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Meet Laser Tag: My Urban Wildlife Manager

Laser Tag hanging out at the back door.

Laser Tag hanging out at the back door.

I started trapping and releasing the neighborhood feral cats a few years ago. It was important to me to stop the cycle of kittens I was seeing every six months or so. In fact, my cat Nomark is from a litter born in my garden shed. I was able to get his brothers and sister adopted and his mother was the first cat I had spayed (the current total is five, plus Nomark, his two brothers, and his sister).

I choose to take a certain level of responsibility for these cats afterwards — partially for their benefit, partially for mine. By encouraging them to stick around, they fill a niche by retaining their territory and keeping other, intact cats away. They also continue to do a great job of keeping the rodent population in check.

Laser Tag has taken advantage of this beneficial relationship more than any of the other cats; she spends 90% of her time in my yard now. I feed her and have built her a cat house so that she has a warm, dry place to sleep, and she repays me with mouse management. On more than one occasion, I’ve looked out on the back patio to see her playing with her latest catch.

She also seems to have a special relationship with another cat that we trapped, fixed, and adopted, Crouching Tiger. They spent time together when they were both roaming the streets and now they cuddle and rub through the glass door. Unlike Crouching Tiger, Laser Tag does not have a personality suited to being an indoor cat, so this is the compromise we’ve all worked out.

Laser Tag spending time with my boy cats.

Laser Tag spending time with Nomark and Crouching Tiger.

Special thanks to Lake Austin Boulevard Animal Hospital. They always take such great care of us and these, often less-than-cooperative cats.

Karr’s Kritter Kam 2: Fall Edition

More fun pictures from the wildlife camera at the farm:

Texas white-tailed deer <em>(Odocoileus virginianus texanus)</em>.

Texas white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus texanus).

Coyote <em>(Canis latrans)</em>

Coyote (Canis latrans)

Coyote <em>(Canis latrans)</em> with mange.

Coyote (Canis latrans) with mange.

This one's a little harder.  There's a Great Blue Heron <em>(Ardea herodias)</em> on the opposite bank of the tank.

This one’s a little harder. There’s a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) on the opposite bank of the tank.

Feral hog <em>(Sus scrofa)</em>.

Feral hog (Sus scrofa).

Laundry to Landscape Greywater System

GreywaterBasinMulched

Given Austin’s current stance on laundry-to-landscape greywater systems, this post is going to be brief.

From the City of Austin’s Gray Water FAQ page:

Do I need a permit to install a gray water system?

Yes. For laundry-to-landscape systems and other gravity-flow systems using 250 gallons per day or less, homeowners may pull their own permit. For gravity-flow systems that use more than 250 gallons per day and for pressurized systems, the installer (either a licensed plumber or professional engineer) must pull the permit.

What kind of permit do I need to install a gray water system and where do I get it?

You will need to get an auxiliary water permit. This permit can be obtained at the City of Austin’s One Stop Shop, located at 505 Barton Springs Road. The One Stop Shop is open Monday through Friday from 8:00am until 3:00pm.

Do gray water systems need to be inspected?

Yes. An initial cross-connection test must be conducted following the installation of laundry-to-landscape systems and other gravity flow systems that use 250 gallons or less. Gravity-flow systems using over 250 gallons and all pressurized systems will require more frequent inspection.

Everything you need to know about laundry to landscape systems, including design plans and parts lists, can be found on Oasis Design’s Laundry to Landscape Grey Water page.

GreywaterIndoor

GreywaterHouseToBasin

GreywaterIntoBasin

GreywaterBasinMulched

Introduction to Landscape Graphics Class

I’ve been wanting to take a formal, hand drafting class for awhile. My map drawings looked too much like middle-school art projects and I needed to learn how to take them to the next level.

Austin Community College offers Introduction to Landscape Graphics through their Continuing Education program. This class is exclusively about hand drafting techniques, and it was exactly what I was looking for. It worked out for me to take it in the Fall of 2014, and the results speak for themselves, I think.

(Above) A map of my property I drew before I took the class and (below) the map I drew for my final class project.

(Above) A map of my property I drew before I took the class and (below) the map I drew for my final class project.

Since I had done a lot of colored pencil art in high school, colored pencil was my go-to rendering tool for the above maps; however, I’ve really come around to working with markers, and so I invested in a set of Copic markers and have been sketching and rendering in markers since.

Some of my marker sketches

Some of my marker sketches, applying the techniques I learned in class.

Chicken Coop 2.0

The new chicken coop and garden.

The new chicken coop and garden.


After living with our starter coop for a little too long, I finally have a chicken coop that meets all of my, and the chickens’, needs.

I purchased some basic chicken coop plans online and asked my friend, who builds things for a living, to construct it for me. (Thanks, Andreas!) After discussing the design plans, we made some modifications to suit our needs better, such as adding the henhouse windows, the small, external chicken door, and the large, henhouse door that opens fully for cleaning purposes.

