close encounters

Seems I don’t have to go far to find something interesting outside; all I have to do is go out the front door. This morning, Callie found this little beauty exploring the edge of the woodpile.

The pollinators have a wide choice of wildflowers in our yard. This bumble bee favors red clover.

An Eastern box turtle turned up in the front yard and the pattern on its carapace looked very similar to the female Bill and I saw a couple of weeks earlier in our front field. If it was indeed the same one, she had traveled roughly the length of a football field.

Sometimes wildlife turns up just outside our door. It was time for dinner. We hadn’t fired up the grill in a while and we were planning to cook out. But when Bill opened up the grill…oh, my! Two mice had built a cozy nest inside (the nest was at the very front of the grill). I don’t know who was more surprised – Bill or the mice!

We gave them a reprieve and cooked our hamburgers on the stove that night, but the grandchildren will be coming for a visit soon and we’re looking forward to a cookout. So the next morning, we removed the nest. The two little meeces jumped from the grill to the porch floor and scampered away. They were very cute, but not cute enough to live in our grill all summer!

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robbing the bees

After two years, we finally got to taste the fruits of our…well, actually, Bill’s…beekeeping labors. Our bees are Russian Carniolans, a species that is fairly resistant to varroa mites and does a pretty good job of taking care of themselves.

In the spring, the bees gather nectar and pollen from the blooms of tulip poplar, maple, honey locust, autumn olive, and willow, and a variety of wildflowers, to take back to the hive. They also pay regular visits to our neighbor’s peach and apple trees where they help to pollinate the fruit in exchange for pollen from the flowers.

After a very rainy spring, we have a bumper crop of wildflowers. Right now, the bees are foraging on milkweed, clover, coreopsis, butterfly weed, and blackberries. This is a picture of the bees coming and going from the hive.

Yesterday was a hot, sunny day, perfect for making honey. Bill collected four frames of honey and extracted the honey using the following “crush and strain” method.

He took an aluminum roasting pan (like you would use to cook a turkey) with a flexible cutting board in the bottom (to protect the bottom of the pan) and pushed the comb and honey into the roasting pan. Then, using a potato masher, he mashed it to “free” the honey from the comb. The mushy contents of the roasting pan were then emptied into a plastic tub that had a hole cut in the bottom covered with a stainless steel screen and cheesecloth. This tub was placed inside a second tub, which would catch the strained honey.

The contents gradually filter through the screen and the cheesecloth into the second (exterior) tub.

The honey flows from the second tub through the spigot and into the canning jar below. And voîla! We wound up with seven pints of beautiful, amber wildflower honey.

We couldn’t wait to try out the honey, so this morning I made biscuits.

The honey was so good Bill said he wants to do a “repeat performance” for lunch!

The next time you’re enjoying a taste of honey, remember that one-third of the foods you eat depend, directly or indirectly, on pollination by honey bees. The value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually, according to a Cornell University study. They also pollinate more than 16 percent of the flowering plant species, ensuring that we’ll have blooms in our gardens. Not bad for an insect that isn’t even native. But then, most of our crops and many of our garden plants aren’t natives either. They evolved in areas where honey bees are native, and both crops and insects were brought to the New World to become essential parts of our agricultural system.

Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake. — Rachel Carson

our daily amble

Nearly every morning, my husband and I head out with the dogs for a walk somewhere on the farm. We look for new birds to add to our Farm Bird List, a new insect or wildflower in bloom, or anything else that captures our attention.

A couple mornings ago we were excited to see a pair of cedar waxwings gobbling down wild blackberries. This was our first sighting of this species on the farm. Waxwings frequent the edges of wooded areas, especially those that provide access to berry sources. They are attracted to the sound of running water, and love to bathe in and drink from shallow creeks. We have the winning combination of woodland edges, berry-producing trees and shrubs, and a small creek. I didn’t have my camera with me (dang it!) so I didn’t get a picture, but chalk up another bird for our farm bird list!

Callie is always nose to the ground, and I noticed her sniffing something in the grass – if there’s any little critter hiding in the brush, Callie will find it.

I walked over and, sure enough, she had discovered an Eastern box turtle hunkered down in the grass. In general, male box turtles have very orange or red eyes and a slightly concave plastron, while females have brown or light orange eyes and a plastron that is almost completely flat, so this one appears to be a female.

Meanwhile, Autumn was more interested in what was going on over by our neighbor’s barn. There’s a cat we see from time to time hunting in the fields, so possibly it was the cat that had garnered her attention. Normally, she’d be up for a good feline chase, but this time, she decided to pass on the opportunity.

From there, we walked the lower portion of the front field where it was quite a bit wetter and couldn’t believe how tall the grass had grown. (That’s Bill almost waist-high in the grass!)

Patches of grass were flattened in a couple of places where deer had been spending the night. They browse the woods and fields during the day and bed down at night in the tall grass. Despite the popularity of deer hunting, we’re seeing lots of deer and lots of hoof prints at the creek bed and in places where it’s muddy.

Like everywhere else, nature is in constant flux here on our farm and we never fail to see something new no matter how many times we check out the same places. John Muir was right when he said, “To see something new in nature, take the same path you took yesterday.”

rescue plants

I went to a nursery yesterday and the first thing that caught my eye was a butterfly bush. It was more than a bit bedraggled – the blooms were droopy and some of the branches were missing or hanging limp. When I asked what happened to it, the worker said, “it just got a little banged up moving from one place to another.” Turns out, the owner had purchased this and some other plants from a wholesaler, who had purchased them from a nursery that had gone out of business. So, I figured what I had here was a “rescue” plant. What else could I do, but buy it?

This is the butterfly bush, only minutes in the ground before a Diana’s fritillary came to check it out. (Please correct me if my identification of the fritillary is wrong)

That was the second of my “rescue” plants. A couple weeks earlier I had seen several small trees for sale at our Tractor Supply store, but I resisted the urge to buy one. A week later, I was back at the same store and noticed that only two of the trees were left. I checked the tag of a little dogwood and saw that it had been marked down. It hadn’t sold because the leaves were starting to yellow from lack of nutrients and a couple of limbs were broken off. Besides being a sucker for a good deal, I pictured how beautiful the tree would look after some fertilizer and a little TLC, so I took it home with me.

The dogwood was so spindly it had to be staked. After one dose of fertilizer, the leaves are greening up and there’s some new growth.

Building our new house turned out to be more expensive than we thought (isn’t that always the case?) so we’re on a very tight landscaping budget. It felt good to get two native plants at a bargain price, especially when a year from now, they will have acclimated to their “forever” home and look like a million bucks – especially in the eyes of the birds, bees, and butterflies!