Killing Our Lawn

This guest post written by my wonderful husband George McRae is very timely as California’s long-term drought worsens and it becomes more critical for people to conserve water.

Killing Our Lawn: Or, How We Made the Transition to a Wildlife Refuge, by George McRae

When Heidi and I moved into our house, I saw gardening as a selfish endeavor: vegetables, fruit, flowers were for the enjoyment of humans only. I even installed a lawn, from seed. Then I got involved in local environmental issues in El Cerrito. Creek restoration was at the top of the list, as a branch of Baxter Creek was at the back side of our home. Not wanting to get involved in a “lawn-envy war” with our neighbor, I roto-tilled our parking strip. I terraced it and planted what started out as an English cottage-style garden, but has evolved into a wildlife habitat. The photo on the left is our neighbor’s lawn, our native garden’s on the right.

Front lawns

I started to read National Wildlife Federation literature about how local back and front yards, and even apartment balconies, are the best hope for many endangered species considering how much habitat is being destroyed by development.

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

I began planting native California plants everywhere I could fit them in. Our philosophy evolved into, “if a local critter eats it or needs it, we’ll plant it.”

California grape

We registered as an NWF wildlife habitat. We provide food and water.

Squirrels at feeder

Also required: shelter and places for critters to raise their young. We’ve been rewarded many times over by birds, in particular hummingbirds, raising families here year after year.

Hummingbird mother on nest

And insects galore! Monarch, Swallowtail, Skipper, Red Admirable (Admiral), Painted lady, Dragonfly…. an endless list of species, come here to lay eggs on the plants we provide them.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

Other benefits? With the abundance of California native plants, our water bill is extremely low. We use no pesticides or fertilizers, so we’re not adding downstream pollutants to the biosphere. We evaluate any weed as a possible food source. If not, we hand pull. We use no herbicides, as they are proven amphibian killers. We rarely use power gardening tools, reducing our addition to air and noise pollution and global warming. We prune our trees and weed carefully and during seasons when we won’t upset nesting cycles of birds, insects and mammals.

Towhee eggs in nest

Towhee eggs in nest

W H A T  C A N  Y O U  D O ?

1) Plant local native plants in as many varieties as possible, from grasses to flowering trees, like ceanothus. California bunch grasses have deep roots and hold soils together, preventing erosion and drawing deep moisture to the surface for other plants. Many butterflies use them as larval food sources. Grasses are the basis of a sound ecosystem.

Some local nurseries to learn more and buy natives:

California Native Plant Society (East Bay), Native Here Nursery

Watershed Nursery

Bay Natives Nursery

Honeybee on fennel flower

2) Before you prune, thin or remove trees, shrubbery or other plants, make sure you’re not disturbing nesting sites or life cycles for birds, insects or other critters making a home there. Late August through late November is best, but be aware that hummingbirds can nest all year long!

3) Certify your garden as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation

Gathering O’ The Swarm

It’s spring-time warm here, and local bees with so much pollen and nectar to gather are thriving, which leads to … swarms! A friend directed a neighbor less than a mile away to beekeeper George to gather a swarm that settled on their house.

Bee swarm

The relatively flat roof was ideal for George to clamber onto by ladder, and it was a good situation to try out the new bee vacuum that Joan, our good friend and partner-in-bees, recently got.

Bee swarm

We onlookers down below couldn’t see the large portion of the swarm in the roof’s gutter. George vac’ed them up first.

Bee swarm

Moving on to the bees overhanging the roof, we watched as some of the swarm flew about, but most were drawn into the gentle pull of the vacuum.

Bee swarm

It was much quicker than what George would have had to do otherwise – scrape the bees from the side of the roof down into a box.

Bee swarm Since the bees will have their new home in Joan’s hive, we went to get one of her hive boxes with some frames that her old bees had built on.

Bee swarm The bees will be attracted to the leftover honey and wax on the frames, and migrate onto them from the vacuum. With the box on the roof, the bees that didn’t get vac’ed will sense the pheromones and re-join their queen and swarm. It’s a whole-day affair, mostly waiting around to make sure that as many bees as possible are gathered up. Any stragglers will likely go back to their old hive.

Click here to read my post about the process Joan and George went through to catch a swarm in her garden last year, I think that slow and laborious process was the impetus behind her ordering the bee vacuum!

