Geez, Sam!

maine nucleus colonies_2018

It’s mid-October, the temperatures outside are dropping and the beekeeping season is winding down. Runamuk’s 2018 farm-season has certainly been one for the books, mainly because this was the year we finally made farm-ownership possible─but for honey production it wasn’t the greatest of years. Even still, I’m happy with the way the season went and with the hives that I have going into the winter.

hyl-tun apiary
The Runamuk apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. Early August 2018.

Season Review

After losing twenty out of twenty-one hives over the course of the 2017-2018 winter the state of the Runamuk apiary was just a little precarious this spring. I’ve experienced hive losses before and have come to accept it as just another part of beekeeping, but it certainly makes it difficult to gain ground in this industry. With the purchase of a farm on the line, it was especially stressful.

I imported 10 packages of replacement bees from Georgia, bought 5 overwintered nucs, and managed to raise about 30 Queens of my own. Those Queens either replaced Queens in the southern packages, replaced bad Queens, or were added to nucleus colonies that are going to be overwintered in hopes of supplying my own replacement hives for this winter’s inevitable losses.

agriope at luke's apiary
Luke’s apiary in Madison, Maine.

For the last 2 seasons I’ve been managing the apiary of my friend, Luke Vigneault, in addition to my own. Our beekeeping journeys have run parallel over the years; we’ve shared orders on Queens, tended bees together, and learned from each other. I’ve been so impressed by Luke’s honeybee stock that I grafted from his hives to produce two-thirds of the Queens I raised this year.

Between the 2 of us, I’m managing 27 colonies at the moment─Runamuk’s 15, and Luke’s 12 hives. Hopefully this winter is kinder to us than last winter was.

Poor Honey Season

uncapped honey
Nectar of the Gods!

As for for honey production, this beekeeping season wasn’t really the greatest. Runamuk was not able to supply customers with the local, raw honey they’ve been clamoring for and I can’t help feeling like it’s a failing on my part (“Geez, Sam! What gives!?”). At the same time, I know what a set-back the harsh winter and loss of colonies was for my operation─because I had to wait for replacement bees and only had one weak hive in May (when the nectar-flow really gets underway here), I wasn’t able to capitalize on Maine’s spring honey-season.

In addition, the earlier part of the summer was exceedingly dry and flowers really weren’t producing much nectar, so I was feeding the bees a lot of sugar-syrup. Because the majority of my hives this year were new colonies, or were new Queens I was trying to establish, I wanted to give them every possible resource so they would have the best chance for survival. That means I fed all but the hives that were making honey, and whatever honey that was produced got redistributed among the nucs to ensure every hive has the stores it needs to make it through the winter.

Keeping Colonies Small & Tight

runamuk's hive set up
Runamuk’s single deep and medium hive set-up.

It’s my goal to keep my honeybee colonies “small and tight” going into winter. After 8 seasons working with bees, learning from other beekeepers, and learning from my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that bees overwinter more successfully when they’re not trying to occupy so much space. With this in mind I’ve adopted a single deep and medium box set-up for my brood nest. The frames of larvae to occupy the deep-box, positioned on the bottom, with a medium filled with honey settled on top.

During the season I’ll add more mediums as necessary─either to increase the colony’s capacity for brood, or for honey production, but I always want all that extra equipment to come off before the winter sets in.

Prioritizing Mite Treatments

I’m feeling really confident in the condition of the 27 colonies under my care. I’ve learned to prioritize mite-treatments and perform them as a rule the first week of August and mid-to-late September. If the infestation were severe, I would do another late October treatment as a final clean-up before the long winter. Mite-treatments are the pits, but having seen hives go down as a result of varroa─I know that it’s not pretty and it’s not a good feeling knowing that, as the beekeeper, you’re the one responsible for it.

I’ve learned too, that I can significantly reduce mite-levels in my hives and grow my apiary at the same time just by breaking up large colonies to make more nucs. That’s a win-win in my book. By breaking up hives and sticking to my schedule for mite-treatments, I’ve been able to keep some very healthy-looking bees these last few years, and I know that these methods─in tandem with my newfound Queen-raising skills─set Runamuk up for some big growth in the next few years.

I’m not treating the hives for nosema because this disease has not historically been an issue in my apiaries. If I had hives that were coming through the winter and had an excess of brown staining on the front of the hives, I would know that the fungus had infected the colonies and I would use the Fumagillian, administered in the sugar-syrup fed to the bees in the fall. There are lots of resources about nosema and how to prevent and treat that problem; the main thing is to be aware of it and to ensure your colonies are healthy and strong going into winter, and to take steps to ensure your hives are appropriately set up.

Winter Preparations

wintering bees
Two of Runamuk’s hives back in December of 2012.

That brings me to winter preparations. Things are almost over at the apiary for the 2018 beekeeping season. I’ll be taking mite-treatments OFF the hives this weekend. After that I won’t go back into the hives for anything more than to administer sugar-candy or pollen patties (should hives make it to March), until April.

At this point in the season I’m not manipulating frames. Since August I’ve been managing the hives with an eye toward winter; that means I’ve been moving brood “downstairs” to the bottom box, and positioning honey stores so that the colony can move up through the hive in what I hope is optimal fashion.

Sometime between now and Thanksgiving all of the inner covers will be switched out for wintering inner covers, which are deeper on one side and allow space for sugar-candy to sit under the telecoping cover. Many beekeepers fill that space with candy, but I prefer to lay my candy directly across the top bars─as close to the bees as I can get it.

I’ll put the candy on at the same time, then top it with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. This is crucial, and I think my attention to this detail is the reason I haven’t had much issue with nosema in my hives.

Nosema is a fungal disease which─like all fungi─thrives in wet conditions. I’ve tried homasote board and newspaper in the past, but nothing seems to work so well as a box of wood shavings above the inner cover. I tack a piece of burlap to the bottom of a medium box, and add several inches of wood shavings─you can even use the same type of pine bedding you might use for livestock (but not shavings that have actually been used by livestock! yuck!).

I also like to ensure my hives have both lower and upper entrances, in case the snow should cover the lower one. I make it a habit to check the apiaries periodically throughout the winter, and I’ll shovel out the front of hives just so the girls can take cleansing flights, or to ensure air-flow, but I prefer to allow the snow to pile up around the back and sides to protect the bees from the wind and cold to some degree.

“Geez, Sam…”

It’s certainly disappointing to not have honey available for my loyal customers at the farmers’ market. Not everyone understands why I chose not to take honey from the bees this year. Some folks look at me and say: Geez, that Sam─she’s been doing this for years now and she still can’t give me honey when I want it!

And I can’t deny the truth in that.

Beekeeping is probably the hardest form of agriculture. It is not easy to keep a colonies of bees alive in today’s modern era where poisonous pesticides have infected the landscape and the changing climate is altering our world on a very basic level. Even if you do everything “right”: you feed them, manage them in a timely fashion, perform mite treatments and leave honey for the winter─you’re still at the mercy of the natural world around you. You might face drought conditions, floods, bear-attacks, or extreme temperatures; the list of what could go wrong─all of which is out of your control─is fairly extensive.

As the beekeeper and a caring, nurturing farmer, I have to be the one to say to those folks, “I’m sorry, but I need to give my bees every chance for survival that I can give them. The bees need to be super-healthy in order to cope with the pesticides and mite-infestations, and they’re healthiest when they’re eating honey and plenty of it.”

maine nucleus colonies_2018
The nucleus colonies at Runamuk Acres, New Portland, Maine.

What’s more, it takes honey to build colonies, and I built a lot of new colonies this year with an eye toward the future. 15 of the 27 hives going into winter are nucleus colonies housing my Maine-raised Queens; I’m really proud of the state of the apiary, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t able to sell honey. Afterall, no one gets into farming to get rich; and certainly no one gets into beekeeping if they’re not bat-shit crazy about bees (it’s called: “passionate” thanks!). No, I’ve evolved enough that there’s really only one reason I do anything anymore: I’m doing it for love. Love of the land, love for nature─and love for bees.

Thanks for following along with my farming journey!!! You can support bee-friendly farming simply by buying our products; check out our online farm-store to get yourself something nice today! Subscribe by email or follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for behind-the-scenes peeks into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine farm! 

State of the Apiary Address

nucleus colonies

Beekeeping in today’s modern environment is probably one of the hardest forms of agriculture that exists. If you can think of a worse one, by all means leave a comment below to share with us lol. Meanwhile, the 2017-2018 winter was another rough winter for beekeepers here in Maine; many beekeepers lost a lot of hives─myself included. At first, with so much riding on the apiary I was afraid to tell anyone, but the fallout from those losses has not been as bad as I had feared and so I bring to you now a sort of “State of the Apiary Address”.

runamuk apiary_may 2018
The Runamuk Apiary, May 2018.

Another Rough Winter

Over the course of the winter this year I went from 21 hives to 1. After working so diligently to build my apiary last summer it was a huge disappointment that led me once again to question myself, my abilities, and my path as a farmer. What’s more, with my impending mortgage largely dependent on the success of my apiary, I was terrified that the losses would put an end to my farm-purchase. Both Runamuk and my family desperately need a home to call their own; my days as a landless-farmer have run their course and it is now taking a toll on us all. What would happen if the FSA knew I’d lost 20 hives?

I wasn’t the only one who experienced significant hive-losses, however. The brutal cold Maine experienced in late-December and early-January tested even the strongest hives and beekeepers across the state suffered losses.

Note: For more about the impact of the 2017-2018 winter on Maine bees, check out “It’s been a rough winter for bees” from the Bangor Daily News, written by Peter Cowin─Maine’s own “Bee-Whisperer”.

Telling the FSA

Word of the impacts of the winter on the beekeeping industry eventually reached the USDA and FSA offices and I got an email from Nathan Persinger, the FSA agent who has been handling my loan, asking how I’d made out.

