Milking Mamas, Busy as Bees

Big days on the wee homestead! The cucumbers are coming in by the bushel full, the lambs are dropping like rabbits, the mushrooms are growing like mad and the bees sound exceptionally pleased. I can’t keep up!

Luckily, Handy Hubby is here now every day, thanks to his ‘early retirement’ (that is his layoff six months ago) thanks to The Great Scamdemic. With his steady efforts and attention our place is shaping up beautifully and my stress levels have been reduced by half, even as chaos still reigns. For these are not the only new milking mamas, I’m now officially a milkmaid in training myself!

Welcome, Summer! Two piglets for a goat in milk was our barter with a friend. She’s settling in nicely and Phoebe was the first of the herd to greet her.

Learning to milk in humid and buggy 95 degrees F is every bit as pleasant as it sounds. 😏

Impressive udder and gymnast-like capabilities!

Handy Hubby crafted me a nice milk stand from plans posted by Fias Co Farms, a very good resource for goat newbies.

The chanterelles will surely give up very soon in this heat, so I forced myself to brave the mosquitoes and ticks once more to gather one last big basket full. I came across a new variety while hunting that’s not in any of my books, so I contacted Texas Foraging expert Mark ‘Merriwether’ Vorderbruggen, who identified it and directed me to this excellent site:

https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/hexagonal-pored-polypore

Since our temps went from April-like to August-like overnight, I got stuck in a bit of a bind with the bees. Because I’m trying to work between 3 different hive types (very stupid, do not entertain this folly I would advise) I’m trying to get them to move of their own accord. It is working, but it is quite a slow process. I will eventually have 3 colonies from this one very full nuc without too much destruction or fuss, or at least that’s my plan.

To end I offer a true garden success. I’ve been experimenting a lot with companion planting, sometimes with advice from permaculture books, but sometimes just by my own observations. This year I planted sunflowers very early, before it was warm enough for the cucumbers and melons. My thought was to attract the bees to the garden like a lure down to the still small cucumbers. It’s worked like a charm and the trellises are bursting with activity.

I’m also trying some new tricks with the tomatoes, letting the cherry types go wild, but highly managing the large varieties and interspersing them with various herbs, lots of comfrey, turmeric and ginger. The results are not yet in on those efforts, but I’ll keep y’all posted.

Mmm, grapes, our favorite! Ta Ta for now

Birds, Bees & Weeds

Exciting times on the wee homestead!

We had a Foraging Walk that was well worth the two years waiting. The first postponement was after a tornado leveled their property during one of their tribal ceremonies, the Caddo Mounds in Weeping Mary, which I wrote about here and here.

The second time was during the initial stages of the Plandemic, when I cancelled due to mask mandates.

On this fun foray, 3rd time was a charm, no storms, no masks and a very educational afternoon. Top 3 things I learned:

1. Medicinal weeds should never be dehydrated in a machine, something about chemistry. Two ubiquitous weeds I thought had no other redeeming qualities besides bee food: Goldenrod and Carolina geranium, are in fact beneficial medicinals.

2. There’s a compound in red cedar that inhibits the breakdown of alcohol for 18 hours. So, a common practice is to soak some branch tips in strong spirits for a month. The final product becomes kind of like Absinthe in that it’s potent enough to cause hallucinations, which can lead to great art, says me, or, a cheap date, says Hubby.

3. Foraging in areas where there was once iron mining operations, quite common around here apparently, unbeknownst to me, should be avoided due to potential mercury contamination.

A super exciting swarm event is next on the Fun list!

I’ve been wanting to populate a couple of re-furbished TopBar hives, but the dimensions are not the same as those Hubby’s crafted, so splits would prove very challenging.

Bearding in summer, not too unusual in our hot climate. But, bearding in spring, probably a sign they’re really cramped.

