How to fail at being crafty, Part 1 (of many)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted… [insert excuses here]… sorry… blahblah… moving on…

We’re on a tight budget these days, and I’ve had a little bit of free time on my hands. With the holidays bearing down on us, I thought I might actually try to take on some of the crafty project ideas that I often come across on the internets. They always seem like such a good idea, and as a result I have a decent pinterest collection of DIY crafting suggestions that have long since been forgotten or ignored.

My first attempt was to make sage smudge sticks, as detailed here. Upon examining her method, I thought it looked pretty straight forward, and I definitely had all the materials needed (our two sage plants in the yard have grown like weeds). So on a particularly slow day, I went for it.

Freshly cut sage... sitting around drying out.

Freshly cut sage… sitting around drying out.

Well, maybe I won’t be adding sage smudge sticks to my stocking stuffer repertoire after all… First lesson learned: don’t conduct project in multiple stages. In other words, don’t cut all the sage and then let sit for a day or two. The sage will dry out and become not so easy to work with. This error will pretty much negatively impact every part of the project going forward.

Despite dry, cracking leaves, I carried on. I spent way too long picking the leaves off of the stems (while listening to Serial, of course), and then again left the project alone for a day or two, allowing the leaves to dry out even more.

More drying...

More drying…

I eventually returned to the project to separate the leaves into crackly piles of dryness, and then, you guessed it, left them alone to dry more. And this is where the dryness really takes a toll on the project. You see, the next and final step is to wrap each sage bundle in cotton string to hold the leaves together. If you did this with fresh, bendy leaves, I’d imagine it would work quite well. If you did this with parched, brittle leaves, I can confirm that it works quite poorly.

Rigid bundle of sage leaves about to be obliterated by indelicate man hands.

Rigid bundle of sage leaves about to be obliterated by my indelicate man hands.

I had come so far – I needed to finish. So I took my ugly white cotton string (second lesson: do as the blog post you’re following says and get the nice brown twine and not the cheaper white kitchen string), and began to impatiently and indelicately wrap each bundle, cracking and crumbling the leaves as I went.

Le sigh.

Le sigh.

My finished products look like little mummified owl pellets that I’m sure my friends and family members will be thrilled to find in their stockings.

In more positive news, I did roast a humungous sweet meat squash and roasted the seeds in the Whole Foods salty herb mix that my mom buys by the gallon and shares with me. They were absolutely delicious, and I singlehandedly finished them all in one day.

Yum

Yum

Stay tuned for more embarrassing mishaps.

 

Pesto Ice Cubes

It’s the season of garden abundance, and trying to stay on top of everything that seems to be ready for harvest at the same time is a tricky task. An embarrassment of riches, I know.

We’ve had to let the occasional head of lettuce go to the birds… our chicken ladies who LOVE their green treats. And I’ve been roasting and peeling beets like a mad woman, throwing them in a jar and into the fridge for use on the aforementioned lettuce. But one of my favorite – and more convenient – tricks I’ve come across for prolonging the life of a seasonal veggie is a little something I learned from our friend Sarah Brown, a farm and cooking goddess.

While hanging around her kitchen one day, probably watching in awe as she whipped up an amazing meal, I noticed that the ice cubes in her ice tray were dark green. Noticing my concern, she quickly explained that that was how she froze her pesto. Perfect cube-sized pesto portions. Genius. So whenever I have a lot of basil on hand, I fill up the ice tray like so…

Step one: harvest said basil (terrible photo, I know).

photo 1

 

Pick all the basil leaves off of the stems and gather other ingredients. Some smart people would use a recipe, but I almost certainly never have everything that traditional pesto calls for, so I usually just make it up as I go. In this case, I was lacking pine nuts (or any nuts for that matter), so I substituted flax seeds. They add a bit of grainy flavor and texture, but note that the typical blender doesn’t chop up flax seeds. I actually had the parmesan cheese, and pesto isn’t pesto without lots of garlic.

 

 

photo 2

 

Really good olive oil, flaky salt and strong pepper are also very important additions. I, however, don’t have really good (expensive) olive oil, so please excuse the Napoleon.

 

photo 4

 

All ingredients get shoved into this adorable little Cuisinart, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received (thanks, Simran!). As previously mentioned, some people would follow measurements. I prefer the guessing game/taste as you go method.

 

photo 3

 

When it has reached the perfect blend, into the ice tray it all goes, where it will wait patiently for our next pasta meal. Although you may not guess it from all my unnecessary babbling, this full process took me 7 minutes. Easy peasy lemon squeezy!

photo 5

 

Collapse

Yesterday the NYTimes posted this op-ed written by biologist Mark Winston, about bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. Because of my bee fanaticism, four people have already sent this article to me, but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth the read.

