The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queen!

I felt really bad.  For the first time since the bees arrived in April, I walked toward the hive with treason in my heart.  I was going to find, and kill, and replace the Queen. The decision had actually been made in June – the queen’s brood pattern was spotty, and the hive wasn’t happy with her.

Last time I opened the hive, there were scattered laying-worker eggs, no open brood, no capped brood… but I did find the queen.  It seemed that the queen was experiencing a total failure.  I firmed my resolve to re-queen, and ordered a queen from the folks at Bee Weaver.  Laura was very helpful, and had lots of good suggestions. She recommended a push-in cage, which became a drama of its own later on.

Packages of bees arrive in a box the size of a shoe box…. queens arrive with half a dozen helpers in a big envelope.  Much less threatening to the nice postman!

I had expected the new queen to be marked and clipped – but she was unmarked and entire.  I just hope she’s properly mated!

Of course, once I got the hive open, there was brood EVERYWHERE.  I think that the Queen had heard my plans for her demise, and was trying to rally the troops.  However, there were also two new supersedure cups – the worker bees were still not happy with the queen’s performance.  I took those out.

What followed, I didn’t get pictures of.  I was working alone, and a lot of it was fiddly, so I couldn’t handle the camera while I was doing it.  I sifted through the hive frame by frame, finally finding the dotted queen on the second pass.  I removed her and placed her in a jar – just in case something went horribly wrong.

Then, I found a frame which contained some open brood, some capped brood, a few empty cells, and some honey.  I brushed it clean of bees, and took it over to the garage to work away from the hive.  I had the garage open, so that there was good light – but it was far enough away from thei hive that I didn’t have the attention of the guard bees.  I had built the push-in cage from the window-screening that covered the package of bees when I got them this spring.  I laid the frame on the trunk of my car, and figured the best location for the push-in queen cage.  Now, I had to open the queen’s transfer cage, get the queen out and onto the frame, push the cage over her and down into the comb, and then put her into the hive and close up. I took my gloves and hood off, because it was delicate close work and I needed gentle fingers.

What happened instead, was that I opened the little container carefully… and all of the bees, including the queen, took off flying.  See above about the un-clipped wings.  After a moment of intense cussing, I calmed down and realized that there was a cloud of bees still hovering around – maybe the queen was still there?  I got my little butterfly net.  One after the other, I caught bees and put them in a glass jar.  Finally, I caught the queen!  They’re not all THAT different when they’re flying around, but you can tell once they are sitting down, how the body is longer.  So I got the queen onto the frame, got the cage over her, and after much amusing catch-and-accidentally-release, I got one of her court bees in the cage with her.  These bees know and follow her scent, and they’ll feed her if the other bees in the new hive don’t like her right away.  I was going to try for three, but it just wasn’t going to happen.  I went and reassembled the hive with the new queen in her cage, closed up, and mercifully dispatched the old queen.

After closing up, I caught a few more photos in the yard…

A really lovely lynx spider.

Gosh, she’s big.

A baby watermelon, hiding out in a tomato cage.

A tiny peek-a-boo lizard.  He was on the other side of the fence, so I had to peep through leaves to see him.  The camera didn’t like the focus.

Jeanette, who was advertised as a French Maran, but lays nearly white eggs.

Weezy, who is one of the two Ameraucanas from our original batch of peeps – she isn’t laying yet, but I look forward to eggs soon.  They should be green or blue.

And Penny, who really IS a French Maran, has taken to crowing. It’s never a full crow, but it’s very different from her “henny” noises.

More Passionfruit

One of the reasons that I get really annoyed when people refer to outdoor sericulture as “wildcrafting,” is that I know from wildcrafting… we usually called it “picking blackberries” or “picking wild grapes” in my family, but we have a long history on both sides of going into the wild and coming back with jams and cobblers.