Honestly, there was a moment of utter panic. I was so terrified that if I told him the truth I would lose my chance to buy a farm and secure a home for my family. But I’ve made honesty and transparency a policy in my life, and not telling Nathan the truth was not something I wanted on my conscience─though I admit it totally crossed my mind.

If I’m going to have a relationship with the people at the FSA for the foreseeable future, I want that relationship to be a good one. So far the people I’ve worked with at the government office have only ever tried to help me. They have these resources available to help farmers and they want to do just that─help farmers; even if they are required to abide by the regulations and stipulations mandated by our bureaucratic government.

Besides that─if other beekeepers were sharing stories of loss and I came out with none, how would that look?

When I initially submitted my application and business plan to the FSA back in September, I had included for them a brief report on the nature of beekeeping. It is not common for a farmer to specialize in bees, and I wanted to help educate the FSA staff so that they would understand how a beekeeper can grow their apiary fairly rapidly just by making splits and nucs, and by raising their own Queens, which I am learning to do. I wanted the USDA representatives handling my case to realize that-yes, annual mortality of hives may be high─between 30% and 37% depending on the statistic─but the nature of beekeeping allows savvy beekeepers to rebound from annual losses and still continue to have hives and grow a business.

Once the shock regarding the severity of Runamuk’s winter losses wore off I had devised a plan to recover the apiary. I ordered a combination of packages for honey production, nucleaus colonies for kick-starting my breeding operation, and a dozen Saskatraz queens (Bred in Saskatchewan!!! Should be hardy in Maine, right?). And I still intended to produce at least 20 viable Queens to overwinter as nucleus colonies.

Even with this strategy under my cap, and knowing that I had good people on my side at the FSA, and even knowing that those people had accepted the education I’d offered and had even taken it upon themselves to learn more so as to be best able to help me─I had to have supplemental encouragement from some good friends before I could respond to Nathan’s email about my winter-losses.

I admitted that I was down to 1 hive, and presented my plan for recovery. My heart was in my throat when I hit the send button on that email, and I awaited Nathan’s response in a state of hyper-anxiety─fearing the worst.

Lol, I needn’t have worried. Nathan accepted the facts and was confident that with my strategy the Runamuk apiary would recover and go on to meet the goals I’d projected in my business financials. He merely suggested that I apply for the ELAP program for reimbursement of those hive-losses.

The ELAP Program

usda_somerset county
USDA Service Center for Somerset County, located in Skowhegan, Maine.

The ELAP program─or “Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish”─provides emergency assistance to eligible producers for losses due to disease, weather, and wildfire. It turns out that the severe and prolonged cold spell Maine experienced in December and January qualified beekeepers for reimbursement of hives lost as a result.

So I went to see Scott Speck at the Somerset County USDA office, who is the County Executive Director. At this point I’d met everyone in the office but Scott, so now I am fully acquainted with my local USDA/FSA staff─yaaay! Scott gave me the details on the program, we filled out the application and he sent me off with some homework.

Note: For more information on the ELAP program, check out the USDA’s ELAP Fact Sheet.

To qualify for the ELAP assistance I needed to be able to show some record of the existence of said hives─which was easy to do since Nathan had documented and photographed those same hives last fall for the purpose of my farm-loan. But I also needed to have my hives inspected by the Maine State Apiarist: Jennifer Lund, to ensure that “Best Management Practices” had been followed and that the cause of death was actually due to the severe weather conditions.

State Apiarist Visits the Runamuk Apiary

In my nearly 10 years keeping bees I had never once had the state apiarist come to my apiary. Thanks to my volunteer work as the president of the Somerset Beekeepers (formerly), I was involved enough to know what sort of issues were facing the majority of  Maine’s beekeeping community. Any additional problems I encountered I’ve been able to turn to a variety of more experienced beekeepers with whom I am acquainted, so having the state apiarist come solve my problems was never really necessary.

Again I was filled with anxiety─I knew I’d been following the “Best Management Practices” as laid out by the Maine Department of Agriculture, but what if I’d missed something? What if my timing had been off in applying the oxalic acid? Maybe I should have treated just one more time? I didn’t think I’d taken too much honey from the hives, but what if I was wrong? And what if Nathan had suggested the ELAP program as a justifiable means of having my operation assessed before the FSA committed the funds to my farm purchase???

I needn’t have worried; everything turned out fine.

Jennifer Lund met me at the Runamuk apiary located at Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks on a dreary grey day and we proceeded to go through the dead-outs on-site there. Jennifer is probably about my age; she studied at the University of Maine alongside Frank Drummond─one of the leading scientists performing research on native bee populations for the USDA. When Maine’s veteran State Apiarist, Tony Jadczak retired a couple years back, Jennifer applied for the job and got it.

Since she’d been awarded the position I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out why her name rang a bell in my head. We chatted as we surveyed my deceased colonies, and it turned out I had invited Jennifer to come to speak to the Somerset Beekeepers years ago! Mystery solved!

Jennifer checked my dead-outs to see the size of the cluster and their position within the hive, the amount of honey and pollen stores in the hives, along with signs of disease and mite levels among the population of bees. An alcohol-wash sampling revealed that mite levels were within reasonable range, and Jennifer concluded that in a normal winter even the weaker of my colonies likely would have survived. Cause of death was attributed to the weather conditions we’d experienced this year, and I was validated as a beekeeper.

With so many losses each winter it’s natural to wonder if you’re doing it right, and whether it’s worth the hassle and heartache. Jennifer put my mind at ease, and my ELAP application is moving forward at the FSA. I should receive a check towards the end of the season, which I intend to use to reimburse myself for some of the replacement bees I purchased this spring.

It’s Bee Season!

back of a beekeeper's car
Some of my favorite days are when the back of my car looks like this!

The season is well underway now. Runamuk’s replacement bees came in several waves: I picked up the first 5 packages on May 12th from Peter Cowin in Hampden, then went back on the 29th for another 5 packages. These will be my honey-producing hives, since the southern bred Italian packages tend to rev up fairly quickly they will ensure that I have honey available to sell and enable me to meet my financial targets.

On June 8th I fetched 3 nucleus colonies from Bob Egan’s Abnaki Apiaries in Skowhegan, Maine. I’d had 5 on order with Bob, but as a result of the harsh winter Bob was low on numbers. Having suffered significant losses myself I couldn’t hold that against the veteran beekeeper─we’re all in this together really. Bob raises a gentle strain of Carnolian bees that I’ve always had good luck with, and whose genetics I want as part of my breeding stock.

The 12 Saskatraz Queens are coming again from Hampden and Peter Cowin. They’ll be mated and ready to start laying when I bring them home the first week of July; the plan is to pair each Queen with 1 frame of brood taken from the existing hives and place them in a nucleus box with 1 frame of empty comb, and at least 1 frame of honey/pollen stores.

I’ll have to manage them fairly fastidiously so that I can overwinter them as nucs, so I’ve delayed pick-up of the new Queens til I can set them up at the new farm where I’ll be able to check on them more frequently. Ultimately, I’d like to have all the nucs and Queen-production happening at the Hive-House, while honey production will continue to happen at Hyl-Tun Farm where the Runamuk hives have miles of prime bee-forage in every direction.

Long-Term Apiary Goals

grafts 2018
My first grafted Queen-cells!

The end-goal I have for the Runamuk Apiary is to make the operation sustainable for the long-term viability of my farm. Though I have supporting ventures diversifying Runamuk, bees are the main focus of my farm-business and to truly be successful over the upcoming years I need to reduce inputs and expenses while continuing to expand the apiary.

To do that I need to be able to raise my own Queens and overwinter them as nucleus colonies that can replace the inevitable annual losses. Once I can ensure the continued survival of my own apiary, I can start selling nucs and mated-Queens raised from hardy Maine stock to local beekeepers.

Grateful for This Life

beekeeper profile
Accidental matching uniform at the apiary!

When I look back on the journey of my life I can’t help but marvel at the path that’s led me to this place in time. I did not set out to be the person I am today: female farmer, lady beekeeper, blogger, local food activist… I did see myself as becoming some sort of environmental activist however, and really everything I am stems from my love for the Earth and nature.

That love, along with a more recent commitment to be true to who I am and owning my story, has brought me here─doing work I love to do and paying my bills that way, on the precipice of purchasing my very own #foreverfarm and looking forward to bringing my vision for a pollinator conservation farm to life.

Yes, beekeeping is hard, and I’ll never be well-off as a farmer, but when I open a hive and the fragrance of warm beeswax and honey washes over me─or when I’m on my knees in the garden surrounded by plants and insects under the bright sun─I am filled with gratitude that I am able to live a life I love─one which brings meaning and purpose to my existence. Now that I’ve tasted this kind of wholehearted living, I could never give it up.

Thanks for reading and following along with my story! Feel free to share any thoughts, questions or comments below!

What are the Essential Tools Needed to Get Started in Beekeeping?

beekeeping smoker

Potential new beekeepers often ask me what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? What do I really need? Beekeeping is a big expense up front, and it can be 2 years sometimes before you see a return on that investment. People usually want to know which tools they absolutely have to have, and which ones they could perhaps do without.

choosing apiary location
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, where miles of pasutre offers superior forage for bees!

#1 Protective Gear

Bees are very sensitive to their beekeeper; they’ll know when you’re nervous or agitated and they’ll respond in kind. New beekeepers are understandably a little fearful of their bees at first─having that protective layer allows you to feel safe while working with the hive. When you feel safe you’ll relax and the bees will too, resulting in fewer stings.

I recommend some kind of veil and gloves at least, to get started in beekeeping. You can get a full suit, or a jacket/veil combos like the one (affiliate link) I recently purchased through Amazon. But you could also make do with a mosquito head-net, a pair of latex gloves, and a long sleeved shirt, which is what I did my first few years as a beekeeper.

