The bees’ last chance

May 22nd, 2015

An update on the plight of this year’s bees: Those supercedure cells … weren’t. They had drones in them too, but they had fooled me into waiting a little too long to intervene.


you big fakers.

Last week, out of hope and patience, I found both dud queens and removed them. Eggs kept appearing in Darjeeling, and on closer inspection there were two and sometimes three to a cell – which meant it had been a laying worker all along, and that dang queen never laid a single darn thing. I needed new brood and bees – not to mention queens – fast if either colony was to survive.

But this is prime brood season, as every colony struggles to build up its numbers during nectar flow and right after a really bad winter with lots of hive losses. I called – I do not exaggerate – every single commercial beekeeper I could find within a two hour radius. I emailed the presidents of every single bee club, association, even the bee research lab at the USDA in Beltsville! No one could help me, and I was getting desperate. Looked like I was going to lose both colonies completely and it made me feel sick – the same feeling as watching every single peach sicken and drop last year.

Finally someone put me in contact with a backyard beekeeper in DC who still had some bees to sell. She’s a gal about my age, which is refreshing (99% of the beekeepers I’ve met are older men) and just incredibly knowledgeable. She must have talked to me for at least an hour, really chewing over all my options and figuring out a plan. She put together a 5-frame nuc frame for me, heavy on the brood (I already have frames of honey). The queen was on her own brood so I could see how prolific she is, which was nice; she’s also locally mated and the bees in Maggie’s yard had only 8% winter losses this year, so we might assume that this queen produces stock well-suited for this particular area.

In the end, we agreed that my old packages are doomed. Even if I put in capped brood and open eggs, there just isn’t enough time to raise new bees before the old ones die. The only thing we can try to do now is salvage some of the current worker bees from them and put them to work helping my new nuc.

I moved Darjeeling into the center (ish) of the hive stand and topped it with a sheet of newspaper and then Ceylon. I left a deep box overnight where Ceylon had been to capture any confused, returning workers. This morning I installed the nuc into the box I had been using as a swarm lure – Lady Grey – and topped it with newspaper and the box of Ceylon stragglers. Come Sunday, both combines should have taken. Then I can consolidate populated frames of the two combines down into one box each and do a second-step combine on top of my nuc. The idea is to have one strong colony rather than two weak ones.


looks like two strong colonies… actually just half of one box.

I’m nervous about putting a laying-worker box on top of a real queen box. What if the laying-worker bees attack my precious new real queen to protect what they think is their own? Beekeeper Maggie says that probably won’t happen, but with my luck… I’m worried. Anyone have experience with consolidating laying worker hives?


May 16th, 2015

Josh used to say, “How can they be ‘volunteers’? So your plant made seeds and those seeds grew… isn’t that what plants DO?” I just laughed. Any experience with gardening will tell you that if it were that easy, there wouldn’t be colleges and libraries and $2,000 academic courses dedicated to figuring it out.

That’s why finding volunteers always makes me so happy – kind of like welcoming in a friend, or adding a new hen to the flock, or getting picked first for kickball. Some beneficial plant chose me, all on its own, and I didn’t even have to do any of the work! One of those special gardening moments, I guess.

Of course during the beginning years of a garden, most of the volunteers are weeds. I mean heck, they still are, of course. Though through the years either I’ve become more open-minded or my weeds have become more genteel, because this spring there were only 3 inedible species, and they were scarce. Though my garden looked a bit scraggly around the edges, I could truthfully say there were no “weeds” – because everything was useful (and delicious). This cut down my workload enormously too, of course. :)

But there were some nice surprises of a more domesticated nature as well. Permaculturists will yawn and say “well of course, letting plants spread seed naturally, creating a self-sustaining perennial garden of annuals is how we should all garden,” but it was a delightful surprise to me to meet the offspring of those plants I’d worked so hard on last year.


butterhead lettuce babies


I didn’t get pictures of the dill mini-forest, the scallions, leeks and garlic, or the wheat (wheat!), darn it.

I’m letting this squash stay in my compost at least until I find out what it is:


cucurbita misteriosa


I suspect a jack o lantern due to general robustness & vining habit; though it *is* growing in chicken manure, so who knows. I wish it were a zucchini, because none of the ones that I actually tried to germinate would grow. (old seed, I expect.)


not a nettle


I know everyone talks about how prolific mint is and how you can’t escape it, but this is the first true mint I’ve found in my garden. I don’t mind it as a weed – it smells nice, makes a nice ground cover, uproots easily, the bees love it, and it’s useful. See how it’s surrounded by crown vetch, a nitrogen-fixer? (I’m teaching Sofía to identify legumes’ beneficial properties by calling them “fertilizer plants.”) A perfect bee snack bar.



