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Showing posts from April, 2010

Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

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... Ever since the oil drilling platform exploded and sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, last week, I've been holding my breath. First, I was worrying about the workers involved in this terrible industrial accident. And secondly, I was bracing to hear about the scope of the environmental impact. Petroleum is hugely damaging to animals, and natural systems. A blob of oil the size of a nickel is enough to kill a waterbird, and this now-uncapped well has the potential to leak more oil than has ever been spilled in history. Long-time blog readers will remember that I volunteered on the bird rescue effort after the Cosco Busan container ship ran into the San Francisco Bay , spilling tens of thousands of gallons of bunker fuel into the Bay. I also worked on the rehab team when so many birds in the Pacific Northwest were "slimed" by an algae bloom that birds were sent to California for care. I've seen the Oiled Wildlife Response Network in action. They are a con

Flighty

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... The Western Scrub Jays are doing a very good job of training me. When they show up in the back yard, I'm ready with peanuts, for their enjoyment. Unfortunately, they move so quickly that getting a decent photograph is almost impossible. I know that a lot of people dislike these birds, because they are aggressive, and seem use their superior intelligence for nefarious ends. People hate raccoons for pretty much the same reasons. Too smart. Too devious. Too good at getting into trouble. But I maintain that we hate these animals because they're just a little too much like us. They're smart, and adaptable, and aren't passive or fearful. I've always thought that the bad traits that we hate most in others are the traits we are guilty of having, ourselves.

Bay Friendly Garden Tour

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... This past weekend was the Bay Friendly Garden Tour , which promotes lowered water usage, reduction of chemicals, composting, food-production (for humans and wildlife) and re-purposing of materials. It's a fun, funky tour of East Bay gardens. Robb quickly discovered that the squishy walking surface created by thickly applied " gorilla hair mulch " sends his feet and legs into wracking muscle spasms. Sadly, he gave up on the tour after only one stop. This was a shame, because there were a lot of beautiful things to see. I'm a bit conflicted on the subject of mulch. Sure, it suppresses weeds, and holds in moisture, but it's not always good in all parts of a habitat garden. If you want to give your native bees a place to raise their families, they have to have direct access to garden soil. It was a great pleasure to see what my neighbors were growing. Strangely, this photo got bleached out when I uploaded it to the blog. I'm not sure wh

Our Taylor-Made Hive, part three.

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... At last writing , Robb and I had caught two swarms of honeybees, and were in the process of integrating the bees that Taylor had raised for us into these two colonies. We were doing what's called a " newspaper combine " which means that we were placing the new bees in a hive box above the existing colony, with a sheet of newspaper between the two boxes. The theory is that in the time it takes for the bees to chew through the newspaper barrier, they will have become acclimated to each others' scents, and will form one cohesive colony. The beekeeper cuts a few slits in the paper, to facilitate chewing, and the bees do the rest. Sounds simple, right? It did work, but it was a bit like trying to introduce a new cat into a home that already has a cat.* Despite closing them in separate rooms, there was a good deal of fighting. Because we didn't know if either of our swarms had a viable queen, we opted to split up the frames of brood from Taylor's c

Our Taylor Made Hive, part two.

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... Our beginning beekeeping saga continues. You can click on the highlighted text to read about how our friend Taylor was raising bees for us . And how we caught not one , but two swarms of honeybees . Also, about collecting the bees from Taylor's back yard . (I'm not likely to write a very lucid post, because I'm sick with some ghastly stomach ailment, and have no energy or attention span.) We drove a hive-box full of honey bees over to our house, in the back of a station wagon. (Encased in a custom made cardboard box, and wrapped in a sleeping bag, for those who wondered.) And before we integrated Taylor's bees into the hives with our swarm-bees, we took a moment to see how the swarm-bees were doing. Robb and I had decided to let the bees make the decisions about building their own honeycomb, and the photo above is what the "frames" of comb looked like after a week of work. A beekeeper can buy frames with embossed wax (or plastic) templates, wit

Our Taylor Made Hive, part one.

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... Back in January, our friend Taylor invited us to "park" some of our beehive frames inside of her beehive. The idea was that her bees would build comb on our frames, and start raising baby bees in those cells. Taylor loves her bees, and wanted to share them with us. We were delighted by her generosity. On Sunday morning, Robb and I went over to Alameda where Taylor keeps her bees. The hive was booming. Her colony, which had started as a swarm a year ago, was teeming with life. Taylor set about methodically going through her hive boxes, and it was clear that the bees had lived up to their reputation. These ladies had been busy! Bees build in a tidy, predictable manner, and Taylor's bee's hive was a textbook example of how things should look. On the outer edges were frames of capped honey. The bees collect nectar from flowers, and process it with enzymes from their bodies. They deposit the nectar in wax cells, and when it has evaporated to the pe

Honeybee Swarm!

