Mo Bloggin'

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Archive for the tag “Beekeeping”

A good grass year

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Everything is still green and juicy.  Can you see the bird dog on point?

It rained again last night.  We’ve been having an unusually wet July so far, and though I’d normally be complaining, I’m totally good with it this year.  After last year’s drought, and the year before not much wetter, not to mention our freaky, end-of-times heat wave this past April, it feels good, even soothing, to have what is essentially a normal weather year. And yes, it’s great for grass growing on my shade-challenged little hillside. Last year the grass was done by the end of June. Once solstice passes, the whole growth thing shifts. Everything seeds out and if there’s no water the grasses just go dormant. I don’t have the well capacity (or hose capacity!) to do much more than spot watering so these rains are welcome. The sheep are still getting plenty of graze considering the time of year and the flock size. To that end, I’m managing the sheep differently than in previous years, partly because of the number – I just don’t have the grazing capacity, given the aforementioned shade challenges, to run much more than 5-head. And until two days ago, I’ve been running 11. Now it’s down to 9 (my freezer will be full in a week) and that will ease the pressure. So I feed hay pretty much year round, just less of it when the grass is growing. I’m still making decisions with the flock, and hope to breed this fall – it’s been a few years since my last lambs – and I’m culling for both fleece quality and temperament. After Minnie’s twins turned out to be as friendly as two puppies (and have remained so, two years later, bringing their mother along), I discovered how delightful it can be to have easy, approachable sheep. And seriously, on this small setup it’s crazy to do otherwise. So the wild, untamable ones are slowly being weeded out. I still have a couple more out there, but one will likely stay until her natural end (sentimental, plus she’s an excellent mother who produces babies that are not as wild as her) and the other one, well, we’ll see.  After she lambs she may be easier, plus I culled her dam, and I’m hoping without that freak-out influence from her mother she’ll follow the lead of the rest of the flock and at least get close enough to nose-touch my outstretched hand.

The songbird season has also shifted since solstice, with babies seemingly everywhere. And the song is changing. The Swainson’s daytime song has decreased as nesting goes into full swing. It’s one thing to mark your territory with song, it’s another to attract potential predators with them, and setting females and then the hatchlings and nestlings are very vulnerable. Plus the territories are well established now as everyone’s nesting.  The evening song is still magical, though I’ll miss it when it ceases altogether in another few weeks. I can guess where certain species are in their nest cycles by their song: the black-headed grosbeak had been insistent and melodic the last week, so are probably on  nest/brood number two now); the robins are still melodic but slowing down, with probable nesting number three underway, for the last of the season before it’s time to bulk up for winter migrations. The tanagers and western wood peewees are intermittent as well. Everyone is too busy to sing, with all those mouths to feed. And here the rain is helpful too, as it keeps the insect populations bountiful as well, so feeding the babies is easier. The drought last year was hard on everyone, from grass to invertebrates to feathered and woolly residents.

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Still filled with song in the evenings.

I saw a fat baby robin fly after its parent down the driveway as I was leaving for work one morning. And the other day I came home to a juvenile crow hopping and poking around the driveway as my car followed it slowly up to the gate. It finally flew up to the gate rail, then up to a low cedar branch when I got out of the car. There weren’t any screaming parents around, or any other crows at all, which was odd, because although it was fully feathered, it shouldn’t have been alone. I wondered if maybe it got bonked by a car as it flew too low across the road, and maybe lay stunned long enough that the parents left it for dead. Even that would be odd – crows are excellent parents and don’t give up easily. I was bringing the yard waste and garbage bins up from the road, and he watched me nervously from his branch. I picked some thimble berries from along the driveway, and pulled a little bit of meat off the rotisserie chicken I’d just purchased at the grocery on the way home, and put these on top of the yard waste bin, close to where he was perched, and left him there to go up to the house and unload the groceries. An hour or so later I went down to check. He was gone, and the meat and berries still on the top of the bin (Farley was right there for the meat). I hope he found his way back to his crow family.

A brown creeper nested in the loose bark of a cedar tree along the driveway.  I couldn’t get a good shot of the parent bird coming in or out, but coming out the view was akin to someone trying to get into their skinny jeans, as she squeezed out of this impossibly small space to go get more insects for the babies.

And then there are my dark-eyed juncos, a.k.a. Oregon juncos. In early June I was trimming some overgrown salmonberry branches I’d cut from behind the fence line, walking over to dump them into the pasture for the sheep, when a bird suddenly flitted from underneath my feet. I looked to see a junco on the fence, tsking madly at me. I turned to where I’d just walked. Juncos are ground nesters, usually tucking their perfect little nest beneath a fern or hidden in a bit of weedy overgrowth.  But there was nothing nearby…or was there?  It was all grass, but I saw a larger tuft of grass and walked back and…sure enough. This seemed extreme, even for a junco. But really, what better camouflage then  “in plain sight.” The only problem with this, aside from the fact that I’d nearly flattened it walking to the fence, is it was perilously close to Pal’s flight path – he runs down the driveway multiple times a day at breakneck speed (Farley too, though he’s not as fast as he once was), in the grass just to the right of the driveway tracks. If he didn’t find the nest with his mad bird dog skillz, then surely he would trample it by accident. And the sheep run down there too, grazing on the grass and sometimes galloping and leaping and tossing their heads in sheepy exuberance, sometimes being rounded up by an exuberant Daisy. No one would see this nest in time. So I added this bit of attractiveness to the landscape – the junco kiddie corral. (click on the photos for captions)

Judging by their size and feathering, I figured them to be a few days old when I first found them. They fledge (leave the nest) in 14 days, so it wasn’t too long before they were gone, off with mom and dad to the safety of the pasture and woods, with their little calls a zippery sound that’s hard to describe; it almost sounds like tiny chains being dropped. The male kept watch, flying and singing his song, helping feed the kids and warning them of any dangers.