I was hoping for swarms, and got one off the ‘bearding’ hive I recently wrote about (pictured above). They stationed themselves about 75 feet away in a young cedar tree and I got lucky to find them there immediately, while I was nearby harvesting mulberries. This is our first plentiful mulberry crop and I’m not sure what to make with them. Any suggestions?

I did recently learn from the Deep Green Permaculture site that it’s possible to get a 2nd crop of mulberries by cutting the branches back after the 1st harvest.

As far as the swarm goes, my first attempt was dismal, in the ‘Don’t do this!’ category of the pathetic novice, which I should know better by now, which I post so y’all can laugh at me, as I well deserve.

I don’t know what I was thinking! I wasn’t even good at holding a tray like that as a cocktail waitress. Spontaneous blasphemy makes this quick clip RATED R—For Mature Audiences Acting Immaturely Only. (Bet you didn’t know in a past life I was a sailor!)

Cringe-worthy

The 2nd attempt was successful, thanks to Hubby, who sawed the branch off into my waiting hands so I could gently walked them over to their new hive. They seem to be adjusting nicely! These thoughtful bees saved me lots of messy work.

The Ninja* colony has attracted a gorgeous bird, which I’m pretty sure after consulting my field guide, is a Summer Tanager. Though I don’t approve of his hunting live bees, he does also forage dead bees under the hive, so he gets a pass.

*Ninja colony, so named due to their constant battling yet relatively calm nature. I believe this is at least partly due to their position right next to the house, where they get constant traffic, but seem unperturbed by it, unlike the more remote colonies at the far end of the orchard, who are just plain abusive.

Homestead Happenings

Just a wee update with some happy snaps because we’ve been keeping as busy as bees around here!

The bees are busy indeed and multiplying like rabbits. Time to expand their chambers or to do some splits.

Bearding in summer, not too unusual in our hot climate. But, bearding in spring, probably a sign they’re really cramped and fixing to swarm.

I did end up losing one colony, the only one I have in the conventional Langstroth model hive. I’m going to blame myself for that though, I left a super on over winter and we had a really bad winter. They made it through alright from the looks of things, but left about a month ago, probably because their numbers were still too small to keep a mansion clean while trying to nurse babies to build up the colony again. There was no evidence of freezing or starving, so I suspect they left as a small swarm. That’s my story anyway.

Construction continues on the best project so far. Handy Hubby is building an addition to our house and I’m over the moon excited about it! This place was never meant to be a year-round residence, it was initially used as a weekend cottage and hadn’t been used for many years by the time we moved in.

We’ve been cramped for quite a while, but now we’ll have a new, very necessary and very functional, climate-controlled Utility room. Thank you, my love, better late than never! 😉

We aren’t cat people but we adopted a barn kitten last year to try to help with our mouse, vole, mole, gopher, snake problems. Apparently she didn’t get the memo, or realized the problem was so bad she needed a crew.

Skittles, our frisky barn kitten having kittens.

Our piglet population is back down to a manageable size since trading 2 piglets for a milking goat to be delivered next month and 2 others for a breeding ram after a friend has freshened her flock. We also traded a beehive for some bantam hens because they are known for their strong broody behavior, and sure enough, here’s one tightly tucked on her clutch. It’s one of my favorite things to trade with folks and leave Uncle Sam with his funny money out of our pockets for a change.

You can’t see me! Bantam hens, known for tucking up in tiny corners to brood.

As for garden developments, I continue my efforts incorporating permaculture features. I keep experimenting with good companion plants; I’m planting more perennials amongst the annuals; I’m doing more succession planting; I’m getting lots of comfrey growing for ‘chop and drop’ composting.

My latest addition is a ‘poison garden’ including such toxic beauties as datura, belladonna and castor bean. I’m testing a few tricks like ‘spooning’ the onions, which is to remove the dirt from the bulb tops to encourage larger storing onions. I’m watering weekly with ‘poop soup’ that is, watered down cow manure I’ve gathered from the stray cows sometimes wandering our property.