Those dianthus were tiny seedlings last year – wow they must be happy there. We have some volunteer tansy and cosmos too that I didn’t photograph. I don’t know what that orange flower is, though, do you?


please don’t be useless


And finally this little peach seedling, which I suspect may be a rootstock sprout but I’m hoping is actually some kind of viable offspring. I like its red leaves. I wonder if it’s related to one of those decorative, non-fruiting plum trees. If I save it, we will see.

What volunteers do you have in your garden?

Fuzzy little babies

May 15th, 2015

Well, ok, not the kind you probably thought. I’m talking about my peaches.

Six years gardening, and I have yet to eat a single one of my own peaches. The damn bugs get them every year – it’s a race between them and the brown rot. And yes, I’m aware that they’re just peaches, but I’ve been laboring so hard to baby these trees for the last six years – weekly nutrient sprays, regular applications of compost and fertilizer – I have so much energy invested in them that it’s just heartbreaking each time.

This year, I’m pulling out the big(ger) guns. I’ve added an organic insecticide in addition to my traditional neem oil. I sprayed once at leaf swell, once at petal fall, and for the last time after shuck split. Ugh, it stinks like turpentine and it has to be applied after the bees have gone to bed. But I haven’t seen any damage yet. Yet!

I applied it along with Surround (superfine kaolin), a passive clay coating strategy that’s a benign repellant – picture biting into an apple coated in clay and you’ll see why – which may be a problem. Because it’s Surround’s job to slough off easily (onto all the insect parts that brush against it, gumming up their moving bits), I suspect the insecticide is being washed off too soon to be fully effective…. but I don’t want to not use Surround, either. We’ll see.


ma’am, your tree is covered in garbage.

I’m also desperate enough to try physical barriers. I made some insect barrier cloth, and some fine tulle, into branch bags. I even used twist ties to apply sections of nylons over tiny fruit clusters.

My highest hopes lie with the insect barrier bags, though I put them on late (after shuck split, when the fruits were already sizing up.) I like that the fine tulle bags let in more light and air, but I dunno whether the holes are too big to keep out tiny bugs like plum curculio. I’m also not sure it’ll stand up to a full season out in the weather. But it went on right after petal fall because it was what I had on hand, so if they work, chances are good that I managed to bag ‘em before any damage was done. I hope.

The bags made of insect barrier fabric feel about as light as the tulle and they’re more durable, but I worry that because they block wind more, in a storm they might act like a sail and incur damage to the peach’s notoriously weak branches.

So far, so good.


bigger than almonds.

I can’t find any damage so far… though that’s not saying there isn’t any. Dem bugs is small.

Still, this is right at the point last year when all the fruit, worm-infested and oozing all over with the clear goo that the fruits put off in response to bites, died and fell to the ground. I don’t see any piles of goo or insect bites on anything yet, so things look promising.

Heck, I’d try just about anything at this point – but I hope enough peaches survive that I can compare the effectiveness of the different strategies. So maybe I won’t have to do all of this again next year!

Mother hens

May 14th, 2015

My black australorp hen went broody about a week ago. Only a few days before, I had been lamenting that probably it would never happen – but when she did and I checked my garden notes, it was only 3 days later than last year.


mama dragon

See her bridling her hackles at me? A broody hen is a scary thing. They make a weird, weird noise and puff up – when you collect eggs at dusk and aren’t paying attention it can be quite startling! There might have been some yelps, or shrieks. There might have been some cussing.

I was glad she went broody, because raising chicks by hand is stinky and labor intensive! But she went broody in the next box, which was terrible because the other hens kept laying eggs on top of her. She kept amassing eggs of different ages, and there were so many eggs that some were getting broken and starting to stink even after just two days.

I had to put her in a special broody box, but even with the eggs transferred over there she refused to stay in it when it was placed in the coop, preferring to run back to her (now empty) nest box. So I had to put her & the broody box in a cage… but the cage wouldn’t fit in the coop. I had to put it in the run, and the whole transferring process took so long, and was so stressful for everyone, that I was sure I had ended up breaking her broody cycle by accident.

She seemed to lose interest in the eggs for a day or so, sitting on them still but doing a lackluster job of keeping them all in one place and covered at one time. After the second time that I put my hand in the cage and shoved them back together under her and she not only didn’t bite me, but got up and let me have my way with the eggs, I gave her up as no longer broody and removed the cage. She immediately got up and wandered off to get a drink of water. Oh well, I thought sadly, and went inside convinced I had ruined everything.

