Clutches, concrete, and a little time off

grillo_clutch_SMIt’s been a busy week. On Monday, I finally replaced the bearing in the transmission of the walking tractor. It’s been waiting since a few weeks ago when Emily was using it to help a friend grind up cover crop and till it in for planting. After a day of hard work, the machine was in a bad way… the clutch wouldn’t take it out of gear, meaning that to stop it, you either had to kill the engine or “drop” it out of gear. Bad.  The good news is that this is NOT normal; these machines have super robust mechanisms.  Turns out, after some troubleshooting on the phone with the nice folks that sold it to us, we determined that it probably had a bad bearing in the clutch housing. These bearings are a standard machine part that is made by a separate manufacturer than the tractor maker (Grillo), so occasionally one turns up that has a manufacturing defect. They normally last 10-20 years under hard use. Ours lasted just one year, so we got a new one for free. They also talked me through the replacement sequence over the phone, which was surprisingly easy, nothing like changing a clutch on a car. Took about an hour, all by myself.

We also did some communal work, with our ongoing Work Party. Today about a dozen of us helped our friends Trav and Emily on their farm, tearing out invasive blackberries from a greenhouse they are rehabbing, and helping build a pump house. Here we see Emily, demonstrating some hard-won concrete skills she learned in Peace Corps. Yep, she can work a mean batch of concrete, with the most rudimentary tools, anywhere in the world. I think the contractors that were helping us were pretty impressed. When we were done, we got a tasty meal out of the deal (tradition!), in this case some local ham. And when I say Ham, I am talking about both the food, and they guy slicing it. That’s Trav, chef extroardinaire, and host of the internet cooking show The Mason Jar Suite. Check it out! I have such interesting friends…

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We rounded out the week by taking a little trip. We have always loved backpacking, and this year we committed to do a multi-day hike at least once a quarter. This time, it was into the Three Sisters Wilderness. It’s nice that Oregon has so many fantastic outdoor resources available; with about 5 hours of driving, we were able to take a hike that placed us more than a mile above sea level, amongst glaciers. We camped in the high pass between Middle and South Sister, above a clear lake that made for some beautiful (but chilly) skinnydipping. Here we see Emily near one of the glaciers, and another picture of a glacier that is almost gone, a victim of global climate change.

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Bees are busy, and so am I

It’s mid june, and the blackberries are in full bloom weeks ahead of schedule- as might be expected with the way this strange, early year is turning out. I had 7 or 8 swarm calls before May even started (!) and the major honeyflow of the year is already on. Normally, this would be nothing but good news. However, this year many of my colonies are new, and are not yet up to full strength- meaning that when the blooms have past and we’re in the dry part of the summer, THEN there will be of extra bees sitting around, doing not much except eating up what honey their elders were able to pack away the weeks before. Sigh.

However, not all is lost, and some of my new hives did build so rapidly that they are matching the established ones from last year. Here we see the pretty awesome sight of a strong hive in full force, working hard to bring it all home. Hit play and watch them work.

They bees aren’t the only ones working. I’ve been busy rearranging my apiraries to make managing the bees easier, and organize the hives for the Cozy Bee Project. One the left, you can see what the Foley Creek apiary looked like before. Cute and romantic, but a HUGE PAIN to maintain… things to trip over, hives at odd heights, weeds to trim. The weeds are actually the worst part, because trimming them back really annoys the bees, and I got stung a lot more often last year doing yard maintenance than actually working in hives.

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By comparison, the setup on the right is my new standardized apiary. The hives stands are at an anthropomorphic height (beekeeping requires lifting 40+ pound hive boxes), with weedblock and mulch beneath to keep the weeds at bay. Did you know that when bees die of old age, it’s from their wings finally getting too frayed? If there are weeds around the entrance to their hive, it actually reduces their lifespan from wear and tear. The compact arrangement means that it’s easier to fence against cows and bears. The ground is level so I don’t trip, which I must tell you, is an awful experience when carrying a hive body filled with 30,000 bees.  And the hives are oriented at different angles and spaced so that they are easy for the bees to identify, to make sure they come back to the right home.

madness_SMThat done, the next task was setting up my electronic hive monitoring equipment. This involves getting my “mad scientist” on. Here we see my work station, while soldering new connections on a cellphone power supply I pulled apart to bridge between the solar controller (12V) and the Raspberry Pi computer (4.5V).  The controller is also wired to a sealed battery from a scooter, with enough amp-hours that I should be able to run the hive telemetry for over a week in total darkness.