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... As it turns out, no bees had moved into my friend Kitty's tree. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, click here .) We think that some scout bees had been checking it out as a possible home, and the one way "door" we installed deterred them. Now, apparently, word has gotten out that I'm a crazy bee-catching maniac. I got a message on Monday from one of my co-workers that her neighbor's bees were about to swarm, and that her neighbor wanted to give the swarm to a good home. Of course, I called to see what this was all about. Sure enough, her bees had swarmed, and were hanging out in a tree in her back yard. I was welcome to collect them, if I wanted. After work, I convinced Robb to come along on this crazy adventure. We swung by Kitty's house, and picked up the hive that we had set out, hoping that it would attract the bees Kitty and her husband had seen. The swarm was as large as a human head. A solid, seething mass of hone

Cuckoo Bees!

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... I've written before about how neglected and overgrown the garden was , when we bought our little house. Huge vines were strangling the trees, and it was difficult to walk through much of the yard. But there's a positive side to all of this neglect. During all this time, it's unlikely that anyone was pouring insecticides or herbicides all over the place. Our yard has become a good habitat for native bees. I spotted a green bee , when we first bought the house. And I wrote about the digger bee who was trying to make a nest in one of my seed-starting trays. This red bee is the latest native that we've photographed in our yard. We think it's a nomada or cuckoo bee . These tiny bees are kleptoparasites, meaning that they lay their eggs on the pollen stores in other bees' homes. Female cuckoo bees lack the pollen collecting structures that most other bees have. (The so-called pollen "baskets" on the hind legs of bees are actually velcro-

The Virgin Queen

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... I've done a bit of reading about the swarm I captured, and I've come to the conclusion that I don't have a mature, fertile queen. What I've got in an as-yet un-mated Virgin Queen. In the spring, when bees are preparing to swarm, the colony prepares a number of "swarm cells" into which eggs will be laid, that will develop into young queen bees. Usually what happens is that the existing queen flies off with about half of the colony, and then the first queen to emerge from her cell tears open the other cells, and kills the other queens. Once in a while, a young queen will not murder her unborn sisters. They'll be born, and as soon as they can, they'll fly away, to start their own colony. This is called an afterswarm , as opposed to the prime swarm, which contains the abdicating queen. I've been referring to our swarm hive as the Gloriana hive, in homage to history's most famous Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I of England . I was telli

Bee-Curious

... Our first day as beekeepers, and the feral cats want to get in on the action. "Sleeves" has heard that one should wear white when working around beehives. We're working on a design for a little hat and veil.

Catching a Swarm of Wild Honeybees

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... It's spring in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the honeybees are swarming! As I understand it, when a honeybee colony is thriving, it will divide itself, in order to increase its reproductive future. Either the existing queen will leave the colony, with some portion of the colony's populations, or the bees will rear new queens in special "swarm cells." Either way, these bees will fly away from the safety of their hive, and go in search of a new home. I've been following the adventures of the California beekeepers, who are busy catching these healthy spring swarms . And I've been eating my heart out, because I dearly wanted to learn about this, in person. Yesterday, I wrote a particularly pathetic plea on my local beekeepers' forum, asking to be invited along on a "swarm call." And today, I got that call. It's funny how wonderful things have been happening on my lunch breaks! First hand feeding wild birds , and now chasing bees!

Group Nap!

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... A daily dose of cuteness. The two feral cats who inhabit our garden have such an endearing bond. I'm glad that someone had them neutered, as evidenced by their "notched" ears. Okay, then. Carry on with the rest of your day.

Completely Enchanting!

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... In addition to being a small-time bird-watcher, I'm also a big-time vicarious bird-watcher. I'm a huge fan of the website Flickr , and I just love keeping up-to-date with the serious birders. I think I'm most interested in what's going in in my area. Sure, the photos of Costa Rica are brilliant, but there's something so exciting about seeing the local beauties. One photographer who has really inspired me is Lorcan Keeting. He has earned the trust of the local Western Scrub Jays, who fly in his apartment windows and take naps on his bookcases. They also eat peanuts from his outstretched hand. Click here and here and here for some of his photos. In my grandparents' home, where I learned to love nature , there was a framed photograph of my aunt, with a chickadee perched on her hand. I had always wished for an experience like that. So I won't lie. When I realized that scrub jays regularly visited our yard, I made a point of setting out n

California's Spring Wildflowers

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... Today was one of those unpredictable days, where rain was forecast and the sky looked threatening. But it was also ... SPRING. We just had to get outside, and see the beautiful ephemeral wildflowers. Sure, it would have been easy to sit at home, and stay snuggled under a blanket. But the flowers (and letterboxes ) were calling out to us. There was rain and wind. But look what we got to see! Wild Hyacinths, otherwise known as Blue Dicks. I'm sure there was a time that this didn't make thirteen-year-old boys giggle furiously, but I can't imagine when that time might have been. Tiny cheerful, and downright odd-looking Shoe Buttons. I love the spiky pollen! I was thinking about old-fashioned shoes as we were walking. I wore hiking shoes, which turned out to have incredible mud-accumulating qualities, and no waterproof-ness at all. When it rains, I often think about people with worse shoes than mine, and of animals and their wet paws. Robb and I shared a