Just Bee Happy

March 5th, 2009

It’s so warm out now that it feels like the middle of spring.  We’re not there yet, but winter is giving way and the days are getting much longer.   Yesterday was time to remove the insulation from the bee hives.  I went out early with temperatures in the low-40’s, and cut off the packs of insulation material.   I wasn’t sure how the bees were faring, and had not checked on them for a couple of weeks.  I slowly peeked inside each top cover and Buzzzz! they let me know they were still fine, thank you very much.  As I stood nearby a lone bee flew back to the front of a hive and crawled inside.  I had never seen the bees flying in temperatures so cool. 

I came back a couple hours later when it was nearly 60 degrees F, and hundreds of bees were flying around actively in front of the hives.  Awesome!  I watched in admiration, thankful they made it through winter thus far, and was surprised to see bees bringing back pollen.   I then took a short hike down the hill and looked up at some of the larger maple trees, and sure enough- they had begun to bloom.

Maple tree in bloom

I can’t say for sure, but maple is my best guess since there’s not many plants other than red cedar or elm that have begun to bloom.  Bees don’t really use anything from the cedar trees and I’ve seen only a few elm trees anywhere.  There may be a willow blooming somewhere too, but I haven’t seen it yet.  However there are lots of maple trees around and the bees can get both pollen and nectar from them.   

I’m excited that the bees are doing so well.  My goal is to foster honey production and local pollination while caring for the bees in a natural, healthy manner.  I don’t want to use chemicals or synthetic treatments for our bees if at all possible.  I first wondered how to produce organic honey, but after a lot research I believe it’s nearly impossible for most beekeepers to achieve.  You can find “organic” honey on the internet, and from other countries, but I believe honey labeled as organic is a dubious distinction because you don’t really know where the bees go.   Maybe you’re paying extra for a label that really isn’t accurate.

 How many bees can you see with pollen? 

Missouri Bees with pollen in March

With a hive of 50,000 or more bees, who knows what pollen and nectar sources they visit?  How do you know the bees have not visited a plant or flower with chemicals on it?  Their normal range is two miles in all directions, with some research showing flights up to five miles! I suppose if your hives are in the middle of a 3-4 square mile area with no farming or other residential/commercial activity you can reasonably be sure the bees are encountering only natural forage.  But more importantly, is the honey raw and unfiltered?  Has it been pasteurized or heat-treated to prevent crystallization?  There are many enzymes in raw honey that are destroyed by heat treatment.  Pasteurization of honey is not really a health issue anyway- it is primarily used to kill sugar tolerant yeasts that might lead to fermentation, hence longer shelf life.

The USDA requirements are fairly strict too- and seems to classify bees as livestock. To certify livestock as organic, a farmer/producer must be able to prove that the animals have not come into contact with certain chemicals or genetically modified material.  Not going to happen with bees for most beekeepers in the U.S.  And did you know by many organic standards that even organic honey can come from hives in which antibiotics have been used during the year?  Doesn’t make sense to me.   You can find organic honey imported from other countries too, but I would like to think that natural, local honey would be healthier and preferred by most people.  Unfortunately, the imported honey is often cheaper than what a small producer can offer.  Still I would like to think that most people will pay a little extra for a quality, local product that they know where it comes from and helps support the community.

My goal is to harvest raw, unprocessed natural honey, while keeping healthy, untreated bees.  I don’t intend to become a commercial beekeeper on a larger scale- just big enough to have some honey and sell it in the local area.  But many beekeepers believe bees simply won’t survive without antibiotic or other treatments due to the mites and other diseases they can catch.  Maybe so, but I’m going to give natural beekeeping a try.   If all goes well this year maybe we can add to the number of hives.  At any rate, it’s time to get the rest of the equipment ready so the bees can make lots of honey this year!

Elderberries, Juncos and Schoolwork

February 25th, 2009

It’s a beautiful day today and I have grand ambitions for taking care of many outdoor chores.  By the way, that little shrub that I mentioned the other day in the picture is an Elderberry.  How it grew there I don’t know, but it blooms in May and June with pretty white flower clusters- and I love the berries for jam and jelly that mature in late August or September.  Here’s last summer’s efforts at making jam– the elderberry jam never set up, but the sauce is wonderful on pancakes or biscuits.  We’re almost out of the elderberry sauce now, and I’ll have to pull some more berries out of the freezer.  Maybe I should trim around the elderberry bush so it has a little more space to grow?  Last year I was stuck in a patch of briars trying to reach the elderberry clusters.  The good thing is they were blackberry bushes… but ouch!

