QuinceBudsNow that we are no longer beeless and Michigan spring is truly upon us (although frost is not out of the question) it is time for one of those tedious inventories of our various plantings. We begin with the joyful observation that, three bloom-less years after planting, the quince tree has a great many rosy buds. We can hardly wait to see our bees on the coming blooms. And then dare we hope for a small crop to poach?

By contrast the apple trees are disappointing with one mere blossom on the Fuji and none at all on the Calville Blanc d’Hiver. All three of these are getting large enough that we ought to remove their protective cages while we can still somewhat easily lift them off.

Among the Asian pears our Shinseiki, having survived the winter, is leafing out nicely while the recently replaced Hosui, the original having died during winter, has finally grown tired of its pretense of being a stick and its lone green bud has developed into a few wee leaflets. Unfortunately a tiny green caterpillar reduced their number before we crushed it.

BushCherriesGreenBushCherriesRipeningThe bush cherries happily survived being transplanted and some of them finally bloomed for the first time. Alas our bees did not get here in time to take advantage. Nevertheless we see fruit forming on two of the shrubs, one riper than the other in spite of all getting the same amount of sun. With so small a crop the birds are sure to get them all. Not that we mind too much.

The mulberry has not yet leafed out but the green buds promise it shall. We seem to have neglected to mention that our first mulberry, Wellington, did not make it through its first winter and was replaced by the current Oscar.

The lindens are both looking good although the tupelo seems to have died. The tiny remnant of the shortened-by-nibbling, more-twig-than-tree locust has sprouted greenish growths and, as Granny Weatherwax might say, aten’t dead yet. Sadly the same can not be said of the even tinier and much more shortened-by-nibbling bee bee tree. It is now a been been.

ClarissaWithAnkleBitersClarissaAndNucClarissa has bees! Yesterday morning we picked up our anklebiter nuc but sadly the rain discouraged us from trying to hive them right away. Instead we sat the nuc on a bench in front of Clarissa and opened the entrance. This would allow bolder foragers to take advantage of breaks in the rain to orient on the correct general surroundings even though the home they have known would soon vanish.

With the forecast that the morning rain would very likely be followed by more rain all day and tomorrow, we took advantage of a sudden appearance of the sun to transfer the bees from nuc to hive and give them a bag of syrup to encourage comb building on the empty top bars. Each frame being lifted set off a loud buzzing but there were no attempts to sting or chase us. They seem quite mellow and the industrious girls are already bringing in pollen.

BevelContrastAlso Clarissa is using our new, experimental top bars. Hoping that the bees would be less likely to attach comb to the sides of the hive if the guiding ridge did not extend all the way from wall to wall, we used a compound miter saw to bevel each end face of the ridge at a 30° from vertical angle starting 3/8" in. The pictures show the difference between an unbeveled and beveled bar.

If they still attach as much as before then we can sigh and continue to use the simpler unbeveled top bars. Otherwise our batch process to make them will acquire another step.

Either way we are rejoicing in having bees again with more to come.

Milwaukee Electric HackzallIt is hard to write this post without sounding like a hyperbolic infomercial but we are that eager to spread the joyful news about an especially useful tool combination, the Milwaukee 12-Volt Hackzall with the Lee Valley pruning blade. The two make a fantastic woodcutting team, which only a lightsaber could beat. No arborist should be without one! (And extra blades and batteries, of course.) But if you need more than our enthusiasm to be convinced then read on. Or if you really don’t care then, sorry, feel free to read something else.

Much of our outdoor work involves removing storm-fallen trees (especially from our driveway) or making and maintaining trails by pruning or felling saplings. The mighty gas-powered chainsaw is the traditional tool for these operations but we are ever reluctant to use it. It may be the most intrinsically dangerous tool we use. In addition it is noisy and smelly and never seems to go very long without requiring the chain to be sharpened, either a tedious procedure or trips to the hardware store. The chain also requires attention to its lubrication and tension. And, of course, there is the awkward starting ritual of the two-stroke gasoline engine.

We addressed the noise and smell and avoided the starting ritual by trying a small cordless electric chainsaw but it proved underpowered and ran out of charge quickly. In addition it still had the dangerous and quickly dulled chain as well as the messy chain oil. Larger and more powerful models than ours are available but they are also significantly more expensive and we were reluctant to invest in a trial.

We had largely reverted to using a manual bow saw for nearly all of our sawing. Requiring more effort (which we shall call an exercise program) it is much quieter and less treacherous and actually seems to cut nearly as quickly as a chainsaw until one’s arms tire. Also dull blades are fairly easy to change for new. Still we wished for the convenience of a safe and effective saw powered by something other than ourselves.

