Queen Santa Maria: “Off With Their Heads!”

A.V. Walters

Too Close For Comfort

Too Close For Comfort

They say that a beehive takes on the personality of its queen. That may be a little much, but they are all her children. I don’t know whether there can be a true personality in a critter that has a colony culture. Much of bee activity is driven by pheromones. The queen’s chemical aura both binds the workers to her, and simultaneously suppresses their reproductive systems. They communicate via the famous “bee dance” and with a complicated and primal chemical/olfactory messaging. If you think bees don’t communicate, try disturbing the hive or, more tellingly, mess with one of the scouts.

Our bee adventure has had mixed results. At the outset, shortly after “installing” our bees, I became ill. As a result we lost precious time learning to speak ‘bee.’ Our bees had minimal interference for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Sure, we watched their comings and goings, but until I was back on my feet, we didn’t do full hive inspections.

Just watching from the outside, though, there were clear differences between the hives from day one. We started with two “nucs,” which are established mini-hives—a queen, workers and a few frames of comb with brood and food. Alternatively, you can buy “package bees” and a queen, but they take a little longer to get established. With our short season, we decided on the nucs. We started with two hives and the transfer was pretty uneventful. In the first few days it was clear that the activity levels between the hives was alarmingly different—one was inching along while the other was a bustling center of action. We thought there was a problem with the “smaller” group (who, to their defense had been smaller in number from the start.)

Then, we got the third hive. With three, we needed to identify them better so we named them—Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Niña was the hive we thought was struggling. When Pinta arrived, it became clear that Niña and Pinta were far more alike, and that Santa Maria, (going gangbusters) was the outlier. Pinta came with a few more bees than Niña—so it was a little more active. That Santa Maria, though, was the New York hub of bee-dom. We even relocated the hives further apart from each other, out of concern that the Santa Maria mob might overwhelm the territory. Other than that, we left them alone to do their bee-thing.

It’s fun to watch them, their comings and goings. By careful observation you can see whether they’re coming back to the hive laden with pollen, or empty-handed. While gardening I spent a lot of time observing the bees. People from my bee group warned that there can be hungry times for the bees, between various blooms, even in summer. We saw no such lags. We are really well located to take advantage of several different biomes—forest, open fields, stream habitat and swamp. It seemed something was always blooming. Our intrepid workers were always coming home with saddlebags full of pollen. We’d check, peeking in from time to time, (especially when we had the ant problem) and as the colonies grew we added additional supers on to the stack. Even our little Niña was doing well.

It is enormously gratifying to see your own bees pollinating the vegetables in your garden. As we move around the property we keep our ears open for the buzz of pollinators. Sometimes its one of the local native varieties, but often we spy our honeybees out working the fields. There is something peacefully pastoral about the steady work rhythms of the bees. They remind us that “measured and steady” is a template for natural success.

Santa Maria, though, is like a hive on steroids. It is what beekeepers call an aggressive hive—and that’s a good thing. Aggressive hives produce far more honey than loafers like Niña and Pinta. Some beekeepers search out aggressive hives for breeding. If we get that far, it’ll be interesting to see how the different hive types do in over-wintering.

If we get that far.

You see, like some ominous Frankenbee hive, Santa Maria has become a problem. Our bees share the fenced area with the garden and the orchard, or at least Niña and Pinta do. Santa Maria is not so keen on sharing. Twice, I’ve been driven from the garden, stung, because something about my activity alarmed the Santa Maria scouts. Once I was coiling hose. The other time, I was weed-hacking, but not near Santa Maria. Beekeepers learn to expect the occasional bee sting. It goes with the territory. We suit up for working with the bees. The rule of thumb is, suit up and move confidently—without any fast or threatening maneuvers—and you’ll be fine. That is exactly the case with Niña and Pinta. Steady and just a touch of smoke and the bees tolerate an amazing level of interference.

But, Santa Maria has me wearing my bee gear to garden! We noticed last week that Santa Maria bees sometimes came from underneath the hive. A cautious peek revealed that there is hive building outside the hive box. That either means that these overly busy bees are building unauthorized honeycomb or, worse yet, that a small offshoot swarm has taken up housekeeping close to the old homestead. Either way, it helped to explain why they are so aggressive in the garden.

