Category Archives: Honeybees

Growing the Color Blue


This is my second year growing Japanese Indigo from seed originally purchased from FIBERSHED Marketplace.  It is easy to grow from seed and seems to love my garden.  You can save your own seed from year to year.  Start it in the Spring and harvest it in the Summer.  When I went out to harvest it yesterday I noticed that the honeybees were loving the beautiful pink Indigo flowers.  I try planting for the bees and birds and us so this made me quite happy.

IMG_0396Yesterday, Lily and I used the “one-day” recipe out of Rebecca Burgess’ wonderful book HARVESTING COLOR.  We harvested the Indigo and removed the leaves from the stalks.  We put 3/4 pound of leaves in a 2 1/2 quart jar of warm rainwater.  I use rainwater because we catch it here but you could use filtered water.  You just don’t want the chlorine in city water going in your dye bath.


The jar was placed in a big pot of water we heated to 170 degrees.  We used a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature.  The water immediately turned blue!  The leaves heated in that jar for three hours.  We have an outdoor stove so we didn’t have to heat up the house in the process.  After the three hours of heating I put a colander over a stainless steel pot and strained the solution.  The leaves were then squeezed over the pot to get the rest of the liquid out.  They were then thrown into the compost and the work began!

A tablespoon of baking soda was then added and for the next 10 minutes Lily and I poured the solution from one pot to another to oxygenate it.  It changed color before our eyes (which this dye bath did many times throughout the day!).  As it was poured back and forth it got darker and darker and turned a very dark bluish green color.  At that point we added a tablespoon of Spectralite I got from Dharma Trading Company (thank you Julie!).  Lily very gently stirred this into the dye bath trying her best not to make any bubbles.  The Spectralite removes oxygen from the dye bath.  We kept the liquid at 100 degrees by putting the dye pot on top of the pot we heated the jars in since the water was already hot.  After 8 to 10 minutes it was supposed to turn yellow.  Our dye bath stayed blue-green so we were worried that it wasn’t going to work.


We forged ahead anyway by putting in Lily’s pre-wetted wool yarn and my silk scarf.  They had been soaking in the warm water pot.  We put them in the dye bath gently so we would not make any bubble and add oxygen.  The yarn was immediately blue so we were still concerned since they were supposed to come out yellowish and turn blue when they hit the air.  We left it all in the pot for 10 minutes or so and when we pulled it out it was a yellowish light blue.  Like a magic trick it turned a gorgeous deep blue right in front of our eyes!  The neighbors probably thought we had lost our minds were so excited!

IMG_0427Last Summer the kids and I used the Indigo leaves fresh by putting them in a blender with rainwater and making a raw liquid dye.  We used some raw silk shirt scraps from a thrift shop purchase and they made little bags.  They made their own cordage handles with Japanese Iris leaves from the backyard and were quite happy with themselves!


Why use natural dyes?  As Rebecca Burgess point out on her website, “The textile industry is the number one polluter of fresh water resources on the planet, as well as having an immense carbon footprint.  The average CO2 emitted for the production of one t-shirt is up to 40 times the weight of that shirt.”

We can use locally grown fibers for clothes and locally grown plants for dyes.  Since I am not a knitter (yet) but I am a thrift shopper I buy used clothes and dye them with plants grown in my yard or gathered in my neighborhood.  Just about every color is available from plants.  Now, I’ve got blue!

Backyard Permaculture!

Digging the first swale in 2006.

2007.  First year’s garden after our Permaculture design implementation began.

The garden in August of 2013.

It now includes ducks, chickens, honeybee hives, annual and perennial food crops, 20 fruit trees, berries, grapes, fruit-bearing shrubs, medicinal herbs, dye and cordage plants, 3000 gallons of rainwater catchment, a rainwater-fed pond-to-garden system, a greywater-fed garden (left of the pathway), prolific backyard composting operation and an operating greenhouse built with 95% recycled materials.  All on a 6000 square foot lot with a 1200 square foot house and a five minute walk to downtown.   Urban Permaculture! 

