopea fish, using a baby barramundi that Mum gave me today, and substituting lemon verbena and lemon thyme for the lemongrass in the stuffing, since our lemongrass is sulking after I divided it and transplanted it all over the place. It worked pretty well wrapped in alfoil and baked on the oven floor, but I would still like to try it as per the original recipe, wrapped in lemongrass and grilled over the hot coals, for a more crisp, salty, smoky skin.

So, Easter projects ahoy! Time to really, truly finish off once and for all those raised garden beds that have been languishing in the backyard for months. Transplant some as-yet-fruitless feijoas into the sunshine on the verge to see whether they might fruit there (or whether they are the ornamental type) – OK in any case as they can still be useful by helping to shelter the baby avocado tree from the wind. And perhaps we’ll cook a bit of pizza to wash down with the homebrew. It’s a hard life.

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The Rise in the Yeast

In recent weeks, I’ve made forays into two yeasty areas in which I dabbled briefly a long time ago, and which I now want to develop much further: beer brewing and bread baking.

Partly it’s a financial thing. I resent being charged over $20 for a six pack of beer stubbies, and a good loaf of bread is nudging $5. That really adds up. Partly it’s a case of having the pizza oven cranking regularly, and wanting to extend oven fired goodies beyond pizza and roasted veggies. And partly it’s to satisfy the desire to make more basic and high quality foods with my own hands.

What are

more basic human needs than bread and beer?

My approach towards both is essentially the same:

      • get quick runs on the board using partially prepared “kits”, and then
        • gradually work backwards towards first principles

        With the beer, I initially brewed a good quality extract beer, based on the Little Creatures Pale Ale. We’re just enjoying the first batch now, and boy, it’s surprisingly good. Even Nadja (who rarely drinks beer, and even then, only “girl friendly” wheat beers) and my mother-in-law (a virtual teetotaler) like this beer. I’m staggered, and I’m already brewing my second beer batch: a Hoegaarden style wheat beer with infusions of orange peel and coriander seed. It’s bubbling away in our laundry now and it smells delicious. My third batch will be a rich stout based on Southwark Old Stout, to see me through the winter months.

        My plan is to work towards “all grain” brewing, whereby I’ll crush malted grains, steep them in hot water to remove the sugars, then boil the liquid (“wort”) with various hops and infusions to achieve the beer styles I’m after, and then doing the usual fermentation. It’s quite technical but I think it promises the possibility of some excellent quality beers. A lifelong journey, I’m sure.

        With bread, my first effort was with a good quality bread mix, which turned out really well last night in the pizza oven. Much better than the bland loaves I did years ago, and certainly a good replacement for commercial bread. I have an excellent bread book with recipes for hundreds of great recipes, and I have some family bread baking heritage to draw upon, (not to mention a great wood fired oven), so again it’s going to be a lifelong journey.

        I just hope that I don’t decide to adopt a low carb diet. And I need to make sure I don’t become a fat bastard.

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