Having successfully used a corded reciprocating saw within extension cord range of the house we considered whether a cordless version would serve. Our search turned up the Hackzall, a reciprocating saw without the usual nose heavy shape. Better balanced, it can somewhat safely be used one-handed. It reintroduces some noise to our sawing but no smells, no lubrication, and no sharpening. Blade changes are trivially easy, requiring no tools. Twist a collar, pull out the old blade, put in the new, and release the collar. It accepts any of the usual Milwaukee blades and their knockoffs for its intended rough carpentry uses (We used it during our cutout adventure.) and long “pruning” blades are available although the ones we tried worked best on dead wood.

Lee Valley pruning blade for reciprocating sawsFeeling satisfaction with our new powered sawing capabilities we achieved genuine elation when we discovered the Lee Valley pruning blade. It resembles the kind of blade that is usually attached to a telescoping pole pruner but has a shank to fit most reciprocating saws, happily including the Hackzall. Cutting as easily through green wood as dead, with the curve of the blade helping to pull the wood into the cut, it is removing much of the tedium from our ongoing job of clearing the abundant dead wood of windy years and ash borer.

A thousand square feet looks much smaller than it sounds. Meadow just sown and coveredIn what should be the first of several posts, this picture taken looking east on 2014-Nov-25 shows the results of our labors, a thousand square feet tilled, sown, and mulched. Not very impressive yet but we intend to regularly expand the area.

The tan expanse seen stretching across the picture was tilled weekly for a month and a half. The first session was to chop the existing turf; the later ones to bury any weedlings that had emerged. We unearthed a surprising number of fist-sized and larger stones in the process, a few of which managed to jam the tiller, and one of those refused to be dislodged. We had to use a masonry chisel to break it into pieces.

We began by seeding with a low growing prairie mix augmented with our hodge podge of seed packets of dubious viability accumulated over the years as party favors and door prizes at various nature and conservation events on behalf of pollinators. We also planted some viper’s bugloss seeds in the center of the eastern edge. The plant, a highly recommended nectar source, is uncomfortable to touch so this would keep it from walkers around the perimeter. The left corner has a transplanted russian sage and the right a shrubby St. John’s wort. The two orange stakes on the eastern edge (zoom in quite a bit to see) each mark a mountain mint.

All our tilled ground was finally covered with marsh grass, which introduces fewer weed seeds than straw would.

The tan strip on the left with spindly shrubbery is a stretch of ground that received similar treatment. In this case we transplanted our bush cherries into it, moving the someday hedge and windbreak for the beehives several feet forward, and overseeded with clover before mulching. To the left of that is the wall of bales with the hives behind it. The green bit between hedge-to-be and meadow-to-come is an area that remained untilled due to a very wide if low tree stump.

By now the snow has finally departed, even the reluctant mound in the shadow of a parked car. The vernal equinox has come and gone. At long last our first daffodils bloomed two days ago. Eventually we shall see some shoots in the meadow poking through the marsh grass. Then we shall wait even more impatiently for the blooms.

Along with the interest in tools used in any pursuit there is an interest in their storage. How are they stored safely, carried to the place of work, and kept handy. Consider this toolbox used by Adam Savage of MythBusters fame.

Adam Savage's Toolbox

Adam Savage’s Toolbox

In his own words: Ahh, my toolboxes. Obsessed with working quickly, I’ve spent years designing toolboxes with what I call ‘First Order Retrievability’. That is, that nothing need be moved out of the way to get to anything else. Above is version 2.0. The Scissor lifts are so that, when seated, I needn’t lean over too far to get to the tool I need.

When we began beekeeping we anticipated that with its hive tools and smokers and so on there would be some special toolbox or tote in which to carry them, even if not as elaborate and highly optimized as Adam’s for his work. In this we were disappointed. Most beekeepers seem to use any old hardware store tote or bucket. A few will make concessions for the heat of a lit smoker and cobble a special hook to keep it from the main body. We ourselves would have one of us carry the smoker and the other a largish basket in which tools and miscellany were willy-nilly tossed. We have since graduated to an Ikea plastic tray and still carry the smoker separately. At least the tray is divided into two compartments so we can keep sharp implements like hive tools and warré knives away from bags of syrup.

Looking in beekeeping catalogs we only find a Merrill toolbox. Its main feature seems to be that it is dimensioned as a nucleus hive so that if one suddenly discovers the need in a beeyard all its contents can be dumped and frames added. Other than a special hook for the smoker there are just elastic straps to hold various tools against the outside. Anything kept inside it does not fare much better from being kept in our basket or tray. In some way the depth of the box, handy for frames, would make finding small or short items worse. It does not show promise to become an Adam Savage toolbox for us.

Perhaps just as well since such a high degree of optimization must be idiosyncratic, suited to each individual’s situation. A beekeeper who needs to visit many remote hives has different needs than we with our few in the backyard. We must design one of our own then but with our few years of experience what must it accommodate? We can only keep lists of everything we ever take to the hives and then someday devise a carrier for all seasons.


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