Monday, 29 September 2014

Bees at the Royal Melbourne Show - 2014 edition

Well it's September and that means Royal Melbourne Show time again in Melbourne. After my experience last year as a volunteer at the Victorian Apiarists' Association (VAA) stand, I was looking forward to doing it all again this year.  

One of the reasons I enjoy helping out at the stand is the opportunity to chat to all the other beekeepers. The VAA volunteers come from all over the state. Many of them have been keeping bees for decades and are huge sources of beekeeping wisdom.  It's a great opportunity for relative newbies like me to tap into that knowledge and I'm not backward about doing that :)

This year, in addition to the great range of Victorian honeys for sale there was also comb honey.


The stall display included a beautiful array of different coloured honeys.

Different types of candles were for sale, as well as beeswax hand cream, beeswax furniture polish and honey soaps.

As well as selling honey and other bee-related products, the stand is a great way to chat to the general public about bees and highlight the important role they play in our food security.  I think people are quite surprised when they discover how much we rely on bees for the fruit, nuts and veg we all take for granted. The image below illustrates the situation nicely.


I had a stint at the stall talking to the public who came up to see the observation frame. This is a frame in a ventilated glass case, complete with bees like the one in the picture below.  It's a great way for the public to get up close and see what the inside of a beehive looks like. The frame had some brood, honey, and bees, including a queen, so there was plenty to see.
Observation frame at the VAA's outdoor spot in the My Backyard area of the Show

I also spent some time outside the bee cage, describing to the public what the beekeeper was doing inside the cage when he opened the hive.  As usual, everyone was amazed that the beekeeper wasn't wearing gloves as he went about his business.

Hive in the ventilated bee cage

It was a busy day but I did get a brief chance to have a bit of a look around. These crocheted cows made me smile.

I caught up with chicken expert Megg Miller at the Chicken Breeds stand. In addition to being a chicken breeder and poultry expert, Megg is the editor of Australasian Poultry as well as Grass Roots, an Australian magazine about self-reliance, farming, gardening, eco-living, DIY, cooking and craft. Grass Roots is a great magazine, still going strong after first hitting the shelves 40 years ago.  Megg also shares her chook wisdom in magazines such as Organic Gardener and kindly gave a talk to our local permaculture group some years back. She had some of her beautiful chooks on display, one of which was lying on her lap having a  bit of a snooze in the sun while Megg talked all things chicken to the people who visited the display. That was one contented chicken - I wish I had taken a photo!

Frizzle rooster on display with his girls in the Chicken Breeds area

All in all it was a very enjoyable day and I look forward to doing it again next year.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Hive insulation over winter - did it work?

Back in May I mentioned that we were trialling some insulation on our hive over winter. The previous winter we had noticed that there was a fair bit of condensation in the hive - on the top mat and under the lid.  In an attempt to avoid that this year we used some wall insulation sheeting, laid directly on the frames in the top box, as described here.  Now, almost one month into Spring and with the days warming up, it was time to look inside the hive and assess how well the insulation had worked.

When I removed the lid I was pleased to see that the hive mat and insulation sheet were  both dry, as was the underside of the lid.  This was a big improvement over last year.

Peeling back the insulation I could see that there were lots of bees in the top box. They had glued the insulation sheeting to the top bars in a few spots but it was still very easy to peel back and remove.

I checked the second frame in the top box (second from right in picture above) and it was about 80% capped brood, laid in a good solid pattern.  All looked well. A check of the bottom board showed it was clean and dry.

It seemed that the insulation had done a very effective job of reducing condensation in the hive over winter.  We'll take it off over spring and summer but will definitely use it again next year when we pack down for winter.

Have you had an issue with condensation in the hive?  If so, what did you try? How well did it work?

