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Archive for the tag “honeybees”

No birdz allowed – lung stuff part deux

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Another glorious Pacific Northwest summer is winding to an end. They are always too short.

Continued from previous post:
So I left the specialist’s office that day in March with a couple prescriptions – one for oxygen at home, and one for steroids (prednisone) – both of which I’d used a year earlier, and both of which I didn’t want to do, although they help immensely. I knew the oxygen use would be short-lived, as once the prednisone kicked in and inflammation was neutralized, I no longer needed it. While its benefit is huge in that 10 – 14 day time frame, I just didn’t want to deal with it (both the admittance that I needed it nor the growling, hissing activity of the oxygen concentrator, not to mention the medical rental of the machine, although this experience/company was MUCH better than last year’s). And, after all was said and done, I spent over $630 on the rental (insurance only covers so much)  for the 10 days of use, because the doctor wouldn’t okay its return until she saw me again…in May. I would have done better to purchase one of my own at that cost!

A few weeks after my visit we got the antigen tests back. And while most everything was in range (they test for a variety of typically encountered organisms) there were a couple of molds that were moderately out of range (high) and two others that I just didn’t expect: pigeon droppings, and pigeon feathers and proteins. Which, of course, means all avian. (I’d tested negative for bird allergies last year.) The doctor knew I had chickens (we’d discussed them with the sheep) and she flatly said I had to get rid of them. I was dismayed, not really understanding if they were outside why I had to get rid of them. I live on acreage. There are birds EVERYwhere. And geez, I’ve been keeping chickens pretty much my whole life (a continuous flock since 1981). But what she didn’t know, and I of course then shared with her, is that I also had a couple of parakeets in the house. And these two, I realized, I would definitely have to place. Dang.

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Of course these results, combined with the review/reassessment of my prior tests and procedures/pathology (done elsewhere) by the UW pathologists, confirmed the rediagnosis from sarcoidosis to hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The doctor was very clear that I had to get the birds out, and once they were out, a deep cleaning of the house (wall washing, floors, furniture, etc.) that I was NOT, under any circumstances (even with my fancy respirator mask) to do myself.  Okay, but… “Have some friends come over to do this for you.”  Um, no. I would hire someone before I asked my friends to do a deep clean on my house.

The first thing I did was take the parakeets, Hugh and Cate, to the vet. I was going to give them away, probably via a Craigslist ad, but wanted to be sure they were healthy before I did so.  Hugh was dealing with some kind of mite or lice infestation – not horrible, but his feathers had looked a little rough for the past 8 months or so (I’d treated with mite control, using the vet’s recommended protocol, to no discernable improvement). Cate looked fine, so maybe there was something else going on with Hugh?  Sure enough, lab work showed he had some elevated kidney values, moving towards gout (who knew?). And here is where my angels helped me out. As the vet relayed the information about Hugh’s bloodwork and recommended treatment (and expense – I’d already spent over $200 for their checkup and lab tests) – fluids once a day for a week, retest blood work and re-evaluate treatment – I was simultaneously trying to digest the information and figure out what to do. She knew of my health situation, as I’d explained it to her/the clinic when I brought Hugh and Cate in for the exam, and then she very kindly and graciously offered me a solution. If I wanted to, I could sign Hugh over to the clinic, releasing ownership and entrusting his care and eventual adoption placement to them. I hesitated, thinking of Hugh – while he wasn’t a bird I’d handled regularly I still felt affection for him and of course responsible for his well-being. I’d had him for 8 years and he was a cheerful, beautiful little guy. But I knew the treatment he needed was outside my ability at that point, and I didn’t want to place him with the hope that whoever adopted him would do the right thing with his care (nor was it fair to place a sick bird with anyone). What was best for him was to sign him over to a place where he could get the care he needed. I brought him in a week or so later. The vet, Dr. Carter, gave me a hug as I signed the papers and said goodbye. I mostly held it together until I got in the car to leave, and then had to dig around in my glove box for a tissue to wipe the tears away so I could see to drive home.

