Free Bees, Courtesy of Migratory Beekeepers

Catch a swarm without even trying.

The cherry trees are blooming in the Wenatchee area and that means the bees are back.

Every year, thousands of beehives are shipped to the area and placed around orchards to pollinate the flowers. Apricots are first — although there aren’t many apricot orchards in the area. Then comes cherries and then apple and pears. The season has just started and it should go on for at least a month.

My friend Tina and her husband Bill have a cherry orchard in Malaga, not far from where I live. Although they usually keep one or two of their own bee hives, that’s not enough to pollinate their entire orchard. So they rented about 30 hives, which were delivered the other night, likely right from California. (Migratory beekeepers move bees at night when they’re all inside their hives.)

The other day, Tina excitedly texted me that the bees were swarming. Turns out that they’d found her empty bee hives — her bees had not survived the winter — and a swarm had moved into one of them.

If you’re wondering what all this means, you might want to read a post I wrote back in 2013, “Bees: Capturing My First Swarm.” It explains why bees swarm and what’s usually involved in capturing a swarm. But Tina didn’t have to do any of the work. The bees just moved into an empty hive on their own.

I told her she should put other empty hives out to see what else she could catch and she said she did. Then I asked if I could put one or two of mine out. After all, if more than one colony was swarming, it would be great to catch as many of them as we could. Great for the bees, since they’d get a new home easily. Great for us because we’d get free bees. And it didn’t affect the migratory beekeeper since the bees were going to swarm anyway. If we didn’t catch them in our beehives, they’d end up somewhere else.

Keep in mind that buying bees usually costs about $100 to $150 per colony, depending on how many you get and how you buy them. And where you buy them from, of course. Since it’s common to lose 50% of your colonies over the winter here, a lot of folks spend a lot of money buying new bees. I replaced 6 colonies one year and swore it would be the last year bought bees. Now I make new colonies through splits and try to catch a few swarms every summer.

So yesterday I cobbled together two complete hives with ten frames each. Each hive has a mix of frames from a failed colony — three of my eight colonies died or disappeared over the winter — and frames from extracted honey. There’s lots of room for a queen to lay eggs and lots of room for incoming bees to store honey and pollen. And even a little honey to get them all started.

It’s kind of like finding a roomy apartment, fully furnished with just the kind of furniture you like, and a fridge with food in it.

I put one hive near the one Tina had already caught and another right near where half the rented bees were set up. And then I left.

Today, I dropped off some spare equipment to help Tina set up a few more hives. Not complete setups, but hive boxes (also known as supers) and tops. She’ll still need bottoms and frames.

Free Swarm
In less than 24 hours, bees had moved into my empty bee hive.

This afternoon, Tina texted me: “Look what you got!” And she sent a photo of the hive I’d placed near hers with bees all over the front of it.

It looked as if a swarm was moving in.

I texted back, asking if I could pick it up on Friday morning so they’d have enough time to settle in. She agreed. Then I suggested that she put a box where I had that one when I moved it. Maybe she’d catch another one.

Robber Bees?
There aren’t enough bees around this hive box to assume a swarm has moved in. When I pick up the other one, I’ll take a peek inside this one.

She sent me a photo of my other hive, too. There was some activity around the front, but not much. Robber bees, perhaps, or maybe some bees just checking it out. Maybe she’ll send another photo tomorrow.

My beekeeping season has been off to a slow start. It only recently stayed in the 40s at night and we still have cool, rainy days. I checked the hives when I got home from my winter trip, just to see how many survivors I had and to seal up the dead hives so the other bees wouldn’t be tempted to rob. When I bring the new bees home, I’ll spend some time opening up my hives, shuffling frames, and seeing if I can spot the queens. I’ll do hive splits on my healthiest hives — I know that two are going like gangbusters — and put the splits on my little bee trailer. But rather than put four occupied hives on it before taking it up to Wenatchee Heights, I think I’ll try leaving one of them empty, just to see if I can attract any other migrants looking to settle down in the Wenatchee area.

Keeping Cherries Fresh

A few tips from years of experience.

One of the perks of my summer job as a cherry drying pilot is my friendship with more than a few orchard owners. As a result, I often find myself with an opportunity to pick cherries right off the trees for my own personal consumption.

Gleaning

I got an opportunity just yesterday. I was on a charter flight with two good clients who occasionally use a helicopter to visit multiple orchards during the growing season. Our first stop was a cherry orchard about forty miles south of my base in the Wenatchee area. Picking was in full swing, with lots of pickers working on trees just to the south of the clearing where I’d landed. I wandered off into the orchard in the other direction and found large, mature trees. I stepped into the shade and looked around me.

Most of the trees were Bing cherry trees. I could tell because I know that Bings don’t self-pollinate, which would explain the presence of Rainier cherry trees, which are sometimes used as pollinators. There was another type of cherry tree there too — likely another pollinator. The Bings had been picked; the Rainiers and other cherries had not.

