Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More Butterflies -- Blue Ones This Time


Our tiny urban backyard is something of an oasis for butterflies.  And once in a while, we'll see a new kind.

I think this is a Common Checked Skipper. It's a small butterfly with a furry blue body.  It was feeding on our asters, which are always buzzing with insect life.

How about you? Have you noticed any new creatures around where you live?

(For those keeping score, Robb released a fifth Anise Swallowtail butterfly yesterday.)


Monday, July 21, 2014



Our chicken Harriet has gone broody.  She has parked herself in one of the nest boxes in the hen house and is determined to incubate eggs.

There are just a few problems with this plan.  Chief among them is the fact that we don't have a rooster.  No rooster means no nookie, which means that our hens lay unfertilized eggs that will never develop into baby chicks.  The second big problem with Harriet's egg-hatching scheme is that neither she nor any of the other chickens have laid any eggs  at all for over a week.  Harriet is dutifully sitting on ... nothing.  And her behavior has apparently thrown all of the rest of the flock into such an uproar that they have all forgotten how to lay eggs at all.

There is plenty written about what to do when a hen goes broody. The advice ranges from the bizarre to the downright cruel.  ("Alter your chicken's hormonal urges by dunking her in a barrel of ice water!")

Robb and I tend to let animals be animals.  If nobody's getting sick, if everyone is eating well and not acting too crazy, we tend to leave things alone.  We do lift Harriet out of the nest box a few times a day so that she can drink and eat and do chickeny things.

Harriet is pretty grumpy about our interference.  She keeps up an irate monologue of fussy clucking, and has her hackles raised.  If you've ever seen a male turkey during mating season, with all of his feathers puffed out, you'll have some idea of how our chubby Harriet looks.  Except that instead of having a majestic turkey tail to display as a symbol of sexual prowess, she has diminutive chicken tail-feathers atop an ample booty.  Harriet is many things, but majestic is not one of them.

As Harriet's broodiness enters its second week, Robb and I are starting to consider buying some fertilized eggs or baby chicks to slip into her nest.  We really don't need any more animals, but the lure of baby chicks is pretty tempting.

Hopefully, Harriet will come to her senses before Robb and I take leave of ours.

For a glimpse into other gardens around the blogging world, visit the weekly round-up at Daphne's place.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Brand New Butterflies!


I've been insanely busy at work, trying to keep a particularly lovely project on-schedule.  And during this time, my tank full of caterpillars has mostly all morphed into silent mysterious chrysalises.  I find these fascinatingly enigmatic.  I watch, wait and ... wonder.

Watching is one of those quiet activities that I think we could all do a lot more of.  How much do we notice the world as it swirls around us?

Only a very keen observer would notice the changes inside of this seemingly lifeless object.   Only a weirdo like me would spend so much time peering at chrysalises, looking for changes.

If you compare the two images of the same chrysalis, you'll notice that in the lower photograph the shell seems more translucent.  You can discern patterns of a butterfly's wing through the walls of the chrysalis.

Twenty minutes after I took that photograph (and after I gave Robb a particularly boring lecture about how I thought this butterfly was about to hatch) I walked past the holding tank and saw this newly-emerged butterfly.

It takes several hours for a butterfly to inflate its crumpled new wings. Robb and I went for a bike ride, and when we came back the butterfly was ready to fly off into the world.  This particular creature did not linger.  We opened the top of her enclosure, and off she flew.

Later this afternoon, it occurred to me that I had better do something about the one caterpillar who had escaped the tank and built her cocoon on one of my indoor orchid plants.

I wandered back to the pantry, and found a beautiful butterfly perched on my plants, slowly moving her strong straight wings. Thankfully this was a calm butterfly, that I was able to carry outside without any drama.  Neither butterfly nor transporter were adversely affected by the trip from pantry to back yard.

The butterfly did not fly away immediately.  She clung to the orchid that had supported her chrysalis for the past few weeks, allowing me an opportunity to take a few photographs.  Did I seem like a looming monster, to this newly emerged butterfly, or did she even notice me at all?

The day was getting late, and I was somewhat concerned that this butterfly would be warm enough to fly so I carefully placed the potted plant inside the tank (something I should have done weeks ago).  At one point the butterfly faltered, and fell off the plant.  She crawled, dragging her wings on the floor of the tank.  I held my breath. She struggled to find purchase on the slick glass walls, and so I offered her a hand. She climbed onto my finger, clasping gently with the ends of her delicate legs. I slowly lifted her out of the tank.  She held on for a few moments, and then flew off to our neighbors' magnolia tree, where her wings blended perfectly with the foliage.

 I'll never tire of releasing winged creatures into the wild.

(For those keeping score, we've now released four butterflies in the past two weeks.)

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Caterpillar Plantation


A quick glimpse at the caterpillars I'm raising in my pantry.  Typing isn't so easy, because I had a mishap with my brand new pruning saw. I gashed my finger impressively, and it needs time to heal.

I believe I have twenty-two caterpillars in all.  They are in various stages of development. Six have formed chrysalises, six have attached themselves to various surfaces with silken threads and are preparing to form chrysalises, and ten are still eating everything in sight.

We had friends over on the Fourth of July, and I forced everyone to gawk at my tank full of caterpillars. I think they're fascinating, and my friends were all too polite to tell me that I'm crazy for doing this.

