Ruby Catches a Bee Swarm!

Honey bees are superorganisms, meaning that a single honey bee cannot exist without her colony. The colony and the hive itself make up the organism. The way that colonies reproduce is called “swarming,” and there’s a “swarm season” in spring when healthy colonies get the urge to reproduce themselves. First they raise a lot of drones (male bees), and then they start making new baby queen bees.

One the baby queen cells are capped (sealed off after about 9 days of developing as a larvae and getting fed by nurse bees), the reigning queen will leave the colony with about half the workers and some drones. The young queens left behind with a small contingent of workers/guards and young nurse bees will hatch, take mating flights, and one of the baby queens will take over as queen of the colony (if all goes well). If multiple young queens successfully mate and return, the hive may send out smaller secondary swarms with those queens (or even with virgin queens sometimes since only one stays in the mother hive).

The swarm will usually fly somewhere nearby and ball up. Depending on how many bees left the hive, this can be the size of a baseball, basketball, or much larger like a beach ball. They cluster in this clump and send out scouts who look for ideal conditions for a new hive. They are looking for a space that is protected, usually high up in a tree or in a crevice with a small entrance that is shielded from the elements and that fits the size of the swarm. Different scouts find different places, and return to the swarm to dance the location and convey what they like about the prospective new home. Other bees follow the instructions to check out the spot, they make their own evaluation, and come back to dance for the site if they like it. Eventually the bees come to consensus with all or a majority of bees dancing to indicate a chosen location, and they take off en masse to their new home, which may be miles away.

One neat thing about this process (other than the fact that bees have a better functioning direct democracy than humans do) for the beekeeper is that you have an opportunity to catch or attract (‘trap”) them while they are in the stage of scouting and dancing for new locations. With traps, you simply provide a box that meets “bee specifications” for an ideal home (size of cavity, entrance size, pheromones and bee smells, evidence of prior bee residents like honey comb present), and wait for a swarm to choose your location. They will literally just fly into the box and take up residence if they like it best compared with other available options.

To catch a swarm that is resting is a bit more challenging, but well worth the effort. Ideally the swarm is low to the ground and in an easy to reach location, but often they are 40+ feet up a tree (that happened to us this year, a small swarm was simply too high to catch and didn’t choose the box we out out for them). Ruby had never caught a swarm before - and to be honest she was a bit intimidated at the prospect but wanted to try it. She was praying for the “perfect swarm” - size of a basketball, less than 10 feet off the ground, and in our town at a time she was available to collect them, and her bee gear was with her (not up at the land). Sounds like a tall order, but that’s just what she got!

This is the bee-autiful swarm that Ruby caught.

This is the bee-autiful swarm that Ruby caught.

A few weeks ago, Ruby received an email alerting her about a bee swarm on her street, just a few houses away, and she responded within minutes. The garden is a certified Pollinator Garden, so it was extra special. The swarm was on a branch just at Ruby’s face level. She was able to give the branch a good shake and collect the bees into a box. Once the queen is in the swarm box, the rest of the bees, and the scouts that are out flying when you catch the resting swarm, will march into the box.

The swarm has settled into the apiary nicely, and is building quite a lot of resources, and laying lots of baby bees. We named her after the “mother of pollinator gardens” in our town, Gerlinde Smith. She is thriving, with the lowest mite (bee parasite) count in the apiary (zero mites!) and the fastest growth.

Organize Your Seed Collection

We LOVE seeds… but organizing them, and finding the seeds you want to plant when you need them can present a challenge. We wanted to share Ruby’s system of organizing our seeds and planning a multi-season garden.

TL;DR: We store seeds alphabetically by type in 3-ring binders, and we pull seeds selected for this year’s garden into a separate binder organized by season.

We have three large 3-ring binders, with plastic “page protector” inserts, and homemade “tabs” (post-it notes + clear tape) to store our seeds.

The seeds are organized in alphabetical order in two binders, by crop categories (like carrots, radishes, sunflowers, tomatoes, etc).

The third binder holds the seeds - and plans - for this year’s garden, and it is organized by season.

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SEEDS A-Z

Each crop has one plastic page protector, which contains a tracking sheet, any information we have about the particular type of seeds/plants, and all of the seed packets.

We may have just one variety for certain seeds (like kale or spinach right now) or we may have multiple varieties (for example, we have more than a dozen kinds of lettuce and half a dozen types of carrots). Regardless of how many varieties we have, all of the seeds go in the single plastic pouch for their crop type.

CROP TRACKER

The third binder is for this year’s garden, and it is segmented into sections for spring, summer, fall, and overwinter cover crops. When we decide — usually in January or early February — what we want to plant for the year, we pull out the seeds we have selected from the alphabetized binders. We temporarily store those selected seed packets in the “crop tracker” binder until we plant them and they sprout. Once the young seedlings have sprouted in sufficient number, we return the seed packets to their regular homes.

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The crop tracker allows us to plan for successive plantings of different varieties throughout the season, and provides an easy way to keep track of what is planted and what needs to be planted throughout the year. It also facilitates the planning process to ensure that crops (and varieties within specific crops) are grown in their optimal conditions.