So, Saturday, we suited-up to investigate. Keeping in mind the general attitude of Santa Maria, it felt like we were arming for war (and it’s a good thing we did.) The objective was to lift and move each of the stacked bee boxes, so that we could flip over the bottom board to get an idea what they were up to, down there. This is a bit of a chore, because at this time of year, when the bees are well stocked with honey, each of these frame boxes can top 70 pounds! (We guess that ours were at about 50.) We got past the first two layers, oohing and ahing at the stores of honey. The bees were well smoked and on alert, but not hostile. When Rick cracked loose and started to separate the third box, the bees went crazy. Some people are afraid of a “swarm” of bees. A swarm is a relatively gentle bunch. They are in the middle of relocating and they have bigger fish to fry than some human. However, bees pouring out of a hive in defense of their home is a thing to behold. Within seconds I was inundated with bees. We kept our cool, that is, until the bees started stinging me through my jeans.

We had agreed, in advance, that in the event of a problem, the stung person would retreat and the remaining person would close up the hive. I retreated—bringing with me a small cloud of angry bees. Once I’d cleared the worst of them off my legs, I went back to help Rick. After all, the retreat didn’t really solve the problem and it wasn’t fair to leave him with the heavy lifting and the defensive smoking at the same time. Ultimately, we just closed the hive back up, but didn’t succeed in checking out the problem under the hive. So, we still have the problem.

Tonight is our beekeeping-group meeting. We are eager to get advice, from the more experienced keepers, on how to handle the-hive-on-steroids. For those of the group, who like aggressive bees, we may offer to swap for a kinder, gentler hive. Maybe what we need to do is replace the queen. (“The Queen is dead… Long live the Queen!”) Whatever the solution, we’re ready to gear up, again, (with more layers) and literally, get to the bottom of this problem.

Beyond Sustainable

A.V. Walters

Food Stamps 2

For decades, sustainable has been the goal. Organic gardeners and farmers could proudly point at their successful efforts for the fact that they’d brought in crops that were not at the expense of the environment.

Agriculture, as it’s practiced in this country, is a significant factor in environmental degradation. Soil erosion, soil desiccation, loss of beneficial bacteria, poison build-up in the soils (and groundwater), bee losses—these are all “normal” conditions brought about by standard American agricultural methods. By contrast, organic practices, crop rotation, organic soil amendment (cover crops, compost and natural manure applications), these actually build soil health and soil volumes. As an organic gardener’s soils improved, she could be proud of the fact that she was building a better tomorrow in her corner of the planet.

Now we know that that is not enough.

The living world is a connected system. Excessive carbon in the atmosphere is changing the climate all over the planet and, organic or not, we’re along for the ride. It’s not enough to mind your own little corner with the objective of saving it. We need to save the planet. We can start by doing exactly what we’ve always done. Recent research shows that sustainable garden/farm practices actually trap carbon into the soils. Better soil, better air, better climate! So the organic gardener’s efforts actually help to offset some of the bad practices everywhere else!

Think of the changes we could make if we expanded organic and sustainable gardening practices everywhere! I imagine a world in which your local “garden center” does not have an “aisle of death,” with its shelves lined with poisons. To get there, people need to stop buying those products. To convince them to let go of their poison remedies, the organic tribe needs to spread the word. We need to reach out, with solutions, instead of judgments. We need to have classes and write articles on alternatives to the garden fed with chemical fertilizers and “guarded” with pesticides. It can be done. (And yes, I know we’re all busy, but really, our lives and our future depends on this and we can make time.)

Imagine how much more progress we could make if our agricultural system changed to include some of those same techniques. Successful ancient farmers built our civilization using sustainable methods. Our current version of extractive farming has only been used for half a century. We can revive those sustainable traditions and decrease our reliance on chemical inputs. Recent studies on extended crop rotation have shown we can increase soil health and minimize chemical usage.

“Substantial improvements in the environmental sustainability of agriculture are achievable now, without sacrificing food production or farmer livelihoods.” – See more at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/10-11-2012/benefits-of-longer-rotations#sthash.0Zeiwsun.dpuf and at www.cefs.ncsu.edu/…/croprotationsfinaljan09.doc Even beyond that, the evidence is coming in that shows that an international conversion to sustainable agricultural practices on a larger scale could literally save the planet.

