Archives for category: rural living

IMG_2675

We like to think that we have planned all the things that have come to pass in developing our homesite. Honestly, we’re not quite that smart. We didn’t plan on a basement. It was a happy accident. So, of course, we didn’t plan on the laundry in the basement. And we didn’t plan on a basement door (because, no basement.) So we’re just lucky that, just a bit outside the basement door there’s a tree, located exactly one load of laundry from the house.

IMG_2669

Like success, the garden, in the distance.

 

Before we could get to the 2020 garden season, we had to make it through the winter. As all of you know, 2019/2020 has had its challenges. Mine started early.

In early December, our cat died. His acute health problems could have been addressed. But he was old, and this was just the beginning. We considered the approaching quality of life issues, and decided that the most loving thing was to spare him what was coming. It was tough–as all pet owners know. They give us unconditional love; we owe them.

Then Rick and I had our annual physical. The doctor came into the exam room with issues–she didn’t like my bloodwork. She has long been convinced that I practice internet medicine on myself–and now she had evidence of my excesses!

She lectured me about overdoing supplements. In particular, calcium. My levels were unhealthy, even dangerous. I stopped her, holding up my hand–I don’t take calcium! Well that put a furrow in her brow. What was she going to tell me? Don’t eat leafy greens! (Has anyone has ever had a doctor so prescribe?)

It was a mystery. There was supposed to be follow-up, but then came Covid.

Rick and I figured it must be the water. We knew we had hard water–but now we had to wonder…and had that figured into our cat’s demise? So we did some research and bought a carafe style filter that would remove calcium. Everything that passed our lips was filtered. Of course, we gave filtered water to the new kittens, too.

After a few weeks, I went to water our one and only houseplant, an African violet. I stopped short–it was only fair to give the houseplant filtered water, too, right? And so I started filtering water for all the living beings of the household.

Early in the spring, Rick and I were doing early garden prep, and I tripped and fell–just clumsy. But in falling, I broke yet another rib… Hmmm, the effects of excess calcium can be as bad for one’s bones as too little–and since coming to Michigan, I’ve broken several ribs. Well water. (Well, water.)

On the garden, we were still angling to use activated charcoal. It had been so successful the previous season. And we were excited about using spent grains for compost and in the garden beds–though that was before the pandemic shuttered our local micro-brewery. After a few weeks of filtered water, that African violet gave us something else to think about.

IMG_2613

It had never really thrived. It sits in a north-facing window and always looked…peaked. But just weeks after giving it filtered water, it completely changed.

What about the garden? Maybe that was why, each summer it started fine and then petered out. Didn’t the average summer get hot and dry, mid-season–causing us to water heavily? We decided we need to experiment with the water quality. Our resolve became even more determined when we learned that one treatment for too much calcium was to put activated charcoal into the soil. After all, that was the primary ingredient in the filtration system. That doubled the reasons to go with biochar.

Rick rigged up a big water filter for the garden hoses. We purchased bags of food-grade activated charcoal, and dug it into the raised beds. We planted, and crossed our fingers.

IMG_2674

It might be too early to tell, but early indications show a dramatic difference. The tomato plants–in previous years, spindly and weak, are lush and loaded with tomatoes. The bok choi and greens are incredible. Our late season potato plants are robust and sturdy.  Everything in the raised beds is doing incredibly well. Only the vegetables planted in buckets (which still have some native soils) are having trouble. For the first time, our beets are thriving and growing beets–and they’re delicious.

The next step will be a new whole-house and garden filtration system. The garden filter was the test run. With such remarkable results, there is no reason not to fully make the change–for our health, our plumbing and our garden’s well being.

Now I just have to figure out how to tell my doctor that she saved the garden.

IMG_2657

This is the second time we’ve had visitors to the bee yard. The hives are surrounded by an electric fence. Though the jolt it gives is pretty beefy, it’s not a very substantial enclosure. Some beekeepers we know have gone all out Fort Knox in terms of fencing.

We have (had) two “swarm boxes” outside the perimeter of the electric fence. The objective of the swarm boxes was to capture any bees who got ideas about relocating. Our visitors, the bears, knocked down both swarm boxes–smashing one of them. There was nothing in them–so the loss is just the boxes themselves.

IMG_2658

These bears must have experience with bee hives and electric fences. I say this, because the fence controller is in a box that looks like a bee hive–and the bear(s) upended that. No luck there. But, they (it) never breached the fence line. The bees remained unmolested. We had a similar visit last year–again they took down the swarm boxes. But so far, the bees are fine.

IMG_2656

I’ve seen hives ravaged by bears. They just demolish the entire hive structure. We are holding our breath, hoping that the bears (bear?) are  put off enough by the wires to keep clear of the enclosed space.

 

IMG_2653

I lived in California for nearly thirty-five years. Californians revel in their relentlessly good weather. It is beautiful, nearly bug-free, and… a bit dull. I’m glad to be home. There’s a huge reward in it. It’s wildly green in a luscious, juicy kind of way. It’s a landscape that supports all kinds of life. Bugs are part of the bottom tier of the food chain.

Yes, it’s been brutally hot these past few weeks, and dry. But nothing we have here compares to the dry of a California summer–with no rain from April to October. Here, we usually get a good rain two or three times a week. But not the past few weeks. I suppose that the dry spell might’ve made the heat more endurable–you know…a dry heat.

Though the heat wave is supposed to continue until the end of the month, we got a break the past two nights–with thunderstorms and ample rain. It dropped the temperatures some, but brought the humidity up a lot. And rain always seems like an invitation for the bugs to make meals of us. I fend off the bugs with brimmed hats, long pants and long sleeves, regardless of the temperatures. My Michigan roots are northern. I watch the summer people slap and scratch, and chuckle. We’re part of the food chain, too.

Last year brought an unusually cool and wet season. We’re always left wondering, “Will this be the new normal?” And now, with the mercury in the high 80s and 90s, we’re asking that again. All bets are off.

We built our home without air-conditioning. In the summer, it’s in the shade for most of the day, by plan. If we close up during the day, and open for the cooler nights, we can keep the interior in the mid-seventies. In serious heat, we use a box fan to move more night air, and that works. We’ve been in the house for going on three years, and so far, nothing that climate throws at us has been a problem. We hope that continues, but who knows? This summer, the arctic has had hotter weather than here. It’s funny when the hot weather is coming from the north. Like I said, all bets are off.

From time to time, I get a reality check on where we are in the world. It seems that things are changing out there, like the view of the world spinning from one’s ‘fixed’ position on a carousel horse.

I saw an ad for kayak hoists. It’s an odd thing–but we could certainly use them. Our kayaks live on the forest floor. Now that we have a barn, we are trying to tidy things up around here. And, they were nearby. I made the connection and headed out Saturday, mid-morning.

I know my way around here, but there are areas where I have no reason to explore. This was one of them. A neighborhood of upscale vacation homes around a little lake. The street address was “Shetland Trail.” I made the left onto the trail and my suspicions were confirmed–it was a single lane through the forest, a gravel road, the kind that sends billowing clouds of dust behind you if you take it at any speed. I wondered whether this was even plowed in the winter. A big pick up followed me through the corner and down the trail. I was driving slow–because of the dust and because I needed to search for the address markers.

That pick up truck rode my ass, and I figured he was impatient at my slow pace. As soon as I found a place wide enough, I pulled over and waived him by. He pulled up, and stopped, pinning me in. He rolled his window down. I rolled mine down.

