Spring Has [Finally] Sprung at the Aerie

After a long winter and several “false springs,” spring has arrived with a vengeance.

It was a long, cold winter here in Central Washington State.

(At least that’s what they tell me. I wasn’t around. I went south and suspect I’ll be doing that most winters.)

Snow off roof
This Mavic Pro image, shot one afternoon not long after my return in March, shows the snow that slid off the roof and accumulated in front of my garage doors during the winter. There was an even bigger pile on the south side of the building, which has a bigger roof.

The cold reached deep enough into the ground to freeze the water lines running to the homes at the end of my road. The snow fell in storm after storm piling up and eventually sliding off my roof into big piles on the north and south sides of my home. And in March, which is normally when the weather starts getting good, every night temperatures dipped below freezing, stalling the wakening of the orchards. Even in April there were bouts of cold weather — as recently as last Monday, I woke to the sound of wind machines in the cherry orchard near my home.

Balsamroot at my House
Perennial balsam root, a native plant, started blooming in April and was finished by mid-May.

We had a few warm spells in April that fooled a lot of us into thinking that spring had finally arrived. The local supermarkets and big box stores opened their garden shops and began selling flowers and vegetables for planting. I planted some cold-weather plants — brussels sprouts and broccoli, for example — that survived through subsequent cold spells, as well as some herbs, such as basil, that did not.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry blossoms on one of my two young cherry trees. I might actually get fruit this year!

I worried about the cherry trees, knowing that a serious frost could impact my clients’ orchards and, ultimately, the number of contracts I’d get for my summer work. The cherries bloomed and were sufficiently pollinated, although some clients in Quincy had early fruit drop and decided to skip a season.

Last week, spring seemed to finally take hold. After a few cold nights and chilly, rainy days, the temperature began to rise — by about 10° each day! By Sunday, it was in the 80s and I found it necessary to adjust the irrigation in my garden to provide my vegetables with enough water to grow.

Meanwhile, mother nature had watered the rest of my property. The wild grasses, sagebrush, and wildflowers took off in a wild growth spurt that I didn’t even notice until it was time to mow a path to my Lookout Point bench. The point is in the northwest edge of my property, positioned just before the land drops off into a wildlife corridor owned by the local utility company. Since most of my 10 acres is natural vegetation, I need to mow a path from my driveway to the bench to access it. I have a string mower I use for that but it needed a new axle after I ran it over with my truck. (Note to self: do not park anything in front of the truck’s garage door.) By the time I picked up the mower from the repair shop, the grass was 18 to 24 inches high in some places. I got the mower started and used it to mow my way down to the bench, mow around the bench, and mow a wider path back. I suspect I’ll have to mow it two more times before autumn.

Path to my Bench
The path I mowed down to my bench. I could not believe how tall the grass was along the way.

I began a wildflower class with the local college’s continuing education program. Every Tuesday evening we meet on a trail in the foothills to discuss, dissect, draw, and identify flowers. Most, if not all, of the same flowers grow around my home.

I’ve also started mushroom hunting, although I was apparently too early for the elevations I was hunting at. I suspect I’ll do better later this week.

My garden has taken off — and so have the weeds between the raised beds. Every morning I spend about 30 minutes pulling weeds and feeding them to my chickens.

I’ve caught two bee swarms (so far) and I’m ready to spilt the two healthiest colonies.

And this moment, as I type this, every single window in my home is wide open to let fresh air in. I haven’t heard the heat kick on in over a week and I suspect I won’t hear it again until autumn.

Spring is finally here — and not a moment too soon. Now let’s hope it sticks around for a while. I’m never in a hurry for summer.

More about the Wind Machines

A few new videos.

Back in April 2015, I blogged about the wind machines commonly used for frost control in the Wenatchee Valley. Resembling tall fans, different versions of these machines can be found in agricultural areas throughout the west wherever frost — especially early spring frost — is an issue. Around here, they’re often in low areas subject to thermal inversions.

Wind Machine
The wind machines that were running this morning. That’s the Mission Ridge Ski resort in the background. Photo shot with my Mavic Pro.

The machines are fans that generate wind. The blades spin fast — faster than you might think watching the video below — to circulate the air. The fan heads rotate to constantly change the direction of the wind. The net result is that the air is circulated, bringing warm air from above down into the crops.

In the almond orchards of California, they use helicopters to do this. I think it’s because the orchards are so big that they simply can’t install and maintain as many wind machines as they need. The helicopters are likely a lot cheaper in the long run, especially when you have a few years in a row when they’re not needed. I’ve been on frost control contracts for the past five winters now and have yet to turn a rotor blade over an almond tree. (Global climate change?)

This winter was particularly long, setting the tree fruit back two to four weeks. The cherry trees are still blooming around here; last year, the cherries were already beginning to redden in the orchards closest to my home. Nighttime temperatures at my home have been in the low 40s. But in the orchards below me, pockets of colder air form. And this morning, they got cold enough to trigger the temperature-set auto start feature on the wind machines in the closest orchards.

I don’t know exactly when they started. I was up at 4:30, reading before getting out of bed, and I didn’t hear them. But by the time I made my coffee at 5 AM, I could hear them faintly through the walls and windows of my my home. I stepped out on the deck for a better look in the predawn light. The sound was louder and I could see two of the machines to the west spinning. My ears told me that one to the northeast, which I can only see from a handful of spots on my deck, was also spinning.

Here’s the zoomed in video I shot with my phone. When I shut up, you can hear the wind machines.

