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October 2016

The Insectary

By NutritionNo Comments

Ever heard of an insectary? They seem to be gaining in popularity as people relearn the importance of having a balance of beneficial insects in their gardens and vegetable plots.

It can be something relatively simple, like some old blocks of timber with holes drilled within for beneficial predatory insects to build their homes in…or it can be a little oasis like we’re working at here at Birdsong.

So everything thrives when there is balance. If you grow only one crop, you attract a lot of the same pests. And have no home for a lot of the most natural and effective predators for those pests.

If you spray your crops with insecticides, you’re also losing out by killing off both good and bad mini beasts. For example, the USA apparently has a “Pollination task Force” now and are trying to rehabilitate about 7 million acres of land to encourage bees…this is because their overuse of roundup has made most of the bees diet toxic. So the bees get sick, suffer more hive illnesses like AFB and die. Then who pollinates the crops?

The idea behind the pond and ‘oasis’ or ‘insectary’ at Birdsong is to provide a haven for insects, especially those that prey on pests. We’re wanting to feed the bees a great variety of nectar and pollen, provide foliage for insects to live (and therefore work for us, by keeping a balance in the garden), and this pond/water is providing a drink for these insects, and a breeding place for frogs too. I’m sure most of humans plight with insects is because we go way overboard trying to control and profiteer at the expense of a natural balance.

Here’s what’s happened so far…Rick dug a 10 meter trench with the excavator in the middle of our paddock. An area that will be central to the market garden and all the little guys that live in there.

We leveled it out, lined it with pond lining felt, then with pond liner and filled her up.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been bartering with a local lady to build up our bee attracting and edible plants around this pond. We give her vegies, she gives us lots of goodies like garlic chives, feverfew, holy basil, thyme and watercress to plant in and around the pond.

We’ve also planted some native trees to add varying levels to the insectary.

It’s early days at the moment, but with time (and rain!) we hope to see this area become a lush and inviting oasis for insects and frogs. And aesthetically pleasing to the human viewers too 🙂

The Bee Friendly Garden

By NutritionNo Comments

That’s what we’re aiming for here- a bee friendly garden. It’s also the name of the latest book I’m reading (a present from my mum to Rick for his birthday, but he’s not getting much of a chance to read it yet…I’m immersed!).

So originally we were just looking at what plants we should be buying and planting to attract and feed our bees (who are fast becoming like pets…pets you don’t bother trying to cuddle, that is!).

Rick’s rather proud of his bees 🙂

But as I read into Doug Purdie’s “A Bee Friendly Garden” I started to learn and consider so much more than just what species we should be planting for the bees.

By the way, Doug’s book is gorgeous! It’s so beautifully presented and overflowing with lovely photos…looks more like a book that should be adorning a coffee table rather than informing people about bees.

Doug is a rooftop gardener in Sydney, which I think is very innovative. Why not transform the bleak concrete rooftop into a garden and help the bees survive and thrive in the urban world?

We think of bees of providers of our honey supply, and pollinators of our plants. But I didn’t realise just how pivotal the pollination via bees is to the formation of strong, sweet and correctly formed fruit. You know when you see an apple that’s lop-sided? Well improper pollination causes that. I don’t know if it’s the only cause, but there you go!

The there’s the weeds. We as a culture consider them pests and opt instead for manicured lawns. But most of us (myself included) have probably never stopped to consider the environmental effect of destroying all the weeds and not allowing areas to go to seed. I realise there’s various prickly weeds that are not desirable for letting loose…but things like English Plantain (pictured above) are one of the nutritious weeds on the planet. Far better for you than most greens you’re buying for your salads from the shops…or even the farmers markets. And left alone, it produces a flower that I’ve seen the bees visiting for nectar. So many weeds are like this. They are part of a healthy bees varied diet, if they can find them. But in city areas especially, where long grass and weeds are considered an eyesore, the bees are really missing out.

Pictured above is wild cabbage, another very nutritious weed, that produces yellow flowers for the bees to easily find and feed from.

In all honesty though, we do mow down weeds and all in our house yard (especially in snake season!). But the paddock is very much wild weeds.

Like humans, bees need a varied diet to remain healthy. I’m no expert, but presume some of the bee/hive pests and illnesses like AFB are a result of a lack of variation in the bees diet.

Australia is one of the best countries in the world for honey production and has little in the way of diseases that other beekeepers around the world have to fight with. But we still need to be careful. What do you think it does to the bees when their flowers in a field of crops have been sprayed with roundup or other such toxic chemicals? Or when bees are trying to find clover in a sports field, but it’s been sprayed or mowed down too, therefore robbing them of that food source. Doug mentions in his book that one Sydney suburb was especially targeting clover for poisoning on their sports fields, because they thought the risk of someone getting stung and having a severe allergic reaction was too high! Sounds like people are getting a bit too precious! But it’s those same people who are losing out, because if the bees die out in their area, so does their ability to grow food in that area.