“You got business in here?” It came off as an accusation. It was rude.

Now, I don’t picture myself as much of a threat in the world. I’m older, female, alone and driving a sound, but dated Subaru down a backwoods trail. In the previous thirty seconds, my world view had shifted…I am effectively trapped by a hostile man, sporting a brush cut in an over-sized truck. Shades of vulnerable. And he’s accusing me? In fact, were it not for his bite of suspicion, I’d have been scared. As it was, I was angry.

I barked back the address.

He peered down at me. And, thus satisfied, he said, “That way,” and gestured.

Yeah, right. As though there was any other way I could go. He pulled a three point turn in the narrow trail and left me in a cloud of dust. I could not catch his license number. I proceeded to my appointment.

The rest was uneventful. I did ask if the neighborhood had private security. She said it didn’t, and asked why. I described the incident. Her brow furrowed. As I took my leave, she was repeating my story to her husband, who looked up at me for the first time from his newspaper. He nodded, as if to confirm…no threat here.

And I’m left, wondering. Was I followed by some neighborhood vigilante? Or was I targeted as a potential victim? And I’m reminded that smart phones have become the evidence of the next century. I don’t own one. And that’s where we are now.

The kayaks are now neatly stowed, suspended from their new perch in the barn.

IMG_2650

 

 

 

IMG_2637

We’re ebbing towards the end of the rose chafer season. Part of me wants to claim at least a partial victory. Not that we didn’t suffer losses; we did. But we appear to be making progress in our annual war with them. Unlike last year, no trees were completely defoliated. That’s an improvement. And, we discovered that intense garlic spray can go a long way in protecting the trees. Next year, we’ll spray earlier, to give the orchard advance protection. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it appears to limit their numbers.

But it’s difficult to truly ‘know’ if we are making progress. We are only one small orchard. The main part of the orchard has only a dozen trees–none of them the same variety. Our tree mix is a complicated blend of what we like, what will grow here, what is needed for pollinating each variety, and timing, what will provide harvesting throughout the season. There is no way to do any kind of an A/B comparison, no control group, no double blind. Beyond that are the imponderable intangibles–weather and whatever other factors dictate the rose chafers’ numbers from year to year. We can only do what we can. And then there’s the open question of climate change–will it make insect issues better or worse? I even wonder if my manual efforts (daily bug squishing) could make a difference from year to year in the population. After all, through the season I am killing thousands of rose chafers. Does that play forward into the next year’s numbers? There’s no way to know.

One longs for the rigors of true science: single factor differences and the ability to identify true cause and effect. Sigh. It’s that Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I have my own version, “TDMV.” Too Damn Many Variables. It’s the answer to so many of life’s current vexing issues. We just have to do the best we can, and recognize that we have no control.

IMG_2648

Last night something tried to get our chickens. It was late, into the wee hours and we’d been up reading. Rick opened the windows before climbing into bed, because it was a little on the warm side. We often use the night’s cool to keep the house comfortable. If it hadn’t been for the open window…

I heard a strange cry–I thought it might be the cats, downstairs. I walked to the top of the stairs–and it happened again, clearly from outside and from the chicken pen. It was far more of a wail, than a cluck. And if you know chickens, you know that they are near comatose at night. Something was very wrong.

I cried out to Rick–something’s after the chickens–and headed downstairs at a clip. I stopped in the kitchen long enough to grab a flashlight, and hurtled out into the night. I flipped on the flashlight as I stepped out on the path, and its beam reflected back a set of eyes in the dark. I couldn’t see the critter, but I saw it’s eyes glowing back at me. Then they disappeared.

I ran to the chicken pen. It’s a six foot chain link fence, about a 30 foot circle–the coop is a small wooden house, inside the pen. We’ve never had any problems with predators, and we’d become sloppy about security. We regularly left the coop door open at night. Einstein was on the west side of the pen–she’d been the wailing chicken. She seemed okay, so I played the light across the pen. Feathers, everywhere. A chicken lay prone a few feet from the coop. I assumed it was dead, and continued scanning for the third chicken. None in sight.

I opened the coop door–and there she was, still up on the roost. The inside of the coop was littered with feathers. One down, two okay. I closed and locked the chicken entry and turned to grab Einstein to return her to the coop. I’d deal with the dead one after the survivors were secured. While I retrieved Einstein, the “dead” chicken staggered over to stand next to me. It was our largest chicken, Alpha. She’d lost a lot of feathers, but I couldn’t see any blood. I popped both of them into the coop and locked it up tight.

By now, Rick was up and on the front porch barking questions. The whole animal neighborhood was alerted, and the night was peppered with unidentified weird night noises–and the call of a barred owl. I scanned the perimeter, but couldn’t see any sign of a critter having dug under the fence. I didn’t know what it was, or if it might be in the tree, above me. With the chickens secured, the rest could wait until morning.

Bright and early, I cut up some apple treats and went out to release the chickens. They seemed fine–and gobbled up the apple bits. Observing through the day, though, Alpha is a little worse for the wear. It’ll be a few days for her to recover.

We made several mistakes here. The chicken door to the coop was open, that’s obvious. Less so, though, is that we installed the pen several years ago. At the time, we were very careful to make sure that there were no overhanging branches that could give  predator access or egress. Things have grown. We can only assume that the predator came over the top–either jumping or climbing trees. We were lucky.

Rick spent today pruning and resecuring the pen. In addition to locking the coop, we’ll dust the area with flour tonight–just in case ‘it’ returns, maybe we can get some prints to identify it. Racoon? Fisher? Bobcat? We just don’t know. And until we know what we’re up against, we won’t know what strategy to follow.

I didn’t sleep much. Adrenalin will do that. And guilt.

IMG_2649

All trimmed up now, for safety. They sleep in the brown coop.

 

IMG_2630

The new queen has arrived, and has been installed in the hive with her new subjects. This finished up the day. All is well in the kingdom.

I’ve ordered a queen bee to replace our missing-in-action queen. When something is in short supply, it’s easy to get desperate. It’s worth it to take a deep breath and slow down.

Here in the north, it’s early in the season, too early for there to be ample queens available. We always try to buy local, over-wintered queens. We’re looking for hardy stock that can withstand our winters. At this juncture, I found three options. Two of them were local.

One local option wanted a queen’s ransom–literally. He didn’t want to sell a queen, he wanted to swap for 10 frames of drawn comb and bees! (A queen runs $35 to $50.) A nuc (five frames of bees and brood and a queen) runs $160. You do the math.

The other local option was $35. Although he indicated that his bees were Northern, we checked him out on Facebook. He overwinters in Florida (do his bees?) Hmmm. Looking a little more, it was clear he was a Trump-raving, gun-toting, conspiracy-spreading character. His business, but not my cup of tea. Could I trust his representations?

We went with the on-line Northern queen out of Iowa. Everything about her presentation said, solid bee-keeping without any wackyness. Even her shipping schedule was set up to best serve the bees and ensure survival. Sometimes, local isn’t the only, or best, alternative. I try to make my dollars reflect my values. It takes a little extra digging, and I may spend a little more. But I sleep better at night for the effort.

Without proper leadership, anything can happen, and things can go to hell quickly. Leader wannabees make their bid for the top slot–often without qualification. Without a leader, there is soon dissension in the ranks. A culture of rancor takes over. Socialization becomes charged and violence becomes more likely, at the least provocation. The question of legitimacy of leadership is paramount–especially when it is not yet time for new leaders to make their run. These are dangerous times, when the very fabric of culture begins to fray.