BeecertainBase_SMThe solar controller also connects to the 60W solar panel. 60W is overkill; it should recharge the battery in one afternoon of good sun with no problem. I actually ordered 40W panels from my friends at wholsesalesolar.com, the same folks who supplied the gear for our off-grid house, but they had a distribution problem with the 40w panels so they upgraded me for free. Nice. Here we see the final installation of one of the BeeCertain hive data monitors, complete with off grid solar power. I now need to finish the second one, and get the sensors in the hives. Then we can start tracking data!

 

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Deer Abby

I was sitting at the computer working this morning, and Emily was in the kitchen fixing breakfast. Suddenly, she cried “Aye aye Aieeeee” and started flailing her arms wildly. I thought she might have been stung by a straggling bee; we’ve had a few of them turn up in the house in the last few days. But no, she was looking out the window, pointing into the garden below.

We went out on the porch to see three deer standing in the new garden, checking out the tender sprouts. I guess we can’t put off the deer fence any longer! Luckily, the only thing visible yet is the onions, and deer aren’t so keen on those. I shouted and threw a piece of firewood at them.

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This had absolutely no effect, nor did the next throws. In fact, it made the deer come closer, sniffing at the firewood to see if it was some sort of treat. “I hope they get that figured out before hunting season” Emily said as she pulled on her boots. Shooing them off manually was no easy task either. She stomped off towards them, arms waving and shouting, and she was nearly upon them before the first one decided to leave. And, as soon as she turned around, I could see one of them peeking over the edge of the hill to see if maybe it was OK to come back.

So, I guess the deer fence needs to get moved up the priority list.

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Now I can Bee Certain?

One of the critical elements of the Cozy Bee Project’s research is the ability to track temperature and humidity within my hives. When I’d originally envisioned the project, I was imagining using small data loggers, like are used in warehouses and for building performance analysis. They are about the size of a thumb drive (and will therefore fit inside a beehive), and are self-contained units that record temperature and humidity data at prescribed intervals, storing the data internally until you download it into your computer through the USB port.

However, it was my great fortune to meet Bob from Bee Certain very early in my fundraising. He designs and sells hive monitors that do exactly what I want, but better! Not only do his monitors sense temperature and humidity, but they also transmit it wirelessly to a central base station. To download the data, you simply log into the base station  via WiFi from your computer and it all happens wirelessly- it’s instant, with no honey/ wax/ bee goop on your laptop. When I found out that his system was only about 3% more expensive than what I had budgeted for manual data loggers, I switched immediately.

BeeCertain_SMBut wait, that’s not even the best part. Turns out that the Bee Certain system of hive monitors is a really new product… so new, that I’m the beta tester. This is great, because Bob is working with me to design the software to meet my performance and functional requirements. It’s like having a staff computer coder and electronics engineer. We’ve made several enhancements to the web interface and data rendering, as well as some changes to the actual hardware design, since the first demo units he shipped me several weeks ago. On Monday, he delivered the “final” product:

  • 20 in-hive sensors. They are the doodads with the red conformal coating. They have little antennas that broadcast the temperature and humidity telemetry at 10-minute intervals.
  •  3 environmental sensors, for collecting ambient weather data outside of the hives. They are the white tubes, and also broadcast every 10 minutes.
  • 2 system monitors. Each is a fully functioning miniature PC running linux and hosting an apache web server, built on the Raspberry Pi platform, as well as a WiFi hot spot. All the data is stored on the server and then downloaded to my laptop whenever I feel like getting it.

