Monday, May 25, 2020

Beehive Inspections


This weekend, I opened up my three hives, to see how the bees were doing.  Overall, things looked good.

The Empress Norton hive was building beautiful new honeycomb.  I prefer to let my bees build the structures that suit their needs.  Typically, I'll inter-leaf older wax comb with empty frames.  The bees will build their own structures, within the confines of the existing honeycomb. This keeps the comb relatively parallel, which means there's less damage when I remove a unit of honeycomb from the hive.  There's nothing worse than dragging honeycomb against itself, ripping open the comb, and drowning the bees in their own honey.  By alternating straight comb with empty frames I'm encouraging the bees to build in a relative orderly manner.

The bees are building beautiful structures from the wax their bodies produce, and behind them my pomegranate and cherry trees are blooming.

I believe I managed to spot the young queen in the colony that I split off from the Empress Norton Hive.  My photo leaves a lot to be desired, but you should be able to find the bee I think is the queen. She's just to the right of center, with a bit of space all around her.  She's little longer than the other bees, and she's facing up and to the right.

The new queen doesn't seem to be laying eggs yet, but the rest of the colony is hard at work. They've filled all this comb with honey, and capped the honey storage cells.

Notice how the bees leave corridors between the frames of comb.

The Elpseth hive that I got from my friend Lori is small but mighty. The queen in this colony is laying eggs.  The capped cells in this photo contain developing bees, which is very encouraging.  Notice the difference between the color the new wax on the left, and the older wax on the right.

With one exception, I was delighted by what I found when I inspected the hives.  The bees looked healthy and industrious.


I did notice a single small hive beetle, which is an invasive African pest that can do massive damage to a beehive.  I am going to have to take action to discourage these creatures from overwhelming my hives.   Because American beekeepers transport their hives all across the country for agricultural pollination, pests and diseases spread like wildfire. For a while, it seemed like this pest was only found in the southeastern states, but now they're established in California, and we need to figure out how to keep them under control.

I did not harvest any honey this week, only because I'm temporarily out of storage jars. There's a bit of urgency to get honey our of the hive, if I'm dealing with small hive beetles. The beetles can burrow through the wax comb and contaminate the honey.  They can also destroy the developing bees, which is distressing.

I spent the last few weeks putting honey into jars and melting down beeswax.  I've got to order more jars and put more honey into safe storage.

If you're interested in reading what other gardeners are up to this week, check in with the Harvest Monday jamboree at the Happy Acres blog.

Monday, May 18, 2020

So Stinkin' Cute (with an emphasis on the stinking'...)


For the first time since we've lived in our house, skunks are regularly visiting our yard.  

They typically show up around 4pm.  Sometimes there's one, sometimes two.  They're juveniles, but are clearly able to fend for themselves.  They're quite tiny, more tail than body.  Their fur is glossy and lush.

Skunks have notoriously poor eyesight, and are incredibly shy and gentle.  I've been spending my twilight hours out in the garden, watching quietly.  I'm enchanted by these sweet creatures.

Robb may have his own opinions on our crepuscular visitors, but he's too polite to share them with me.

The skunks seem to be foraging for worms and insects.  They industriously snuffle around in the grass, and will dig in the first inch of our soil.  I suspect they're eating any bees they find crawling on the ground.  They tend to hug the perimeter of our yard, and stay under cover as much as possible.

The chickens and cats and I give the skunks a wide berth.  The western scrub jays, on the other hand, give them the stink-eye.  I imagine they resent the fact that someone else is eating bees.

Unfortunately, my neighbors' little chihuahua had a run-in with one of the skunks this weekend.

Tomato sauce did nothing to alleviate the smell, and in fact Dobby was keen on eating the skunk-scented bath-sauce.

My poor neighbors.

Monday, May 11, 2020

More Bees!


As few weeks back, a former boss of mine contacted me because I'd asked folks to keep an eye out for honeybee swarms I could collect. It turns out his neighbor was moving out of state, and could not take their beehive with them.  I was looking for more bees, and these bees needed a home.

Robb and I went over to reconnoiter, and to devise a plan for moving these bees.  I'm quite experienced in moving swarms, but transporting entire beehives is something I haven't done many times.  In truth, the few times I've moved entire hives have not been particularly pleasant experiences, either for me or for the bees.  

I wanted to make this a perfectly planned and executed campaign so that nobody got hurt, and no bees got left behind.

Robb built a number of cardboard lids for the hive boxes.  We drove over to the house with a car filled with beekeeping tools, cardboard lids, and empty hive boxes.  We did all this just before dusk, when the bees would be getting ready for bed.

I placed an empty hive box inside a cardboard holder, and then transfer the frames of honeycomb (and bees) into the box.  Then I'd cap this box, wrap it in an old bedsheet, and carry it up the hill to my car. The beehive was located on a beautiful property in the Oakland hills.  While spending time at this house was lovely, carrying a box of irate honeybees up the steep hill in the dwindling twilight was quite an endeavor.  

