When all the flowers are a-bloom, and the bees are up to strength and are working their hardest, that’s the time of the year beekeepers refer to as “honeyflow”.  Right now, we’re well into it. Today I visited my new hive at Gravel Creek, to see how the colonies are coming along. My hopes for them are modest, since they are just starting this year: get a lot of comb built, store enough honey to last through the winter, build up enough bees to thrive and survive.  I don’t really expect much if any honey from the newbies.

superupSMSometimes, though, my expectations are exceeded. The second hive I opened today was literally exploding with bees, and packed to the gills with honey. Wow! So fast! I put a super (honey box) on top, so they can keep up the good work. I went into all 11 of the new hives, and was pleased to discover that 7 of them were in this state. Amazing.

I did notice something odd, though. Look closely at the picture. The hives that are taller are the ones that were doing so well that I had to add extra boxes. They are also, with the exception of one, the hives with north-facing entrances. I don’t know what to make of this. Does a south facing entrance hamper the bees somewhat? I will have to pay attention further. A further point of interest is that in the old apiary, all of the hives have the entrances oriented north.  Maybe I will turn the south facing hives around.

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A gift most people don’t want

I got a call last week, one that happens to beekeepers from time to time: an offer of thousands of stinging insects. “I caught a swarm yesterday,” Jeff said, “But I don’t have a place to keep it, and I don’t want to add more colonies to my apiary.”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll gladly take your bees off your hand. ”  From an economic standpoint, getting a swarm is like someone handing you a $100 bill. But it’s also nice because I am down a hive after a queen loss last month, and this would put me back at full strength.

The next day, Jeff drove over to my place with a makeshift beehive in the back of his truck. It was a wooden box with pieces of wood duct taped to it, and some string holding it together. I could hear the bees tapping away, trying to get out. “It was all I had lying around,” Jeff shrugged.

Jeff_swarmSM“That’s OK,”  I said. “Let’s stop by Lance’s barn on the way to the farm. I have some extra hive parts in there. ” When we arrived, we hopped out of the truck and I opened the barn. Besides my mountain of my have parts, honey supers, queen excluders, syrup feeders, and other oddball beekeeper gear, I also saw a shiny new hive sitting on the other side of the barn. Oh yeah! I forgot! Emily V., a new beekeeper and a student of mine, was keeping her first pair of colonies on the same property. And, sadly, one of hers lost its queen a few weeks back and had to be combined with the other one.

This got me thinking. “You know, Jeff, how about we just give this swarm to Emily?” We both chuckled; beehives get stolen from time to time, but it’s pretty uncommon that someone sneaks into your yard and adds some bees to your collection. We set up her empty hive next to the full one, donned our bee suits, opened the temporary hive, and poured the swarm into its new home. Within minutes, they were settled in and began inspecting their surroundings. That’s Jeff after the install, and one of Lance’s cows looking on.

20140627_standSMIn other news, last friday was the second market of the season. Emily is “officially” running the stand this year, I’m focusing on the house stuff. But I still hang out and help her. I like seeing all the people and chatting with them. We are a little behind this year, with all the craziness of the house remodel, so we don’t have as full a veggie table as we’d like. But we’ve grossed more in sales each week so far than on the same week in other years, so I guess we’re doing better than it feels like.

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Designer insulation?

IMG_3791SMWe’re starting to feel like we may actually get moved in before the fall after all!  This week, our friends Adam and Christina came out and helped us finish installing the insulation on the cottage. We’re trying yet another weird product, this time Ultra Touch recycled cotton insulation. It’s been in the green building news for years, but I’ve only had one client ever actually shell out the extra dough to get it. That was, ironically, Adam and Christina when they remodeled their basement into a recording studio. We were interested in it because it’s environmentally responsible (recycled material), inert (no fiberglass to damage lungs), and highly effective (same R value, and even better acoustical performance than traditional pink stuff). The big reason, though, comes back to health- both when we install it, and when we have to one day work on the building again. That fiberglass stuff is TERRIBLE for you, and I’m convinced that it will bee seen 20 years from now the same way we see asbestos today.

insul labelSMSo, into the house it goes. Once installed, we could immediately feel a difference in how comfortable the house is. Emily noticed something funny as we were standing around admiring it: a Ralph Lauren tag sticking out of one of the batts. I guess even the fanciest blue jeans can make good building materials once shredded!

The next step is the drywall. After much considerations, we’ve decided to hire a professional drywaller, the second contractor of the project. I can do drywall, but I’m not great at it. With Dan doing the work, we’ll get much better quality, but also (and more importantly at this stage) we’ll get it done weeks sooner.

