Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cell Phone Macro Lens

I bought a little macro lens for my cell phone. It's literally a rubber band with a lens attached to it.
Easy-Macro Cell Phone Lens Band for iPhone & Android

So here are a few simple pictures I took with it. 

Some Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica, which is about to bloom in a week or two. While they don't seem to be spreading by seed at all I'm actually very impressed with their ability to divide. I'm seeing more and more stems emerging with even more flower buds every year.  

 A close up of a Crocus.

 Camponotus castaneus, a ground nesting Carpenter Ant. I can also take images of smaller Lasius species which look similar (but are clearly different just by size).

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

First Black Swallowtail of Spring Hatched

It's the first day of spring (03/20/2013) and appropriately enough the first of the Black Swallowtails has emerged from their chrysalis. The generation that over-winters tends to be smaller than usual, I suspect because more of the energy goes towards sustaining the adult through the winter. This one is a good inch or two smaller than they are typically over the summer, even for a male.

Black Swallowtail - Winter/Spring
Black Swallowtail - Summer

Now, once again we've relied on the weather forecasts of a clearly defective groundhog and it's abilities to predict when spring will happen. (I'm sure the groundhogs of Hawaii and Alaska aren't half as bad as Punxsutawney Phil, whose track record is worse than flipping a coin.)

Needless to say it's still cold here and I'm keeping them inside. I'm told they can be sustained for about 6 weeks indoors when fed sugar water. My friend tells me she hears anywhere from 1:3 to 1:10 ratio sugar to water.... which isn't helpful so I'm trying 1:4 and will be providing them a source of salt in a day or so.

I haven't decided how yet. Everything I read tends to be writing about an open feeding yard setting. But how much does one butterfly need and is it safe to feed them raw salt? I guess I'll have to find out.

I have parsley growing now but perhaps most interesting of all is that they occasionally use Citrus as a host plant... and I just bought a Mayar Lemon and Key Lime tree in the basement. The parsley in the garden had green growth all winter, and the Golden Alexander has pushed out several inches of growth since January ended. So even with all the cold, I have plenty of options.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Harvesting Honey

NOTE: I did not treat this hive with any chemicals over the winter.

Normally I'd like to be harvesting honey under different circumstances, but this was from the mean hive I'd had for years and had finally died. Leaving it outside will only attract robbers from other hives as well as all the typical hive pests that thrive in weak, unguarded hives.

The honey is a very rich, and dark honey that tastes great. Typically the later one harvests the more developed the wildflower flavor honey becomes. "Wildflower" is the generic name designated to any honey that can't be attributed to 70% one crop. It's typically what every hive that isn't near a farm will produce. But even hives near a farm will eventually make wildflower honey if they're not harvested right after the crop has bloomed. "Clover" honey is a possibility in suburbia if one harvests early enough but I consider this to be an early form of wildflower only obtainable from either a cover crop on a farm or harvesting after the common White Dutch Clover has finished flowering in everyone's lawn. Most of the crop or special honeys (e.g. Blueberry Honey, Raspberry Honey, Apple Honey, Orange Honey, etc...) are all produced early in the year. Fireweed honey is probably the latest of these to be produced because the flower so late in the year.

The process of harvesting is the same regardless of what time of year it is. Your method may vary, but I take each frame out one by one, stand them up in a metal pan (something deeper than a cookie sheet) and uncap all the cells. They sell special heated knives for this, but I've found it difficult to keep the heat at the right setting, and any knife will work fine.

As a general rule, you can wash your hands and anything else you like, but it is absolutely vital to dry off every droplet of water and remove all smears of moisture! Water can seed bacteria in the honey making it unusable. Honey on its own is too solidified and processed by the bees to grow anything in it. (With the exception of one pathogen that your digestive system will make short work of. Honey should never be given to infants under the age of one year old and is otherwise safe to eat.)

The uncapped frames are then put into the extractor and spun at a high speed, sending the honey out against the walls where it drips down to bottom and drains out a special hole.

Next the honey needs to be strained. I like to have it run into a wire pencil holder (that has been sterilized and never used for anything other than filtering honey!) which will catch all the big pieces, and let the honey flow out easily where it then falls through a normal strainer and then into a deep pot.

Pots are switched as needed and the honey is bottled while it drains, more frames are uncapped and put into the extractor, etc... The whole process goes faster with two people. This process is where I get the bulk of my honey from each year. 