I can’t want to get this installed. We will be refining the hardware and software more as the research wears on, and it’s becoming a neat side project. Much like the space program gave us nifty stuff like Velcro, Teflon, and Tang, the Cozy Bee Project will hopefully spin off a really awesome Bee Certain hive monitoring system.

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Mobile Shed

As most of our friends already know, we’ve decided to take the year off from the farmers’ market this season, to focus on getting our growing operations moved over from the old farm property we were renting on Foley Creek to the new property we bought on Gravel Creek.  To that end, we’ve been working evenings this week taking down fence, pulling up posts, loading gardening tools, and hauling bags of soil amendments. Yesterday, however, was the climax of the activity… the toolshed.

When I built our toolshed almost three years ago, it was built with the idea that one day we might want to move it. Now, that day has come. After emptying it of its contents (which are now filling the back of my pickup),  I set to work getting it off of its concrete block foundation. Even empty, the shed was far too heavy for me to lift, so using fenceposts as levers and a bottle jack from the truck, I jacked it up, pulled out the blocks, and set it on the ground. Next step: bolt each end of a chain to the wooden base at two corners. That done, I hooked another chain from the center of the first chain to another attached to the frame of my pickup, shifted into 4-low, and then… drug the shed a hundred feet to the road! You see, when I first built it, I made the bottom of the shed out of  pair of 4×8 wooden beams, and I curved the ends like giant skis in anticipation of this day. I am pleased to announce, it worked… with only a few hang-ups, like getting it stuck in a big blackberry bush.

egyptiansOnce on the gravel road, we were half done. Enter: farm buddies! Jared and Jim from Nehalem River Ranch have a diesel dualie truck and a giant tilt trailer, and were willing to help out.  They backed it up near the shed, then we switched to Egyptian technology, setting fence posts on their side to use as rollers to get the shed onto the trailer. There was a lot of grunting and heaving (Emily helped too) and in no time we were on the trailer and ready to roll.

At this point, I started worrying about a story my dad told me about something he saw in the 70s. We were stationed at Kincheloe AFB in upper Michigan at the time, and there is a lot of ice fishing that goes on in that part of the world. I am not super knowledgeable about such things, but I do know that an “ice shanty” is a critical part of the process… it’s a small wooden shed on skids, much like mine, but with no floor. From what I gather of stories told during my childhood, ice fishing consists of sitting in this shed all day, hiding from the brutal winds and snow, drinking beer and staring at a hole in the ice. Anyway, one day my dad was driving down the highway (to go ice fishing? Who knows!) and saw a car going the other way pulling a trailer with an ice shanty on it. At that moment, a gust of wind came up and lifted the ice shanty off the trailer, sending it high into the air much like the early scenes of The Wizard of Oz. I imagine the landing was far less successful than Dorothy’s.

mobile_shed_SMAs it turns out, I need not have worried. Jim and Jared were both liberal with the tie-downs and conservative with the driving, and we arrived safely at our new farm with shed intact. Then it was a simple matter of reconnecting the 4×4 to the chains on the shed, and dragging it off the back of the trailer into its new resting place. We toasted with some tasty limoncello I made for my birthday, and called it a day.

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the NewBeez of 2015 are here

Since it looked like I was going to reach my funding goal for the Cozy Bee Project, I took a chance and pre-ordered 10 packages of bees to replenish the ones lost to the bear last year. Yesterday, two days before the end of fundraising, they arrived! I put them in the hives, and there was a lot of buzzing and chaos. The weather was perfect: it almost got up to 80 and was sunny. By the end of the day, the beez were pretty calm and inside their houses resting, so it all looks pretty good. For now, I’m keeping the buzzers in the yard until I get the new apiary set up at Nehalem River Ranch (other farmer friends of ours). These bees are going there some time next week (Emily will NOT be pleased if they are still in her garden when she returns from her trip!) .