A week or so later another pair were up by the house, the male trilling loudly from the corner of the roof, boisterous and animated, and, with a little anthropomorphism thrown in, one could say proudly. And the female was nearby, letting me get remarkably close as she hopped around the driveway, picking up bits of dried grass and dog hair so she looked like she was sporting a bushy, 1880s-style mustache. She’d fly off furtively and disappear with her beakful of nesting material, but I knew it had to be close. I finally was able discover its location by watching from inside the house. The pair would land on the railing of the back porch frequently, setting the cats to chittering at the window in feline excitement. So I hid in the door of the closet to watch them and saw the female duck behind a tuft of grass at the bottom of my retaining wall. Voila!  I checked it for several days in a row – the sheep ate a large fern leaf that was providing much of the cover – dang. First it was just the nest, looking completed, but no sign of the pair, no scolding. Maybe they abandoned the site? The next day there was one single egg there. The following day, a second egg, and a day later, egg number three and then she was setting on them. Time to put up the Junco kiddie corral again. This one would have to protect against the chickens too. The first nest was further down the driveway than they usually wander this time of year (plenty to eat up by the house), but this nest is within a few feet of my back door and if the chickens found it the eggs, or hatchlings, would be quite the delicacy (the chickens love stuff like this and regularly eat the cats’ abandoned hunting trophies: shrews, mice, small voles).

The fence against the wall would deter all but the cats. I could add some netting over the top, to prevent the most obvious access (the wall is about 4 feet tall here), but the cats can squeeze through the bottom openings of the woven wire fence too. I could put up chicken wire around the bottom (and with all this construction, I worry about disturbing the juncos enough that they abandon the nest). So the solution is total cat confinement for the next few weeks. The female began setting on June 29, which means the babies will hatch around July 10th (nothing so far) or 11th, and they’ll be fledged by July 25 at the latest. Then the cats can start going out at night again. Maybe. In the meantime it’s a bit of a circus keeping them from darting out the door every time I open it. They begin to get stir crazy after a while. All my area rugs are bunched up in the mornings, as they attack them and chase each other around at night, batting found objects around (something clicky/draggy last night – have no idea what it was). I found their cat carrier pushed across the floor of the loft one morning – not sure who was doing what up there, but sometimes living with cats is like living with monkeys – they get into everything and everywhere, sometimes literally climbing the walls, but certainly the window screens and clawing up the furniture.

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One of my favorite field guides.  My ex-mother-in-law gave it to me many years ago, and I reference it often this time of year.

 

The dawn chorus and my annual amnesia

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Summer Solstice Eve

It’s happening again, and I’m fully aware of it. I work harder each day to remember the whole year, the mud, the rain, the unease, the borderline despair that I feel during our long, wet Pacific NW winters. Those dark and dreary days, with the paltry 8.5 hours of “daylight” between sunrise and sunset times (we never see the sun, so I take it on faith that it’s out there) marked by sludgy grey clouds that even when they’re not leaking oppress and depress. The lights are on in the house all day long, the dogs come in wet and muddy on most days, and feeding the livestock in the rainy dark after work the chickens look miserable and the sheep look bored and as full of discontent as I feel.

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These are the skies I long for in December.

But I knew it would happen. It always does. After 7 months of rainy, dismal weather, and epic amounts of mud we’ve come into our season of splendor. We’re just moving out of jungle season (also magnificent) and now it’s settling into the rhythms of 16 hours of daylight (squeeee!) versus its opposite in December, and all the wonder and abundance of a fecund spring. Never mind that today (it’s the last few hours of summer solstice as I write this) is pretty much the saddest day of the year. Sure, it’s the longest day of the year, but it’s also the turning point where the days start to roll back, getting shorter and we begin losing daylight by increments, heading back to that dismal darkness. But for now we will dance in the sun and revel in the song and forget about that long, stressful winter. Instead, I will spend my days here soaking up all the goodness, settling into my wonderful little hillside on a sunny day like a broody hen settling onto a clutch of eggs, content to just sit and watch and listen to the glory of creation as it unfolds in panoramic vision—the bees being probably the most joyous visual expression of what I feel—and all of it to a exaltation of surround-sound. For it is Songbird Season, and I love songbirds.

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The package hive has been going like gangbusters, and filled their deep so I added a super so they have more room. 

Even now, with the windows only opened a crack I hear them.  Though today was warm, it’s been chilly for the past couple weeks—a normal, gloomy and damp PNW June—but I keep the windows open just so I can hear the birds. The calls, the chirps, and the songs.  Oh, the songs. The thrushes have all the others beat as far as melody and pleasing (to the human ear) song, though the Black-headed grosbeak and Song sparrow aren’t too shabby.  I think the Swainson’s thrushes and the robins (also a thrush) just can’t be beat though, for not only are their flute-like songs beautiful, they are positively incessant throughout the day (and they seem to be the most abundant). None of the other birds save the Dark-eyed juncos (a raspy tweee, not too melodious but not unpleasant) do much more than a few songs throughout the day.  Or maybe they’re just drowned out by the thrush songs.

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Red huckleberries – the robins, Swainson’s thrushes, and Western tanagers love these, and I’ve got lots of them to share.

The dawn chorus starts at about 3:30 a.m., just as the sky begins to lighten, with the twittering of the swallows, already out flying after several hours grounded.  The Swainson’s and robins chime in next, along with the grosbeak, Western tanagers, chickadees, song sparrows, towhees, and dark-eyed juncos. Other birds I hear throughout the day but don’t seem to sing much: the hummingbirds (a sharp chip-chip), Steller’s jays (wik-wik-wik-wik-wik!), crows and ravens (rawk), and the woodpeckers—hairy, downy, pileated, sapsuckers and flickers—plus the occasional raptor – osprey, red tailed hawks, and eagles (the vultures are pretty silent), or duck from the valley.

