Garden Design Magazine-A Good Read


Garden Design magazine

Garden Design magazine known for its in-depth articles and awesome images has a clean and easy to read design, free of ads. Over the years, I have started and stopped my subscriptions to different gardening magazines, but I will never give up this one. I don’t review many print publications, but I felt that this one richly deserved to be recognized. Not available at the grocery check out line, it is primarily available by subscription. But if you are interested in nature, ecology, cooking, design, gardening, traveling or simply beautiful images, this would be the magazine for you. With 132 pages, there is plenty of space to cover diverse subjects that would appeal to amateur as well as professional gardeners. Most garden magazines have brief articles and I often crave more. In Garden Design, the articles can run 10 to 12 pages long to really get an in-depth look.

Hydrangea picture from Garden Design magazine by Ngoc Minh Ngo

Plant Portraits

What flower can reach 12″ across and up to 18″ long? That is Hydrangeas’ main claim to fame, according to Garden Design article ‘Old Reliable, New Tricks’. The commonly asked questions of how to prune and change hydrangea color is demystified in this informative article. These two questions are asked by many enthusiastic gardeners as there are so many different varieties and treatments for each particular kind.


Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is beloved for good reason. Its huge white flower heads—8 to 12 inches across—grace shrubs for 2 months in summer. Zones 3-9 Photo by GAP Photos/Friedrich Strauss
A costly one hundred pound bouquet of hydrangeas at a flower shop in London- photo Claire Jones

Using Garden Design magazine as a great design resource, and also for stellar articles on plants, containers, and pollinators, it is always sitting on my desk. More like an add-free soft bound book, I welcome it to my house every season for eye catching photos of gardens, design ideas, and great plant selections. Printed every three months, I am not deluged with monthly issues but instead have a seasonal reference at my fingertips.


The design posts will make your mouth water with all the delicious combinations of plants and good design components. My design of a healing labyrinth made the on-line Garden Design magazine when the magazine went on a brief print hiatus a few years ago. The magazine came back stronger than before chock full of garden inspiration.

My design of a labyrinth made the on-line Garden Design, photo Claire Jones
A beautifully designed water wise courtyard located in Spain is my favorite photo in the current issue of Garden Design, photo by Claire Takacs

And the article by Janet Loughrey, ‘Spanish Lessons’, highlighted three Mediterranean landscapes that show the best of waterwise design.  I drooled over these images!

Garden Travel

Visiting different gardens is also covered and Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens is featured in the latest issue because of the fantastic new fountain show. Perfect timing, as I am visiting it this weekend.

Longwood Gardens new fountain display-photo Longwood Gardens

Another mentioned event that I would love to go to is the Swan Island Annual Dahlia Festival. Located in Oregon, strolling and ogling 40 acres of dahlias in full bloom is my idea of a good day. I’ll make it there someday.

Dahlias come in a huge array of colors and types and are one of my favorite flowers for arranging-photo Claire Jones
A container with Cafe Au Lait dahlias-photo Claire Jones


Box Turtles were featured in an article by Doug Tallamy-photo Amy Sparwasser

A find of a box turtle is always happy but all too rare, and the article by Doug Tallamy explained why. Habitat fragmentation  is the main culprit that has placed this species on the Threatened Species list as “vulnerable”. Fulfilling the important job of seed dispersal, Tallamy gave pointers on encouraging these great little natives. Exceeding 100 years old if conditions are right, I learned how to make my property better suited to the colorful turtles.


Rain wand by Dramm-photo Claire Jones

After doing my post on Watering Like a Pro, reviewing Dramm products like ColorStorm hoses and Rain Wands, the current article about watering tools in Garden Design “elevated this perennial garden task into a real pleasure”.  Quality of your tools makes a huge difference in your garden enjoyment and reaffirmed my watering tool selection.

This laissez-faire beekeeper makes sure his bees have plenty of blooms, photo by Meg Smith


As a beekeeper, I appreciated the article ‘Darwin’s Beekeeper’. Letting nature take its course reflects my policy on beekeeping perfectly. And the foldout on pollinators is pretty enough to be framed. The progression from early to late bloomers is essential information and includes both tree/shrubs, and perennials. Go to my post on Pollinators for more information on what plants to select to attract a wealth of winged beasts to your property- and keep them coming back!

A great reference chart for any gardener-photo Garden Design
Burr comb on one of my bee hives-this is laissez faire beekeeping! photo Claire Jones


Great Gardens Across America

A woodsy garden entryway located in Whidbey Island, WA, photo by ClaireTakacs

Probably one of my favorite sections is Great Gardens Across America. Showcasing gardens anywhere in the country, the stories and material and plant selections are always interesting to me as a garden designer.

Front cover of the current issue of Garden Design

No matter what zone or coast you live in and what type of nature lover you are, you will find inspiration from this magazine.


Full disclosure: Garden Design magazine is not paying me for this review!

Honeybee NectarFlow-Black Locust Trees

Black Locust bloom

Planting peas by St Patrick’s Day is an American farming tradition that goes way back and I can remember my father relating this age-old practice. He spent his childhood on a farm and knew all the old-time ways. I didn’t have any beekeeping relatives, but if I had I am sure they would have told me to super my hives (adding extra storage boxes for nectar) when the Black Locust blooms. Beekeepers, like farmers, still look outside in the natural world to gauge how to manage their honey crop.