Once you become more comfortable with the bees you may not need to use the gear for every trip to the apiary, but you’ll find there will be instances when you will want the added protection of the veil and gloves. Sometimes the bees can be “cranky”─during a nectar dearth for example, or when they suddenly find themselves Queenless, or if a skunk has been pestering them at night. Get some good protective gear and always have it with you when you go to the apiary.

#2 Hive Tool

The hive tool is probably one of my most-used tools─so much so that it fairly lives in my back-pocket during the beekeeping season. I don’t go to the apiary without it, and it’s nearly impossible to work the hives without this tool. Seriously! The bees will put wax and propolis everywhere and you will need some kind of tool to break the seal so that you can manipulate the covers and the frames and the boxes.

I prefer the hive tools with the little hook on one end so that I can get under the lip of the frames to lift them out of the box. The other end has a beveled edge, making it a great scraping tools for clearing away burr-comb or cleaning up boxes after winter losses.

In a pinch you could use a mini pry-bar or a screw driver, but the little hook-thing is such an advantage that I feel it’s worth the $7 investment in this tool. This particular hive tool (affiliate link) is offered by MannLake, and you can get it at an affordable price through Amazon.

#3 Smoker, Smoker-Fuel, and Lighter

Smoke interrupts the chemical pheromone signals that the bees use to communicate with one another. It also distracts the bees, causing an instinctual fear of fire to wash over them and so the bees will go down into the hive to gorge themselves on honey in the event that they should have to abandon the hive to fire. This interruption and distraction is what allows the beekeeper to get into the hive for maintenance.

I prefer the smokers with leather bellows because: a) I’m working to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, and b) the plastic ones have a tendency to crack with use over the span of a few years, and once they can’t hold air the smoker does not function.

The size of the smoker you will need depends upon the number of hives you’re working with. For most backyard beekeepers with 2-4 hives, the smaller smokers are fine. This smoker (affiliate link) is just $12.99 on Amazon and should get you started in your beekeeping adventures.

#4 Frame Grippers

I find I primarily use my frame grippers when I’m first getting into a hive. That first frame can be really difficult to pull up out of the box─fused together with wax and honey and bees, and wedged down between the other frames so that it doesn’t want to give. When used in tandem with the hive tool, the frame grippers make extracting that first frame so much easier on both the beekeeper, and the bees.

There are many different styles of frame grippers available; personally I prefer the straight forward metal ones because they’re durable and easy to clean─these aluminum frame grippers (affiliate link) are available for just under $10 at Amazon.

#5 Bee Brush

You won’t need this tool as frequently as you will the smoker or the hive tool, but when it’s time to harvest honey, or if you want to take a sample to check the mite-pressure in the colony, you’ll want a bee brush.

I have a bee brush like this (affiliate link), which is available on Amazon for $8.60, but my beekeeping mentor liked to use a large turkey feather. Whatever you choose, it should be soft─so that you don’t hurt the bees when you go to brush them off the frame.

#6 Books!

There’s a lot to learn about bees and beekeeping and I strongly advise anyone interested in getting started with bees to first do their homework. You’ll find many, many great books on the subject.

I really like Richard E. Bonney’s books: Beekeeping, A Practical Guide and Hive Management, A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers.

You can’t beat Storey Publishing for good reference manuals, and their Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees is typically the book I include when I offer bee-schools. The Backyard Beekeeper, is another good reference book, with the added bonus of a chapter at the end about using beeswax; it includes some really nice recipes for salves and skin creams.

Once you’ve become acquainted with beekeeping, you’ll naturally start looking for next-level books and Brother Adam’s Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey is one of the most illuminating manuscripts out there. Brother Adam was in charge of all beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey in England between 1919 and 1992. This is not a how-to book; it’s more of a general account of the beekeeping as it was carried out at Buckfast and passed down through the ages. The book offers insight on techniques for rearing and breeding Queens, bee care, seasonal hive management, honey production and even mead-making.

#7 Woodenware

assembling equipment for beehives
Buying unassembled pieces and assembling them yourself can help save money when making that initial investment into beekeeping.

What you require for you hive will depend on the style and methods you decide to go with. The traditional Langstroth hive is still the most common type of hive used in beekeeping, but many new beekeepers are having good luck with the Top Bar hives, which have the added benefit of being easy to construct from repurposed materials.

If you go with the Langstroth you will need the following for each hive:

  • Telescoping Cover
  • Inner Cover
  • Bottom Board
  • Boxes for Hive Bodies*
  • Boxes for Honey Supers*
  • Entrance Reducer
  • Mouseguard
  • Hive Stand

*The number of boxes you’ll need to invest in will be contingent upon how you choose to set up your hives. Standard set up for a Langstroth hive is 2 deeps, and I usually recommend having 4 honey supers on hand. However, more and more beekeepers are choosing to use medium boxes exclusively on their hives because they’re easier to lift. 3 medium boxes are essentially the equivalent of 2 deeps if you decide to go with mediums, but it might be a good idea to keep at least 1 deep box on hand in case you should ever need to buy replacement nucleus colonies, as those tend to come in a deep nuc box. Generally it costs about $200 on average for the hive pieces.

Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine.

I’m fortunate to live within driving range of Humble Abodes in Windsor, Maine, which allows me to save on shipping. This is a Maine-based company manufacturing woodenware─the hive boxes, tops and bottoms, and frames. They supply large beekeeping operations as well as hobbyists across New England and the East Coast, using Maine’s own Eastern White Pine, which grows in abundance in our state to produce easy to assemble equipment.

I’d recommend searching locally for quality woodenware first, but if you don’t have a good source within driving range, check out Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.

Be wary of buying used equipment. Used equipment may be carrying diseases that killed it’s previous occupants. Residues that are left behind can live for years and you could be slowly or quickly killing your honeybee investment by putting them in dangerous equipment. Unless you know why the equipment is available and how it was used, I would avoid used hive equipment.

#8 Feeders

feeding beehives syrup in the fall
Mason-jar sugar-syrup feeder.

Bees, like any other livestock, sometimes need supplemental feed in order to survive. You’ll need a way to be able to offer sugar-syrup to the bees. There are many feeders available commercially, but for the small-scale or backyard beekeeper, I recommend the mason-jar.

Simply take a quart-sized mason jar, which most homesteaders and farmers have around the house anyway, perforate the lid and then fill with sugar-syrup. Place the feeder directly on the inner cover, inside another box and under the telescoping cover.

Voila! A bee-feeder!

#9 Sugar

Beekeepers should always have extra sugar on-hand for feeding their bees. New packages and nucleus colonies need to be fed in order to grow strong enough to fill their hives and survive the winter. Even after a colony is fully established there are times when they require supplemental feeding, like when there’s a dearth in the nectar flow, or during a poor season.

Avoid raw sugar, which can cause dysentery in the hive. This is one case where the refined granulated sugar is the better option for the health of the colony.

#10 Bees!

nucs arriving
Nucs arriving!

Naturally you’re going to need bees to put in your beehive, lol. Certainly you can save on the cost of the bees if you can catch a swarm to install in your hive, but swarms are not as common today as they were 30 years ago. And with so many new beekeepers all vying for free bees, you might have a hard time filling your hive that way.

I strongly encourage new beekeepers to seek out a local apiary offering nucleus colonies from hardy stock adapted to your specific region. Check with your state’s beekeepers’ association for a list of suppliers near you, and be prepared to order well in advance of the season. Here in Maine, if you haven’t ordered your nucs by the end of February, you’ll have a hard time finding any at all; pricing can range anywhere between $125 to $180 for 4 or 5 frame overwintered nucleus colonies.

Bee Proactive!

It’s a wise idea to prepare in advance of the beekeeping season so that all of your equipment is assembled, painted and ready to go when you need it. Get a tool box for your beekeeping tools. Stow your veil and gloves beside the smoker along with extra fuel, and keep everything at the ready in case of emergency.

Beekeeping (unless you’re managing larger numbers of hives) doesn’t take a whole lot of time, but it is time sensitive. Typically, when you need something you need it immediately and delaying hive manipulations because you need to put a box together or because you have to run to the store for sugar before you can make more syrup, can cause a chain of events which could result in the eventual demise of the colony. Beekeepers should always bee proactive (had to go there lol, sorry-not sorry!) to ensure the survival of their colonies, such is the nature of beekeeping today.

Do you have a beekeeping tool you just couldn’t do without? Share it with us by leaving a comment below!

Thinking of getting bees? Wondering what are the essential tools needed to get started in beekeeping? Check out Runamuk Acres in Maine for the answer!

Runamuk’s 2017 Year’s End Review: Part 2

employee shirt_jss beekeeper

When I first started selling vegetables nearly 8 years ago, I was a stay-at-home homeschooling mom to 2 rowdy young boys. I wanted to earn an income without having to get a job outside the home, and what started with a 10-family CSA has grown and transformed into a diverse apiary operation with supporting acts from egg production, vegetable gardening and writing.

sbf_sideview
In 2018 Runamuk will be moving one last time!

Studious research, careful planning, dogged pursuit of goals, and lots of hardwork and patience has grown Runamuk to this precipice. We’ve climbed the ladder, one year at a time, taken the knocks and kept on going, and now we stand poised to receive this storybook farm where I hope to continue my work, and inspire more farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and homeowners to employ bee-friendly practices wherever they are. At long last, I can finally begin in earnest this important work. Read on for Part 2 of our 2017 Year’s End Review: the Farm….

Note: Click this link to read our 2017 Year’s End Farm Review Part 1: The Farmer.

Johnny’s vs Gardening On the Side

We all have strengths and weaknesses. I am a compulsive “Doer”. I almost always want to be “doing something”, working on something and being productive. It’s incredibly difficult for me to be in a cubicle in an office building for 8 and a half hours a day─sitting there. It was a big adjustment when I first began working for Johnny’s Selected Seeds 3 years ago, after I’d been a stay-at-home homeschooling and homesteading mamma for 12 years.