We’re still feeding the birds- they go through almost four feeders full of seed every week or so.  I think we’re finishing the second 40 pound bag of mixed seed, and the second 15 pound bag of thistle for winter and that should be it.  I love having them here, but you’ve got to keep the feeders full.  The young boy helps me with that and loves seeing the birds.   I’d like to think it helps some of the birds make it through winter that would otherwise have a difficult time.    And yet with days like today in the 60’s the birds are off exploring for insects and other natural fare.   Soon it will be time for them to disperse to nesting sites, and for birds like the Junco to head back north.  We don’t have them here in summer- they leave in March and come back in November.   Here’s a Junco on the Mugo!

Junco on Mugo

By the way, have you seen the math the second grade kids do these days?  I’m amazed by the expectations that schools have and how much work they are assigned.  Overall it’s a very good thing, but it seems like so much more than we ever did as youngsters, and I have to wonder if the strategies are really effective at times.

Between the reading, weekly book summaries and reports, spelling tests, composition and math, it’s a wonder they have time to be kids. At least his school still has recess, music, art and PE. But our little guy is having a tough time being fast enough with his “math facts.” That’s where the kids are timed- and he has to do 25 addition or subtraction problems in 2 minutes! He knows it really well, but it takes him 4-5 minutes to finish them. We even practice them every day on paper and with a little electronic gizmo to help memorize them, but he’s at a plateau… I’m sure he’ll improve with time.

Personally I don’t believe in forcing speed drills on kids so young- and to grade them poorly even though they know the math. In fact he’s very good in math, but because he sees himself finishing slowly and he thinks he’s “not good at math.” I try to help him understand that he is good at math, and with time and practice he’ll get faster. I just want him to continue learning- remaining receptive to it, and to understand that it’s not all about speed. Skills he learns now are important as building blocks for the skills he will need in later grades, but some children develop more slowly in certain areas. Obviously the standardized testing is a big part of it- and those tests begin in 3rd grade where he will start taking the timed tests that will be part of academics for the rest of his school days.

What’s very strange is that he can naturally remember the words to poems, jokes and songs without even trying- he’s far better at that than I am. And yet he doesn’t remember numbers the same way, or doesn’t think he does. Contrast his math with his reading… he’s already at an advanced reading level, and simply devours books. I’m so proud of him, and feel like lots of effort really paid dividends. I used to sit with him for hours as a 3, 4 and 5 year old, going over sounds and sentences every day to develop phonemic awareness, and practice his reading skills. And he always had mom or dad or grandma to read to him as well at bedtime. But the reading practice wasn’t easy, and he didn’t always enjoy it. At one point he really didn’t like the book/program I had, so I gave it a few week break and switched to a more fun phonics reading approach. He loved it.

But I remember at one point wondering if he would ever get it, and finally around age 6 he just took off.  To this day I still remember the first little phonics book he read on his own-  afterwards I said “Guess what?… You just read that all by yourself!”  He didn’t believe me at first, and then he was surprised at himself.   Now he knows he’s good at reading, and he really enjoys it and is proud of himself.   I hope he can develop his skills and appreciation for math and such to feel the same way.   Yet who knows, maybe he’s just more of a word person than a number person… everybody is different.

Sheepish Sunday Struggles

February 23rd, 2009

The nights are cold but the days are warming, a little.   The spring peepers have quieted down for now, but will be back in force in a week or two.  Walking around I noted the leaf and fruit buds of most trees and shrubs are becoming much thicker now.   Yesterday we heard the cry of a redtail hawk and saw it land among a rough nest of branches in a tall oak tree in the forest.   And little green shoots are poking their way above the ground now- daffodils, crocus, peony, day lilies and more.

I spent the afternoon in the barn working on removing a 19-year old 5 foot mower deck from my father’s old 23hp tractor.  It had not been off for many years, and took me a few hours of fiddling around. My last big winter goal is to try and restore it as much as possible before the growing season.   I lit a fire in the woodstove to take the edge off the cold and the yellow lab paced around the concrete floor impatiently, wanting to run and explore.  He finally settled down, realizing I wasn’t going anywhere.   I turned the radio on, listening to two fellas pontificate  about the economic challenges we face and that we’ve been here before.  I kind of laughed as I saw my father laying underneath the same tractor years ago, about the same time as the last recession.  I know we’ll get through this, and things do go in cycles, but it doesn’t make it any easier for a lot of folks when it comes around again.

After a while I had most of the deck unhooked except for removing a wheel or two, but couldn’t disconnect the drive shaft from underneath the tractor’s mid-pto shaft (power take-off).  Sometimes it’s hard to get your arm under there with any strength, or the couplings are really stuck with old grease and grime.  I struggled for fifteen minutes on one side, and fifteen minutes on another, pulling the 250 pound deck this way and that and banging my knuckles on every sharp corner the darn thing had.