A Very Butterfly Day

George and I were jonesing for a monarch butterfly fix. This winter’s Big Storm uprooted the largest milkweed plant in our garden, and no monarchs have visited the smaller ones. Our butterfly-spotting treks to Albany Hill and Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, the over-wintering spots closest to us, were disappointing. We saw a few fluttering around Albany Hill, but nothing like past years’ large clusters. One paused on a branch at the top of the Hill long enough for me to photograph it.Monarch Butterfly at Albany Hill

And that’s why we both woke up yesterday morning with one thought: time to head for Ardenwood Historic Farm Park. Monarchs over-winter in Ardenwood’s eucalyptus grove from December to mid-February, and we’d heard through the butterfly grapevine (aka Facebook) that the numbers were good this year.

Ardenwood’s rangers are well-informed and eager to educate visitors about monarchs, from showing the butterfly’s life cycle to explaining the importance of growing milkweed and flowers, and not using pesticides. George quickly spotted a caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf (Asclepias physocarpa) in their garden.

Monarch caterpillar

Then the ranger pointed out a chrysalis hidden under another leaf. An exciting first for us; we’ve seen so many monarch chrysalises in our butterfly “nursery”, but have never seen one in the wild!

Monarch chrysalisAnd finally! Hundreds of gorgeous orange monarchs fluttered above us in the bright blue sky.

Monarch butterflies

George and I, with the other awed visitors, lay on our backs to watch the dance.

Monarch butterflies

Two flew near a red-tailed hawk making lazy circles.

Monarch and hawk

As the sun slanted lower, the butterflies began to light on the eucalyptus branches.

Monarch  butterflies at Ardenwood

We reluctantly left the monarchs to speed through the rest of the Park before it closed (stay tuned for further adventures). Want to see more of my monarch butterfly blog posts? Click these links:

Monarch Butterfly Mating Dance

More Monarch Butterflies

A Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

Monarch Caterpillar to Chrysalis

First Monarch Caterpillar Emerges

Monarch Eggs in the Garden!

Monarch in the Garden

Butterflies & Barbie at the Albany Library

 

Top Twelve of 2014

For the last oh-don’t-even-ask-how-many years I’ve created a calendar to give George for Christmas. I design 12 pages of my photos from the year, each with a different category from our lives together, and a “Greatest Hits” cover. My walk down Memory Lane means hours poring through all of the year’s images (more than 3,000 in 2014) to pick out the treasures, which I collage into pages for each month. This is the May page: Bees!

George's 2015 calendar: Bees

During my journey through 2014, I pulled out 12 of my favorites to show off. First, this closeup photo of a honeybee landing on a fennel flower went onto the calendar’s cover.

Honeybee on fennel flower

I shot this beautiful Great Blue Heron strolling through a field next to the driveway at Ardenwood Farm, our favorite East Bay Park.

Great Blue Heron

I love the colors, and the delicate and intricate swoops of this bromeliad flower (Billbergia nutans) that bloomed in our garden in January.

Billbergia nutans

In February, George worked hard behind the scenes at the Pacific Orchid Exposition. I’m so proud of his accomplishments as current president of the San Francisco Orchid Society!

George at Pacific Orchid Expo

We found some glorious Calypso Orchids during our hike on Mount Tam in March.

Calypso orchid at Mount Tam

Of the zillion hummingbird photos I took this year, I love the attitude of this Anna’s, and his glorious magenta crown.

Anna's hummingbird

George’s Tiger Lilies bloomed in July, just in time for our birthdays!

Tiger lily

Speaking of birthdays – we celebrated George’s at the fabulous Oakland Zoo. He wants this lion tattooed over his heart, what do you think?

Lion at Oakland Zoo

Of my many 2014 photos of our children, this is my favorite of the furry ones. Daisy is our one-year old sweet and rambunctious young lady, and Lars our wonderful round-faced Russian Blue. It took a while, but they finally get along (well, mostly).

Lars and Daisy

And I can’t leave out my top photo of our feathered children – George cuddling Maureen and Louise while Gloria waits for a space on his lap.

George and hens

Sadly, we didn’t find many monarch butterflies on Albany Hill for the annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. Several flew around, but we saw no clusters. This one rested on a tree branch. To compare, click here to see my 2011 blog post — a photo near the end of the post shows a large cluster of monarchs in the eucalyptus grove on the Hill.

Monarch Butterfly at Albany Hill

2014 was a bumper year for Anise Swallowtail butterflies, though. This caterpillar happily munched on the fennel in our garden.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar on fennel

Do you keep a journal, or go through your photos at the end of the year? I’d love to hear about your favorites! Wishing you all sweet memories of 2014, and many more for 2015.

 

Cards Hot Off the Press!

