New Hives

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Starting Over Again After Six Years

We still can’t figure out what happened to our honeybees.  They were gone, without a trace last winter.  There was plenty of honey still stored in each hive but just a few dead bees in there, most of them were young bees.  There was no foul smell in any of the hives and the frames looked clean.  After six years of tending them, they were gone in one season.  We also haven’t seen very many wild bees lately either.  So far just some Carpenter bees and Mason bees.  Not even a Bumblebee.

We think we might have been hit either by the CCD (Colony-collapse Disorder) or Zombees (Apocephalus borealis) but it could be anything at this point.  As discouraged as we are we won’t give up.  We received three new packages of bees to start over with.  The first two came in mid-April but we had to keep them in their boxes for a few more days after we received them.  The weather wasn’t on our side to hive them, either raining, too cold or to windy.  We sprayed sugar syrup on the screens a few times a day to keep them well fed while they remained confined.  We were finally able to hive them on April 23, freedom at last.

The first two packages, we were so happy to see them

Anxious to get out

Poured them in the super after attaching the queen box. I kept the corrugated sheet under the base to keep them warm since the weather is still on the cold side.

Added a top tray feeder filled with sugar syrup. I adapted this tray feeder by adding fine screen mesh on top of the floating bars to prevent bees drowning. It works very well.

Two new hives. I left the empty packages in front of the hive so the bees that are still in the box can find their way to new home

We did the first inspection of these two new hives ten days later, May 2nd.  Each hive had freed their queens and built comb.  Both top tray feeders were empty.  There was some pollen as well.  We couldn’t see the queens but didn’t want to stress them further by searching for her.  Over all there are good signs that they have settled in to their new homes.  We removed the top tray feeders and changed to bottle feeders instead because they had built comb between the feeder gap and inside one of the feeders.

It’s a beautiful sight to see on the first inspection. Bees are busy building combs and some pollen.

Very busy at the entrance

It’s been raining almost everyday with the temperature hovering a little above 50°F on the days that we are home.  As a result, since the 1st inspection, we haven’t have a chance to check on their feeders again.  I think we will have to continue feeding them until the weather condition is improved.

The third package came in on May 5th and I was able to hive them that evening.  This particular package is much calmer than the first two, maybe because they weren’t in confinement for a long time like the first two packages.

The third hive

Hopefully these three new hives will survive the season.  My fear is not just the CCD now but the commercial elimination of mosquitos and ticks that is encroaching into the neighborhood.  Any sensible person knows that spraying insecticide will not just kill mosquitos and ticks but all insects that come into contact.  But advertisement and convenience seem to trump commonsense.  So we set the new hives further inside our property and will keep our fingers crossed.

Primrose

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Beauty With Low Maintenance

When crocuses and daffodils start to fade, primroses take the baton and continue running, coloring our garden.  I’ve been planting different colors of primrose in our garden for the last few years and continue to look for new colors every year.  There are many types of primrose but not many are hardy enough for our USDA zone so my choice is a little limited.

What I like about primrose is that they are pretty and low maintenance.  Once I put one in the garden they tend to thrive being fed only once a year, in spring, and with a little mulching.  The only potentially deadly problem for primrose, at least in our garden, are the slugs.  Since they are low to the ground and tend to like moist soil, it’s easy to reach for the slugs.  They can make a clump of primrose disappear in a few days.

Our previous neighbor gave us a couple of these primroses a few years ago. Now we have a large clump.

Close up

Tiny & bright yellow

These yellow primroses are large and much closer to the ground

Shocking pink with yellow contrast

White

Multi colored

The orange and purple striped ones were devoured by the slugs.  The green one is still budding, not yet open and we’re hoping the slugs miss it too.  For a couple of weeks or so, we have a very welcome primrose color all over our garden.

Migrating Birds

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They Are Back

Around this time in spring we prepare a welcome mat for the migrating birds, both the ones that come to stay for a season or just passing through.  We clean the birdhouses that were left out during winter for cold night roosting and set them back up.  Plenty of food is put out as well and we make some effort to insure the feeders won’t get emptied by larger birds like the Mourning doves, Grackles, European Starlings and Blue Jays by using weight sensitive feeders.  Grackles and Blue Jays manage to work these feeders anyway by bouncing up and down.  But we don’t mind since they can’t really land on the feeder blocking small birds from getting on.