The lower large box is a brood box, where the queen lays eggs, and the upper boxes are supers

The Black Locust tree, Robinia pseudoacacia, is famous for producing a fruity and fragrant light green honey. Native to the Eastern United State, I always look for this tree to bloom in the spring as a sign that “honeyflow” or “nectarflow” is starting for my honeybees.

Honeybees love native Black Cherries that bloom at the same time

An abundance of nectar sources blooming in profusion means a nectarflow is starting with the bees collecting excess nectar. When bees bring in more nectar than they need or can use, that is when a beekeeper rejoices and can remove the extra stored honey for themselves. Contrary to widely held opinion, bees only produce excess honey in the early spring or occasionally in late summer, and beekeepers harvest in July for much of the United States. In southern states, where native flowering is much more abundant over a longer time period, beekeepers can get two harvests.

Honeybee nectaring from a late nectar source-Dahlia

The Black Locust tree is native to eastern and southeastern North America, but has spread throughout the United States and much of Canada and can be invasive. They grow quickly on roadsides and fields and now the creamy heavily scented branches are hanging heavy over a road that I travel every day. Most people would zip by and not pay any attention at all to these beautiful trees as the blooms are usually high up in the canopy. But I stop and whip out my camera to zoom in on these beautiful blossoms!

The flower racemes pull down the branches of the tree

Last year, because of the fickle weather, Black Locust didn’t bloom in the great abundance that I see this year, so I am hoping for a good honey harvest. But this spring we have had lots of spells of rainy cold days when the bees can’t fly and that might cut short the nectar flow.

A warm and sunny spell during honey flow means that a strong hive can fill a honey super with nectar in two days! Remember…. that is nectar. Ripe honey has had its water fraction reduced greatly by bees fanning nectar to increase water evaporation to produce the sugar concentration necessary to produce honey. Once honey is ready, the bees cap over the top with wax.

Ripe honey cells are capped by wax in the upper left hand side; on the lower right are growing brood

Blooming for about 10 days between April and June, here in the mid-Atlantic, the racemes of blooms of Black Locust opened in early May. Even before the flowers opened, the bees started collecting pollen from the tree which they need to feed their growing brood or larvae. Worker bees will flock to the flowers for the abundance of nectar that they produce, once the days turn warm and sunny and browse from other flowering trees and vegetation, like the Black Cherry. With the onset of blooming, bees start producing wax which requires several times more nectar than honey. And bees need honeycomb built first before storing nectar. The purpose of a spring flow, for the bees, is to provide food for the rest of the year, not honey for the beekeeper!

The racemes of the Black Locust flowers hang down 8 inches

After this big burst of native bloom, there is usually a summer dearth until goldenrod, asters, and other late bloomers appear. That is why gardeners should plant summer bloomers to supplement their diet. Plant those Zinnias, Sunflowers, etc. Go to Plant These For The Bees.

Plant These For The Bees poster available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy Shop

Asters are an important late season nectar source for all pollinators

Healthy hives may produce queen cells in preparation for swarming, as the spring nectarflow builds; their normal method of making new colonies. The old queen and a large swarm of bees will go off and begin a new hive. See Swarming of the Bees.

Producing more queens prior to swarming
Bee swarm in my backyard tree

Interesting and Surprising Facts About Black Locust

  • Abraham Lincoln, as a young man, built up his muscles splitting logs from Black Locust trees for firewood and fence posts

  • Extremely hard wood, one of the hardest and rot resistant in North America, the wood is valuable for floors, boats, fence posts, and furniture

  • A member of the Fabaceae (pea family), the tree has nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots which make it an excellent species for re-vegetating poor or damaged soils

  • Newly cut wood has an offensive odor which disappears with time

  • The flowers are eaten in Japan, France, and Italy, battered and fried as beignets or in tempura

  • The bark, wood, and leaves are toxic to livestock and humans, so farmers remove them from their fields

  • Black Locust blooms along with privet, multi-flora, blackberries, honeysuckle, and other native vegetation to produce the abundance of available nectar for pollinators; so even invasives play a role in supporting pollinators

  • Black locust is an interesting example of how one plant is considered an invasive species even on the same continent it is native to

  • Racemes of flowers can hang 4-8 inches long and intensely fragrant smelling like an orange tree

  • Highly tolerant of pollution, the tree is planted in Europe and produces the acclaimed ‘Acacia Honey’

  • One of the best woods for burning in wood stove, it has little or no flame and can burn when wet, burning at a comparable temperature as coal

  • Compounds in the heartwood allow the wood to last over 100 years in soil





Build the Buzz-Beekeeping Revolution



Beekeeping, especially urban beekeeping, is picking up steam and buzz! When I first attended my “Beekeeping Basics” class put on by the local beekeepers club twenty years ago, older men in coveralls dominated and the joke was that the average age of a beekeeper was “from 57 to dead”. As a younger woman in the class, I was definitely in the minority. Sticking with beekeeping for over twenty years has seen lots of changes in the apiary. A new generation of beekeepers have arrived which has injected a revolution in how beekeeping is practiced. Hipsters, young mothers, and middle-aged couples, have taken up the practice in greater numbers than ever before.