For Cate, now alone, an equally miraculous solution occurred. She and Hugh weren’t bonded, and in separating them she actually seemed happier. They never fought, but they never seemed to hit it off (I’d had her about 3 or 4 years). The weekend after I placed Hugh with the vet, I went to a local spring fair with a friend who also raises Shetland sheep. It was a great chance for her and I to catch up on the drive down, and go see the sheep and fleeces, and booths from sheep farmers and wool vendors, plus chat with other sheep people we both knew. She asked about my health update as we drove back home that day, and I gave her the whole long story of the new doctor and findings all the way to the need to place the parakeets. As I yakked away, she began texting a coworker whose son was an animal lover and had recently said he wanted a parakeet. I didn’t even notice she was texting until she told me about this possible home being available. The coworker texted back that they had already gotten a parakeet, but said they would think about taking Cate too.  From the description, it sounded like a wonderful home, and I sent photos of Cate along with a description of her personality. It turns out the boy, aged 10 or 12, had wanted an all yellow parakeet, and was thrilled to see Cate was exactly what he was looking for. “It’s kismet,” he told his mother, who contacted my friend to let her know they’d take Cate. The boy renamed her Mango, which I just love.

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The badly placed kiwi vine (here when I moved in) once again trying to take over the front porch. I’ve lopped off nearly as much as you see here. I need to transplant him. I call him Groot.

So my house was parakeet-less for the first time in 10 years or more, and it was eerily quiet. But I knew it was for the best and it seemed miraculous that both birds were placed almost effortlessly into situations that were perfect for them. I cleaned up the area they’d been in, vacuuming well and wiping down the wall and windowsill where I’d kept the cage, and of course moving the cage out to the garage (and hosing it down outside first). Next on the agenda was testing my environment for toxins in the form of molds and bacteria.

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The plum tree was laden with its ping pong ball plums this year, the branches groaning under the weight.  The dogs and the sheep have been enjoying them.

I contacted one of the companies on the list the clinic had sent me. The fellow there, Payam Fallah, was a wealth of information, and we discussed my antigen test results and the animals I have here. Like my doctor, he too was a dog lover, which felt good.  Both of them not only understood the dog connection, they both confirmed that dogs/cats rarely are an issue in these cases. Payam also has a tortoise (I’d shared that my menagerie includes a box turtle), and we had a good discussion about our mutual love of animals. Again, this was reassuring – I didn’t want my animals to be automatic targets for removal because of an overall dislike of animals by the professionals I was dealing with.  He sent me sterile swabs/kits for me to take samples in my house. He told me that taking swabs in my detached garage – where I store the sheep’s hay (and the mold inherent therein, which I believe to be one of the major factors in the original manifestation of this health issue) – is pointless, as there are so many molds in the environment/outdoors. Okay…

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My sheep maintenance in my fancy new “deck chair” (sheep restraining tool) wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped.  The Shetlands are squirmy, and Trixie, above, probably the worst of the lot.

So I took four samples: one in the bathroom, one in the bedroom, one in my office, and one in the main room of living room/kitchen/“dining” (my house is tiny; this last area, at roughly 500 square feet, encompasses half of it).  A week later he emailed me the results.  Which basically said my little house was fine.  The highest mold readings were in the bathroom (duh), but a) the mold count wasn’t astronomical and b) the molds were not the ones that showed up on my antigen tests. The bedroom, where I was most concerned (for the crawlspace underneath), had a big fat doughnut for results. Which was good. Despite the fact that I sleep in a pile with the dogs (and a brave feline or two) every night, and the crawlspace was an unknown quantity (can’t access), absolutely nothing showed on the swab I took from a wall sconce above my pillow. Thankyoujesus.

I still want to do a swab in the garage, and maybe I still will (have one left, and spreading out the cost is a good thing too – out of pocket, it’s $40 each swab to see if anything grows). But the house is fine.

