Monday, December 21, 2015

Winter Solstice, Christmas Full Moon, and A Wish for You

Winter begins tonight but the days lengthen starting tomorrow. I always find that interesting. You wouldn't think that the two concepts should go together. Maybe it's to give us hope at this difficult time of year.

And then on Christmas Day we will enjoy a full moon but not again for another nineteen years. Maybe that's to remind us of the fullness of life at this moment rather than to always look ahead.

So we send our wishes to all for an inspiring Winter Solstice, a joyous Christmas, and a New Year full of happiness, prosperity, and hope. 

From Fleur Creek Farm

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Harvest the Sun with Bees

2015 marked the year when we finally gave into our bee-envy and became beekeepers. Our first exposure to beekeeping came ten years ago when a local beekeeper put ten hives on our place. We quickly became fascinated with these amazing creatures - how their hives were really more like complete communities dedicated to the survival of the whole not the individual.

Last fall Don ordered all the hive components and supplies to start three hives and over the winter he worked on the construction of the hive boxes and the place where we would keep our hives. 

We decided that our challenging elevation and climate could be mitigated somewhat by creating our "bee yard" in a portion of our barn. We re-purposed our old stallion's east-facing stall (he passed away in 2011) so that the hives would enjoy early morning light and warmth. Protected from the strong winter winds, heavy snow and the hot summer sun, this spot seemed perfect. Plus it was easy to add electric fencing to keep out the bears, raccoons, skunks and anything else that thought the bees and their honey were easy food.

Now for the bees. There are multitude of ways to get bees but we thought the best way for totally inexperienced beekeepers was to purchase small colonies know as "nucs". A nuc includes a mated queen, several thousand of her young daughters, developing larvae which would produce more young daughters and several combs of pollen and honey which would serve as early food sources. 

Most of the commercial bees are produced in the south from Florida to Texas because the climate makes it easier but these bees are not always well suited for life in the mountains of the West. After some research we decided to get two nucs from Zia Queenbees from northern New Mexico. 

In early June we traveled to Taos to meet with the Zia folks and pickup our bees. The three hour drive home in our Su-bee-ru with 20,000 bees in the back seat was interesting but uneventful.

Once home we transferred the bees from their nuc boxes into their new permanent hive boxes and added a feeder box on top of each hive. Inside the feeder box was a container of sugar syrup to feed them until they could start foraging on their own.

Zia Queenbees names their "survivor" queens and tracks their life history. Our queens are both daughters of Ester (a two year old breeding queen) who is a daughter of Eclipse (a four year old breeder). Definitely impressive survivors! In keeping with the "E" names, we named our queens Emily and Erin. From this point on the hives are know as Emily's and Erin's. 

Over the next few weeks we added more hive boxes to give them more room for the increasing number of bees and the food storage they were building. We continued feeding them so that all their efforts could go to developing their community.

In early July a neighbor called to report a swarm of bees in her apple tree. We gathered up our swarm catching supplies (thanks YouTube for all the swarm videos) and headed over in the pouring rain. The capture went remarkably well and we installed our new bees in the third hive box collection Don had built. 

Now for a name for the new queen and hive. We decided to honor our location by naming her with an "H". Hannah and her young hive quickly developed over the summer and we added hive boxes as needed.

The bee's forage season winds down in September and its time for the beekeeper to help them focus their winter preparations on the core part of their hive (which in these photos are the lower hive boxes decorated with a flower painted on them). This first season we chose not to collect any honey but rather give all the hive resources to the bees to improve their chances of surviving the winter. 

Don now has the bees tucked in for the winter with their hive reduced to the boxes necessary to overwinter and the hive wrapped in a reflective bubblewrap to help hold in some of their own heat.

We'll check on the bees periodically through the winter to make sure that they have plenty of food stores and if necessary we'll provide both cane sugar and pollen patties. But for the most part, they are on their own and doing what bees do. In February or March the queen will start laying new eggs which under the care of the worker bees will develop into larvae and then new bees and they will be ready for another season.