Monday, 22 September 2014

Taking a home, building, community, region or nation towards 100% renewable

Mr PragSust has been doing stuff in renewable energy off and on for several decades. There's a lot of interest in Australian communities in moving towards 100% renewable.  PragSust HQ has been carbon free for some time with a biomass heater, PV's and solar hot water. And we've reduced our energy use through various energy efficiency measures. Generally speaking, reducing your energy consumption, using Green Power and installing renewables such as solar hot water and photovoltaics will reduce your emissions. But if you would like to be a bit more systematic, here's a list of steps that might be useful as an initial checklist at a number of scales.

a/ Characterise the energy use at the site in question. As the old saw has it, if you can't measure it you can't manage it.
  • How much energy is used.
  • When is the energy consumed within a day, in a week and across the year.
  • What sort of energy ie thermal or electricity. 
  • How much does the energy cost.

b/ Identify energy efficiency measures. As per the perky little aphorism from several decades ago, "Weatherise before you solarise." In Melbourne, companies such as ecoMaster and ecomad specialise in these assessments for residential and commercial buildings. PragSust HQ has had help from both companies with pleasing results. Specialist companies are available to do thorough assessments for industrial and large commercial sites.

c/ Reduce energy use by implementing cost-effective energy efficiency measures. It's a lot easier to find a cheap, cost-effective, practical renewable solution for smaller energy demands. Australian houses, for example, are generally appallingly inefficient with respect to thermal performance ie they leak heat like a sieve. Heat goes out in winter and comes in during summer. There's nothing sexy about roof, wall and underfloor insulation but it is very effective if good quality and properly installed. Weatherproofing to reduce draughts is simple and effective if done properly. In Australia's generally mild climate a well-designed, well-built house achieving HERS 9+ stars or PassivHaus (Australian Passive House Association and Passivhaus Australia have local introductory information on the PassivHaus approach) should need little to no heating and perhaps a small amount of air-conditioning in hot weather. Other measures such as LED's and energy efficient appliances are nice and easy. For larger industrial and commercial energy users, energy efficiency companies say it's not uncommon for them to find 30% reductions in energy consumption at these sites with quick payback periods.

d/ Determine the residual energy demand.

e/ Characterise renewable energy available at the site including any seasonal variations. Renewable energy sources available might be biomass, solar, wind and so on. Each of these sources will have scales and technologies that suit particular demands.

f/ Cost-effectively match the energy sources available with the demands.
  • Is storage cost-effective? This might be thermal storage in a tank, battery storage for PV's or hydro storage at larger scale. 
  • Can excess generation be sold? For example, feedin tariffs for excess PV generation beyond onsite consumption. Anther example is industrial parks like the one in Gussing, Austria to use process steam from a biomass CHP system.
  • Can any demand be deferred or scheduled to match with generation from an intermittent energy source such as solar?
g/ Have the renewable system installed by a reputable company that will do a good job. PragSust has had excellent results from Corospark for various residential-scale renewable systems. Corospark are also doing PV installations at 100kW scale for commercial sites, energy efficient lighting refits for residential and larger sites and voltage optimisation systems for large energy users. Going Solar are designing and installing solar hot water systems for larger sites including school campuses and apartment buildings.

h/ Identify how to meet the demand remaining after deploying cost-effective renewables.This might be from a Green Power scheme.

Rinse and repeat!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Weighing the hive

One way to get an indication of what's happening inside a beehive without having to open it up is to weigh the hive. There are several reasons why this useful.

Firstly, weighing a hive can be done regardless of the weather. This is especially useful during winter when it's too cold/wet/windy to open the hive. Regular weighing allows the beekeeper to assess the amount of stores the hive has. This information can then be used to assess whether supplementary feeding may be required.

