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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summer Heat, Part Two: Melting Honey Combs

The drought continues. The Madison area received only 7% of its normal rainfall in June, and so far in July, it rained only a trace at our place for about 10 minutes. And it's hot. I've never been one to complain about summer weather, but our birds and our bees  are suffering.

On June 19th, during one of the first heat spells, most of our bees swarmed. Until then, they had been fervently setting up their complex system of combs and eggs and drones and making honey.
Before the swarm

  It was shocking to find nearly all of the bees in a pear tree early that Tuesday evening.
After the swarm
Nearly 3 lbs of bees in our pear tree
  Frantically, we solicited facebook advice. Andy called several beekeepers in the area. We learned a lot that evening. One: the bees might have overheated, hence the need to escape. Two: A new queen established herself, and the first queen took her posse with her. Three: Most beekeepers have more than one hive, so that if/when this happens they can put the swarm into a new home.

Apparently, two important women can't survive together in the bee kingdom...

Well, we found a new hive. On Wednesday morning, the swarm still hung in the tree, so we were hopeful that we'd catch it and get it into the second home. Upon Andy's return with the new hive, to his disappointment, the swarm had fled. He set up the second hive, and we put our attention to the remaining queen and her attendees.

These remaining bees are role models. They got right to work - no off-task behavior for them. It seemed that despite the hive's setback, combs would soon be dripping with honey.

But then we had a 5-day spell of 100+ degree weather with humidity taking the heat index into the 100-110 degree range. To our surprise, the combs literally melted. A slushy pile of honey covered the bottom of the hive. One might think this would be enough to discourage this assmebly of workers.

A sweet, slushy setback

Nope. Tonight, we went to check the bees, and they're rebuilding. So many less of them are here than the 3 pounds that buzzed inside before the swarm, but those that remain are amazing. Driven by instinct maybe, but how much could we learn from these little buzzers?  Keep working. Keep fighting. Don't give up.Rebuild. After a struggle, it will always be that much sweeter in the end. Viva la lucha!

Eggs and honey and rebuilding
No serious cooling in our future. No probable rain in our 7-day forecast. Hopefully these rockstar bees won't give up.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Our Visit to the Seed Savers Heritage Farm

What a wonderful weekend we had in Decorah, Iowa!  Our good friend, Gretchen, grew up there, and we've enjoyed her enthusiasm and love for her hometown in dozens of conversations throughout the years. Since Andy and I began gardening in 2007, we have purchased our seeds from a non-profit organization called Seed Savers Exchange,which is also located in Decorah. Each January, the new seed catalog arrives and invites viewers to buy seeds (of course) and come visit Heritage Farm. Biannually in July, Greg Brown visits for a Benefit Concert for the farm. The event's advertisement pictures always look ideal, and wow- ideal it is!

Decorah itself is a little bubble of bliss, and we shopped around on its downtown streets, ate a delicious meal at Rubaiyat, devoured breakfast burritos and iced coffees at Magpies, visited the Wildberry Winery and frequented the Oneota Co-op several times. For the purpose of this post though, Seed Savers gets all the attention. My expectations for experiences seem to always exceed reality -- but not in this case. I fell in love upon pulling into the driveway. Like kids in the middle of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, Andy and I rushed around Seed Savers Heritage Farm with no direction, gawking at flowers and vegetables and trellises and farm animals. It took us a good solid hour before we could explore anything with any sort of organization or direction.

In the front lawn, a variety of  flowers and vegetables reside. If you're a gardener, it's difficult to pry yourself away. Any idealism I had lost with Madison's lack of rain was rejuvenated by the bursting colors and buzzing bees in which I delighted during this visit. I made several trips into the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center to purchase flower seeds for next year. I also got a bit camera happy.

Love-in-a-Mist "Oxford Blue" (bought some seeds!)

Love Lies Bleeding

Spider Flower

A bed of delectables

In the back, you can visit Diane's garden. Diane Ott Whealy is a co-founder of SSE, and she designed a magical garden of flowers and vegetables.

Amaranth, corn, and flowers...hoping to do something similar in our yard
Behind that is the children's garden with willow huts and fences.

