About Tina

I’ve gardened in Austin, Texas (zone 8b) since 1985. I garden with low maintenance, native and well-adapted non-native plants to conserve water and reduce workload. I also choose plants which attract wildlife to my gardens. I’ve completed the Travis County Master Gardener and Grow Green program (through the city of Austin). I’ve volunteered for a number of public and private gardens, as well as consulted and designed for private individuals. Formerly, I managed Shay’s Green Garden at Zilker Botanical Gardens and Howson Library Garden for the City of Austin. My garden is a certified Monarch Waystation and a Wildlife Habitat.I blog about my garden adventures at: http://www.mygardenersays.com I love blooming things and the critters they attract. Tina Huckabee

Cousins!

Spring just isn’t spring in my garden without the sunshine-cheery Golden groundselPackera obovata. 

The small patch has grown from two, four-inch pot sized plants popped into the ground four or five years ago to a respectable sized carpet with a seasonal  yellow flourish.  Also called Roundleaf goundsel, Roundleaf ragwort, and Squawweed, this native North American perennial is an excellent shade-loving ground-cover.  The foliage is attractive year-round  and the happy daisy flowers brighten the late winter/early spring garden.

In recent weeks and at the opposite end of my property from the groundsel, I’ve watched a singular plant growing in the middle of a mulched pathway.   The foliage is certainly interesting, but unfamiliar.

I enjoy surprises in the garden (well, not all of them…), so I decided I’d keep–or not–the plant once it bloomed and I could better identify it.  Well, the mystery plant has finally unfurled its flowers.

Clearly, this pretty is a relative of the Golden groundsel, though obviously a different sub-species.  I checked the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Database and it didn’t take long to discover that it is a ButterweedPackera glabella.  Also called Cress-leaf groundsel and Yellowtop (my favorite), it evokes the same spirit of spring as its cousin, the Golden groundsel.

The flowers are almost identical.

Yellowtop (Packera glabella)

Golden groundsel (Packera obovata)

 

Both plants exhibit interesting foliage.  The Golden’s base foliage is oval (thus the  ’round-leaf’ in several of its common names) and finely serrated.  Its bloom-stalk foliage is more lance-like and deeply lobed.

The Yellowtop’s foliage is also rounded and deeply lobed, but with smooth perimeters. The differential in leaf color between the two plants is primarily because of light and the different times of day that I shot the photos, though the Yellowtop is a smidge lighter green than the Golden groundsel.

I have no idea where this single Yellowtop came from and especially in the spot in which it grows.  While the Golden groundsel prefers shade (mine gets a bit of afternoon sun) and is a perennial evergreen, the Yellowtop is an annual which thrives in either sun or shade.  The LBJWC says that it is a prolific re-seeder and I hope they’re right because I’d love more of this little spring thing sprinkled in my gardens next year.

All in the family:  plant cousins book-ending my home garden–Golden groundsel,

…and Yellowtop.

Hello Spring!

 

Sugared Bees, Anyone?

Sugared honeybees.

Don’t close your reader, you have no worries that I’m about to pass along some trendy recipe that I read about on Epicurious or that I’m planning to  promote some cool restaurant which serves sweet bees. Instead, sugared honeybees are all about Bee Daddy’s and my attempt at responsible bee keeping.  The varroa destructor mite is one of several pests which plague honeybees (and their keepers), but is arguably the worst of the lot.  Varroa mites reproduce in honeybee hives by laying eggs on the bee larvae after the larvae cell is capped.  The mites leave the cell along with the young adult bees and spread their menace throughout the hive–and beyond.  Varroa mites spread viruses and other diseases which can disable bees and eventually, cause hives to collapse.

There are honeybees which have proven resistant to varroa mites because of their fastidious grooming habits.  BeeWeaver Apiaries touts their bees as varroa resistant and we have certainly had good fortune with our BeeWeaver bees, though we lost a hive, Mufasa, in December 2015 because of a mite overload which we didn’t initially recognize until the bees were so diseased that they died.  Even BeeWeaver bees occasionally succumb to varroa infestations and because of that, going forward in our beekeeping endeavors, we’ve committed to checking our bees the recommended four times per year.

We could check for varroa mites using an alcohol wash, but bees would die in the process and this Bee Mama just can’t do that.  So, sugared bees, specifically powdered sugared bees, it is!

We’ve read about the varroa check ‘sugar roll’ and watched a couple of how-to videos.  Last week during our twice-monthly hive check, we sweetened the pot, or rather, the hive, to check for varroa.

Powdered sugar is the ticket to coating bees and we made our own by pulverizing granular sugar to fine in a blender.  Everything we learned suggested that the corn starch in commercial powdered sugar isn’t great for bees (though I never found out exactly why), but making the powdered sugar was a breeze. We gathered our sugar-roll paraphernalia,

…which included a container in which to dump bees for the check, the powdered sugar, a half-cup measure, a glass container with a net fitted over the top, and a white paper plate for the final look-see for varroa mites.