So we are desperately looking for a new queen bee. It’s still early in the season–most northern queens are not yet ready. We’d like to re-queen immediately, before all hell breaks loose. So far, the workers continue to make honey and bee bread–even in face of no new brood to feed. So far, we do not have a divisive laying worker. So far, they’re testy, but not aggressive. There’s still time.

We don’t know what happened to the old queen. She was very old, but we liked her. It doesn’t appear that the hive swarmed–because there’s no indication of a succession plan. Usually, a hive will make queen cups before a swarm, or supercedence cells if a queen fails. Anyway, there are far too many workers left behind, this early in the season, for there to have been a swarm. It’s a mystery. We’d feared we’d have to requeen this hive this year, because she was so old, but we didn’t plan on it in June! So we’re casting about looking for a source for a new queen–not just any queen, but a northern hardy variety, hopefully one that is hygienic, and resistant to the varroa destructor mite.

What, did you think I was talking about the other leadership vacuum?

 

In addition to its ‘how-to’ features, this blog documents the evolution of a Northern Michigan fence. Who knew?

Once we’d settled, but before we moved in, we identified the area where we wanted the garden and dooryard orchard. Initially, we’d envisioned it further up the hill, only to realize that the upper area of the property is shaded by the hill, all afternoon. So we selected a sunny patch further down. Then we put in a pretty standard fence–your basic t-post, four foot fence. (Initially it was electrified for the bees, but later we moved them up the hill.) Then we planted our trees.

Then the deer came, jumped the fence and ate the tops off of all our baby trees. Sigh.   We pruned as best we could to salvage them and put a wobbly extension on the fence (as well as a run of rabbit proof fencing along the bottom.) We were surprised that there wasn’t some off-the-shelf fence-extension kit available at the big box stores. Our wobbly extension (sticks and twine held in place with zip ties) lasted a couple years, before we had to redo it. The fruit trees survived, and then thrived.

Then, this year, the fence extension started to fall again. The damn deer noted it immediately, hopped it (tearing it down even more) and did a little of their own winter pruning on the trees again. The good news was that, this time, the trees are much bigger, and the damage far less threatening to the survival of the orchard.

So, this time, Rick wanted a sturdier fence extension, and one that was clearly visible to the deer, so they wouldn’t get hung up in it, tearing it down with them. It turned out pretty well. This is the result.

IMG_2617

For those who might need to fortify their own fences, he used PVC pipe parts (a reducer that capped the t-post, then a short length of extension and a cap. Most of the pipe we had leftover from plumbing the house. We used some of the former electric fence tape, because we already had it, and it’s visible. You could also use clothes line (and drill it instead of cutting slots for the tape.) We’re now back up to the height which has previously been successful in dissuading the deer–only this is much sturdier, and hopefully will last longer. If the UV starts to erode the pipe, we’ll paint it, but for now the bright white suits our purposes.

IMG_2615

With the house and barn built (at least usable, if not completely finished), this is the year we want to focus on the garden. With the new fence in place, our efforts will not be in vain.

I suppose it would have been easier, had we known back at the beginning that we needed to protect the garden from leaping deer as well as hopping bunnies, but if we knew then, what we know now, we might have been daunted from even starting.

IMG_2582

As a teen, at my parents’ home, my least favorite task was to have to get wood from the woodpile, at night. In the snow. In the dark. We’ve set it up here so that this is never the case.

Sure, the woodpile is out back, at stone’s throw from the house. But by the basement door we put in a wood ‘crib,’ enough to hold two or three week’s worth of fuel, depending on the temperature. And, just inside the basement door is a woodbox, that we fill everyday, so that the wood for the day is dry, and warm.

A couple of times each month I refill the woodcrib. I use a sled–the kind they make for ice-fishing, unless there’s no snow, in which case, I use a wheel barrow. It takes eleven or twelve full wheelbarrow loads to fill the crib–but only five or six sled loads. I prefer the sled.

IMG_2580

You cannot turn your back on that sled though. If the ground is uneven, it’ll do what sleds do. Just before the holidays, the sled got away from me and whacked me square in the knee–knocking me over. I hobbled for a couple of weeks after that. That was my stupid-tax–it was my fault. I need to be more careful about observing how the sled is positioned on any slope–especially if I’m going to get out in front of it.

IMG_2581

Just enough of a slope to cause trouble!

Unlike my sister, further north, we don’t burn 24/7. We start a fire when the temperature falls below 62, usually mid-day, and keep it going until we go to bed. Any more than that and the house would be too hot. In my parents’ house, the fire burned non-stop from October to April. I’m not sure if our difference in burn time is because of latitude, or the fact that we stuffed every nook and cranny of this house with insulation.

All the wood we burn comes from deadfall here on the property. It’s free, unless you count the hours we spend cutting, hauling and splitting. It’s heavy work, but it’s outdoors  in the woods and lovely. It’s one of our favorite tasks.

IMG_2583

And ready for next time–sled or wheel barrow.

I was the one who insisted that we heat with wood. Not only had I grown up with it, but I learned a lesson in a rental once, that made me insist on having some measure of control when it came to heat. We lost power at the farm where I rented–and it was out for nearly a week. The furnace, though propane fueled, required electric power to operate. It was a very long, cold, week. After that, even though it was a rental, I installed a small wood stove. I never again wanted to be at the mercy of a public utility.

We have back-up heat, propane stoves and some electric baseboard units–enough to keep the house from freezing if we go out of town in the winter. But for day to day use, we burn wood.

We’re having a winter storm today. Not much of a storm really, there was some wind last night and by tomorrow morning we expect to add a foot of fresh snow. It’s beautiful. We won’t shovel until tomorrow–no point in doing it twice. In the meantime, it’s toasty inside by the fire.

img_2342

IMG_2556

Sounds like a political strategy, eh? It’s not. It’s an old-fashioned method of harvesting honey. There are two primary methods of honey processing, spinning (extraction) and crush and strain. What you choose depends upon the types of hives you have and what products from the hive you want to harvest.

Usually we use a frame spinner to extract the honey from the comb. This process leaves you with empty frames of drawn comb, which the bees can repair and re-use. When you consider that it takes about seven pounds of honey for the bees to make one pound of wax, it makes good sense to recycle it.

But sometimes, it makes sense to scrape the frames clean and strain the whole mess to get the honey. Perhaps you also want to harvest the honey and the wax–for soaps, or lotions, or candles. Perhaps, your bees have been goofy and making irregular and wacky comb–and you want a fresh start–so they won’t continue the weirdness. Or, maybe you only have a little to harvest and it’s not worth the set up and clean up for just a couple of quarts.

We had a few frames of wacky comb, so we decided to crush and strain. It’s simple–letting gravity do the work, and requires only the kinds of tools you’d find in any household–a collander, a big pot, and a paint straining net. It’s messy, but then, so is spinning.

IMG_2555

We had five frames of partial, or wacky comb. In total, it yielded two quarts of honey, a worthwhile harvest. We’ll save the full frames for later processing in the spinner. In the meantime, life is a little sweeter for the effort.

