Farmer Ben Answers Your Questions
Question: Hi Farmer Ben, This is Michael, a student of yours from the Edible Schooyard. I have recently gotten into bee keeping (I have four “top-bar” hives) and I am doing my 8th Grade “I-Search” research project on bees. Here are some questions I have for you:May 24, 2012
M: How did you get into keeping bees?
FB: My dad has been keeping bees since the 1960′s. I was sucked in to beekeeping as a kid. I’ve been helping him manage our bees since I was a kid. I wasn’t that interested in it until I was out of college and back in CA, working at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.
M: How successful was your first hive?
FB: I didn’t keep my own hives until I lived in Berkeley in my mid twenties. I was very successful at hiving swarms and ended up giving many of my hives to my dad or selling them to others interested in starting to keep bees. I didn’t keep those bees for more than a year or two, but I would say they were very successful.
M: Why do you use Langstroth hives?
FB: We use Langstroth hives because they are easy to move around, easy to manage and control, and most importantly, it’s easy to extract honey from them mechanically (we use a twenty-frame electric extractor).
M: What breed of bee do you have and why?
FB: We have a lot of wild bees in our colonies’ gene pool so it’s difficult to know which breed of Apis mellifera they are. When we buy queens (which we do occasionally), we normally buy Russian Carniolan because they are very tough and disease-resistant.
M: have you ever had a mess up? and what did you do to fix it?
FB: We mess up all the time, primarily because we are managing a lot of hives (30-40). Often we don’t get to our hives to add material soon enough and they swarm. Also, sometimes we don’t get to our hives to take material off soon enough in the Fall and they become weak and sick. Also, sometimes when we are “hiving” a swarm, we don’t capture the queen or she dies in transit and we lose the colony. Last summer I caught the edge of a tractor implement on a hive stand and flipped the hive upside-down. That was a serious mess up! I guess you have to live and learn.
M: With all the other bee keepers out there is it hard to sell your honey?
FB: No. We have to make sure we don’t sell it too fast and run out before extracting again to get more. Our honey is primarily Black Sage honey and is highly sought after.
M: Are your bees affected by the people in the surrounding area using
FB: Not as far as we are aware. We are in Big Sur and are pretty isolated from other peoples homes or agricultural areas.
M: Does colony collapse disorder effect you?
FB: Maybe. We aren’t totally sure. CCD is very hard to identify. We have definitely observed dead colonies with very few bees left inside. This is one of the tell tale signs of CCD…
M: Do mites and pests affect your hive(s)?
FB: Yes, we have been struggling with Varroa mites since the early 1990′s. We lost all of our hives except for 1 in 1992 due to Varroa infestation.
M: Do you wear a suit?
FB: Yes. You don’t have to if you open your colonies regularly and they are accustomed to you. We often don’t check on our hives for a few weeks to a few months at a time and need to make sure we are protected. I have been stung enough times already I even put duct tape on my sleeves and pant cuffs to keep the bees out!
M: Is there one plant type (lavender,clover,nut trees, fruit trees)
the majority of your bees pollinate?
FB: Our bees feed primarily on the CA Black Sage, Salvia mellifera or “honey sage” this time of year, but they feed on many different species throughout the year. We grow citrus, berries, apples, pears and stone fruit on our farm and the bees are very helpful with pollination.
M: Do you see think the area around you is more plant rich because of
FB: I’m not sure. As a non-native, invasive species, honey bees compete aggressively with native pollinators. If honey bees were not around, there would be more native pollinators and those species would probably do just as good of a job at pollinating the native plants.
M: do you know any neighbors that dislike the fact that you keep bees
and why (if not why do they like it)?
FB: Not really. Most people like our honey and are far enough away from our farm to not be bothered by them. They like the honey and many of them use it for building immunity to local allergens.
M: Do you use anything to help your hive(chemicals,foods,antibiotics…)?
FB: We are using an organic approved miticide right now called Formic acid – naturally found in ants, which repels the Varroa mites. We also feed our hives sugar water and botanical essences during the colder, shorter days of the year (October-March) to build they immunity to diseases.
M: If you could start over would you do something differently?
FB: I think beekeeping is problematic because it involves encouraging an invasive, exotic species, which I have been trained think of as negative. I’d like to learn more about encouraging native pollinators in agriculture. Maybe I’d only have a couple hives of honey bees instead of 30+.