This isn’t rocket science. Sustainable practices are cheaper, healthier and sounder than the system that puts food on the tables for most of America—and changes in farming methods could prevent topsoil losses, sequester carbon (reducing climate change) use water more efficiently and deliver better quality foods for Americans.

proclimweb.scnat.ch/portal/ressources/2302.pdf

Our mindsets have to change to make this possible. Our language has to change to embrace a brighter future, without building resistance to what we need to do to get there. Sustainable isn’t enough. But regenerative is. Regenerative Agriculture isn’t exactly new. It’s what all good farmers did before the chemical revolution. So another revolution will be necessary to make the change. It won’t be easy. There is huge resistance in big money—and big money has a lot to lose here. The agri-chemical industry will not go gently into that good night. (Monsanto, the “poster-child” culprit in agricultural degradation, already owns the Google words for “sustainable agriculture.” In a cruel joke of technology, Monsanto gets the first search hit for those words.)

If you want regenerative farming and gardening to survive and thrive, you’ll have to put your money to work. Don’t buy gardening chemicals. Support your local farmer, especially your local organic farmer. Read labels—and be picky about what you buy. Don’t buy GMO foods. Reduce your consumption of processed foods. If you haven’t already, start a garden. Plant trees. Because we are all part of the problem, we can all be a part of the solution.

In a quote often (and perhaps mistakenly) attributed to Winston Churchill, “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.”

(And thanks to the United States Postal Service for the beautiful Forever stamps.)

 

Gone With the Wind

A.V. Walters

It’s pretty quiet now, though the valley thrums with the low hum of generators, punctuated by the occasional whine of a chainsaw.

We live in a place that is blessed with steady winds. While our current impetus is to finish the house enough that we can move into it, Rick and I can’t help but take note of our regular winds and nod at each other. Sooner or later, we’ll do something to harness that power. To my way of thinking, wind power is a better bet than solar in northern regions; you can always count on the wind, summer or winter. Still, most of the alternative energy attention goes to solar. Our neighbor is installing a bank of solar panels now. We’ll watch to see how they perform come winter.

Early last week, we were pre-staining 4X8 panels to use to enclose the soffits. It’s a lot easier to apply the stain when they’re still on the ground. We set up on a series of saw horses–we’d stain on one, and then move the sheets out to dry on the others. Each panel needed first to be perched on its edge and vigorously swept clean of milling crud, before we could apply the stain. While I brushed down the next sheet, a gust of wind behind me picked up one of the stained ones, and pitched it directly at me. It caught me on the backs of my calves; Rick heard my yelped cursing from the basement. Wind power–it can leave you badly bruised.

I shared my story with our builders, who all had construction wind horror stories of their own, with injuries ranging from bruising to quadraplegia. Clearly the lesson was that wind is a powerful, and unpredictable force. When working on a construction site, you must consider the placement of any material that could catch the wind and act like a sail, including (as we learned last winter) tarps and plastic coverings.

Now that the house has a roof, and is partially enclosed (upstairs windows installed) we worry less about the impact of weather. Armed with this new sense of immunity, Rick and I headed north this past weekend, a break to visit my mum. It was a marathon trip, a 900 mile round trip in a three day window. It was a wonderful break–even with the drive. The surprise came on the way home.

Two counties away, we started noticing a number of trees down. Many were snapped, mid-trunk, like toothpicks. Soon, we were obsessed, scanning the sides of the highway, and finding plenty of damage. We were only gone two and a half days–what happened?

In Traverse City there were areas without power, or signal lights. Traffic snaked along, on single lanes squeezed between emergency equipment, cutting downed trees from the roads and from where they’d fallen on homes. We were anxious to get home to check out our new home under construction–where we already know the winds can be fierce.

We didn’t stop at the apartment; we went straight to the house. There it was, safe and sound, without even a leaf out of place. There was no indication that there’d been a storm at our house. Of course most of the county has no power because of the fierce storm that ripped though on Sunday. We missed it. It’s the biggest weather event since we arrived in Michigan, and we were away!

There’s argument as to whether there were tornadoes. Leelanau County doesn’t get tornadoes, or so they say. Yet a number of people swear they saw funnel clouds. The weather service flatly denies that there were tornadoes. At least this is what we hear. We are still at the mercy of the rumor mill, because there’s no power–no internet–and no “hard” news. Wanting to know, I did the next best thing, I went down to our local hardware store. Indeed, the damage was pretty bad. Many cars and houses have been hit with flying trees. At least three pontoon boats were picked up from small lakes, flipped and smashed to bits in shallow waters. We’ll have to wait until the power resumes to get the whole story.