Using this system, we can easily select cold-tolerant varieties in early spring gardens and bolt-resistant varieties for summer gardens, without a lot of fuss. It removes the chore of sorting through seeds every time you want to plant another round of lettuce, because you only do the sorting once (during winter when you’re dreaming about your garden).

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Using this system, we select the types of lettuce (for example) that we want to grow from all the varieties we have saved. Looking at cold/heat tolerance, we slide the seed packets into the correct “season” pocket in the crop tracker.

When it’s time to plant the spring garden, we have all the seeds we need, when we are ready to start the summer seedlings, everything is already in place … and so on throughout the year.

Crop Tracker: How we organize seeds for this year's garden
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We often do “successive planting,” meaning that we will plant carrots or lettuce or whatnot every couple of weeks throughout the spring and summer - when this happens, we just store the seeds in the crop tracker for the current or next season (for example right now, we have radishes we’ve planted already that will be planted again in the spring garden and then planted in the summer garden several times. So the seeds are hanging out for now in the “spring” pocket of the crop tracker, but as soon as we finish the last spring sowing, we will move the seeds to the “summer” pocket. After the summer crop is sown, the seeds will be returned to the alphabetized binder. As soon as whatever variety is sprouted/established and we know we are not planting more this year, we move the seed packets back to their permanent home in the alphabetized binders.

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Your Crop Tracker

You can use our crop tracker template to create your own system. Here is our crop tracker document - feel free to use it as is or make edits to fit your needs.

Click Here to Open a Google Doc

(you can download and print, or download and edit, or make a copy of the template document)

HAPPY PLANTING!!!

HAPPY PLANTING!!!

What $10,000 Would Mean for Valhalla Organics

Our farm is a finalist for a $10,000 "Cultivating Change" grant! If we win, we would use the grant funds to increase the apiary (more bees, new hives, and bigger electric fence), and to contribute toward the purchase of a 4WD vehicle to safely transport bees and people.




The winner will be decided by online votes in January, so we need your help to win. Voting only takes a minute (you'll need to give your email address to register), and each person can vote once per day.

You can sign up right here to vote for us to win! (Note this form will direct you away from this page, and you’ll have another chance to sign up at the bottom if you want to read through first).

 

Riding in Cars with Bees

Our most pressing need is a dependable vehicle. Until recently, we had an old Ford Explorer, but the truck was retired this year. It is extremely challenging to transport bees and bee equipment in Ruby’s 20-year-old two-wheel drive compact car.  The apiary is located more than two hours from our home, over several mountain passes, culminating in an unmaintained dirt road to get to the farm. Conditions can be dangerous in inclement weather, and the route is best driven a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Ruby typically makes the four-hour roundtrip journey several times per week - sometimes the car is full of farm equipment, soil, or tools but often, the car is full of bees. When she purchases new hives or brings the bees to pollinate local organic farms, she must transport several hives at once, and they won't all fit in the trunk. There is no alternative other than to drive with bees in the back seat, stopping frequently along the way to release escapees. It will be a game changer to have a proper vehicle that would allow Ruby to safely transport the bees -- and all their bulky equipment -- to and from the apiary in a separate compartment.

Ruby’s Goals for Apiary Expansion 

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I successfully established the apiary in 2017 with two hives, and increased to five hives overwintering in 2018. In 2019, I will increase the apiary to at least 10-15 hives: this expansion plan requires infrastructure to support sustainable growth. Creating a larger apiary requires building more benches (the bee hives must be sited a few feet off the ground) and building more bee boxes to house the bees. These additional hives and benches will require an expansion of the existing solar-powered electric fence which surrounds the apiary to protect the hives from predators including bears and skunks.  

Of course, apiary expansion also means I need more bees! The most important outcome for the apiary is to raise bees that are best suited to thrive in the local climate. When expanding the apiary, the goals are two-fold:

1. To increase by splitting our hives and encouraging the bees to raise their own locally adapted queens.

2. To introduce new genetics that improve and diversify the gene pool with characteristics that increase hardiness to local conditions by purchasing nucleus ("nuc") hives and queens from reputable sources with successful genetic lines. 

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I will split healthy, thriving hives in spring of 2019; some of the "splits" will raise their own queens, and some will be re-queened with new genetics. We will purchase up to five nucleus hives, plus five queen bees to add Russian and Saskatraz genetic lines to the apiary. These breeds of bees are uniquely adapted and evolved to thrive in the rugged climate of Oregon's Klamath Mountains.

Budget Breakdown

Bees - $1,325= 5 nucleus hives ($225 each) & 5 queen bees ($40 each)

Bee Equipment - $2,150 - 10 Hive Bodies ($150 each), 3 Benches ($50 each), Electric fence materials ($525).

4WD Vehicle - $6,500 in Grant Funds (plus funds from our savings, since the full cost is estimated at $10,000-$12,000)

Why This Matters

Honey bees, native bees, and other pollinators are declining - and our farm is uniquely poised to support both our honey bee colonies and our native pollinators. The apiary abuts 2.3 million acres of wilderness land in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, where the bees forage on a plethora of wildflowers from early spring through late fall.