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When I come home from work the birdsong is like a balm, soothing jangled nerves after a long day at work and a gnarly commute. I change clothes quickly and head outside with the dogs, finding myself drawn to the woods, where the high canopy feels like a cathedral, and the songs are more soothing than any choir. It feels similar to the siren song of the old seafaring legends – where you are helpless to resist (though without the dire consequences, thankfully!). I am entranced, mesmerized, rapt, and spellbound, lured ever deeper into the woods to stand beneath the trees by some unseen singer, a bit of bone and blood and feathers, weighing barely more than a couple of medium-sized strawberries. The robins, one of the largest of all the songbird species that habit this patch of woodland, tips the scales at just under 3 ounces, the Swainson’s thrush a whopping 1.5 ounces, yet the woods are filled with their giant song. The robins have a huge repertoire, and there are some similarities to the Swainson’s song, but the Swainson’s, that furtive bit of greenish brown feathers, is the one that I wait for all year, their upward-spiraling flute song stretching an aural web as far as the ear can hear – close and crisp, and distant and haunting, overlapping, echoing and answering, a treasure of acoustic jewels for the lucky listener.

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Sunset on the solstice. 9:09 p.m.

In the long evenings I sit on my deck writing, and reveling at being surrounded by all I love, by place. The sheep are grazing the property, moving around in a cohesive flock; the chickens wander around, scratching and pecking, gobbling up fresh greens and all the insects they can catch; the dogs, dirty but blissfully free of mud, snooze like bearskin rugs around me, stretched out at my feet, farm-dog grubby and content. And all of it to the soundtrack of birdsong. The little male junco, in the tree near the deck, tweeeeing. The dapper Spotted towhee in the thick undergrowth, singing his buzzy trill. The robins with their myriad songs and calls high in the maples, and above it all the little prince, the salmonberry bird, my Swainson’s thrush in his deceptively drab olive-brown feathering, always hidden, and always singing, singing, singing.  I am captivated.

 

Rain and reflections

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Watching the rain fall.

It’s been raining all day today and it’s wonderful. I can’t even believe I am saying that, but it’s funny how weather excesses or extremes, especially out of season excesses, can make you long for the opposite, and even make you anxious.

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Wet bee yard; the package bees (left hive) are still out flying – I love how gnarly they are!

For us here in the PNW, rain in November is relentless and pummels the house and the property. It’s often a little frightening at times for this Chicken Little, as the water sluices down the hillside, the ground turns to muck, and the river in the valley nearby overflows its banks (making the commute home from work worrisome).  As I listened to the music of the rain on the roof this morning I was reflecting at how in November, December, or January, I actually get a little scared when it rains this hard and steadily for hours. It’s not sweet music then, but an ominous wintertime soundtrack.  Today it was calming and comforting.

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Gorgeous blue sky on the last mile of my evening commute home.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you know that I adore the sun and blue sky.  I realize more and more that I want to see more sky, more openness.  I love the trees, but it gets so claustrophobic sometimes, and especially at this time of year (I’ve spoken of this before), when the jungle-like growth begins to feel like it’s closing in.  And all winter long the constant rain and dark, cloudy skies, combined with the short daylight hours, feels oppressive and beyond dismal, day after day. The weather almost becomes the enemy, something to be fought and/or feared.

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Soggy with rain, the pool refilling with rainwater after last week’s heat.

Now we’ve had a spring unlike any I can remember, with drought-like conditions and record-breaking heat (90+ degrees in April – where the hell am I, anyway?).  This after a previous year of record-breaking weather patterns (2015’s dry spring and summer and record-breaking summer temps, followed by the wettest winter on record) and again I get anxious.  What does this mean for me, my animals, my bees, my planet? So you can see why the rain and cool temps—typical weather for a northwest May (and something to grumble about in a normal year)—was soothing today.

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Rain all day long, yet I’m totally okay with it.

The rain slowed later in the day and I let the sheep out to graze.  I assured them the rain was a good thing for the grass and browse they love, but still they wanted out. Noisy C-Kerry led the chorus of:  “We don’t care if we get wet, we’re sheep!  Just let us out!” The trees and under story are heavy with the rain, and branches are low to the ground with the weight of water. There was even a downed maple branch over the lower fence.  They are enjoying the heck out of it all, pruning and munching on the delicious green growth they love.

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Shearing day last week; one of these is not like the others.

I watch them and am reminded how much I love them. Well, maybe not so much when they’re gobbling up my hops vines, comfrey, or horseradish plants, or the beautiful woodland ferns and other plants (my wonderful Devil’s club!) out back, or peeling the bark off my fruit trees. I’ve learned to monitor them better, but still like to let them out to keep the grass mowed around the house, stretch the feed bill, and ease the pressure on their pasture.  And I reflected on them and my relationship to them—to all my animals—and not only what they mean to me, but what do I mean to them? How do they see me? (A few of the flock must see me with a scythe and hooded robe, judging by how they react to me every. single. time. they see me. Maybe there are hallucinogens in the hay I feed?)

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Eloise at the top of the corner post in the chicken run.

I am reflecting on all of this after reading a blog post by a fellow blogger, also a woman, also a farmer (though she, lucky girl, is able to do it full time).  Like many bloggers (can you believe I’ve been blogging for over 7 years now?) I like to follow other bloggers, especially those who are doing things similar to me: solo homesteaders like Belle Manor Farms and Morris Brook Farm, sheep raisers like Canfield Farm, just a few miles away, beekeepers, nature lovers and wildlife advocates. I’ve been following Celi and her Kitchens Garden blog for at least 4 years now, maybe longer, and I find it a delightful day-to-day account of what she’s doing. Sometimes the animals take center stage, sometimes the hard work of farming, sometimes the garden harvest and cooking of same, and sometimes we go on vacation with her (there are over 5,000 people who follow her blog – !!) – all this with great photos of her farm (by “Camera House” – even her camera has a name and entity – I love this woman!), her animals (spring babies!) and scenery on her travels.  She posts every single day, for which I am very envious, and she has copious numbers of commenters (the Fellowship), which she calls the Lounge of Commenters.  Isn’t that delightful?

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Salal blossoms.

At any rate, Celi had a wonderful post the other day.  Sometimes she just riffs on a thought and it can be profound, with observations as keen and insightful as any philosopher’s, as this one was. It was called A Chair of My Own.

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A recent bee convention over some old honeycomb I had. I got several species of bumblebee, as well as the honey bees and even a yellowjacket or two.