Johnny’s hires local gardeners and farmers to staff their research farm, the offices, and especially to answer the phones in their Call Center. Not only do they sell seeds and tools, Johnny’s offers information─to assist gardeners and farmers in successfully growing food. That’s what I do for the company, and it can be very rewarding sometimes. January through June the Call Center is a madhouse as growers from all over the world rush to purchase seeds, potatoes, onions, berry plants and tools from the Maine-based seed company. Johnny’s has grown exponentially over the last decade and has become synonymous with the small and organic farm movement.

employee shirt_jss beekeeper
Check out the sweet shirt Johnny’s gave me! Perfect for working in the apiary!!!

To meet the demand during the busy season Johnny’s hires extra help referred to as “Seasonals”. These are often local farmers like myself, with their own farming operations, and that’s how I was hired. Except I’ve loitered about the establishment a bit, working 1 or 2 days a week even through the growing season, after all the other Seasonals had returned to their farms. Following my divorce I needed that supplemental income. They’ve offered me full-time more than once, and I’m sure if I set my mind to it I could land a position in a different part of the company─on the research farm perhaps, or in the warehouse where the seeds are packed and shipped. But the Call Center is the only part of the company with the flexibility to be able to allow me to work just part-time. With my own farm to look after and children too, each day that I spend away is a day taken away from Runamuk. For Runamuk, my time is a precious commodity.

This spring, I decided I was not going to be left behind when the other farmers left for the summer. To take the place of my Johnny’s paycheck I offered my skills as a gardener to my local community and lined up more than half a dozen clients. I bade farewell to my colleagues and the office, drove home in the sun, and seemingly the next day the spring rains began.

When it wasn’t raining I enjoyed the work immensely. Not all of the clientele I’d lined up followed through with their job offers, but the 2 that did were great folks to work for. A friend of mine in the Madison community who has a large family and a homestead of their own who just needed some extra help, and an older couple in Skowhegan who have an immaculate yard with beds of gorgeous irises and lilies, as well as an assortment of shrubs, trees, and other flowering things. Marvelous folks.

But the rainy days took their toll on my bank account, and I discovered that gardening as a side-business was just another business to run. By mid-summer I was back to working 2 days a week in the Call Center because my finances required the stability of the paycheck from Johnny’s.

The Apiary

Following the drought in the fall of 2016 I had opted to leave the fall honey stores on my hives going into the winter. Inevitably not all of my hives survived the winter, and I was able to harvest some of the honey I’d previously written off. For the first time in 2 years I was able to sell honey at the farmers’ market, and those sales in combination with the exceedingly low overhead at Paul’s were a boon to Runamuk’s financial situation.

choosing apiary location
Site your apiary in a location that will keep hives dry, buffered from the wind, and with good sun exposure.

I was determined to continue growing my operation in spite of the set back of not actually having a property to farm on. I replaced lost hives with packaged bees purchased from Peter Cowin of Hampden, and brought a number of nucleus colonies from Bob Egan in Skowhegan to add to my own surviving colonies. These colonies all built up well this spring, and with adequate rainfall we had a decent honey harvest in the summer, allowing Runamuk to offer local customers the choice between the dark, fall honey, and the recently extracted spring honey, which is lighter and sweeter in flavor.

In addition, I tried my hand at raising my own Queens for the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping. The intention of learning this valuable skill was to be able to make my apiary more sustainable, and inherently more viable. It was incredibly rewarding to see those long slender Queens, and I’m looking forward to devoting more time to Queen-rearing next season.

queen cells
Queen-cells the bees and I built this spring!

Farm & Garden

The farm aspect of Runamuk currently consists of it’s chicken flock for eggs, which we have traditionally sold at the farmers’ market as well as direct from the farm. While we do grow a few vegetables to sell at market, the underlying focus of the Runamuk garden is to feed it’s farmer─myself and my family─a significant undertaking in itself.

egg-production-in-a-hoop-house
Farm fresh eggs from free-ranged chickens!

At our present location we are able to free range the chickens, who happily scratch up the forest underbrush hunting for greens and insects. However with no pasture to speak of, and less than ideal coop-conditions, I opted to hold off on buying new chicks this year. Not unexpectedly, we have experienced a significant decrease in egg production as the flock ages. I opted to hold off on replacing the birds til after the #GreatFarmMove #theFinalChapter and had intended to slaughter the oldest birds to send to “Freezer Camp”, however timing was prohibitive and I was only able to get a handful of meat put away.

This is where friends and community are a huge asset. My friend Sonia over at Hide & Go Peep Farm in East Madison had a couple of pigs to process and needed help. In exchange for our participation in a good old fashioned hog-killing party, Paul and I received half a pig in the form of various cuts, packaged and frozen for us to add to our “Freezer Camp”. We also received some venison, moose, and bear meat from Paul’s family, who are avid hunters and had good luck this hunting season. I think with our largely plant-based diet I should be able to stretch the meat til spring; what a blessing!

The garden at Paul’s place was a first-year plot that we had to reclaim from the raspberries that had cropped up following some selective cutting done several years ago. It’s a very sandy patch of land off the Ward Hill Road in Norridgewock that Paul owns adjacent his parents, grandfather, and aunt. The oak trees love it and the sound of the acorns raining on his tin roof in the fall is fantastic, but it took some adjustment on my part to grow crops there. At previous locations I have grown in heavy clay soil, fine loam, and somewhat sandy conditions, but nothing compared to the dune-sand (not an exaggeration) we have here.

awesome carrot crop_2017
Awesome carrot crop!

Keeping things adequately watered was the biggest challenge and Paul made it his priority to keep plants alive utilizing a second well to feed the series of soaker hoses and drip tubing he’d rigged up. We also scored several loads of wood chips from a local arborist, and everything was heavily mulched to retain moisture.

In this sandy garden we produced some very fine-looking onions, green beans, dry beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, amaranth, lettuces, radishes, beets, summer and winter squashes, and the best crops of carrots and cucumbers I’ve grown in all my 20 years of gardening. We managed to produce enough vegetables to eat primarily out of the garden all summer, and we’re still eating our own vegetables even now. I’ll let you know when we run out, but I think I almost have enough to get us through to April when I can sow the first crops of the 2018 season and once again eat from the garden.

forum onion crop
I sold my onions in bunches of 3 and 4 at the farmers’ market. They were a big hit!

I do less in the way of market gardening then I once did, choosing instead to focus my efforts on the bees, but I still grow for myself and I like to have the diversity at my stand during the market season so I take a few vegetables every now and again. When Johnny’s presented “Forum”, a short-day onion available in the form of sets, I saw an opportunity to get onions to the market before the other veggie vendors and perhaps corner the market on that particular crop. Forum did beautifully; I managed to get them to size up by July and I had big beautiful, fresh-looking onions in bunches well ahead of the competition. Customers ate them up. Literally lol.

Blog & Writing

growing food is radical protest
Growing your own food is a radical form of protest.

For me, writing is as much about self-expression as it is a form of activism. Afterall, I am a devout environmentalist, seeking to affect change by first starting with myself. It is my hope that by boldly leading the way and bravely sharing my story, I will inspire others to follow suit.

Why should I do this? Why subject myself to scrutiny and judgement?

For love of course.

If you have been following along with my story, you know that I have a deep affinity for nature. A connection with the Earth that has never been matched. I seek to protect what I love─the beauty and wonder of our magnificent planet─this place we call home.

It is this love that compels me to take action in the face of the injustices and the maltreatment of this planet. I cannot sit idly by and ignore the grievances, so I work to change my own behaviors first. I’ve given of myself to my community, affecting change on a local level, and I write to reach a broader audience in hopes of swaying more people to also take up the cause.

This year I wrote 18 articles, 29 journal entries related to my journey as a beginning and female farmer─as well as my progress in pursuit of a forever-farm home. I updated 4 older articles, and published 1 guest post to the blog─for a total of 52 pieces of writing in 2017.

The readership of the Runamuk blog grew from little more than 300 to over 3500 subscribers; THAT’s pretty huge. We continued our relationship with our sponsor, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, who worked with us to connect one lucky grower with a new Jang JP1 Seeder. I was pretty proud of that, but coming in at 36 on the list of Top 100 Homesteading Blogs really took the cake.

Reader input invited: I’ve been toying with the idea of expanding into YouTube videos. There are several farmers I watch regularly on YouTube─ John Suscovich of Farm Marketing Solutions and Richard Perkins of Ridgedale Permaculture I follow religiously. I also watch Curtis Stone and Diego Footer on occasion, but I haven’t found similar valuable content distributed by female farmers and so I’m considering moving to fill that niche.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact gender can have on the farmer. Is it really an issue? Or is it just my perception that it’s an issue? Are other women feeling it too? Or is it just me who feels the effects of gender bias in this male-dominated career/world? To get some outside perspective I recently bought “The Rise of Women Farmers & Sustainable Agriculture” and “Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers“, and I’ve been listening a lot to the Female Farmer Podcast. So the idea is to make videos for women, by women…

I worry though that I don’t have the same aptitude for talking so casually on camera that seems to come naturally to these guys. I’ve always maintained a motto of “practice makes perfect”, even when it comes to something like socializing, but do you think one could overcome their innate social awkwardness to do justice to the service of providing valuable content via YouTube? Would it be worth my time and effort I wonder? And to what degree would it detract from my work here on the Runamuk blog, which has come so far?

Yet it seems that much of mainstream society no longer wants to read and prefers to watch videos instead. It’s possible that expanding Runamuk to YouTube would grow our audience even more. Maybe we can reach more gardeners, homesteaders and farmers and help them to learn the skills to be more self-sufficient. Maybe I can inspire even more folks to live sustainable lifestyles, and teach the world to be more bee-friendly.