I posted last October about my favorite Passionfruit patch.  It’s on a freeway verge, so it’s not really “wilderness,” but with the plants growing there naturally, this is definitely wildcrafting.  This past weekend, I saw highway mowers scalping along some of the Dallas highways, and so I decided I needed to make another visit before it gets chopped off to the ground.

Unless you noticed the areas of darker green vines, or saw them when they were in flower, you’d never know they were there.  The purple flowers in the foreground are some kind of nightshade relative.

Different view of the same strip.  There are vines on both sides of the freeway, but the ones on the far side of the bridge had fewer fruit.

The vines that were in fairly low grass seemed to bear the best and most fruit.

The leaves and tendrils are distinctive.

These fruits are almost ready.  If the fruit drops when the vine is lifted up, it’s ready.  If it clings to the vine, it’s too green.

The two fruits on the lower right are ripe; the one holding on to the vine is for next week’s harvest.

There are a lot of green, lush vines that get partial shade from the freeway bridge.  Unfortunately, they had almost no fruit.

The flower on the wild type vines is lovely, but not terribly showy.  I notice them while driving down the freeway, but they’re certainly not eye-catching from a distance.

They’re quite pretty close-to!

Occasionally, lifting up a vine will yield a whole line of fruit ready to go.  I love when this happens.  It’s like an Easter egg hunt set to “easy.”

Almost two hours of picking yielded fifteen pounds of fruit, enough to fill three plastic grocery sacks.

I looked high and low to find a recipe for jelly, but everything I could find was for tropical passionfruit, Passiflora edulis, and I’m dealing with the American passionfruit, or maypop, Passiflora incarnata. It was really evident when I would find instructions like “slice passionfruit thinly”… anyone who thinks they can slice these things has better knife skills than I do. I finally realized that I needed to search on the colloquial names… “maypop jelly” found a likely-looking recipe pretty quickly.

The best method I found for separating the peels from the pulp and seeds, was to pop the top open…

and squeeze out the guts.

It leaves very little waste.

A kettle full of the pulp and seeds, before cooking.

After a little simmering, they start to lose their shape, and the juice starts to flow.  Unfortunately, it’s still a SERIOUS pain in the butt to get the pulp clear from the seeds – it clogs the sieve, and there’s a lot of fussy work with the spoon.  The food mill was not helpful, as it tends to crack the seeds and give the whole thing a much different flavor.

I’m withholding my opinion for the moment on the jelly recipe – I made two batches, and they cooked up beautifully, but neither has set.  I have read that high-acid jellies and marmalades can take weeks to set, so I’m giving it a little time before I try re-cooking.  I can tell you for sure, though, that the flavor is amazing.

Great with Child

This time of year, it’s not just the moths that are getting busy in the garden.

This lovely mantis is starting to show her egg belly – she’ll be laying hundreds of eggs in a tough, resiny casing soon.  I have very much enjoyed all the mantises this year!

Charlottte is yolking up, too.  She will hopefully lay at least one big case full of eggs; we had one on the back porch at the old house that made three full cases!  I’ve been tossing her milkweed bugs, to ensure she has plenty to feed her growing eggs.


The day before yesterday, a lovely female polyphemus moth hatched out, from this June’s rearing.  They had been taking so long that I was beginning to worry they would not hatch until spring, but I think they were just waiting for cooler temperatures.  I put her in the little suet feeder cage and put her on top of a very tall pole, but she didn’t receive any gentleman callers.  Because it was so hot, I put her back inside near a window, and tried again last night.

This is what I saw when I looked out of the garage this morning – success!

The male is hanging on to the outside of the cage, mating with her through the bars.

He’s a big, handsome thing – love the pink-to-purple shading on his wings.  They should make pretty babies.  When I took the cage down, he flew off to find a place to hide for the day and heal his broken heart before seeking a new romance this evening.  I put her into a paper bag, where she will lay her eggs.

