Flannel Jammies Farm

...praising God on our 1/5 acre of suburbia

Sunday, March 8, 2015

first hive check of the season...

It's been a long and cold winter.  Really cold.  Record-breaking cold for our area of Virginia that lasted and lasted, punctuated with days and days of snow and ice.  Since we started keeping bees, winter has become a time to worry about the bees and to be lonely for them.   Is it too cold?  We do provide extra insulation on the most bitter nights, but is it enough?  Do they have enough ventilation to prevent condensation?  We use screened bottom boards and screened inner covers, but is it enough?  Are their honey stores holding out?  We slipped some of their honey to them on the warmer of the cold days, but is it enough?  How many hives will we lose to this cold, lonely season?

This year we did lose some bees, but thankfully we have strong hives emerging, too.  The last couple of days here have been so warm and sunny.  Bees have been flying and drinking water and gathering pollen.  (And getting stuck in my hair...)  Today's temperatures were warm enough for us to do our first hive check of the season.

We chose a Langstroth hive for today's check, put on our suits, and lifted the lid.  There, happily buzzing and sharing and working, were so many beautiful bees!  We went through each hive box, looking for warning signs of disease and pests and queen cells.  I am delighted to report that this hive seems quite strong and healthy!  We did not spot the Queen, but we saw eggs and larvae in all stages, along with capped brood, colorful pollen, and honey stores.  We no longer mark our Queens following an unfortunate marking job... I just can't seem to get the hang of it.  We noted bees fanning and building and transferring nectar one-to-another through their proboscises (their strawlike "tongue").  We watched with renewed wonder, blessed to be back in the bee yard.  We scraped excess and erratically placed honeycomb and propolis (the sticky, resinous mixture the bees use to seal the hive), placed the frames back in the boxes, stacked the boxes back together, and gently closed the lid. 

These amazing creatures bless us so much!  They pollinate our plants, they provide honey and wax for our homestead, and they are fascinating to observe!
The one on the right seems to be saying, "Oh, no... my little sister is following me..."

Please forgive all the photos... 
new grandmas' photos are NOTHING 
compared to what a Bee Mama can snap and store! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

solar wax melter (mis)adventure...

What’s an urban homesteader to do in Winter?  Well, here at Flannel Jammies Farm we’ve been battling flu, celebrating holidays, eating too much, planning new raised beds, checking on our honey bees, taking inventory of canned goods, moving the mini greenhouse, pouring over seed catalogs, making salves and balms, stitiching, AND helping our darling daughter plan her Spring wedding!  Winter is a good time to complete nagging projects or reflect on a previous project.
Since we started keeping bees we’ve been collecting beeswax from stray and wonky comb and queen cells built by our overzealous workers, from the scraps left from uncapping and scraping comb to reveal the sweet honey for extraction, and from comb that was damaged.  We’d take beeswax scraps, place them in containers, and store them in the freezer until we figured out what to do with the wax.  Well, the ratio of beeswax to food quickly grew in our freezer.  Something had to be done!  We started to research rendering wax for use in candles, salves, balms, for waxing thread and cloth, and soon found that (just like beekeeping) if you ask 3 people how to do something and you’ll get 4 opinions!  We visited a dear friend and beekeeping mentor to watch her process of melting and straining wax.  We watched too many YouTube videos.  We investigated retail offerings of solar melters.  Then we took all of that research and came up with a project plan:  we’d build a solar wax melter!

Come along on our journey, learn from our mistakes, tweak our process, and build your own solar melter!  Here are the steps we took…

Create a wax strainer/separator/holding pan to place inside your solar wax melter.  You’ll need a pan or baking dish and a screen that covers the top of the pan completely.  We used an ancient Corning-ware baking dish and an old window screen that fit together nicely, both unearthed from our possessions.

(LESSON 1:  Plan and build your solar wax melter FIRST, then find a pan and screen to fit inside.  Items can be scavenged from your home or found at your local thrift store.  If you assemble the pan and screen first, then build the melter, you may end up with a melter the size of your dining room table… don’t ask how I know this…)

Add about an inch of water to the pan/dish (this will allow the clean wax to ‘float’ after melting making it easy to remove and not permanently adhered to your pan/dish).  Tape the screen to the top of the pan/dish.  Red duct tape seemed like a swanky choice.  Atop the screen, spread a couple of layers of paper towel (this will be unusable following the melting process, so a cloth towel is not a good choice).  Make sure the paper towel fits nicely and covers the screen surface above the pan/dish.  Set your newly created wax strainer/separator aside and move on to washing your wax.