Many of the comments added to the conversation and further enlightenment, as they often do.  And I reflected on my own situation, with my own self-imposed cage(s), and then on to my own animals and their habits. How DO the sheep see me? Little Trixie and her brother Mungo seem to love me, with Mungo especially coming at a run and staying with me for as long as I’ll scratch his chin, even when the rest of the flock has run off to the ecstasy of release to fresh grass.  It warms my heart that the two of them, and their mother sometimes, would rather be with me than with the other sheep. Is it intentional? Do they know that this will keep them from the freezer permanently? Those feral ones who behave as if I’m coming with a noose when I’m just bringing them dinner…well, they are creating their own reality, as I will be reviewing this year’s shearing and making some decisions based on their fleeces (my freezer is almost empty and I’m beginning to really enjoy mutton).  And just that has me reeling with recognition.  I struggle with my own choices in life (mostly related to job/income) and how my perception of things colors my reality: the fear/s that keep me where I am, instead of where I want to go, who I want to be and what I want to accomplish before this gig is up.

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The bird dogs covering the driveway action: squirrels at one end, cars and motorcycles at the other, and croaking (teasing) ravens overhead.

And what do the dogs think of me, and our life here?  Or of the dog park of their life on the farm, but confining in its own way as well.  I think they know the oasis they provide for me (I tell them, and thank them, often), and hopefully know how profoundly grateful I am to them for keeping me afloat emotionally, mentally, and every other way there is.  I cannot repay them for all they give me, which is why I am so “lenient” on them with regards to making them behave. I sing to them as I make them dinner, or when I come home to their unbridled joy at seeing me (and me them!).  I make up the songs as I go, usually sung to an old, well-known tune, and I know it makes them happy when I sing (because they know I sing when I’m happy).  I also know they love it when I laugh, and I see how hard they work to keep me happy and laughing.  I joke that they have me very well trained (when I buy 10 boxes of biscuits at a time the clerks always ask me about it; we go through at least 3 (1-pound) boxes a week here).  But who am I to these creatures that mean so much to me?  Is it as profound to them as it is to me? I think of each of them and how they came to me, the obstacles they overcame to reach me, or for me to find them.  Is it just me, or is this as profound for everyone here?  I think of finding my first sheep, the serendipity around all of it…though I think it’s more than just chance, or coincidence.  Do they think that too?  How about you, and the animals in your life?

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Gratuitous cuteness: the old guy, traipsing into the house with his swamp legs after a dip in the swampy little pond-ette on a hot spring evening.

Bees please

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Honeybee swarm; about the size of a football.

One Wednesday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, as I was crunching through a gnarly document at work and trying to get things buttoned up for a planned couple days off work, a coworker who knows I keep bees sent me an IM asking if I knew anyone who could come get a bee swarm at her brother’s house. Um, yeah! I quickly responded: ME! She sent me a photo and details: her brother lived a couple towns over, about 15 miles from my home, and the swarm was only 6 feet off the ground, according to her SIL. I had been planning to stay late and work on the document from hell, but even if I stayed four more hours, it wouldn’t make much difference with this doc.  So I left at 5:30 and rushed home to get my bee gear.

I put my 6-foot ladder in the car, a cardboard box, some duct tape, some bungie cords, baling twine, a hive box and lid (in case I could just dump them directly in), some lemongrass oil, my bee veil, and my Rottweiler (Daisy wasn’t about to be left behind!). I got there just as it was getting dark, and went back to look. It was a nice size cluster – not too large – and only about 6 feet up on a branch I could easily snip with my pruners. No need for most of the stuff I’d brought, but that’s okay. I didn’t even suit up; I just positioned the cardboard box under the swarm, and snipped. Done. I should have suited up. I got dinged in the nose, and a few very angry bees flew around me as I got the lid on the box and started taping. It seemed they were finding a hole out, so I kept going with the duct tape until finally they were secure. I’m sure my coworker’s brother thought I was a little nuts as I taped and taped and taped and taped. They were bees, not wolverines. The nose sting wasn’t too horrible, but as I drove home I could feel that one must have gotten me on the ear, too. Ah well.

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Installing the swarm into the hive box.

It was after dark when I got home, so I left them in the box for the night, on top of the hay bales in the garage. In the morning (thankfully I’d already planned to take the day off!) I got everything set up and dumped them in. (This time I did put my bee veil/jacket on.)  It wasn’t as easy as a bee package install, but went pretty well nonetheless. The branch I’d snipped went into the hive box with them (they were still clustered on it) and I put everything back together as soon as I got the bulk of them secured into the hive. Then it was time to sit back and wait, with fingers crossed that they liked the hive and would stay.

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Now for everyone to settle down and figure out where to go (and hopefully Queenie’s inside the hive!).

Later that afternoon the sun was out and they looked happy, flying in and out and getting acquainted with their surroundings. And three days later, it looked like they planned to stay and were setting up house! I was thrilled! After five years of beekeeping, I feel like a real beekeeper now, having caught my first swarm. It had to be the easiest swarm catch on record but you just never know.

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Package bees on their way home with me.

This past Wednesday I picked up my package bees. I’d ordered them before I’d heard about the swarm, and briefly thought about cancelling the order to save money, and to avoid contributing to the practice of buying package bees (I saw a YouTube video once of how they are packaged, and it’s brutal), but I really want two hives going, and with any luck this year is the year I’ll learn how to split a hive, and not be so dependent on buying bees from others who raise them.

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Just about ready to open it up and get them installed.  There are a LOT of bees in there – probably the largest package of bees I’ve ever gotten.