And, as I was looking at them, I saw a fluttering in the side yard – my brain said “Swallowtail butterfly,” but it was a late-flying Luna moth!  He’s lost some scales, but no wing bits.  I tried tossing him up in the air so that he could fly into the woods and avoid being a cat toy – he wasn’t very bright about it, but eventually got over the fence after several tries.

A Great Steaming Pile

I’ve been getting mulch, bucket by bucket, from a wonderful tree company, Preservation Tree Service.  I haven’t hauled any for a while, because it’s just been too hot, but when I was spreading out the sheet mulch early this spring, I was going multiple times per week, sometimes even multiple trips per day.  I probably carried 180 or 200 of the little tubs.  As we discovered, though, mulch compacts fairly quickly, and, through the wonder of decompostion, it becomes part of the soil.  So it seems like we have half the mulch now that we did then.
I had talked to their supervisor, back in May, and he said that as long as I didn’t mind mulch with the occasional log in it, they might be able to dump some at my house, if they were doing a job in the area.  I waited, and hoped, and hoped… and nothing happened.  I figured they’d lost my number, no big deal, I’ll get more once it cools off.  And then Supervisor G calls me this morning – they are clearing some land of cedar trees, it’s 100% cedar mulch, they will have 8 to 12 loads over the course of the next three days.  He dumped one load, and said they wanted me to look at it and see if I wanted more.  I checked it out at lunch, and found this:

Just at a glance, I think it’s probably about as much in this one pile, as what I carried in my little Saturn Ion this whole Spring.

And it’s GORGEOUS mulch. The whole yard smells like spicy Christmas.

I asked for one more.  I’m going to see, tonight, how much of it I can get moved around the yard.  If the yard eats it up the way I think it will, I’ll ask for one or two more loads tomorrow.

When we had to take back the three chickens who turned out to be roosters, we went up to Sanger and bought a couple of French Maran hens, one Black Copper and one Blue Copper.  We got two eggs when we brought them home, but then the stress of the move affected their laying, and we hadn’t gotten any since.  Today, there was a beautiful dark brown egg waiting in the hen house.  Yaaay, cool eggs!

Charlotte Changes

I looked at the spider web, and saw something weird hanging in the middle… I thought, “Aww, something killed Charlotte.”  But, it turned out, it was something entirely more wonderful.

Charlotte was changing her skin.

The knees are always the hardest part…

And, she’s out.

She hung like this, soft-bodied and vulnerable, until it was too dark for the camera to get a good shot.

The skin is just a pale husk; all the color seems to be in the spider.

So I came back the next day, and got a good picture of her fresh outfit.  She moved and built a new web, too, so everything is nice and fresh.

A Purple Passion

A lot of lovely purple is happening in the garden.

This passionflower, Passiflora x “Incense,” is really coming into its own – it puts out three to five of these spectacular blooms each day.

This is Purple Majesty millet; I was worried that the photo was out of focus, looking at it on the camera, but then I realized that the flower itself has jaggedy edges!

This is a standard Ruellia.  It’s about waist-high now, and has usually a dozen or more blooms each day.  They fall off by late afternoon, but always put up a fresh crop.

This is a Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae.  I love to watch them – you can’t see it in a still photo, but the white areas on its wings are reflective, like metal.

She’s laying eggs on my passionflowers.  Fortunately, the wasp patrol keeps them pretty thoroughly in check.  I’m a little sad that I won’t be getting more baby butterflies, but glad there aren’t huge holes in my vine.  The caterpillars are voracious, and can strip a vine to stems in just a few days if conditions are just right.

Summer in the Garden Goes ZOOM, Part III: CHICKENS

I got one additional chicken, this one a young laying hen; now, we have a total of six. She was advertised as a Black Copper Maran, but I am pretty sure that she’s a mixed breed; she hasn’t got the feathery feet and chocolate-brown eggs of a true Maran.  She’s very sweet, though, and has given us a light-beige egg every single day. Meet Jeanette.

When we got the Ameraucana peeps, the guy who sold them to us examined them carefully and did his best to give us only hens, but it’s really hard to tell until you get to about three to four months.  After a while, it becomes really, really obvious.

