Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beat It Lady!!!

That's pretty much the message I got today when I went out to check the hives. It was hot, in the mid 80s this afternoon, no wind, sunny and humid. I got out to the bee hives and there was quite a bit of activity around the front of the hives, with lots of traffic coming and going through the entrance. It was by far the most activity I've seen thus far. During my last visit to the hives I noted that the top hive box (there are two, one stacked on top of the other) had most of the frames built out with comb and there was lots of nectar filling many of the cells. I definitely saw larvae in both hives but not many capped cells. I tried doing a video with my phone camera but it did not turn out very well. I'll try again in a few days. It's too hard trying to hold the camera still and with the subject framed in the view window, and hold the frame in the other hand. I finally gave up. The main purpose of opening the hive the other day was to put some small pint-jar feeders of sugar syrup on top of the inner covers because it had been cool and rainy and I was worried there might not be much pollen and nectar in the vicinity. I made up a batch of syrup and filled two jars. I used a sharp screwdriver to punch a small hole in each lid and inverted the jar. Sure enough, after a couple of drips, each jar held a vacuum and no more syrup leaked out. Once I got out to the hive I put an empty (frameless) hive box on top of the inner cover and set the inverted pint jar over the hole in the center of the cover. I then put the outer cover on top of the frameless box. I figured the bees would use the syrup if they needed it, and I sort of expected the jars to be empty when I went back to check them today.

Today when I went out there, my plan was to remove the outer cover, refill the jars if they were empty, take off the inner cover, try to locate the queen in each hive, look for larvae, look for new eggs, and look for any signs of mites or other pests. When I closed up the hives I planned to add a third hive box with frames so the bees would have an additional level to keep building comb for the queen. I took two boxes out there with me, and in each of them I had removed a regular frame and added a green plastic drone comb frame. Drone larvae are bigger and require an additional couple of days to fully develop and hatch. For whatever reason, the varroa mite prefers to lay its eggs in drone comb and take advantage of the longer larval development time. One of the non-chemical suggestions for controlling this damaging pest is to put frames in the hive that are designed for drone comb, and the bees will fill it up with drone larvae, and the varroa mites will put the majority of their eggs in there. If you pull the drone frames out of the hives and replace them with fresh ones just before the drones would have hatched out, you have essentially removed much of the varroa population. Most people either scrape the comb off the frame or they put them in the freezer which kills the drones and the varroa larvae, and then they put the frames back in the hives and the workers clean out and discard the now-dead contents of the cells. Sounds gross but it is a pretty effective way to control the population of this particular pest.

Anyway, I got out to the hives and took off the outer cover of Hive #1. The pint jar was missing only about a third of the syrup so they must be finding plenty of flowers to forage on. I set the jar on the platform and took off the inner cover. I puffed a little smoke over the frames and drove the bees down in between them, and lifted one of the center frames with my hive tool. There was a lot of capped comb, which contain larvae in various stages of development, and also newly laid eggs in the bottom of many cells, which are so tiny you can barely see them. That is a good indicator that the queen is alive and doing her job. There were also areas with larvae that had not been capped yet, and also areas on the frames containing nectar (soon to be honey) and pollen of a very dark yellow color, indicating dandelions are being foraged on by the bees. As far as I can tell Hive #1 looks great. One thing I've noticed every time I've gone out there is that Hive #1 seems to have a lot more activity coming and going through the entrance. Not sure why this is, but the inside of the hives look basically the same and I can't tell that one hive is ahead of the other in terms of larvae, pollen and nectar.

Once I'd examined and seen what I wanted to see in the hives, I set the new box of frames with the one frame of drone comb on top of the other two hive boxes. I then put the inner cover on, and set the pint jar back in place so they'd have a reserve of food if it rains the next several days, as the forecast is warning. I then put the empty box on the inner cover, which basically works as a spacer for the pint jar feeder, and lastly the outer cover. I gathered all of my tools, closed the gate, and let the smoker fuel burn out and emptied the ash on the ground, loaded everything back into the Jeep and headed back to the house.

I will leave them alone for a week or so and then check them again to see how much comb they have built in that third box. If it looks like a lot, I will take the hive apart and arrange the three brood boxes with the fullest one on the bottom, and the one with the most empty frames on top. I'll remove the pint jar, add the queen excluder (which is a grid that the queen can't fit through but the workers can), and then a honey super (the 10 frame box that the bees use to store their surplus honey). Since the queen can't fit through the excluder, no eggs can be laid in the honey supers, and as each one fills, you keep adding another one until late summer. At that point you determine how much stored honey the bees will need to get through the winter, and you basically steal the rest. We're a long way from that point but based on the way things look thus far, most of the comb should be built by the end of the month, and the rest of the summer should be a whole lot of honey storing and rearing of baby bees. I'll need to keep an eye on things in the bottom part of the hive so that things don't get too crowded, which causes swarming behavior, and sets the hive back because half the population leaves, and you have to replace the queen immediately or you lose a whole 21-day brood cycle. Mature hives are the most prone to swarming and since these are first-year hives, I don't expect to have to deal with this issue, unless things get really hot sooner than normal, and there's an above average amount of blooming things and the bees get ahead of me. I bought plenty of extra equipment in case I need to split a hive to prevent it from swarming, so that's my emergency plan if things look like they are headed that way. I'll set up a third hive and order a new queen, and move the old queen and half of the brood and half of the bees into the new hive, and put the new queen in the old hive. Hopefully that won't be necessary until next year...