NEWWOODSMTo get ready for his arrival, I’ve been cleaning up the last of the framing details, things like adding corner blocking and the curves at the tops of the doors. We’ve still got some wood left that was taken out during demolition, so I’ve been using that where I can to save on buying new stuff.  Here we see two identical cutouts I made in the door fame, from two different pieces of wood. The one on the left is old wood, from when the place was built in the 80s. The one on the right is from today. Look at the grain difference… there are nearly twice as many rings per inch in the old wood. That’s because managed lumber trees are bred to be fast growing; you get a harvest twice as fast as a “wild” forest. However, the older stuff is much stronger! It’s also a little harder to work; it took twice as long to saw, and it really hard to get a nail into without bending it.

The building inspector is coming tomorrow to do a final check before we cover everything with drywall. Wish me luck!

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Funny looking dog

I was at Gravel Creek the other day checking my bees, and heard this weird snorting/ wheezing sound coming from the woods in the direction of the river. It was barely audible, but after a minute or two, my curiosity got the best of me and I put down the smoker. Throwing back my veil, and walked over to the creek to see what on earth it was.

fawnSMAs I neared the bridge, I saw a deer step out of the woods, and make a loud huffing noise. Weird! Then, a little fawn stepped out next to her. In a flash, the fawn saw me… and started running right at me! I was kindof dumbfounded, staring at the fawn as it trotted down the driveway like a dog, stopping right at my feet. “Hi there, little fella!” I said, holding out my hand as it circled me. I caught this picture as she nudged my hand with her nose.

I think the doe was making all the huffing noises as a sort of “stay away from those, they’re really dangerous” warning. But, like kids do, the fawn was ignoring her. It was awfully cute to see her dancing around like a pet, but I hope she gets it figured out before deer season. My last encounter with a deer running toward me didn’t end so well for the deer.

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We have water

odd_weatherFinally, after months of diddling around, we have a well. Yay! We’ve been waiting for months for the weather to turn favorable (look ma! no rain!), but in actuality it took drama and intrigue to actually brought this to completion. It started when I called up the State Watermaster last week to discuss a technical question on how to construct the well, and he mentioned that he would be retiring on June 2.

RED ALERT!!!! This is a big problem!!! You see, I’ve been working with this fellow for a few years now, trying to sort out what I’m allowed to do to navigate the various issues regarding water usage legalities, local geology and hydrology, and well types and construction methodology. He’s been very useful, friendly, and above all… he knows our case history pretty well by now. Add to this that what we’re doing (a landowner – dug well) is somewhat discouraged by the State, and the idea of having to start over with a new Watermaster is extremely daunting. So, I called up my excavator buddy.

well_digginSM“Dick! Emergency! I need you and your track hoe here RIGHT AWAY! The Watermaster is about to retire!” Well, Dick rose to the occasion, and showed up two days later with his full ruckus in tow… a giant CAT excavator, a dump truck, the works. He started slinging dirt around, and in no time we had a cavernous hole 10 feet deep and twice that across.

Once the hole was there, we popped the well casing in place, leveled it, and filled the pit halfway with coarse gravel. Then, down with a water barrier layer, followed by a lot of backfill. Tadaah, a well!

well_insideSMNow, most of you are probably scratching your head at this point, as this looks nothing like the 100+ foot deep drilled and cased wells you see everywhere else. But the local hydrology of our specific region really favors this odd type of well, and often make drilled wells poor producers in terms of volume and water quality. Our well is 10 feet deep (3 feet to the top of the water) and at 36″ across, holds about 400 gallons of water. Emptying it with a dewatering pump and letting it refill resulted in a 15 gallon-per-minute recharge rate, which is quite good. We still don’t know if the water is tasty, as it’s not yet settled out, but I have high hopes based on results my neighbors have had with similar wells.

The day after we were done, the Watermaster came out to inspect the well and help me fill out the well report. It’s funny; the form is normally filled out by a trained well driller. Instead, since I was the contractor, the Watermaster watched over my shoulder as I did it, telling me what to write in which blank. But he never touched the pen himself; that’s the nature of these sorts of things, and I’m sure he’s prohibited by the rules and liability folks from doing so.

I am still amused/ amazed that exceptions in the law continue to exist that protect the Frontier American attitude. If you are a landowner and have the resourcefulness, perseverance, and creativity (as well as audacity?) to do it yourself, you are still allowed to dig wells, run electrical, install plumbing, even build your own dwelling. All by yourself, completely legally. I love that there is still that much personal sovereignty left in this country.

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Pushin’ up daisies


I went out to help Emily weed and plant beans the other day, and was struck by how scenic the orchard looks right now. It’s not supposed to look like this, mind you. It’s supposed to be well kept, weeded, and mowed. And look at those beehives, almost so buried in the lush green growth that the bees can’t get to the entrance. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the DO say you are supposed to keep the weeds away from the front of your hives, to promote easier access for the bees.