We walked the back woods today, and we’re not completely unscathed. We’ve lost at least thirty trees, many of them fell and took out their neighbors, like dominoes. The unfortunate part is that the standing dead ash trees did not fall. The maples, the basswood, trees laden with summer foliage, those were the ones that caught the winds and came down. There’s a lot of clean up to do, we’ll have to re-open all the trails that we opened when we first arrived. We’re in good company, power company employees are out, surveying the damage and calling in the “tree boys” to free the lines of downed trees. We talked to one of the line surveyors, who warned us it could be days before we see power. We’ll be fine. We can take “flushing” water out of the creek. We have a generator, to keep the refrigerator and lights running. (Too bad it’s not powerful enough to run the well pump.)  We can cook on the propane barbecue. We’ll be just fine. Maybe I’ll even find a way to post this update.

That wind though, it certainly would be nice if we could harness it for the power of good, instead of ….

Posted courtesy of laundromat wifi.

“There Are Raspberries in the Woods!”

A.V. Walters

At the top of the incline...

At the top of the incline…

Yesterday was hot and muggy. My big chore for the day was watering and feeding the garden. We have poor soils, so initially, as we build the soils with organic materials, we are also fertilizing with a ground, whole-fish mixture. It’s a messy venture, with mixing in 5 gallon buckets and then pouring back into a watering can–or, for the fruit trees, into our special, slow-feed (cracked-bottom) bucket. Just watering is an exhausting exercise in hose dragging (three hundred feet of heavy duty hose to three locations) and the alchemist’s fertilizing concoction stinks. It splashes all over –and, in the heat, red-faced and sweating, I was quite a sight (and smell) even from a distance.

Our neighbor happened by. She’d been hiking up in our hills. We haven’t seen each other in weeks and she stopped to catch up. The whole neighborhood is in a tizzy over the loose and barking dogs. So far, nobody has the nerve to press the sheriff to do something about them; that day is coming. The barking, especially late at night, is driving everyone crazy. I’m always surprised that people aren’t more direct. We exchange stories. She’s kind enough not to mention my fishy, disheveled state. But, she seemed a little more agitated than just the usual barking dogs annoyance.

Just as she was about to depart, she turned to me and said, “You know, there are raspberries in the woods.”

“I know.” I gestured towards the house we’re building, “We’ve been so busy… I haven’t had time to get back there.”

She nodded, then wrinkled her face, obviously dissatisfied with my response. She leaned forward, almost conspiratorially, “No, really, you should get back there. They’re ripe…really lovely.” And then she repeated, lowering her voice, “There are raspberries in the woods.” I thanked her and she headed home, disappearing through the pines.

I was pretty spent from my morning’s chores. The woods are cooler and the suggestion to pick berries was stuck in my head. Fresh raspberries… I could make sorbet. Wouldn’t that be lovely on a hot, sticky day? And, it’s been weeks since I walked in the woods.

There are raspberries in many parts of the back-forty. Marilyn hadn’t been specific about which area got her so excited. So, I ambled west, down the south side of the two-track, figuring that if I didn’t find anything I’d cut north before it got too steep. It was lovely, a light breeze and a near full canopy of shade. I found plenty of berry canes, but the berries were not ripe in the shaded areas. I headed up the hill, hoping they’d be further along in the sun, up on the ridge.

I crested the top and saw red berries almost immediately in what had become a jungle of brambles since I was last there. Just as I turned to find the trail, I came upon three teenage girls who were taking turns cutting a log with a bow saw. I was stunned. So were they.

“Hello,” I said, “What are you doing?”

A fresh faced blond in braids responded, “We’re camping.”

“Ah,” I said, “I meant, what are you doing, here?”

“We’re camping. We’re with a Christian camping group. We come here every year.”

“You come here, every year?”

“Yes, at least for the last few years, since I’ve been coming. We have a lease with the owner.”

“And, the owner’s name is…?”

“I don’t know, but our camp counselor might.”

“That might be helpful, because I’ve owned this property for over twenty-five years and I’ve never leased it to anyone.”