What do you think? Should I try my hand at making YouTube videos? Leave me a comment at the end of this post to share your thoughts…

Madison Farmers’ Market

As Director of the Madison Farmers’ Market I devoted a lot of time and energy to our local association of farmers. Food has become increasingly important to me: real food, local food, organic food and food that hasn’t been modified or coated with chemicals. Access to real and local food in my hometown community is almost as crucial to me as pollinator conservation. Did you know that?

sonia at market
My friend Sonia of Hide & Go Peep Farm at the Madison Farmers’ Market this spring.

This was the Madison Farmers’ Market’s 5th season. When I first embarked to create a farmers’ market in my hometown it was just myself and 1 other vendor sitting alongside Main Street. The market has grown to 9 now, with a devout following of regular customer and a blossoming community centered around real and local food. Our customers tell us we are the friendliest market of all those they visit, and we pride ourselves on that welcoming atmosphere.

After 4 years growing our market, the collective group of farmers that make up the Madison Farmers’ Market finally decided the time had come to switch from a Sunday market to Saturday. The positive reaction from the community was palpable. We saw a significant increase in traffic at the market this season as more people took advantage of the market to stock up on fresh veggies, baked goods, grass-fed meats, goat cheeses, raw honey and more─all grown within 20 miles of Madison.

Last year we had some serious complications with the company who was handling our credit card transactions, which effectively allows the farmers’ market to also accept EBT from SNAP shoppers. This year, with the help of the folks at the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, we were able to line up a new processing company, new equipment, and an improved system at the Madison Farmers’ Market. It made a world of difference.

snapshot week at mfm
We’ve grown a community of market-going patrons in Madison! A truly grassroots movement in this small Maine town!

Our EBT program has been instrumental in attracting new customers to our growing market, and it makes shopping local affordable for more households within our community. By participating in the Maine Harvest Bucks program our market is able to offer SNAP shoppers matching bonus bucks for their purchases with EBT; they are then able to use those bonus bucks to purchase more fruits and vegetables. At the end of every market day my farmers receive a check for transactions processed by the market on their behalf.

The market invested in it’s own tent and table this year, having previously been operated out of the Runamuk tent, and it was dubbed “the Information Booth”. I took on the responsibility of setting up and manning the Info Booth, and I found that we could use the station as a way to further cultivate the sense of community that our farmers have grown in Madison.

Inspired by the idea of a Kid’s Club I gleaned at the annual Maine Farmers’ Market Convention, I decided to launch a program of our own. I visited elementary schools in Madison, Anson, and North Anson alongside Cheryl Curtis of Somerset Health to pitch the idea to my target audience. The children were excited by my enthusiasm I think, and we saw a number of them throughout the course of the summer, come to solve our weekly market riddle and participate in silly games and activities we crafted for them.

new kids club at mfm 2017
We saw many kids visit on a regular basis, taking advantage of our free Kid’s Club program and getting to know their local farmers.

This was a very good year for the Madison Farmers’ Market. I am so proud of the progress we’ve made!

Biggest Lessons Learned

At the start of this year I was all but ready to give up on farming. As a mother I’ve moved my children around too much in the name of my own dreams and desires and I wasn’t feeling particularly good about where we’d ended up. Yet it was that same maternal drive that compelled me to take up the cause once more, and to lay it all on the line one more time in hopes of giving my family the life I’d always imagined. Thanks to that perseverance we will be moving to the Swinging Bridge Farm in 2018, where we will begin a new chapter in the Runamuk saga.

3 biggest lessons I learned as a farmer/beekeeper in 2017:

  1. Working locally as a gardener was just another business to manage.
  2. Start earlier in the season with the Queen-rearing project.
  3. You can grow your own food just about anywhere, if you set your mind to it.

Totally Worth It

I’ve been gardening since I was 16, becoming increasingly zealous about homesteading as a means of sustainable living, but it’s been just these last 8 years I’ve been working toward earning an income from farming. I’ve faced the same challenges other beginning farmers face, including the learning curve, lack of capital, and land access. I’ve also faced challenges specific to women farmers: gender bias, the demands of children and family upon my time, and lack of support. Even some that are unique to me alone─a child on the Autism Spectrum, divorce, and the decision to base my business on bees at a time when keeping bees alive is challenging at best. Here I am now, at the conclusion of 2017 fresh with the victory of the FSA’s approval of my loan request, and on the cusp of closing on the purchase of my very own #foreverfarm.

I hope that the biggest take-away from my story is to never give up. Farming is hard and can certainly be challenging at times, but the rewards are so sweet and so tremendous that I promise─if you stick it out─it will all be worth it in the end. Carpe diem, my friend. Seize the day.

Thanks for following along! Check back in 2018 for more of Runamuk’s story as we get ready to move to the Swinging Bridge Farm in New Portland, Maine!

years end review

Making an offer

Swinging Bridge Farm was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. We have decided to make an offer on the old place, in hopes of building the Runamuk Conservation Farm there.

On Friday as Paul and I made our way to 619 Middle Road to meet Leah, I couldn’t help feeling that I was being drawn there─like my spirit had been hooked right through my sternum and I was being reeled in like a trout on the end of a fishing line. Something inside me was answering the call of some invisible force and when I stepped out of the car and beheld the old farmhouse I felt a joyous connection of energies as Swinging Bridge Farm welcomed me.

Like something out of a storybook, the Swinging Bridge Farm is the epitome of the classic New England farmhouse. Simple clapboard siding, mercifully unadorned by vinyl siding (eew), with an attached barn and gnarly old apple trees.

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My farm-friendly realtor

Not many realtors would take the time or make the effort to walk a property like this with their client, but mine came dressed in rubber boots, as eager as we were to explore the 100 acres the old house sits on. I’m beginning to think that hiring Leah Watkins was a good move─not only is she enthusiastic about my project, but she has taken it upon herself to meet with the finance specialist at the FSA to learn more about the lending process there, as well as meeting with Nina Young at the Maine Farmland Trust to get an information download on how farming affects a real estate transaction and how─if at all─MFT might be able to help us.

When I said I wanted to make an offer Leah didn’t bat an eye. She told me to write a love letter to the seller regarding the property. Well that much I can certainly manage!

Now Leah is spending her holiday weekend drafting this sale agreement to send to the seller immediately following the holiday. She’s certainly earning her commission!!!

How it works

Financing with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency isn’t the same process as that of a mainstream bank. You don’t go to the FSA for a pre-qualification and then go look for a property in that price range. A farmer has to have a sale agreement in place before the government will even consider financing your project. And believe you me, it’s tough to get a seller to agree to anything without verification that you’ll actually be able to pay for it in the end.

If I can get this sale agreement nailed down, I can then polish my business plan, line up my numbers on my financials, and apply for a loan with the FSA. I’ll be applying on my own as a female farmer.

I thought long and hard about whether or not to do joint-ownership with Paul, my partner now since June of 2016. Ultimately as a mom─and as a woman─having worked on this for so very long, I wanted this one thing for just me, and me alone.

There’s also the fact that there are funds for women as disadvantaged farmers that I wanted to tap into, a certain sense of feminist pride I suppose─that I wanted to do this for women everywhere and hopefully inspire other women to continue their own fight for the right to farm and have their own lands. What’s more, the FSA has a requirement that farmers applying for their programs have a minimum of 3 years experience; with just 1 year of farming under his belt, Paul does not meet their guidelines.

Here are my options:

Plan A (preferred)
Fund 100% through the FSA using their Direct Down Payment loan to pay 20% of the total cost (whatever that figure ends up being). Then finance the remainder with the FSA’s Guaranteed Farm Ownership program.

Plan B
Finance the entire thing with the FSA under their Direct Farm Ownership program.

​It really depends on what Janice at the FSA office says when we talk to her, which ​route she feels stands the best chance for success. It also depends on how much we are able to raise on our own with the FarmRaiser campaign.

Meeting the world halfway

It’s not mine yet, and it may never be; there are still so many hurdles to overcome. But this is the story of a beginning farmer. These are the trials beginning farmers like me are facing every day. I am not a singularity.

The fact that I have struggled along the way to farm ownership does not mean I am a poor business person, lacking skills or planning. On the contrary─I’ve managed to grow my business despite being landless. Beekeeping has done that for me. And so has my commitment to community, along with my own resourcefulness, hard work and determination. These are the traits of a new generation of farmers like me, who are forging their farms in spite of the obstacles.

I have accepted my station as such, and I feel my choice in farmland reflects my willingness to meet the world halfway. This is not prime farmland. The soil is wonderfully rocky, and the farm is all uphill. This is not even prime development land, with deep gorges and high ridges, and so so much rock. The house is in need of modern updates like windows and doors, and there had been a leak at one point that did some damage to the ceiling in the summer wing. By no standards is the place elegant or even comfortable.

Living there will still be rough. Farming there will not be easy. But thankfully I am not a veggie farmer (aside from producing my own food), so I do not require prime farmland. And I am well accustomed to living in rough conditions, so I do not shy away from the challenges this property poses. I’m going to give it my all and see if we can make it happen.

Stay tuned for more updates coming soon! And please consider sharing the link to our FarmRaiser campaign!!!

FarmRaiser launch!

Today the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme campaign launches to raise funds for the down-payment on the property that will become the home of Runamuk and the pollinator conservation farm that I have long envisioned. Eeeeeeeeek!

The Man Woman in the Arena

I’m taking a deep breath and putting myself once more in the ring to fight for this dream. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying to be in such a position, at the mercy of so many factors beyond my control, and yet I must give it all I’ve got. Against all odds I was called to beekeeping and pollinator conservation, and against all odds I have grown my farming business even as a landless farmer. I have chosen to commit myself to the same economically depressed region of Maine where I was born and raised, and have bootstrapped my way to this arena. I just need a little help to get there.