Now to figure out the chickens…

Health update on the lung thing {zzzzzzz}

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The ovine greeting crew when I get home from work every day.  From left, Mungo, Minnie, and Trixie.  Mungo and Trixie are Minnie’s twins from 2014.

So it’s been a few months since my last health update. One reason, as you might have guessed, is that I’m doing better, for the most part. No need to kvetch when you’re feeling well.  The second reason is simply that it’s deadly boring to go on about your health issues, and (something I’ve mentioned here before) it feeds the “unwell” and gives it power. Your illness becomes your story, your story is who you are and how you identify yourself, and you get sicker. Then there’s the old “Attention Whore” aspect, as my delightful niece-in-law put it (she’s dealing with her own very serious health condition with grace and dignity, a great attitude and humor!). Enough already, you know? So I’ve blogged about topics that interest me more – the farm, the birds, my bees. But a few of you may have wondered, so I’ll try and be brief (a challenge for me, Verbosity Queen that I am) and update here.

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Daisy reluctantly helping me test out my new sheep “deck chair” after I put it together. It’s  equipment to help me with sheep maintenance like hoof trims, vaccines, and worming.

First and foremost, I am seeing a new doctor. I went to see this doc as a “second opinion” type of thing back in October 2015, when I was doing well. Then,  just off 6 months of prednisone therapy and a dry, sunny summer, I felt fine, even great. Even so, seeing this pulmonary specialist in interstitial lung disease and a sarcoidosis specialist at the University of Washington (at my own request/initiation) seemed prudent. My higher self looking out for me, perhaps. It was a bit of a hassle to get there, which is why I hadn’t gone before, but my interactions with the pulmonologist I’d been working with so far hadn’t been reassuring or inspired trust.

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The bees bearding on a hot summer night. Basically hanging out on the stoop where it’s cooler, just like you or I would. But without the cold beer.

The visit with the specialist went really well. I had a good rapport and she went over my records (illuminating me further on things that hadn’t been shared before). Since I was doing so well at the time, she suggested a recheck in six months (April 2016). Six weeks later, however, the symptoms returned. I wasn’t as bad as the year before, when all this first started (November 2014), but breathing easily was an issue again. So I went back to the original pulmonologist and had the worst appointment ever. I think if I had been hit by a bus on my way out of the clinic she’d have been happy to be rid of me for good. I wrote about it here, with a promise to update but I never did.

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The junco’s nest I was watching in June/July.  Only one egg (of four) hatched, but the chick was gone within a week, likely a meal for a shrew.  The pair tried again in a new nest location, again with four eggs, but none of them hatched, though the female was diligent.  It looked like they weren’t fertile.  The cats invaded the nest (after it had been abandoned) and broke a few of the eggs – there was zero development.

I struggled along, dosing myself regularly with ibuprofen (3 tablets every 22 hours or so seemed to keep the inflammation manageable) and mostly feeling okay. If I didn’t walk fast, and anything physical was done with lots of breaks to stop and catch my breath, I managed okay. The best way to describe this is I feel like I’ve just run a 400-meter dash when all I’ve done is walk across the driveway to the garage. It’s not like asthma or other bronchial constrictions, where I can’t get enough air in physically, it’s more that when I do huff and puff, the oxygen isn’t making it to my bloodstream. Then, in February, everything came to a grinding halt with a ramping up of tasks and responsibilities at work, and accompanying high stress. The ibuprofen dosing wasn’t keeping up, even when I upped the frequency to every 12 hours. I called the specialist’s office. They set me up with a late March appointment, which sounded fine. A week later I was feeling bad enough (and, frankly, a little worried at how badly I was doing) that I called and asked if they could get me in sooner. My appointment was set for early March.