I got the package after work, so it was 7 p.m. before I got things ready for them. I half thought of waiting until the next day to install, but decided to go ahead with it. The sooner they’re in a hive the better for them. I put on my bee jacket (with netted hat or veil to protect my head (face and eyes!) from bee stings), even though package bees are notoriously docile (so are swarms – ha!) and dumped them in the hive. I got these bees from a local hardware store only a mile and a half from my house (so no half hour drive with 15,000 bees in the car with me) and when I talked to the owner, himself a beekeeper, he said they would be 4 pound packages.  I figured he meant 3 pound, which is the norm, and indeed, my receipt when I paid for them said “3# package bees,” but I have to say, there were a LOT of bees in that box.  Maybe it was because they were obviously so much healthier than last year’s package, which, frankly, was half dead when I got it (and had an unusual amount of fully dead bees in there).  This year it seemed like the cage was magic, I kept pouring them out and it seemed like they just never stopped. It was wonderful!  Finally, as civil twilight moved into nautical twilight, I had all of them out of there that I could get out, and the queen in her cage attached to a frame inside the hive. There were a few small clusters still hanging onto the inside of the box, so I just put the box on top of the hive for the night.  They were still there in the morning, but by the time I got home from work that night, the cage was empty (and not a single dead bee to be seen!).

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They settled immediately and seemed to know they were home.

The first couple of days after installation were chilly and wet, but they were still out flying more than I expected.  I let the queen out of her cage the second night and she is beautiful. I’d waited, due to last year’s fiasco. I was never sure what happened, but on my first inspection of that hive, a week or so after installation, I saw queen cells. Meaning, the bees were already replacing the queen that came with them. Not good. I’d done the old “candy plug” in the queen cage when I installed that one, replacing the cork with a piece of marshmallow. The theory is that by the time the bees eat through the candy, they’re bonded with the queen. The plug had fallen out before I finished installing them, so she was loose immediately. Which, frankly, shouldn’t be a problem. The bees love their queen. My guess is she was one of the half dead bees in that package (probably due to overheating – hundreds of packages are hauled up from California in a trailer, and it was hot that week…).  She obviously lived long enough to lay some eggs, and the hive replaced her as soon as they could. But that put us back another month, with regard to the new queen maturing to a laying queen, and then we headed into a drought summer, which made for some hard work to find flowers and nectar. A lot of area beekeepers had bad losses this year. When I realized my hive was dead in early spring (and I’m pretty sure they were probably dead by December) there was a shockingly small amount of honey left in the hive. It hadn’t been robbed, either.

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“Are you my mama?”  I’d released the queen inside the hive, but these guys wouldn’t give up the cage, where her scent still lingered.

I plan to take better care of these hives, monitoring better and getting the hives better protected.  I’ve taken steps towards the second – I’ve moved the bee yard to the garden area (fallow again this year) and closer to the house.  I also have them up off the ground.  They’re temporarily set up on top of dog crates (truly the Swiss Army knife of dog equipment) and I’m trying to figure out how I’ll set them up permanently – benches, picnic table, bee barn…I’ll be doing some Google searches on this topic to see what will work (and that I am capable of building by myself) and get something together in the next month or so.

20160430_113303

My little bee  yard amongst the nettles and on makeshift hive stands.  It will be a lot cuter in another month or two.

I tend to be somewhat lackadaisical about regular inspections. It’s so disruptive to the bees, and I hate opening up their house just so I can see if they have brood and honey stores. But maybe if I’d done so with last year’s hive, I’d have realized they didn’t have much in the way of honey stores. I don’t know that feeding them would have helped, as it was a challenged hive from the beginning, but I only did about three abbreviated inspections in total, which isn’t enough.

20160430_113959This past weekend the weather was picture perfect, warm and sunny and true bee weather.  And both hives are loving it.  The swarm hive is doing well; they are making a lot of honey already and while it seems like they aren’t drawing out much comb, I have to remember how small they were to start. This was obvious when I got the package bees, which had probably four times the number of bees to start (and the package bees are guzzling the sugar syrup I’m giving them – a quart a day compared to the swarm hive’s half pint or so).  The swarm hive is healthy, and even if I haven’t seen the queen (I rarely do) I see larvae, and they are doing what they should be doing.  Happy bees = happy beekeeper.

 

{Summa summa summa time*}

Two of 20 or 30 mature Big Leaf Maples; these are in the sheep pasture.

Two of 30 or so mature big leaf maples on the property; these are in the sheep pasture.

So those trees I was grumbling about back in April? Yeah, I’m full of gratitude for them right now. In a spring and summer of weird weather in North America, the Pacific Northwest has been unusually hot and dry since early May. We normally have a pretty soggy spring, with June usually being gray, if not wet, and June Gloom, or Juneuary being common descriptors for the wet, and often cold, weather. This year, though, summer arrived a full month early and has been setting records all the way. We’ve been roasting since June, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. And, yes, the shade from the trees has been welcome. My roast chicken fetish has suffered a bit (hard to muster the resolve to fire up the oven to 400 degrees for 90 minutes—the house is like a little hot box from about 4 p.m. on), but I’m still chowing on the watermelons.

Sheep at dusk.

Sheep at dusk.

The beasts are doing well in the heat, what with plenty of shade to hang out in. And even if I didn’t have too much shade (per my lament for grass growing back in April), the property is dried up and the grass has turned brown due to lack of moisture. I’ve been watering some, but it’s a battle lost long ago (the paradox being that within two weeks of no rain, the ground is dried up and rock hard) and I mostly do it to help cool the place in the evenings. I have to be careful with the watering so I don’t run the well tank dry. I accidentally do this a few times every year and it freaks me out every time. The first time I did it, the first summer I was here, I thought the well had run dry (or the pump had broken down) and was cobbling together a plan before I called the well repair guy to come take a look (it was late on a Sunday night). I turned off the faucet to the sprinkler I had going (mostly to cool things off rather than water the dead grass) and within 15 minutes the water was running in the house again. Lesson learned. I’ve done it a few times since, and it’s always a 3-second panic before I remember. Now I set a timer for watering; I time the watering AND the recharging period, so I’m not overtaxing the system.

Bees drinking from the pond. It's perfect for them; with all the slop and vege growing in it, they can drink safe from drowning.

Bees drinking from the pond. It’s perfect for them; with all the slop and vege growing in it, they can drink safe from drowning.