Here's a picture I took last week, right after the queen was released into the hive. Since I had only nine frames in each hive because the queen cage was wedged in there, there was extra space and a big gap between a couple of the frames. Since bees don't like big open spaces, they attempt to fill them with comb. I had to scrape this off and remove it before I could fit the tenth frame in the box. Kind of creepy looking. I saved it to show Greg. It smelled like honey.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunny 2.0: The Big Muddy

Last weekend Greg and I rebuilt the foundation for the clay oven and poured a concrete counter-top. We took the forms off on Tuesday evening and for our first concrete counter-top attempt, it turned out really great. On Saturday (yesterday) Greg headed to Menards for some stuff he needed for installing some drainage tile in some low areas in the vineyard. Before he left, he mixed up some coffee colored stain in a spray bottle and sprayed the concrete. It dried pretty quickly and looks great. We may do another layer of stain once Sunny is finished, then we will seal it.

While he was gone, I got started on Sunny. I hosed off the concrete and spent some time leveling the sand bed and installing the fire bricks. I leveled the sand, added a little, and slid the bricks into position, and tamped them down with a hammer so they were flush with the edge of the concrete.

Once done with that, I gathered together all the bags of sand I could find and started building the dome on top of the bricks. The dome will serve as the mold for the oven shell and once the shell is hard enough to support it's own weight, the sand can be pulled out leaving a cavity. I got about half way through building the dome when I realized I might not have enough sand. I stopped, shoveled all of the sand into 5-gallon buckets, and went looking for something to take up some of the space in the dome. After considering several things, including a 5-gallon bucket, I realized that whatever I used needed to be able to fit through the 10-inch tall doorway opening, which would be the only way to remove it. This eliminated the bucket as an option. I eventually settled on four plastic milk containers. I filled them with water and tightened the lids, and arranged them in the center of the circle I'd drawn as the outline of the dome. I then started piling all of the sand back into a dome shape.

Before I built Sunny 1.0 I had read Kiko Denzer's book "Build Your Own Earth Oven" and used it as a guide for my own clay oven. One mistake I made, in spite of the book's indication that it was pretty important, was that I made the door too tall, which caused a lot of heat loss, and took a long time to heat it up to temperature. I had used a slab of quartzite as a sort of lintel and it was unable to withstand the high temperature, and eventually fell apart (well actually it exploded into pink shards).

This time, instead of a horizontal rectangular opening, I'm going to use an arch which will make building a door a bit more complicated but should be a very strong opening.

Back to the sand, once I'd piled up a dome the dimensions of the oven cavity I wanted (17 inches high, 29 inches across) I soaked some newspaper in water and covered the dome with it. This helps to separate the oven shell as it dries, from the sand which will be removed by hand. It makes removing the sand easier, and also prevents sand from clinging to the inside of the shell of the oven, and raining down on your pizza as it cooks. Any bits of paper still clinging to the oven shell will burn out with the first fire.

It was really windy and I had some problems with keeping the newspaper stuck down on the dome, and it kept drying out so I had to periodically mist it with the hose, and finally just put a block of wood on top of it.

I had all of my buckets of mud that I had saved from Sunny 1.0 and it was wet and ready to use so I got started building the oven.

I picked up big handfuls of mud (sand and clay in a 1:1 mix) and started going around the bottom of the dome, building a wall roughly 4 inches thick.

As I moved around the oven in a spiral, the wall got higher and higher. I used a piece of 2 x 4 to firm and shape the wall as I went, and made every effort to keep it a consistent thickness all the way up. The wind helped to quickly dry the mud and stiffen it, but I realized there was some slumping on one side (the mix used there may have been a little wetter than ideal) and so I slowed down the building process to allow the mud to set up a little and gain some strength to support the weight of the wall.

This took the better part of the day and as I got close to the top, I realized I was going to run out of mud before I ran out of dome, so I gathered up a bunch more clay from a hole Greg had dug the other day, and watered it down. I added sand and spent at least an hour trying to get it homogenized by hand. By the way, I don't recommend this method. My hands are still extremely sore, and I can barely type.