Secondly, weighing the hive does not disturb the hive environment. Understanding the importance of the hive temperature and humidity, how this affects hive health, and how to use this knowledge to look after your bees is important. Bees expend considerable energy to maintain the ideal temperatures and humidity inside the hive. Opening a hive and especially moving comb can cause rapid and dramatic shifts in both those variables and cause undue stress for the bees. According to David Heaf in his book The Bee-friendly Beekeeper, every opening of the hive that lets the heat out forces the bees to repair the damage - repropolising and repairing comb that may have been broken - and to restore the 'thermal structure' of the colony by extra heat producing activity. In winter, the cluster can take as much as 3 days to return to normal. Depending on the extent of comb manipulation, even in summer the restoration of the pre-opening condition could take as much as a day. Thomas Seeley, the well-known bee biologist, found in his 2007 study, Honey bees of the Arnot Forest: a population of feral colonies persisting with Varroa destructor in the north-eastern United States, that feral bee colonies left alone were able to better co-exist with Varroa mites than those managed in a more conventional way.  So while it is tempting to want to open your hive frequently to check for problems and progress it's worth bearing in mind that bees carefully manipulate the environment inside their hives and any disruption to that environment can cause or exacerbate the very problems that you are checking for.

The system we use to weigh our hive was invented by Andrew Janiak, convenor of the Natural Beekeeping group, of which we are members. Andrew and his clever beehive scales were featured on the ABC New Inventors television program where his scales won the Peoples' Choice award.  More details and a short video showing how the scales work can be seen here.

Essentially the system consists of a simple hinged timber platform that sits permanently under each hive, and a light weight portable frame that holds the scale. The scale is inserted between the two halves of the platform (at the rear of the hive) then the handle is moved to determine the weight.

Here are some photos of the platform. The hive is positioned on the base so that the entrance is above the hinged edge. (The hinged edge is on the left side in the first picture below)

Here's a picture of our hive sitting on the base:

The scale consists of a light-weight metal frame which is easily carried from hive to hive. The platforms are very cheap to produce, costing only about $4-5.00 each.

Here's a picture of the scale positioned on the base, ready to be used. A 'hive' consisting of a couple of empty boxes is being used here for demonstration purposes. You can see that with the handle in the down position the hook is raised. The legs of the frame are sitting in the metal guides. The metal guides can be seen more clearly in photo 2 above.

Frame sitting in position on base

Zero the scales before engaging the hook

To measure the weight of the hive you firstly position the scale so that it sits in the metal guides in the platform. The next step is to zero the scales and then lift the handle to allow the hook to move down so it can be manually attached to the platform. Once the hook is engaged, the handle is gently pushed down until it can move no further. Pushing the handle down raises the hook and thus the platform. Once the handle is in the fully 'down' position the weight is recorded. The scale has leverage of 1:10 so you only need to lift a tenth of the weight of the hive. It is also impossible to lift the hive more than a few cm, meaning there is less chance of disturbing the bees or toppling the hive.
Move the handle down to weigh the hive. This will raise the hook and in doing so, lift the base.
When handle is fully extended downwards and scale light stops flashing the weight is recorded.

The amount of force required to push the 2 halves of the platform apart determines the weight of the hive. The scale is actually set to show 1/2 of the weight of the hive, then you can multiply to get the whole weight.

By keeping regular weight records over the year the beekeeper can get a picture of how the hive is performing. Of course, to ensure consistency it's best to take the measurements at the same time of the day, preferably early evening when everyone is back inside for the night. That way your results will be comparable. The weight going into and out of winter is very useful to help determine how much in the way of stores the bees used over winter. Also, if you have several hives you can use this method to help identify any hives that may be struggling, allowing you to take the appropriate action before it's too late. Weight data is also a handy way to identify if there is a honey flow on as the hive will quickly put on weight.  We use weight data to help identify when a super is ready for harvesting.

While not removing the need for occasional inspections, weighing the hive reduces the need to continually open it up and disturb the bees. We've been weighing our hive on a weekly basis for over a year now, and thanks to Andrew's scales, it's quick and easy to do.  The information we're gathering is helping us better manage our bees and in our opinion it's definitely worth the small amount of effort involved.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Spring is here

Spring is here at last!  The garden is starting to bloom and our hive has become very active. The girls are out and about collecting pollen for the spring build up and the hive is putting on weight nicely. Here are a few shots of what's happening in our garden.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Hungry wildlife

Winter was a tough time to grow veggies in the garden.  The local wildlife, in particular the possums, were hungry. We have large numbers of possums in our area and our garden is on their nightly dining menu.  