I went in for a 1:00 appointment, thinking I’d be home by 3:00 or so, but it was after 6 p.m. before I got home that night. First the respiratory therapist come in for my walking test. He hooked me up to the oximeter and we began the six minutes of walking at the fastest speed I was comfortable with – I’d aced it back in October.  Within a few dozen steps he stopped me, thinking the oximeter wasn’t hooked up right and needed adjustment. I looked at the number showing and said blithely, “No, that’s right. That’s what it does.” (I monitor my blood oxygen and pulse rate at home.) It was reading low 80s at that point (which wasn’t as bad as it got while I was feeding the sheep or caring for the chickens). He seemed alarmed and said “You need to be on oxygen.” And stopped the test. “No,” I protested, thinking it was no big deal, “I can just walk slower, I don’t need oxygen.” He wasn’t having it and took me back to the exam room to wait for the doctor.

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The male dark-eyed junco singing from the red huckleberry stump last month.  None of the songbirds are singing now – nesting season is over – so my  much loved Swainson’s thrush serenades are over until next May.

A few minutes later she came in and sat down.  After the initial greetings she said “I was thinking about you recently.” (Moi? I was more than a little surprised.) “You weren’t originally scheduled to come in today, were you?”

Well, this was a “You had me at hello” moment for me.  I saw her one time, five months previous, and if she even remembered who I was it would have been enough. This, though, had me glowing with a “you see me” warmth. “No,” I replied, “my appointment wasn’t for another two weeks, but I haven’t been doing well so I called to move it up.”  And off we went. I told her how I’d been doing, my symptoms, how they’d gotten worse, what I thought was going on (job stress), what was (or had been) working, etc. Then she told me how it was.

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The fruit of a manroot vine (Marah oreganus) along the driveway, looking very Dr. Seuss-ian.  A Northwest native, the fruits are about the size of a plum, the “spines” soft and fleshy. It’s a relative to cucumbers and gourds.

First of all, the reason she’d been thinking of me is because she had another patient with symptoms very similar to mine, who was also a referral (i.e., also already diagnosed when she came in). Like mine, the other patient’s symptoms and tests didn’t add up and when they looked into it further they found that, no, this other patient didn’t have sarcoidosis but rather hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP).  Hmm.

So she ordered up all my slides and pathology from my previous doctor/hospital and planned to have the UW pathologists review them. And she recommended more testing. We did a CT scan that day.  The results showed no change from the one done a year ago (meaning no worse, which is a good thing, considering how poorly I felt). And she also ran some antigen tests. An antigen is a substance that your body reacts against, such as molds, dusts, and chemicals. Last year I requested allergy testing – partly to buy time (the previous doc only seemed to really want to do the bronchoscopy) – which is a different thing (IgE vs. IgG).  Everything on those allergy tests last year came back normal, which wasn’t a surprise, but it ruled out things I was worried about (the dogs and cats). I don’t have allergies, and only very rarely react to something I’ve eaten or in my environment.  Antigen testing though is testing to see if I had things I was reacting to via antibodies (proteins that your body creates in response to antigens). This, if you’ll remember, was more what I was thinking was going on back in February 2015. Specifically with moldy hay and a condition called Farmer’s Lung. There are many antigen variances of HP – farmer’s lung, bird fancier’s lung, wine grower’s lung, woodworker’s lung, etc., and I asked the doc about testing in the home (I’ve been very concerned about potential molds in the crawlspace) and she supplied me with a list of companies that tested for home toxins. This felt like real progress, for the first time in a year!

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The flock is down to 10 and the freezer is full. The meat is excellent (from 4-year-old sheep).

And then she had me redo the walking test with oxygen. And I was a-mazed at the difference.  For weeks I hadn’t walked faster than a snail’s pace without running out of breath.  With the oxygen (turned up to twice the normal flow rate) I was almost back to a normal pace.  Wow!  It felt incredible! I guess they’re right {joking} But it unfortunately meant she wanted me to have oxygen at the house again. She was unimpressed with my fancy respiratory mask and the care I take (covering my hair, etc.) when feeding the sheep and insisted I get someone to feed them for me, and to keep my contact minimal. I understand her concern and insistence, but felt that until there was conclusive proof they were an issue, I would continue to take precautions and protect my breathing around the hay feeding.