The main reason I decided to build a new chicken coop was because I wanted to be free from having to be awake every sunrise and at home every sunset. The new coop is completely predator proof so the hens can come and go from their henhouse to their enclosed yard at will. The human-sized door, external egg door, and automated watering system are just bonuses to the freedom and flexibility this coop offers, schedule-wise.

The old henhouse and yard. They've definitely upgraded.

The old henhouse and yard. They’ve definitely upgraded.

I sited the new coop in a spot in the yard where the swimming pool used to be. This was a good location because it was already level, in need of soil remediation, close to the shed that stores the hens’ food, and close to electricity if it’s needed in extremely cold weather. This spot also met the city ordinance requirement of being at least 50 feet from neighboring residences.

I oriented the coop itself north-south lengthwise in order to take advantage of the southern, summer winds. The henhouse is on the northern end of the coop to let the winter sun into the enclosed yard and, hopefully, act as a windbreak, protecting the hens from the cold, northern winter winds. I also plan on planting a couple of evergreen shrubs on the northern side of the coop to help protect the hens from the cold winds.

Yellow flags mark the site of the new coop.

Yellow flags mark the site of the new coop.

Here in Austin, keeping the hens cool is a much higher priority than keeping them warm in the winter and so I designed the coop with cooling in mind. The windows are on the north and south sides of the henhouse in order to channel the summer southern breeze through the henhouse, across the roosting perch. The ceiling of the coop is open hardware cloth to release heat. The trusses of the roof are spaced such that, when it gets cold, I can slide a piece of plywood between the metal roof and the hardware cloth ceiling of the henhouse, closing it in for winter.

An annual garden was placed right next to the coop, making it convenient to shovel the shavings out of the coop and into the garden for mulch and fertilizer. I can also easily let the chickens out to weed and till the garden prior to re-planting.

My favorite feature of this system though, has to be that the coop roof catches all of the chickens’ drinking water and dispenses it, on demand, via a a PVC and poultry nipple automatic watering system. The 125 gallon raintank fills in one, 3″ rain event and held more than enough water to keep my seven hens hydrated all summer long.

Welcome to my home.

Welcome to my home. Let me show you around.

The roof catches rainwater that is then piped into coop for the chickens' drinking water.  The windows are on the north and south sides to take advantage of prevailing breezes.

The roof catches rainwater that is then piped into the coop for the chickens’ drinking water. The windows are on the north and south sides to take advantage of prevailing breezes and keep the henhouse cool.

Hens drinking from the PVC, nipple watering system that is connecting to the rainwater tank.  The hanging feeder keeps the food clean and holds enough food for days.

Drinking from the watering system that is connected to the rainwater tank. The hanging feeder keeps the food clean and holds enough for about a week.

The Hen's entrance.  Entrance door closes and locks when necessary.

The hens’ entrance. Entrance door closes and locks when necessary.

Half of the henhouse opens for easier cleaning.  Shavings from the henhouse are swept onto the floor of the coop and then eventually shoveled into the garden.

Half of the henhouse opens for easier cleaning. Shavings from the henhouse are swept onto the floor of the coop and eventually shoveled into the garden.

The inside of the coop: Roosting perch, two nest bozes and the open-air ceiling.

The inside of the coop: Roosting perch, two nest boxes and the open-air ceiling.

The external door for collecting eggs.

External door for collecting eggs.

Plenty of perches, inside and out.

Plenty of perches, inside and out.

Passionflower <em>(Passiflora incarnata x cincinnata 'Incense')</em> planted at the base of the coop.  Will grow over the southern wall of the coop and catch the couple of inches of roof water that the gutter doesn't catch.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata x cincinnata ‘Incense’) planted at the base of the coop. It will grow up the southern wall of the coop, providing shade for the hens, medicinal yields for the people, pollen and nectar for the honeybees, and will catch the couple of inches of roof water that the gutter misses.

A big thanks to Bock for being such a great spokes-model for her new home. Totally unprompted.

Summer Without a Pool

Household water usage from July 2013 (with a pool) to July 2014 (without a pool).

Household water usage from July 2013 (with a pool) to July 2014 (without a pool).

I removed my above-ground pool in March of 2014 and I couldn’t wait to see the difference in the water bill.

I was worried I would miss it once it was gone, but there wasn’t a single moment where I missed swimming in the pool more than I enjoyed not having to deal it. I didn’t realize how much emotional friction it had been causing between the guilt over how much water I was using (this is Texas, afterall) and worrying about keeping it functioning properly (I maintained it myself).

It helped that I put things in its place that I love so much more.

With and without the pool

Before and after. The view is so much better now.

Water Garden

Arrowhead, 'Georgia Peach' Hardy Waterlily, Violet-stemmed Taro

Left to right: Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), ‘Georgia Peach’ hardy waterlily (Nymphaea ‘Georgia Peach’) , Violet stemmed taro (Colocsia violacea)
Floating: Azolla (Azolla caroliniana)

I’d been warned that one of the nuisances of urban beekeeping is when your bees venture into your neighbors’ yards to drink from their dog bowls, pools, and/or birdbaths. Since I wanted to experiment with a water garden anyway, the idea was that this would also be a large, reliable source of water for my bees….Sadly, two months later, they have yet to use it. I have no idea where they are getting water but it’s not from the big, fancy water bowl I built for them. Plenty of other insects are using it, just not my bees.