We take our cues from the plants and trees in the garden.  We put oranges out when the cherry trees blossom; that is when the Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) start to show up.  We put sugar syrup out when the Columbine starts to bloom.  That’s when Ruby-throated Hummingbirds reach us from the south.

Arriving on the same schedule are the tree Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). They’re looking for nesting boxes now.  This year is much harder for them since the Eastern Bluebird beat them to nesting, having eggs now, get very territorial.  They don’t want any neighbors, even when the closest box is 20 feet away the male Bluebird still chases any bird who has the temerity to stray too close.  Also House Sparrows that try to nest in every box in the yard.  It seems like an uphill battle for the Swallows but they still try and we do our best chasing the Sparrows to give them an edge.

A pair of Tree Swallows checking one of the nest boxes.  They have not yet picked one.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) has also arrived.  Generally we only see the male at this time of year.  Some years they will stay through the season but some years they just pass through.

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak enjoy chipped sunflower seeds and peanuts

A male Baltimore Oriole enjoying oranges

I know that the Baltimore Orioles are here, aside from the cherry tree cue, we can hear them.  They haven’t come down for the oranges yet.  Above is an image captured last year.

 

Eastern Bluebird

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The First Family To Settle

Spring is a very active season for birds.  I can tell that spring is really coming when the male American Goldfinches shed their winter coats and the male Cardinals are no longer willing to eat together.  The same thing goes for the Eastern Bluebirds which no longer flock together like they do in winter.  There is also their singing.

The first pair of birds that took up residence in our garden this year is the Eastern Bluebird.  After picking and choosing among several nest boxes in the yard, they ended up at the same one the bluebirds nested in last year.  I’m not sure that it’s the same pair though, since a flock of them stayed with us this winter.

Male Eastern Bluebird staying on top of the house they picked

The female keeps her eyes on it from the tree above

Their new home

Once the female has started to lay eggs, the male become very territorial.  A Tree Swallow who just migrated back, checked the nest box for availability and was immediately chased away.  As aggressive as the male bluebird is, he’s no match to the House sparrow.  We have to diligently monitor all the nest boxes in the garden for signs of the House Sparrows.  So far we have been successfully hosted Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens, Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse in our nest boxes by monitoring the House Sparrows attempts.

April 16: three beautiful blue eggs

April 22: five eggs

She rarely leaves the nest now

Hopefully most of the eggs she’s caring for now will make it to adulthood.  We’re happy to see more and more of them each year and to know that they are comfortable enough to stay with us year round.

These are the one’s that use the nest boxes.  The one’s that prefer to build their own nests like the American Robins, Chipping Sparrows and Song Sparrows have already picked their spots in the foliage.  I’ll have to check on the Robins next time I have a chance.  Last I checked, they had just finished building their nest.

We are still waiting for the Grey Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to come back.  The wait won’t be much longer because the Cherry trees have started to blossom and the Columbine is starting to bud.

 

 

Earth Day

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With Respect and Gratitude 

The Earth gives us sanctuary and sustains us in all things.  Aside from being a provider, she is also a designer, inventor and teacher among many other things. She is kind but can never be tamed.  That last is quite likely what saves us all from ourselves in the end.

Here’s some of the great beauty she gives us….

Crocus, after hiding below the surface of the earth for most of the year, tells me that spring is finally here

Primrose

Hellebore

Sand cherry blooms much earlier than other cherries in our garden, with a lovely honey fragrance

Columbine catching a rain drop

Thank you, Mother Earth

With Respect and gratitude

Garden And Poetry

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April: The Most Poetic Month

I find April to be a very uplifting and romantic month for me.  Leaves sprout and start to unfurl, seedlings are pushing themselves through the soil to the surface and early flowers are blossoming.   Birds sing loudly to make their territory known and start their courtship.  Some birds have already built their nests.  Aside from these life-affirming activities, the Academy of American Poets also designated April as a Poetry Month beginning in 1996.

Many great writers and poets have taken an interest in nature.  Many of them are favorites of mine such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, John Donne and who could forget Shakespeare and Rumi.  There was even a book on Shakespeare’s Gardens published last year that I immediately ran out and bought.

The Poetry month also reminds me of my mother.  We would go out to the market on the weekend in search of plants invoked in poetry to add to our garden.  I still do now but mostly the most fragrant ones.  What flower is more apt for the Poetry month than the Poet’s Jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum).