 

Happy Thanksgiving All! I hope you all made it out, and home, unscathed. Since we head so far north for holidays (up to Copper Harbor, MI), we watch the weather. The first leg of the winter storms was due Wednesday, so we traveled Tuesday. Clear roads, great weather. In fact, the storm started to hit just as we pulled into my mum’s driveway. And then it really hit! With the winds as Maestro, Lake Superior put out an amazing symphony –somewhere between a roar and the sound of a freight train. It’s like that in November. Until it freezes along the shoreline, the wild winds toss the beach stones along the shore, making quite the racket. (That’s why those stones are so smooth and round.) I don’t think I slept all night.

So, it was no surprise the following morning when the power went out. Being from the far north, this is not unusual. It was a little odd that it stayed out for 30 hours, putting a bit of a crimp in Thanksgiving roasting and baking schedules. Some folks have generators. Many, if not most, heat with wood, or have a wood stove as a back up. You can cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner on a propane barbeque, if you have to. I have. But this time, my sister and her husband had a little generator–just enough for some lights and to meet the needs of her propane range. On most modern gas cooktops, you can cook on top–by lighting a burner with a match. But the fancy electronic ignition for the oven needs power. We have the same thing at home. It made me wonder, when we built our kitchen, whether to buy a vintage gas stove, one with a pilot light. Sometimes old technology is better than high-tech.

There’s a kitchen in the community center–and a generator–but someone already had their turkey in it. And there’s one in their one room school–I don’t know how they handle first dibs. In any event, We were fine. The power came back on the next day in the early afternoon, so most folks were able to still cook for the holiday.

In Copper Harbor, no power means no light, no internet, no telephone and only minimal sewage. It’s the sewage that worries me. This means a houseful of holiday people, and no flushing. Most have lanterns or oil lamps (like we do, at home.) It’s an inconvenience–a holiday to be remembered.

We timed our departure to miss the next round of storms; that’s the threading the needle part. Again, yesterday, we made the drive home without difficulty. Last night the storm rolled in and now, we cannot see to the end of the driveway.

It captured Rick’s attention. We’ve been lolly-gagging on the barn wiring. But one component of that project is a hardwired transfer switch, so when the power goes, we can power the house, from the generator in the barn, without tripping over a dozen extension cords running willy-nilly.

We don’t use a lot of power. It’s tough to do without refrigeration, though. The ritual from my childhood always included loading the contents of the refrigerator into coolers–which were carried outside in winter–or packed in ice and put in the shade in the summer. And we need power for our well water (though not for the septic.) In the past we’ve bought bottled water for consumption, and carried stream water up to the house for flushing. The new wiring should make storm outages more comfortable, even though we always managed in the past.

Storms are getting increasingly fierce, and more frequent, so I guess it’s time. We’ll follow the motto of the Girl Guides/Scouts, “Be prepared.”

Today was the big day. We’ve been watching the weather and today was possibly the last day. Tonight it will rain buckets. Tomorrow the temperatures begin to fall, and we’ll descend into winter-like weather. Of course, It could warm up again, later in November. But there’s no guarantee. So today was the day that we had to winterize the bees.

This year, we’ve done everything “right.” We kept a lid on our varroa numbers. We fed them through the dearth of autumn. (Though, in reality, they continued to bring in resources well into October and didn’t eat much of what we gave them.) And, because studies show that smaller hives fare better in winter, today we completely took their hives apart and reconfigured them for winter. We also harvested some honey for ourselves–but not that much.

We have two hives this year. One is a ‘pedigreed’ hive–fancy Saskatraz bees from out of Canada. They have a reputation for being especially winter hardy and resistant to the dreaded varroa mites. The other is a swarm hive–local mutts. They came from a swarm hive that our friends have kept, for years now. So we know they can over-winter in Michigan’s cold climate. The swarm bees are pretty mellow. The pedigreed bees have a pedigreed attitude. We paid good money to get bees who think that they are better than we are. We suit up fully when we open that hive.

Or, almost.

Bees are not always organized about how they occupy a hive. It’s their home, their choice. But what you want going into winter, (as a beekeeper) is bees in the bottom, with densely packed honey above them for their winter stores. That isn’t always what they provide. Sometimes the frames will be only partially filled, or only built out on one side, but not the other, or having some of the cells uncapped and “wet,” that is, not fully evaporated down to the 17% moisture level that makes it honey. Capped honey never goes bad. Uncapped wet “honey” can ferment.

So our job today was to tear apart the hives and inspect, frame by frame, and to rebuild the hives with the best, fullest, honeycomb frames above the bottom, deep super, that will start as their home for the winter. As the winter progresses, they’ll eat the honey stored directly above them, and move up in the hive as they eat their way through the winter.

Our work today was a pretty invasive process and the bees were not impressed. We want the total hive (bees plus adequate winter stores) to be as small as possible, because the bees have to heat it, with just their body heat. A cavernous hive with spotty honey resources peppered through it is not a good recipe for  winter survival. As extra insurance, we put hard sugar “candy” up in the very top of the hive, just in case the bees consume more in the winter than we’d estimated.

We started with the pedigreed hive. As anticipated, they were pissy about the invasion, and we had to smoke them aggressively. We were wearing full body bees suits, topped with heavy leather gloves. It was cool, about 54 degrees (F), so most of the bees were home.  We won’t open a hive under 50 degrees–the bees will lose too much needed heat. The air was full of peeved bees. We were covered with bees. When a hive is alarmed the tone changes–the low hum of a happy hive picks up to a loud whine. We tried to work quickly.

At one point, a bee discovered my Achilles heel. I stupidly wore thin socks. The bee stung my ankle, right through that thin sock. There was nothing to do, but press on. It was, after all, the last day. It was my fault, really. I never wear thin socks when working the bees. What was I thinking? Just as we were closing up the Saskatraz hive, another bee found my other ankle. Damn. Well, at least it’s a matched set.

The swarm hive was much calmer. They didn’t like the invasion, but their pitch never ramped up to that warning whine. We’d worked out a system by then, pulling and examining each frame and sorting which ones were best to pack back into the hive for the bees. Those swarm bees made the chore a pleasure. It’s amazing how different two hives, side by side, can be in terms of temperament.

We finished and carted our tools and our harvested honey back down the hill to the house. We had to stop, several times on the way down, to brush bees off of us. It’s best to leave the bees at the hives. You really don’t want angry bees hanging around, or on you when to start to strip down out of your gear. Finally, when everything was put away, I could settle in to tend to my swelling ankles. Now, with the help of a hot cider, with just a touch of Irish whiskey in it, I can put my feet up and reflect on the success of the day. Ready for winter. Nearly perfect. Marred only a little my my failure to dress for the occasion.

(Sorry, no pics, my hands were busy.)

We’ve been looking for a chimney sweep. We’ve been using the woodstove for over a year, and it’s time to clean the chimney before the heating season begins. The guy I intended to use up and retired, just as I was ready to hire him. I suppose we could do it ourselves, but it’s a messy job, and might require working on a ladder, on a steep roof. So, we’ll hire, and watch, and decide later if we’re up to it.

This morning I woke up to some strange noises. I couldn’t tell what it was–until I came downstairs. Then it was clear. A bird had flown down our chimney and become caught in the stovepipe to our wood stove. The pipe’s damper was closed–and the bird was trapped there, at the damper. The sound was frantic.

This happened once before, just after we installed the wood stove, but before we’d really used it. Since we weren’t yet living in the house, we didn’t discover the trapped pair of nesting birds until it was too late and they’d died. We hoped that once the system was in use that the smell of smoke and ash would warn off any other feathered visitors. And it did, until now.