By now, the girls were looking a little nervous. They stood up and brushed themselves off.

“Perhaps you should take me to your leader,” I smiled. They didn’t get the joke. Maybe it’s too old. Maybe I’m too old.

They led me, single file, down the trail to where it widens along the ridgeline. We came to a campsite with about a dozen tents. The trails were neatly swept clean of leaf litter. There were “furnishings” made from cut logs, tied together with heavy twine: a big dining table; log stools; and storage shelves full of packs, tied, shoulder high, between trees. A combination tent/lean-to held coolers, half buried in the ground. Everywhere around me, young teens were busy, working together to establish camp. I was taking note that they seemed well organized, and supervised. It almost felt like another world had sprung up in our woods, like they were playing house there, with their swept trails, neat lines of tents and twined furniture. But it wasn’t lost on me that they were cutting quite a bit of wood. Most of it looked like deadfall. I am sensitive to people cutting wood on the property. The other two girls ran ahead to find their counselor. The blond stayed with me, as she narrated what the campers were doing.

Her companions came back, with another girl, just a couple of years older.

“Yes,” she said, “Can I help you?”

“Well, it seems that you are camping on my property, without permission. And if the girls are right, this is something you’ve been doing for years.”

“Yes, we have been using this site for several years, but we have a lease with the owner.”

“I’m the owner.”

She looked flummoxed. “I’m not sure what to say. We’re a Christian group.”

“Me either. But I need to point a few things out — you’re storing your coolers, your food, on the ground. We have bears here and that can attract trouble. Your storage areas are too close to the ground–again if there’s food in those packs, the bear can easily get to them.”

“Thank you. I’ll mention that to our supervisor.”

“Okay, maybe you should take me to your leader.” She didn’t smile.

“They’re all in a meeting, over by the other camp.”

“The other camp?”

“We have two camp sites. We compete with each other.”

“Oh. I guess we should go there.”

So, the counselor, the blond, whose name was Emily, and I began the hike over to the meeting. I guess since Emily found me, she became a permanent part of the entourage.  The counselor asked me to let her know when we were no longer on my property. We hiked for some time and then I told her that we were at the property line. We still had some ways to go before we reached the “headquarters.” At one point, we ran into some other campers, the counselor stopped to ask where the meeting was being held–and then directed Emily to take me there. We proceeded down the trail, with Emily in the lead chatting about the camp and what they did. In the distance, we could see a group of women, sitting in a circle next to a van. As we approached them I informed Emily that once we’d arrived, it would be inappropriate for her to stay–that my business and concerns were with those in charge. She paused and then told me that she would leave, but first she needed to introduce me. I found that to be charming, especially under difficult circumstances. Finally, I was introduced to the woman in charge of the camping operation.

She explained that they leased the camping area from the owner–and gave the name of my neighbor, to the north. She believed that they were on his property, but if that was not the case, it was a mistake. I told her that the camp I had first encountered was on my property, and not by just a little. It was located about two thirds of the way into our back forty. She apologized and added that they were, after all, a Christian Youth Organization, dedicated to teaching wilderness camping to young men and women.

I couldn’t help but say that one of the first wilderness lessons was about knowing how to read a compass and a map, and it appeared that the leadership of this group had failed miserably at this threshold skill. I explained that I was angry–not specifically at her, and I didn’t want to direct my anger at someone who wasn’t personally responsible. I said that I also wasn’t crazy about the fact that the girls were cutting wood on my property.

“They don’t cut living wood.”

“No? I’ve found cut stumps, in the past, from live trees cut down–I’ve been finding cut logs for several years now. And, I’m afraid that I’ve been wrongfully blaming my neighbors.”

She wasn’t really listening and jumped in to explain, “We teach no-impact camping. The girls are instructed not to cut down any living trees.”

I paused, “You do understand that this situation puts me at some risk?”

“Oh, no,” she said, “We wouldn’t put you at risk.”

“Well, I expect that your lease with my neighbor contains release language, and indemnification language, and that there is insurance coverage, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, since we don’t have a lease, we aren’t covered by any of those protections, are we? Your girls could be injured and then I’d have something to worry about, wouldn’t I? That’s especially concerning since I’ve seen what I consider to be unsafe camping practices. What’s my current exposure if one of your girls is injured by a bear, because you store your food on the ground, right next to their tents?”