I have a lot of respect for my client, which is why I didn’t pick any Rainiers. Instead, I went to the picked Bing cherry trees and began my hunt. I was gleaning.

According to Wikipedia:

Gleaning (formerly ‘leasing’) is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.

(I was not familiar with this term until last year, when I described what I was doing and a friend told me it was called gleaning. I never stop learning and hope you don’t, either.)

I’m pretty good at gleaning, having had lots of experience over the past eight years. As strange as it may seem, when pickers go through an orchard, they often leave a lot of fruit behind. I’ve noticed that some trees have more leftover fruit than others, likely because some pickers are not quite as good as others. I’ll go for good sized, unblemished fruit that I can reach from the ground. (Being tall helps.) It doesn’t matter what I pick or how much — since the trees have already been harvested, if I didn’t pick the fruit it would likely rot there. One of my clients even told me that by gleaning the leftover cherries, I help prevent the spread of a certain pest that thrives on rotting fruit.

Bag of Cherries
Robinson R44 blade tie-downs make pretty decent little canvas bags. I could have put at least five pounds in this one.

I picked about two to three pounds of cherries. I put them in one of my helicopter’s blade tie-downs, which actually makes a good-sized canvas bag. (I can’t take credit for this idea; a pilot friend of mine used one of his tie-downs Thursday as a bag on a kayak trip.) I stowed it under my seat for the trip home, knowing how important it is to keep the cherries cool.

And that’s the trick: keeping the cherries as cool as possible.

Keep the Cherries Cool

Cherries begin to lose their freshness as soon as they are picked. Growers do everything they can to keep the fruit as cool as possible. They only pick early in the day and seldom after the outside air temperature reaches 80°F. If able, they run the bins of freshly picked fruit through a hydrocooler to drop the temperature of the fruit. They get the bins of fruit into refrigerated trucks as quickly as possible. Even at the packing house, the fruit is moved off the trucks and into huge refrigerated warehouses until they can get a place on the packing line.

I have my own hydrocooler of sorts: a kitchen sink or large bowl of cold water. As soon as I got yesterday’s cherries home, I rushed them into the kitchen, dumped them into a bowl, and filled the bowl with cold tap water. I whooshed them around in the water to wash off the orchard chemicals and dumped the water. Then I did it again. And again. Three washes — that’s my routine.

Next, I half-filled the bowl of cherries with water and topped it off with ice from my freezer. (Before I moved out of my RV and into a real home, I actually bought bags of ice that I stored in my RV freezer just for this task.) I whooshed the cherries around in the water, getting the water and the cherries icy cold.

The important thing to remember here is to not leave the cherries in water longer than necessary. Why? Because they will split. After all, that’s why I work as a cherry drying pilot — to get rainwater off cherries so they don’t split.

So my next step was to dump the cherries with the ice into a colander. That would allow the water to drain off while keeping the ice around the cherries to cool them just a little bit more.

Cherries on Ice
I keep the cherries on ice a while to keep cooling them down.

Then I ate some. Quite a few, in fact. Although some people seem to have digestive problems when they eat too many cherries, I don’t. I can eat a lot of cherries.

Cherries in a Bowl
My gleaned cherries, ready for the fridge.

Finally, I pulled the cherries out of the colander and put them in a ceramic bowl, leaving the ice behind. And I put the bowl in the fridge, where I could easily reach in for a handful of cherries any time I liked.

Sealing Out the Air

Every once in a while, I pick a lot of cherries — more than I can eat in a day or two — or one of my clients gives me an 18-pound box. 18 pounds is a lot of cherries.

Besides making cherry turnovers, cherry cobbler, and cherry chutney, eating cherries with yogurt and cereal, and sealing pitted cherries in jars with vodka and a bit of sugar to enjoy six months into the future, I want to store the cherries in a way that’ll keep them fresh for munching as long as possible.

To do this, I follow all the steps above and then add a final step: store them in a zip-lock bag with air sucked out of it. I suck the air out with a straw, just before sealing the bag. Then I put the bags in the coldest part of the fridge. I’ve managed to keep cherries edible for up to two weeks like this.

I Love Washington State Cherries

The only fresh cherries I eat are Washington state cherries, most of which are grown within 50 miles of my home.

Whenever possible, I pick them myself, after the pickers have gone through the orchard block. I’m picking up the crumbs, taking fruit that would just go to waste otherwise. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do this. It’s not just a matter of getting free cherries. It’s also a great way to get closer to my food source, seeing how the fruit grows and fades, getting a better appreciation for what it takes to grow and harvest the food we take for granted.

Washington state cherry season will likely end early this year — possibly before the middle of August. There isn’t much time left to get this great fruit. If you find some in your local supermarket, buy it, bring it home quickly, and chill it back down. Then come back here and use the comments to tell us what you think.