A few more jars can be got from the uncapping process. Uncapping leaves a lot of excess wax and a fair amount of honey mixed in the tray. The wax is too big and bulky for the honey to strain out in any reasonable amount of time. Heating it up on the stove will melt the wax, and separate it from the honey. This wax isn't pure enough to use for candle making but that's a task for another day.

I'd already removed a lot of the wax here but what I allowed it to cool down, it formed a fine sheet on the surface that can just be peeled away. The wax you'd want to use for candles is the pure creamy yellow tone. A lot of what's there is dark and full of impurities which is another task in itself. I don't do candle making much at all so that's a topic for another blog I think. 

Heating it up also thins the honey somewhat, casing it to flow out much easier. I don't like to sell the jars of honey I get from this process because it still has some of the wax and impurities in it. I save it all for cooking and usually get 3 or 4 jars more that I would have just thrown away otherwise. 
The total harvest was 24 jars. (8 of which sold while I was harvesting.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mason Bees Waking Up

My mason bees started waking up. Normally you remove the cocoons from the tubes and wash them off in water with a slight amount of bleach to kill off mites and things. The cocoons are waterproof so it doesn't kill the bees.

Look how cute they are.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Time to Mow the Meadow

Once again it's time to mow the meadow. Actually I could have done it several weeks ago or even last December but there are things to consider as to when mowing should be done. Do it too early and you might kill some animals such as turtles and birds. Do it in January and you shred up the seeds (and rose hips) that birds like to eat over the winter. I wait for the Maple trees to start blooming because it shows that insects are around once again. They're mostly bees, gnats, flies, and a few butterflies that over winter as adults. Some Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) are in the chrysalis stage now and there's always the fear of mowing them down some butterfly. I don't think anyone has an answer to this other than to say only mow half the meadow, but then what do people who burn their meadows do? I know large meadows often have patches that don't burn but generally the whole field will go up in flames. It's not something I worry about becuase my little meadow garden is only 10' by 15' or so, and there are other native garden patches that I don't mow at all.

Even in this small space it filled our lawn mower twice. Really there's not need to collect it other than to compost or mulch something. Most of the seeds that are going to germinate or grow, likely fell out of the plants last year. Rudbeckia seems to always grow this way. However, it's likely something may grow, and the same effect is why they tell you to use Straw instead of Hay when mulching. The process of haying a field happens during the growing season, and is when the farmer cuts everything to a certain height, and the resulting hay bales are almost always guaranteed to have weed seeds mixed in them. 

I mowed just in the nick of time though. All our crocuses are starting to open and my beehives are starting to forage again. I'm currently harvesting honey from the hive that passed away. It's a thick and rich, dark brown honey one gets from autumn flowering plants such as goldenrods and asters. Unfortunately the winter chill has sucks a lot of the moisture right out of it and it's flowing at a snails pace.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Pandora's Box Died!

For the past several years now, there has been this one hive in my yard that would not die! They had all the hardiness traits that bee breeders look for with the exception of their mean temperament. There were some years where I didn't feed them at all before winter and they survived all on their own. But I'd noticed their guard bees would forgo the usual buzz warning other hives typically give, and move right on to stinging. So part of me is sad they're gone, but the other half is glad so I can finally setup the area to have hives there.

On one occasion I recall standing between the hive and our raspberry patch and witnessing a guard bee fly right at me as I knelt to pick some raspberries; thankfully a leaf to the plant was in the way and the bee started attacking it instead of me!  Yikes! On another occasion I had a friend over who was interested in becoming a beekeeper. So we opened two hives, and the first I don't think I needed to smoke at all. They were calm and docile. Pandora's box on the other hand was up in arms the moment I lifted the lid. In recent years the hive had cooled down a bit, and I wasn't getting as many randoms tings (which at its worse was 4 for the whole year), and they'd become more tolerable. But bees really aren't supposed to bee that in your face.

This hive dates back to when I first took over beekeeping for my dad (maybe 8 or 10 years ago). In all honestly he wasn't that good at it, and I wasn't much better. We rarely looked into the bottom boxes and this is what happens when you don't do that.  They'd built so much "bur" comb that you can't see the frames below! Their temperament had nothing to do with this of course, even calm hives can go nuts with wax production. But because they'd connected the frames to both boxes together I wasn't able to solve the temperament issue by replacing the queen, or splitting them, or anything else that would have solved the problem. Beekeepers are supposed to remove bur comb as they find it during each inspection every 2 to 6 weeks or so.