What are we doing about all this? Well, at Birdsong, our bees are presently enjoying the varied feed from our house garden plot and the many natives in the scrub on our neighbours properties. They’re also got weeds that have gone to flower in the paddock, and gums on our block. We’ve built a pond in the paddock that we’re gradually planting edible bee friendly plants around as an insect haven (to attract other beneficial insects). I’ll have to post a picture of that soon. The pond itself is pretty much done, and I’ve been bartering veges for plants over the past few weeks, to get it landscaped!

Even if you never want to keep bees yourself, The bee Friendly Garden is a great book to get you started on the path to awareness and action to help our bees and preserve our societies ability to produce quality produce for a long time to come.

Mulberry Season

By Nutrition2 Comments

Just a month ago that is what the mulberry tree looked like. Now we’re right in the middle of fruiting and harvesting more berries than we can immediately use! So we’re freezing them and using them in ways like this….mulberry tropical frappe.

The bees….they’ve had a bit of a trial this week. They’re doing well, but we needed to fix up the base of the hive, that was splitting due to the tight time frame Rick had to build it in. He’d used part greenwood and part aged wood and hence a split down the base. So he whipped up a new base and we had to lift the hive onto it. While we were at it, he wanted to do a hive inspection.

The top box is choccas with comb, smells sweet like honey, and Rick cut into the comb a little to find sweet nectar, which he gave a little taste test.

Also while we were opening the hive, we popped in the wintergreen essential oil soaked coaster to deter the hive beetles (who rudely had been squatting in there).

Now, the problem came after we lifted the hive onto the new base. The bees got a little confused. Some figured out where the hive had moved too (it was only about 20cm from the old location! But others got stuck at the back of the hive, and probably confused by the smell of fresh paint on the new base and also the wintergreen scent. So a whole tribe of bees were crawling around the back of the hive trying to find their front door.

Then the storm hit. Lots of wind, bucketing rain etc. Bees can’t fly properly once their wings get wet. So a bunch of bees died in the storm, unable to find the entrance to the hive. Sigh.

The next day all was back to normal. Bees flocking in and out of the hive, the honey scent had returned and all was good. Just a few bee carcasses around as a reminder of yesterday.

Another chick was born about 2 days ago. Very cute! We’re now just waiting on the ducklings. The duck was totally distracted by her new home when she came here, so her eggs are under a hen. It will be pretty amusing to watch what happens when they’ve hatched and the hen tries to raise them! I wonder if the duck will realise they’re hers?

Working Bee

By NutritionNo Comments

After a week and a half of having bees, I can see where the phrase “working bee” comes from! These little guys are prolific! The photos are a little difficult to interpret, as the windows on our Warre hive are highly reflective. But hopefully you can see enough to get the idea. A Warre hive uses ‘top bars’ instead of frames like a Langstroth hive. So what this means, is that instead of a rectangular frame complete with ‘foundation wax’ (a thin layer of wax which the bees build upon), the Warre has just timber bars across the top of the boxes, which have a a light layer of melted bees wax on them to get the bees started.

Anyway, the bees started just over a week ago with these top bars. Now, already, they’ve drawn the comb almost to the bottom of the first box! And something I wasn’t expecting, was the pure white comb they’re building. You know how bees wax is usually a yellow colour? This is pure white so far.

There’s a close up…maybe you can see some comb?

We’re yet to put in the Wintergreen soaked coaster to repel the hive beetles. Yesterday while peeping into the hive we saw one of the beetles being attacked by an angry bee!

And while the bees are going full steam with their comb, this is what we’ve been up to…Pictured above is the propagation house, which Rick has nearly finished. It’s been a much bigger job than he anticipated…but that happens frequently around here! You never know what will happen to draw out the process of finishing a job.

And this is the potting table in the propagation house. Rick designed and built this one too. He’s aiming for maximum efficiency, so designs everything so that whatever he needs will be within reach and easy to use.

Rick has also set up the watering system in the propagation house…after many set backs. He went and bought all our irrigation supplies from a local irrigation specialist, you know, to support the little guy and get better advice. But wow, they made more mistakes with the order than I thought possible. It was several thousand dollars worth of gear, and they really messed up the order, and one of the parts we were given was even second hand and dirty inside!

And then there’s the sewing. Rick’s been wanting me to get an industrial sewing machine for years. But I think it’s not worth it. So here I am, in the dark (because that’s when I had some spare time), and outside (because the 10 meter lengths of shade cloth don’t really fit comfortably inside to sew) sewing two lengths of shade cloth together with upholstery thread. This is for a cover for Mount Compost, up the paddock. Rick wants it to stay moist….moisture is life 🙂

After a bit more research, it turns out I should be using UV stabilised thread. So now that’s on order and looks like I’ll be back to the exterior sewing table next week!

So lots is happening here at Birdsong. I’ll try and write more next week.

Sowing and Reaping

By NutritionOne Comment

I’m shocked that this massive structure is in our yard! Shocked in a pleasant way, that is.

Back when Rick quit his engineering to become a market gardener, I really felt God was encouraging me to be generous. Not to think that because we’d just lost our secure income that we needed to be more stingy, but rather the opposite. Be generous. So we kept on giving, and just as the bible says, we’re reaping what we’ve sown. It’s amazing.