“We can leave, right away.”

“That’s not what I’m asking for. But, when are you scheduled to leave?”

“Next Saturday.”

“I need to talk to whomever it is that’s in charge of the lease arrangements. I’m not trying to run you off, but I need to get this straightened out, so that I’m not exposed because of your mistake.”

“Perhaps you can draw me a map, or show me where your property line is?”

I drew her a map, showing her where the property line was, and gave her my contact information, so the Director could reach me to iron this out. Then, I headed back down to our building site to tell Rick.

“We have a problem.”

“What, no berries?”

“We have an infestation in the woods.”

“An infestation of…?”

“We have an invasion of young Christian Campers.”

He could barely believe it. But, it did begin to make some sense. For those of you who follow this blog, you know we’ve had problems with woodcutting. All of the cut logs we’d found, it didn’t make sense. But now–now that we had “competitive camping” on the property, it made all the sense in the world.

At no point in the thick of it did I stop to consider what impression I may have made. There I was, dressed in grubby construction clothes, red-faced, drenched in sweat, and smelling strongly of fish. I can only wonder what they all thought.

When I checked my email, the Camp Director had contacted me. He confirmed what I’d feared–that the group had immediately broken camp. I hadn’t wanted to run them off–just to bring their occupation of the property into some arrangement more formal than trespassing. Still I mentioned all the cut logs (more than thirty at last count) and I referred him to a previous blog in which I’d railed about unauthorized cutting on the land. (http://two-rock-chronicles.com/2015/04/19/a-storms-a-brewin/)

When Rick and I re-visited the campsite, there wasn’t a trace of them. Even the leaf litter had been re-spread, carefully and evenly, over the trails and their site. The only reminder was an impressive pile of cut wood–which they’d said they’d leave.

We’re trying to work out “compensation” for the use now–something in the vein of some volunteers, next Spring, to help with tree planting. We’ll make it fun and educational–maybe we can help some young people to get involved in understanding why we plant for the future and for forest diversity. I think it will all work out in a win-win kind of way.

But we’re left wondering about my neighbor. Why couldn’t she just tell me we had a camping invasion? What’s up with speaking in code? Now, Rick gets a glint in his eye and whispers, “There are raspberries in the woods.” I have to laugh. And, those Christians? I can only hope that they can forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

IMG_2182

And, at the end of this adventure, I realized that I’d completely forgotten to pick berries.

Up to Our Eyebrows

A.V. Walters

A Roof!

A Roof!

The past month or so has been a whirlwind of work and changes. First, we finally have a roof! We’re working on the gable ends, and the doors and windows aren’t in, but we no longer wrestle with tarps every time the wind is up, or rain threatens. Rain was a real trial during the roof installation. After a record dry May, our crew was finally ready in June. And then the rains came. It was on again, off again, and every transition was a tarp wrangling event.

It’s a steep roof, a 12/12 pitch, on the main section. We’re thankful to the Flanagin Brothers, whose daring and determination made it go up. Rick and I would have been hard-pressed to pull it off by ourselves. (We’re talking about fifty, twenty-foot long, 2”x12”s, here.) Too high, too hard, too scary. They were undaunted by the challenge. Crazy characters, they’re twin brothers whose laughter ( and, on a rare occasion, bickering like an old married couple) rings out from the work site and who, in almost eerie symmetry, work together like interlocking puzzle pieces, finishing each other’s sentences and solving problems near wordlessly–as though building were some kind of secret dance routine. It’s been a pleasure to have them around. Soon, their work will be finished and it’ll be back to Rick and I to finish. We’ll miss their levity, skills, and their cool confidence.

They’d be gone already, but for a last minute idea. They were about to enclose the gable ends when one of them (I can’t remember which one) mentioned that the log to gable-wall transition could really use an “eyebrow” roof. (This would be a roof line that sticks out about two feet, separating the log walls and the A-line gable-end walls.) The other twin completed the idea, “Yeah, it’d give you sun protection in the summer and keep the rain and snow off the log walls.” Rick and I looked at each other and the decision was made. Why didn’t we think of that?

With eyebrows!

With eyebrows!