Wax scraps are messy!  They are sticky from nectar, pollen, and honey, and are strewn with dearly departed bees or bee bits.  This will not do!  We want our finished wax to be clean and bright and free of all foreign matter.  Next job:  wash the wax!  We spread our wax scraps onto a screen and sprayed them with water.  

(LESSON 2:  Do this in an area far from your hives, lest lots of bee friends join you and snack on the sticky buffet you’ve set before them.) 

After this first rinse, the wax scraps went into a 5-gallon bucket for repeated spraying, stirring, and draining.  This process removes the sticky honey and larger bee bits and debris.  Drain the wax scraps well.

Carefully pile the wax scraps atop the paper towel covered screen attached to the dish. 

Ready to melt!  Um.  We don’t have a solar wax melter yet.  Hhmmm….

Maybe the hot interior of the Suzuki Samarai parked in the sun would work!  Ok.  Place your wax strainer/separator pan/dish thing in the level back portion of the interior of your 1986 Samarai.  Add a thermometer to gauge the temperature and close the door.  Wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Now remove the wax strainer/separator still mounded with unmelted wax from your 1986 Samarai.

(LESSON 3:  Build the solar melter before beginning to work with the beeswax.  A Suzuki Samarai will not work.)

The hubs built a solar wax melter that would hold our rather large wax strainer/separator pan/dish thing (and a complete Thanksgiving dinner).  Our solar wax melter was constructed from oriented strand board, 4-sides and a bottom.  The sides were angled to efficiently catch the hot rays of the sun.  The dimensions of our solar wax melter were determined by the large glass window we used as the top, again a piece unearthed from our “treasures”.  The inside of our solar wax melter is painted black to absorb the heat.  We recommend adding foam weather stripping, folded cloth, or some other material to the top edges of the 4 sides of the solar wax melter; this will provide a seal between the wood and the glass top, keeping heat inside. 

NOW, place the beeswax-mounded wax strainer/separator pan/dish thing into the solar wax melter on a hot, sunny day, being careful not to spill the water in the bottom of the pan/dish.  Close the glass top securely.

(LESSON 4:  A smaller wood-framed window, hinged to a smaller solar wax melter box, would produce a more manageable and easier-to-store model.)

Pretty soon, the sun’s hot rays begin to melt the wax.  As the wax melts, the paper towels between the wax and the screen filter out any impurities, allowing clean, bright wax to flow into the water in the pan/dish below.  Occasionally rotate the solar wax melter to keep up with the movement of the sun across the sky.  By the end of the day, all the wax has melted and filtered into the pan/dish, leaving the unwanted debris behind on the paper towels.

LEAVE EVERYTHING ALONE overnight.  This time allows the filtered wax to cool and harden while floating in the water in the pan/dish.

The next day, open the solar wax melter.  Gently lift the (disgustingly dirty and sticky) paper toweling from the screen; discard.  Untape the screen and remove. 

There, floating freely atop  the water in the pan/dish is the most beautifully clean and golden beeswax, ready for use! 

(LESSON 5:  Don’t store your hunk of gorgeous wax on an easel in a sunny room for all to admire; it goes a bit wavy.  Again, don’t ask…)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

a paper cone wreath tutorial for Autumn...

You've seen them, right?  Those lovely paper cone wreaths all over Pinterest?  We even made them at our church's Advent Workshop last year using old, damaged hymnals.

Recently I was tidying up in the art room and unearthed an unopened package of heavy, double-sided, Autumn-colored printed paper.  It screamed, "Create a wreath with me!"  So I did!

I first cut the 12"x12" papers into 6"x6" squares.  With a long-practiced move, I shaped each square into a cone, securing the cone with dabs of hot glue.  If you do this, do be careful not to burn your tender fingertips.  (I should add that I have adhesive issues... Hi, my name is Donna Rae, and I have adhesive issues... so I, of course, added some thick tacky glue along with the hot glue to ensure a 'stuck-till-Jesus-returns' bond.)

I laid the paper cones out, sorted by color, in the order I wanted to add them to the wreath form.

Speaking of the wreath form... it's a very high-tech, complicated contraption: a circle cut from cardboard that was destined for the compost bin or my husband's next lasagna gardening adventure.  I used a salad plate to trace the circle, cut it out, and penciled a smaller circle in the center. 