Our land management strategies are designed to increase and strengthen the natural biodiversity of the ecosystem, for example raising native mason and leaf-cutter bees as well as our honey bees, and planting native wildflowers and trees.

Organic farming creates a safe environment for bees and pollinators. Healthy bees mean better pollination, which results in greater crop yields for the farm.

Some of the world's most pressing problems can be addressed by supporting small farms and apiaries like ours that prioritize restoration of habitat, support for native species, and farming in harmony with nature.

Please Sign Up to Vote for Valhalla Organics to Win This Game-Changing Grant!

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Extra, Extra, Read All About It!!

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Each month, we send an email newsletter to folks who want to know what’s happening on our farm and where to find us at events around the Rogue Valley. In case you missed our emails, or you just want to see what we’ve been up to each month this year (starting in April with our very first newsletter), here is our year in review!

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April 2018

May 2018

June 2018

July 2018

August 2018

September 2018

October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

As you can see, we include a lot of pictures and stories about what we’re building, growing, and making — and there is always a coupon or deal you can use to save $$ on our homemade goodies.

If you’re not already signed up for our emails, please join by clicking here. We ONLY send one per month, so we never spam you… and we never share your contact info with anyone!

Stocking Your Shelves with Goodies

Did you know that you can order our delicious goodies in bulk? You can save $$ while stocking your shelves with our homemade homegrown treats. All of our products are naturally vegan and gluten-free. We grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs - and we source ingredients from local organic and certified naturally grown farmers.

We offer discount pricing for bulk orders (5 or more jars of the same size/type) for our classic recipes.

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Jams, Jellies, and Preserves

▪ Apple Butter
▪ Apple Jelly
▪ Apple Pie Jam
▪ Blackberry Jam
▪ Grape Jelly
▪ Habanero Apple Jelly
▪ Jalapeño Jelly
▪ Mulled Apple Cider Jelly
▪ Peach Apple Jelly
▪ Peach Blackberry Jam

Our preserves are available in half pint (8 oz) for bulk orders of five or ten jars.

Five Half Pints - Choose Pickles or Preserves
35.00

You will receive FIVE half pint (8 oz) jars, and save $$ by ordering in bulk. You’ll be prompted to select from our full line of goodies when you check out with this item.

Quantity:
Add To Cart
Ten Half Pints - Choose Pickles or Preserves
70.00

You will receive TEN half pint (8 oz) jars, and save $$ by ordering in bulk. You’ll be prompted to select from our full line of goodies when you check out with this item.

Quantity:
Add To Cart
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Pickles

▪ Bread & Butter Pickles
▪ Cowgirl Candy (sweet pickled jalapeños)
▪ Garlic Dill Pickles
▪ Dill Pickles
▪ Pickled Beets
▪ Pickled Jalapeño (savory)
▪ Pickled Vegetable Medley
▪ Spicy Dill Pickles

Our pickles are available in half pint (8 oz) or pint (16 oz) sizes for bulk orders of five or ten jars.

Five Pints - Pickles Only
50.00

You will receive FIVE pint (16 oz) jars, and save $$ by ordering in bulk. You’ll be prompted to select from our full line of goodies when you check out with this item.

Quantity:
Add To Cart
Ten Pints - Pickles Only
100.00

You will receive TEN pint (16 oz) jars, and save $$ by ordering in bulk. You’ll be prompted to select from our full line of goodies when you check out with this item.

Quantity:
Add To Cart

We ship anywhere in the U.S.

Shipping rates are determined by the weight of your package; we strive to keep the cost as low as possible.

Or you can pick up your bulk order at the local farmer's markets or at our mini-farm in Talent.

If you plan to pick up your order, please use discount code "LOCAL" to remove the shipping charge at checkout.

Water Saga

One of the most challenging things about building an off-grid farm is managing water. We don't have a well or running water on the property, so we had to haul water until we could get our tanks installed, and then of course, the tanks have to be filled, and water has to be moved around the property for different things (like bathing, drinking, watering bees, trees, & plants, etc). We just got the final water delivery for the season, and it's a huge relief to know we have the water that we need to live and support life on our land. 

It was amazing to watch the truck that delivered the water navigating down the driveway - it got a bit sketchy on the way back up, but he made it out so that's what matters. 

 

Four Walls and A Roof

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This may look like a tiny house, but it's actually a shed.

However, this tiny building provides welcome relief from the elements. It's completely unfinished inside, and we'll need to insulate it, but this right here is a gamechanger.

We worked together to level a spot for it, and spread a truckload of gravel to make sure it had a solid base.

It only took 3 hours for 2 guys to build it from start to finish and it's really solid & well-put-together. 

Check out the process in the pics!

The Trailer Saga Continues...

It has been more difficult and time-consuming than we'd initially planned to get this old trailer repaired and functional, requiring deep cleaning to remove a lot of mold and things you don't even want to know about. It's nowhere near finished, but at least we've made it clean enough to cook and store food. The fridge works, the lights work, the shower works, we've identified and temporarily patched the water leaks, and the rest of it is getting there bit by bit.