Two young students picking up Nucs, a miniature starting beehive, for their college campus
A newly developed bee hive seen at a state fair

The practice of “we have always done it like this,” is slowly but surely disappearing. Beekeepers with new ideas, energy, and ways of doing things are transforming the apiary yard to something that beekeepers from 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize. When problems started to arise 10 years ago with the advent of mites and colony collapse, beekeepers wasted time hoping to return to 1940’s beekeeping. The old guard still wishes that. But with the new crop of beekeepers, they don’t know the difference and attack the problems with renewed vigor and novel solutions.

Lots of new beekeepers are entering the field. This one has a crazy suit-a bathrobe!
Lots of new beekeepers are entering the field. This one has a crazy bee suit-a bathrobe!

Females Rule!

An apiary’s female dominated society should be especially attractive to women. Historically, people assumed that the bee queen was actually a “king”. Even Shakespeare referred to the head of the hive as a “king”. Females in a beehive basically do all the heavy lifting with the males kept around for only one thing-inseminating a queen bee.


Women are increasingly becoming beekeepers in the traditionally male dominated field.  But this isn’t easy for young women because of the physical nature of beekeeping. Try bench pressing 65 to 75 pounds or more of dead weight! – which a full hive body of honey can weigh.

Helping out my neighbors to set up their own hives

From a creature with a brain the size of a sesame seed, a working hive is incredibly diverse and organized and gets the job done efficiently. Pollinating one in three of our agricultural crops, honeybees are hugely important to our economy. But only until Colony Collapse Disorder in 2007 became publicized, did people sit up and take notice that bees were in trouble or realize that they were vital. A result of that realization is a huge welcome influx of brand new concerned beekeepers, most of them under thirty to start their own hives in concern for the environmental impact of the decline.

A busy hive with brood and honey
A busy hive with brood and honey


A steep learning curve will hit any newbee, and even though I have kept bees for twenty years, I still feel new to the field. Disease, parasitic mites, low winter survival rates, and the high startup cost is still an issue, but I find that new beekeepers are enthusiastic and eager to learn. Inevitably, some people upon learning about the time and money involved drop out. But many are sticking with it and unlike a fair weather fan, they are in it for the long-term. Committed newbees really want to become beekeepers even after hearing about all the recent setbacks in the bee world. Check out my post on How to Jump Into the World of Beekeeping.


Flow Hive

I’m sure everyone has heard of the IndieGoGo Flow Hive with its promise of simplifying the honey harvest by simply turning on the tap. So far, Flow Hive has set records for the largest international campaign ever on Indiegogo and was an Internet darling. But critics are railing against the Flow Hive as an expensive gimmick that over-simplifies beekeeping and doesn’t deal with the nitty gritty day-to-day basics. In reality, beekeeping is hard work that requires lots of steps to make sure that your honeybees are monitored and kept free of disease and healthy. The promotional material for Flow Hive makes beekeeping look so simple and easy that anyone could have a beehive in their backyard without any work. I reserve judgement until we look back on this in a few years time. Stay tuned for the results.

BroodMinder-Technology In Beekeeping

The broodMinder is a thin bluetooth enabled monitor that is inserted on top of the hives
The broodMinder is a thin bluetooth enabled monitor that is inserted on top of the hives

And technology has entered beekeeping. I am using BroodMinder which uses the latest in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and integrated circuit temperature and humidity chips, to monitor my hive. By placing the small bee resistant wrapped monitor with a battery on top of the frames, any heat and humidity created by the bees is recorded as it rises to the top of the hive. Relaying the information to an app on my phone, I can monitor how the hive is doing and even email it to myself. Yes, there is an app for everything!

There is nothing more discouraging than opening a dead hive in the spring
There is nothing more discouraging than opening a dead hive in the spring

If the temperature and humidity plummets during the winter, I will know that the beehive needs my help with supplemental feeding. See BroodMinder for more information. They are also developing a monitor that will weigh your hive. I would love this feature to inform me as to how much honey is being stored during the summer so you know the best time to harvest!


Full Disclosure: BroodMinder gave me a unit to test out, but I only post reviews about products that I really like and use.


Helpful Articles

Beekeeping 101

Installing Nucs-A Bee Package or Nuc?

Spinning Honey

Jump Into the World of Beekeeping

Honeybee Nuc

Making of a Queen

Bee Packages Are Here!

Swarming of the Bees

Honeybee Nuc 101

 A miniature honey bee colony or what beekeepers call a Nuc, is a living organism that needs to be cared for properly for it to survive and thrive in your bee yard. A “beehive in a box” is the best way to give your beehives the quickest start right from the gate to start producing honey as they already have a laying queen who is mated, producing eggs, and ready to go.

Nucs ready to be picked up and placed in a beekeepers hive body
Nucs ready to be picked up and placed in a beekeepers hive body

Spring Start-Up

For beginning beekeepers, there are three different ways of starting your own hive: Packages, Nucs, or a Live Hive. To get an overview of Beekeeping, it’s costs, benefits, and problems, go to my post, Beekeeping Start-Up, Jump into the World of Beekeeping. To see how to hive a package, go to Bee Packages Are Here!