The bottom line is the doctor feels that I probably don’t have sarcoidosis – even the radiologist’s report of my CT scan last year had zero mention of this as a possible diagnosis. I remember my last pulmonologist discussing the diagnosis after the bronchoscopy procedure (an abbreviated visit, where the doctor was talking fast and was very short with me—because I was 10 minutes late, I guess—and indicating the results weren’t entirely conclusive as sarcoidosis but that’s what they were going with for my diagnosis and treatment. Wait, what? Ookay. (?!) But now, this specialist pulmonologist was taking the time to go the extra mile and do some actual research into my case, and ME.  Again, this felt incredible. (Before this, with the other doctor, I felt like I was the only one doing any research into my case.)  And with this research, plus the further testing , she felt the much more likely diagnosis was HP for me. This was a good thing. I think?

~ To be continued~

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Gratuitous cuteness: Pal, in one of his rare moment of stillness (to be fair, he’s a doll in the house, calm and easy – it’s just outside that he runs and runs).  Note the gash under his eye, where he ran into a lone fencepost during a case of the zoomies.  He’s normally super agile, but it was dusk, and the fencepost is a leftover from fencing my vegetable garden  – ow! Heart this little guy!

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.

 

Bee talkin’

It’s the last day of March and the wet end to a wet month.  And it’s not just me complaining (again) – there were records set all over the state, for daily rainfall accumulation and monthly accumulation.  But it didn’t matter today because I was in a class, well, a talk, all day, and it was raining for much of the day.  As the talk wound down, a weak sunlight began to penetrate the clouds, and by the time I got home at 6 pm it was downright sunny.  It was a beautiful end to a very nice day—nice because the talk was really great.  It was given by Jacqueline Freeman, an organic beekeeper in southwest Washington, near Portland, and hosted by her longtime friend, Patti, who lives in Snoqualmie.  It was held at Patti’s home, a beautiful little farm even in the rain and mud.  How lucky for me –only a couple towns over instead of a three hour drive. 

If you’ve seen the movie Queen of the Sun, you’ve seen Jacqueline in action.  The first part of the day (10:00 – noon) focused on catching swarms, both the nuts and bolts how to’s and the why, and the why was included in the title of the talk “The Salvation of the Honeybee Kingdom: Swarms & Feral Bees.”  Simply put, the genetic diversity we need for healthy bees is something we need to encourage.  Jacqueline is a great friend to the bees, and after listening to her talk, I’m almost glad I didn’t treat for mites (yet?).  I’ve ordered my package for my new hive this year even knowing that the queen it will contain will have been artificially inseminated (seriously) and genetic diversity and survival of the fittest is being lost because of this.  After Jacqueline’s talk I’m hoping to get on a swarm list and get my future bees this natural way.  Another point she made was how swarming is natural and to be celebrated and even encouraged, versus the traditional beekeeping view of preventing them from swarming.  When a hive swarms it essentially is splitting into two hives, with the queen leaving with 50 to 70 percent of the hive workers, and new queens (that will hopefully find mates) inheriting the hive from her).   I’ve always secretly thought this would be cool if it happened, but the conventional beeks all make it sound like it’s something to be avoided.  Certainly if a hive is too small (not enough room)  it could encourage a premature split (or an abandonment altogether), but swarming is the natural order of things and would be amazing to see.  So my plan is to have the equipment ready (extra hive boxes) for a swarm, from my own bees or others. 

