Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ouch! But so worth it.

And now for something completely different: the honey harvest. Back in June, I took off two supers of honey from my one remaining colony. A couple of hard winters and some sketchy nectar flows meant that for several years I had been leaving all honey with the bees to ensure their ability to survive and rebuild their numbers. So, it was wonderful this year to see so much extra honey after the Tulip Poplar flow (the primary nectar flow in this region) that I felt safe harvesting.

I felt a lot of other things after harvesting. Mostly sore. No, not from bee stings. The bees aren't happy when I take the honey but I wear the requisite space suit so I don't blow up like a balloon (yes, I'm a little oversensitive to stings) and they don't have to die. Really, the most painful part of this process is getting the supers off of the hive. The honey supers are at the top, really heavy when full of honey, and stuck together with propolis. So, picture trying to pry apart wooden boxes weighing c. 40 pounds, sealed all around with the stickiest, gooiest resin-like substance that re-sticks as soon as the pieces make contact again, and then lifting the boxes from chest height all while angry bees try to find any weakness in your protective gear. Below is a typical shallow super with a wooden bee escape on top.

Mind you, lifting 40 pounds off the ground or from waist height is no problem for me but I never really learned to bench press. I can see now why that might have been useful. Very different endeavor. Add in the twist that I have to do to get the supers in to the cart for transporting back to the house and the scene just begs for a pulled back muscle. Yeah. Ouch. Not smart. Must design a better set-up for next year. But a little pain is a small price to pay for such glorious goodness. The girls had built the comb way out past the edges of the frames and it just looked and smelled so wonderful. After getting the last few bees out of there, I moved the supers inside and in no time the odor of honey and beeswax filled the house.

One thing I did right this year was invest in an extractor. I'm now the proud owner of a 9-frame, hand-cranked, radial extractor. This bad boy flings the honey out of the comb with the greatest of ease.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the spinning, there's uncapping to be done. First, pry the frames apart. Yes, more propolis. Much more propolis. Healthy for the hive. Hell on the beekeeper.

I take each frame and use a hot uncapping knife to gently cut the caps off of both sides of the comb. This handy double tub setup catches the cappings in the top level while letting any stray honey drip through to the lower level for later capture.

There's a real art to cutting off the cappings. Too slow and you cook the honey. Too fast and you miss too many cells. Get the angle wrong and you gouge the comb. But not unlike finding the clutch point on a stick shift car, after a few ugly attempts, it becomes second nature. I know I'm not the only beekeeper who plays the can-I-get-the-whole-run-of-cappings-in-one-continuous-sheet game (very much like trying to peel an apple). Nine frames done and we're ready to spin. Well, close the lid, then we're ready.

In just a few moments, the first drops hit the strainer.

Soon honey is gushing through the gate.

After extracting two supers, we bottled 60 pounds of honey from that first harvest. This past weekend, we extracted another super for 27 pounds more. We had hoped the second harvest might be heavy on the Sourwood (our second biggest nectar flow and the most popular honey with the tourists) but judging from the color and taste, I'd say it's much like the first--primarily Tulip Poplar (my favorite) with an assortment of wildflowers. At any rate, we are set for honey for a good long time. Sweet!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Best Laid Plans

I must learn to be careful what I write. Just as soon as I put fingertips to keyboard and publish a post, the universe conspires to change things up on me again. A week ago Thursday, I told you how Chuck was taking flying runs at his elders but Mabel was not. The next day, she decided to outdo her brother. As with all other things, she puts even more energy and enthusiasm into her latest tricks than does Chuck. While Chuck sneaks up from behind, Mabel is now launching full-frontal assaults. While her vertical lift on approach is impressive, my joy at her athleticism is somewhat tempered by the fact that she is not nearly so easily parried as the boy buff.  Trying to defend against both simultaneously has quickly put paid to any notion I had about relaxing in the pasture with these two.

And it's not just me. Mabel took to play charging Effie and Eschol on the other side of the electric fence. I don't know if Eschol couldn't take the taunting or if it was the agitation of yet another flash flood Friday afternoon (no lasting damage this time--just lots of black walnut limbs that had to be removed from the electric fences), but I awoke around 5:30am Saturday to the sounds of a very unhappy buffalo.

Effie was racing back and forth through the fish pond completely beside herself, grunting like crazy. I went over toward the barns to check on the others and Effie followed close behind. A very saggy electric fence tipped me off right away that Eschol had unilaterally decided to reunite the herd. Something about the sound of flood waters really seems to get him going. I assumed he was up in the big barn with Audrey and the calves, so I raced to erect the electric fence behind the big barn that serves as my only protected access when the bull is in residence. Then I had to take down the electric fence that Eschol had jumped to let Effie through before he spotted me. I think Eschol was well-pleased with himself and was thoroughly occupied with re-establishing his position as king of the barn. Me, I wasn't too pleased about all that excitement before breakfast (and more importantly, before coffee).