M: Do the stings affect you as much as they did before?
FB: I have been stung hundreds of times throughout my life, but I actually had my first allergic reaction to bee stings last Summer. Since then, I have had very little reaction to stings.
M: What do you think the main factors in the decrease of bees is result of?
FB: Monocultural agriculture, transporting bees over long distances, feeding them corn and soy products that are not their natural foods. When bees have balanced, diversified diets (i.e. lots of different species’ flowers to feed upon), then they don’t get sick as easily (just like us!).
M: How has bee keeping changed you as a person?
FB: I have become a community resource, an expert of sorts, with regard to understanding how pollinators (native and non-native) affect our environment and food sources. I have read voraciously on the topic and lead seasonal beekeeping workshops with my dad on our farm. Click here for more information.
M: How much honey do you eat a week?
FB: Not too much. I like it in the winter time in tea with lemon juice to fight off colds. I also like it on toast or goat cheese with figs I probably only consume a tablespoon a week. I have eaten a lot of honey though! Especially when I was a kid. I don’t have allergies and I don’t get sick very often. Eating honey probably has something to do with that.
Best of luck on your project, Michael. I’m happy to help!
Question: Dear Farmer Ben, This year I am growing a variety of vegetables from seed. It will be fun to watch the progress of the little seedlings as I experiment with different soils and growing vessels: the ground, wine barrels, galvanized tub. In the galvanized tub there are radishes, basil and broccoli rabe. Oddly enough, only in this tub are the leaves getting decimated at night. There are quite a few “rollie-pollie” bugs in the soil, are they eating my vegetables? Thanks, AdamMay 24, 2012
First of all, leaves getting munched at night is very common. Normally, this is due to snails and slugs. If you see slime around or on your plants, it’s probably one of the two. The woodlice, or “rollie-polies,” are probably not the issue as they normally eat decaying plant matter. If your plants are extremely weak, they might eat them but it is unlikely. Shady, wet gardens often have a lot of woodlice. You might want to consider watering less in order to keep them away…
Snails and slugs are difficult to get rid of entirely, but here are a few things you can do to deter them:
1. Go out in to your garden at night with a flashlight. Look for snails and slugs around your plants and crush them.
2. Put a copper barrier around your plants. Snails and slugs will not cross copper because it gives them an electric shock.This is easy to do in raised beds. You can buy copper tape at your local nursery and ring your entire bed with it, making sure there are no places when the snails and slugs can get through. If you are gardening without raised beds, you can also buy thin sheets of copper and make little rings around each plant. Most plants are only vulnerable at the beginning of their lives. The copper can be moved around to your youngest, most delicate plants after the current ones mature for a few more weeks
3. Crush egg shells and scatter them around your plants (the “gastropod” or belly – foot of the slugs and snails will get cut by the jagged shells and they will avoid crossing it).
4. Place cups of beer around your plants. Submerge the cup so that the lip is at ground level. The snails and slugs with crawl in and drown in the beer!
I hope this helps!
This is a great question (and a hotly debated one too!). First of all, let’s define cover crop. A cover crop is any crop (or mixture of crops) that are grown to improve the soil. Legumes (bean and peas) are often used for Nitrogen fixation. Grasses (grains like wheat, oats, barley, rye) are grown to prevent erosion and increase the penetration of air into the soil. I always like to throw in some wildflower seed or old vegetable seed just to see what comes up.
Once your cover crop has grown for a few months (usually it is sown in the late Fall and tilled-in in the late Spring), you need to decide what kind of plants you are going to plant after the cover crop. If you are going to grow annual vegetables, you should turn in your cover crop when it is about 50% in flower. If you wait longer than that, the plant starts to pull Nitrogen back up from its roots for seed formation and takes longer to break down and release into the soil. If you are going to plant perennials (herbs, flowers, berries, fruit trees, etc.) it’s fine to wait to turn the cover crop in for a few more weeks. The more woody and fibrous a plant is, the longer it takes to decompose which offers a slow release of nutrients to adjacent plants.
Other considerations with turning in cover crops include providing food for pollinators and saving seed. It is often very hard to cut down your cover crop when it is covered with bees, butterflies and ladybugs. Also, if you are interested in harvesting some seed from your cover cropped area, then letting it mature or “senesce,” is essential before chopping it down.
I hope this helps.