This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Orchard Mason Bee

Remember the mystery question from one of my earlier blog entries? Here is the photo again.

The answer: This is an Orchard Mason Bee colony. Remember the line from the movie Field of Dreams--"If you build it they will come?" Well, I built the little "Bee Condo" as I like to call it, from a block of wood and the bees came.

Here are some links to info on Orchard Mason Bees--these links have further links at the bottom of the article too.

WSU Extension

Knox Cellars


Actually it wasn't quite that easy. At least not the way I went about it. In fact, my wife cringes everytime I tell the story.

A great gardening friend has a yard with these "bee condos" scattered around his yard and he enjoys their benefits. I spoke with Keith, as I occasionally do when I need gardening advice, about these condos a few years back. I was intrigued but didn't do anything further about it until I happened upon a book written by a local Bellinghamster who has created quite a business around Mason Bees.

It turns out that the Orcard Mason Bee is native, unlike the honey bee, to North America. It is docile and non-aggressive but does not produce honey. However, with our current worries surrounding the dying honey bee population in the United States, the Mason Bee may just hold the answer to our problems. We can do without honey, but if our pollinating bees die off we are in big trouble where our food supply is concerned. The Mason Bee is apparently not effected by the current disease plaguing our honey bee population and because they are not the social critters the honey bee is, needing expensive hives and protective wear, they are perfect for our home garden needs.

I was at one of the local garden centers when I happened upon a display selling Orchard Mason Bees and all sorts of accesories. I decided to purchase a small colony (they are kind of expensive--$20-$25 will get you about 60 bees) and bought the bee house with the tubes the colony came in. I took it home, mounted it to the south facing side of my barn and waited for the bees to do their thing.

One warm spring day I went out to check the colony and the tubes were all empty. The bees had flown the coop or hive to be more precise!

I had spent a couple a hundred dollars to buy a table saw and a drill press so I could make my own bee condos and to buy the initial colony of bees. I went ahead and built a condo and mounted it to the wall near where the colony had already hatched and flown off. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. After a couple of weeks I finally noticed one of the holes in my condo had been filled in. By the end of the Spring pollinating time a total of two holes had been filled in. Of the hundreds of bees that the colony should have produced only a couple of dozen new eggs had been laid for the next season. It seemed like an utter waste of money. It reminded me of the time I bought one of those netted bags full of dozens of Lady Bugs, released them in my garden and watched as they all flew off to my neighbor's garden. I didn't see another ladybug in my yard the rest of the summer.

Well, patience is a valuable virtue any gardener will tell you. Each year since, I have observed my bee condo become a little more and a little more congested. The other day I was carrying out some rinds to put in the compost bin located right below the bee condo. Out of the corner of my eye I caught some movement and looked up to see a little Orchard Bee finishing off a hole with mud. I stood watching, fascinated by the little bee working to seal up the next generation before going off to die. I have about a dozen holes filled in and I am feeling enough confidence that I may spend some time in my shop this winter creating some more bee condos.

I found out from my gardening friend Keith that I had really probably wasted my money purchasing the initial colony of Orchard Mason Bees. He said, if you had built the condo to begin with and placed it out on the fence or barn, bees already roaming the neighborhood would have eventually come to the holes and my colony would have been established. Live and learn!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Berry Pickin'

Here in Bellingham it is berry season--blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and on and on. You can buy them in local stores like anywhere else in the country. But here in Bellingham, on a nice summer day, going berry picking is so much fun. Relaxing, meditative, the birds are singing, you can hear the breeze, smell the warm berries on the vines and that is exactly what we did the other day.
Raspberry picking to be exact. We need a bunch of berries this season for the big party approaching in September.

Leslie and I stopped at Barbie's Berry Farm stand out in the county. The county north of town is dotted with summer farms that grow all sorts of summer time treats-corn, squash, berries, you name it. Barbie's specializes in berries. We each picked up a couple of the little white buckets found at every farm and headed down a random row of berries. The bright red berries dotted the vines as far as the eye could see. The darker red the berry the riper the fruit.

Our first row didn't seem to have many berries as ripe as we'd like to pick, so we finally walked on through to the next set of rows and what a gold mine! The berries practically fell off the vines into the buckets. Before no time I was on to my second bucket and then on to my third. Leslie got her three as well and after a couple of hours we finally re-emerged from the rows to pay for our bonanza. The berries were weighed and we discovered that we had picked 30 pounds of them.

Now we found raspberries on sale for about $5-$6 a pound in local grocery stores and I can't imagine paying $150 for those 30 pounds of raspberries. But not if you pick them yourself. Most area farmstands are selling them for $1.50-$1.75 per pound if you pick them. So we headed home with our berries with the idea to rinse and freeze most of them. Raspberries are very fragile and won't last long so this is a great way to preserve them and have great tasting berries throughout the winter months.

After a quick rinse and allowing them to dry on a few layers of paper towel, spread them out on baking sheets, freeze them and then seal them in freezer bags. When we need a few we just scoop the needed amount out of the bag and plop them in a pie or cobbler or over cereal throughout the winter and those warm, breezy summer days come flooding right back.

In a couple of weeks we will go out blackberry picking to go along with the blueberries and raspberries and we'll have a wonderful supply of berries for our cobblers at the big party in September.

Wish you were here!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Berm

The southeastern most part of our back garden is and always has been a rounded berm of dirt about 3 feet high running about 35 feet from east to west, between the truck gate on the side yard and the barn.
It has always been a pain to keep weeded with little else able to grow there except the recent introduction of English Ivy from our neighbors and the half dozen cottonwoods that reached upwards from 30 feet to 100 feet into the sky.

I have explored the berm on occasion when attempting to keep the weeds down. Digging in this berm I have come across such odd objects as a child's wading pool, nails, coaxial cable, cyclone fencing and chunks of concrete. It turns out it was where those who constructed the home buried all the debris they didn't want to be bothered hauling away. Eventually I gave up trying to keep it managed and let the ivy take over. What a mistake!

The ivy finally got so out of control that it was climbing the trees and even invading the barn. It was time to do something. So I thought. Years have gone by thinking about it and nothing was ever done short of keeping the ivy from taking over the barn.

Last Spring, as I have already mentioned in a previous blog entry, we finally downed the cottonwood trees. This left a gapping hole between us and the neighbors that left us both with no privacy. We are friendly neighbors but everyone needs their privacy. So we promised we would do something soon.

So last week we hired a guy with a tractor scoop and back hoe to remove the berm, all the trash buried in it and the ivy down to their roots, down to a depth of about 4 feet. He also removed most of the cottonwood stumps. Then we had 15 yards of good sandy loam trucked in and our excavator built a brand new berm ready for landscaping.
Three groups of three arborvitae were planted along the crest of the new berm with a shrub between each group of three arborvitae. Each group of three arborvitae were planted in triangular formation on a 4 and a half foot center so the arborvitae will not grow together and there is a sense of depth to the plantings. Two butterfly bushes frame either end of the formation and we will add layered plantings along the front of the berm to finish it off as we discover plants we like.
I believe this will be a work in progress like every other part of our garden since I want to be selective about the plants I purchase. I look for unique and unusual plants as well as native plants to fill in the spaces. Time and money will eventually fill in the gaps.
On the right is a photo of The Secret Garden with the large native shrub in the background now framed by two more arborvitae. These plants act as a sort of picture frame around the gravel stage running along in front of the shrub.