Live from the Hive: February 2016

beehive near a fence

A beehive is illuminated by the setting sun at the end of a winter day.

“Helping and Learning about the Bees” by Annie Watson

It’s a strange winter. As I write, it’s fifty degrees out. Most of the snow has melted, revealing still-green grass underneath. Rain forecasted for two days from now. A few bees are venturing outside the hive. On these warm days the bees can loosen their cluster and fly outside. They don’t put their waste inside the hive, so warmer days when they can make a short flight are welcome.

I want to tell you about some of the amazing natural beekeeping work people are doing around the country, and list a few ways to help and educate yourself.

Spikenard Farm is the Virginia sanctuary and education centercreated by biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk. If you are interested in beekeeping which respects the need for health and vitality of the bee, you can take a class there.

The New York Bee Sanctuary, a new organization, is building a wildlife sanctuary for honey bees and pollinators in New York State. Their web site has fantastic photographs.

Rodale Wellness has an article on “The 8 Best Plants for Bees,” if you would like to support pollinators in your garden. You don’t have to keep bees to do this. Now’s the time to plan for spring gardening!

Right here in Vermont, Ross Conrad will be teaching two Organic beekeeping classes this winter and spring . Find out more at the Addison County Beekeepers Association.

There will be a symposium on Vermont’s pollinators on March 17, 2016 at the ECHO center in Burlington, sponsored by a large group of organizations. Find out more here.

These listings are only a tiny sampling of what’s available if you want to learn more about bees and pollinators. Without them, we would have neither honey for our Caledonia Spirits, nor much of our food!

Enjoy February and give honey-sweetened chocolates for Valentine’s Day!


Live From the Hive: January 2016

“Snow” by Annie Watson

Beehive with snow

A beehive covered in snow, New Haven, Vermont.

Winter has set in; we’ve finally had a snow storm. Snow helps insulate the hive. After a heavy snowfall I go out and clear away the snow from the bottom board landing platform so the bees can get in and out. In many hives honeybees use the top entrance in winter, but one colony in my yard is using the bottom one. There’s no worry about air getting into the hive through the snow: it’s porous and easily allows air to get in. The heat emanating from the hive will melt the snow immediately close to the hive, creating a bit of an air space; snow buildup outside this immediate circle acts as a windbreak. On warm sunny days, honeybees take a “cleansing” flight outside and back near the hive.

Coming off of the celebrations of the winter holidays, we’re reminded of contribution of the bees: the tasty honey used in our Caledonia Spirits, as well as the pollination of our food.

Live from the hive: December 2015


“Winter Arrives” by Ann D. Watson

Honey bee on beehive

A worker bee rests on the side of her hive.

It finally got cold. 18 degrees here in the Champlain Valley this first morning in December. Winter is setting in, and now the bees face the challenge to endure through four long cold months here in Vermont. The queen stopped laying in October or November and the workers drove out the drones, who would only consume honey and not contribute anything. The colony has formed a tight cluster, inside of which the bees generate enough heat to keep the brood warm — at an amazing 93º F. During warmer spells, the cluster moves to new areas of honey-filled comb.

Honey is a wonderful Christmas gift that can go nicely with a bottle of Caledonia Spirits. You can purchase cases of raw honey right on our web site, or jars at one of our participating stores. May you enjoy a sweet and joyful holiday season!

Live from the Hive: November 2015

bees eating honey

Like guests around a table, bees feast on honey from some broken comb.

“Thanksgiving, Bees, and Pioneer Beekeepers” by Annie Watson

This month, our thoughts turn to the upcoming feast of Thanksgiving and our gratitude for delicious raw honey both for our table and to create our wonderful products.

In addition to providing raw honey for Caledonia Spirits, honey bees are critical to human existence because they pollinate 80% of our food. The health of the bees is a bellwether for the health of our human species. We’ve all heard and seen that they’re in trouble, and the scientific evidence is mounting that chemicals are threatening them on a large scale.

More and more beekeepers are choosing to stop using chemicals and raise bees treatment-free who are stronger than those raised in the conventional industrial manner. Two pioneers are Kirk Webster and Sam Comfort. Kirk works here in Vermont and gives workshops in the summer. Sam works in the Hudson Valley of New York. I encourage you to visit their web sites for some fascinating information. There is another way, and it’s heartening to see it demonstrated.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving we give thanks to the bees for all that they give us.

Live from the Hive: October 2015

Maple tree and top bar hive

A top bar beehive, sheltered by a Sugar Maple tree.

“October Observations” by Annie Watson

October marks the end of the nectar and pollen season. At September’s end, bees were still bringing in pollen from asters and lingering goldenrod, as well as some garden flowers — but soon those will be gone. The beekeeper has taken off the last of the honey and in October will make the rounds to insulate and wrap hives for winter. On a warm day last week I observed a number of dead yellow jacket wasps (not honey bees) outside of the beehive. They no doubt had tried to get in, perhaps to feast on brood or rob honey. Guard bees stung the intruders to dispatch them.