Our goal from the beginning of this project was to develop a group of bees that could handle our climate and flourish. By starting with survivor bees from Zia and adding a feral swarm with local genetics, we hope we are on track. We're looking forward to the coming years when we will also have a source of very local honey for both eating and medicinal use. But mostly we will have tried to help honeybees in general by nurturing a group of bees in a healthy location.

And we consider the bees one more way to Harvest the Sun!

If you want to learn more about Zia Queenbees, here's a great YouTube video:

Breeding Survivor Queenbees in New Mexico

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hi-tech Harvest of the Sun

Anyone who lives in a rural area usually has multiple plans to handle emergencies from extra food and goods to medical supplies and backup power. You never know when things might go "upside-down". 

We've always had a 5000 watt gas generator that would run about 6 hours on 5 gallons of fuel. It was a good solution for short-term power outages but not such a great idea if the power was out for days or longer. Plus it was noisy and smelly.

Like all other technologies, photovoltaic (solar) systems have been getting less expensive while significantly improving in output and simplicity. With the federal credits for installing a system expiring in 2016, we decided this year was the time to start.

We initially contacted several solar contractors only to be handed estimates that were grossly more power than we needed and grossly more expensive than our budget could handle. 

Finally we found a solar consultant who was perfect - Roger. Roger is a retired chemistry professor who spends his retirement years designing and helping regular people build their own PV solar system. In mid-July we started the process and two weeks ago we "flipped the switch" and started producing our own electricity. 

We did the majority of the slave labor and saved Roger's skills for the technical stuff. Actually Don did the majority of the hard work while I worked on the backup to the solar system - four cords of firewood. In the perfect juxtaposition, the brains of the solar system hang on the outside of the woodshed - the old and the new.

Rather than bore you will all the details I'll just share some photos. 

Layout of the solar panel array
Digging the holes
Setting the panel framework
Pouring concrete
Solar panels installed
Building the battery cellar
Battery cellar housing 8 - 6V batteries
Cabinet for power center
Power center with inverter
Woodshed with solar power center on right side
Our system, as configured, produces between 6 and 9 kilowatt hours per day. We designed it (ok, Roger designed it) so that we could double the output by just adding six more panels. Thus far we have the freezer and office running on 100% solar. Over the next few weeks we'll be adding another freezer and the media center - TV, sound system - plus some lights.

It still amazes me that you can produce your own electricity. And it's nice to know that when the power goes out again we'll have a little more comfort than in years past.

Watch for the next edition of Harvesting the Sun - Beekeeping

From Fleur Creek Farm

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Harvesting the Sun

We spent a bit of time over the last winter thinking about ways to better utilize the natural resources of our place - clean air, exceptional water, lush grass and of course sun. Lots and lots of sun. More than 300 days of sun. So that became our focus. How could we better use the sunshine both directly and indirectly? 

The next few blogs will offer more detail on our two projects but here's a little something to peak your interest.

That's right - beehives! 2015 became the year we quit talking about having bees and actually got started. Don spent the winter building and painting the hive boxes in anticipation. We got two bee colonies from a master beekeeper in northern New Mexico in early June and collected a local, feral swarm in early July. All three hives are buzzzzzzzing!

Yup! Solar power. Compared to the bees, this project involves a bit more work from us and is still ongoing. By the end of this year we'll be producing enough power to handle all the office equipment and backup of key appliances when the conventional power is down. And if all goes well we'll double that by the end of next year. 

So stay tuned for lots more information as we complete these projects and plan new ones to harvest the sun. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

End of the Road

There is something special about living at the end of the road. For one thing not many people drive by this time of the year. The county road leading up to this point is less than ideal but from the Dead End sign on it degrades rapidly into a rock strewn, two-track path. A couple of summer cabin residents travel by when they are here. The folks from Trails End Ranch, which wraps around this area on the north and west sides, access the south end of the ranch from this road. Occasionally a Sunday afternoon tourist, neighbors on horseback or illegal hunter passes by, but that's about it. 