I did a Periscope — that’s a live Twitter video — of the wind machines. A handful of people tuned in and I answered questions as they came up. I was frustrated that I couldn’t zoom in. I signed off, used the video feature on my phone to capture a short zoomed-in clip, and posted it on Twitter. Then the sun rose and the light got good and I did another Periscope that was mostly to show off how beautiful the area was. The wind machines droned in the background of my voice as I described various things and answered questions.

I went inside, washed some pots from cheesemaking, and listened to the radio. I could hear the wind machines faintly through the walls and windows. I was sort of bummed out that I couldn’t give people a better view.

And then I remembered my Mavic Pro.

It took only two or three minutes to set it up. I launched it from my deck, got the video camera going, and sent it to the wind machines, stopping before it got so close that the wind could affect it. The light was beautiful and the image the Mavic sent back to me was clear. I hovered for a while to capture a good clip and then flew around a little, just taking in the view with the camera running. I stopped the video camera, took some stills, and then flew home for some more video of my home and the area around it.

Back inside, I made a fresh cup of coffee and spent a few minutes editing the video and setting it to music. It’s unfortunate that the Mavic doesn’t capture sound, but I understand why: it would be capturing its own buzzing sound, which isn’t pleasant. So music will have to do.

A side note here: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I like living here. I realized — and I think I mentioned in one of those Periscope videos — that I like it here more than anywhere else I’ve lived. I’m not sure if it’s because of the place itself or the fact that I have a home with an amazing view built to exactly meet my needs or because after a stifling relationship that went on a lot longer than it should have I finally have the freedom to do what I want to do with my life and time.

Whatever the reason, I just want to remind readers that we all have just one life and it will eventually end. Don’t waste it stuck in a rut or in a place you’re not happy.

Free Bees, Courtesy of Migratory Beekeepers

Catch a swarm without even trying.

The cherry trees are blooming in the Wenatchee area and that means the bees are back.

Every year, thousands of beehives are shipped to the area and placed around orchards to pollinate the flowers. Apricots are first — although there aren’t many apricot orchards in the area. Then comes cherries and then apple and pears. The season has just started and it should go on for at least a month.

My friend Tina and her husband Bill have a cherry orchard in Malaga, not far from where I live. Although they usually keep one or two of their own bee hives, that’s not enough to pollinate their entire orchard. So they rented about 30 hives, which were delivered the other night, likely right from California. (Migratory beekeepers move bees at night when they’re all inside their hives.)

The other day, Tina excitedly texted me that the bees were swarming. Turns out that they’d found her empty bee hives — her bees had not survived the winter — and a swarm had moved into one of them.

If you’re wondering what all this means, you might want to read a post I wrote back in 2013, “Bees: Capturing My First Swarm.” It explains why bees swarm and what’s usually involved in capturing a swarm. But Tina didn’t have to do any of the work. The bees just moved into an empty hive on their own.

I told her she should put other empty hives out to see what else she could catch and she said she did. Then I asked if I could put one or two of mine out. After all, if more than one colony was swarming, it would be great to catch as many of them as we could. Great for the bees, since they’d get a new home easily. Great for us because we’d get free bees. And it didn’t affect the migratory beekeeper since the bees were going to swarm anyway. If we didn’t catch them in our beehives, they’d end up somewhere else.

Keep in mind that buying bees usually costs about $100 to $150 per colony, depending on how many you get and how you buy them. And where you buy them from, of course. Since it’s common to lose 50% of your colonies over the winter here, a lot of folks spend a lot of money buying new bees. I replaced 6 colonies one year and swore it would be the last year bought bees. Now I make new colonies through splits and try to catch a few swarms every summer.

So yesterday I cobbled together two complete hives with ten frames each. Each hive has a mix of frames from a failed colony — three of my eight colonies died or disappeared over the winter — and frames from extracted honey. There’s lots of room for a queen to lay eggs and lots of room for incoming bees to store honey and pollen. And even a little honey to get them all started.

It’s kind of like finding a roomy apartment, fully furnished with just the kind of furniture you like, and a fridge with food in it.

I put one hive near the one Tina had already caught and another right near where half the rented bees were set up. And then I left.

Today, I dropped off some spare equipment to help Tina set up a few more hives. Not complete setups, but hive boxes (also known as supers) and tops. She’ll still need bottoms and frames.

Free Swarm
In less than 24 hours, bees had moved into my empty bee hive.

This afternoon, Tina texted me: “Look what you got!” And she sent a photo of the hive I’d placed near hers with bees all over the front of it.

It looked as if a swarm was moving in.

I texted back, asking if I could pick it up on Friday morning so they’d have enough time to settle in. She agreed. Then I suggested that she put a box where I had that one when I moved it. Maybe she’d catch another one.

Robber Bees?
There aren’t enough bees around this hive box to assume a swarm has moved in. When I pick up the other one, I’ll take a peek inside this one.

She sent me a photo of my other hive, too. There was some activity around the front, but not much. Robber bees, perhaps, or maybe some bees just checking it out. Maybe she’ll send another photo tomorrow.

My beekeeping season has been off to a slow start. It only recently stayed in the 40s at night and we still have cool, rainy days. I checked the hives when I got home from my winter trip, just to see how many survivors I had and to seal up the dead hives so the other bees wouldn’t be tempted to rob. When I bring the new bees home, I’ll spend some time opening up my hives, shuffling frames, and seeing if I can spot the queens. I’ll do hive splits on my healthiest hives — I know that two are going like gangbusters — and put the splits on my little bee trailer. But rather than put four occupied hives on it before taking it up to Wenatchee Heights, I think I’ll try leaving one of them empty, just to see if I can attract any other migrants looking to settle down in the Wenatchee area.