It’s getting colder at night, and we finally got some much-needed rain. A local beekeeper reported to me that the bees did pretty well despite the dry conditions. They made a lot of honey in July. I will soon pick up a bucket of untreated honey from him for my own winter stores.

We are so grateful for the bees. Without them we would not have enough food ourselves, for they are our major pollinators. May they have enough honey and dry hives to survive the coming winter.

Live From the Hive: September 2015

bees on Japanese Knotweed

Honey bees work Japanese Knotweed on a September afternoon.

“Japanese Knotweed” by Annie Watson

We tend to impart some kind of moral value to plants, based on our own perspective: when we like them we say they are “good”, and when we don’t, we say they are “bad”. Invasive plants are considered “bad” because they can have harmful effects on native plant habitat. In fact, many invasive plants have beneficial qualities, many of which are medicinal. They are just plants, carried to a new place by humans.

Japanese Knotweed (fallopia Japonica) is an invasive which greatly benefits the honey bees. In our area it blooms in late summer, when goldenrod is the only other abundant plant giving nectar and pollen for the bees. On a recent walk along the New Haven River in Addison County, I saw blooming knotweed covered with honey bees. At this time of year, when the bees are as busy as — well, bees — making honey for winter, this plant can make a big difference to a colony. The dark honey made from these flowers is said to taste somewhat like buckwheat honey. (In fact, it is in the same family —  Polygonaceae — as buckwheat.) Knotweed root is also used by herbalists to treat Lyme disease.
For more on medicinal properties of Knotweed, watch this video:

Live From the Hive: August 2015

honey bee on globe thistle

A honey bee on a Globe Thistle flower head.

Echinops” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

After the June rains, dry July weather supported the blooming of many flowers. The bees have been making honey. During August, garden plants as well as wild mustard and burdock become important food for bees until the goldenrod bloom of late summer.

Echinops, or globe thistle, is a wonderful perennial for your garden. The foliage and flowers provide color and texture, it’s easy to grow, and many pollinators love it. My globe thistle flower heads are covered with bees, wasps, and others during late July and August. The spiny-edged leaves are not as prickly as field thistles and their texture contrasts nicely with the perfectly round blue-violet flower heads. The plant stands 3-4 feet tall, doesn’t need a lot of special care, and provides food for honey bees and many other pollinators.

Live From the Hive: July 2015

Honey bee on mint flower

A honey bee gathers nectar from a mint flower.

“The Mints” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

Honey bees love the flowers of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Spearmint, catmint, lemon balm, catnip… the list goes on. Did you know that basil is in the mint family? So are lavender, oregano, and rosemary. In our area, the mints bloom in June and July.

Pollinators are threatened all over the world. You can help them out by planting bee-friendly plants in your garden. Plant plenty of herbs so that you can leave some to flower instead of harvesting them all.

For more information about what you can plant for bees and other pollinators, go to Honey Bee Suite.

Live from the Hive: June 2015

Honey bee on a sumac flower

A honey bee visits a Staghorn Sumac flower.

“Staghorn sumac bloom” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

June brings the blooming of the staghorn sumac. Its beautiful flowers are a major food source for honey bees. I’ve seen them covered with bees on a warm June afternoon.

Largest of the North American sumacs at 15-25 feet tall, Staghorn sumac is named after the” velvet” on young branches similar to that covering the antlers of a male (stag) deer. In early summer, male and female flower cones on separate plants are covered with many tiny flowers. After pollination the flowers turn into clusters of “drupes” — small red hairy fruits that are eaten by deer and birds all winter. The foliage turns red and orange in the fall and a hedge of sumacs is really beautiful at that time of year.

By allowing sumac to grow in your hedgerows and property edges, you provide important food for honey bees, deer, and birds.

For more about this plant go to the Missouri Botanical Garden web site.

Live From the Hive: May 2015

Dandelions and beehives

Beehives in a field of dandelions, near Rochester, Vermont

“Dandelions” by Annie Watson, Thistle Hill Studio

In May the dandelions bloom, providing nectar and pollen to the growing numbers of bees in strong colonies. The bees are out in numbers on the warm days, gathering food for their growing families.

Dandelions are amazing plants with many medicinal properties. Their masses of blooms all over New England fields and lawns help to feed our bees. Thankfully, the homeowners’ practice of trying to eradicate dandelions from their lawns is on the wane. These hardy plants, though not native to North America — having been brought here by European settlers — are full of vitamins, health-promoting compounds  and antioxidants.  Dandelion is best known for its support of liver function. And, of course, it is a major food for honey bees at a critical time in the life cycle of the colony when it’s essential to gather the maximum amount of food.