Honeybees Like to Play Too!

Tonight at dinner time Eden called from down the street to tell us about a swarm of bees at the library playground. We grabbed an empty hive box, put two half-frames of honey in to make the bees happy and some drawn out comb. Packed the bee brush, bee suit, gloves, and some screen to block the entrance of the hive for transport and loaded up the truck.

We arrived to find some boys hanging out at the playground. They had put up a sign warning people about the bees gathered underneath the slide platform. They said, “We’ve been watching them all day!”. I talked with them about the swarm and they already knew quite a bit about honeybees. Still, they had lots of questions about all kinds of bees and wasps.

As I talked to the boys Paul swept the big clumps of bees into the hive box and waited for the remaining bees to follow. After a very short time everyone was inside the hive box and we were ready to go! Yay! First swarm of the season! “Thank You” Eden.

Decorating Eggs with Berries and Flowers

What a lovely morning spent in the garden with six 1st graders! They happily gathered eggs from the chicken coop and the duck house and were delighted to find that the chickens laid colored eggs. We talked about how we didn’t really need to dye them but we could decorate them… They loved the idea! I cut up some paper egg carton into four-egg sections with the tops off. Each child got their own egg carton and ran to the garden to fill them with grass. When they returned I laid out bowls of frozen blueberries with which to draw and paint on their eggs. They each got one pink and one blue egg to decorate. The eggs all looked darling in their little grass-filled cartons but they needed a little something…. hats! We ran out to the front yard to find the perfect flowers for this purpose. I had mixed up some flour paste the night before and set it out for them to use with with craft sticks. A dab of that on top of each egg and the ‘hats’ stayed on just fine. Each child created their own variation of this idea. I am ALWAYS astounded at the beauty created by children when they really SEE what surrounds them in the natural world.

Honey Harvest 2011

We got to show the kids how we harvest honey and steward the backyard hive. We found LOTS of honey which was exciting but we did not find lots of brood (egg cells and developing bees). Each time we pulled out frames full of honey the kids would clap with excitement. More importantly, each time we did find brood cells they would cheer, “Go queen! Go queen! (clap clap) Go queen! Go queen! (clap, clap)”. They get it. No brood=no future bees.

We took ten honey-filled frames from the hive and left the bees that same amount to feed them through the Winter. We plan to help them with food as well.

Uncapping the comb to prepare it for the spinner. Kids can’t keep their fingers out of the cappings!

Frames in the spinner. All set to spin!

Out comes the honey. This year’s harvest was 25 pounds of honey which came to 2.5 gallons! Go bees!

While we cleaned up outside the boys ran inside and grabbed some packing paper they had been playing with. They both made their own beekeeper suits!

Cross your fingers for the our bees. We’ll pamper them over the Winter and report back to you in the Spring.

It’s Honeybee Time in the Neighborhood!

Last week I posted our need for a swarm on our neighborhood Yahoo! list. I did the same last year and we got two hives from within a two block radius of our house. One was an extraction from our friend’s front porch and another was a swarm in a neighbor’s tree.

The swarm was easy to gather. I backed the truck up right under the tree with an empty hive box in it. We shook the branch and the bees just dropped into the box. We put the lid on it and sat back to watch. The remaining bees slowly flew into the hive box and that night I drove it home (a block away) and we set them up in the back yard.

Today, a neighbor had his backyard hive swarm into a tree in his yard. He called me up and I went right over. He had a cardboard box which he shook the bees into and added the last remaining ones left on the branch by cutting a piece off and putting in the box too. We were both suited up so he handed the box down the ladder to me and we walked the box of bees the one block back to the homestead. We were quite a sight in our big white suits and hoods walking down the street carrying a box of bees. I had a hive box ready in the garden and we dumped the bees right into it. Immediately, they began to work the flowers in the garden. It was amazing! The irises were loaded with bees and so were the blackberry blossoms and fava flowers. Tonight they are tucked into their new home. You can hear it humming when you put your ear to the hive box. I love that sound.