How about you?  Have you ever raised caterpillars?  How did it go?

For more garden fun, check out the weekly garden party at Daphne's excellent blog.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dead Spiders in my Bra -- I know you wish you had my life


The work on the garage continues. Like an idiot, I've saved the hardest, most demoralizing part for last. I still have a lot of scraping to do on the horrible paint under the eaves. 

The roof of this garage (which we do not own) is a wreck.  The wood under the roof is rotten, and seems to be held together by spiderwebs and habit. Every time to touch it, chunks of wood and mummified spider carcasses fall on me, landing either in my hair or in my bra.  Scraping the paint off this punky wood is not a task that I relish.  It's sweaty, dirty, and a bit soul-crushing.

There are plenty of pleasant things going on at our house. Our infant fig orchard has produced a few fruits.  The strawberries are delicious.

Our baby pluot tree is in full fruit.  These are amazingly delicious, making up for the complete lack of a plum crop this year.  I'm looking forward to seeing this tree mature.

We're also having an absurdly bountiful bean harvest.  The yellow roc d'or beans are the size of standard grocery store green beans. The green scarlet runner beans are gigantic. We have to keep picking them, or they got out of control. Robb and I pickled some beans using our tarragon and garlic, this weekend.  The green ones turned a rather unappetizing army green color.  The yellow ones still look reasonably nice. 

So, that's the garden update! If you want to see what other gardeners are up to, click on over to Daphne's blog for the weekly round-up.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Quiet Time With The Bees


On Mondays, I often participate in a group blogging event.  Everyone writes about what's going on in their gardens.  It's fascinating, and oddly cozy -- as if friends had just popped by for a visit. 

But, as in all things, I'm a bit of an oddball in this group.  I don't weigh my produce. I don't keep spreadsheets of how much what I've grown would cost on the open market, and calculate my savings.  I'm content when I don't kill another food crop.  For me, gardening is about doing something that makes me happy. I love pottering around the garden, I love helping plants as they grow.

And I love noticing things.  Slowing down.  Looking around.  Being aware of the little things that are swirling around my too-busy life.

I particularly love watching the native pollinators that visit my garden.  The jewel-like green bees are particularly enchanting. 

One of my great joys in my gardening day is watching the various native bees (as well as my own honeybees) work the flowers that I've planted.  This cheerful bee seems to be sporting ironic facial hair.

This creature isn't a bee at all, but rather a bee mimic fly.  Do you see how the eyes are typically fly-like?  These animals are important pollinators, and are welcomed in my garden.

Even if you're not a gardener, even if you live in the middle of the city, considering watching a patch of flowers this summer. Pause and observe.  There's more going on than you may suspect.  Tiny insect dramas are playing out, for us to observe -- if we take the time.

For those interested in the weekly garden blog party, click on this link.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

An Update on Christine's Bees


A week ago, I helped my friend Christine relocate a colony of bees out of her lemon tree.  We carefully moved the beautiful wax structure that the bees had built, and placed it into a hive.

My plan was to let the bees settle. Hopefully, they would accept the hive as their home.  I wanted to disrupt the bees as little as possible, and encourage them to make a home in the hive.

 On Saturday morning, I went by Christine's house to see how the bees were doing.  Everything looked good. The bees were relaxed and un-aggressive.  They had been collecting nectar and pollen, and the queen had been laying eggs.

So now, it was time to do a bit of housekeeping.  If I left things alone, the bees would have continued to build wax comb, eventually filling the wooden hive boxes. However, for the well-being of the bees, I chose to ever-so-carefully pry apart the layers of wax comb, and attach them to movable frames.  This way, each wax paddle can be removed from the hive for inspection.  I'm told that non-inspectable hives are illegal under United States law, but I've never confirmed this fact.

I had interlaced large rubber bands, to form a flexible cradle for the bees' comb.  I gently slid the bands over the bees, trying my best not to pinch them.  I think I did well.  No bees were crushed, and I was not stung. 

 There was a bit of distortion in some of the brood combs.  I fear I may have injured some of the developing larval bees.  I moved as slowly and carefully as I could, but there was no way of separating the paddles without applying a bit of force.

Here you can see developing baby bees.  The queen is laying eggs, which develop into larval bees.  At a certain stage in their development, the worker bees cover up the cells in which the bees are growing, and the developing creatures undergo a transformation from grub to actual honeybee.  That beige-yellow color you see on the closed-up honeycomb encapsulates developing bees.  That's a fantastic sign, meaning that the colony of bees is working together to produce new bees.

I can also tell by looking at this that the queen in this colony is fertile.  The size of the honeycomb is linked to the gender of the bees developing inside of them.  These cells contain developing female bees, which can only be produced by a fertile queen.

What a success!  The bees are easy to work with.  They've got a great location between a loquat, a lemon, and a plum tree.  I am very pleased with how this colony of bees are doing.

I won't go back for a couple of weeks. The work I did this weekend was necessary, and also terribly disruptive, and I want the bees to have time to undo all the damage I did to their home.

I'm really happy that Christine is letting these bees live in her back yard.  I think they're going to thrive.  If you've ever wanted to keep bees, but didn't want all the responsibility, consider offering your yard to a local beekeeper.  It can be a great arrangement, beneficial to all parties.


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