About the Wind Machines

An important part of crop protection.

The economy of this area of Washington State is based primarily on tree fruit production: apples, cherries, pears, and apricots. Indeed, Columbia River Valley around Wenatchee is one of the biggest apple producing regions in the world.

Fruit trees bloom in the spring, are pollinated by migratory bees, and form fruit. Throughout the summer, the fruit develops and grows. Months later, when the fruit ripens, it’s picked, sent to processing plants, and either shipped out immediately, as in the case of cherries, or stored for later shipment, as in the case of apples.

The timing of all this is determined by the weather and can fluctuate by several weeks every year. The trees get a cue from temperature to start budding and once the buds are formed, there isn’t much that can stop the seasonal progression.

Except frost.

Frost can kill flowers and developing fruit. A bad enough deep freeze over the winter months can even kill trees.

And that’s where frost protection comes in. Growers are deeply concerned about frost destroying a crop so they take steps to protect the crop from frost. In this area, they rely on wind machines to circulate the air in parts of an orchard prone to pockets of cold air.


This video shows wind machines in action at a pear orchard in Cashmere, which is near here. It looks to me as if the trees are in bloom. Unfortunately, the sound is turned off so you can’t get the full effect.

Wind machines look like large, two-bladed fans on a tall pole. Usually powered by propane, they’re often thermostatically controlled — in other words, they are set to turn on in the spring when the temperature drops down to a certain point. The blades spin like any other fan and the fan head rotates, sending wind 360° around the machine’s base.

The idea, of course, is that the cold air has settled down into pockets and that warmer air can be found around it and above it. By circulating the air, the warm air is brought around the trees and frost is prevented.

In California, they use helicopters to protect the almond crop from frost. (As a matter of fact, as I type this my helicopter is in California for a frost contract for the third year in a row.) The principle is the same, but the orchards tend to be much larger and I can only assume that it isn’t financially feasible to install and run wind machines in that area. (Hard to believe it’s cheaper to use helicopters, though.)

This year, some unseasonably warm weather has triggered a very early bloom. My clients tell me that their cherry crop is running 2 to 3 weeks early. Right now, cherries are in various stages of bloom throughout the area; apricots are pretty much done with their bloom. (Apples and pears will come next.) And since winter has not let go of its tenuous grip on us, the temperature has been dropping down into the low to mid 30s each night this week.

Well, not at night. It actually starts getting cold around 4 or 5 AM, as you can see in this weather graph:

Weather Graph
The National Weather Service weather graph page for this area shows the forecasted highs and lows over time.

The result: the wind machines kick on automatically when it starts getting cold: around 4 or 5 AM.

Want to hear what a wind machine sounds like close up? This video has full sound as a field man starts and runs up a wind machine. He’s wearing ear protection for a reason. Stick with it to see the spinning head on top.

Wind machines are not quiet. In fact, from a distance, they sound exactly like helicopters. And as they spin, they sound like moving helicopters — so much so that when I first heard them in action back in Quincy in 2009 or 2010, I thought they were helicopters and actually got up to see what was going on. I suspect that to someone on the ground, they sound exactly like a helicopter drying cherries would sound.

Although there aren’t any orchards on my end of the road, my property does look out at quite a few orchards, some of which have wind machines. There are at least 5 within a mile of me — I can see 4 of them from my side deck. I can also see others much farther out into the distance. And when the close ones are running, I know it. It’s not loud enough to wake me up in my snugly insulated home, but it sure did wake me up when I was living in my thin-walled RV outside. And it’s definitely not something you can pretend you don’t hear.

Fortunately, wind machines are a seasonal nuisance — much like other orchards noises: sprayers, tractors, helicopters, and pickers. Although frost season runs through May in this area, the machines only kick on during cold weather. Looking at the forecast, I can expect to hear them tomorrow morning and probably Wednesday morning, but not likely on Monday or Tuesday morning.

Weather ForecastNWS Wenatchee forecast for this week.

In the meantime, I’ve already gotten the heads up from my California client who might need me down there on Monday. After all, they don’t have wind machines.

For a helicopter pilot working in this area, wind machines are one of the obstacles that can be a hazard when drying cherries. They tower higher than the trees and their blades can be “parked” at any angle or direction. Although some growers will try to use wind machines to dry trees while waiting for pilots, my contract states I won’t fly in an orchard with wind machines spinning so they’re usually turned off when I arrive — or right afterwards. But if the blades aren’t parked, they can move. And one pilot I know learned the hard way about what happens when a helicopter’s main rotor blade hits a wind machine. (He’s okay; the helicopter is not.)

To sum up, wind machines are an important crop protection device that can be a bit of a nuisance with predawn operation in the spring. But I don’t mind listening to them. Like so many orchard owners in the area, my livelihood depends on a healthy cherry crop. If that means tolerating some noise 10-20 mornings out of the year, so be it.