There was about an inch of bur comb, and you can tell from how black it is that it's very old. While it was easy to get the boxes separated in winter, over the summer it's virtually impossible short of a lumberjack's crosscut saw. The wax turns soft and gummy, holding everything together. I had attempted to do it one year, and I'd never seen them so angry. They don't like it when you tear apart the nursery. 

When I went into the hive, I discovered they were honey bound which explains why I only harvested 18 jars last year, whereas 60+ had been the norm in previous years. They must have hated the plastic frames in their supers that much. They also had two frames devoted to drone production which was a bit much. Drones take up the attention of about three nurse bees, which is a drain on the hive overall.

Cause of Death: Not enough workers to keep them warm in the winter. The queen didn't have enough cells to lay and maintain a good amount of bees to keep them warm over the winter. In previous years I'd left a drawn out super on top. This is a box used to for the bees to fill with honey, that's normally removed after harvesting each summer. They probably used this extra space to move their stores up there and give the queen more room to lay. (Though a long list of problems over the years certainly didn't help things.)   

This is a different hive that also didn't make it through the winter. I suspect they may have been robbed out in the autumn and all the bees starved back in January. Starvation is easy to see: there's no honey next to the cluster, and all the dead bees have their heads shoved into cells in an effort to keep warm.

Note the queen here in the middle. It's a real shame this hive failed. We'd caught the swarm last spring as just a hand full of bees. Most of the swarm had died to cold weather before we were called about getting it. This queen went on to rebound and produced an amazing hive. I'd never seen such a small amount of bees turn into such a strong hive in one year. 

As I cleaned up the two hives I lost, I started getting robber bees. Their primary target was for the capped honey, but also I found a few robbing the pollen which I'd never seen before. Pandora's box had two frames of pollen and I don't mind them taking it. It was mostly golds, browns, and yellows, and nothing unique, typical autumn sources I'm sure. (Some plants produce blue, white, pink, green, or red pollen but bees rarely work them enough to find it in the hive for long.) 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Allan Savory on How to Green the Deserts

At a recent TED talk Allan Savory spoke on How to Green the Deserts and reverse climate change.

Basically Allan concludes that life stock moved in a migratory manner is the way to go. I sort of agree with this logic, but he's a little too quick to dismiss the benefits of fire. Chris Helzer talks a lot in his book, and on his blog, about the benefits of combining fire with live stock grazing. He found that animal grazers tended to favor eating forbs (wildflowers) and would leave prairies rich with grasses but almost devoid of wildflowers. Not that grasses are a bad thing, but so much more plant diversity can be had by including wildfires into the mix. Keep the animals anywhere long enough and they'll eat the grasses too, but most of them favor forbs first and then go onto grasses second. Wildfires do release carbon into the atmosphere, but Allan is forgetting about the root mass that can be as much as 10 times the green of the plant. Wildfires are a natural process too, and many wildflowers and even tree seeds benefit from the extreme temperatures they bring. 

Allan's conclusions also goes against some of the methods used by John D. Liu who promotes restrictive grazing to let the land heal for 3 to 5 years, and Geoff Lawton who promote the benefits of permaculture which often includes nonnative plants, but more often than not they're at least food plants or nitrogen fixing. The issue with permaculture is occasionally invasive species are used and that has a negative effect on the local biodiversity. The areas that Allan seems to be looking at are perhaps flatter terrine so there's less ability to manipulate the land besides digging out ditches.

All very interesting topics. A balance between biodiversity and food production needs to be found. 257955_Its Organic:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Honeybees help Native Bees

Here's another study I wish I'd known about before publishing my book. To summaries, conservationists hate honeybees because they move in, and take all the resources from native bees (pollen, nectar, and cavity nesting space). But it seems after they initially move in they still pollinate the plants adequately enough to produce more nectar plants. I had noted that honeybees don't bother with young trees, unless they're all grown together as in an orchard, and its these that most of our native bees work. Now they eventually go on to become bigger trees that get honeybee attention, but I think it still evens out somewhat. Young trees are still being produced and coming of age to flower.