The afternoon talk was about the spirituality of bees and beekeeping, the title being “The Arc of Creation and the Song of Increase, the Spiritual Life of the Honeybee.”  The title alone had me hooked, but when Jacqueline began her talk explaining that she’s talked with the bees (as animal communicator), and then sharing the things they’ve told her…well, it sounds woowoo but it felt right.  I know my connection to my bees was instant and total, and I’ve struggled to explain the feelings I felt as I drove them home that first day.  Certainly some of it was a maternal-oriented fierce desire to protect and nurture them.  I feel much the same for all my animals, especially my dogs.  But the bees were a surprise to me, and it felt elemental and somehow “right.”  After hearing Jacqueline’s talk I understand better why I felt/feel so connected to them, even on their cranky days (to be fair, I have a bad habit of popping the lid late in the day, which puts them on high alert).  I’ve been worried about them, with all this wet weather, and after they devoured all the honey I put in there earlier this month I wanted to feed them some more.  Since it’s been too cold to open up fully to put my syrup feeder in there I decided to just give them a little granulated sugar.  They gobbled up the half cup I put on the top of the inside lid, so I put another half cup.  Then another.  And now they have dysentery, judging by the poops outside the door today.  Sigh.  I also saw some dead white bees on the ground in front of the hive.  They look nearly adult, but probably did not hatch.  I wonder now if they were drone cells, removed to combat varroa mites.  It’s all so mysterious sometimes, and as much as I wish I could help them or fix it, the thing I learned today was that it’s probably best that I leave them alone as much as possible.  I’d like to scrape out the ½ cup or so of granulated sugar still in there, but they are so testy (got stung on the back of my leg the other day putting it in there!) I don’t want to disturb them until the weather warms up and I can do a thorough inspection. 

I let the sheep out to graze a bit when I got home from the class this afternoon, since they’re going through hay like I have a flock of 10 instead of only five.  I’d blame it on the girls, eating for two (or three?) as they are, but it’s always the boys I see eating.  I’m not sure what’s going on there but there is a lot of waste I think.  The boys have developed a new habit of pawing the ground in front of the big feeder, so now there’s a trench underneath it approximately four feet long by two feet wide by 18 inches deep.  Jerks.  I’ve filled it in several times, the last two times with hog fuel (didn’t last) and then with some of the dry litter from elsewhere in the pen.  It lasted a little longer than the hog fuel, but I still need to figure something out.  I see some cement patio squares in my future.

Harvesting – me and the bees

There’s a reason the word produce is both a noun and a verb.  It’s mid-August and the garden is going like gangbusters.  I’ve been eating lettuce and greens like a bunny and have yet to make any headway.  I’ve given away armloads of veggies – kale, lettuce, chard, green beans, and beets – and cooking like a fool, and still I’m buried in fresh produce, with no end in sight.  And I’m loving it!

I’ve picked several pounds of green beans, mountains of chard, lettuce, kale, beets (and beet greens!), early zucchini, rutabagas, and a few carrots.  In the herbs department my sage is healthy and happy, the dill plants are thick and green (though there is some aphid damage), and the spearmint has taken over the front garden, as mint is wont to do.  It’s now ten feet by three feet, and two feet tall to boot.  Mint jelly, anyone?

I’m seeing a little more leaf miner, mostly in the chard, but a couple of the stray beet plants are riddled with it; not the beet patch itself, though, so I’m wondering if it has to do with variety.  I have yet to figure out what kind these stray beets are – I haven’t picked any yet, but I’m thinking they’re golden beets.  The other crop that’s had issues with pests are my carrots, which have been unimpressive so far.  The few I’ve picked are so-so in size and flavor, but all have been damaged to some degree by carrot rust fly larvae and/or carrot weevil.

The lettuce has had its share of slugs (and slugs have eaten the carrots and beets too – the tops on the carrots (so they’re getting it from above and below) and the exposed root on the beets) but since I planted enough for a family of five, I’m not too worried.  I go out late at night and pick them off regularly; the pasture grass surrounding the garden is loaded with them, so it’s going to be a never ending battle unless I get some geese or ducks (maybe next year!).  And then there are the sheep and the dogs, leaning over the fence to poach what they can.  The sheep seem to like the kale, chard, and lettuce, the dogs mainly stick to the lettuce.

Even with these pests the haul has been impressive so far.  And I’ve planted some crops for fall – more kale and chard and lettuce too.  The potato plants (all except one) look healthy and robust, and I’m hoping for a nice crop.  The pumpkin plants are taking over the garden, with several little pumpkins set and growing, and the delicata squash has finally started to produce fruiting flowers.  The onions were swallowed up by the pumpkin plants a couple of weeks ago, so if they survive and produce anything, I’ll be happy.  If not, well, I’ll figure out a better planting layout next year.