It’s a dirty job, but anything for my plants!

As always, I let the herbs and greens go to seed, but this year I’m going to get better about seed-saving. The price of seeds is going through the roof! Another new project I’m dedicating time to is more propagating, but not just the easy stuff anymore, like figs and roses and mulberries.

I’m going for the big time—‘native’ trees! Wild cherry (because they taste so amazing), Osage orange (because they are so useful) and prickly ash (because they look so cool) are at the top of my current list.

As for foraging, a favorite spring activity for me, in addition to pokeweed and dandelions, I’ve got another new favorite: greenbrier tips—taste just like asparagus. The root, along with sassafras root, were once the main ingredients of root beer, which I plan to try soon. Yum!

Ciao for now, thanks for stopping by!

Regenerative Beekeeping: Wax — Wayward Bee

Just wanted to share the site of a UK beekeeping teacher sharing loads of excellent info!

Wax is produced by bees to create their home. The external walls of the cavity they occupy (be that hive, tree, chimney) will have been assessed for suitability by the scout bees before moving in, and as the combs will form an essential part of the bees’ “body”, it is equally essential that the cavity […]

Regenerative Beekeeping: Wax — Wayward Bee

They Live!

If you’re needing a dose of good news from Texas you’ve come to the right post. I’m so pleased to report the snow and ice have been replaced with spring temperatures virtually overnight. One night with snow is already considered a lot here and we had it for a week.

Once I realized the piglets, sheep and goats were faring just fine, my worry was for the bees. We’d covered as much as possible in the garden but I had little hope anything would survive. It’s only the lightweight row cover, which in normal times would be enough here.

It’s certainly not rated for 4 inches of snow and ice, for a week, and for the second time this year. I expected rows of dead onions and lettuce but was pleasantly surprised.

Best news Today: All 6 colonies are alive and seemingly thriving! I couldn’t be more thrilled because, of course, I’d considered the worst, but prayed for the best.

I’m so glad now that my instinct in fall was to not take any honey, even though I waffled for weeks about it. I think sometimes procrastination is actually a 6th sense at play—an inner voice hinting to you that the time is not yet ripe. Or at least in hindsight that excuse is marvelous for reassuring youself of your keen judgement, which only works if it indeed did turn out to be keen, which with gardening in Texas these days is more like Russian Roulette than Old Maid. (Bad pun intended, if you can catch it!) 😉

Or, ignore my babbling (wiser choice) and offer yourself one full minute of BeeZen. That’s today’s happy bees, feasting on the Chinese cabbage I’d left to go to seed just for them, which survived our week-long ‘Arctic’ blast (meanwhile, the Arctic has Texas temps, go figure), now a welcome treat! Along with the henbit, which survived in bloom under the snow for a week. WOOHOO!!!

Now, deep breath, and . . .

Hubby camped with all 4 dogs in the living room so he could keep the wood stove burning, that’s our only heat source. And, unlike so much of the state, we only lost electricity for one night and had prepared the water pipes, kept the faucets running, which is the common hack around here, and hopefully also saved some perennials with tarping, but time will tell.

The best thing that could come from yet another weather disaster, not just here, but anywhere, is that folks get prepared. It’s not fun, it’s not comfortable. But without it the lesson is always the same and should be neon-level obvious by now: Self-reliance is FAR greater peace of mind than relying on collapsing structures. Food, water, energy, folks, time to get back to the basics!

Mattress moved to the living room in front of the wood stove, Handy Hubby managed to fit in there somewhere.
First time they’ve ever been inside, and they were SO good!

Easy-Peasy 2020

Relatively speaking, we had an excellent year. I’m not the type to gloat, really. It comes as no surprise to me at all that my experience is pretty much the polar opposite of most folks most of the time. I accepted that ages ago and prefer to think I’m perfecting this ‘gift’ bit by bit, year by year.