With equipment on hand and from each of our three hives, one at a time, we pulled a frame with capped and uncapped brood and nurse bees in attendance, since that’s the most likely place to see varroa happenings.

We looked thoroughly for each queen on each frame–rolling your queen is not a great idea, because she could die in the process–not likely, but a possibility.    The directions state to check for varroa with ‘1/2 cup bees, lightly packed’ as that equals about 300 bees and is a good number on which  to base a mite count.   The process is to pull the frame and tap it so that bees fall into a container.

We quickly scooped the bees into the half-cup measuring cup and plopped them into the jar with a couple of tablespoons of powered sugar ready and waiting to cover bees.

Bee Daddy rolled the bees-in-jar for a minute or so and then allowed it to sit for a minute or so.  We placed another tablespoon of sugar through the mesh and repeated the process.

Another set of shakes over the white plate allowed the sugar–and any mites therein–to fall off of the bees (the sugar makes the bees slippery) and on to the plate where they’re visible. I sprayed the plate with water prior to the shake, then again once sugar was on the plate, just to make the visual clearer.

 

It’s not all that obvious from the photo, but a mite (from Woody) is the middle of the plate.

 

Once we’d rolled, poured and checked, it was time to deliver our sugar-sweet and annoyed bees back into their respective hives.

I can only imagine, knowing how much honeybees like sweet stuff, that these sugared bees are the hives’ inhabitants BBFF–Best Bee Friends Forever–as they come back into the hives.

The mite count in our hives was excellent:  Buzz had no visible mites in the check (though realistically, there are probably mites somewhere in Buzz), Woody had only one mite, and Scar had three  mites.  That’s a good start to our season.  We’ll check again in June, in August and in October/November.  It wasn’t hard to check for varroa, though it’s one more duty we must add to our repertoire of beekeeper activities.

While we were nose-deep into our hives, we also performed a general check.  We found some more queen cells in both Buzz and Woody (as I described in Tight Quarters) and also, interestingly, some supersedure queen cells in Buzz.  No photos, I’m afraid, because this was toward the end of our lengthy hive doings and my hands and gloves were simply too sticky with honey-goo to work with a camera. (Have you ever cleaned a camera after taking photos with honeyed-fingers?) Because we’re working quickly, there’s no time for the niceties like washing hands. You can see a photo of supersedure cells here.  So what is this kind of cell? It’s an emergency queen cell and found in the middle of a frame, rather than at the bottom, like a “normal” spring swarming queen cell.  And what does it mean?  It means that either Buzz’s queen is dead, injured, or simply so weak that the hive decided they need to make another queen ASAP.  And what did we do?  Nothing.  We decided to leave the four supersedure cells that we found and we’ll see what happens.  We’re learning as we go and willing to take some risks. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

The queen who emerges first will kill the others.  Honeybees live an Apis Game of Thrones kind of life and there’s never a dull moment.

Stay tuned…

Scar, I’m please to state, was a revelation!  In our first hive check of the year, back in late January/early February, and chronicled in Ramping Up, we didn’t find any brood in Scar and determined that the queen had died.  We decided not to re-queen her and let the workers live out their days, as we have  two healthy Langstroth hives (Buzz and Woody). For the varroa check, which we felt obligated to do for Scar, we pulled up several top-bars and found a perfect laying pattern of capped brood! (In fact, a better laying pattern than we viewed in either Buzz or Woody.)  Scar lives!  She is alive and well with a strong queen–at least for now.  Scar, in bee keeping vernacular, is queen-right.  

Since Scar looks good, we opted to try a new method of small hive beetle trap. Scar has always struggled with hive beetles, though generally, has proved strong enough that the beetles are more of a nuisance, than a real threat.  We’ve purchased special hive trays that are placed in between frames (or in Scar’s case, top bars).  There are slats at the top in which we poured a commercial oil, made for bee hives, into the slats.

The bees are too large to get into the holes, but the beetles are just the right size and oil is attractive to them.

Drown, beetles, drown!

I’ve spoken with several bee keepers who swear by this method of integrated pest management for their hives, so we think this method is worth a shot.  We’ll see if it works to lower the beetle count in Scar.  So far, neither Buzz or Woody have had more than a few beetles, but hive beetles are common in most Texas honeybee hives.

Our honeybees.  It’s been a busy season so far and they never fail to keep things wild and keep us on our toes.

The drama continues…

 

Tight Quarters

Several weeks ago and for the second time this season, Bee Daddy and I checked our honeybee hives, Buzz and Woody.  We knew that we needed to peek in on the girls, but weather and schedule conflicts conspired to repeatedly delay the inspection.  Toward the end of a weekend where rain was forecast, but had yet to materialize, I impulsively opened the lid to Buzz and was astonished to find busy bees jam-packed up against the lid–comb built horizontally, rather than vertically–and nurse bees tending plenty of larvae.  In other words, the bees were so packed in and crowded, that there was no more room along the frames for the queen to lay eggs.