Go ahead, read it. Now. It’s important to have at least a vague awareness of what is happening to our pollinators. It is affecting and will affect all of us from here on out. It has to do with biodiversity and the very food we sustain ourselves with. Put another way, without pollinators great amounts of our food supply will disappear or skyrocket in cost. Kind of a big deal.

I’ve watched bee hives die. Tens of thousands of little creatures wiped out – sometimes from unknown causes, sometimes from predators or disease, sometimes from starvation and pesticide poisoning. It’s a heart-wrenching thing to witness, and it’s happening everywhere at alarming rates (from the very first line of the article: “AROUND the world, honeybee colonies are dying in huge numbers: About one-third of hives collapse each year…”).

When we first moved into our house a little over a year ago, one of the first things I noticed was a lack of bee and bird noises. Granted, I was coming from a large farm with three hives and a wide diversity of plants and trees, but it struck me that outside of the man-made city noise, it seemed so quiet. Now, as I sit here looking out my window, I see butterflies moving about. I see little bee bodies darting in all directions. I see color and hear birds. I’m noticing more ladybugs in my yard, and the row of cilantro I let go to seed is at any given time absolutely covered with no fewer than 10 different pollinator species.

The other day a photography class for young kids walked by the wildflower patch at the corner of our property. They stopped to look at the flowers and soon realized how many bees and bumblebees were moving about. They stood there for at least 20 minutes taking pictures. I hope those kids understand how important their little photography subjects are.

I’m working on creating a safe and diverse space for wildlife in our yard, but I know our bees are traveling throughout our neighborhood, and in other yards they may be coming in contact with plants and trees that have been treated with one pesticide or another. They will then bring back those chemicals on their little bodies, and contaminate the hive. As Mark Winston notes, “a typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides. Alone, each represents a benign dose. But together they form a toxic soup of chemicals whose interplay can substantially reduce the effectiveness of bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.”

Let’s hope that more and more people, besides bee and plant nerds like myself, learn about what’s happening in their backyards and across agricultural systems everywhere – for the sake of the bees AND for us.

Preaching session now complete.

Bees and Betty and Honey and Flowers

This is one of the busiest times of the year for our bees. Flowers are in full bloom throughout the neighborhood, and the ladies are taking full advantage. The temperatures have been in the high 80’s and even low 90’s, creating a lot of action right outside the hive entrance. Bees trying to keep the inside of the hive cool set up shop right at the entrance and fan their wings at full speed to create a mini breeze. In the evenings, bees will spill out of the front of the hive, creating what many refer to as “bearding”, in an attempt to stay cool. IMG_6425

Betty has a special affinity for her bee sisters. Here she is shown emerging from the little den she has created under the currant bush. She spends at least half of each day nestled below the hive, lulled to sleep by the hum above.

IMG_6301In late May, half of our hive swarmed. This is a natural process to accommodate for the growth of a hive and eventual overcrowding. About 30-50% of the hive will split off with the original queen and head to a temporary gathering place – like the maple tree shown above on our property. Scouts will then go in search of a new hive cavity and when one is located, the full swarm will move in. I tried to catch this one (why not have two hives instead of one?!), but I was too slow and they took off before I could get set up. Witnessing a swarm on the move is quite a crazy site. Imagine a cloud (literally, a cloud) of bees moving together creating an almost deafening buzz. Not something you see everyday.

In the meantime, the remaining ladies in our hive raised a new queen and are raising new brood and making lots of delicious honey!

honeyDuring a regular hive inspection this week, I noticed the ladies had been building some honeycomb along the inside cover where they shouldn’t be. That means we get an early mini honey harvest to enjoy!

IMG_6407 This brood rearing and honey production is a result of all the foraging our little worker bees have been doing around our garden (and four miles beyond!). The following photos are a brief montage of the pollen gathering and nectar drinking action I’ve noticed around our flowers lately… see if you can spot the bees in each picture (like the bumblebee flitting around the poppy above and below). IMG_6409 IMG_6410 IMG_6412 IMG_6413 IMG_6414 IMG_6418 IMG_6420 IMG_6421
IMG_6426 In the picture above, you can see the little pollen balls that this bee has gathered and stored on her hind legs to bring back to the hive. Here she is visiting a Bachelor’s Button to add to her stash.

IMG_6448 IMG_6449 Above is a shot of our wildflower patch, which is constantly abuzz (hehe) with bumblebees, honeybees, and many other pollinators. For a nerd like me, standing among the flowers and taking in all the action is a great way to spend a few minutes.