Rick came downstairs, having deduced from the noise, that we were, once again, hosts to an involuntary bird guest. After coffee, we gathered the tools to disassemble the top of the stove, to provide access to the pipe. It seemed simple enough, once we were ready, we’d just flip open the damper, and the bird would fall into a pillowcase that Rick had pressed up around the bottom of the stovepipe. I’d open the door and he’d release the bird. Ha!

Just before we started, he warned me that we had to be in sync, because the last thing we needed was a soot-covered bird flying around inside the house. We assumed our positions and I opened the damper. Suddenly there was a bird, flying around the house!

It was a tidier bird than we’d expected–dropping a few feathers, but not a lot of soot. But a lot of soot, dislogded by the bird’s struggles, emptied into the pillowcase and the top of the stove. With a minimum of bird chase, and several opened windows, the bird found its way to freedom. A young grackle, I think.

It took a little vacuuming, but mostly it went well. Afterwards, Rick commented that we didn’t need a chimney sweep; we just needed a couple more birds.

I don’t know. I think two birds in the bush are worth a lot more than one in the hand.

 

 

 

IMG_2530

Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.

IMG_2531

The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)

rose chafer

It’s the same every year. Except this year. The first week of June brings verdant growth in the garden. And, it brings rose chafers. Rose chafers can be the bane of a gardener’s dreams. My crazy neighbor blamed me and my long vacant property for her rose chafer woes. I thought she was nuts.*

In my first years here, I didn’t know what they were. I had to do research to identify and find defenses to these voracious pests. It’s best to know your enemy. Rose chafers, true to their name, love rose plants–their leaves and their tender, delicious petals. I resolved early to avoid planting roses. (The deer love them, too.) Roses were definitely not worth the headache. Unfortunately for us, rose chafers thrive in sandy grassy meadows and their tastes are not limited to roses. The female digs into the sand to lay her eggs, which hatch into larvae and develop, eating roots. They emerge in June, as adults–ready to chow down on your precious leaves, mate, and start the whole cycle over again.

In my case, the garden plants are not too badly targeted–it’s in the orchard where I see the damage. Initially, I convinced myself that ‘handpicking,’ the organic gardener’s first line of defense, would be adequate. I mean, how bad could it be? They’re just bugs, and their entire life cycle happens in a scant three to four weeks. Left unchecked, rose chafers (who are leaf-suckers) can skeletonize a tree’s leaves. Not good. But moderate predation is not a bad thing…over time, a tree will make its leaves more bitter, to fend off the attackers.

Handpicking could be a full time job. These little buggers have wings–and even if you could kill every one in the orchard, new ones will fly right in to replace them. Not that I didn’t try. I’d go out, several times a day and squish every rose chafer I could reach (another limitation on hand picking.) This could easily average 30 to 50 bugs per tree, with the plum trees being most heavily afflicted. They love those plums. Last year, my sister visited. She was horrified that I was squashing the bugs in my bare hands! Gross! But then she returned home and found them eating the flowers in her garden and promptly stepped up to her full potential as a cold-blooded rose chafer killer.

There are some built-in killing efficiencies, tied to the bugs’ short lifespan and behaviors. In their adult form, rose chafers have only two objectives: breeding and eating. More often than not, they do both, simultaneously. That way, I can kill them in ‘the act,’ which adds the satisfaction that you’re eliminating the next generation at the same time. I’m not sure if it speaks to their biological imperative, or to the males’ ineptitude as lovers, but the females don’t even stop munching when mounted. I can almost hear them, “Whatever…just don’t interrupt my meal.” Since it’s the munching that causes the damage, I wish their romantic efforts were more of a distraction.

There are alternatives–everyone is enamored of pheromone traps. They are non-toxic and draw their victims in with floral and sex attractive fragrances. They certainly are effective on yellow jackets and hornets. But, the downside of pheromone traps in an orchard setting is that they may actually bring the pests in droves. (I suppose it’d be good if you could put the traps in the neighbor’s yard, far from your own precious plants.) I read that sometimes the traps would be so effective, that you’d have difficulty disposing of the buckets of insects attracted. Yuck. I’d read that, in some cases, netting could be necessary. I checked the priced on agricultural netting fabric and balked. Those tree nets could run $60.00 per tree! So I reverted to the organic gardener’s second line of defense, soap spray.

You simply mix a couple of teaspoons of liquid dish detergent and water into a standard hand pump sprayer. To be effective, you need to get the bug pretty drenched. I’ve become an expert marksman with the sprayer. I can blast the little bastards right out of the air, as they try to land on my trees. This method has some of the same disadvantages as handpicking–you have to stay on top of it, several times a day. But it’s much faster, so, in an average situation, you can keep ahead of the chafer damage.

This is not an average year. In desperation, I started checking online to see if others were experiencing similar plights. Rose chafers are also pests to grape farmers. Here in Leelanau County, we have a growing wine industry. The MSU (Michigan’s Ag University)    site indicated that one or two rose chafers per branch was a tolerable level. But this year, Leelanau grape growers have reported up to 200 insects per branch! Not surprisingly, many are reaching for toxic pesticides. Not me.  My poor plum trees are not that infested, but I’m not keeping up with the damage. I’ve already given up on getting an actual crop–at this point my objective is to save the plum trees. (The rose chafers have only a passing interest in the apple trees–and no interest whatsoever in the pears.) There I am, up to four times a day, blasting away with my soap spray.

IMG_2505

It won’t go on forever. Just until the end of the season (three or four weeks), or until the nets arrive…whichever comes first.

 

*Well, she is nuts. But there’s some minimal truth to what she says. Were we to cultivate the entire field, it would disturb the sand–and the eggs and larvae. So, by leaving it natural as habitat, we are contributing to the rose chafer’s success.

 

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

IMG_2486

The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

IMG_2478

In like a lamb? There’s another polar vortex event in the forecast–one that should put a chill on the lower 48! Some friends are posting pictures of flowers, and reports that their bees are on the wing. Sigh. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with pictures from seed catalogues. For us…for now…this is the path to Spring.

We watch the police blotter in our local news. It’s sport–there’s not much real crime and so the posts are funny. But, right about now, we can expect a rash of expected, but sad “dog-at-large” complaints. Back home, in the far north, my mom’s dog is likely to run loose, too. We’re at that point where the snow, and wind riven drifts, top the fences. The dogs just walk right over the top, without so much as a “good day–just off to run a few errands.”

We’ve been here long enough now to know the patterns. It’s sad, because running free in a snowstorm isn’t exactly fun for a dog–not after the first few minutes. Before long they are lost. Hell, in this storm, even the people can get lost. And then it’s a tale of frantic dogs and worried dog owners.

If this year is like earlier years, my mum’s neighbors will rescue her dog and bring her home. Copper Harbor is a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and their dogs. My mum will reciprocate by baking some delectable treat, in thanks for the dog rescue. I wonder if my home town wrestles for the opportunity to be the lucky hero.

Here it’s not so easy. Running scared, dogs can be a hazard on the roads. Our neighbor’s dogs will jump at the opportunity to harass our chickens…which is why we have a six foot fence. We’re not looking for a repeat of our recent chicken tragedy.

By next week, this will all have “blown over,” literally and figuratively. After the storm, folks will knock down the drifts at the fence line–putting an end to canine liberation. There will be some posts in the blotter, and we’ll resume the long wait to spring.