Left: Hen Butt.  Right: Rooster Butt.

Taco is fascinated with the chickens.

This posture is the beginning of a crow.  I tried to catch one of them doing it on video, but didn’t manage it… it was always a very quick “Cawwwwerrrk.”  Almost more of a honk than a crow, or like you would imagine if a rooster cleared its throat.

But this is where it becomes really, really obvious.  Like teenage boys, the young cockerels are flooded with aggressive, restless hormones, and they have to figure things out.  I LOVE the little stare-off at the start!

Summer in the Garden Goes ZOOM, Part II: BUGS

I’ve never had an organic garden before.  I grew up in a house on an acre lot, and there was lots of nature going on… but the garden and the flowers were always sprayed with strong chemicals, and so there wasn’t much in the way of garden insect life.  Here on the creek, and in a woody, rambling part of Dallas, we’ve got an amazing ecosystem.  I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing a lot of the critters!   I encourage some and discourage others, aiming for a balance  heavy on the beneficial-insect side that gives me more vegetables and flowers, fewer holes and spoiled fruits.  So far, I’m using Bacillus Thuringensis (BT), Spinosad, and insecticidal soap, plus hand-picking.  I’ve done my best to use only OMRI-compliant choices.

I think these giant rhinoceros beetles are very cool.  They get to live, because they eat decaying forest-floor matter.  The chickens tried for a while to eat one, but eventually decided it was just a moving rock.

They’re nearly as well-armored below as they are above.

Apparently pretending to be a bee or wasp is a good way to make a living.  These are Mydas flies.

I have to admit, I gave them a wide berth the first time I saw them.  They do this thing where they arch their abdomens, pretending to sting the ground; it’s intimidating.  The fact that they’re about an inch and a half long doesn’t hurt.  There is considerable debate about what they eat – they’re not well studied.  Current understanding seems to be that they mostly dine on pollen.  I always welcome additional pollinators in the garden.

Also not a bee.  This is some kind of fly, but I’m not sure exactly which species.  I think it’s one of the “Bee-like Robber Flies.” They do a very good job with their mimicry.  They and their larvae are typically insect-eaters, which means they’re my friends!

A Snowberry Clearwing moth; these look a lot more like bumblebees when they don’t have their proboscis out!  The Bee Balm has been a popular treat for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  I will definitely plant more.

Finally, an actual bee.  I haven’t kept count, but I’ve seen probably ten or more species of bees in the garden, from mason bees to carpenter bees, bumble bees to these tiny emerald sweat bees.  We are definitely not lacking for pollination.

Ok, this is one of the things where I’m a little torn.  We’ve had lots and lots of butterflies in the garden, and some really beautiful ones at that.  Monarchs, swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries… and I am raising several host plants, on which they lay their eggs.  More butterfly means less plant, of course, but it’s worth it for some of the nicer butterflies that don’t eat my food crops.  Within reason, I want these caterpillars to live.

However, we have a really thorough crew of red and brown paper wasps.  They wait until the caterpillars are close to an inch long, and then they scour the plants, eating them all.  I kind of wish they wouldn’t… but at the same time, I have had zero hornworms on my tomatoes, so the wasps are definitely my friends.  I just wish they could get down into the plants and eat the damned cabbage white caterpillars that made some of the bok choi into lace.

I grew up with wasps that *look* just like these in Houston, where we most often saw them munching on daylily stems to make paper for their nests.  They were mean as hornets; I got stung often, and with essentially no provocation.  I knew how to be careful – and I almost never got stung by bees or other wasps, but these red ones were just bastards.  I literally had them fly up to me as I was standing in the yard, and sting me.  Here, they’re sweet-tempered and have never offered any offense.  I don’t know what makes the difference.  Also in Houston, the nests were under the eaves of almost every house; here, I haven’t seen a single nest.  I’m betting they’re high up in the trees, but I don’t know why they have the difference of habit.  It’s a delightful surprise to have wasps that are such effective predators, while also being such good neighbors.