Well, so much for my idea about hanging out with the calves. And letting Audrey have the good grazing on the Booth to herself. The reunited herd complicates life for me but it also simplifies things (only one water tank, one mineral block, one herd to move....). On the whole, I think they're much happier being back together. There was a day or two of Eschol chasing the calves but they are both fast and sure of hoof these days so they were able to keep ahead of his horns for the most part. I'm glad they had a few weeks to get strong. Eschol didn't let them get much nursing done in that first day of reunion but things have calmed down considerably. He's still trying to mate with Audrey and Effie and that's not great but they know how to resist his advances. It's the barn that suffers when he gets frustrated. And Audrey got a little roughed up by Eschol and Effie as they re-established the pecking order but no lasting damage that I can see.

On the plus side, the calves are learning to wallow properly. Audrey didn't waste any time once she got access to the big wallow again. I went out one morning to find this adorable scene:

Baby's first wallow. Mabel took to it just like she'd been doing it forever. I can't wait 'til she starts submerging her head in the water tank and blowing bubbles like her biological mother, Effie. And no worries about getting stuck in the mud. When she was done she hopped right out from the deepest part of the wallow.

She was in a playful mood that day. First, she went over to bug her brother.

Then she bounded over to check out the lady with the camera.

Then she spied Eschol and Effie up the hill. Maybe they'd like to play. First, gotta get mom out of the wallow and collect Chuck.

Chuck was way ahead of her. He bounded up the hill and nosed Effie, then made a run at Eschol. But as soon as Eschol started to run at him, he made a big course correction and ran up into the barn. Could Chuck be chicken? Just a good survival instinct, I think.

Meanwhile, Mabel made her way up the hill with Audrey. Effie met them halfway and I watched to see if she would show any interest in her calf after all this time.

Nope. Only a little annoyance. Mabel ducked behind Audrey to avoid Miss Shaky Horns then they all proceeded toward the wet-weather creek. Mabel gave it another try, approaching Effie from behind but Effie just walked off so Mabel bounded back to Audrey. I'm not sure if Mabel knows that Effie is her birth mom or if it matters to her. She may just be checking her out the new big creature in her life. I've since seen her do the same with Eschol, fearless little girl that she is.

The rains have continued here, nearly every day. The barn is horribly soggy but the wallow is full. Good thing, too, because it's getting a lot of use now.

And that, my friends, is this week in buffalo.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Effie Does Not Care for Turkey

A few days ago, I crossed Effie and Eschol into the lower pasture for their evening graze. As I turned my attention to preparing my own repast, I looked out the window to see Eschol maxing and relaxing. Effie, true to form, was most definitely not relaxed. She was staring intently toward the corner of the field nearest the house.

The walnut tree obscures the intensity of her gaze but take my word for it--she was not happy. The objects of her attention? A flock of wild turkeys. Sensing that they were unwelcome, the flock of about a dozen hens and juvenile turkeys tried to stick close to the fence. But then Effie charged. The flock split with half heading for the driveway and the other half hugging the edge of the creek. Strangely, they all stayed within the pasture rather than ducking under the wire. Effie seemed pleased to have shooed them away and she bounded back towards Eschol, reveling in her victory.

Victory, as we well know, is often short lived. The split flock tried to reunite on the far side of the pasture.

Not on Effie's watch, oh no. And this time she brought reinforcements.

Two 1500-pound buffalo charging at full speed was enough to convince at least a few of the turkeys that trying to make a graceful exit was not in their best interest.

Much flapping, squawking, and ungainly flight ensued as the laggard turkeys tried to save themselves by making a break for the low branches of the nearest black walnut tree.

Effie did her best to stare them out of their perch but they stayed put while the remainder of the flock snuck out of the pasture. Eventually, Effie lost interest as flight is not nearly as entertaining as fight.

I do not know why Effie does not care for turkey. Certainly, she has chased all manner of critters out of her territory in the past. But the turkeys are frequent visitors here and I can't recall her ever giving chase before. Was it something they said? Maybe they kept her up at night with their incessant gobbling. That would make me cranky, too.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

They Grow Up So Fast

Three weeks. It seems impossible that it's been three weeks since the baby buffs were born. It seems equally impossible that there was a time when Chuck and Mabel weren't a part of the daily routine around here. Not just a part--without question the best part.