Overcrowding in a honeybee hive is what will cause the bees to procreate or reproduce   another hive. SWARM!!

Oops!  We realized we’d better hop to it and to check things out before Buzz and/or Woody initiated a swarm.  A honeybee hive is a superorganism consisting of many individuals, but who function as a whole organism.  Individual honeybees don’t mate and reproduce, they have a queen who mates and lays eggs and that’s her only function. The workers are all of the other honeybees who keep the organism, the “hive,” clean, fed, and productive.   If a hive becomes crowded to the point where the queen has difficulty finding places to lay eggs, the bees will produce another queen. The original queen will leave the hive to form a new one, taking roughly half of the workers with her. Two queens, two hives–that’s honeybee reproduction.

I knew that with our spring blossoms in full swing that the bees had been crazy busy with nectar and pollen gathering, but I didn’t realize just how successful they’d been.  While I’m not anti-swarm, I’d rather my hives not swarm because we’d lose half of our workers and we don’t know where the gone girls would end up–they might land in unfriendly hands.  To control the situation, we quickly donned our bee suits, fired up the smoker, and got to work controlling nature.

We all know how well that usually turns out.

Once we opened Buzz and  Woody, our first order of business was to scrape away the rogue comb with larvae and to disposed of it.  I hated to do that, but we can’t allow the bees continue building there because it would make subsequent checks impossible.  So scrape we did.  I don’t have photos of that stuffed-wherever-they-had-room-to-build-it comb, but after we cleaned it up, we began pulling out frames to check for brood and also, to check for queen cells: remember that, it will be important later.  In both hives there was beautiful egg laying pattern in many of the combs,  with both capped and uncapped brood. The flatter capped brood are those that will become valuable female workers.

The area of no capped brood in this photo is where I placed a rubber band after having broken the comb in the previous hive check.

There was also capped brood of drones, or male bees.  The drone eggs are usually laid at the sides and bottoms of the frames and, once capped, are larger and rounded.

The only job for a drone bee is to mate with the queen–that’s it.  Drones don’t gather pollen, they don’t gather nectar, they don’t take care of baby bees; they do nothing toward the good of the hive.  They mate with the the queen and that’s all they do. That’s fine in the real world, but our queens are mated when we purchase them, so drones in our hives are superfluous.

Sorry guys, you’re worthless deadbeats.  You eat the food, you sit on the comb, you watch bee TV, and you don’t do a damn thing.

Actually, we generally allow our drones to live because the honeybees we purchase (BeeWeaver Apiaries) are varroa resistant and that’s a good genetic quality to send out into the world. The drones from our hives potentially mate with “wild” honeybees and that ability to rid themselves of Varroa destructor mites is a powerful and positive genetic component to pass on.

Buzz  and Woody were so full that we added another brood box to each; both now have two brood boxes, with room to grow.  To Buzz we also added a shallower top box called a dadant box; it will be only for comb and honey.  How do we keep the queen from moving into this top box and laying eggs?  We added a queen exlcuder (a metal frame laid horizontally atop the second brood, now middle, box),  between that brood box and the new dadant box. Only the worker bees can enter the dadant–the slats are too narrow for the larger queen to get through.

The workers will build comb and make honey, but with no queen in that box, there will be no eggs: all honey, all the time.  I don’t expect honey for quite a while from Buzz, but we hope to extract some by the end of this season.

In opening these cramped hives, we knew that there was a possibility that the honeybees had begun the swarming process by creating one, or more, queen cells.  Sure enough, we saw several in both hives like this:

The queen cell is that bulbous thing at the bottom of the frame. The other capped brood are regular workers. There are also a number of uncapped larvae–I call them “squishies.”

Queen cells are  oblong and peanut-shaped and  usually placed at the bottom of a frame; they are distinctive from all the other capped brood.  There is another type of queen cell besides the overcrowding sort; remember that, it will be important later. Since we have laying queens, we snipped off each queen cell that we saw.  In theory,  the queens are laying eggs well, we’ve added brood boxes, thus giving both hives more space to grow, so the honeybees shouldn’t swarm.

Fingers-crossed.

The bees were cranky about the intrusion and our having turned their homes inside-out, but by nightfall,  all had marched back into their respective hives.

 

That same weekend, I finally processed the honey that I’d removed from Scar, our original hive, which I wrote about at the end of my last Bee Mama post.  I crunched the comb and dripped as much honey as feasible into four, 12 ounce jars.

Fall honey!!

As has been my practice, I laid out the rest of the pulverized comb with plenty of honey still available for the bees to enjoy.

By the end of the next day, there was only dry comb left.  I think bees like honey, what do you think?

That check took place almost three weeks ago.  We’ve checked again this past Sunday, with interesting results.

Stay tuned….