Poet’s Jasmine buds just about to unfurl in the evening

Fully open Poet’s Jasmine that perfumes our garden at night but lasts only a couple of hours after sunrise

I grow them in pots because, as tropicals, I can bring them in the basement during winter

And the ode to it by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)*

Twas midnight-through the lattice, wreath’d

With woodbine, many a perfume breath’d

From plants that wake when others sleep,

From timid jasmine buds, that keep

Their odour to themselves all day,

But, when the sun-light dies away,

Let the delicious secret out

To every breeze that roams about.

Walking through a garden, any garden, relaxes me and raises my sense of marvel and my envy of nature.  Nothing can duplicate what one has seen at that moment even just an hour after.  Nature gives us art, poetry, philosophy and most of all is life sustaining. Those who understand these facts will always try their best to preserve nature, but those who don’t will always try their best to destroy nature for profit.

Ruining the environment doesn’t stop at the border and the effort to slow this self-destruction rests on our shoulders, the ones who love nature and see poetry in every path we take through nature.  As Shakespeare put it ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’ (Troilus and Cressida, Act 3 scene 3)**

Have a Happy gardening and reading in the garden.

 

*From Ode to Flowers: A celebration of the poetry of flowers by Samuel Carr, 2013

**From Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennet, 2016

 

Spring Has Sprung

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…With A Cold Shoulder

I took the day off from work yesterday and the weather was on my side.  Still plenty of snow on the ground but the temperature had soared to nearly 60°F.  The honeybees should have been out and about now with a temperature this high, but alas, none to be seen.  So I decided to inspect one hive.  Intrinsically I knew I had to face my fear somehow.  It’s better to know early than not know at all.  I suspected they may have died of starvation since the weather has been inconsistent.  That forces the bees to consume their stored food faster leaving them with nothing inside and nothing for them to forage outside.  But I wasn’t expecting what I saw.  There were no bees in the hive.  None at all.

I ended up opening all the hives.  My worst fear had come true.  There were only a few dead bees in each hive which was otherwise empty.  There were plenty of capped and uncapped honey frames in each hive but no live occupants.

First sadness hit, then depression, then self-doubt….what did I do wrong?  I’ve been taking a mite count throughout the season and it’s been very low.  We provided clean water.  We provided food, with the supporting evidence of plenty left over in each hive. The only thing I did not do was treat them with chemicals.  But I have never treated them from the start.  They were fine and happy for many years, from one generation to the next, living their lives naturally.

I’m still sad and depressed but giving up is not in my nature.  I will clean up the empty hives on my next day off and have them readied for new occupants.  New honeybee packages are coming in next month and I hope we will work well together like their long gone relatives.

But there was a bright part of the day…I finally dug my way to the igloo, my cold frame.  What was left in there were carrots, Mustard greens, a few Pac choi too.  The lettuce I had sown in January had come up, barely reaching half an inch.

The path I had to dig to get to the cold frame

Pulled some fresh carrots from inside the cold frame. Small but tasty.

I pulled weeds out, watered the soil a little and sowed a few more seeds: Mizuna, Mustard greens, Radish, Arugula, Chinese broccoli, and more lettuce.  They should start to sprout in a week and within a couple more weeks I can have my first salad of the season.

Sowed some seeds after pulling carrots and clearing some dead vegetables

Our resident Eastern Bluebirds are also looking for a nest box in our yard and haven’t given up despite harassment from the House sparrow.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds enjoy their meal and keep their eyes on their prospect home

As the Buddhists say, ‘all is impermanence.’  There will be more honeybees.  The garden is still there and this year’s seedlings are all sprouting high in the house and itching to get their feet in the ground outside.  I really can’t complain.

 

Hello Spring

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With Snow On The Ground

We had around two feet of snow last Tuesday and most of it is still on the ground.  The daytime temperatures are hovering between 30 and 40°F which isn’t helping to melt it.  Today is the official first day of spring but outside, you would never know it.  It’s more like ‘Hello spring, where are you?’ to me.  Crocuses, Hellebores and Snowdrops were completely buried under.  My little cold frame looks more like a little igloo in the garden.