I was ready!  I added swaths of thick tacky glue to a portion of the wreath form, applying it between the edge of the inner penciled circle and the cut edge of the wreath form.  As I added each paper cone, I would apply a couple of dots of hot glue to the wreath form in the place where the cone would be laid.  (Again, I have adhesive issues.  But really, the hot glue gives you that immediate hold, keeping the cone in place while the thick tacky glue dries over time.  I find that items held with just hot glue can 'pop off' over time, especially if an item is in the sun, like, say, between a front door and a storm door.)  The paper cone was laid in place quickly, glued seam to the back, with the tip touching the edge of the inner penciled circle, not all the way to the center of the wreath form.  This allows the 'give' for the paper cones to line up nicely around the circle.  I continued, adding the cones around the circle in color-order to give even color distribution around the wreath.  (I didn't want 5 green cones on one side and no green cones on the other side.)

I then added a second layer of cones on top of the first layer to add volume and to cover any gaps.  I arranged the tips of these second-layer cones closer to the center as I added them, allowing the flares of the first-layer cones to be visible behind them.

Now for that hideously blank center... I took some burlap ribbon, ran a running stitch along one of the long edges, and gathered it into a circle.  I double-glued (hot and tacky) a lovely metal "Autumn" sign atop the burlap (I found it at a local craft store on sale, less than $2.)  The burlap/sign combo was then double glued to the center of the paper cone wreath.

But how to hang it?  Simple!  I turned the wreath over, glued on a strip of gingham ribbon, and a deckle-edged circle of printed paper over that, to the cardboard wreath form.  Yay!  A wreath!

It's a colorful and welcoming addition to our front door for Autumn!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

oatmeal for a busy October...

It's here!  October, truly Autumn, my very favorite time of year!

There's one catch... our calendar overfloweth.  Each square (or digital sliver) on our calendar is filled, some with letters and numbers treading dangerously onto the already filled square nextdoor.  Meals must be planned lest they be forgotten until the last minute, leading to poor and expensive choices and very often a bad tummyache.  So today I did a little prep for breakfasts this month.  I have home-baked healthy muffins in the freezer, waiting to be pulled out as needed.  I have eggs-a-plenty on hand.  And I made up lots of those very handy Oatmeal Packets seen all over the interwebs (you've seen them: a few ingredients in a little baggie to be dumped in a bowl.  Just add water, heat, and PRESTO!  Healthy hot breakfast!  An oft-pinned tutorial on this subject by The Yummy Life can be found HERE.)

Top: dehydrated cranberries and orange zest strips; bottom left: Apple Cinnamon oatmeal packet, bottom right: Christmas Cranberry Orange oatmeal packet

I whipped up several reusable containers (so much nicer than baggies with no waste!) with our favorite Apple Cinnamon variety, using the apple rings I preserved in the dehydrator, nuts, and cinnamon.  Then I did a little taste-testing and LOVE our newest flavor:  Christmas Cranberry Orange.  It truly smells and tastes like Christmas to me!  The cranberries were purchased fresh, pulsed in a food processor until fairly finely chopped, then dried on the fruit leather tray of the dehydrator until crispy.  I like these much better than the dried cranberries from the store that are chewy and can have added sugars.  The orange flavor comes from 2 slivers, finely chopped in each container, of dehydrated orange zest.  (Orange peels were saved, cut into strips, and all of the bitter white removed before dehydrating.  If you don't have dried orange zest, you could add some fresh orange zest to the oatmeal when you are ready to serve.)  We don't like things overly sweet, so we often add no sweetener at all or just a 1/4 tsp per packet; you may sweeten to your taste, of course.  I also like to stir in a teaspoon of freshly ground flax or other seed to the oatmeal just before serving.  Many recipes online call for nonfat dry milk powder but we leave it out making our packets free of dairy and gluten.

When ready to enjoy our oatmeal packet, we dump it into a good sized bowl (the oatmeal can bubble over in the microwave, trust me!), add 3/4 - 1 cup water, and heat in the microwave for 2 1/2 - 3 minutes (quick oats and instant oats take less time).  No time in the mornings?  No problem... prepare overnight oatmeal: add oatmeal packet to a pint jar with a tight fitting lid, pour in 3/4 cup cold water OR 1/2 cup cold water and 1/4 cup yogurt, shake until well mixed and refrigerate overnight.  Refrigerator oatmeal can be enjoyed cold or we might heat it up.  Here are the ingredients per packet for the two flavors I mentioned...

Apple Cinnamon (Almost Instant) Oatmeal
per packet:
1/3 cup gluten-free old-fashioned or rolled oats
2 dehydrated apple rings, chopped or torn into small pieces
1 - 2 T. chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, whatever you like)
1/4 t. dry sweetener (I like turbinado cane sugar)
1/4 t. cinnamon

Christmas Cranberry Orange (Almost Instant) Oatmeal
per packet:
1/3 cup gluten-free old-fashioned or rolled oats
1 T. chopped, dried cranberries
1/2 t. dried orange zest, chopped fine
1 - 2 T. chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, whatever you like)
1/4 - 1/2 t. dry sweetener (I like turbinado cane sugar)
1/4 t. cinnamon

Thursday, August 21, 2014

extracting honey...