But this all serves to remind me that I need to stop and take a breath every now and then, and appreciate the world when it greets me with beauty.

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Dancing queen

I went to an interesting workshop last weekend on queen breeding. For all you non-beekeeper readers, that’s a subspecialty of beekeeping, where you select and raise queen bees. This is one of the cornerstones of what beekeeping is all about, because it’s how humankind has been breeding specific strains of bees for centuries, much like we’ve  bred dogs for retrieving and cows for better milk production. In the case of bees, we breed to get bees that sting us less, make more honey, survive the winter better, and in the last decade, we’ve been working to breed bees that are resistant to the varroa mite. The process is fairly complicated, involving careful timing, manual dexterity, and a good understanding of bee biology and lifecycle. Few beekeepers do it, leaving it mostly to beekeepers that specialize in the process. For me, it’s the last great frontier of beekeeping knowledge that I’ve not yet explored.


Our county beekeeper club, of which I am the current vice president, has decide as a group that we want to start a regional bee breeding program. The idea is that we’ll work to breed a strain of bees that is better adapted to our wet maritime climate. Pretty ambitious stuff, but we have the support and encouragement of some very knowledgeable people with PhDs in this sort of thing at the OSU Bee Research Lab. Four or five of us are attending to seminars, but everyone else in the group has volunteered to take the queens we raise, field test them, and give us data in return. It’s a multi-year project with a lot of people involved, and it should be very exciting.

graftingSMThe conference itself was not long, but packed with information. They held it at the OSU Bee Research Station, a cool place I’ve mentioned before. In the picture above, one of the lecturers is demonstrating a tiny (and particularly cute) miniature beehive used for queen mating. In the background is the funny part, though. We were told to bring our protective gear to the seminar, but the first half of the day was classroom stuff so we all left our veils in our cars to begin with.  Right after lunch, though, the seminar sort of spontaneously restarted as we were all standing around yakking. The main speaker brought over a hive of bees, popped it open, and pulled out a frame of comb as he was talking, bees zinging around everywhere. These beekeeper gatherings are hilarious, because if you did that in a crowd of 30 normal people, you’d have screams of terror and people running around like their hair was on fire. Here, nope. I’ll be honest, I dislike getting stung, and normally wear a lot of protective gear.  A few people (like me) looked around kindof nervously, but everyone else was like, “ho, hum” and taking notes. The speaker chuckled, and then let the newer half of us in on the joke… the hive he was working had been set up two days before as a breeding hive, which means that they pulled frames of “house bees” (bees less than 2 weeks old) and brood, and separated them into this smaller breeder hive. House bees have not-yet-fully-developed venom sacs, and are also instinctively disinclined to sting. Or even fly much, for that matter. But I’ll be honest: a few minutes later when I found myself holding a frame of brood in one hand and a grafting tool in the other, bent over this open hive, bees crawling on my arms and neck, I was sweating.

In all, a great seminar, and I’m excited to start raising my own queens. But it will have to wait until next spring; my new hives are all too young for this , and I’m also far too busy with the house that we’re still not living in yet. But it was cool to get the knowledge, and now I have time to get prepared to jump into queen rearing in 2015.

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A chipper off the old block

chipperSMThis week we got to try out two of our new tractor implements. The big excitement was the chipper/shredder. I’ve never had (or used) one of those before, but the brush pile at Ryan’s house was the perfect chance to try it out. We had a bit of a rocky start, until we learned about this particular tractor’s idiosyncrasy… when you run certain implements, you have to be sure the tractor isn’t in reverse, or it will actually run the PTO in reverse. That’s a problem with a chipper, as the blades face a specfiic direction, and when it’s spinning backwards, it rejects anything you try to put in it.

A call to the tech guys fixed that, though, and the next day we were actually chipping stuff.   We ate through half of Ryan’s brush pile in about an hour, and learned a lot. The biggest lesson: THIS IS BY FAR THE SCARIEST AND MOST DANGEROUS TOOL WE OWN.    The chipper part on the side is disturbing… you give it a 3″ diameter log, and it gnaws away at it, rapidly turning something the size of your arm into a little pile of wood chips. But the top hopper is even truly terrifying. When you stick a tree limb it in, it disappears so fast you can’t see it happen, and blasts out the bottom like pencil shavings. We learned that you have to “throw” the branches in, otherwise it rips them out of your grasp, twigs whacking you on the back of the hand as it passes. As Ryan said, “Who’d have thought that the log chipper on the side was the SAFE part?”