The lab kept coming up to lick my face like he wanted to play…  so we took a break and wandered around outside a bit.  That morning I saw a lone mallard drake on the pond, which was unusual.  I’ve seen wood ducks on the pond but only one mallard here before.   This guy was probably taking a rest enroute to somewhere else.  It was still here as evening approached and he didn’t seem to mind us watching him swim around lazily.

 Mallard drake on the pond

Time to head back inside the barn and try again.  I got back down pushing and pulling this way and that…  and all at once I had the idea that maybe I should consider something else.   I stared at the thing and finally realized sheepishly that I had moved the heavy mower deck backwards just enough that the driveshaft was completely compressed against the tractor’s pto shaft.  Which meant that all the pushing in the world with one hand on that slip collar wasn’t going to remove the drivesaft from the pto… I was trying to push 250 pounds of metal along the floor upside down with one hand and a poor grip.

I shook my head feeling quite silly that I wasted a good half hour or more struggling for no reason, and then I got up and went around to each side to drag the deck forward, extending the driveshaft a few inches and relieving the pressure.  Then back underneath as I reached around to the pto, gave it a good push and “thunk!” off came the driveshaft like it should.  In my mind I could see my father smiling and telling me he did the same thing once before long ago.   How many times in life have we tried and tried to do something, only to realize later on that there was a much easier way?

So with the tractor’s deck off, my hands greasy and the sun settling behind the trees, we walked out the side door shutting up the barn and turned to walk back to the house.  Zoom! A little brown rabbit shot right in front of me and the yellow lab, racing around the front of the barn and into the pasture beyond.  The yellow lab looked up at me as if to say, “I don’t know what his problem is, but I’m not going after him!”  And then we heard “huffa, huffa, huffa” as our little Shiba came racing around breathing heavily, about 5 seconds behind the rabbit.  He paused at the corner of the barn, having lost sight of it, and looked back at us.  “Give it up Kuma” I said, “the little guy is long gone.”   He didn’t listen, and trotted off around the other side of the barn.  That rabbit had this really funny look in its eye as it raced past like “Where the heck did you come from!?”

From Mud Pie to Rocky Road

February 18th, 2009

Sometimes it’s the small things in life that make us happy. I’m an outside kind of guy, meaning I really enjoy getting outdoors and doing things. Of course I enjoy inside things too, like curling up with a good book on a rainy day.  But much of my life has been about going places, and I still  get restless to go about, even if it’s just about the garden.  Somehow it validates our being alive and we can be part of those elements such as the sun and the wind that make life so embracing.

I remember standing on a mountaintop in the Cascades of the northwest one night with a thunderstorm raging all around. Lightning, rain, wind nowhere to hide- except for a little tent, and yet it was amazing if not unsettling. The landscape was illuminated in brief flashes of rocks, peaks, trees stark and ghostly sights. It was breathtaking and exhilarating- a grand moment of being alive.

As I’ve grown older however, it’s the small joys of life that really matter more.  Most of those involve family and the gradual pace of life each day.  And one of them is as simple as a walk to the barn along a fifty yard reach of gravel.

Why is that so enjoyable? Well there’s a lot of cool things in the barn of course. It’s that place where many engines and machines are kept that help do things around here. It’s the place filled with dusty shelves and old tools. It’s the place where the leaves blow in and are swept out, and an ongoing compromise occurs between dirty and clean, or at least clean enough. It’s the place where the fishing poles lay, and the air compressor and the many other things that are used willy-nilly throughout the year to help shape the course of our lives. It’s really the kind of place to find old memories, and to begin making new ones.

It’s also the place where I forget things an awful lot. I walk back and forth from the barn a dozen times or more during the days I’m outside working, especially when I forget something in the garage.  And that walk is made a lot simpler and more enjoyable because of one little thing. Or a million little things namely a bunch of rocks, or gravel.

It may seem strange that I’m so delighted by a bunch of little rocks. But without them, that fifty yard stretch of driveway was once a sea of sticky, wet mud.  Before the gravel, it was like taking a slow shuffle to the barn, hopping around looking for dry spots or climbing up one side of the grassy slope uphill, or back around the other downhill. There isn’t a really good way to get there except down the driveway, especially if you need to drive something. 

As you can see from the picture below, you weren’t going to get away from the muck either. I tried and tried to grade it, and only made it worse… I humbly ate mud pie, or muddy humble pie, I don’t know which.  Either way I didn’t like it.  Our shoes were a mess, the driveway was a mess, the tires of tractors and vehicles were a mess, and the animals feet were a mess. When it rained you simply couldn’t walk back there. Why bother too much trouble. Except there’s always something you need to do out there!