Now this story is on a tropical forest setting that's constantly recycling itself. In a suburban setting this isn't happening enough, and when it is, it's often a landowner or landscaper, who wants to plant something more for beauty and often the country of origin isn't considered. The pollen to alien plants is often lacking in nutritional quality or even toxic for native species. The pollen and nectar resources that landscaping around strip malls and suburban neighborhoods produce is a pittance compared to the forest or prairie that once grew there.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Annoying Process of Publishing a Book

So back in October and November I decided that I had enough photos, information, and creativity to start writing a book... and finish it this time! "Writing a Book" has been my answer to the question "So what are you doing?" for the past nine years or so. So it's great to finally start something and get it done to completing this time. That being said, I have some praise and complaints to dish out for the whole process.

If you go to, and scroll all the way to the bottom, you'll find something like "Self Publish With Us," and that takes you over to Create Space, which is what I used to self publish. My logic there was I wanted a physical copy of the book I wrote which was important to me. Barns & Nobel will only offer your book as a digital copy. Some other places are happy to publish your book too but you have to order your copies and sell them yourself.

So here's the process I went though.
Fill out all your author and title information, get an ISBN, pick a size you want and you're ready to roll.

Once you have all that settled, spend however long it takes to type your book. Learn about adding Table of Contents, Graphs, and Page Numbers, which should all be standard in whatever typing program you're using.  

Interior: Your file needs to be at least 24 pages (I think) in order to upload and preview. You'll probably be uploading and replacing the previous file a lot just to make sure things look right. This can take several minutes depending on how big your file is. You're then given a nice looking pdf preview with page turning animations that I really likes with Create Space. Here is where all the little flaws are pointed out. What was 4 by 6 inches in your typing program (Word, Office, etc...) might not be the same 4 by 6 in their format, and you may need to tweak things.

Something I got annoyed with was, I'd have a paragraph below my images, but because their format saw there was space after the image to fit a letter, they'd break up the first word in the sentance to put those letters beside the image and I don't know why. So "There are flowers..." would become

here are flowers..." 

So you want to look out for that kind of stuff. Adding an [Enter] or enlarging the photo slightly made this go away. 

Now here's the pain. You have to "fix" it in your file which might not have the same problem, and then upload it again. I would love to have been able to just fix it in their program so I wouldn't have to upload, but oh well. 

Cover: For the cover Create Space has you covered. They have a wonderful program that I really enjoyed playing with. You just upload the picture you want, pick a few colors, and fill in the text boxes. I actually found this really enjoyable and easy. However, if you need to upload your file again, it assumes you might have changed the size format, so you need to sift through your cover again. This was a minor annoyance but not really a problem in the grand scheme of things. 

File Review: So you think you're finished. You're all proofread, everything is the way you want it laid out, and it's "perfect". You're probably wrong, but that's where this step comes in. You submit your book to them, and they get back to you sometime a day later. One thing they caught with my book was for Author I had my middle initial in some places but not in others. Some things they fix for you but other things you're responsible for. 

Proof Your Book: So you've been approved, Great! You get the final say in whether or not to go forward. I highly recommend buying a proof copy (this is usually an at cost price) before moving forward. This is a dramatic difference between reading a paragraph on your computer and holding it in your hands. I found I was far more aware of the paragraph overall when holding a physical copy than when I read it on my screen. As soon as it arrives, Get the red pen out, and go to town giving it a final read through. I thought I was already done by this point, but I kept finding maybe one mistake every few pages.

Also get a few friends and people who's opinions you trust to read it too. English teachers are especially valuable as they tend to remember all the little rules to everything. And hopefully they can give you a short sentance or two long review for the back cover.

Channels and Pricing: This is self explanatory. My book is on Amazon for $29.99. Unfortunately I went a little overboard with photos and the 216 pages at an 8 by 11 size drove up the cost. Had I written a novel say 4 by 6 and used fewer photos or made them all black and white, it would be cheaper for them to produce. Not surprisingly I make more money from the $9.99 Kindle version because it doesn't really cost anything to produce. Enabling the preview for both is done just after it's available. Getting it on the Kindle is submitted after it's published and available on amazon, though you can enable on or the other as you like.

2013 Philadelphia International Flower Show

I'd give this show an overall 3.5 out of 5, which is okay. I didn't feel like it was a waste of time but there wasn't a whole lot that thrilled me either. I saw a lot more green this year than in previous years and that's a problem for a flower show. Something else I learned is that the best time to go is just after 4:00pm on the weekdays.There was barely any crowd at all, and I can recall in year's past when you were elbow to elbow.