I managed to get most of the clay and sand incorporated together but not before using more water than I should have, leaving me with a very wet mix.

I decided to let the mix set up overnight hoping that the clay minerals would rehydrate and take up some additional water into their actual crystal structure, making for a smooth mix with plenty of strength. The two separate mixes may be a problem when I go to finish the oven if the new mix and the old don't bond together well, but I think I have a solution for that. I have a bunch of 4 inch galvanized nails that I'm going to stick into the existing shell and use them as a kind of rebar or "key" to tie the two together. It may still crack but since the insulation layer will be going over it, I'm not really worried about heat loss, just the strength of the shell.

Today (Sunday) I hope to finish the inner shell, finish the insulating layer, and cut the door opening. I think I'll leave the sand inside for a few days just to support the "weak area" as long as possible.

Once the insulation layer is finished I'll let it set up for a couple of days, and then mix up a third layer of mud that will include fine chopped straw, sand, and clay. This will be the finish or plaster layer and the texture will allow me decorate it either by sculpting a design or adding some pebbles in a cool pattern. After that, the only thing left to do is put on the stucco textured coating on the vertical faces of the cinder block foundation, and then paint it. Oh, and start cooking pizza...

The last picture demonstrates the difference in color between the Old Sunny clay and the new clay dug out of the ground a couple of days ago. The sand to clay ratio is about the same so hopefully it will shrink pretty uniformly as it dries. My only concern is that the Old Sunny clay has been subjected to high temperature (but not high enough for it to undergo vitrification obviously) so it may not respond the same way to firing the oven.

Guess we'll find out. I can always start over again. It's only dirt, right?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dey Tuk Er Cloz!!!!!!

Things are about to get a whole lot warmer around here, and just in the nick of time, the sheep shearer worked us into his schedule. Here's a before picture of my little flock of sheep, the morning of the Big Day.

I kept them locked in the barn overnight so they'd be completely dry when he arrived. The sheep stall is 16 x 24 feet, which is pretty large for a dozen sheep and makes it very hard to catch them, so I crowded them into one corner of the sheep stall with a moveable panel. This allowed just enough room for the sheep and the shearer and his equipment.

When he arrived, he plugged in his shears, put down a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood on the stall floor and got started. Here's the motor part of the shearers.

He grabs a sheep, lifts it off the ground, sets it down on its rear end, and runs the clippers in the same pattern every time, starting with the stomach, up one side of the sheep, across the head and face, under the chin, and back down the other side.

It takes him less than three minutes to shear one sheep. The wool ends up mostly in one big piece. As he finished a sheep, he let it up off the floor and it scrambled back to the flock, and he handed the fleece off to me. They get over the drama pretty quickly, especially if there's hay around to distract them.

I have a bunch of mesh laundry bags and the fleece is rolled up and stuffed into a bag and stacked to await processing. The bigger sheep have been through this and put up with it pretty well. This was the first shearing for the six little lambs and although they are much smaller, they are much less tame and did a lot more kicking and squirming, except for this little guy. He was very sick around Christmas, and I spent several weeks giving him shots and oral medicine, and lots and lots of treats to help him put weight back on. He's my little buddy now, and tame as can be. He's grown a lot since Christmas but I still can't keep myself from picking him up like a puppy. He doesn't seem to mind, and knows there's a handful of grain in my pocket at all times. He's rather spoiled. His name is Todd Helton but I call him Shrimp because he's pretty small.

It's always amazing how small they look once they've lost their wool. In fact, last year was my first experience with shearing and I was stunned at the difference.

Several of the sheep had gotten so wooly and scraggly that there's no way they could see much through the wool covering their eyes.

The black sheep had turned a rich dark chocolate color due to the sun fading their wool but when the shearer was finished with them they had returned to their jet black color. At least for a while. This little guy is Jorge Dela Rosa. He was by far the wooliest of the lambs. Not Anymore! Heh...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Construction Zone: Sunny 2.0

Saturday morning we got up early and decided to tackle taking apart the clay oven (Sunny). The plan was to remove the clay dome and hopefully save the clay to reuse in the new oven. I wasn't sure this was going to work because the inner shell of the oven had been exposed to some pretty big, very hot fires, many burning for four to five hours. I wasn't sure whether the inside of the oven had reached a temperature high enough to vitrify the clay, which would prevent us from softening it and reusing it. I had a suspicion we'd be dealing with a large, turtle-shell-shaped BRICK. Greg headed to Menard's (like Home Depot) for some supplies we'd need, and I set to work demolishing Sunny.

I took a few photos during the process and used my rock hammer, which has been collecting rust on Greg's workbench for years, and started pounding on the oven. After several hard whacks, I started making slow progress. I headed out to the barn to look for the sledge hammer thinking that was the right tool for the job, but couldn't find it. Anyway, as I broke through the outer layer of "cob" a mixture of clay, sand and chopped straw, I realized it was coming apart in a distinct layer, separate from the inner clay-sand layer, exactly as I had built it.