The front porch hive extraction was not quite so easy…. The bees were very tolerant of all the hammering and cutting it took to get to them. It was a strangely cold day and so they were moving slow. Lots of filled honeycomb was in that little front porch.

My husband Paul was able to fit the natural comb into hive box frames using rubber bands. Eventually the bees filled out these frames and chewed off the rubber bands.

We were able to fit them right into the hive box, load them into the truck and take them out to a friend’s farm three miles away. They stayed out there for a few weeks and then we brought them home. Had we just brought them home a block away they would have all flown back to our friend’s porch!

It will be warm again tomorrow. I better get another hive box ready!

Swarm Season is Here!

The air around the neighborhood is buzzing. We were able to set up two new hives in the past two weeks. One came from the front porch of Lily’s house and the other was a swarm that landed in a tree down the street. We shook the swarm into an hive box and they went to work.

So, we’re ready for Summer! Our neighbors really missed having our bees around after we lost our two hives over the Winter. They’ll be happy to know we’re back in business.

Here’s a copy of a note left on our front door last Summer:

“Hi Neighbors,
I hear ducks quacking.
I get bees in my back yard.
I hear banjo music, which I love.
You guys are the best neighbors EVER!!”

The Gift of Bees

Many folks have been asking about our bees lately. We and many, many other beekeepers in Sonoma County and elsewhere sadly lost our bees this Winter. Their population dwindled by the time it was warm enough for them to forage again. They had plenty of food in the hive for the Winter but they still didn’t make it. We will try again. We’ve ordered new bees from a local beekeeper and we’re hoping for another swarm. We’ve put a swarm attracting pheromone in a nice, new, cozy hive box in the garden. So far, no takers. Our new bees arrive at the end of April. It was bittersweet to open up the hive last month. No bees. A gallon of honey. We filled many a jar with the gift the bees left behind.

With an uncapping knife we sliced open the top layer of each frame. It was very difficult to keep one’s fingers out of the honey-soaked cappings! We put the frames in a centrifugal spinner and cranked away. The honey was then poured from the spinner into jars and then poured again through a sieve to filter out the bits of wax, propolis, and pollen. The result was golden glowing jars of homestead honey!

First Honey Harvest

With the help of a friend we went into the hive today to check on its health and prep it for winter. I thought we better get this done while we still had a few warm days. We moved a honey frame down next to the brood and took out some of the outer frames to allow for better ventilation. I had ten frames in the boxes, but there are some who have only nine or eight to allow for more space between the frames and/or better ventilation. In our case I brought it down to eight frames with blocker boards (blank boards that fill the space of a frame) on the ends. This should improve ventilation – very important in the wet season. We also cleaned out all traces of the little start of a wax moth infestation I noticed recently. What this all really means is that some of those frames we took out had honey in them. Bless you bees for all your work pollinating our world and for your incredible gifts you give us with so little complaint. It was an electric urban homestead moment in the garden surrounded by ducks and plants and friends and wet earth taking a bite of sun-warmed honey-filled comb. As I write, warmed honey is pouring through a strainer into our first jar of homegrown honey-goodness.

Harvesting the Winter Garden

Well it’s been a while… It’s a busy time in the garden. Lots of harvesting and filling those spots with Summer crops. The garlic was a huge success even the new bed that is mostly shaded in the Winter produced quite a bit. The onions are beautiful and so easy to grow! The kids love picking the carrots. They eat the fat and sweet orange part and feed the green tops to the rabbit. The Scrub Jay’s nest in the apple tree is still quiet. We’re expecting hatchlngs any day. The ducklings and chicken chicks are huge and gobbling up as many snails, slugs, earwigs and sow bugs as they can find.

We got bees! Our friend caught a swarm and brought it to us. They seem very happy in their new home. They are so docile. Anyone can pick blackberries right next to them. The Mullien is blooming in the yard and it’s so fun to watch the bees gather its bright orange pollen. They love the Borage, Yarrow, Toyon, Citrus blossoms and Senicio too. The yard is buzzing! The hive already smells of honey.