It’s an old-fashioned design element–a sensible way of using an extra layer of roof overhang to protect the walls and to give relief from the heat of the summer sun, while still making the most of the low-angled winter light. The Flanagins keep trying to sell it to us on aesthetic grounds–but we’re already sold on function. Besides, it doesn’t win us over to tell us it’ll have that “cute cottage look.” We’re not big fans of cute. So, the Flanagins are still with us, and we’re literally up to our eyebrows in the project.

The excitement of building progress–even interrupted by rainstorms–has helped to carry me along. I’ve been under the weather, a victim of self-inflicted illness. I have food sensitivities. While I’m usually very careful, in the busyness of full-tilt construction, I misread a food label, and I’ve been paying the price for weeks. My apologies, dear readers, I have not been up to blogging–or much of anything else. It’s a good thing the bees mostly look after themselves. Had they been pets, they’d have perished from neglect. Rick has never witnessed a full-blown celiac episode, and he has a new appreciation for my normal level of kitchen vigilance.

I’m mending now, and picking up the pace on those things I can do on site. I’m sealing the interior of the log walls, and just starting on the exterior. I’ve been using my downtime to source cool building materials on craigslist, recycled or reclaimed timbers that make the project distinctive, and lower its carbon footprint. It helps to us keep out of the big box stores and away from retail prices. And every offbeat purchase has a story, which gets woven into our story of building the house.

Critters and Bunnies and Bugs! (Oh My!)

A.V. Walters–

Welcome to Michigan. Gardening in California was a formulaic cinch, by comparison. There we had concern about water, and gophers—but there aren’t many insects in California’s parched climate. Of course, we had the flies from the dairy, but they didn’t bother the garden.

Gardeners here have to be a hardier lot. There are seasons, with their never-ending uncertainties. We had a late May frost that zapped the blooms, and may cost the region much of its fruit this year. It didn’t affect our garden, because I was too chicken to plant with the night-time temperatures dipping so low. Our starts were safe and snug indoors, by the window. Not that we’ve been without garden trauma. The deer jumped the fence and did all that damage to our fruit trees. The trees are slowly recovering, the pears in the lead and the apples trailing. I think they’ll all survive. Deer are a serious garden hazard. At least we think we’ve ironed out the fence issues with deer.

We have gophers, but so far, they haven’t been seen in the garden. Most everything is in buckets (except lettuce and greens—fingers crossed.) Right now we’re trying to figure out how to amend the fence again to keep out the bunnies. We thought we had the spacing right, but somebunny is sneaking in at night and nibbling away at the peppers. Too bad we always have to learn through losses.

That’s true for the bugs, too. We’ve lost almost half of the tomatoes to insects. I’ve been out of area so long, I don’t even remember the names of all of the voracious 6-legged predators. Some kind of leaf-hopper-thingie is chewing through the tomato stems. One solution seems to be that our starts need to be bigger before we set them out. The larger ones have not been munched by bugs. Alternatively, we are considering floating row covers, which will outwit the bugs, and give us some frost protection, too. We lost some squash to cutworms—not a crisis, but the tomatoes came as a shock. In California, nothing touches the tomatoes. Here, it’s a race between the bugs and the bunnies.

The bugs are after us, too. Black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. We’re sitting ducks out there. The worst are the black flies. Thank God they have a pretty short season and should be gone by July. We mixed up a concoction of vinegar, water and vanilla, which seems to keep most of the bugs at bay. Before we found that, we were swollen and itchy—to the point of under-the-weather.

My father used to shake his head at scant summer clothes. As teens, we ran around in cut-offs and tank tops, oblivious to the hazards. Between the summer sun and the bugs, you were toast. Now, I dress like Dad, long sleeve tees, jeans, a neckerchief and a hat. Sometimes older is wiser.

Even our bees are plagued by bugs! Of our three hives, one has always been a little vulnerable. The ants have discovered the weakness, and are trying to set up shop in the top of their hive. Several times a day, I interrupt their efforts, and squish every single ant that doesn’t move faster than me. There are thousands of them. Rick has a plan for ant-wells*. We’ll get the supplies on our next town run and then we’ll foil those ants!

* hive stand legs in sheltered oil moats. More on that later.

Welcome Homebees!

A.V. Walters/Photos by Rick Edwards–

Bee transport next to new home.

Bee transport next to new home.

Opening up the "nuc" box.

Opening up the “nuc” box.

Checking the frames.

Checking the frames.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

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