And so much is changing already. It's rare now for me to find the calves lying down; they're almost always up and exploring or playing. Should I happen upon them at rest time, they quickly jump--not to attention but for attention. (above and below: Chuck left, Mabel right)

Chuck found his land legs. Once he got the hang of running, he seemed to transfer the muscle memory from that experience over to the complexities of walking. His gait no longer looks awkward or unsure. In fact, he seems to have quickly made the leap over to cocksure. Shortly after he discovered the fun of bashing into his sister, he started taking running aim at the back of my knees as I went about cleaning out the barn. Fortunately, he's not nearly as sneaky in his approach as he thinks, so I've managed to keep his not insignificant skull from making more than the lightest contact with my most fragile joints.

More amusing to me is when he spies Eschol on the other side of the electric fence and pretends to charge him. Dad just stands his ground and looks at the little whippersnapper as if to say, "just try that without an electric fence between us, son, and we'll see who the real bull is."

Mabel holds her own well against her brother. Yesterday, I watched as he tried to push her by pressing his head into her chest as hard as he could. She would not be moved. When she wearied of the game, she simply used his head as a lever to launch herself on top of him. Game over. I suspect that will not be his last humiliation at her hooves.

Mabel has shown her own mischievous side. Not towards me. Or even Chuck as far as I've seen. No, she likes to let her playful side come out with Audrey. One steamy afternoon (is there any other kind anymore?), Audrey wanted to roll around in the mud in front of the barn to get a little extra help cooling down. That pink belly is a sure sign that she needs some wallow time.

Mabel thought this was an invitation to play hop on mom.

Mom never gets a moment to herself.

I noticed today that Chuck's horns are already starting to grow. Those little horn buds that were largely hidden by his Elvis hair are starting to get rounder and taller. I'm not looking forward to the day when his horns are long and pointy. So, instead, I'll focus on how good it is to finally feel him filling out a bit--not just skin on those ribs anymore. Both the calves seem taller and more fully-fleshed. Audrey is doing a stellar job keeping these little guys fed. It helps that water buffalo milk has really high butterfat content so the babies put on weight quickly.

What really surprised me was how quickly the calves started to make their first forays into the world of solid food. They were barely a week old when I saw Mabel start to imitate Audrey, grasping a blade of grass with her tongue and shearing it off between her teeth and dental pad. A few days later, I found Chuck nibbling on some old straw in the barn. I don't think either of them is really eating solid food to get nutrition at this point; probably just learning the technique for future reference. But they both regularly drink out of the water tank, proving that they can already take care of their own hydration needs should the milk go away abruptly. Audrey has good incentive to keep the milk flowing, however, as she is getting special feed to keep her strength up. Normally, we keep the buffalo on grass or hay with no grain but lactation is a major energy hog and providing for two calves could seriously sap her reserves, so Audrey gets the royal treatment foodwise (plus lots of extra attention and her own barn for being such a champ).

They haven't started wallowing yet. Audrey seems to be keeping them out of the deep mud. On the rare occasion that she lets them hang with her when she wallows, she keeps them in front of her in the shallowest, firmest part of the wet-weather creek. They get to lie in maybe a half an inch of water but no rolling around in the mud. While that makes them much more pleasant to touch it also means they are attracting a lot of unwanted attention from the ticks. More often than not, Audrey tucks the calves in the barn or some other shady spot before she goes for her mud bath. They get their spa treatment later when I give them nice massages to distract them from the fact that I'm pulling ticks off of them.

I don't feel like these photos are doing full justice to the calves. For instance, I don't think I've managed to capture the little white switch each one has at the end of the tail. Audrey has a nice golden switch and I suspect that as the calves grow up, the deer-like white tip of their tails will become more blond. Well, I guess you'll just have to come visit and see for yourself. You won't be disappointed. These little guys have charmed everyone who's come by so far, from city slickers to seasoned farmers.

Typically, summer is a season of low maintenance and low contact with the buffs. No feeding, no mucking out barns, and just a bit of attention to the water supply is all that's required. Not this summer. But that's ok. Over the weekend, I got the temporary fence put up across the creek so Audrey and the calves can go grazing on the Booth where the forage is plentiful. Effie and Eschol are getting twice-daily excursions into the newly-reinforced lower pasture--more about them in the next post--so everyone is well-fed and seems to be content to stay within the confines of their respective fences. We're all settling in to our new routines.

Note to self: go sit in the field with Chuck and Mabel before they get too big. With Eschol in exile, I am rediscovering the joy of spending time in close contact with the buffalo. When we first got our trio a little over two years ago, I loved hanging out in the pasture with them. It wasn't at all unusual to sit down in the field and have a buffalo come over and lie down next to me and put her head in my lap. That gets trickier as they get older, (and downright stupid with an adult bull), so I need to go make the most of the time I've got before they get big and hormonal. You should, too. Do come visit before they get all grown up.