But when I went to gather eggs tonight:



Ouch. Those beaks are strong.

I’m not sure if she is actually broody or just in a really bad mood. She is hunkered down low like a broody, but she might have just been affronted that I was trying to collect eggs at near-dark. If she’s still there tomorrow evening we’ll know for sure. In any case, I was glad I had a replacement!

I walked around smiling to the front of the coop to go put away the broody cage and the lonely, now useless 14 eggs the other hen had abandoned…

…only to find it still occupied by the black hen, sitting as tight on those eggs as she could and as ornery as ever. Guess she didn’t break broody after all! It is quite possible, though, that her brief lack of interest was enough to kill the developing eggs – time will tell.

Two broody hens instead of zero? When it rains, it pours.


Oh, bees.

May 11th, 2015

So in fine, long-standing Summersweet tradition, my two new packages of bees are determined to auto-annihilate before summer flowers even bud up. This’ll be the …sixth?… year in a row where I get bees that just aren’t up to the simple task of staying alive.

Every year it’s a new problem. The first year, I had a drone layer. And I didn’t know what I was looking at, so I didn’t find out til too late. No new brood = colony death. Second, third, fourth years, small hive beetle – though they say that only attacks a weak colony in the first place so who knows. The fifth year a teeny cluster overwintered until about March, but were too small to build up their numbers enough to make it into Spring.

This year, I got two packages instead of just one, to play it safe. Maybe one would have problems, I figured. Maybe it wouldn’t. Well….



Those are supercedure cells there, folks. And what’s around it, in a fully-drawn comb that should be absolutely filled with flat, neat brood comb?… a big fat nothing, that’s what. No eggs, no larvae. Looks like the queen laid maybe 15 eggs and then quit – the bees knew something was wrong and immediately made those eggs into drone and queen cells. Sigh, I thought. A non-laying queen… again?? Well surely the next box is better.

Nope. No eggs, larvae, or brood anywhere in Ceylon. After three weeks (which is approaching death sentence time for a colony with no new brood). Keep in mind a queen should be able to start laying within 1-3 days of having enough comb to lay in; so say a week or so.

Two non-laying queens. TWO. Both of them.


I took a Darjeeling frame with a couple queen cells on it and put it into Ceylon. They both have 2-4 potential queens now. I found both dud (I really want to call them something else not as polite) queens, pinched them both (so they wouldn’t kill the new growing queens). In one day, I killed both queens in both of my colonies. It felt like yanking off my own finger, but it had to be done – if the queen is in there, the bees may faithfully follow her to their own deaths. I needed these new queens to have a fighting chance, and a queenless hive to come back to (as opposed to just going off to start a new hive somewhere else.)

The problem with these new queens is that the timing just isn’t right. Queen cells take 16 days to mature, then another 3 days for mating flights. If they start laying right away, it’ll be another 21 days before those bees hatch. And they won’t be able to go out and forage right away; they’ll stick around home for a week or two first. So I could maybe expect my first new workers about a month from now. And with only a 6 week life span, my package bees will be dead and unable to care for the new brood… or at least so underpopulated that they won’t be able to care for/cover all the new eggs and all will be for naught no matter how good a layer the new queen is.

I’m trying really hard to find an already-mated queen locally, but everywhere I’ve looked they are completely sold out. One person said they could maybe get some to me by next Sunday (today is Monday), but my own queens might have been hatched and mated by then, so why bother.

What I really need to do is beg some frames of brood off a fellow beekeeper to limp us along. But brood is really valuable this time of year, with the honey flow in full force. Cross your fingers someone will take pity on me!



Putting waste to work

April 26th, 2015

Our property is full of gorgeous, huge old trees. We love the shade they provide… but that also means they drop So. Many. Leaves. It’s just insane. We used to fill up the pickup truck’s bed with leaves six to seven times from the front yard alone.

That’s not a bad thing (well, except when I’m actually faced with collecting them). Like I said, two or three years in a row we dumped all those tarploads and truckloads of leaves on the swampy part of the garden, and raised the soil level there a few inches even in just that short time, crazy as that sounds (but it’s true – we didn’t use to be able to walk there at all).

Leaves are Nature’s fertilizer… but they’re also designed to smother competing vegetation, which for us unfortunately means the grass. And we still care at least a little about our reputation with the neighbors – which means the leaves have to go. A major chore and source of tension every year.