2 packages of bees in the back of my car
2 packages of bees in the back of my car


Options for Starting Your Own Hive

  1. Live Hive- This is probably the most difficult to purchase. Never buy a live hive until it has been thoroughly inspected by a state apiary inspector and given a clean bill of health. This might be a good approach for instant beekeeping, but you have to find a beekeeper willing to sell a complete working hive and you are unlikely to find one unless the beekeeper is retiring or has passed. Very few beekeepers want to sell a good, live hive and there must be a compelling reason to do this. However, when you are able to purchase a live hive, you are also purchasing all the existing problems such as small hive beetles, tracheal mite, varroa mites, wax moths or diseases such as nosema, American Foul Brood or European Foul Brood, etc. For small hive beetle controls, go to Small Hive Beetles to see how to combat these pests. Before committing, inspect the combs to see how healthy the colony is with plenty of brood and bee bread present on the frames.

Orange and yellow pollen is deposited into cells, mixed with nectar to make bee bread that is fed to growing honeybee young
Orange and yellow pollen is deposited into cells, mixed with nectar to make bee bread that is fed to growing honeybee young
Close up of pollen
Close up of pollen

Bee bread is pollen brought back to the hive that is mixed with nectar and deposited into cells to feed the developing brood.

Great frame with lots of brood (capped larvae)
Great frame with lots of brood (capped larvae) and pollen or bee bread

2.  Packages- Packages have been the way beekeepers in the North have received bees from the South for over 100 years.  By shaking bees out of different hives, a package is formed which is housed in a screened cage for transport. Sometimes it may take shaking bees out of three different hives to equal three pounds of bees (about 10,000), the standard. Then, a new queen not related to the worker bees is caged to travel with the new bees.

 Queen bee in cage

Queen bee in cage

Some considerations of this method are:

  • Will the queen be healthy and properly mated? 

  • Since they are from the south, could there be a chance of Africanized genetics, making a more aggressive hive?

  • Shipping stresses, such as too much time in the package and excessive temperatures can weaken both the bees and the queen.

Hiving a package of bees
Spraying sugar water on a package of bees to calm them

 So, while this is the “industry standard” and has been for a century, it is not risk free or fail safe. I can attest to this as a good percentage of my packages have failed.

Transferring 5 frames from a Nuc hive into my hive body
Transferring 5 frames from a Nuc hive into my hive body


3.  NUC- A nuc is a short expression referring to the nucleus of a live hive. The nucleus, or nuc, usually contains four or five frames from a complete hive.

Carrying 2 Nucs out that have been taped shut
Carrying 2 Nucs out that have been taped shut

The frames include brood in various stages and frames mixed with honey, pollen and brood. The queen has already been accepted and is the mother of all the bees including the brood in the frames. This is a bee hive in miniature – a working and laying queen is included along with her daughter worker bees, brood, pollen, and eggs. I have gotten honey the same year form my Nucs, so I ordered 2 this year. 

Checking in to pick up bee nucs
Checking in to pick up bee nucs

The best way to acquire a Nuc is to join a Bee Club. Mine is the Central MD Beekeepers Association and they order Bee Nucs every spring from a supplier and transport the Nucs to our Maryland Agricultural Center for pickup for $165 each.

Two college students picking up Nucs for their campus
Two college students picking up Nucs for their Goucher College campus

Nucs are the way to go for me, as it is a hive that is ready to go and is already working to bring in nectar during the honey flow. Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in the mid-Atlantic, this happens in early to mid-May and can last for a couple of weeks and is always heralded by the blooming of Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia. An unassuming tree that spends most of the year in the fringe woods on the side of the road and one late Spring day it throws out a hanging truss of stunning white blossoms. But not just blossoms! The intense fragrance wafts in the breeze and finds you if you are walking down the road and will drift far from the tree.

Springtime time is also the critical time for swarms- May is swarm month for me! Go to Swarming of the Bees  to see how to capture swarms.

A swarm of bees from my apiary
A swarm of bees from my apiary

 Advantages of a nuc:

  • The frames are from a proven, successful existing hive

  •  The queen is up and running and has been laying eggs in cells for some time, enough to have quantities of capped brood

  • You receive the existing frames of comb, honey, pollen and brood. You do not have to wait for the bees to draw comb(this is labor intensive)

  •  It is easy to transfer the frames into your own equipment

My nuc is set up in a deep hive body with an empty super on top which contains a feeder
My nuc is set up in a deep hive body with an empty super on top which contains a feeder, as well as entrance feeders

Disadvantages of a nuc:

  • Are not usually available until June (I got 2 recently in early April because of my Beekeepers Association who ordered them from a breeder last year)

  • You receive comb from another beekeeper that could contain pests or diseases

  • More expensive- For example, I paid $165 a piece for 2 nucs and a package costs about $115 a piece

It is really important to remove and install the frames in the exact order that they are in the original box. And the weather should be at least 5o degrees or higher. Today, I was working in sunny 65 degree temperatures which is picture perfect. When you remove the frames, it gives you the opportunity to look for brood, honey storage, and the queen.  Here is a video on installing a nuc into your own hives.


