Category Archives: Beekeeping

Adventures of a townie homesteader

Our second colony of bees arrived today via the good ol’ U.S. Postal Service. I had to cover an arraignment this morning in Illinois and thus missed the fun when Ron installed the girls in their new hive, but he reports that they seem to be as saucy little wenches like every other Buckfast colony we’ve ever owned. I’m pleased. I like Buckfasts. They have attitude problems, but they tend to be healthy and incredibly productive. I’m willing to endure the occasional sting from an overzealous guard in exchange for good harvests and healthy bees.

Meanwhile, we’re down to eight quail. Three died a couple of weeks ago of mysterious leg issues that I suspect had something to do with sloppy breeding, and I had to cull a fourth today when I came home for lunch. Little snot beat up one of his broodmates last night, so I switched him to a different brooder and mixed up the flock a bit to shuffle the pecking order. This just gave the bully a new crop of victims, and by the time I got home this afternoon, the little turd had bloodied another bird, so I spent part of my lunch hour teaching myself to dress quail.

It wasn’t terribly difficult or messy, and as I told my mom: I’d rather dress out a clean, healthy bird I raised myself than handle factory-farmed poultry from the grocery store, with all the risk of food poisoning that entails.

In related news, I gave the quail tractor a shot of lacquer and plan to spend tomorrow morning clipping some little birds’ flight feathers so they can go live outside. (Just the thought of that makes me deliriously happy. These little guys are cute, but I’m tired of dealing with litter and the itty-bitty waterers that go in the brooders and have to be refilled umpteen times a day.)




Eco-Saturday: Planting day (and a tomato tip)

Today’s Eco-Saturday entry is mostly excited chatter, with one good tip at the end for drought-proofing tomatoes.

First, the excitement: It’s Planting Day!

Mini-bed at the center of the yard. Indian blanket, strawberries, some direct-seeded arugula and an assortment of herbs.

This year, we had another bit of excitement to go with the usual joy of getting the garden into the ground:


We spent the morning picking up a nuc hive from an ol’ boy down at Dexter. I’ll explain about nucs in a future post. Right now, I want to talk about the bees’ move-in day.

When honeybees feel at home in a new hive, they signal that to each other by sticking their butts in the air and doing a little dance.

Before I could finish transferring the frames from the nuc box to the girls’ new hive, they’d started doing the “yay, we’re home!” dance. If Miley Cyrus hadn’t clearly demonstrated why white girls shouldn’t twerk, I might have been tempted to join them, because with their arrival, I finally felt completely at home in my house, too.

More excitement: We left the lid off during a rainstorm to give it a good soaking, so the compost bin has finally heated up. I think it’s a little nitrogen-heavy — it smelled like ammonia when I opened it today — but that should change as the quail litter, which is mostly carbon, starts to break down.

The next couple of pictures are herbs I planted near the pond.

Gratuitous mermaid shot, with lemon balm planted at left. Not shown, because they were busy hiding: Eight little goldfish.
Chocolate mint (left) and lavender (right).

They don’t look like much yet, but here are a couple of our tomato plants:

When the soil hits 80 degrees, they’ll grow like kudzu.

If you want your tomatoes to be virtually drought-proof, here is the secret:


Dig until you hit hardpan, then keep digging until you’ve gone all the way through it. Fill up the hole with compost and plant your tomato seedling in it. This allows the roots of the plant to go deep enough to reach moisture, even during a drought.

You can grow decent tomatoes without this step, but if you’ve got time to do it, you’ll love the results. I had the best-looking plants and biggest tomato crops of my life when I used this method in Belleville, and my dad, who taught me this trick, used it to grow 24-foot vines with spectacular yields the year I was born. I think I’ve got a picture of that garden around here somewhere. If I can find it, I’ll post it. It’s glorious.

Hope your Saturday was as awesome as mine.


P.S.: I know I still owe you Vegan Friday. I got sidetracked last night and didn’t get it posted, but it’ll be worth the wait, I promise.


P.P.S.: Edited to correct a detail about the bees’ weird little dance.

The simple pleasure of a spring weekend

Contented collie.

Today was just about as close to perfect as it gets.

We met up with my friend Sam in Chaffee this morning, got a tour of the gorgeous Queen Anne house she’s restoring, and followed her out to her dad’s farm to pick up compost starter. It’s been a long time since I scooped horse manure out of a barn. I should do that more often; it’s good for the soul.

After we got back from Chaffee, we went and had lunch (I had a very passable chicken-fried steak at the Sands Pancake House on 61 here in Cape) and then got to work. We layered the manure with dry leaves in the compost bin, cleaned out the pond, landscaped the area where we plan to put the beehives, measured the garden, bought fencing materials to keep the dogs out of the plants, and picked up equipment and feed for the quail chicks I’m getting later this week.