Here is the link to the GoFundMe page for the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/runamukfarmraiser

It’s been a long, hard scrabble, but I’ve built my business slowly and carefully to the point where Runamuk is now generating enough income to warrant investment in real estate. We need a property where we can dig in, plant perennials and begin to cultivate this pollinator haven, putting into action all of the techniques I have learned for bee-friendly farming and leading the way for other farmers to take up a bee-friendly approach to farming too. I

This conservation and demonstration farm will allow Runamuk to host a wide spectrum of workshops, tours with the public, school field trips and family picnics. With winding paths through the gardens it will be a place of revelry for the beauty and wonder of nature. Our approach to farming will inspire others to start their own journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

After searching for years, I can’t help but wonder if it is fate at work, or mere serendipity that the Swinging Bridge Farm became available just as the Runamuk FarmRaiser was about to go live.

Later this morning Paul and I will be going to see the old farmhouse in New Portland. I can hardly believe that the sellers have already agreed to my drawn-out timeline for finalizing the sale of the property. Because I am a farmer and am unable to receive financing with a regular bank, I’m working with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. As you can imagine, any government program comes with a lot of hoops to jump through, hurdles to overcome, and it’s a slow process. I know most people don’t have the luxury of waiting so long for a sale to go through.

I’m a bundle of nerves and fairly quivering with excitement as I wait for the time to come to meet what could possibly be my forever-farm. Could it be? Is it she? The one I am destined to love for the rest of my life? The land that I will give myself to, to sweat and bleed over, to love and cry for─til death do us part?

How you can help

  1. FOLLOW: Follow this blog by email. Follow us on facebook, instagram, twitter, linked, or pinterest to follow our journey and learn more about how you can BEE more friendly.
  2. SHARE: Share the blog with friends and family. Share the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme link with your networks to help spread the word about my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm. It’s a small thing, but it really makes a big difference and it would mean the world to me. And it’s a FREE way to support Runamuk.
  3. PARTY! If you’re in the state of Maine, and especially if you’re local─come to my FarmRaiser Party on Sunday October 1st! Good food, good beer, good music, and good company. What more could you want? All proceeds go to the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign.
  4. DONATE: If you can afford to and are inspired to help bees, consider donating to our gofundme campaign. I’ve come up with some great bee-friendly perks to show my appreciation, including bee-themed refrigerator magnets that friends at Johnny’s Selected Seeds are helping me to paint, bumper stickers, honey, reserved spots in future workshops, and more! [paypal-donation]

Runamuk is already a force within the community here in central Maine. But I know I can do more; I’m ready to take this next step and grow my business into this powerhouse of a conservation center. Please join me on this journey; become my brothers and sisters in arms, and take up the fight. Together we can save bees and save the world.

Check out the Runamuk FarmRaiser gofundme page and please consider sharing our story with friends and family!

A good season

spring honey 2017

It’s been a good season for Runamuk, all things considered. The weather has been good this year, with a good amount of rain and an equally good amount of sun. There have been a few scorchers and a few chilly nights, but all around it’s just been a decent season and farmers all over Maine have reveled in a year where they can simply farm and grow. A welcome change after last year’s drought.

In the Apiary

Beehives apiary august 2017
The apiary in August!

With adequate rain, the flowers have offered up plenty of nectar this season, and the bees at the apiary in the Hyl-Tun pastures have produced a crop of spring honey. After 2 years without honey to sell I now have available both a fall honey (from the 2016 season) and this new spring honey.  Yaaaaaaay!

spring honey 2017
If you haven’t tried honey on your Saturday morning pancakes, you don’t know what you’re missing!!!

I’ve put out both varieties in sampling at market and at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, so that folks can taste and learn about the different types of honey. Most people have no idea that there’s more than one type of honey, so accustomed to the standard “Clover Honey” found in the mainstream grocery store is the general population.

It all comes down to the flowers the bees are foraging on. Different types of flowers will produce varying flavors─even varying consistencies of honey. Honey will differ from one region to the next, as the floral sources are a little different from landscape to landscape. Here in Maine the spring honey is typically lighter in color, sweeter and thinner; whereas the fall crop will be darker and has a more robust flavor, and tends to crystallize quite a lot fast because it has a lower moisture content.

Having honey has meant a huge boost to Runamuk’s income, and after having none these last couple years due to harsh weather and the fall-out from my divorce in 2015─it feels really good to have been able to make a come back.

In the Garden

squash neighborhood and sunflowers
The squash neighborhood has turned out to be very productive this year!

The sandy patch of soil at 26 Goodine’s Way where Runamuk has parked itself during the interim has produced a respectable amount of food to feed this farmer. It’s a small garden, so I’m not taking many vegetables to the farmers’ market, but I am able to feed my family with it.

Our strategy to house the chickens for the winter on the garden site has paid off. Through the winter and early this spring the chickens worked the soil for us, cleaning up weeds and adding manure. In early May we moved them out of the garden into a movable hoop-coop and have allowed them to free range all summer. The fence that had protected the birds throughout the winter, now kept them out of the garden so we could grow our crops.

Read about the “Hoop-Coop” I built in the face of our impending farm-move to house the Runamuk laying flock!

amaranth 2017
Paul grew a hedgerow of Amaranth, which I had never tried before. Now I am smitten with it!

We’ve had lots of greens, radishes and turnips, beets, fresh onions and potatoes, zucchini and summer squash galore, and I’m just beginning to get cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. My winter squashes have done fabulous, and I even did a crop of dry beans for winter soups and stews. When a couple of wayward pumpkin seeds sprouted in the manure pile left after cleaning out the former hoop-coop, I poked a few more pumpkin seeds into the pile for my Thanksgiving pies and those have grown to sprawl all over too, with several pumpkins getting big and fat under the broad-leafed foliage.

It’s been a new experience for me, dealing with such sandy soil. The stuff is literally classified as “Dune sand”. The kind you want at the beach or in your toddler’s sandbox─NOT in your garden. At the start of the season as I planted my seedlings into the sand I felt despair, feeling it was surely an act of futility to ask anything the grow in that “soil”. This garden has enforced for me the idea that you can absolutely grow your own food just about anywhere with dedication and a lot of hard work.

Check out this post to learn more about my real food challenge!

The key to growing in sand, we’ve found, has been the addition of well-composted manure to the beds─lots and lots of it─and we mulched everything to help retain moisture. Paul set up an irrigation system  for the garden that drew from an unused well here; he’s watered the garden religiously every morning and evening, and then even 2 or 3 or 4 times during the day when the sun burns hot. With a passion for soil-building and growing food, Paul has more or less taken over the garden aspect of the Runamuk venture, freeing me up to focus on the bees, while still allowing me to keep my hands in the dirt.

The Runamuk FarmRaiser

farmraiser launch countdown
The Runamuk FarmRaiser launch countdown on my phone! Gasp!

There are just 11 days left before the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign launches on September 1st. Preparations for the campaign have consumed my spare time─as if I had any to begin with lol! The whole thing is pretty scary and there have been several mornings I’ve woken up at 3am with my heart pounding and anxiety coursing hotly through my veins.

I remind myself during these moments of panic that it really doesn’t matter how much or how little the gofundme campaign raises, the FSA offers financing on the down-payment as well, but I can’t help feeling that the more I am able to raise the better it’s going to look to the land-owner, or the more doors the down-payment fund might open for Runamuk. It’s a huge deal and I feel as though much of what Runamuk is─or can be─hinges upon the success of this crowdfunding campaign.

balfour farm with maine farmland trust
I attended a dinner at Balfour Farm recently, that was sponsored by the Maine Farmland Trust! Connected with some kindred spirits and made some new connections; what a great group of people!

So what do I do at 3 in the morning when fear prevents me from sleeping? I work! I’ve put together an entire Media Kit containing flyers, press release, full-length article, HD pictures, social media graphics and more. Friends have volunteered to post flyers and help spread the word too, so feel free to check out the resources in this file on my Google Drive. If you’re inspired, go ahead and share my story with your friends, print out some fliers and paper the town!

billys belly bluegrass festival
My friend Sonia Acevedo with her offspring Eden, on stage at Billy’s Belly Bluegrass Festival in Anson.

I’ll be visiting local events over the next few weeks to tell the community about the Runamuk FarmRraiser and to invite folks to the upcoming party on October 1st. It’s been fun getting out there in the broader community to connect with people; I’ve run into old friends, finally met friends whom I’d only ever known online, and made a lot of new friends too. I’ve invited every one of them to my party lol.

The press release went out to local papers last week, and I contacted a few journalists that I have connections with─hoping to increase exposure of the Runamuk FarmRaiser. I also have a long list of organizations I want to reach out to to share my mission for a pollinator conservation farm. Now I just need to make a few videos: an explainer video to go along with my campaign, a teaser video, and a couple of “behind-the-scenes” videos. Stay tuned to see my attempt at video-making coming soon!

As anxious as I am about the gofundme campaign, I’m equally as excited to share the upcoming FarmRaiser party with friends, not just as a fundraiser, but as a celebration of farming and friendship─and bees! My talented and beautiful friend Sonia Acevedo from Hide & Go Peep Farm is going to play for us, and I’m working on recruiting some other musicians but I can’t give out the details on that til it’s nailed down, so check in with me later! Otherwise there will be lots of great food to share (it’s pot-luck!), local brew to imbibe, hay bales to sit upon under barn rafters lit with twinkling white holiday lights, and many many good friends to catch up with. It’s going to be a really fun time and I hope you’ll come spend the evening with us on Sunday October 1st!

Shifting focus

kale beet seedlings
Kale and beet seedlings we sowed for harvesting later this fall and winter.

Summer seems to have passed in the blink of an eye and now back-to-school season and the impending cooler weather of fall are approaching at break-neck speed. Our focus is shifting from growing and producing, to self-preservation for the coming winter: Paul has begun cutting up logs that will become our winter heating, we’re talking about how to protect the laying hens from the minks this winter, and about how we will store the potatoes. Even now that it’s almost late-August we’re still poking seeds in the ground to grow crops that we will harvest later in December and January when there is snow on the ground. I love the seasonality of this farming life of mine; each season brings it’s own ups and downs but it’s always part of the turning wheel of the year.