Mantises, of course, are one of the coolest insects there are, and every gardener’s friend.  I hope we get lots of eggs this fall.  I’ve seen probably half a dozen or more in various parts of the yard.

Charlotte says, “MWWAAAMMNVVVHAAKMMNK”.  These Argiope spiders have always been one of my favorites, and I feel specially fortunate to have one in the garden.  I had to move her from the tomato plants, so she wouldn’t get hit with the Spinosad; now, she’s taken up residence in the Confederate Rose hibiscus.  I plan to start feeding her spent silkomths, so she can yolk up and get huge like the last big one we had on the porch in Farmers Branch.

The Garden in the Summer Goes ZOOM, Part I: PLANTS

I’ve been busy with a lot of different things, and haven’t gotten around to posting about the gardens and the chickens and such. So, I’m going to do this in a couple of posts, breaking it up by theme.

This is what the garden looks like now. Some of the parts are finally filling in – I am really looking forward to how things look next spring, because I know a lot of the perennials won’t really come into their own for a year or more. But, it’s starting to look like it’s going in the right direction.

We’re aiming at a semi-cottage-style garden, with lots of dense planting and color in both foliage and flowers. Purple fountain grass, black sweet potato vine, bronze fennel, purple ruffle basil (and one that looks like it somehow got purple-basil splashed, but is mostly green), Aggie cotton, Black Pearl peppers.

This sunflower is surprisingly small, for as massive as the plant is.  It was hard to get a good shot of it, because I was having to hold my camera with both arms stretched out above my head, standing on the curb.

I wish that more of these had sprouted and survived the slugs; we had a whole fence row planted, but only got three plants.  This one is about eight feet tall now.

I find its buds particularly lovely.

These are Chris’s favorite; they make him happy.  There are two plants here; the one on the left is bowed over with the weight of its seeds.  They look like they’ll dry and make good eatin’.

Don’t they look enthusiastic?

These delicate white flowers belong to a special variety of butterfly milkweed that gets called “Hairy Balls Bush” and “Balloon Milkweed,” Asclepias physocarpa “Oscar.” I hope to get some good shots later on to show why it gets these fun nicknames!

With the help of Paul Riddell from Texas Triffid Ranch, I put in a little carnivorous bog garden.  The plants are adapted to the Texas summer heat, which means lots of leafy growth (phyllodia) and not many dramatic traps, but hopefully they’ll flesh out and start killing things once the temperatures break in September or so.  Once I’m sure that it’s found the right sunlight spot, I’m planning to half-bury the container and ramp up to it with some mulch, then mulch the top with long-fiber sphagnum.

The Queen Victoria lobelias are putting on a good show.  I may have to move one of them, though – it flops down every afternoon from too much sun.

The moonflowers have been putting on more vegetative growth than blooms so far, but we’ve had a few.  They have lovely buds.

I need to hit the Night Queen dahlias with some Spinosad; their outer petals are falling prey to cucumber beetles.

In the sunflower/iris bed, we got ONE random volunteer zinnia.  I don’t think we planted it, unless a seed was mixed in with the sunflowers; it may be from the owners before.

So far, we have only male flowers on the watermelon vines.  I love their twisty little anthers.

Although the big tomatoes have mostly quit setting fruit until the weather cools a little, the grape tomatoes are still plugging right along.  Yum.

These are the Rainbow Cherry tomato mix we planted from seed.  Favorites are the Snow White and the Green Grape.  The yellow ones aren’t bad, but can’t hold a candle to the others in terms of flavor.

The big red tomatoes have been luscious.  These are Better Boy (and one throwback Big Boy) that my Dad planted from seed last December.  This shot is from nearly three weeks ago; we’re only getting a couple at a time, now.  I’m hoping that the plants live through the summer and repeat in our fall season.