Muddy driveway before gravel

It wasn’t always that way of course- the previous gravel base had simply been worn into the dirt over many years, and soil accumulated around the driveway environment from runoff.  During the summer it was usually dry, but during the wet months a mess.  Can you imagine what it would have been like to live in so many smaller towns and cities a hundred years ago with just muddy streets instead of cobblestones or asphalt/cement? I have some idea…  but enough was enough for me and it was time to do something. 

Two years ago I brought in about 10 tons of minus ¾ inch gravel as a base.  The ‘minus’ word means the gravel has a lot of really fine dust and particulate matter, along with some larger size rocks all mixed in. It’s not quite muddy, but it can be sticky and difficult to work. After a couple of weeks of grading and shaping, it covered the mud pretty well, but didn’t quite keep the driveway very dry or clean. It was still chalky-mucky in spots and the water just ran on the top during rain.

We tried that for a year, but needed something drier- a crunchy top to walk on- and I investigated a few more options.  Last summer I brought in another 10+ tons of clean one-inch gravel for the top. The clean part means it was just nice clean rock- very little dust or particulate matter. It was also easier to grade and move around, and I finally covered the entire two-hundred feet of driveway back past the barn almost a couple inches deep.

Gravel on driveway

I never knew that a bunch of little rocks could make me so happy.  That’s something else I enjoy… learning.  Somebody with more experience would have known the best thing to do all at once.  I’m one of those who would rather figure it out as I go along.  I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but after going through most of the summer, fall and this winter- it has held up very well. The water from rainfall drains off through the rock, has enough of a base to prevent erosion, and most importantly it keeps your feet dry and clean no more mud. Hooray!  It was rocky road for me.

The real test was last Friday, when I hid some flowers in the barn for Valentine’s Day (they’ve got to go somewhere).  But then the temperature almost dropped below freezing that night so I ran out really early the next morning (like 4:30 am) in my slippers to bring them in. I had to laugh that I was crunching over the gravel in slippers, remembering how muddy it was a couple years before.

So how long will the driveway stay this way? I don’t know, but probably a few good years at least.  It really doesn’t cost that much to bring the gravel in, but it’s a lot of work spreading it around.  A little tractor helps a lot.  It’s worth it though- instead of hopping around in the mud, now we can dance our way down the driveway with ease.  And the boy will tell you there’s lots of cool rocks out there too!  Through the grand adventures of our lives,  it’s often the little things that make all the difference.

A Few Warm Days in February

February 11th, 2009

Storms and rain since yesterday, but we had a really nice run of warm weather and I took advantage of the time to catch up on outdoor chores.   It was even time to clean up the garden and prune a host of shrubs.  The timing worked out well with today’s rain- I was able to burn a small garage-sized pile of brush that had accumulated since November.  I only burn in small piles, after (or during) rainfall, when the winds are calm.   The temperatures are dropping back down to the forties now, but yesterday was amazing.  I was out in a t-shirt in 70 degree weather happily mulching the garden.   Maybe in a few months that will change to happily munching in the garden!

It was time to paint the old bluebird nest boxes too.  Soon we will learn about building some new bird houses- they seem quite simple, and it’s great to teach children to learn more about safe use of tools and carpentry.  I like to browse Ted’s Woodworking Plans, because it offers so many varieties of plans and ideas for use around the home and farm.   

As for the old birdhouses- there’s always some paint around that can be used for something.  The young boy loves to paint! So that was his new project.

 Painting Bluebird nest boxes

The weather was so warm we saw a handful of bugs flying around.  Last night this little critter landed on the glass door- the young boy stood on the inside saying it looked like a T, so we called it a T-bug.   I went out and took its picture, and didn’t realize until looking at the picture today that he had traced his own T on the opposite side of the glass.  Update:  A little Googling revealed this critter is in the family of Plume Moths…

The T-Bug

Now we need to find some organic mulch or compost to topdress the garden rows, and we’ll be ready to plant starts and seeds next month or early April.  Before last year I had accumulated enough leaves and grass clippings to have our own mulch, but last year the bagger broke and I just cut the leaves up on the grass.   Going to fix that this year and keep building our own mulch pile again- it’s too easy to have your own, and too expensive to get it someplace else.  Of course if we had some goats or chickens that would be different…  heck, if things get any worse out there we may need to…  

Nothing like a helping hand of the loader bucket to carry the brush and clippings away.  I really like roses… but it’s not fun pruning them.  We’re still experimenting with growing vegetables organically, keeping the weeds down and improving the soil. 

 Cleaning up the garden

I have not found an easy method for trimming weeds and bushes yet, but it’s probably more like that old quote about hard work and “gardens needing lots of moisture”… it’s mostly in the form of perspiration! 

Ted's Woodworking Plans

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