And the bees have been going great guns as well.  I did a thorough inspection about ten days ago and found a hive laden with honey. Some of the frames must weigh four or five pounds (capped comb full of honey) at least.  From here on out it will be important to manage for mites and be sure that the main hive and frames are well placed for easy access.  During the winter months the bees will cluster inside the hive, not moving much, and they need to be able to get to their honey without too much difficulty.  Hives have been known to starve even with plenty of honey stores if the bees cluster in one area and aren’t able to easily access the frames of capped comb.  Lots to worry about yet, but right now their stores look fabulous – there are many pounds of honey out there, and knotweed season is in full swing.  Blackberry season was very good to them, so with another month of good foraging ahead, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll winter over with honey to spare.  I can always feed sugar syrup as needed, but would rather they dine on their own harvests of honey and bee “bread” (pollen mixture they collect and store in the comb as well).

I heart my bees!

March musings

It rained hard all day today, with only a few breaks in the downpour.  I woke up late due to the time change (Spring forward) and the hour lost, so it was officially 9:45 before the dogs ate breakfast. Crawling back into bed for a lazy Sunday morning read with tea seemed to be the best start to the dreary day. I’m again thankful for the giant skylight I had installed last year with my roof replacement; even on this cloudy, grey day my bedroom is bathed in light. I’m finishing a great book by a woman named Lynn Reardon about the rescue and rehab she created for ex-racehorses in Texas. It’s called Beyond the Homestretch and was one of those books at the library that was pulled out for highlighting in their shelf-end “interesting picks.” (Librarys ROCK!) It’s an enjoyable read, with the highs and lows associated with rescue work of any kind but without preachiness or crusading-speak (a turn off), and damned funny in places too. An ex-accountant, Ms. Reardon is a terrific writer as well as horse rescuer.

I looked at my chore list, deciding what I should do first. Much of it is the ongoing stuff, with a lot of seasonal additions as well. I picked up my (bee)hive boxes yesterday, and stopped off and got a quart of paint for painting them. The paint color is called Shocking Green, and it’s sort of a neon green with a hint of chartreuse mixed in. I hope it won’t be too garish, sitting out by the garden (I plan to embellish with some stenciled or hand-painted vines and flowers – for my stylin beehive), and even more important, I hope my bees like it. They’re due to arrive in mid-April. I ordered four pounds, which is the queen and several thousand of her workers. It was only $10 more for four pounds versus three pounds, and though I know most of the experienced beekeepers say the extra pound of workers doesn’t make that much of a difference, I figured the more workers the better, to start with. I mean, they’re already handicapped with me as a new beekeeper, so the more advantages I can give them, the better chances they’ll have. I’ll have to bone up on my YouTube vids of how to transfer them from their traveling cage into their new home. I purchased my bee veil and gloves, too. I got a veil that’s part of a half-suit, rather than the full suit (where you look like you’re going out to battle haz-mat or infectious disease), with the most important component being the veil itself. A body sting is doable, but a face sting, and especially an eye-sting, could be very bad. I can’t remember the last time I was stung by a honeybee, and even my last yellowjacket sting has probably been more than a decade ago. Hopefully my Carniolan bees will do well for me and be easy to work with.

Sheep shearing was last week and though it got done it was a bit of a rodeo. We did Cinnamon first, since she’s the wildest, and it set off a chain reaction of panic with all the rest.  Thankfully Eifion, an experienced shearer who comes all the way from Wales each year, has done this a time or two, and was able to catch and wrassle each one of them in turn.  It was a good lesson though, and I do plan to build at least one stall in the confinement area (right now it’s just an open shed) so I can enclose them for this and other reasons, as needed.   