It's been a busy summer here at Flannel Jammies Farm:  keeping bees, gardening, composting, working, canning, dehydrating, entertaining, teaching, volunteering... not to mention working on wedding plans with our daughter (but that's another post for another day)!  Lots of to-doings.  In the midst of this activity the time came to extract honey from our hives.

We are second-year beekeepers.  During the first year, we did not extract any honey, choosing instead to leave all the honey on the hives as food for the bees through their first winter.  This second Spring, we planned to take only excess honey, above and beyond what the bees' food, from the two hives that made it through the last winter.  We'd never done it before, only watched and assisted in the process with other beekeepers, but it was time to jump in on July 4th.  

First, let me tell you: honey is sticky stuff.  And it tends to get everywhere.  It's impossible to extract outside; bees will immediately join the party to enjoy the open stores of honey!  We don't have a convenient honey house or garage, so our extraction process would be taking place inside the home, in our kitchen.   I tend to unintentionally make the most glorious messes, flinging anything liquid into the most far-fetched places, so I knew that precautions must be made.  We covered the items on our walls with a great product combining painters' tape and plastic sheeting.  We covered the large farmhouse table with more plastic, and put a tarp on the floor to cover the tile.

Back outside, we peeked into the two chosen hives,  determining that the top hive boxes had many frames of capped honey.  Bees bring lots of nectar from flowers back to the hives during the blooming season, or nectar flow, and store the nectar in the hexagon cells of the honeycomb.  When the bees have dehydrated the stored flower nectar to honey of just the right moisture content, they cover the honey with a thin coating of wax, forming "capped honey".  Uncapped stores may contain too much moisture.  If uncapped honey is extracted, it could ferment in the jar... not pleasant!

How do you get busy bee girls to leave the frames of capped honey and allow you to whisk them away for extraction?  Glad you asked!  We created a fume board by covering a piece of cut-to-size corrugated plastic with flannel scraps (it IS Flannel Jammies Farm, after all), securing the fabric in place, and attaching the fume board to an extra wooden inner cover for the hive.  We then sprayed the flannel on the fume board with a product that would repel the bees without harming them, causing them to retreat from the frames of honey in the top hive box into the depths of the lower boxes below.  The sprayed fume board was placed on top of the hive and we waited several minutes.  When Tom returned and lifted the fume board, the top box of the hive had been vacated!

He loaded the top box into the plastic lined wheelbarrow and headed for the house.  Heavy frames filled with capped honey were pulled from the hive box and brought inside.  Any stray bees were encouraged to stay outside with their sisters.

Once inside, each frame was set in a large dish and a special sharp-toothed tool was used to uncap the cells filled with liquid gold!  As the thin, wax caps were removed from the honey, it dripped down, sweet and thick and delicious into the dish below.  Wax cappings were set aside for melting later, destined to become salves and balms and candles and such.  Once all the cells were uncapped on both sides of the frame, the frame was place into the extractor.

We borrowed a manual extractor with a hand crank.  There are power models out there, but for our small honey operation the hand-cranked extractor worked perfectly.  We looked twice to be sure the honey gate was closed before beginning.  Frames are placed in this extractor vertically, into metal guides to keep them in place during the process.  When two frames were in place, we closed the lid, placed a honey bucket (with straining basket in place) below the honey gate of the extractor, and opened the honey gate.

Gently at first, we began to turn the crank, then faster and faster.  Inside the extractor, the frames are spun round and round, the centrifugal force flinging the honey onto the inside walls of the extractor.  The honey drips down the walls in sheets, gathers at the bottom, and pours out the honey gate into the strainer and bucket waiting below.  The strainer captures any wax and debris, and the clean, raw, beautiful honey fills the bucket below.

The process was repeated throughout the afternoon.  After filling the buckets and weighing the honey (a total of 76 pounds this season), we filled jars and jars with the amber treasure of honey.  We returned the emptied frames to their hive boxes and placed them back onto the hives, allowing the bees to clean the honeycomb, enjoy a feast from the remaining film of honey, and reuse the comb for future brood or stores.

It was quite a day of work, but the reward was SO worth it!  Our larder is stocked with half-gallon jars of honey to be used as sweetener throughout the year and with smaller jars to be given as gifts from us and from our bees.

My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste.
Proverbs 24:13