It actually took us a couple of nights to complete the move, because we kept running out of daylight. I wouldn't recommend this generally, but as I'm currently furloughed from work, and we're under pandemic lockdown, we really didn't have anything else to do.  (Beekeeping is the ultimate hobby for social distancing.  Nobody really wants to get to close to an open beehive.)

I had initially intended to use the hive boxes that the bees came in, but as I was transporting them I noticed something that made me change my mind.

In among the bees was a diminutive scarab-like beetle with distinctive deely-bopper-like antennae.  It was a hive pest I'd long read about, but had never seen in the flesh: a small hive beetle.  Since these beetles tend to live in the crevices of beehives, I thought it might be wise to not bring a hive with beetles into my yard.  I figured I'd store the hive equipment -- which really is nice -- until I could figure out how to be certain it didn't contain these invasive beetles.  (The hive is parked at the end of our driveway for the moment.)

For the most part, this hive was compatible with my gear.  The only difference is that the original owners used two sizes of boxes -- smaller ones for honey storage and one large one for brood. 

I prefer to only use one size box for everything.  If all my gear is the same proportions, then it's all interchangeable. Also, shorter boxes, because they contain less volume, are significantly less heavy than taller boxes. Honey is shockingly heavy.  I don't want to struggle when I work with thousands of stinging insects.  I'm always looking for ways to make my work run smoothly.

To accommodate the larger frames, Robb built a temporary box, by screwing two of our boxes together.  We ordered a "queen excluder" to keep the queen out of the larger box.  My plan was to have the worker bees finish raising the brood in this box, and not let the queen lay more eggs there.  

For those wondering how this works, the queen is larger than her sisters and can't fit through the interstices in the excluder.  The worker bees can come and go, but the queen is prevented from entering the box.  

This colony settled into their new life in our tiny back yard very happily.  They are a huge, vigorous colony. Every day in the late afternoon, I'd find myself watching the massive amount of bees flying in and out of the hive and say to Robb, "It's a good thing I'm not afraid of bees."

The hive was crammed with bees.  Maybe too many of them.

I gave them a couple of weeks to recover from the disruption of their move, and then did a hive inspection.  I saw several of these peanut-like structures. These are the specialized cells that the bees create to house developing queens.  The larvae develop in these cells until they are ready to undergo their final transformation from grub to honeybee. At that time, the worker bees close up the cell, and the metamorphosis occurs.

Several closed structures?  That means there were about to be several new queens. Which probably meant that these bees were going to swarm.  Which would probably not endear me to my neighbors.

Clearly, it was time to intervene, and split the hive into two colonies.

I set up a second beehive, and divided the colonies between the two hives. Each colony got an even distribution of frames. Each colony got a couple of capped queen cells. Each got a whole lot of bees. And each got a large number of empty frames, to fill as they pleased.

Hopefully this would keep the bees occupied and dissuade them from swarming out of the hives.

These bees are already hard at work.  

I let them build whatever structures they wish, and in a few short weeks, they've built this astonishing wax comb, and filled it with honey. 

I could not be more delighted with these wonderful new bees.


After a long absence, I'm re-joining the Harvest Monday blogging party.  It will be nice to be part of the community of online gardeners again.  If anyone wishes to read other garden blogs, they can find links at the Happy Acres blog.

Saturday, May 09, 2020



During this period of pandemic lockdown, I'm finding a lot of comfort in mending.  Usually, the things that need repair languish on the Pile of Denial.  It's nice to be mending when so many things in our world seem deeply broken.

Robb had done a bit of darning to a particularly threadbare section of our linen sheets, but his repairs did not hold up to laundering.

I found a remarkably well-matched piece of linen in my fabric stash, and created a neatly hemmed patch.

I cut away the weakest fabric.  There seemed no point in trying to salvage fabric that was shredding when I touched it.

I lightly stretched the fabric in my quilting hoop, and carefully hemmed the raw edges.  (I sort of love how this looks.)

I pinned the patch into place, trying to avoid distorting the weave of the underlying fabric.  This made a sort of fabric sandwich, in which the hemmed sides were on the inside of the stack.

Not perfect, but so much better.  We'll see if this withstands the rigors of the next trip through the washing machine.

Monday, May 04, 2020

In Which Your Heroine Does a Poor Imitation of a Vintage Seamstress


Some time ago, I spotted this delightfully bonkers sewing pattern online, and realized that my life was entirely lacking in a dress of this sort.  (To be truthful, I suspect most people on the planet are lacking a garment like this, but never mind.). I did not hesitate, but bought it right away from Stephanie at Backroom Finds.  

I love the crazy structure of this skirt.  It has alternating tiers of loops and buttons, so that the entire garment can be shortened for sporty activities.