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The old bees at Foley Creek, the original and strongest apiary, are going to move to somewhere else on Farmer Ned’s property at some point too, but I am not yet sure when, as we’re moving them out of the orchard to make both beekeeping and orcharding easier. My friend Ryan saw a bear track last fall near those hives, so that one is going to get an electric fence before the end of summer, but not the full-on deal that Gravel Creek is getting, since THAT bear knows about hives and will be harder to discourage.

At Gravel Creek (our new farm), I need to build the new bear exclosure, but that’s the lowest priority, after the other two apiaries are set up and running smoothly. I have 16 colonies right now, 8 per apiary, and that was the base setup for the experiment. Since I got extra funding (thanks to all who participated!) I will have to build some more hives, and it looks like some of my colonies from last year are big enough to split this month, so I may yet be able to fill the new hives when that happens.

But today it has turned to rainy and windy and cold, so I am hiding inside next to the cozy fire. I can check on my bees, though, from here. A computer programmer/ electrical engineer from the other side of the mountain heard about my project, and sent me some of his gear to test. He invented a gizmo that has sensors in every hive, and sends temperature and humidity data wirelessly to a central Raspberry Pi computer that can be accessed by WiFi. It’s pretty awesome, and actually costs the same as the “hard way” I was planning on doing it with individual USB data loggers. It’s excellent. The best part is that he’s beta testing all this, so not only is he giving me a good deal, but he’s modifying the operating system and adding functionalities as I suggest them. It’s all the fun of R&D without any (most?) of the work.  Who knows, maybe I will set it up some day so YOU can see how my bees are doing, on this website?

There will be more updates on this as the spring moves on I try to get it all working properly to start the Experiment.

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River bank stabilization

riverbank_smA few days ago, the workers from the Tillamook Estuary Partnership came out again, this time to plant riverbank stabilizing seedlings along our creek. These are a low-growing variety of willow, and they planted a thousand of them in one day. I was incredulous when they told me the number, so they showed me their technique: the willows are brought in as whips cut from their nursery stock, clipped into 24″ wands, and then simply jammed into the ground. So long as they are live and have at least two vegetative nodes above the groundline, they will root and grow. Supposedly by the end of the summer, they will have leaves and be solidly rooted, but by NEXT summer, they will have really flourished and it should look like a robust native planting.  We’re pretty excited to have this kind of work going on at our property.

gooseegg_SMIn other news, Emily got a GIANT egg as a present from our friends at Nehalem River Ranch. I keep some bees at their property, and they handed this egg to me after I was done checking up on my fuzzy buzzy bees. It’s a goose egg. She ate it and it lasted her almost until dinner before she was hungry again. Oh, and it had two yolks!

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Cozy Bee Project

Several months back, I was thinking as I was reading an article in the state beekeeper newsletter about the Vivaldi board. It’s a special ventilated roof that is supposed to keep bees healthier by reducing moisture during the winter months. Hive moisture is a killer for honey bees, much like if your house were damp and soggy all winter long. But I was surprised to see that the article didn’t really make any quantitative statements; it just said “this is better” and provided no proof. For some reason that bugged me, so I called up my buddy Dr. Dewey Caron, a world-renowned bee scientist I met by accident a few years back, and asked him if there were any journal articles or university studies on the subject. He knew of one that was barely relevant, from way back in the 70s, and suggested I do a study myself.

That got me excited, and after additional discussions with another apicultural scientist at Oregon State, Dr. Ramesh Sigili, we designed a 1-year research project where they will be technical advisors and I’ll be putting temperature and humidity data loggers into 16 hives and tracking hourly measurements, then comparing that to disease and mite infestation levels, for hives of  four different roof types, to look for health connections.

CozyBeeBanner1024bottomWith the miracles of modern technology, the equipment isn’t very expensive, but I need a lot of it. So I’m starting a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter right now. The way Kickstarter works is that if you don’t reach your funding goal, you get $0 and your backers get refunds. It’s an all-or-nothing model… a little scary, but a great way to be sure that a half-funded project doesn’t flop. Click here to visit the site, where you can find a lot more information about the project, and if you feel inspired, you can even donate to my project (and get some sweet rewards, too). I’ll be fundraising through March, so in early April, I’ll let you know how it went.