Following are some highlights, some whys and hows and so forth, not meaning to boast or give advice, but rather to contrast previous years with my rosy 2020 perspectacles.

I perfected sourdough bread. I’ve been getting failures regularly for years without understanding why and thanks to one farm friend and her new guru, Elaine Boddy, I got the bitch slap needed to learn I was doing it ALL wrong. Not only was I making it infinitely more difficult than it had to be, I had a flabby starter and was creating needless waste. We’ve entered into higher consciousness sourdough on the wee homestead, praise be.

She doesn’t just make it look easy, she actually makes it easy.

I have also become a Kombucha master. Really, a master. It’s easy to say that for a number of reasons, but especially because so few folks drink it around here, or like it once they try it, that it’s in the realm of ‘acquired tastes’ and only needs to appeal to Hubby, and two nearby friend-aficionados. I’ve been working on signature blends for months, using seasonal herbs and fruits, have Kombucha vinegar in a few flavors and am now aging Kombucha champagne. It’s the funnest thing ever. Or, I’m just a real geek like that.

Of course, no one becomes master without help, and in Kombuchaland, this is Scripture:

Even funner than making cheese and much easier too.

Three great gardening successes overshadow the multiple failures—like a second year of sweet potato perils and a fourth year of melon miseries. I leave those to ponder in an upcoming post. For now, it’s Cranberry hibiscus, Blue coco beans and Trombetta squash. I really can’t praise them enough and they were prolific and worry-free and I can’t wait to plant them again in profusion.

But I once said that about the sweet potatoes and the melons, so I’ll shut up now.

Trombetta squash, delicious as summer or winter squash, we have one still standing in the kitchen waiting to be enjoyed.
It’s the sepals that are most popular for tea-making with the Thai red Roselle, aka cranberry hibicus or rosella.
Still eating these six months later and a second crop of volunteers came back at the end of summer.
All the wild grapes and pears we’d harvested and processed and froze in preparation for wine and cider-making were spoiled, because Hubby accidentally turned the deep freezer off. His one big dumb move of the year, pretty mild, relatively speaking again.

Extra-special mention goes of course to the best news of the year, Hubby’s layoff-rebranded early retirement, a somewhat unexpected miracle that has improved my reality already in very unexpected ways. Sometimes the true weight of a burden isn’t fully realized until it’s lifted.

I think he prefers his current working conditions.
Pretty certain it will take him a while to get sick of us, but just in case, there’s always the sourdough.

I knew he’d take over most of my animal chores leaving me more time in the garden and the kitchen, where I most prefer to be. And that he’d build more and relax more and check off items on the to-do list at a more satisfying pace. We’ve added two large asparagus beds, coop 3.0 has raised the bar once more in poultry housing, the orchard looks positively professionally and my promised potting shed is in the planning phase finally.

What I had not expected was how good all of that would feel and that it would come so early and that he’d be so glad about it and that we’d be prepared enough for it to not miss the income much in the foreseeable future.

There’s incredible empowerment and peace of mind in preparing, and not just financially. It has gone in a single year from “Prepping” being something we heard mocked for a decade in the mainstream to now feeling like we were choosing wisely all along—not the easy road for sure, but the right road for us and the many others doing likewise.

And with that a wee bit of a boast.

And another. Still, mask-free, with no need or intention to alter that reality or any of the layers horse shit coming down the pipeline with it in future. Have I earned the right yet to say what I really think about these fucking vaccines? Decker, at Dispatches from the Asylum, says it best so far: vials of battery acid.

Just mark me down in your permanent ‘anti-vaxx’ file and if they send the goons to our house, warn them they’ll be given a good ole-fashioned goose chase. (hmm, bravado before breakfast, I must be feeling good!)