Handling Tips on Installing a Nuc

Whenever you work with bees, move smoothly-like you’re doing Tai Chi! Bees will only sting if they feel like you are threatening your hive, and fast and jerky movements will put them into attack mode. Use your smoke sparingly as the only bees that will sting are the guard bees on the periphery at the entrance and at the top of the frames. If bees come at you and give you a “bump” on the face veil, this is their warning prior to trying to sting and it is best to back off before continuing. Move slowly but surely, not clumsily as this can lead to losing your queen and thus your hive.

Lay the Nuc box on its side in front of the hive so the stragglers can enter the hive
Lay the empty Nuc box on its side in front of the hive so the stragglers can enter the hive

Once you move over all your frames to your equipment, there will be stragglers, so I place the Nuc box on its side in front of the hive and by dusk, everyone is tucked up for the night.


I feed my hives with sugar water in entrance feeders
I feed my hives with sugar water in entrance feeders

Sugar water, 1 part table sugar to 1 part water, is fed to the bees for the first couple of weeks until they can easily find nectar sources. Supplementary feeding is critical to the success of your colony. There are sparse nectar sources in early April, and I like to feed until I see plenty of flowers out there, probably in about 3 weeks.

A honeybee with plenty of pollen already collected entering a Hyacinth flower for nectar
A honeybee with plenty of pollen already collected entering a Hyacinth flower for nectar

I continue to feed with sugar water and will inspect the entrance to the hives every day to make sure that there is a good traffic flow, both in and out. That tells me that everything is working well. If there isn’t the normal flow, I will inspect the hive to see if there is a laying queen. In about a week, I will open the hive and check the brood pattern and see if the bees are drawing new wax comb. If everything seems OK, I will continue to feed the hive for several more weeks while they are drawing the wax comb and then taper off the feeding. I believe in minimal handling of the hive. Leave it to the bees! And harvest the honey!

Inspecting a frame when transferring it from the Nuc blox to my hive body
Inspecting a frame when transferring it from the Nuc box to my hive body


Lavender Honey-Scented Body Butter

Finished body butter ready to use

In the dry air of winter, I go through a lot of “body butter”.And what better way to put to use the beeswax and honey that I gathered from the hive last summer? I bought body butter from Burt’s Bees at $15 for a small tub and it was adding up. I like to apply it all over my body after I shower and the butter goes on smoothly and sinks right into your skin and really hydrates. Updating on one of my older posts at Luscious Honey-Scented Body Butter, I find that this has become one of my most popular posts of all time. For other uses of beeswax, go to Honeybee Gift-Beeswax or Orange Citrus Soap With Beeswax.

body butter


After going through some recipes on-line and experimenting with several, I came up with one that works great and costs about half of what I was paying Burt’s Bees. Plus, I made a dent in all of my horded beeswax. The whole process is so easy, I don’t know why I was spending all that money before. The butter is a little thicker than others that I have tried because of the addition of beeswax but it still feels light and creamy.

First of all, gather your ingredients.

Healthy Ingredients

Beeswax: Forms a light coating on the skin helping to hold in moisture. If you don’t have your own hives, contact a local beekeeper to buy some. Available on-line also, and you can buy beeswax already grated which is easier to use.

Raw Unpasteurized Honey: Adds moisture to the skin and helps lock it in, while providing protective benefits. Find a local beekeeper.

Coconut Oil: Naturally rich in proteins which help keep the skin rejuvenated. Coconut oil is becoming ubiquitous in the stores and I am finding more and more uses for it.

Shea Butter: Vitamins, minerals and fatty acids moisturize and revitalize dry skin.

Sweet Almond Oil: Softens and hydrates skin.

Essential Oil: Adds aromatherapy benefits and supports healthy skin. I used lavender oil, but the possibilities are endless-bergamot, lemon, scented geranium, orange, peppermint. I especially like the flavor of lavender and honey and have used this combo in Lavender Honey Ice Cream.

Ingredients for body butter

I shopped for my oils at MOM’s Organic market.  You could try Whole Foods or online. I used 1 Cup of Shea Butter, 1/2 cup of Coconut Oil, 1/2 cup of Sweet Almond Oil, two teaspoons of honey and at least a dozen drops of lavender essential oil. If you can’t find Almond Oil, you could substitute olive, jojoba, or any other liquid oil. Beeswax is hard to measure, so I just broke off a hunk from my stash and chopped it up into smaller pieces.  The beeswax keeps the butter from becoming too soft and scents the body butter with honey. Here is the recipe:

Honey Scented Body Butter

1 C Shea Butter

1/2 C Coconut Oil, which is solid at room temperature

1/2 C Sweet Almond Oil

3-4 ounces Beeswax, broken up into small pieces

Dozen drops of Lavender essential oil

1 T of Honey

Melt the Shea Butter, Coconut Oil, and Beeswax in the top of a double boiler until all lumps melt.

Melting the oils
Melting the oils at a low temperature

The Beeswax has the highest melting temperature, so will be the last to melt. Beeswax has honey deposited in it so you get the fragrance of the honey from your added beeswax, as well as the added liquid honey added at the end.