It’s not only me that was fooled by nature, the Robins have already made an appearance despite the snow.  The American Goldfinches have started to drop their winter coats.  We try to help them by providing food and water when there isn’t much out there for them besides endless snow.

A male American Goldfinch, amidst snow fall, starting to show their bright yellow plumage, their summer color.

Cold frame is covered with snow. I’ll try to dig my way there to see how it looks inside.

I had sown some lettuce seeds inside the cold frame a couple of weeks ago because I wasn’t expecting to get this much snow around now.  I’ll dig my way in there tomorrow to see how they are doing.

Though it doesn’t look like spring outside, a new cycle of life, a new season, has already begun inside the house.  This is the time I usually start tomato, pepper, eggplant, Swiss chard and kale seedlings.  The first three need to be done around 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost so they can have enough time to grow, bear fruits and ripen.  As for the Swiss chard and kale, they like cold weather anyway so I can put them out in the garden early.

Variety of tomato and pepper seedlings for the new season

Variety of Swiss chard and Kale seedlings

Next, is prepping tropical plants in the basement for their summer outdoors.  Spring should come around the corner and stay within a few weeks.  But who knows? We had snow in April.

 

 

 

Composting

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Right In The Kitchen

People start projects for various reasons.  I know many people raise vermicomposting worms to be used as bait or to sell their casting, a technical term for worm poo, or just to compost.  Why do I raise worms?  Convenience and a little bit of laziness.

We have a large compost bin at the corner of our property where we dump a lot of thing in there: leaves, grass, discarded plants and kitchen scraps.  It works well for us. We fertilize the garden with this compost and use the semi-composted material as mulch in autumn.

From spring to autumn it’s easy to take the kitchen scraps to the compost area after I finish cooking and rake it with leaves and whatever is already in there.  It wouldn’t be pretty and it would draw critters in if I just threw it in. However, I have to bundle up in winter to go out there, making it more of a chore.  It’s even more inconvenience if there is snow on the ground since I have no way to cover it up.  I can’t leave it in the sink and have it become a malodorous fruit fly farm.

So, the worms come to mind.  I set the homemade box right in the kitchen. One additional thing I have to do is add bedding for them once a month. Otherwise it’s a very convenient way to get rid of organic kitchen garbage.

Given the chance, I prefer to construct things myself.  The way a commercial compost bin works seemed easy enough to make and won’t cost me an arm and a leg.  There are also plenty of ‘How to’ websites that I can learn from. So I set out to make one and it worked out well.  Here’s an amateur way to make a compost bin at home:

Materials:

  • Two plastic boxes that are big enough to house the worms for a while.  The box used for the bottom should be slightly bigger if the boxes are not tapered in. I used semi-clear boxes.  Many websites suggest a dark color box to keep the light out.  I put a dark cloth around the outer box instead. I use the semi-clear boxes because I want to be able to see how deep the compost is and how the worms are getting along.

Optional: If one of your boxes is bigger than the other, you will need two pieces of wood or brick that are short enough to fit inside the larger box. These are used as spacers between the top and bottom box.

In the smaller box, drill two rows of holes on all four sides, close to the lid: size .25 inch, and about 2” apart.  These are ventilation holes.  Drill a few of the same size holes at the bottom. These are for drainage. There shouldn’t be any liquid in the bin but just in case.

Drill 1/4 inch holes around the box, near the top

Insert the drilled box inside the other box, if they are tapered boxes you should have a few good inches between them at the bottom.  If it smaller than the outer box, put two pieces of wood or bricks inside at each end of the larger box to provide space between the two boxes.

  • Dry, old newspaper, NOT magazines or anything with a shiny texture or vibrant colors, NOT office paper either as it’s been bleached with heavy chemicals.  Brown cardboard box with no printing on it is also good. Tear or shred the newspaper into small pieces.  Leave some larger pieces to use as top cover.  Wet them then wring out excess water.  Fluff them up then spread in the top box.  This is the worm bedding and should be three to four inches deep.  It also has to be just damp, NOT soaking wet.

    I shredded newspaper and put it in the kitchen sink to be soaked

    Quantity of wet newspaper will reduce down to less than half of its volume when dry so shred more than the quantity you need to put in the bin.

    Wring the water out then fluff them up. The paper has to be damp not wet.