The British theme was a nice one, with lots of royal looking flower arrangements, but these were a little sparse.  

The centerpiece of the show is a short replica of Big Ben, which is actually a video screen of an animated clock. Every hour, on the hour, it played a mildly offensive video that really shoved the British theme in your face. Still-images of British comedians, rock stars, and members of the royal family were cheaply animated, like someone making an internet joke and I wondered if they even had the rights to use these images. Having them all salute the flag of England painted on someone's ass would have fit in perfectly.

Birch Trees lined the isles though I'm not sure what they have to do with England. (Aren't they native to North America?)

So I started to walk around looking for inspiration, which sadly I don't get a whole lot of. Most of the displays were colorful and had some plants that I found impressive, but I wasn't sure about some of the combinations.

I think a lot of the props had a greater impact than the plants did.

Holy hell, where am I again? I think the designer to this one committed suicide. Hidden in the corner of the show there was a display that seemed to be more about artistic emotion and design than anything to do with gardening. I actually started to like it as an artiest. One women commented that this was a tribute to Jack the Ripper.... I'm unsure if she was joking, and can't imagine why anyone would ever promote a murderer like that.

The walls, floor, and ceiling to this little room were padded with roses, their thorny stems coating a bed, the perfect cell for a mad gardener to sleep.

An interesting take on a hanging garden, I guess. I liked the stone hands.

The display next to it was a more traditional garden setting. A path leading up to a house and a tribute to the sport of Cricket.

This display was a lot wider, but I felt this statue caught my eye the most. Once you've seen a well flowered front to a house, you've pretty much seen them all.

This display failed in a lot of ways. There are almost no flowers, though I think the pink umbrellas are made out of them. The black ones were actually fountains, though the trickling one gets from a garden hose was all that came out. I don't get it.

They had smoke machines, but they failed to hide the pool of water, and all their electrical cords were in plain view. Maybe they had it foggy for the judges, but I thought it was tacky and surely someone else could have done better. 

Beside it was a tropical paradise. Orchids and assorted trees and plants of the rain forest seemed to be all that were used. 

Orchids are so bright and vibrant sometimes.

A highlight was they actually had a chocolate tree with fruit on it.

Nods to the beetles were scattered through the show, but I thought they were almost too expected given the theme.

I loved this owl. I think it's made entirely out of plant material.

Witch Hazel. This plant is actual flowering at this time of year, and there are many color variations of it now. 

This one had some neat furniture.

I'm actually curious where they bought this one.

Rounding back to the clock, we found some odd egg shaped statues. This one is made out of pipes. (This is a flower show right?)

Garden hose. That's what mine looks like right now out in our shed.

More traditional displays had an emphasis on bulbs. In years past I'd complained about how over used they were. They're just too easy, too common, and with the exception of last year having nothing but orchids, they were prominently featured in every display.

Lupines and Delphinium.

Hyacinths... I don't have anything to say about these. The blue ones look nice with whatever yellow fringed evergreen that is. Besides that there's just lots of color.

Tulips... lots and lots of tulips... and a cold frame that's growing bulbs for god knows why.

Tulips and Grape Hyacinth. The shoes are appropriate considering they hale from the same general part of the world that most bulbs come from.

Daffodils, Rhododendrons, and maybe one or two other things. This actually works for me. If you're going to do bulbs, make it a rocky hillside, like the slopes of a mountain but then COVER IT IN COLOR!!! This sort of does that. One year I'd love to walk through the show and feel like I were walking the center of a valley and all around me flowers grow.Or even imitate a bulb farm but make it stretch a sizable portion of the show! Avoid the "Garden Zoo" effect and make things look natural.

Our native pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea.

Sarracenia purpurea flower.

The Power of Poop.... and they have sunflowers for their display.

Lots and lots of sunflowers.

Orchids. Lots and lots of colorful orchids. This part of the show focused on individual plants which I noticed had improved from previous years.

Panda Flowers. This is an Asian relative of our native Wild Ginger.

Ant Plant! In the wild this plant attaches itself to a tree and grows a fat hollow cavity for ants to live inside. Some of them even produce food bodies for the ants to eat.