Food for thought for the New Year:

“Ignorantly worshiping our own being on the theater of the external world leads to pathological behavior and neurosis. We are ensnared and enslaved to the will of despots in all sorts of guises. We are wide open to irrationality, manipulation, mania and insanity. As parents often work to deliberately undermine our will and identity, the world’s leaders and misleaders use our psychic dissociation to their advantage. In fact, our estrangement from ourselves is the main reason for the rise of all tyranny. However, the deadly predicament ends the moment we heed the inscription at the Oracle of Delphi – “Gnothi Seuton” or Know Thyself. No other instruction is needed on the journey toward enlightenment.

Jesus Meets Jung: Religion vs. Psychology – michaeltsarion

Safety Dance?

I observed unusual behavior in one of our hives yesterday afternoon. Lots of activity at the entrance, too late in the day to be food-related, in my opinion, but clearly demonstrating communication efforts.

I’ve only read studies and opinions from scientists and beekeepers about the bees’ waggle dance as a communication for food sources. Lots and lots of opinions and studies about that! That may be all that trickles down to the layman, however, so I keep searching the books. Here’s a new one, once again, about food.

“Social communication systems are predominantly multimodal and can combine modulatory and information-bearing signals. The honey bee waggle dance, one of the most elaborate forms of social communication in animals, activates nestmates to search for food and communicates symbolic information about the location of the food source. Previous studies on the dance behaviour in diverse honey bee species demonstrated distinct differences in the concurrence of visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile signals produced by the dancer.”
“Similarities in dance follower behaviour across honey bee species suggest a conserved mechanism of dance communication” Elsevier, Science Direct, Animal Behavior, Volume 169 Nov. 2020 https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/animal-behaviour

But, non-expert that I am, my hunch tells me this bee behavior was not about food at all, but rather about warning the forager bees that a storm is coming and to not go back out. Shortly after this observation, where the weather front moving in from the north is visible in the distance, all bee activity at the entrance stopped.

I believe I lost a hive early last spring due to either a quick-moving storm, or pesticide poisoning. This new observed behavior tilts my pondering toward the latter. In that particular colony, which was quite large, I checked on them because their entrance activity suddenly slowed to almost nothing. When I opened up the hive I found loads of drawn comb, a healthy number of nurse bees and even larvae, no disease or infestation to speak of, but bars of activity as if flash-frozen in time. Loads of nurse bees in the process of working, heads in cells, dead. My assumption is their foragers never made it home. So, when the temperatures dropped that evening, they hive didn’t have enough thermal mass for their survival.

I apologize for my lack of video skills, still, it’s on the to-do list. And, that whimper at the end is because I got stung by a fire ant, not a bee! Then the dogs came over to check out what I was doing in the grass, which to them always means playtime. Impromptu mission aborted due to attack. 🙂

Homestead Happy Snaps

Just another loungey Sunday on the wee homestead and sharing some of the love with y’all!

The dogs are off for a swim in the pond, their favorite time of day, right after breakfast and dinner.  The pastured pigs come up to greet the group, hoping we brought treats, no doubt.  They are looking much more slender now that they are only foraging.

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Papi’s back on track, thank heavens!  After a big scare, where we were planning for his death, a great resurrection now follows.  We took him back to the vet, they replenished him with fluids by IV, and coaxed out a football-sized hardened stool.  I know this issue was caused by the prescribed meds, so this time when he got home with a new set of pills, we threw them all in the trash.

He’s again his old sassy self and it really does seem like a miracle after how despondent he was—wouldn’t eat or drink, was vomiting and not pooping, would hardly move, wouldn’t even whine or bark, though he’s normally very expressive—we really thought he was checking out for good.  He’s back and still trying to lead the pack.

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The garden is growing great, the green beans and melons are looking particularly impressive this year (so far that is, never count your melons before they hatch).  I’ve just harvested our first cucumbers, with tomatoes soon to follow.  The bees sound as pleased as me!

Speaking of bees, I can now confirm with a fair degree of confidence that my high-risk hive split last month was successful.  What made it high-risk, in conventional beekeeping protocol, was that there was no queen, I didn’t re-queen at all, rather I intended that the small split-off colony should raise their own queen themselves.  There was not even queen cells present in the brood I transferred, only capped brood and larvae.