Beeswax chunks are the last to melt

Remove from the heat and add the Sweet Almond Oil and the vitamin E drops and stir

Remove from heat, letting cool slightly, and add the Sweet Almond Oil. Place the whole thing into the refrigerator until the mixtures turns almost hard and opaque. This could be 15 minutes or less. If you let it harden too much, just return to the heat to melt the mixture again. You want it soft enough to whip, but not too hard that the mixture will form lumps. Creamy smooth is the key, not hard and solid.

Place the mixture into the refrigerator to solidify

While in the refrigerator, the mixture will turn opaque and become very thick.

The mixture after chilling looks like icing

Bring the mixture out, adding the honey and the lavender oil and whip it with a mixer or immersion blender until thoroughly mixed. The more air incorporated, the lighter the mixture.

Scrape into containers. I used an old Burt’s bees container and some small mason jars.

Adding honey and lavender oil
Adding honey and lavender oil
Scooping out the butter into containers It is the perfect consistency!

With this recipe, I made about 3 1/2 cups of body butter that cost about $25 for materials.  I was spending $15 for a 6.75 ounce container from Burt’s Bees. After some calculation, I figured that if I bought 3 1/2 cups of body butter from Burt’s Bees, it would have cost me twice as much. Plus, I knew exactly what went into it.

Enough body butter to slather on for months


Honey-Eternal Shelf Life & Other Amazing Facts

Crystallized honey
Crystallized honey

A food with no expiration date? How is it possible that honey can remain edible even thousands of years later, as evidenced by modern archaeologists finding edible honey in Egyptian tombs? The answer is as complex as honey’s flavor. There is a whole slew of factors in honey working in perfect harmony that makes this amazing substance remain edible in its raw state. There are a few other foods that fall in this longevity category: salt, sugar, and dried rice- but none have the medicinal properties of honey.

Bee in tomb
Bee in tomb

The picture below is from The Smithsonian Natural History Museum and reads:

Over 4,000 years ago, Egyptians began keeping bees and harvesting honey. Tomb paintings depict workers cultivating hives, and ancient texts talk of honey as a sweetener and antiseptic. Wax was used for mummification, salves, and even medication.

The king of Upper and Lower Egypt called himself nesir-bitly – “He who belongs to the sedge and the bee.” Ancient Egyptians considered the work of the bee divine, and they associated bees, wax, and honey with the sun god.

Honey's Role in Egyp
Honey’s Role in Egypt

But why, exactly, doesn’t honey go bad? Honey in its natural form has a very low moisture content and low pH-between 3 and 4.5. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in such an environment – they just die.  The fact that organisms can’t last long in honey means they don’t get the chance to spoil it.

Also, the chemical makeup of a bees stomach plays a large role in honey’s longevity. Bees have an enzyme in their stomachs called glucose oxidase. When the bees regurgitate the nectar from their mouths into the combs to make honey (vomiting!), this enzyme mixes with the nectar, breaking it down into two by-products: gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is the key ingredient which stops bad things from growing in the honey.

Is Honey Better Than Sugar For You?

Nutrition experts say honey, unlike table sugar, has small amounts of vitamins and minerals and that honey can aid in digestion. Researchers are looking into antioxidant levels of honey to see if they also can improve one’s health. Table sugar is pure sucrose and highly processed, while natural honey has no processing steps beyond filtering out debris and bee parts. Evidence points to less processing steps leads to healthier foods.

Bottling fresh unpasteurized honey from the hive
Bottling fresh unpasteurized honey from the hive

Crystallized Honey

But honey over time will form crystals and many honey eaters sees this condition and think it has spoiled and will throw it away. Stop! It is still good-you can use it in this form or reconstitute it into “runny honey”. Here are some common questions about crystallized honey.

Does It Mean The Honey Is Bad Or No Longer Fresh?

Not at all. Crystallization can occur very quickly after harvest – perhaps just a few days or weeks, and so there is no correlation between freshness and the crystallizing process. Be sure to store the honey in a warm sunny window or just somewhere not in the refrigerator. Cooler temps will hasten the crystallization process.

Uncapping wax covering on a frame of honey with a heated knife
Uncapping wax covering on a frame of honey with a heated knife

Almost all unheated, unfiltered honey crystallizes; some just crystallize sooner than others. You can cook with crystallized honey. Scoop it out for tea, use in stir-fries, and as a glaze on poultry and fish. Many times, I think the flavor is more concentrated and easier to use, because it is a more solid substance. If in doubt about the purity of the honey, remember pure honey will crystallize, the adulterated stuff from China that has corn syrup added will never crystallize. Also, when you drop a glob of pure honey into water, it stays in a clump. If cut with corn syrup, the honey will dissipate into the water.

A glob of pure honey will continue in that state if dropped into water
A glob of pure honey will continue in that state if dropped into water

Nectar, the first material collected by bees to make honey, is naturally very high in water–anywhere from 60-80 percent. Bees remove much of this moisture by flapping their wings to literally dry out or remove the moisture from the nectar.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

Because honey is so thick, rejects any kind of growth and contains hydrogen peroxide, it creates the perfect barrier against infection for wounds. Thus, its legendary reputation as a wound healer in ancient times and surprisingly it is coming back in vogue in modern times. Derma Sciences, a medical device company, has marketed and sold MEDIHONEY bandages covered in honey used in hospitals around the world.

Why Does It Crystallize?