I also really love the economy of the pattern itself.  The cover is relief printed, and a careful viewer will notice the embossing on the yellow stripes on the skirt.  The tissue pattern pieces have no printed marking, instead all information is transmitted by a series of perforated holes.  (Butterrick held the patent on printed sewing patterns and defended it ruthlessly for decades.) The instructions are terse, and assume a level of sewing expertise that I do not possess.  But hey!  I'm always up for a challenge.

I set about making a mock-up this weekend, using some particularly vile fabric that I got free somewhere.

The pattern also includes shorts.  I have to say, I love the cut of 1940s shorts. 

I this photo, I'd pinned the shorts to the bodice, just to see how the bodice would fit with some weight on it.  In reality, the shorts are meant to be worn separately.  I think they're included for modesty, in case that goofy short skirt turns out to be a little too short.

This morning I attached the mockup of the skirt.  And here's where I run out of expertise.  

It's clear that the shoulders are way too wide. 

Also, the bodice is generally too big.  I think the circumference of the waist is okay, but the upper bust is way, way too large for me.

This is where I wish we weren't all locked up in our own homes.  I could really use a friend's critical eye, and some help pinning this to fit better.  I really don't know enough about sewing to know how to do these adjustments.  My friend Jennifer is offering virtual sewing classes from her studio, and I may sign up for a session.

If anyone has any advice, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Mask Making


Like so many people, I've been making masks to wear when I leave the house.  California is now requiring them, which seems like a prudent decision.

I often have to wear different kinds of protective masks at work, so I have strong opinions on how a mask fits my face.  I wanted a mask that had both nose and chin shaping, and that had straps that did not go all the way around the back of the head.  (I have a lot of hair, which doesn't work well with this style of strap.)

This is the style I settled on.  It has a dart for the nose, and two darts under the chin.  I think it's both face-shaped and not overly bulky.  It also uses a minimal amount of fabric, which lets me use of the scraps that I've been incapable of throwing out over the years.  It's nice to finally make something out of this material.

This is the pattern I used.  The video is Thai, but it's very easy to follow, as all the dimensions are notated in Arabic numbers.  There had been a google document in the comments that provided a printable template, but the link seems to have gone bad.

I found that the pattern fit me perfectly, without any alterations.  Likewise, the men's pattern was a great fit for Robb.

There are two layers of fashion fabric, and an inner layer which I imagine can function as a sort of pocket, in case the wearer wishes to insert a filter.  

Here's the inside view.  I can't help thinking that it looks a bit like underwear.

The one innovation I made to this design was some nose-wire.  I think it helps to have a closer fit around the sides of the nose. I believe it keeps air from escaping.  I think this is particularly important for folks who wear glasses.

I used the plastic-encased wire that is commonly seen closing coffee and cookie bags.  This is technically known as double-wire tin-tie.  

On the first mask I made, I sandwiched the tin-tie between the lining fabric and the fashion fabric.  I think this is a poor choice, and am now placing the tin-tie between the two layers of fashion fabric.

It helps to make a tiny cut in the bottom edge of the tin-tie.  This helps the strip form more closely to the nose.  In this case, I cut too deeply into the strip, destroying the structural integrity of the material.

I have a lot of feelings about how our medical system, which is the most expensive in the world, did not have nearly enough protective equipment for their workers, and how it fell on an army of volunteer home-sewers to produce basic safety equipment.  I have a lot of feelings about how badly the White House handled this entire pandemic response.  I have a lot of feelings about how the conservative movement in America has devalued expertise, particularly among the scientific community.  I have a lot of feelings about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died from COVID-19.

But my feelings really aren't helpful.  They upset me, and keep me from doing anything productive. So I'm going to sew masks and try to be useful in whatever small way I can.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Easter Eggs


Every spring, for years and years, I've hosted an egg decorating party. I hosted this party in Baltimore, in Hartford, and the Bay Area.  I've taught friends the traditional craft of wax-resist, which is typical of Easter eggs decorated in Eastern Europe.  When the party grew too large (and messy) to host at my home, I moved it to the studio where I work.

It has always been a joy to teach this craft to my friends.  Even people who are convinced they're not creative end up making wonderful miniature artworks.

Some folks follow traditional forms, while others invent their own forms.

It's lovely to see everyone socializing and making things.

I 'm always impressed by the variety of designs that everyone creates.  Each these eggs were decorated with an entirely different approach, and each is delightful.  There really is no right or wrong way.

I particularly enjoy photographing the eggs, using whatever my friends bring along to the party.

These two eggs were photographed on top of one of the many books I have on this subject.

Isn't this collection splendid?  None of these eggs are what you'd call traditional designs, but they're all wonderfully dynamic.

It's also fun to see the difference in size between the eggs my own hens lay (on the left) and those produced by commercial farms.

I always buy flowers for this party, and they make a nice photo background as well.

This year, sadly, I will not be hosting my annual egg party.  Even if I wanted to decorate eggs at home, I can't. My tools are at work, and the store that sells the dye we use is closed.  I look forward to the time when we can meet and make art together again.


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