I keep the little slop pond filled; it’s the main source of water for my bees, and of course the dogs’ constant slopping in there to cool off. Pal will lie down and roll to his side to get good and wet, then go roll in ecstasy in the pile of hog fuel. Nice. I also keep a little kiddie pool scrubbed and filled for the dogs (basically a giant water bowl for them, 031the chickens, and the sheep—you’d think it was the only water around for miles, given its popularity as a trough). I stepped in when it was clean and full recently and yelped with the cold. It was obvious that this water was fresh from the subterranean Snoqualmie Valley.

A recent day trip took me to the San Juan Islands.  This is Mount Baker seen from the ferry on the way home.

A recent day trip took me to the San Juan Islands. This is Mount Baker seen from the ferry on the way home, and had me feeling blessed to live in such a paradise.

Not much is getting done in the way of chores – too hot for housework is one of my favorite excuses – but thankfully, being in a maritime climate, it does cool down at night. I open the doors and windows, and employ a fan, and by midnight or so, the house has cooled nicely. I’m leaving the back door open all night (with a baby gate to keep the dogs in—otherwise they would be out barking at snipes all night long), and do the same with the chicken coop, so the hens have a chance to cool down. But for the most part all the critters are doing well. The sheep stay in the shade, and drink plenty of water, and the chickens take dust baths in the hot sun and go through gallons of water. The dogs and cats lay around all day, for the most part. The Setter boys being a skootch more active than Daisy, who just lounges in one of her many dirt pits. Pal runs after birds, and Farley insists I throw his ball for him, though he paces himself with regards to returning it for another toss.

Eloise complaining about her captivity from my office (behind glass paneled door).

Eloise complaining about her captivity from my office (behind glass paneled door).

The only problem, honestly, has been the cats. The two youngsters, and especially Madeline, are quite the hunters, and keeping them inside once I open the doors to cool the house requires locking them in my office. For the entire night. That’s not really that big of a deal (Eloise would argue otherwise, and has shredded paperwork I’ve left on my desk), but it does require some management. Now that the birds are no longer singing (sniff – I miss my Swainson’s seranades in the evenings), and the nesting season winding up, I’ve relented and let them outside. Madeline is impossible to get back inside, as her feral nature takes over once she crosses the threshold. She stays out all night, and sometimes for a full 24 or 36 hours. I find dead mice scattered around in the morning (the chickens love these) and a dead bat recently, too. This saddened me even as it gave me the willies. It was a tiny little thing, no bigger than the tip of my thumb, with tiny needles for teeth. And this afternoon I found a dead towhee in the front yard, which upset me nearly to tears, and I cursed myself for not locking Madeleine up permanently. When it rains at night she’ll come in readily, but in that case it will be another month. I will hopefully get her inside tonight (we’re coming up on 36 hours out now) and am locking her up in a dog crate if I have to.

Happy hive.

Happy hive.

The bees are happy, and I’m pleased with the front-of-hive activity I’m seeing. I opened it up for an inspection a few weekends ago and was pleased to see plenty of brood in the few frames I looked at. The bees were very docile—unusually so—and I kept it very brief. As soon as I saw the brood, I pretty much stopped. I’m always so paranoid about squishing the queen by accident, and it was hot, so I just plopped on another hive box so they could build up, and will wait for a cooler day to do a more thorough inspection. I want to do a split – start a new hive by moving some frames of brood into a new hive, but am squeamish about it. I don’t trust that they’ll figure out how to make a queen, so will probably buy a queen to put in there. If I do it. I’ll have to feed all winter too, with it being so late in the season (and the drought taking its toll on flowering plants of all kinds). We shall see.

*Summertime

Gratuitous cuteness: Daisy relaxing in one of her more elaborate dirt pits.  Happy dog.

Gratuitous cuteness: Daisy relaxing in one of her more elaborate dirt pits, dug into the hillside. Happy dog. Heart her!

Bee-ing

So, I wrote this a week ago and decided not to edit it too much.  It’s a bit stream-of-consciousness writing, but since I like to read that kind of writing (Terry McMillan comes to mind, or many essayists, as well as many (most?) blogs), I’m just gonna let ‘er fly as is, with some updates for today and the past week.

Okay, so full disclosure: I’ve had about 16 oz of beer (so far) as I begin to write this.  I’ll edit once the effects of said beer (Fat Tire ROCKS!) wear off, but there’s no denying the fact that inhibitions (a.k.a. the monkey mind or inner critic) are let go with a little bit of alcohol.  Why do you think there are so many legendary writers who are also known for their love of drink?  It often killed them in the end, this drunken love affair, but there is an undeniable connection. Hmm.  Note to self…

So here I am, sitting in front of my beehive on a delicious Friday evening in September.  The fact that it’s Mabon (i.e., the autumn equinox in the northern hemisphere) just makes it all that much better.  We’re having a bit of an Indian summer here, which is only fair after the spring and early summer we endured, and I’m loving it.  The dark-at-7:30 aspect of this time of year, not so much.  I’m beginning to wonder if I’m more suited to an equatorial location, where the length of daylight versus night doesn’t fluctuate so wildly.  There’s no question I love our 9:30 sunsets in July (except for this year, when we were stuck inside due to rain and chilly temps), but there is a certain franticness to the summer around here.  It’s best described by the old adage: make hay while the sun shines.  With the compressed weather pattern (essentially nine months of rain and clouds and three months of “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen” beauty) lends an air of urgency to everything.  Maybe it’s just me, my interests and proclivities (nocturnal), but the summer is kind of stressful around here.  It’s better when one doesn’t have to work full time (as I learned when I was unemployed for nearly 24 months about eight years ago) – the time to spend at home, doing what you love, enjoying and living the weather of the season(s) instead of sitting in an air-conditioned office with a jacket on, looking longingly out the window all day long (and pathetically grateful you have a window to look out of!) at the warmth and sun until it’s toot-toot quittin’ time and you can get out for the last few hours of daylight.  As it is now I find it hard to come inside the house before dark (in July and August this means I don’t get back inside until nearly 10:00 pm), and then it’s time to do all the stuff the inside needs.  It’s little wonder my house looks like something detonated inside it.  May I also interject that I would rather mow the lawn than vacuum (or mop, ugh) the floors, weed the garden vs. dust the house, muck the sheep barn vs. do the dishes.  By a wide margin, too.