That said, it does a marvelous job at what it does. We just have to remember to use it with extreme caution, never alone, and only when well rested and not in a hurry. Yikes.

tillerSMWe also used the tiller for the first time this week. Until now, we’ve been using the rotary plow, mostly on other people’s gardens. In part because it digs deeper, but also because the tiller was missing the quick-connect coupling, and we were waiting for the tractor guys to ship us the replacement. It arrived last week, just about the time Emily was stressing out because we were behind on the beds and it was taking forever to do them with the broadfork. Enter: gasoline-powered solution! We took turns making quick work of our remaining digging. Here you see me tilling some beds. Wow, I didn’t realize I’d gotten that bald. I look like my grandpa Wildy more and more every year.

We’ve now used three of the four implements for our walking tractor. Maybe next week I’ll get to try the flail mower?

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Ladies and geisterbees

LadyFarmSMOne of the things that I like about our farm is that it has a social aspect. Growing vegetables is (or, rather, can be) a relaxing, pensive pursuit. It’s nice to be out in the countryside, looking at the green mountains, smelling the fresh air, chatting with your buddies while you have your hands in the earth. We have several friends that like to come out to help, just for the chance to do this therapeutically. And we appreciate the help; there are a lot of green things to go in the ground right now, and summer seems to be here for real. It’s been sunny and in the 80s here all week (a heat wave!).

geisterbeesSMIn other news, I tried a new method to sample varroa mite infestation in my bees. It’s supposedly more accurate than the “24-hor drop” method, where you count dead mites stuck onto a special sampling board in the bottom of the hive. The new “powdered sugar roll” works like this: you scoop up 100ml of bees (about 300) into a special jar, coat them with a tablespoon of powdered sugar, then roll them around in it for a minute or two. The sugar dislodges any mites, then you count them in the bottom of a basin, getting a really accurate mite-to-bee ratio. This is better becuase it automatically accommodates hives with widely varying populations of bees, unlike the 24-hour drop method. And you get a very funny side effect: ghost bees! But not to worry, their friends clean them off and eat the sugar. As you might imagine, the bees hate it and it gets them well pissed off. But it’s better for them than the earlier “alcohol roll” method, which is very similar to the powdered sugar roll except you roll them in alcohol, killing the bees as a side effect.

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Triple play!

Duct tape has many uses… but I've never used it for THAT before!

Duct tape has many uses… but I’ve never used it for THAT before!

Today I had three major milestones happen: the cottage passed plumbing inspection, mechanical inspection, and electrical inspection. The last one was the most stressful, in part because the electrical end of things is far more complicated, and also the electrical code is three times as thick as the mechanical and plumbing codes put together. Meaning, that I don’t know all there is to know about it, and there are bound to be some goofs.  Keep in mind, that’s much of why I’m doing this: architects are supposed to know all the building codes pretty well, which is quite a challenge.

The electrical inspection is actually a RE- inspection as a result; I failed the first time. The inspector was fairly lenient on me, since it’s an owner-build project, but the items he marked on his noncompliance form were:

  • No more than four conductors in a 22 cubic inch wall box. Duh, I should have known that. It was an easy fix.
  • Kitchens have to have two separate circuits in them, and bathroom circuits can’t serve other parts of the house. Didn’t know that, but then again, I’m mostly a commercial architect and that never comes up in commercial jobs.
  • You have to have an outdoor plug on the front AND the back of the house. That one was annoying to fix, as I had to tear off some siding on the back of the house.
  • No more than four conductors per structural hole. That one makes no sense to me at all, but he showed me a silly fix that meets the requirements of the code. For a 3″ hole with 8 wires in it, you separate them into two groups of 4, and drive a wooden shim between them… thus, two separate holes. The holes are  not round, they are semicircular, but the code is not specific about that. Huh.
  • The conductors between solar panels and switchgear have to be in metal conduit. This one gave me a heart attack, as that’s a very expensive wire to tear out, and HOW THE HECK AM I GOING TO GET A PIECE OF STEEL CONDUIT THROUGH ALL THOSE JOISTS?  Turns out, you can do it in flexible metal conduit- it looks like a big aluminum esophagus. Took a day to tear out and reinstall, but only cost me about $150.

So, mission accomplished: I learned some stuff!

Now we are at the point where we can legally put in insulation. Yay! However, there remains one little problem… the roof. I still haven’t received the ridge caps, and installing insulation with an incomplete roof is taking a gamble. Despite months of me badgering the roof manufacturer and them being lame and making up excuses, they still have not sent my stuff. I am at a loss for the best way to take this to the next level. Though, I did discover this morning that they have a facebook page. And it even has the gall to show MY roof, in its incomplete glory! ChickenBrian said I should start getting friends to comment on the page about how they’d like to see a completed picture of the roof. Nice idea! Please feel free to do so, you’d be doing me a real one. Maybe in the next post, I will recount the entire sordid tale of the roof and its related fiascos. It has been, by far, the single most problematic part of this entire construction project.

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