I cannot begin to explain how good all that felt. Last year was wonderful, but I really missed the amenities we had in Tulsa — bees, chooks, pond and garden. I’d still like five minutes with whatever idiot thought it was a good idea to ban backyard chickens, but if I can’t have chooks, quail should make a fairly acceptable substitute.

A few visual highlights:

Mulch cloth, edging and three bags of cypress mulch should keep the weeds down around the beehives, which we’re setting up next month.
As we start Year 2 in the Darwin Garden, we have at least two survivors: this strawberry plant …
… and these chives. I love the dependability of chives.
Riggy guards the compost bin, which is now full of horse manure and dry leaves — the perfect balance of browns and greens.
Best friends enjoying a pretty afternoon in the backyard.
Ron helped refill the pond after I bailed the murky water out of it. We have established that it holds approximately 50 gallons.

I also found time this weekend to make yogurt, get a massage and a haircut, put together a couple of Eco-Saturday posts, check out Cape Comic Con, and make a batch of laundry detergent.

I’m tired and dirty and sore and happy, which is as it should be.

Hope your Sunday was good, wherever you are.


Carnies and Buckfasts and Italians — oh, my!

It’s 22 degrees outside, and snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but I’m not paying any attention to winter’s tantrums at all, because my mind is already assembling frames and dumping boxes of bees into hives.

One summer without bees was about as much as I can handle, so I’m really amped about the fact that Ron has placed an order for some more of those ornery Buckfasts from Texas and made an appointment to pick up a nuc of Carniolan-Italian hybrids from an ol’ boy over in Stoddard County in April.

I can be content without many things, but an apiary is not one of them. It’s been way too long since I suited up and popped open a hive. I expect this will be the sweetest spring ever.


Kitsch collection

Ron and I went up to his parents’ farm in central Illinois for a family reunion last month. We picked up Route 66 at St. Louis and took it up to Litchfield. Best find: An antique store in an old school building near Livingston has amassed an impressive collection of oversized fiberglass kitsch.


I’m not sure when these pink elephants became a thing, but we’ve been seeing them for about 15 years. They’re not quite as common as Muffler Men, but we’ve seen quite a few of them sprinkled across the country.
Love the uber-Deco lettering on the old gym. Notice the glass blocks, curved front and brick speed lines. *Swoon*
Beach Guy here isn’t a Muffler Man, but he’s obviously meant to resemble one. Looks like a latter-day variant.
Here’s a Muffler Man. This one is a Bunyan-type.
The Twistee Treat stand was operating the day we visited. It was cold out, and I was on a diet, but of course I got ice cream anyway. It wasn’t really worth the calories, but mimetic architecture must be rewarded at all costs.
This might be my favorite part of the whole complex.

There’s one more image after the jump. It’s cute, but I put it below the fold so it wouldn’t freak out my friend Marilyn, who is scared of stinging insects.

Continue reading Kitsch collection

At last.

I was too busy wandering around in a folk-royalty-induced fog yesterday to report this, but the fence guys finished enclosing our backyard yesterday, and my dogs are now contentedly wandering around out there, barking at imaginary varmints and stretching their legs more than they’ve been able to do since we moved.

The fence — a six-foot-high wooden job that should discourage busybodies from getting too inquisitive about my garden and its inhabitants — enables us to finish settling in like we mean it.

Without a fence, I was afraid to put in a pond or an in-ground dog waste composter, lest an errant child wander into the yard and fall into one or both. Without a fence, I was afraid to put in a beehive, lest an apiphobic neighbor complain to the city and inspire a flurry of anti-honeybee legislation at City Hall. Without a fence, I was afraid to adopt any chickens, as I am not entirely sure they are legal inside city limits.

With a fence, I can have all the bees and chooks and goldfish and rabbits and composters and other Have-More-Plan luxuries I can cram onto this small but remarkably fertile property of ours.

Self-sufficiency commencing in 3 … 2 … 1….


Back to basics (and feeling awesome)

We closed on the House of the Lifted Lorax on Monday (congratulations to new owner Josh, who is way amped about the solar panels and the woodstove, and whose young niece is way amped about the Lorax mural on the side of the garage), which means we have just enough money in the bank to pay off our moving expenses and put a privacy fence around the backyard.

You can’t fully appreciate the value of a good fence until you’ve spent six months putting out a pair of hyperactive dogs on short cables umpteen times a day. Yeesh.

In addition to affording us the convenience of opening the back door and letting Song and Riggy take themselves out, this fence will free us up to establish a new beehive, adopt some chooks, install a pond, start a compost pile, and — if I’m feeling really ambitious — maybe set up a small warren of rabbits without interference from curious neighbors of either the two- or four-footed variety.

I put in an experimental, totally halfassed garden this spring and learned enough about my new yard to feel pretty confident taking my usual “Darwin Garden” approach: Coddle the tomatoes and leave everything else to natural selection. So far, I’ve determined that California poppies won’t do a damn thing; cucumbers, strawberries, arugula and most herbs will thrive with absolutely no attention; green beans should do well with minimal attention; and tomatoes should perform fairly well if we choose a variety that’s tolerant of partial shade and try to protect it from the local wildlife.