Of course there are always a few people every year who are not convinced by the Dead End sign and plod forward only to get stuck in the snow, lost, or find themselves having to back out a quarter mile or more. In fact that's the reason for the little sign below the Dead End sign - No Forest Access, No Turn Around. Just trying to save people from themselves. 

There's another special aspect of being at the end of the road and that's the spiritual one. It's good knowing that beyond this point it's more about the woods and the animals that inhabit them than people. And it's about our conscious decision to live beyond the reach of most things, to live quietly and in harmony as much as possible, to work together to accomplish a simple yet beautiful life.

I am reminded of the famous poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken. I think the final lines say it best.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - 
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

So true.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Monday, February 16, 2015

Cats of Our Forest

Heading into the woods after a fresh snowfall is one of my favorite things to do. It gives me a chance to see who has been out and about. Last week's four inch wet snow was perfect so I laced up my hiking boots and headed for the woods. 

It didn't take long to come across numerous tracks of a bobcat (Lynx rufus). Since bobcats are generally solitary the tracks were probably from one animal moving back and forth across the area in search of food.

Bobcats hunt by stealth, relying on surprise rather than a lengthy chase. Opportunistic, bobcats will feed on practically any prey including mice, chipmunks, squirrels, prairie dogs, rabbits, porcupines, small birds and even deer. Bobcats are active all year and most of their hunting occurs at night or at dawn and dusk. 
Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Bobcats favorite habitats are pinon-juniper woodlands and montane forests making them quite at home in our forest. In fact just after I took the photo of my foot and the bobcat track, the long-legged cat ran across the clearing in front of me and disappeared into the trees. 

After enjoying my personalized visit by "Bob" I continued on, studying the tracks of all the little creatures of the woods. There were the tiny tracks of a deer mouse and the hopping tracks between trees of the pine squirrel (Chickaree). Since the snow cover wasn't very deep I also came across the tracks of a raccoon. 

Just as I was about to turn back I noticed the tracks of the largest winter predator of the forest, the mountain lion (Felis concolor).

Seeing these tracks gave me both a thrill and a chill. This elusive and solitary cat is rarely seen. Lions mainly prey on deer but this time of year the deer have moved to lower elevations and the lions are left with rabbits, porcupines, raccoons, mice, an occasional young elk, and around here, wild turkeys. 

Colorado Parks & Wildlife
Over the years I have found the remains of several lion kills and I am always reminded that with respect to the lion, we are not the top of the food chain. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wassailing the Orchard

Original orchard started in 2004

Last Saturday was the day for our annual Orchard Wassailing. In years past it’s been just Don and I with a cup of apple cider, standing in the snow, toasting our apple and cherry trees. This year’s celebration was very special because it wasn’t just us, it was the neighborhood and the wassailing was organized by a wonderful neighbor who just started her own little orchard.

We first learned about fruit tree wassailing in Michael Phillip’s book, The Apple Grower. According to Wikipedia the purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. In the cider-producing regions of west England (primarily the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) wassailing also refers to drinking (and singing) to the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive.
Heirloom orchard started in 2014

The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. On January 17th (the old Twelfth Night) a wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year).

Then the assembled crowd will sing and shout and bang drums and pots & pans and generally make a terrible racket until the gunsmen give a great final volley through the branches to make sure the work is done and then off to the next orchard. Private readings about people in Somerset in the 1800s revealed that inhabitants of Somerset practiced the old Wassailing Ceremony, singing the following lyrics after drinking the cider until they were "merry and gay:"

Perhaps unbeknownst to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much a thriving tradition right here in the mountains of southern Colorado. There are already plans for next year and who knows, maybe by then another neighbor will start an orchard and we’ll have a third location to visit. And just in case you wondered we don't yet have a wassail King, Queen nor gunsmen but there is always next year!

Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,
Holler biys, holler hurrah.

From Fleur Creek Farm