I threw the outer layer pieces into the wheelbarrow, and as I broke through the dense inner layer, I threw those pieces into a big black tub that normally serves as a sheep water trough. The demo took about an hour and when I was done, I removed the fire bricks and set them aside, leaving the cinderblock foundation and the sand bed that had held the fire bricks.

Greg and I came up with a plan and got busy building the wood and melamine forms to serve as the outer shell of the concrete countertop, which we were going to pour on top of the cinder blocks. We made an outer frame and an inner frame to keep the concrete from covering the sand bed.

Once the framing was done, Greg rounded up some rebar and some pieces of a cattle panel to serve as structural support for the concrete. We debated how we wanted to finish the edge of the countertop and just decided we'd leave a sharp edge and then use a sanding block or his orbital sander to round the edges over once everything is finished. Greg picked up some concrete stain at Menard's that can be sprayed on after the concrete dries, so it isn't just plain old gray. Since the clay is a warm tan/brown color, it should blend in well. We plan to stucco the vertical surfaces of the cinder blocks with a surface-bonding cement and then paint that the color of the trim on the house so it should blend with the brown of the concrete pretty well.

Greg borrowed an electric concrete mixer from someone he works with and he'd calculated how much concrete we'd need so once we'd formed up the frames we quit for the day and planned to start early Sunday morning pouring the concrete.

Before we cleaned up our mess, I filled the buckets and water trough containing the remains of Sunny with water from the hose. I figured we'd leave it overnight and hopefully by the following morning the water would have softened the clay enough to determine if we'd be able to reuse it.

On Sunday, we got up early so we could get going on the concrete pour. I checked the buckets and sure enough, everything had become a mushy, gritty goo. Perfect. All I'd need to do is let it settle and skim off the water layer on top of each bucket, add a little extra sand and clay and we'd have plenty of material to build a bigger, thicker-walled oven.

Greg set up the rebar inside the frame and we fired up the mixer. Greg ran the mixer and I shoveled the wet concrete into the frame. We used seven 80-lb bags of concrete to fill the frame, and once we were done, Greg used a 2 x 4 to smooth the mix and level it, then we left it to set up. After it had set up somewhat, Greg worked on finishing the surface as smoothly as possible. We may need to polish it with the sander before we stain and seal it. Maybe not though. It looks pretty good to me.

We wet it down with a hose and covered it with a tarp to slow down the drying process to allow it to cure.

Once we had rinsed out the concrete mixture, we decided to try using it to homogenize the recycled cob. We processed each bucket as it's own batch, and ran the mixer for several minutes on each batch. This worked really well and managed to break up most of the chunks of clay. Once we get to the point of rebuilding the actual oven, things should go pretty fast since I won't be starting from scratch. It takes quite a bit of time to manually mix the ingredients for the oven. Having the mixer was a huge time saver.

One thing I'm going to do differently this time is put a sheet of aluminum on top of the sand layer and below the fire bricks. This should help reduce the heat loss through the bricks into the sand layer. Another thing I'm going to try is a one to two inch insulation layer of clay/sand/straw and vermiculite on top of the clay/sand thermal layer. I hope to really cut down on the heat loss through the walls of the oven by incorporating the vermiculite as an insulator. I'm also going to increase the wall thickness of the thermal layer to 5 inches. It will take a little longer to heat the oven up to temperature but it should stay hot much longer by doing all of these things. This will potentially allow several hours of cooking, starting with pizza and breads, which require very high temperature but cook very fast, followed by slow roasting of vegetables and chicken as the oven slowly cools. Finally, by loading the still-warm oven with a stack of firewood, the residual heat will help to dry it out so it will be ready for the next firing.

A well fitting door and possibly a chimney with a damper are also design features that I did not use in the old oven but may use with Sunny 2.0. By putting in a chimney above the door, I hope to be able to get more complete combustion inside the oven, cut down on the soot around the door (which gets all over you and doesn't look particularly attractive). A tight fitting door will be a lot more functional and safer than stacking bricks in the opening, which is how we closed up the old oven. This oven will definitely be a lot more user friendly.

We wet it down twice a day on Monday, and again on Tuesday morning, and once Greg got home from work, we took the forms off. Here's what it looks like thus far. The hole in the middle is exactly the size of the fire bricks. We will install them after we wet down and tamp the sand bed. We planned everything out so once we put the bricks back in the hole, they will be at the same height as the surface of the concrete and everything will be flush and smooth, so the pizza peel will slide in and out easily.

Here's how it looked today (Tuesday) when we took off the frame.

Here's a link to my inspiration, a 9 foot tall oven called "Maya" in a restaurant in Corvallis, Oregon built by Kiko Denzer...