So on this lovely evening, I’m sitting next to my beehive as the sun sets much too early.  The bees have been busy, but nothing like they were a month ago, when I’d come home from work to a hive so active it looked like it was swarming (I would often look to nearby trees, to see if there WAS a swarm).  Now they’re busy but not so thick with flights, with arrivals and departures in a seemingly chaotic abandon.  They’re a little more subdued as the days cool and darken by 7 p.m.  I sit and watch them as I type, the dogs coming over to see what I’m doing, Farley dropping his ball on my lap(top), to leave a soggy, muddy trail over my keyboard (and several typos) and screen.  It dries and makes me smile.  Daisy and Pal come over to “attack” my face and head, in range as I sit on the ground, licking my face, nibbling on ears, and leaning against my back and side as they vie for my attention (spent on the weird fold of plastic and metal on my lap).  Life is good.

The bees are good too.  I AM beginning to wonder, though, if I’m really cut out to be a “beekeeper.”  I’m actually wondering if perhaps what I should be called is a “Bee Guardian” in the fashion of many pet people these days, where no one “owns” their pets – dog or cat – but is rather a guardian to the animals they live with.  There’s some validation to the term, though I haven’t embraced it.  I still own my pets, and think that, ultimately, it more accurately describes our relationship.  I once read a blog by a dog psychologist type that kind of explained our relationship with our pets in a brutally accurate way.  They are essentially our prisoners (we “keep” them), but the whole pet parent and pet guardian is still too PETA for me.  Dogs especially have evolved (i.e., have been selectively bred) to a point where the vast majority would die off within one generation in any kind of apocalypse.  Of course the same could be said for our own species…

But I digress.  The bees and I are doing well, but I have to say, taking the honey feels…kinda awful.  I did a half-assed hive inspection a week or so ago.  Half-assed mainly because of my late factor (late in the day) and also because since it’s been so long (late schedule) since the last one (a month).  The bees have done a great job of cementing everything down with propolis, so it takes a long time just to get a few frames out.  And half-assed because of the time of year.  The bees now get Seriously. Pissed. Off.  Gone are my sweet, gentle girls of spring (literally, I’m sure – besides the queen, I’m sure all four pounds of those bees I dumped in the hive back in April have gone to bee heaven by now).  Now that it’s Fall, they are on high alert, and my clumsy intrusions (trying to unstick the glued down frames with the hive tool) are not welcome.  Perhaps if I did it more often (weekly, as is recommended), they’d be more used to it and not so protective.  At the very least the propolis wouldn’t be so thick.  Or perhaps I exuded some scent that agitated them.  For example, eating a banana before you go work with your hives is not recommended, as the odor is similar to the odor of a hive under attack.  Or perhaps I’m just being dramatic and this is normal.  They really weren’t horrible, but they were definitely angry and a few flew at me with intent.  Two leg stings this time.  One crawled down my Wellies an inch or so for a nice sting to my shin – there goes that theory (that they won’t crawl down into boots).

But I had my own intent, and perhaps they knew it.  I ended up with about half a frame of honey-filled comb from one of the frames in the super.  It’s sweet and delicious, and tastes of summer, but feels like contraband.  I seriously don’t think I could ever harvest a hive full of honey – all that hard work from thousands of flights and I’m going to come in and poach it?  In one statistic I read, a bee collects just 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime.  It takes the entire lifetime of 12 bees to make a teaspoon of honey.  How dare I come in and take it?  No wonder they were ticked off.

I knew my super would be packed with honey, and it was, and I wanted to be sure the lower boxes also had plenty of honey stores.  I only got a frame or two into the top deep, and it looked okay, but ended up giving in.  As I mentioned, it was getting late (I forget how early it gets late now – it’s dark by 7:30 now.  Sigh.) and it actually upsets me to disturb them so thoroughly.  When I first became enamored of the idea of beekeeping, it was because I had come across a blog about “natural” beekeeping with a top bar hive.  Rather than forcing the bees to build on artificial frames, it was basically just providing a box for the bees to live in.  Sort of like a bird house (in my mind).  Sure, you populate the box with a purchased queen and workers, but after that you just stand back and let nature do her thing.  Honey was never a goal for me, and still isn’t.  I wanted to help the bees, which are having a tough time these days.  But, for a variety of reasons, some I’ve mentioned before, I went with the conventional beekeeping methods for this first year.  Next spring it’s a new Warre hive for me!  My goal is to support the bees, to give them a leg up, so to speak, and hopefully perpetuate a robust, naturally healthy and disease resistant population.  One that I’ll protect from bears – watch out for me and my kale plant, Mr. Bear (see previous post) –  and encourage with plenty of room to grow (new hive boxes) strong.

Friday, September 30, 2011:  It’s a week later, and definitely a season later – the weather turned last Sunday and it’s been cooler and wetter, and more typical for this time of year.  We had a nice day on Thursday – I wish I’d left the office early to come home for a hive inspection.  But due to a dead battery in my car that morning, I got to work a little late and leaving early wasn’t in the cards.  I have learned that the top bar hive isn’t quite the trouble-free, easy-as-pie method that blog I read a year ago it made out to be, but I’m still planning to add one next spring for my second hive.  In the meantime, I’m waiting for another warm weekend day to do a better inspection, and be sure the bees have everything they need for a successful wintering.  The way it looks right now this may not happen, and I’ll just have to hope they’ve done everything right – I’m sure they have – and everything will be okay until spring.  Bad beekeeper!  But maybe, just maybe, I’m a good bee guardian.

Juicy Jungle June

The best of intentions have been waylaid once again.  Life has a way of happening – time marches on and all that – and before you know it an entire month passes by.  There’s no question that the month of May into June is a busy one in the Northern hemisphere, and especially if you’re at all outdoorsy or garden-minded.  And here in the Seattle area, it’s almost like living in the tropics (well, except for the cool temps) – the vegetative growth this time of year is just phenomenal.  The jungle-like growth peaks in late June (solstice) and from here on out it will slow down as the flowers and seed pods begin to form, just as much going on but not quite so frenetic feeling as the juicy spring growth. 