There are a few honeys that are very slow to crystallize. Acacia, sage, tupelo, and black locust honeys are some of them.  But the majority of honeys will start working their way to crystallization as soon as they leave the nice warm confines of a 95F hive. It can even crystallize inside a hive if the winter bee cluster is not centered on top of the honey when temperatures stay below 50F for a while. These factors affect the crystallization process:

1) Unfiltered honey: little bits of things can start the crystals growing

2) Storing temperature of the honey: Don’t store in a refrigerator! Store in the warmest and driest spot in your house. I even place crystallized honey on my front porch in the hot sun to dissolve the crystals.

3) The container is used for storage: Plastic is more porous than glass, thus the air exchange is greater. I only use glass now to store my honey.

4) Sealing the container: Honey is a sugar and is hygroscopic, a term that means it contains very little water in its natural state but can readily suck in moisture if left unsealed. So seal the jar tightly.

I store all my honey in glass
I store all my honey in glass


The glucose and fructose are the sugars that give honey its “sweetness”.  Glucose is the one that influences crystallization.  The more glucose in the honey, the sooner your honey will crystallize.

Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris
Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris


Crystallization occurs faster at certain temperatures.  When honey drops into the fifties (towards 50F), it will start to crystallize quickly. When turning your crystallized honey into runny, you don’t want to heat it over 100 degrees. Otherwise, you will kill all the beneficial substances that naturally occur in honey – like pollen, propolis, enzymes, and antioxidants which become useless at higher temperatures. Honey stored between 70 and 95F will stay runny longer. Store that honey in a sunny window! For long term storage, it is best to freeze your honey!

Honey being judged at a State Fair
Honey being judged at a State Fair

How to Make Crystallized Honey Runny

Place your honey jar in a hot water bath on low.  I use a food thermometer to make sure I stay below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating the honey slowly and steadily can take several hours so you don’t want to heat honey in a plastic container. The problem is that once the honey cools, it will be more prone to crystallization the second time around so use it up.  After a few sessions of heating and cooling, the honey will start to lose its consistency and its aroma.  Because of this it’s best if you only heat the amount of honey you want runny.  Leave the rest in the container to heat up another day.

Heating honey on stovetop
Heating honey on stovetop
Honey in plastic jar, I no longer use plastic
Honey in plastic jar, I no longer use plastic

Extracting the Flavor Of The Year-Honey


Flavor of the Year

It is official. According to Firmenich, a private Swiss conglomerate that has produced perfumes and flavors for over 100 years, honey is the flavor of the year for 2015. Recognized for its unique flavor and versatility, Firmenich believes that this should elevate honey flavor to “classic” status like vanilla and chocolate. I read this news the day that I extracted my honey and thought it appropriate when I was absolutely covered in it.

Bee Swarm in my yard
Bee Swarm in my yard

The Big Event

Honey extraction is a process that requires patience, time, and tolerance for bee stings.  After babying the girls- feeding, monitoring, re-queening, splitting, and just plain worrying about them- now is the moment of truth.  How much nectar did they deposit in the combs for me to rob from them? And “robbing” is the right term because the girls work hard at it. According to the National Honey board the average worker bee will produce 1 1/2 teaspoons of honey in her lifetime. And one hive has to fly 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey! For more amazing honeybee facts, check out The National Honey Board. 

Bees on honeycomb
Bees on honeycomb

This year was a banner year for me, over 120 pounds of honey from 2 1/2 hives. The “half hive” swarmed early in the spring, so wasn’t as strong as my other two, but there was still enough to harvest some honey. The two strongest were Nucs and that is the way to go for me from now on. Nucs are simply frames of honeycomb that a mated queen bee is already laying eggs, and brood is hatching. In contrast, a bee package that I order in the mail comes with a queen that hasn’t yet been introduced to the thousands of worker bees that accompany her in a “package”.  Go to A Bee Nuc or Package to see the difference and advantages. Nucs hit the ground running, and packages need to build up.

Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Bee package which includes a queen and 12,000 to 15, 000 bees as a starter
Installing a new Nuc package into a hive body
Installing a new Nuc package into a hive body

It is always an anti-climax when we finally remove and extract – kind of like Christmas – lots of build up and anticipation, and then it is over quickly and we are mopping up the mess.

Installing a package in the spring
Installing a package in the spring


After removing the bees, see Robbing the Bees-A Honey of a Day to see how to do this tricky part, we are ready to spin out the honey. I never do this in the house as you will be bringing in unwanted guests (hanger-on bees), so set up an area in our garage. Wiping down everything with soapy water and laying down large plastic drop cloths and we are ready to go.

A perfect capped frame of honey
A perfect capped frame of honey

Using a heated knife to remove the wax coverings and a fork that looks like a hair pick, the cells are opened up so that the honey can be flung out.

Using a heated knife to remove wax cappings
Using a heated knife to remove wax cappings in our garage
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering
Using an uncapping fork to remove wax covering

Think of a large metal trash can with wire shelves inside that spin around and you have a honey extractor.   An attached motor will turn the merry-go-round inside, flinging the honey deposited in the cells onto the side of the trash can, dripping down to the bottom where it will exit through a gate valve.

Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris
Honey is deposited in a mesh sieve that filters out debris

Honey pours out into a large clean food grade bucket that has a mesh paint sieve to filter out all bee parts and debris.

The wax cappings are very tasty and we dive right in and start snacking.  Grabbing a dollop of warm fresh honey comb that is dripping with honey  is luscious!

Wax cappings full of honey
Wax cappings full of honey


Once the honey is all extracted, I take the frames and set them up in front of the hives so the bees can wring every last drop of honey from them. The bees, once they discover the free honey, go crazy and buzz around the yard.  I am sure not to have guests over when this happens as it can be quite unnerving if you are afraid of bees.

We set up the extractor and all the tools in front of the hives also so the bees can finish cleaning.  I use the wax to make beeswax soap and candles. Go to Beeswax-Honeybee Gift to see how I process and use beeswax.

2 lb block of beeswax
2 lb block of beeswax

Filling up the buckets was exciting and we were surprised after weighing one to see that it contained 68 pounds of honey! We quickly filled another with the thick amber honey. Honey flavor and color depends on the terrior and pollens that bees collect, and has different “notes”, kind of like wine. This years honey is definitely darker in color than last years and has a wonderful flavor.

Weighing honey
Weighing honey

Giving the honey a few days to settle, I start bottling the honey when the weather is still warm, over 75 degrees. If honey gets too cold, it won’t flow properly into my jars.

Bottled Honey
Bottled Honey
Bottled honey
Bottled honey



Pollinator Week

Sunflower painting by Redenta Soprano
Sunflower painting by Redenta Soprano

White House wants to save the bees! That was music to my ears when I got The Great Sunflower Project newsletter in my inbox. A task force has been created by this Presidental decree that is trying to answer particular questions about the role of pollinators in relation to specific species of plants. Pollinators refers to both native and non-native honeybees, as well as all the other insect pollinators.


I have posted before about The Great Sunflower Project and how it is utilizing citizen science to gather information about pollinators to assist scientists in analyzing information from all parts of the country to determine the health and ways to help pollinators.


All you need is five minutes per plant. Simply identify the plant and count the pollinators that visit. It is that simple!

Fibonacci spiral
Fibonacci spiral

If you want to read some amazing information about sunflowers, go to Magical Sunflowers.

Bee Skep poster, go to
Bee Skep poster, go to

 Mark your calendars for June 15-21, 2015 and go to to register and read all the great information that has been collected already by people in their backyards. And participate and help the bees!

Bee Swarm Videos

I captured some incredible bee swarm videos this week! The first is a video of the swarm booking out of the hive. Turn the volume up to hear how loud they are. I could hear them from the other side of my property about 100 yards away and came running.



The bees have made landing on a nearby tree branch and are forming their swarm formation. It takes about 20 minutes for them to pour out of the hive to form their trademark tear drop formation.

Unfortunately, by the time I gathered my equipment to capture them, they decided to leave and I lost them. For more info on swarming, look at my post Swarming of the Bees. 

The last video is of the complete swarm which is pretty big!

Swarming of the Bees

Yes! It is that time of year (Honey Flow) when the bees build up quickly. Before you know it you are looking at a huge moving bee mass perched on a tree branch like the one below when you come home from work. And you must do something quickly before they move on to roomier and more distant pastures! 

Honey Flow

Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in Maryland, honey flow happens when the black locust is in bloom, starting in mid May into June.  I can see the heavy creamy white hanging blossoms dangling from the trees lining the wooded roads around my house and I know that my bees will be in tip top form ferrying nectar to the hive and capping it with wax to make honey stores for the winter.

Black Locust blooms
Black Locust blooms

This is the beginning of the peak honey-producing season, when bees, taking advantage of the pollen available from spring blooms, make as much honey as they can to store for the cold days of winter ahead.

Bringing nectar and pollen into the hive
Bringing nectar and pollen into the hive

With the coming of spring a couple of weeks late this spring, I haven’t worried so much- but honey flow arrives quickly when I really busy with the garden and my landscape business that sometimes I am taken by surprise by swarming activity. If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm?  You can increase your hives !”  The answer is really simple.  Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm.  The bees have a mind of their own.

Swarm Production

As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.

Peanut shaped swarm cell

Queen bee in the makingSwarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony.  When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen on their own. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more.  The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.

A swarm starting to form

The Big Event

I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting.  One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive body and head for some nearby structure- usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.

The Honey Bees have made a bee hive on the bra...The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony in the hive and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. But they are a much smaller population so won’t produce that honey surplus. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.

Capturing a swarm
Capturing a swarm

Capturing the Swarm

If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, the beekeeper can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place. Go to to see a slide show of me hiving a swarm.

Swarm high up in a tree
Swarm high up in a tree

I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses.  If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.

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Preventative Steps

Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:


I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.

To ventilate, I place matches between the inner cover and hive body
To ventilate, I place matches between the inner cover and hive body

Plenty of Room

 I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start.  When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.

Give the bees lots of room
Give the bees lots of room

Young Queens 

Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old.  Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.

New queens come in small cages
New queens come in small cages


Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong.  This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive.  You can add a new queen or let them make their own.  This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.

Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!

Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens.  I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently.  Leave them alone!

Sweet Rewards!