That picture above, is the new solar bore pump setup. Rick’s mate Randall, an electrician from Charleville, came up for the week especially to install this for us. Rick had done some engineering work for him, and in return he spent a whole week here working on the trenches and everything else associated with getting this irrigation setup established. I think we were more blessed by his help than he was by ours!

Normally we don’t really have much space for guests, as any of Rick’s siblings who have stayed here (and experienced a mattress on the lounge room floor!) could tell you. But now, thanks to my cousin Steve and his wife Lizzy, we have their caravan parked here indefinitely as a spare room. So Randall had a real bed while staying here for the week. The caravan- another blessing.

Randall has brought his trencher here, but it was still a bit slow with the amount of work they had to achieve, so our neighbours, Paul and Julie (who own Toowoomba Trenching) loaned us their excavator! They have been so generous to us, also loaning us their grader a while back to prepare our paddock for the market garden.

We’ve been really blessed by all this rain too. Drought is such an everyday part of Australian farm life it seems, but the year we start this garden, we have regular and beautiful rain!

We’ve also had help. Starting a business, especially a business in which there’s not income for quite some some, means we can’t hire help…we can’t even pay ourselves yet! But sometimes Rick needs help getting structures built etc. So it was amazing when his friend Dave offered to help now and then and all he wants in exchange is some produce from the garden!

Rick’s mum has helped us out taking trailer loads of debris away to the dump for us.

And then we’ve also had help getting the equipment we need from Rick’s dad. All these things people have done for us have made it possible for Birdsong to become a reality. So thank you to those who have helped, and I hope this post is an encouragement to everyone that God really means it when He says you’ll reap what you sow. If you give into people’s lives, you will be given to yourself 🙂

Birdsong Bees

By NutritionNo Comments

The moment we’d long been waiting for- the arrival of the bees! Even if we weren’t starting a market garden, and even if we didn’t want lots of bees to pollinate our crops…we use a LOT of honey, and had been considering beekeeping for a long time.

Late last year we met Stan and his wife Liz, who showed us their hives in their back yard in town. From there I started going to Southern Beekeeper’s meetings with our older daughters (I don’t advise taking children…they get too sleepy there!).

Now finally, months later, we have a nucleus of bees in the Warre hive that Rick built himself. If you’re wondering why our hive looks different to your regular hives, that’s why. It’s a Warre hive. Warre was a bee-obsessed Frenchman who experimented with 350 different hive designs/variations apparently. The hive we built is the final design he settled on. Using his hives is a form of natural beekeeping, a less invasive approach than using standard techniques with a Langstroth hive.

Nev Hunt from Southern Beekeepers kindly supplied us with a nucleus of bees. It all happened rather suddenly in the end! We got the call Friday night to see if we could come and get the bees that weekend. We’d previously tried to catch a swarm by setting out the hives with a lemongrass essential oil blend in them (attracts bees) but we hadn’t caught anything. So it was a blessing to get this nuc from Nev. The drive home was exciting- we had a box of bees in the back of the Prado and they started escaping. The children sang out regular reports “One got out Dad!” and then “Now there’s two!” or “I found a third one out!” When you’ve got a 25 minute drive with 8 people in the car and bees on the loose….well, you can imagine the adrenaline!

So, pictured above is Rick preparing the top box of the Warre hive. We lined it with fine mesh and 100% linen fabric. This is to keep bees out of the lid, and keep the insulation (sawdust) in. Insulation is there for the same purpose as it is in the roof of your home-temperature regulation. Bees don’t like temperatire extremes, just like the rest of us.

And here’s the top box, lined and filled with dry sawdust, ready to go on the brood boxes.

And here’s Rick decked out in his new bee suit…beekeeping suit I should say (just so you know he’s not trying to dress up as a bee!). It will be interesting to see if he ends up needing to use it much. The Warre hive is said to create calmer bees, and therefore they may not cause a need to wear a suit to often. We’ll see.

Now what do those oils have to do with bees, you say?

Well, there’s this little pest called the Small Hive Beetle. I didn’t know if it would be much of an issue here, because at the Beekeeping meetings I noticed it’s AFB (American Foul Brood) that the members complain loudest about, not the hive beetle. But sure enough, after less than 24 hours of having bees in the box, along came some rogue hive beetles to crash the party. The reason they are a pest is that they lay their maggots in the honeycomb. I’ve never met anyone that enjoys the odd maggot in their honey. So most beekeepers seem to use traps etc to deal with the beetles. But Being an essential oil junkie, and having seen an article detailing the use of Wintergreen essential oil to repel the beetles…well, I couldn’t let the chance to test the theory pass me by. So what we have pictured is coconut oil, Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade Wintergreen essential oil and a cardboard diffuser pad (a coaster will work just the same). You mix one part Wintergreen with 16 parts carrier oil (coconut oil in my case) and then soak your coaster or diffuser pad in it. This then is placed above the frames in the hive to repel the unwanted beetles. Apparently it also repels varroa mites.

By the way, the bees transferred nicely into the new hive. Some died from the stress of the drive home (inevitable, I think) and another died after stinging Archie (in defense of the colony, of course). I’ll post more pics when I get them! Today, being almost non stop rain, was not such a great outdoor photography day!