Thanks so much for following along and stay tuned for more updates coming soon from Runamuk!

FarmRaiser Party! Beekeeping, dinner & music!

barn party

Come to the Runamuk apiary on October 1st for a crash course in beekeeping and stay for dinner and live music at the historic Hilton barn in Starks! As part of the Runamuk FarmRaiser: a Bee-Friendly Farm gofundme campaign, I’ve organized this 2-part event that I’m really excited to share.

Beekeeping 101

beekeeping 101Sign up early to participate in my Beekeeping 101 workshop which begins at 9am on Sunday, October 1st. The course will cover the basics of getting started with bees in Maine, including where to get bees, apiary location, how to set up your equipment, installing the bees, pests & diseases, and overwintering your bees─among other things. Weather and temperatures permitting we may crack open a hive for some hands-on experience.

I have permission to use the Hilton’s barn for this event, so the workshop will take place rain or shine. Coffee, tea, and refreshments will be provided, but participants should bring a bag lunch of their own.  This is a 5 or 6 hour course and participants will take a beekeeping guide book home with them and numerous handouts.

The course is one of the perks I’m offering in the upcoming Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign with a $150 donation, however I’m offering a 11% discount on Early Bird registration RIGHT NOW. Sign up to participate for just $75!!! You may have two adult members from the same household for this price, requires confirmation of address and a book is shared.




FarmRaiser Party!

Runamuk’s supporters, friends and family are all invited to come to the Hyl-Tun Farm on route 43 in Starks for a pot-luck dinner and live music! From 5-8 join us in the historic Hilton barn for the Runamuk FarmRaiser Party and celebrate with me all that Runamuk has achieved thus far, and all that we will attain in the future. A celebration of life, love, and community that you won’t want to miss.

farmraiser flyerI’m hoping to have a contradance, but I’m still working to nail that down. At the very least I know we will have some great live music, plenty good food, adult beverages (as well as family-friendly drinks of course), good company and a great setting. It’s sure to be a good time for the whole family.

VIP Passes: Here’s another great campaign perk I’m revealing early: VIP Passes to the Runamuk FarmRaiser Party! Except in this case, VIP stand for Very Important Pollinator. VIP guests will be seated at an exclusive table and served by yours truly, plied with wine or beer or whatever your beverage of choice is, and honored as revered supporters to the Runamuk cause. Receive a tour of the apiary, the Hilton’s conservation pasture, and gain exclusive “backstage access” to the evening’s musicians. These VIP Passes won’t be available until the campaign goes live, but a pair of passes can be yours with a $250 donation. Come be my guest, let me shower you with love and appreciation!!!

On-Going Campaign Prep

As you can see, I’ve been busy preparing for the upcoming crowdfunding campaign. I’ve put together what I think are some great gifts to give in exchange for donations, I’ve got a list of online promotion and another of offline promotion to work through, a video still to make, and the actual campaign launching on September 1st. And all this in addition to my regularly scheduled duties. Yes it’s hectic, but I’m confident it will all be worth it in the end.

I’ve put together a jam-packed campaign Media Kit that includes the official press release for the campaign, a full-length article, campaign highlights, social media images, flyers, and high res images. Anyone interested in helping to promote the Runamuk FarmRaiser can access the Media Kit by emailing me directly. Aslo feel free to email me for collaboration; I welcome any and all support!

Already I’ve been passing out flyers at the farmers’ market, posting them about the local community, and sharing the news of the Runamuk FarmRaiser campaign─and our upcoming party! I’m really excited; however much we raise is going to be a help when we finally go to the FSA next March to begin the long process for financing our forever-farm home. I’m just glad I get to share the journey with so many wonderful friends.

Thanks for following along! Stay tuned for more from Runamuk!

3 Easy Ways To Promote Native Bees On Your Farm Or Homestead

For farmers and homesteaders, it just makes sense to promote the myriad of native bees on your farm.  By encouraging native bees you’re effectively promoting the overall health of the  ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer─since bees are a keystone species and their health and well-being directly impacts plants and animals all the way up the food chain.  A healthy ecosystem is going to result in improved yields; whether you’re farming for vegetables, or farming grass for your cattle herd─the health of your farm’s ecosystem can directly impact your harvest─and so too your profitability.

Note: See this post for more details about the benefits of supporting native pollinators on your farm, and this one for information about who exactly the pollinators are. For the purposes of this article we will be talking largely about native bees, of which there are some 4000 species in North America, and more than 20,000 world-wide.

promoting native bees on your farm or homesteadStep 1 – Recognize existing native bee habitat

Once you’ve committed yourself to the concept of promoting your local native bee populations, there are a number of ways you can improve and create habitat, safe-guard their existence, and encourage their proliferation. First evaluate your farm for existing nesting habitat.  Often we have colonies of native bees present that we are simply overlooking.  Take a walk around your farm to look for these areas.

Sites for ground-nesting bees: Remember that 70% of native bees are ground-nesters.  Look for spots where the soil is of poor quality, bare or sparsely vegetated.  Look for the entrances of ground-nesting native bees. Often they will be marked by a small mound of soil that has been excavated, but it may also be little more than a small hole in the ground.  Usually they will be located in marginal area of the farm, like the banks of drainage ditches or close to buildings or other structures.

By encouraging native bees you can promote the overall health of the ecosystem that you are responsible for as a farmer. Click to learn more from Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary in Maine!

Sites for wood and cavity-nesting bees: These bees typically do not excavate their own nests–instead they take advantage of the tunnels created by burrowing beetle larvae in dead wood.  They might utilize the center of pithy-stemmed shrubs , while bumble bees frequently nest in old rodent burrows or under tussocks of grass.  Look for dead wood, brush piles, dense shrubby snags, and overgrown native bunch grasses.

Food for Bees

Once you’ve noticed that native bees are indeed present, learn to recognize the plants supporting them.  The best of these will be crawling with many insects─mostly bees─and may be found in area along the roadside, in field boarders, around farm buildings and under utility easements.  These flowers are not a distraction from your crops, as they actually help local bees to reproduce with greater success.

What’s available & when? Try to discern how much forage is available for the native bees.  A study performed by researchers at the University of California, show that when approximately 30% of the land within three-quarters of a mile of the crop-fields is growing natural habitat, native bees can provide all the pollination necessary for a crop of watermelon.  In Canada, Lora Morandin from the University of California discovered that in the absence of honeybees, canola farmers can maximize their income if 30% of the farmland is left in it’s natural habitat─thanks to pollination by wild bees.

Look at the flowers, shrubs, and even the trees growing on and around your farm.  Are they mostly native species?  Do you have a mix of native and naturalized (non-invasive) species, or do you have invasive flowering weeds present on the property? How far away from the farm and your crop-fields are these areas located? The typical foraging distance of native bees is about 500-feet to half a mile from their nest, with the larger species flying farther than the small ones.  Large area of pollinator habitat should be within half a mile of an insect-pollinated crop in order to be of the greatest benefit for crop production.

early spring maple forage for native bees
Many trees–such as the maple pictured–provide early spring food for pollinators.

Take note of the point in the season when they flower─which plants flower in the spring, which in the summer, and which ones flower in the fall?  How many are flowering during each season?  Native bees need forage available throughout the duration of the growing season in order to reproduce and survive.

What are the landscape features of your farm?  How many acres is the average size of your crop field?  What additional landscape features are located within a mile of the crop field?  For example─do you have existing vegetative buffers, to catch drifting insecticides (if you use them), hedgerows, windbreaks, fence-rows of diverse tree and shrub species.  Do you maintain flowering cover crops or a bee-pasture, or do you allow any crops to bolt and flower, which also offers forage for native pollinators.  Do you have a water source for native bees on the farm? Once you’ve found these nesting and foraging sites, leave them alone─preserve them─make the commitment to keep those sites in tact in order to maintain the existing populations of native bees.

Step 2 – Adapt your farming practices

Farmers can help preserve local populations of native bees by making adjustments to their management practices.  Even minor changes can make a big difference.

agriope spider reduces pest pressure in sustainable farming
Beneficial insects like this agriope spider thrive when bee-friendly practices are employed, reducing pest-pressure in the garden or crop-fields.

Are you using insecticides? Ultimately, one of the best things a farmer can do is to avoid the use of pesticides.  Most pesticides kill native bees directly─on contact, while others kill bees indirectly─the pesticide may be carried inadvertently back to the hive in the pollen and nectar, and fed to other bees.  Even some fungicides can kill bees directly–or they may have a sub-lethal effect on the bees–reducing the numbers of offspring the female bee can produce for the next season. When insecticides can’t be avoided─employing an IPM program (Integrated Pest Management) is a good measure for controlling pests and protecting native bees at the same time.  Should the need to apply an insecticide or fungicide arise─spraying at night, when─pollinators are inactive, spraying only outside of bloom periods, and carefully considering the drift path of insecticides─are important methods for protecting existing populations of native bees.

Tillage and weed control: Extensive tillage destroys the nests of shallow ground-nesting bees, and hinders the emergence of bees nesting deeper in the ground.  Farmers should look for nest sites that already exist before tilling. Some native bees are very tightly connected with their host flowers─such as squash bees with cucurbit crops.  The females may dig vertical tunnels in the ground directly next to the plant, and the next generation of bees are typically concentrated 6-12 inches below the surface of the ground.  Plowing destroys these nests, and kills most of the developing bees.  Farmers who discover squash bees living in their fields of melons and squash should try setting their plows at shallower depths─less than 6 inches─or look into no-till practices.

Land management techniques: Are you grazing, burning, mowing, or haying on and around your farm?  Each of these methods have positive and negative impacts on your local native bee populations.  Consider all aspects carefully before moving ahead with maintenance of the landscape.