After meeting the new owner of the old house Monday and giving him some pointers on living the eco-hippie life to its fullest, I’m in full-on DIY mode, so this afternoon, I mixed up a batch of homemade laundry detergent and am currently trolling for dishwasher detergent recipes, since I’ve got plenty of washing soda and borax left over.

Also on the to-do list for this afternoon: Get a new set of shelves for the basement, join a gym, stock up on soup and chili ingredients, find the source of the smell coming from the kitchen drain, and work on the coupon books I’m making the kids for Christmas.

Life is good.


Spring planting

A little belated this year, partly because of the move and partly because the weather has been unpredictable, but I finally got my garden in the ground yesterday.

Our new backyard has an old fire pit that’s about four or five feet wide, fashioned from cinderblocks and filled with charcoal and ash. I hadn’t originally planned to do a lot with it, but while I was unpacking a box a couple of weeks ago, I found some arugula and California poppy seeds I’d bought last summer at a nursery in San Francisco, so I planted them back there just for giggles.

Then a big Cherokee Purple tomato plant caught my eye at Lowe’s the other night, so I bought it and a tomato cage and stuck it in the center of the fire pit. While I was planting it, I noticed that the openings in the cinderblocks had a lot of weeds growing in them. If weeds will grow, garden plants will grow, so I went back to the store and bought a couple of bags of potting soil and a bunch of seeds. There were enough cinderblocks to accommodate asparagus beans, basil, chives, cilantro, dill, parsley, two varieties of cucumber, watermelon, tabasco pepper, sage, and strawberries. We’ll see how they do.

I’m thinking of renting a tiller and turning the entire front yard — which isn’t very big — into a cottage garden full of wildflowers and pretty herbs. I’d also like to plant hostas in the little narrow, shady areas on either side of the house.

Once we fence the yard, I’ll add a water feature to attract amphibians. (I realize I’m a mile away from the most awesome water feature in North America, but if there are Fowler’s toads breeding in the Mississippi, they aren’t singing loudly enough to be heard over here in my neighborhood.) I also need to rustle up some wisteria somewhere. It’s too late in the season to set up a beehive — which I won’t do until the yard is fenced anyway — but I’m going to start at least two next spring, and I’ve just about decided that a wisteria arbor would be a perfect way to provide shade and a visual screen for a modest apiary.

Speaking of pollinators, I was pleased to discover bumblebees living somewhere near the east side of the house. I’m not sure precisely where their nest is, but I’ve seen several of them flying around rather purposefully in that area, so I’m sure they live close by. They’re ridiculously cute.

daydreaming about bees and hoping my girls are happy with their new keeper in Owasso

Hive inspection

The weather was warm today, so we popped open the hives and gave them a quick visual inspection. Do I have to tell you how good it felt to suit up and see my girls? The first hive inspection is one of my favorite signs of spring.

After we looked over the hives, we took the dogs to the park. Riggy, who just had his stitches removed yesterday, is getting along fine without his eyes. He doesn’t run full-tilt around the park any more, of course, and he bumped into a bench a couple of times before he figured out it was there, but he did pretty well and seemed to have a good time bouncing around and playing with two other little dogs. It occurred to me that it’s probably easier for Riggy to avoid the obstacles at the dog park, because the dogs out there mark everything all the time. That’s got to make it easier for him to navigate by scent. (Hopefully I am the only one who thought of this. I sympathize with Riggy’s plight, but I don’t need him peeing on my furniture to make it easier to find his way around….)

In other pet news, Walter just discovered that Songdog’s wagging tail makes an excellent cat toy. Song tolerated this indignity until Walter decided to bite his tail. I expect this will become a regular part of Walter’s dog-tormenting repertoire. Song deserves it. He wouldn’t have to live with a cat if he hadn’t decided to kill one of Walter’s littermates four years ago, so this is a problem entirely of his own making.


Scenes from a winter garden

I wandered out to the garden yesterday to see what was going on out there. Here is what I found:


The girls were taking advantage of the unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon to do a little housekeeping. All three hives were active, although the one closest to the house wasn’t quite as lively as the other two. In front of the hives, the henbit and purple deadnettle were thriving.


The Italian flatleaf parsley that refused to grow all summer apparently has decided to come up in the middle of winter. I’m not even going to try to figure out what’s up with that. (I am, however, going to take advantage of this situation to make tabouli in the near future.)


Strawberry plant, apparently impervious to the recent cold snap, appears to be thriving. It’s never produced berries, but it’s survived so many indignities that I just don’t have the heart to get rid of it. Maybe I’ll transplant it into the actual garden and treat it to a nice blanket of straw mulch and some compost one of these days.