 

 

In-box Exhaustion

Oh, will it ever end? I make excuses–oh it’s the end-of-quarter reporting period, or the end-of-the-month, but that’s really not it. In fact, the constant alarm, the never-ending solicitation for funds has become the new normal.

Not that there aren’t very real and important issues. There are. I am alarmed by the rapid and dramatic changes in our climate. I am overwhelmed by the abdication of civility and procedure in government. I am heart-broken at our nation’s apparent devolution into bigotry and racism. I am undone by the damage done to our democratic institutions. Sigh.

But, my inbox is overflowing. I often get upwards of two hundred emails a day, most bearing a plea for help and an “opportunity to give.” There is just not enough of me. I have to pick my battles.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to walk my talk. I keep a low-carbon footprint. I minimize driving. We keep the house on the cool side, and eschew air-conditioning. We garden and seasonally grow much of what we consume. We recycle and, more importantly we exercise our buying power to match our values–minimal packaging and basic.

So many of our elected representatives have gone to the dark side. They serve the interests if the ‘donor class’ instead of their constituents. (Then they run against the very institutions they occupy!) We live in a constant state of faux-alarm. It’s exhausting. Meanwhile, in the brouhaha, we lose precious time to bring ourselves back into a sustainable equilibrium. And the emails just keep coming.

I am old-fashioned. I still write actual letters to my representatives. Like any good old hippy, I protest, standing shoulder to shoulder with other aging environmentalists, taking solace in the cold that we can still muster a crowd when it counts. I could pull the plug on my news. I have friends who have done just that. But it seems that removing thinking people from the mix just leaves us with a runaway train.

My primary coping mechanism is to spend time in the woods. I gather firewood, I forage–sometimes I just walk about noting what wildlife is active and leaving its mark. Beyond that, I do what I can, and take comfort in the fact that I am older. Caring is a young person’s sport. It’s some relief to see some of them step up to save the planet that they will inherit. Perhaps it’s enough to be a good steward to the things under my control and to enjoy the simple beauties of season and nature as I go about my day.

North By Degrees

kindling cracker

It’s winter. Though we’re not yet through with summer business, when I look out the window, that blanket of white is pretty convincing. Though temperatures have been pretty mild, there’s no doubt that the season is upon us.

We don’t mind winter. It slows things down. And we love the cozy-evenings-with-a-fire-in-the-woodstove part. We’ve not yet reached the coldest part of winter, where a fire is needed round the clock.

I’m largely responsible for keeping the woodbin stocked from the woodpile. And I chop most of the kindling. That’s the only part I don’t much like. Admittedly, I’m not what anyone would call graceful or coordinated. Swinging a sharp hatchet near my fingers and thumbs makes me nervous.

I’ve been eyeing those ads for a “kindling cracker,” a handy device for holding firewood whilst splitting it in a near-effortless, and finger-safe, procedure. They’re ingenious, and elegant, but not cheap. I’ve been considering it for a couple of years; it’s a woodburning accessory that I could almost convince myself is a safety necessity. As is often the case when it comes to Northern living, I thought I’d ask my sister—who’s several hundred miles north of me—and has heated with wood for her entire adult life.

My sister had never heard of it. “Kindling? Why are you cutting so much kindling?”

“To start fires, of course.”

“Well, how many fires do you need to start?” (I could tell that she wasn’t going to be much help with my rationalizing.)

“At this time of year, we start a fire every day.”

“Really?” (What? Is she just showing off?)

“Don’t you need to cut kindling for the season?”

She laughed. “Not ‘for the season.’ We start a fire in October. Then it burns until May, 24/7. And you?

“It’s not cold enough to burn round the clock. We’d roast.”

“Ah!”

And that, was that. Surely she’ll be of no help in my consumer decision. I’m not entirely sure if it was as cut and dried as all that. I could be the victim of Northern snobbery. But I’ll never know.

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

Finding Rhythms

Any time you make a major change, it takes a while before you find your “sea legs.” We’ve been here just over a fortnight, and certain things are falling into place. Granted many of our new patterns are as much about season, as they are about location.

I’m one to dally in the morning, enjoying the warmth of the covers and planning my day. Rick is up and about, almost as soon as his eyes are open. He’s taken to grinding and making the coffee–a pattern that started even before we moved. Now though, he uses the time it takes for the water to boil to tidy the woodstove and start the fire. Somedays that requires a full shoveling of ashes and cleaning the glass. And sometimes, he just stacks the kindling on the embers still left from the night before.

We do not build roaring fires. So far we haven’t had weather cold enough to warrant more than a solid ember bed and a log or two. If we pushed this stove to capacity, we’d have to open the windows. It’s nice to know that all that insulating was for good purpose. It’s easy to heat this little house with wood. We have back-up heat–both propane and electric, but mostly that’s reserved for if we are not at home.

By the time I get up, the fire has started and there’s coffee in the carafe. I am spoiled.

Our days are ordered by the weather. A light snow you can ignore. A medium accumulation will require some hand shoveling of the paths and parking area. There are paths to the garden, the compost, the woodpile and around the house and parking area. And then, somedays you get up and the biggest task of the day will be snow removal. Rick does the bulk of it. He’s the one on the tractor with the snowblower–after all, it is 400 feet of driveway. For a heavy snow, I’ll suit up and do the hand shoveling. It’s a workout that we both enjoy. We have a lifestyle that includes a regular upper body workout, as a matter of course.

About once a week, a little more often if it’s cold, I fill the wood crib from the wood pile out back. The crib is a brick enclosure built into the retaining wall at the basement level. It lets us keep our firewood stock just a step out the door. The area is sheltered by the front porch, and keeps the wood dry and at hand. The larger wood pile is about forty feet behind the house, back up in the pines, generously covered with tarps to keep the wood dry. It takes four heaping wheel barrows to fill the wood crib. At some point in the future, we’ll build a wood shed to keep our heating supply dry and snow-free.

IMG_2371

We enjoy being out in the snow. We watch the tracks to see who else is enjoying our home. Rabbits (of course), and deer (more than we first thought) are the most frequent visitors. There are squirrels, chipmunks, and a couple of kinds of ground squirrels–mostly we see their tracks. In the New Year, we’ll resume our regular walks. They fell by the wayside in the past few months of building. It’s time to get back into it.

By mid-day, most of the maintenance chores are complete and we can turn our attentions to working on the house, or, for me, sitting at the computer and working. Evenings, we read, write, play Scrabble, or grouse about current events. Things will be much busier once Spring rolls around. For now we are enjoying the peace and quiet of the season.

IMG_2372

And the next morning, we can start, all over again.

Creatures of Habit–

A.V. Walters

IMG_2370

I’ve been away from the internet for some time. There are major changes in our lives which have required adjustments.

Once, at a bee meeting, one of our members was bemoaning how stupid bees could be. You see, while bees can navigate a vast range of flowers and local geography, if you shift their hives just a couple of feet, they may well be lost. They will fly to the spot where their entry was…and hover, lost. I am one to defend the bees. We are all creatures of habit. So I posed the question to our members, “Was that really evidence of stupidity? Did you ever reorganize and change the location of your cutlery drawer?”

My comment was met with silence, and nervous laughter.