  • A little bit of good old dirt, half a coffee mug should be enough.  Mix the dirt with the damp paper.  This dirt is to add some microbes and grit to help the worms digest and break down food.
  • Kitchen scrapes. If it too wet, I leave it on a paper towel in the sink and let the liquid seep out a little. When I have time, I chop them into small pieces which helps the worms to devour it faster. If not, I just add them in the box.  Cover them with a thin layer of bedding so it won’t attract flies. The worms also prefer to work in the dark.

    I put discarded vegetables, banana peels, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells and spoiled fruit in for their food.

    If I have time or I know that I will cook a lot this week, I chop them up. The smaller bits help the worms to get rid of it faster.  Note: above photo, food is mixed with coffee grounds.

  • Vermicomposting worms; Worms that are used inside the compost bin are the Red Wriggler worm (Eisenia foetida) which tend to stay put in the bin. There are plenty of websites that offer them.  I purchased mine from Uncle Jim‘s. I derive no commission here.  They shipped promptly and their worms are healthy and work well for me.

The worms that are use for composting bin are much smaller than the common garden worms

Feeding: I feed them every time I cook.  If I’ll be away, I add new bedding and more food to last them until I get back.  I don’t chop food so it will take them a little bit longer to digest larger pieces.

Peel away the cover sheet: newspaper sheet or cardboard box

Rake up part of the bedding and old food. A small garden rake comes in handy for that.

Spread the food around

Cover the food with the old bedding. If new bedding needed, this is the time to add it. I add new bedding when I note that 85% of their bedding is gone (yes, they eat the newspaper too)

Put the top layer of newspaper or cardboard back so the bin won’t draw fruit flies and will keep the worms in darkness.

Close the lid and leave them alone until the next feeding.  If balanced correctly, the box should not smell rotten or rancid.  A good functioning box should smell like warm earth.  If the worm bin works as it should, you should be able to harvest the casting within a few months.

Happy composting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Is Coming

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And It Will Not Be a Good One

We came back from our vacation to a sharp drop in temperature.  Our friends told us that while we were gone the temperature had gone up to the 60°F for a couple of days and mostly hovered above 50°F for the rest of that period.  I can see the result of warm temperatures in our garden.  Roses, hydrangeas, tree peonies started to bud.  The silver maple in the front yard has blossomed.  The crocuses and snowdrops are blooming.

Many of over 200 crocuses we put randomly in the lawn last autumn have blossomed.

Many of the over 200 crocuses we put randomly in the lawn last autumn have blossomed.

Flowers open up with out bees to pollinate since the temperature was a little bit too cold for them to come out

We put crocus in as early food for bees but this spring the flowers opened up without the bees to pollinate since the temperature was a little bit too cold for them to come out

Then two days after we came back, the temperature dropped again, combined with a high wind that resulted in a wind chill below 0°F.  Last night the temperature was in a teens and today it is barely above freezing.  It’s de ja vu of last spring.  Plants started budding only to get frost burn.  We didn’t have any hydrangeas last year for this reason and the first round of roses looked awful.

Plenty of Snowdrops pushed themselves through mulch leaves

Plenty of Snowdrops pushed themselves through mulch leaves

Two bulbs of rescued tulip have become a healthy clump

Two bulbs of rescued tulip have become a healthy clump

Young leaves of Anise Hyssop stay close to the ground. Hopefully they won't get frost burn.

Young leaves of Anise Hyssop stay close to the ground. Hopefully they won’t get frost burn.

I don’t even know how the honeybees are.  They’ve been so quiet, no sign of dead bees in front of the hives.  We weren’t here when the temperature soared up to see if they were out cleansing.   They’ve been too quiet for my liking and I have no way of checking on them.  It’s either too cold or too windy to open the hives up for inspection.  To be on the safe side, I have ordered one more package of bees to be delivered in May.

Beehives, all wrapped up, amid snow when we left for vacation. Due to lack of storage, we left empty supers out in the garden, unwrapped.

Beehives, all wrapped up, amid snow when we left for vacation. Due to lack of storage, we left empty supers out in the garden, unwrapped.

Though it will not be a promising spring, I still look forward to it.  It’s time for me to start tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings and prep tropical plants in the basement for a warm and less seesaw temperature outside.  In a little bit over a month the seedlings should be able to set their roots in the garden and tropical plants will enjoy real sunlight.  And, hopefully, the hives will have survived another winter.