And the Heritage Farm even has rare breeds of farm animals. The Ancient White Park Cattle are a sight to behold. Through conversations with some of the Seed Savers staff and from information on the website, I learned that these white cattle traversed on the English Isles since before Christ was born. Now, there are only 800 left, and about 80 of those reside at Seed Saver's Heritage Farm.

Other farm animal sightings included heritage breed ducks, geese, chickens, and turkey. We're told that in the Historic Orchard, there are also pigs, but we didn't have the chance to check the orchard out.

The best thing about Seed Savers Exchange is that the 37-year-old organization's mission is to protect and share the diversity of heirloom seeds and plants.With Seed Saver's leadership, gardeners around the world are able to partake in nature's wide variety of food and flowers and make sure that such variety is here to stay. With large corporations controlling much of what we eat and grow, Seed Savers Exchange and organizations like it are essential to protecting all that the world has to offer.

Greg Brown, accompanied by Bo Ramsey, took time in between songs to discuss the importance of local food and seed diversity. For foodies/gardeners such as us, the setting couldn't have been more ideal: folk music (some of it about food), sunsets and hills, colorful gardens, kind/like-minded was truly wonderful.

And my garden dreams are restored! Look for future posts regarding obtaining ducks (I think I have Andy convinced!), weaving willow fences and shade structures for the chickens, growing flowers and more flowers, saving seeds, and doing more edible landscaping.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer Heat, part one: R.I.P. Prudence

Prudence, during last year's heat wave
Wisconsin is known for its blizzardy winters, and those that have lived here before also know that the summers can be quite hot and humid. Having lived in both Central and Southern Wisconsin, I've come to further appreciate the stark difference - our summers are often a tad warmer than those where I grew up. This last week though, Southern Wisconsin (and maybe the whole state!?) faced unprecedented heat. We were under a heat warning for six days, with temperatures over 100 for five of them. The humidity didn't help. We knew our pets, specifically our chickens would need a lot of care. We looked up last year's blog past regarding heat and did what we needed to do: water baths, lots of water, free-ranging and leading the hens to the shade, and frozen treats. It didn't matter. On Wednesday, Prudence went into her coop to lay an egg, emerged a few hours later, and fell over -- dead.

If you've followed our blog for any length of time, you'll know that we see our chickens how many people see their pet birds, cats, or dogs. We truly love them, and it was shocking to witness one of our ladies literally drop dead from the heat. We buried her, and then went into emergency mode with the other hens. We brought Sadie into the house where it was a little cooler and put her in the bathtub with some frozen berries.

She perked up after about 10 minutes in the water. (Don't mind our rusty tub!)
We filled up a kiddie pool and took turns setting each of the hens in the water (Rocky, the rooster, was not appreciative of this experience). Janis didn't mind it at all...

My little hen princess eventually laid down in the water.
And, for the rest of the week, we took hens that were laying eggs out of the coop occasionally to put their feet in cool water.

Then, we asked the questions: Were we negligent in some way? Did we do something wrong? Could we have done more? And, painfully, we decided that yes - there were a few things we could have done better.

For starters, when we got our coop two summers ago, we put it next to the house, which is right in the sun.

 We did this because we wanted to be in close proximity to the coop to listen for predators and to interact with our flock frequently. We also did this because we thought our winters would be the real issue and that our house would serve as a barrier to the wind and that the sun would be a nice warmer in our sub-zero temps. Plus, we ordered winter hardy birds...because after all ,we do live in Wisconsin. But it turns out the winters have been easy. The real trick has turned out to be the summer. Around the run, we always plant vine beans and other crawling foilage to serve as shade...but with the drought this summer, well - nothing is growing enough to provide shade.

Additionally, there are a few tips I've read online since Prudence's passing. We will keep these in mind for all future hot days.
1. Hang wet curtains over screens and fans in the coop.
2. Mix electrolyte powder into the water. If the chickens are so hot that they are unable to drink, give it to them with a syringe.
3. Lay hay or another material on the top of the roof to deflect the sun.

Prudence died instantly, and for that, we are thankful. She, as all our birds, was special and unique. She was an independent thinker, and she had the cutest and quickest waddle/run I've ever seen. The jet-black feathers around her neck were beautiful, and she loved being held. We hope we gave her a good life and that  she didn't experience any pain laying that last egg. We'll be sure we don't let that one go to waste.

One day old
With her "litter mates" and the cat

First time outside

Last summer's heat wave