Friday, January 20, 2006

Web Page Opens Up the World

Since we established our website (Three Sisters Farms) I've been amazed at the power of the web and its ability to extend the distribution channel of the business. We've had inquiries from as far away as Gambia and Russia from people who would like to retail our honey and/or soaps. The biggest stumbling block for a small business is overcoming the steep shipping costs associated with small quantities. I talked with a business owner today whose manufacturing operations are in Thailand. Her company fills eight containers per week just with one product! In contrast, shipping a small case of soap to Russia would cost us over $3.00/lb., thus likely snuffing out a wholesale relationship with prospective vendors there.

What's really funny is the cost of shipping with the 'majors'. You know, the UPS, DHL, and FedEx's of the world. A 6 lb. shipment with one of these guys reaches as high as $333 for a 4-6 day delivery window. Are these guys kidding?!

Wind Sends Chills Up the Hives!

Yikes! Winter weather can play havoc on one's hives. Often it's the extended cold spells that can result in disaster. Bees need to take cleansing flights every few weeks or they can suffer dysentery and death. The fabled January thaw is welcome indeed. This winter has been mild and the bees have had more opportunities than normal to venture out to do their business.

What's changed this winter is the violent ping-ponging of the temperature. Last weekend the weather went from upper 50s to near zero in 24 hours. From rain to snow just as fast. Well, on Wednesday the rapid change in barometric pressure brought winds that exceeded 60 MPH in some instance that helped fell power lines and trees across the state of Connecticut. I got a call from Jerry, who has graciously given us space for one of our apiaries, with a heads up that the wind had blown over a hive.

My initial thought was, "Oh yeah, it's the stack of empty boxes that I had next to the row of hives I checked on Monday." When I arrived to the bee yard I was horrified. Before me lay the entire row of hives, all spilled over onto the ground and partially submerged in water. A tiny drainage was overflowing with runoff from the downpours earlier in the day creating a soggy bog where my hives had stood. Maybe the bees are nestled inside... and then, I noticed there were no bees flying. The temperature had dropped from a balmy upper 50s to the upper 40s. Oh my goodness, perhaps I've lost all four hives!

My first action was to restore the base foundation. Apparently a gust of wind had caught the tightly clustered group of hives like a sail sending them sprawling forward and into the streamlet. Once the wood beams were righted I began rebuilding each hive one deep hive body at a time. To my relief, the first hive's occupants had clustered in the upper hive body. The size was not large but clearly the queen was still there. And then the next, and the next, were returned to their former position. Only one of the five clusters was empty! An hour later, the temperature had dropped to more seasonal norms - high 30s. Whew! If Jerry hadn't called when he did we would likely have lost all the hives.

It's only mid January, and our hive count is already down 30 percent.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bad Luck Day

They say Friday the 13th is Bad Luck Day. Most of the time I think the idea is bunk. But not today. I inspected the hives for the first time since November and it was not a pretty sight. Four dead outs. I'd fairly expected a couple of hives to be lost, as their numbers were a little weak going into the winter. But four?! Most likely these hives had succumbed to varroa mites, the scourge of modern beekeeping.

My immediate reaction was, "What could I have done to prevent this?" Working the hives organically limits one's options to some degree. Still, I should have been more faithful in applying the 'Dowda method' of treating hives with powdered sugar. Named after Florida's State Bee Inspector who developed the strategy, sprinkling bees every 10 days with powdered sugar helps the bees fend off the mites. I'm also tempted to try another approved method: formic acid. A multistrategy, integrated approach is necessary to offset the debilitating effects of the mites. Our customers love our organic honey and we're determined to increase production to meet the demand. Clearly, it will take a full court press on the beekeeper's part to keep the colonies healthy enough to coexist with the mite problem.