It took me a while to figure out I could use the lawnmower (our tiny, electric, wimpy lawnmower) to collect them. (I know, DUH, right? I’m just reinventing the wheel all over the place here.) And suddenly, my leaves were beautifully shredded and just perfect to use for mulch on the garden instead of straw, which I would have had to buy.

Co-generation, as the permaculturists say: the act of creatively using waste as a positive contribution to fulfill another set of goals. Michael Pilarski likens it to the act of directing hot air from your dryer into your greenhouse to warm it; because the hot air was going to be there in any case but now you’re putting it to work. My first thought on hearing this term was those cow poop natural gas digesters that people buy/make. Co-generation is stacking productive uses onto a process that’s already going on and would otherwise create waste.

So instead of putting these leaves out to be taken to the dump, they become a deep mulch layer for the garden, saving me a lot of money on straw and contributing to the health of my soil as the organic matter keeps piling up. My garden has to be mulched in any case… so why not use this free soon-to-be-compost that I’ve already had to gather up anyway?

But dang, my lawnmower – and its bag – is really tiny. And we have a lot of lawn.


Hm, I thought, if only I had a really giant leaf collecting mower bag. Is that even a thing? I can’t be the first person ever to want one of those.

Looking around for options, I googled up this $125 beauty:


Hm, I thought, that doesn’t look too hard to make.

I drew a sort of pattern on an old tarp, and then when I realized the old tarp would fill my lovely expensive sewing machine with dirt and grossness, I went and bought a new tarp. Using a double thickness, I sewed a bag more or less like the above, using leftover window screen from the basement for the vents. I bought some industrial strength velcro as well – man that stuff is sticky! I took off our regular mower bag, wrapped the lips of the tarp around the bag frame and used the velcro to secure them back to the main body of the tarp. More velcro secures the flap that tents over the bar to support the rear of the bag.


Well, I never said it was pretty. And that pile is above knee-high. It’s more impressive in person, really.

To my great surprise, it works! I know the bag is getting full when the lawnmower starts tipping backwards, lol. Only 3 loads with this bag is all I can comfortably handle dragging behind me on the tarp, so I estimate that it holds between 3-5 regular mowerbagfuls.

$10 tarp + $10 specialized velcro = win! Awesomeness! There were some problems though, that you can avoid if you want to make your own.

1) bottlenecking. It’s funnel-shaped, and with all the pressure from the leaves weighing down it gets really hard to empty this sucker. Next time I’d put a reeeeaaaaally long zipper or velcro seam down the side instead of across the back. I had one – a robe zipper – but it wasn’t long enough (needed 40″). Also, it was pink.

2) you might want to vent it  away from your face. This is messy. And not for people with allergies. All the dust, tiny leaf bits, grass flecks, etc that can fit through the screen are propelled out hard with the air from the mower… right into your face. Even with the flap folded over the handlebar, the wind from the sides seems to blow straight back up my nose. If I ever do a version 2.0 I’m definitely relocating the vents or putting a protective flap up somewhere strategic.

3) use heavy-duty thread. No-brainer, right? Except I didn’t even know if this would work, so I didn’t want to make a trip to the nearest Joann’s (30 minutes away) for one spool of thread. I used regular thread instead and hoped it would be strong enough, sewing a double seam in many places… it isn’t. A few stitches have already popped. I think it might last another season no problem, but it will eventually need to be restitched. Or just remade.

Still a gamechanger for me – anything to make this horrible task a little easier, with a little less arguing over whose turn it is to do it this year. Especially if it makes my garden richer in the process, and I’m accomplishing two tasks with the work of one.

Ghost trees

April 25th, 2015

I’ve started a new pest prevention strategy in the orchard…


…and I’m sure the neighbors are wondering just what the heck happened to my trees.

Kaolin, that’s what. Ultra-fine sieved kaolin called Surround, sprayed in water solution and built up over multiple coats, is a physical pest deterrent. Its tiny particles get in the eyes, mouths, and joints of insects trying to attack the tree. While it doesn’t kill them, it does encourage them to go somewhere else and prevent them from finding or biting the fruit. It’s only applied after petal fall, when the bees have already done their pollination (so right now it’s only on my two peaches, but soon it will be the whole orchard.)

I waited until well after dark before applying the final coat though, because along with it I applied the harshest measure I’ve yet taken in my orchard: an organic insecticide. A little extra chemical persuasion that shouldn’t be applied while bees are flying. I felt furtive, and a little bit like I was stepping over to the Dark Side, but watched with glee as a few oriental fruit moths fell out of the leaves and died on the ground in front of me. Gotcha, suckers.