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WorkParty

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Oh dear, now it’s been even longer since I posted. Hopefully I can get back on track now! This month has been hectic, trying to finish up the house, and we’ve been living with a friend across the street in the meanwhile. He’s been very accommodating, but living as  a renter in someone else’s spare room while remodeling is both time consuming and distracting. But he has a pretty view out his kitchen window (see above).

VikingPorchSMRyan came over a few days ago to help me build the stairs to the house. This is one of those things we’ve been struggling without for over a year, staggering up a precarious stack of concrete blocks every time we weant to enter or leave. It’s long overdue.  Like many things in life, it was “important” but not “urgent” and got pushed to the back of the list as a result. Now that we are verging on getting a final inspection, that’s one of those things that needs to get done… along with the guardrail on the balcony, the handrails on the stairs, cover on outlets, a vent fan for the range… there is still quite a list.

We’ve also been thinking about the farming for the coming year… planting season is just around the corner. We’ve decided to scale back this summer and give ourselves a break, and focus on getting the farm stuff transferred over from the other property, opening new fields, getting settled into the new permanent house. In practical terms, that also means not vending at the farmers’ market. That was a hard decision to make, but the right one. A consolation is that we may still show up sporadically to sell excess vegetables; we are organizing a collective farmer stand that we’ll be sponsoring this season, in conjunction with a few other local small farmers in the area that we’re friends with. More on that in a later post.

But in the meantime… there is much to be done! This January we started a north county work party. There are six local farms participating, and we get together once a month for an entire day at one of the farms, and work like crazy, Amish-barn-raising-style, on any projects that farmer needs done. It’s a great way to tackle manpower-intensive projects, make good use of specialized tools your neighbors has access to (tractors, chainsaws, etc), and hang out with a bunch of people you really like. February was our turn, and man did we get a lot done! We cleared mountains of brush, removed the rest of the construction debris, opened up the garden space, and in the process also got several cords of firewood. The host also prepares a nice meal, a chance to show some hospitality while saying thank you. Emily made cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and I made pasties for lunch. They were both a big hit.

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Underground stream

steelwork_SMSorry it’s been so long since a post; we’re sortof in limbo waiting on a few house items that are beyond our control. I do still go out to the house regularly, though, and work on subprojects that aren’t on the critical path. Things like installing the stormwater drainage from the gutter downspouts, or fabricating the steel support brackets for the rail of the loft. That’s what you’re seeing here… these steel brackets will bolt to the edge of the loft, and there will be stainless wire strung through them to keep folks from falling from the bedroom down to the living room if they are incautious. To save money, I bought angle iron from the local welding shop, and am cutting and drilling it myself. I don’t have a welding setup right now, so I’ve decided to bolt the clip angles onto the vertical supports. Once it’s all painted and installed, I’m sure it will look quite nice… and bolted connections are sexy, as they show off the way things work.  I’ll post pictures of the final installation.

In other news, the work crew from TEP showed up today and started clearing brush and invasives as part of the riparian improvement project we’re doing with them. It’s an exciting day! They have chainsaws and giant two-handed weedwhackers with triangular steel blades, and know exactly how to use them. We walked the property with Tom, the project coordinator, and looked at the work that will be done. It’s an impressive undertaking, and they are going at it with gusto. We’re so grateful. They are even going to clear some of the densest, gnarliest windfall areas that we have been too intimidated to even explore, on the southwest bank area.

underground_stream_SMBesides today’s tour, I walked around the creek some yesterday, just to take a break and enjoy the quietude on a sunny midwinter afternoon. This time of year the underbrush has died back, and its possible to walk and see things not normally available, like the white-trunked alder forest and the grassy hillocks at the brook’s confluence. I heard a deep, hollow gurgling from the wetland below, and upon following it was surprised to find an underground stream emerging from the hillside! It isn’t a big one. I wonder if any goblins or toad kings live in there?

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