You know that rush of relief when you check things off that have been haunting your to-do list for too long? I am supremely happy that I met one of my biggest goals before the end of 2014. Way back in March I told you that the wonderful sales rep who was selling my greeting cards to stores stopped repping. It took me awhile to scramble back to my feet, to decide to sell my cards on my own, and to master the many moving parts involved in that.

Greeting cards

Designing a brochure was a big part of the project, since I can’t go visit each store to show them my cards. I kept it simple (just the facts, ma’am) – a nice large photo of each card, its number, and basic info.

Greeting cards

My wonderful local printer, Jayne at Cerrito Printing, made the process easy and affordable, and I think the brochure turned out beautifully! Hummingbird cards take up 3 pages, the largest portion of my line.

Greeting cardsButterfly cards are really popular.

Greeting cardsA lot of garden stores order the flower cards, and few can resist the squirrels!

Greeting cardsThe back page has an enlarged image of my favorite card and more order info. But wait, by the time the brochure was printed I had added another large task to my to-do list – I decided to design eight new cards. When those were all printed (thanks, Cerrito Printing!) I designed an insert page to show them off, and even had room for an order form.

Greeting cards

So now I’m well on my way selling my own cards, a lot of work but really fulfilling. If you know of any shops that carry my kinda greeting cards, also garden stores or nurseries, send me an email with the name of the store and I’ll contact them! You can click here to see my entire card line, and here’s a link to the brochure as a pdf

Have Beehive, Will Travel

In April George and I gathered a small swarm of bees near the BART tracks which we’ve kept in the nuc box that we used to gather the swarm. While trying to figure out what to do with them, George was struck with a great idea to solve some problems we’ve run into with our Top Bar and Langstroth hives. What problems, you ask? Well, the Langstroth is basically a stack of heavy boxes, so checking on the bees involves lots of lifting and upsets the bees, not to mention being hard on George’s knees and back! And the Top Bar, while much easier to manage, uses foundationless frames, so to extract the honey we have to crush the wax.

George’s hybrid hive is one level (though more can be added), and long to fit more frames than the usual hive. He built it to accommodate normal frames, so we can use our extractor, saving the wax for the bees to re-use.

Beehive

We wanted a location with more sun than we get in our oft fogged-over microclimate. Our friend’s very large, unused yard in a nearby town was the perfect place. Best time to move a hive is in the evening, when the bees are tucked in, back from foraging. Tape up the opening and you’re set to go! They serenaded us with a gentle buzzing on our ride over. George lifted the nuc box into the new hive and removed the tape. Bees don’t fly very well at night, so only a few curious bees ventured out. We said good night to our ladies and left.

BeehiveGeorge visits often and always finds them calm and happily coming back to the hive with pollen. The design of the hive makes it very easy for George to check on the girls. Here’s the Queen!

Queen Honeybee

 

Sweet Reward

The wonders of beekeeping and helping struggling honeybees are our main motivations for having beehives, but getting honey from our girls is an extra special bonus. We don’t take honey every year. If the bees need it themselves for food we leave it; but some seasons the stars align and there’s extra. One reason bees can swarm (some of the bees in a hive make a new queen and leave with her for a new home) is because they don’t have enough work to do. In that case, taking honey and leaving them empty comb gives them a reason to stay with the original hive. George is all suited-up and ready to extract. He selects some of the frames that are full of honey and carries them away from the hive.

Beekeeper George

This frame is full of honey – it doesn’t ooze out because once it’s full the bees cap the honey with wax.

Frame

Scraping the wax off is the first step. You can use a fork, but this nifty uncapping tool is much more efficient and effective.

Extracting honey

As with everything else related to beekeeping, there are many different ways people extract honey. When we first started we only had a top bar hive, which you can’t use an extractor to get the honey from. George recorded a video showing his ingenious “Salad spinner honey extractor” method. We now have an extractor to use with the frames from our traditional hive, which makes the process much easier. Since it spins the honey out of the comb without crushing the wax, you can put the frames right back into the hive and save the bees the work of reconstruction.

Honey extractor

After much vigorous spinning, the sweet reward.

Extracting honeyWell, actually the baklava made by George is the REAL reward!

Bakin' baklava

And of course any honey that doesn’t get made into baklava gets bottled. This is the label I designed for our “La Ferme Melliferalle” honey.

Honey bottle with label

You can find La Ferme honey – and lots of other delicious local honey – at BioFuel Oasis on 1441 Ashby Ave., Berkeley California. If you’re local you can pick up from us in El Cerrito, email George at elegans@aol.com with your order.