IMG_6452 IMG_6453

Garden Happenings

This blog post has a dual purpose: a) to somewhat explain why I haven’t posted in so long (because I spend too much time nerding out in our yard), and b) to fulfill your burning desires to see pictures of my garden (obviously). So here is some garden progress for your Friday afternoon:

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Earth Day at the ER

It turns out I’m not the master beekeeper I was striving to be. Not even close.

As previously described, we got our new bees this past weekend, and after having sat in their transfer box (NUC) for a few days, it was time to move them over to their permanent hive home in our backyard.

Well my plan was to do that this evening, but as Christian was out walking the dog this morning, I decided I could fit it in before work. Mistake #1: trying to do this alone.

My protective clothing is a jumpsuit, head net and extra-large gloves passed down to me by my neighbor, Tom. Tom is in his 80’s and did most of his beekeeping many years ago. Which means my clothing is upwards of 20-30 years old. Mistake #2: protection does not come in the form of clothing and head nets from the 80’s with holes in them.

My task this morning was to move the frames (where the bees draw out honeycomb, make honey and lay brood) from the NUC over to the hive, one by one. This takes calm behavior, patience, and good equipment. This takes a hive tool that helps you un-stick the frames and lift them out gently. This take gloves that fit and allow you to maneuver in the hive with precision and delicate pressure. Mistake #3: working with 1,000s of bees with extra large gloves and a paint scraper is really dumb.

So Christian came home from his walk to a backyard full on angry bees and a panicked wife covered in said angry bees. Naturally, he started taking pictures…

Bees!

Bees!

Worst head net use ever.

Worst head net use ever.

Please note aforementioned clothes with holes in them (not to mention a way too small jumpsuit), especially the back of the head net, where the mesh is pulled down too far, leaving a wide gap perfect for bee entry. Mistake #4: see above mistakes, and add in a dosage of total idiocy.

Long story short, after a painstaking 20 minutes of transferring bees, they were in their new hive, and I had a neck full of bee stings. And then everything started to itch. And then I got nauseous. And then I started to have really sharp pains in my chest. And then I got hives everywhere. And then I couldn’t breathe and my entire face puffed up. Right around then was when Christian said I “looked like death”, and we went to the hospital.

A very patient husband at the ER

A very patient husband at the ER

A dose of steroids, benadryl and an epi-pen prescription later, I’m alive and the proud owner of the most expensive beehive ever (can’t wait to get that ER bill!).

Settling in.

Settling in.

Moral of the story: I’m an amateur.

Bee season.

I’ve spent some time doting over our bees on this blog (like here, for example), but we kept our hives at the farm when we moved back into Portland, and next Tuesday we welcome a new bee colony to our little backyard. Needless to say, I’m really excited.

While I’ve been awaiting the arrival of my new bee friends, I’ve been expanding my bee knowledge by becoming a Master Beekeeper. Yes, there is a such a program and such a title. And yes, I imagine anyone reading this letting out a little sigh that means: “man, she needs to get out more”. Well, maybe I do.

But on a recent sunny afternoon, I got to spend some time in my mentor’s backyard, that looks like this…

My mentor and his beautiful, multi-colored bee boxes.

My mentor and his colorful bee boxes.

And as we were checking in on one of his hives…

Inspection time

Inspection time

…I spotted the queen. Can you?

Queen Bee

Queen Bee

Any time I can locate the queen, I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness. I know, more sighs. But seriously, there’s a reason the term “Queen Bee” is a label of awesomeness. When she is being reared, she is fed “royal jelly”, an actual term for a special, protein-rich gland secretion from the heads of worker bees. Yum.

Then there is this: “The queen will fly out on a sunny, warm day to a “drone congregation area” where she will mate with 12-15 drones. If the weather holds, she may return to the drone congregation area for several days until she is fully mated. Mating occurs in flight. The young queen stores up to 6 million sperm from multiple drones in her spermatheca. She will selectively release sperm for the remaining 2–7 years of her life.”

Whoa.

So with that being said, the queen bee is the mom of almost all the 1,000’s of bees in her colony. And on that sunny afternoon in my mentor’s backyard, we actually watched that queen lay eggs of future workers and drones – watched her dip her “bum” into the comb cells and lay little white eggs. According to my mentor, who has been beekeeping for over 20 years, this was rare to see. And it was awesome.

So expect a few more bee posts this summer, and in the meantime, check out the bee platform that a certain handy husband built for me…

Baby figgies, with bee platform in the background

Baby figgies, with bee platform in the background