And then I went inside and struggled with guilt over the possibility that my peach-defense might end up harming beneficials – organic or not, insecticide is insecticide, and so very far from my previous gentler strategies (as per recommendations in Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard).

Josh says I worry too much about bugs, and should think of all the jam and pies instead. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high that this might – just might – be the first year we get any fruit.


April 24th, 2015

Enthusiastic cherry blossoms.




asian pear blossoms.

asian pear blossoms.


Tiny wild bee on apple blossoms.


Scented Iris.

They are calling for frost tonight and for the next couple nights – I’m going to cover my trees the best I can, but they are really too big. I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope the delicate blossoms come out ok.



Reality check

April 20th, 2015

There are days like the one a few days ago, where everything seems so full of hope and promise… and there are days like today.

– Where one of the guard bees seems to take particular issue with you and won’t stop menacing you, flying around you up at your face, until you go get your bee veil and jacket. Planting while in full cumbersome regalia is not fun. Neither is fearing a sting for no reason in your own garden because of one psycho bee.

– Where nearly every single plant hole you dig – I’m not even exaggerating – uncovers another rodent hole, gopher/vole/whatever. I’ve never had rodent holes in the garden before, and I’m no judge but finding multiple tunnels in every single bed in a 5,000sf garden looks like a damn bad infestation to me, and it means it’s just a matter of time before they start killing my fruit trees. And I don’t know what to do. I feel so angry – every year it’s a different damn pest I have to deal with. All I want is one good year where I don’t have to fight tooth and nail to keep what I’ve worked so hard for.

– Where you suddenly notice that one of your hens looks a bit off… and as you look closer, you notice that actually, she looks pretty sick, and might be egg bound, but she won’t let you catch her to find out.

– When you are finally discouraged enough to put everything away and come inside… and you find a tick perched on your shoulder. After contracting two extremely serious (and extremely rare) tick-borne illnesses at this property in the last 5 years, seeing a tick kind of gives me a panic attack. (and now my body will feel ticklish all over for hours).

The only thing that made it better was my sweet Josh, who had dinner nearly finished for me. So some things are all right. But gardening still sucks, and I hate Mother Nature. Forever, The End.

…and 5 more.

April 19th, 2015

The ducklings are finally here!


that car ride was really not so much fun for us, dude

I went and picked them up from the wonderful Dana of Moose Manor Farms (she led the chicken processing lesson I attended at Green Hill Farm‘s Homesteading Days workshops last year so we knew each other already, though I actually found her farm through someone else!) She breeds some really unusual and heritage breeds and is very worth buying from if you are in the VA/MD/PA area. Her birds are SO much healthier than what you buy at a feed store.

These little puffballs are Golden Cascades, and they’re already about a week old.

golden cascade female.

We are hoping that at least three are female… it’s likely, but not for sure. The breed used to be auto-sexing (so you could tell them apart at hatching) but that became unreliable when someone messed up their bloodlines back in the day.

Dana recommended this breed particularly as a good fit for us when I mentioned I wanted them mostly as egg layers, mosquito-larvae-eaters, and slug catchers, but also needed them to be nice and, ideally, self-propagating. (I was really spoiled last year by my experience with having a hen raise up her own chicks with no effort on my part, but ducks are notoriously horrible mothers.) Moose Manor says:

“This breed was developed by Dave Holderread in 1979 to create a triple duty duck that combines good egg yields, efficient production of high quality meat, and pretty plumage.”


what up, says the duck

Ducks are messy, messy little birds. As you can see, I’ve got their water set on some hardware cloth above a paint tray. It really helps keep the mess down; they shake droplets everywhere and kind of “chew with their mouths open” if you can imagine them spraying crumbs all over the place too. They’re definitely going to need to have their cage cleaned every day. (Oh well, it makes great compost, right?…)


I’m just over the moon about these little critters. They’re going to be treated like pets – well, except for any extra males – and I’m hoping to let them free-range through the garden to some extent. They are supposed to be much easier on the plants than chickens are, so it’s not a completely crazy idea. :)

I just have to come up with some better ways to fox-proof the garden first. :( I can’t even figure out how electric fencing might work with our setup, even if we were ready to invest in the equipment. And it scares me to have the kids around it. So we might have to just try really hard to get them to go into the chicken tractor at night (now tractor no longer, it sits permanently in the duck yard corner of the garden), and add them to our list of let-them-out-in-the-morning, shut-them-up-at-night chores. Anyone have experience with electric fencing and children?