My beekeeping goal is replicating genetics that suit our needs and desires here on the wee homestead: semi-feral colonies whose first purpose is pollination, second purpose is sustainability and study, third purpose those glorious products—honey, wax, propolis, pollen, etc.

For this goal I choose to split from our “ninja” hive, but don’t let their nickname fool you.  They are not ‘mean’ like the nickname might suggest, and two other hives here are FAR meaner.

Rather, they are natural warriors.  Maybe this is because during the ‘tornado’ last spring their home was turned upside down.  Or maybe because I experimented on them with a screen bottom board, which meant they had to fend off attackers constantly from multiple fronts all summer, the warm winter and early spring.  Or maybe because they are right next to our house, where there is constant traffic from critters, mowers and us.

All I know is, this team is tight, because they’re so busy with all their other tasks, they leave me in relative peace in order to meddle in their ranks.

And speaking of queen bees, at least in the canine kingdom, Buttercup is exercising her own maternal instincts, on our new chicks.  It seems she doesn’t trust her brother, Bubba.

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Buttercup: “Don’t worry Daddy, I got your back.”

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Bubba: “Mmmm . . . Snack size!”

Whereas once upon a time Buttercup crawled in submission from 20 paces, then rolled over immediately once within sniff-range of current Queen Tori, I expect there will soon be an active rivalry.

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I wonder when someone will finally come to rival this old queen?  Someone once asked me when we first moved rural, “Why do you need so much land?”

Seriously?

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Homestead Happy Snaps

Just another loungey Sunday on the wee homestead.  And just wanted to share a bit of it with y’all.

Peek-a-boo, I see you, hiding in the geranium!

Handy Hubby crushes again crafting a chute for loading livestock.

 

 

I’ve just tried my first hive split of the season, fingers crossed!  And I came across this excellent document, for any beekeepers, or wannabes, transferring a typical nuc/ hive into a TopBar.  I’ve not tried it yet, but it looks very do-able on paper.  I really like topbar, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, like esthetics, lack of upper body strength and general laziness.

How to convert a Langstroth nuc into a TopBar hive

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As much as I can appreciate spiders, this one had to be evicted from a bait hive, sorry little fellow, but I know the bees don’t love you like I do.

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Our one Langstroth hive, bedazzled, the only hive I use more conventional methods. Still completely untreated, but with full foundation and a queen excluder in order to harvest the honey.

The garden is looking fabulous, fingers crossed again.  With just a bit of good fortune, this will be our most fruitful year yet.  After last summer, with almost no garden due to a shoulder injury and gaping miserably at large downed trees all over our property, it’s hard to even express how wonderful that feels.

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One of over a dozen, over one year later. Eventually they sort of look like yard art.

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Wild grapes growing great!

Two antique roses I planted about 7 years ago and have no time to bother with, yet they still do their thing.  On the left is Apothecary, a rambler great for rose hips.  Behind Buttercup, our most agreeable model, is Chestnut, needing some serious pruning.  Ain’t got no time for that!

Moving to the veggie garden, a friend gave me seeds of cardoon, a great heat-loving alternative to artichokes (which I’ve tried to grow every year we’ve been here, with no success).  I’m hoping the cilantro will bolt more slowly tucked tight under the eggplant.  I’m trying a new supposed cilantro substitute this year called papalo.  We will see if it’s even remotely as delicious as the real thing.

One of my favorite herbs, chervil, aka gourmet parsley, with a hint of anise flavor, already bolting because it’s a cool season crop.  And one of my favorite wild plants, mullein, because it’s really cool looking, but survives the heat just fine, not to mention it’s many medicinal benefits.

I’m enjoying a YT permaculture channel new to me, a bit high on the marketing for my taste, but loads of good info for the beginners or the old hats, nonetheless.