We have moved into our new house. It’s not finished, but in the eyes of the permitting authorities, it is “habitable.” It’s mostly finished, except for the upstairs bath, interior doors and trim. The move was lucky–we were in by the full moon–and just before it began to snow in earnest. Within days, the landscape completely changed and our days were preoccupied with snow removal and creating routines for stocking firewood. Our view has changed, from the taupes and browns of November to winter’s white, punctuated with evergreens. After years of this being a work site, it’s both a surprise and a relief to settle in.

We’re in that awkward stage in which you try to envision a new life and put things where you think you’ll need them–and wondering why you ever bought some of this crap in the first place. I’ve redone the pantry cupboards twice, still without any real comfort zone. It wasn’t a big move, just across the road from our little basement rental. Our walls are still lined with boxes whose contents await placement. I try to address a box or two everyday, but I’m remembering that even the bees can be discombobulated by a minor relocation.

IMG_2369

We also are enjoying the settling in and discovery process. It is a very quiet home– heated with wood there are very few “house noises.” Except for the occasional hum of the refrigerator, mostly we are learning the noises of the neighborhood from a new perspective. We can hear the snowplow from the main road, but very few of the other sounds from across the street interrupt our lives here. No dogs. We have a neighbor up the road with a bad muffler, and we can still hear his truck. With the shift in season, we can hear the (now more distant) whine of snowmobiles.

With the snow, we can see who our regular visitors are. Bunny prints cover the paths Rick has cleared. They like the convenience, too, but, Oh, My! How many of them are there? If the tracks are any indication, we live in Bunnyopolis. Alarmed, Rick has cleared all around the fenced garden area. The snow had reached the point where the bunnies would be able to hop right over the bunny-proof part of the fencing. We see the deer tracks, too. And we’ll spend the rest of the winter learning to recognize the footprints of rest of the visitors. Or maybe…it’s their home…and we are the visitors.

 

The Myth of Snow Removal

A.V. Walters

img_2349

For the traditionalist…

There is no such thing. When it is time for it to go, snow will go on its own. Until then, all we can do is push it around—out of our way. We should really call it snow relocation. “Snow Removal” is a big ticket item on many northern, rural budgets. For many, the face of government is one’s local township clerk, and the guy who drives the snow plow. For public road maintenance, the standard snow plow is the way to go.

Snow management for the homeowner, or small business, poses important questions. First and foremost is the basic question of egress and access—unless you manage snowfall, you simply cannot get from here, to there. Immediately behind egress and access is the question of safety. At what point does the danger of a slip-and-fall land on the shoulders of the pedestrian? What is the responsibility of a business for access safety? When in doubt, wear spikes. It’s an inexpensive measure of safety. (Just remember to remove them at the door.)

The farther north you go, the higher the level of social tolerance for snow inconvenience. We know how to drive and schlep in snow. Snow management falls into one of three categories—pushing it aside (plowing and shoveling), scattering (snow blowers) or compaction—the old fashioned method of just traveling on top of the damn stuff—making for layers and layers of slippery, which are the seasonal measure of geologic sedimentation. Snow-blowers and their ability to disperse the mess make modern snow management easier. You never have to have a place to store the season’s bounty. The biggest issues in determining your snow management method are amount, effort and space. How much are you willing to sweat for access, and where the hell will you put the stuff?

When I was a kid, snow was shoveled by hand. That’s what kids were for. Driveways were relatively short. (I’m sure you’ve driven by a lovely old farmhouse and sighed at how close it was to traffic. Roads have widened over the years, and old houses were built sensibly closer to the thoroughfare.) Mechanization has freed us from those old, utilitarian limitations. Now, it is not unusual to see the McMansion on the hill, with its thousand-foot driveway. Woe to them, should petroleum become scarce.

We have our own range of snow equipment. The snow-blower on the tractor can clear a five-foot swath in a heartbeat. We have a hand-push blower, which we almost never use, favoring the flexibility of the traditional snow scoop or the northern version (the yooper-scooper), which makes it easier to move the snow some distance. In the North, snow removal is the aging test of whether it’s time to move into town. At that point, either you move, family helps out, you pay for snow removal, or you rely on the kindness of strangers. Since my father passed, my brother-in-law has dutifully kept my mum’s driveway clear. Rick and I are young yet, and are nowhere near those kinds of considerations. But…

img_2347

The Yooper-scooper–available only in the far north, wherever premium snow implements are sold.

I never had children. I wonder if Rick’s California kids understand the mores of familial obligations in the North.

 

Winter Wonderland

A.V. Waltersimg_2343

It seemed like a no-brainer to me. We’ve been cooped up with winter for months, so the idea of fresh line-dried laundry was like a breath of fresh air. We’re having one of those wonderful February breaks with sunshine and temps in the 40s and 50s. Ah, sunshine!

Of course, it is a little odd to have to wear winter boots out to the clothesline. While I was out hanging laundry, a number of my neighbors drove by on their own busy Saturday mornings. Their reactions made me wonder. I could see them do the double-take when they spied me. Three of them slowed their cars to a crawl and stared in wonder at what I was doing. In the background, I could hear snowmobiles. The moment was rich with contrast.

I suppose they think I’m the crazy one. I wonder. At these temperatures, by tomorrow the snow may be gone.

Did I mention that it was sunny?

img_2250

Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

IMG_2289

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

IMG_2287

Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

IMG_2289

We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

IMG_2290

Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.

 

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

IMG_2254

Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

The day before yesterday, Rick and I went for a walk in the woods. There was a wind-storm over Christmas, and we wanted to see if any more trees were down. We wore our regular shoes. There was no snow. So, we busied ourselves, with some minor trail-clearing, before yesterday’s predicted storm. (It’s nice to remove the trip hazards, while you can still see them.) At least the additional trees that fell were already dead—this is normal winter renewal.

We also wanted to check on our “widow-makers,” trees that came partially down in the wind-storm last August, but that were caught in the surrounding trees—hanging, but not stable. These are a woodsman’s worst nightmare. They are extremely dangerous to clear, as you can tell by their name. We have several snarls—where a fallen tree smashes into its neighbor, and that one into its neighbor—and so on, until four or five trees are entangled. We’ve been slowly clearing them, hoping that winter would level them for us. No such luck, so far.

IMG_2232

Widow-maker.

Unfortunately, several widow-makers block, or threaten, our trails. One of them is further complicated by being bound up in some of the ancient, barbed-wire fencing. The trees have grown, embedding the wire deep into their trunks. A big maple, split at its base, leans heavily on a smaller maple, over our main access trail, both of them wired together. It’s just a matter of time, and wind, until the smaller tree splits or collapses under the burden. (Should the bigger tree fall fast, that entrapped wire could cut through a bystander like a hot knife through butter.) We decided at least to clear the wire. Tinsnips in hand, we do what we can.

Yesterday morning we woke up to a different world. Finally, winter has arrived. It’s tough to estimate, with the drifting, but I’d guess we got a good six inches of dry, fine, powder. It’s about time.

IMG_2255

What a difference a day makes.

Though the mild season has seen great savings in heating costs and convenience, it is disconcerting not to have a real winter. This new blanket of snow sets that to rights. It will also provide needed “chill” hours to our fruit trees and down-time for the bees. Not that the bees need super-cold temperatures, but it is hard on them to have warm weather with no blossoms. Now, they can huddle and give up on the search for pollen and nectar.