Grazing – While common practice─can alter the structure, diversity, and growth of the vegetation within a habitat, which can impact the local insect community.  When flowers are scarce, grazing can result in insufficient forage for pollinators.  Grazing also poses the threat of destroying potential and existing nest sites, and can result in the direct trampling of adult bees.

Burning – Fire management of the landscape can have a highly variable effect on insect communities.  When used appropriately, fire can restore and maintain habitat for pollinators; but if used too frequently it can result in a dramatic decrease of invertebrate populations.

bee-friendly rotational field mowing
A mowing rotation can help boost pollinator populations.

Mowing – Like grazing, mowing can suppress the growth of woody vegetation─thus maintaining vegetative pastures where pollinators thrive.  However─it can also negatively impact insects through direct mortality─especially of the egg and larval stages when nests are mowed under, because those bees cannot escape.

Mowing also creates a uniform field─destroying features like the grass tussocks that bumble bees prefer to nest under.  What’s more─mowing very abruptly removes almost all flowers. The landscape can still be managed though─to maintain those open areas─if farmers conduct mowing and burning when plants and pollinators are dormant (in the late fall and throughout the winter months─depending on where you are located).  Limit the disturbance to one-third or one-fourth of the landscape, to ensure the survival of some of the native bee populations, so that they may recolonize the managed area.  And practice rotational grazing─using a carefully planned to suit the conditions of the site.

Practice bee-friendly farm management: There are a number of ways farmers can adjust their management practices to encourage pollinator populations on and around their farms.  Even the most minor changes can make the world of difference to your native bees.

  • Diversity of crops – Growing a wide variety of crops can support native bees by extending the bloom period.
  • Staggered plantings – If you specialize in a single crop, consider succession plantings to encourage pollinator populations.  For example─growing early and late-flowering blueberries or apples allows more foraging time by the native bees─increasing their reproductive success.
  • mustard gone to flower
    Mustard that has gone to flower in the garden.

    Allow some crops to bolt – Leaving a portion of your crop in the ground, and allowing them to mature and flower before you plow them under is a simple delay in management that provides an additional source of food for your bees.

  • Strategic crop rotation – When rotating crops, moving it to a new field 500-1000 feet away allows the offspring of the bees that are currently foraging on that crops flowers to find the new site the following year.
  • Non-chemical alternatives to pesticides – Maintain a healthy and diverse landscape to deter pests and diseases.  Practice biological controls, such as hand-picking or crushing larger insects, or spraying with soapy water.  Employ good sanitation practices: remove infected leaves and the previous year’s crop from the area to further limit the spread of disease.  For larger farms where hand-picking is not practical, utilizing IPM methods can be a good compromise.
  • Tolerate weeds – While weed management is important for successful crop production–some weeds are important food sources for bees and other beneficial insects.  Tolerating the presence of weeds on the farm can go a long way toward providing additional food for crop-pollinating insects. Maybe you have areas weeds can be allowed to grow, or select weeds you can coexist with?

Step 3 – Provide additional habitat

If you’re looking to actively increase the populations of resident bees on your farm─-you can increase the available foraging habitat to include a range of plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall─providing an abundant supply of pollen and nectar all season long.

buckwheat cover crop
A cover crop improves soil conditions and reduces weed pressure, all while feeding important beneficial insects.

Cover crops & bee-pastures: Growing appropriate cover crops and letting them bloom, or devoting some areas to specialized bee-pastures are 2 easy ways to include your native bees. Bee-pastures are fields growing plants that offer superior food for bees.  They offer an abundant bloom throughout the nesting period and especially during the larval stages, and bee-emergence.  Usually these pasture consist of high-density wildflower meadows with a diversity of plant species, including many native plant varieties, but possibly some non-native species which are not aggressive or invasive.

Understory plantings: Try using cover crops as understory plantings in orchards, where the flowers bloom all at once, and then are gone, leaving little else for the rest of the year, or use clover in the pathways of your gardens and crop fields.

Smaller plantings throughout the farm: Placing smaller plantings of wildflowers every 500-feet throughout the farm helps native bees move deeper into the farm.  These potential nesting sites mean the bees won’t have to go far from where they are foraging on a crop to find new food sources coming into bloom once your crop has flowered.

Start today!

Promoting the health of your farm’s ecosystem by focusing conservation efforts on native bees is a great way to increase the viability of your farm.  There are programs available for farmers interested in pollinator conservation–contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service to find out more about the resources they’re offering farmers to do just that.  And keep in mind that some of the best measures you can take actually reduce your expenses–or cost nothing whatsoever–so what are you waiting for? Start today!

What do you think? Is it worth it to go the extra mile to promote the health of your farm’s ecosystem? Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below!

Queen-rearing: if at first you don’t succeed…

queen cells

For the first time in my 7 years of beekeeping I am trying my hand at raising my own Queens. I’m excited for what this new skill means for my apiary and now wonder why I didn’t start sooner! We’re at the height of the growing season now and I am out there in the thick of it, loving every minute.

runamuk apiariesIn the field where the grasses are growing chest-high under the golden summer sunshine, elbow deep in a beehive amid a cloud of buzzing bees it is easy to forget that Runamuk is still homeless, that my vision for a pollinator conservation farm is still only a concept in my mind. Mostly I maintain a positive attitude about it: “It’s not the destination it’s the journey”; and “I’m so awesome I’m making an impact on my community even as a landless farmer.”

Raising my own Queens through propagation of hardy Maine honeybee stock means I will finally be able to stop buying in bees every year; it means I can move toward a more sustainable apiary. Such is the nature of beekeeping that the beekeeper must accept the fact that there will be annual losses of colonies; statistics site that the nationwide average of annual hive loss among American beekeepers is 38%. Beekeepers like Kirk Webster, Mike Palmer and Ross Conrad are mitigating those losses by producing their own bees to supply their apiaries. I figure if those guys can do it, so can I. I’ve read their books, listened to their talks, and this past winter I read Brother Adams’ book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey which lent more depth to the process of overwintering Queens as nucleus colonies.

Something about the Queen honeybee is a little intimidating though. I’ve always been super protective of her and the idea of being responsible for numerous Queens was─and still is─a little scary for me. However the rewards of learning to produce good Queens was too powerful a draw for this beekeeper to resist. Not only would producing my own Queens provide me with the means to grow my apiary, but also create opportunity to sell overwintered nucs and mated-Queens, which are in high demand. That’s money in the bank for Runamuk.

humble abodesI did my homework, had a plan mapped out, knew exactly what I needed for supplies, and we trucked down to Humble Abodes for equipment. Humble Abodes is my favorite place to purchase bee-equipment; made with pine and milled right there at their facility in Windsor, it’s local, reasonably priced and I can drive to pick it up to avoid shipping costs.

Forever bootstrapping Runamuk along, we sought the cheapest way to make this leap possible. I decided to just buy the deep boxes and turn them into double-nucs myself. We happened to have enough plywood on hand that we could create the divider, along with bottom boards and top-covers. Paul cut the pieces and I assembled it all and before we knew it we had 10 divided nuc-boxes ready to go.

divided deeps for queen rearing
Divided deep boxes for mating nucs.
ventilated nuc box
I simply took the bottom off a nuc box and stapled metal screening to the bottom.

I made my ventilated cell-starting boxes and loaded it with young nurse bees. Then I took a frame of eggs from one of the 2 colonies I have that survived this last winter: the one with the best brood pattern and the calmest temperament. Instead of grafting, which can have a lower success rate because you’re moving the larvae around, I opted to try another method where you simply cut the frame with the eggs into strips and adhere it to the Queen-cell frame with beeswax.

queen cells
Proof of concept: started Queen-cells!!!

We were right down to the wire on this project. I had started the first round of Queens and then we ran for the equipment and rushed to get it put together. I even started a second round and put those cells in the finisher-hive too. By the time I got to the apiary to move the Queen-cells into mating nucs the first Queen had hatched out and killed the other 17 Queens before they even had a chance to emerge.

destroyed queen cellsTiming is everything in raising Queens. Instead of 18 new Queens I have 1 blood-thirsty bitch of a Queen. She better be the best damn Queen ever is all I can say.

queen cell prep in the field
Cutting comb to assemble another frame of potential Queen-cells. Since my apiary is not where I live, I found it was easier to set up right in the field than to truck my cell-starter all the way home to do it.

Not to be deterred, I’ve started a 3rd round. It’s a new skill and it takes time to master anything worth doing. I think I’m starting to get the hang of the process. Setting up the cell-starter seems to be the biggest pain, though prepping the Queen-cell frame is tedious. I’ve realized how crucial it is to know how old the larvae is that you use for Queen-production and how important the timing is too. There’s not much lee-way so the beekeeper has to be prepared.

the finisher hive
Queen-cells are started in a “cell-starter” then transferred to a “finisher hive” like this one!

Otherwise in the apiary this are going well. We’ve been selling the honey from the hives we lost this past winter at market all season; it feels really good to have that product on the table at the Runamuk at the Madison Farmers’ Market. The packages we bought from Peter Cowin ramped up with surprising speed and are now making honey. We got fewer nucleus colonies from Bob Egan than we’d initially planned, allowing me to pursue the Queen-project that was so important to me; those nucs have just about filled the brood nest and will be ready to make honey in earnest by the time the fall nectar-flow hits.

Depending on how many Queens I manage to produce the two colonies that came through the winter will get broken down to provide mating-nucs with combs and resources. It may seem counter-intuitive to take apart perfectly good, well established colonies, but those well established colonies also have well-established colonies of Varroa mites. Breaking up a colony also breaks up that mite-infestation and reduces the pest-pressure on the bees. Besides, if I can go from 2 hives to 40, it’s well worth the sacrifice in the long run.

To me it makes sense to raise my own Queens. What do you think? Have any tips for me? Feel free to leave me a comment below!