Possums are extremely well adapted to suburban areas, where gardens offer a wide variety of food. It's not just edible plants that come under their hungry gaze - roses and some other ornamentals are also high on their list of favourites.

Unlike the possums in the US, the ones in our suburban Melbourne backyard are pretty cute. Here are the 2 species we have visiting us:

Common Brushtail possum mother with baby via
Ringtail possum mother and babies via

However when you go outside at night and all you can hear is a chorus of chomping, they rapidly start becoming less cute. Mr PragSust chased three brushtails out of our loquat twice on one night. They don't take long to come back though.

This winter with food being scarce, the possums ravaged our garden, stripping the leaves off our edible plants. Bye bye silverbeet, parsley, loquat leaves and pretty much anything else green.  

Fortunately we have a LOT of silverbeet so there was still plenty left for us.

They also started to eat the rind off the lemons and oranges. We were able to harvest most of those before it was too late.  A tree full of nude lemons is a pretty sad sight.

Possum or rat damage to lemon via

The new shoots on the fruit trees are a BIG favourite of theirs, especially those of our plum and apricots. Needless to say, these trees struggle to fruit. The possums will even eat the bark off fruit trees. When we first moved in to our home we planted some small fruit trees, one of which was a mandarin tree.  Within a couple of nights all the leaves on the mandarin had been eaten.  I thought that was the end of it, but no, the possums came back the next night and ate all the bark off the poor tree. We quickly knocked up some chicken wire enclosures for our other little fruit trees and they survived the onslaught. Branches on the large avocado tree we grew at our previous home were systematically ring-barked by the little devils.  Constant attention like this eventually kills the tree and I'd been out in the yard when large, ring-barked branches fell from the tree.

As well as doing plenty of damage in the garden, possums often like to nest in your roof-space, making a hell of a lot of noise, mess and damage.  Their wee really stinks and leaves nasty stains on the ceiling. Possum wee on the garden furniture strips off any protective finish you may have applied and leaves them horribly sticky. Unfortunately, all of this comes from personal experience :(

Where we live it's illegal to relocate them. The trapping of common brushtail possums living in buildings is permitted. When trapped, possums must be released on the same property within 50 metres of the capture site. Licensed wildlife controllers are also authorised to trap possums but they will not relocate them to another site. Common ringtail possums remain fully protected and may not be trapped. In addition, possums are territorial - when one goes, another will quickly move in and take it's place.There would be an endless supply of willing replacements in our neighbourhood.

So what can you do about these pesky critters?  Well here are a few suggestions:
Net the trees or totally enclose your fruit and veggie garden. We are increasingly using nets, however nets do tend to discourage bees so it's best to wait until pollination has been achieved. 
Grow decoy plants. We use silverbeet with some success.
Spray the affected trees - use a mix fresh crushed chilli seeds, garlic, olive oil and detergent and spray it on the young leaves and early fruit. The drawback is that you need to keep re-applying if it rains or if there is a heavy dew. And sometimes it doesn't work - some possums seem to like chilli - a friend lost an entire bush full of chillies to possums. Good grief. 
Dogs scare the possums from coming down onto the ground, but a dog that barks at possums all night will not endear you to your neighbours.

The Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) recommends the following course of action:
  • Build a floppy fence around the garden. Use 80 centimetre wide, heavily galvanised chicken wire, bury the bottom 20 centimetres into the ground and support the remainder on vertical lengths of flexible, high-tensile fencing wire. Bend the wire to curve the upper section outwards. When the possum attempts to climb the fence it will bend over and then spring back.
  • Use collars to protect fruit trees.


We're seriously thinking about following that advice.

Do you have trouble with critters demolishing your edibles?  What works for you?