Now, one would think that, being late December, we’d be ready for winter. Were we that well-oiled, seasonal machine, we’d be waiting, ready, with the snow-blower already set up on the Kubota. Yeah, right. Instead, we flailed about in the snow, disconnecting summer implements and hooking up the blower. The reward is that the blower makes short work of snow removal. Rick did the driveway, parking area and paths at the house site, and the drive at the apartment—ours and our landlady’s, in a couple of hours. Altogether it’s over a thousand feet of plowed road and path, about ten feet wide.

IMG_2256

Suiting up.

We’re settling in now, to the slower pace of winter. Things need to be more deliberate. A trip to town requires clearing the car, first. Work on the house requires warming glue or caulking materials. You have to think ahead. We don’t mind. We have the necessary tools and we like the snow. Another snowfall like this one, and we’ll break-out the snowshoes.

 

 

Fore!

A.V. Walters

IMG_2251

I admit it. I am the kind of person who laughs at my own jokes. Even if I’m the only person who laughs…

This will require some history.

My ex and I purchased the property (that Rick and I are currently developing) over twenty-five years ago. A few years later, an adjacent parcel sold—and the buyers built a house. Ours was empty, so the husband in that duo, Brian, felt free to use our front panhandle as a driving range. He’d practice his golf swing, and send his dog out to collect the golf balls. The dog tired of this, at some point and, apparently, Brian’s version of sport and fitness didn’t include walking, which left our land with a collection of unretrieved golf balls. He’s a nice guy though, and we’d communicate from time to time. He’s a hunter and we gave him permission to hunt on our (otherwise posted) land.

Years later, the couple divorced and their house was sold.

When Rick and I arrived, we started a collection of those golf balls. We’d find them in the strangest spots. Some partially buried and others, under trees, as much as a couple of hundred yards from where he’d teed up, in his front yard. We’d go for walks on our property, and come back with a pocket full of golf balls, which we tossed into one of the tree cages. We have no interest in golfing.

IMG_2253

Last year, Brian, who missed the area, bought a lovely parcel just up the road. He’s saving for when he and his new partner can build. In the meantime, he’s hunting there, and has put in a little garden. We go right by his property on one of our regular walking routes. Lately, when we head off to walk that way, we each grab a couple of golf balls, and toss them onto Brian’s driveway, or into his garden.

We have no idea whether Brian has, or ever will, notice. Or, if he’ll ever piece it together, in any way—that the golf balls he lost two decades ago are the same ones mysteriously appearing on his new property.

But, Rick and I are laughing. I guess that means that we’re well-suited. It’s enough of a joke, just between us. We’ll continue to enjoy our walks, and life’s little pleasures, as we still have a couple of dozen balls left to go.

 

 

 

 

Waiting on Color

A.V. Walters

Color is late this year. Not just here, I’m hearing it everywhere. Back home, where normally it would be finishing up by now, most of the trees are still green. Here we’re a couple of weeks behind–and we’re only seeing the occasional branch, or isolated tree, that has bolted into spectacular. I keep telling myself I’ll blog when I can post great color shots. And then I wait.

It’s not like the weather hasn’t changed. It’s autumn here. Night time temps are dropping into the 40s. I have to harvest the last of my basil and tomatoes, before the first hard frost. I’m staining the cabin–and some days it’s too chilly to stain. Though staining is akin to paint–and should be an improvement–Rick and I have grown attached to the look of cedar logs. They must be stained, to protect from rot and UV damage. Still, we like the natural look and cringe that the work I’m doing makes the cabin look like Lincoln Logs. I’m sure I’ll get enough warm days to get the first coat on–the cooler days I use for prep. Rainy days, I work on the computer. Rick is busy putting in the septic. Those cool power tools, the Kubota and the backhoe, are seeing good use. We’ll get it in, and inspected, just in time for the weather to really turn.

Some folks plan their vacations around color. It’s a risky venture–trying to guess when nature will accommodate. Is it a failure if you head off to the boonies–and have only green to reward you? I suppose an early winter would be worse–or a dry year with only shriveled, brown leaves. Our neck of the woods has recently been voted the best color-drive in the country. I don’t know how such things are judged. (I’ll bet folks back in the Keweenaw, or at the Porcupine Mountains, will think the jig is rigged.) I only know that it will extend our tourist season–which can’t be all bad for the local economy. The wine-tasting vineyards and orchard stands will be happy.

In the meantime, we keep working. It’s a year late, but we have our winter-defendable shell in place. The doors and windows went in last week. Once we get the chimney in, we’ll actually be able to heat it, making for a cozy place to work until it’s ready for us to move in. All things in due time. Next time, color shots!

Good Fences Make…

A.V. Walters

electric-fence

It’s nearly time to put in the garden, and that means that we need to make fence decisions. Our biggest garden problem is deer. The deer are also a threat to the orchard saplings. We’ve combined the garden location with the orchard to consolidate fencing needs. We’ll also have the bees in the corner of the garden, which complicates things a bit. Locally there is a split on the type of fencing or garden protection needed from the deer. (Oh yeah, and from the bunnies, too.) No matter what you do, it’s expensive.

Some install tall traditional fencing—at least seven feet tall. Others go the electric route and install a multi-strand electric fence. One neighbor has completely foregone fencing. They protect their garden with a motion detector connected to a sprinkler system. We walk by regularly and we laugh when our meanderings, on the road, trigger the sprinkler response. Hey, I guess it works! (If not for the bees, I’d be tempted to go this route.)

The uber-tall solution looks fortress-like and it’s permanent. I’d like a little more flexibility to move the fence, in the future, when the garden expands.

So, I stepped into the vast world of electric fencing. Too many decisions! What’s the power source? Is it close enough to the house for AC power? (Not really, we’d have to underground several hundred feet of wiring for that.) That leaves us with the choice of solar, or DC. Solar sounds so….progressive and green. I was predisposed to that direction. Unfortunately, my research into reliability and power needs revealed that the system that would meet my needs (and have the warranty life I’d want) would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves us with 12 volt, DC batteries.

The pebble in the shoe of all these plans has been the bees. You see, bees attract bears. (The hives down the road were raided by a bear, last summer—it isn’t a hypothetical problem.) An electric fence system strong enough to get a bear’s attention has to be pretty beefy. Fence controllers are rated in several ways, by distance, by ‘joules’, and by the type of hazard (animal) contemplated. Though a “5 mile” fence would be fine for deer, to get the kick you need for bear, a 25 mile fence is needed (even though the fence dimensions themselves don’t change—it’s not the length of the fence that counts, it’s the total length of the wire strands you use.) A bear fence calls for a minimum of four strands. Some contend that seven is required. Not that appearance is the arbiter, but a seven-strand fence looks like a maximum security prison—minus the razor wire. (One beekeeper actually suggested a double fence—with a 30 inch no man’s land between them!) I think we’ll go with four strands. The fence must deliver a minimum of a one joule charge to dissuade a bear. That same power will make our fence pretty unfriendly to incidental human contact. It’s not a ‘leaning on the fence talking to neighbors’ kind of a fence. We worry about the cats.

All of this has been Greek to me. I’ve been researching the fencing on the internet. It’s quite an education. For every fencing option, there are at least three alternate opinions. Unfortunately, our tailored needs will make it near to impossible to pick anything up second-hand. I have about a week to make up my mind. By then, our seedlings will be busting out of their pots, begging for a permanent home in the garden. And right after that, about the first week in June, the bees will arrive. We’ll need to be ready by then.