This is, of course, a long winded entrance to saying that I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last post here!  Despite my best intentions to stay more current and conversational with frequent short posts, I’m once again playing catch up here on interests, doings and updates.  A lot can happen in a month, and here are some of the things I’ve been up to (I’ll probably miss more than I’ll report on!). 

The weather continues to be a major player, with most of May being unseasonably cold, and plenty of the wet stuff too.  June followed suit, and while it is a skooch warmer, it’s been rainy and cool for much of the month.  The bees are hanging in there.  I had a scare a couple of weeks ago where I thought I’d lost my queen, but things seem to be okay.  I did an inspection were I saw no larvae at all (compared to my jam packed frames of mid-May).  A more thorough inspection (like, every single frame) the next day showed a handful of small larvae on one (just one!) frame.  The rest of the frames that had comb (only about 50 percent of the frames have comb built so far) were capped cells, with some burr comb that looked like supersedure (queen) cells.  I also saw a large number of dead drones on the stoop below the landing – obviously there’d been a good sized hatch at some point.  

The frames all felt lighter than they did just a few weeks earlier, but at the advice of another beekeeper I waited and did another inspection a week later (rather than run out to purchase a new queen to introduce).  He felt that perhaps the lack of larvae was just the fact that the queen had nowhere to lay eggs – yet.  As a new hive this year, the bees have been working around the clock to build comb, as well as tend brood, collect pollen and nectar and all the other myriad things they do to keep the hive going.  On my next inspection I found more larvae and even eggs (normally hard to see) in many open cells.  The capped brood had hatched and there was now room for more laying.  More hatch means more bees to build more comb and collect more nectar, etc.  The collecting nectar part has been a little weak, due to the previously mentioned wet, cold weather.  The bees can handle one or the other, somewhat, but the combination keeps them in the hive and grounded.  

A chance conversation yesterday with another beekeeper at the local hardware store (I knew one of the employees there had hives, but hadn’t run into him before) made me realize that my bees were hungry.  I took out the feeder back in May when they were going great guns (lots of brood and lots of honey being made), but the ensuing wet weather, large hatch, and lack of available nectar had them surviving on the honey stores they’d just begun to make.  The light bulb came on as he talked – my frames were so light…no wonder!  I put a pint of sugar water out there yesterday evening and it was drained by midday today.  I checked to be sure it hadn’t just leaked out (nope) and filled it up again.  This weekend has been very wet, though today it’s been merely overcast, not raining.  As long as they’re draining it like this, I will continue to feed them.  We’re a couple weeks out from blackberry blooming – the annual nectar bonanza for bees in this area – and by then I’ll hopefully have plenty of healthy bees ready to maximize the abundance and store enough honey to see them through the winter months. 

The garden is coming along slowly too.  I finally got all the compost spread and planted some seeds a few weeks back.  When I planted what seeds I had, I realized how gi-normous the garden plot is (~765 sq. ft); while I’ve had larger vegetable gardens before (I’m thinking of the Jack-and-the Beanstalk bounty of when I lived along the Issaquah Creek – fertile bottomland where you basically just dropped a seed and stood back), but this one is my first with ‘just me’ and exclusively for veggies.  Most of my gardening in the past decade or so has been medicinal herbs and edible landscaping beds versus a true vegetable garden plot.  I have it about half planted now, and need to get a few more things in the ground before it gets too late.  I have some stuff for fall planting, too, so there’s time, but with solstice just a day away, it feels more urgent.  And of course there’s the maintenance of weeding and pest control.  Slugs have been dining on my lettuce sprouts, as well as my pumpkin and green bean seedlings.  I go out at night with a flashlight and collect the offenders, then feed them to the ducks the next day.  

The critters are all doing well – the sheep are happy on their green pasture and plenty of browse.  The pasture needs mowing right now, as they tend to ignore all the seed heads in favor of tender sprouts and leafy browse (the mowing is scheduled for next Saturday).  I let them out to graze the rest of the property too, though they usually end up on the front lawn.   The littlest sheep, Pebbles, is especially goatlike in her foraging.  I see her standing on her hind legs trying to get up to low hanging branches of the maples and fruit trees.  She loves any pruning trimmings, and of all of them seems happiest with the variety of browse to graze.  My friend Susan came by a few weeks ago and loaded up Bo and Curly, the two horned boys.  She’s the one who kept them for me last summer until I got my pasture fenced.  It’s a win-win for us both – she gets her steep pastures mowed and my pasture isn’t overgrazed.  And the other three – Pebbles, Cinnamon, and Conan (Coco) – aren’t bullied by the two more aggressive ones.  When they come back from their summer mowing job it’s likely that one or both will go to the butcher.  Bo can be a jerk – butting the others over food as well as the fence, gate, wall, etc.  After a couple months in the confinement area (during the winter they are off the pasture to prevent overgrazing) he starts making moves at me too, which will earn him a trip to the freezer this year.  Since he’s super aggressive with the dogs, they can have the last laugh dining on him all winter.  

The ducklings have been growing and thriving – they’ve been out in the chicken tractor for several weeks now and are loving it – a fresh patch of grass every day or so, and a pan of water to swim and play in.  They are beginning to look like ducks, feathering out and are even growing wings now.  Chicks grow wings pretty much immediately – within the first week or so they have feathered out wings and usually tail feathers too, even while the rest is just fuzz.  Ducklings’ wings are just useless stubbies until about four or five weeks, when they start to grow longer and even grow wing feathers.  Right now they have juvenile plumage, which means that they all look like females.  They are all still mostly peeping, but every once in a while I hear a quack, so I know there’s for sure at least one female in the bunch (male ducks don’t (can’t) quack). They continue to be very wary of me, but the dogs don’t faze them.  Pal loves to point on them, when he’s not pointing on the chickens or hunting moles (he’s a champion mole hunter – at least two so far! – he’s lucky I don’t mind the pits he digs on his hunts. 

One or two other things I’ve been up to…

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