After shearing, they all look nekkid and a bit chilly, in Cinnamon’s case (for some reason she’s the only one I’ve noticed shivering).  She was so glorious with her full fleece, and now she looks gangly and awkward.  And little Pebbles is even tinier than I thought.  I managed to catch her and pick her up the other day (she was up on the porch chasing the gimpy hen, which she loves to do); she’s maybe 50 pounds, 60 pounds max.  Of all of them Cinnamon had the nicest fleece – clean and nice and crimpy, rather than the tangled and burr-filled fleece of Pebbles (whose fleece is definitely the softest), or the choppy, broken fleeces of the boys.  All three of the boys have been itching for two months and rubbing against everything.  Bo and especially Curly were using their horns to dig at itchy spots on their backs, and completely ruined the integrity of the fleece (normally it should roll out as a single unit after it’s been sheared off, but theirs is broken and filled with vegetable matter (VM) to boot.  I still need to process the fleece before the dampness in the garage ruins them entirely.  It’s been so miserably wet and chilly recently that I’ve been reluctant to go out and skirt them, never mind get them washed and ready for further processing.  From there, I’ll be felting slippers for Christmas presents (tee hee).  And working on making sure next year’s fleeces are in tip top shape.  

My other sheepy news is the hay feeding solution I recently discovered.  Ever since they’ve been in their confinement area (to keep them off the pasture during the winter months, so the pasture has a chance to recover) I’ve been feeding grass hay.  I do let them out to run around on nice weekend days (and it doesn’t look like today will be one of them).  They look longingly into the pasture, but roam around and browse the grass and vegetation around the house and property with obvious enjoyment.  The rest of the time, though, it’s hay.  I knew I’d be feeding hay, and knew of the price per bale (anywhere from $13 to $22, depending on feed store and the hay shipment itself – where it’s from, how heavy the bale, etc.), but had no idea I’d be going through a bale a week.  That’s more than I spend on dog and cat food each week!  

I was feeding them on the ground, as I hadn’t found a feeder that fit all my criteria: easy to install, low waste, reduced chance of VM in fleece, and minimal “real estate” used in my small set up.  Of course feeding them on the ground meant that roughly one third of each bale was ending up as bedding as they walked through it and dragged it around.  I purchased a wall mount hay feeder at the feed store and realized as soon as I got it home that it wasn’t going to work (it wasn’t cheap, either), so returned it the next week.  I had an old hay net feeder I purchased years ago as a prop in a holiday-themed cubicle decoration contest at work (I won), so tried that.  The mesh was so large they emptied it overnight, much of it ending up on the ground.  I checked Craigslist regularly and scoured the Internet for suitable feeders, coming up with slow feeders for horses (too big and too expensive) and a fellow in Virginia who was no longer making his perfectly designed sheep/goat hay feeder.  Then one day on a visit to Craigslist I found an ad placed by Equinets.  I contacted the proprietor via the website, explaining my need.  She lives close to where I work and we discussed what might work.  I picked up a small and a medium net a couple of weeks ago, and installed them the following weekend.  It’s like a miracle.  Within one day I knew I’d found the solution.  

Not only is the waste next to zero, it’s also provided them with hay 24/7, as is natural, rather than the loud baaing for food every time they saw me or heard the front door open, and the attendant feeding frenzy of me coming out with several flakes of hay three times a day.  They are quiet and content, and everybody gets to eat when they want to eat (the girls were sometimes bullied away from the hay when I fed it on the ground, which meant I had to put down multiple piles, which increased the waste ratio).  I rarely hear them baaing now (though they are still trying to train me to give them grain on demand) and are often all lying down, quietly chewing cud when I go out there to check on them.  I fill the two nets once a day – the smaller one is usually nearly empty, and the larger one still about half full – and right now am still going through hay at about the same rate, but the good thing is it’s not as bedding!  In fact, I’m considering buying some straw for bedding now, to absorb manure and urine and they still have some cushion after I’ve cleaned up their waste. Filling them once a day eliminates that chore in the mornings, too, when I’m often already rushed to make it to work.  Now I can just replenish the nets in the evening, make sure their water bucket is full, and in the morning just check to make sure they’re all content and well before I leave for work.

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