Luckily, as with any good permaculture design, this wasn’t the only function that the garden was meant to serve. Most of the plants are edible, other neighborhood wildlife does enjoy drinking from it, and it’s attracted a resident dragonfly, an Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), who darts around the yard all day long eating mosquitoes and other unpleasants. Plus, it’s another 100 gallons or so of collected rainwater.

Fred, the Autumn Meadowhawk

Fred, the Autumn Meadowhawk

I used a 3-foot round, galvanized livestock tank for the garden. I think stock tank ponds might be a Texas thing, but they are a very popular Texas thing. I came across a really good blog post about building water gardens in stock tanks and, luckily for me, the author lives in Austin so I was able to use the same places for procuring materials, specifically Hill Country Water Gardens & Nursery.

The plants in the garden include: violet stemmed taro (Colocsia violacea), arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), ‘Georgia Peach’ hardy waterlily (Nymphaea ‘Georgia Peach’), cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), and, at the time the top picture was taken, azolla (Azolla caroliniana).

There are also five hardy goldfish in the pond. They eat algae and mosquito larvae, while contributing fertilizer. Turns out they eat azolla too.

I put the rocks in so that birds, squirrels and various sized insects would have access to the water. The plants and rocks are elevated on cinderblocks, which are positioned such that the holes are open, giving the fish places to hide from predators.

There’s chloramine in the City of Austin’s tap water, so I had to initially treat the water with a chloramine remover. Luckily, we’ve been getting enough rain since I installed this that I haven’t needed to add any more water to it yet, but once I do, rather than using city water, I’ll top it off with rainwater from the chickens’ rainwater barrel instead.

Pretty fancy goldfish bowl.

Pretty fancy goldfish bowl.

I’m A Beekeeper!

Checking out the newly installed package of bees.

Checking out the newly installed package of bees.

I’ve wanted bees for a very long time. I almost got some last year but I didn’t feel like I knew enough then to take on the responsibility so I spent the last year reading books, taking classes, and helping friends with their hives in order to get there.

Getting Ready

The first book I read, The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum, was recommended to me by a friend. It was a pretty conventional read, all about Langstroth hives and chemically managing pests. It wasn’t my favorite but since it was my first beekeeping book I did learn a lot about bee biology, behaviors, and the basics of being a beekeeper.

Then I got the video Top Bar Beekeeping by Les Crowder and that was great! It really helped to see him manipulating his hives. I followed that up by reading the book of the same name, which was even better. The best part of the book is the section of images on comb management for different scenarios.

I read The Thinking Beekeeper by Christy Hemenway and that was also a very good book, in-line with how I philosophically wanted to manage my bees.

I also took a number of classes — the Austin Area Beekeeping Meetup group’s huge, half-day “Beekeeping 101″ lecture, Dennis Brown’s “Raising Chemical Free Bees and Keeping Them Healthy” and “Spring Management” classes, and most recently a hands-on top bar class with Tanya Phillips at Bee Friendly Austin.

Preparing the hive to install the package.

Preparing the hive to install the package.

The Hive

Why Top Bar? I personally chose to go with a top bar hive for a few reasons, but there are pros and cons to everything so really it just came down to priorities. My priorities were: 1.) to protect my back by minimizing lifting, 2.) to manage the bees chemically-free, in a way that lets them fully engage their natural tendencies and behaviors, and 3.) to get wax as a by-product. To be clear, my priority is not maximum honey production.

It was very important to me that the bees be able to build their all of their comb (as opposed to building off of framed foundation, like in Langstroth hives). When they build their own comb, they can adjust the cell size as needed by the hive (worker cells, drone cells, and honey storage cells are all different sizes), which leads to a stronger, healthier hive. Plus, I get more wax for lotions, candles, etc.

Pest management in the hive is a huge concern for most beekeepers; however, it’s almost a non-issue for top bar beekeepers. Since there’s nothing inside the hive other than wax and bees, there are no nooks and crannies for small hive beetles or wax moths to hide, leaving their numbers manageable enough for the girls to handle on their own. Varroa mites will require some management but I will use the powdered sugar technique rather than treat with miticide strips. (On a related note, it is worth mentioning that the top bar hive alone does not guarantee minimal pest issues, the bees matter too. Specially bred for varroa mite management, “hygienic” bees can sense the mite in the capped brood cells and remove the pupae before the mite can complete its reproduction cycle. I got my bees from BeeWeaver.)

Other things to consider in regards to top bar hives:

  • Establishing straight comb is somewhat challenging and requires frequent management.
  • Because the size of the hive is limited, the honey must be harvested in small batches: however, harvesting honey from a top bar hive is much simpler and can done in the moment, one bar at a time, without any complicated equipment. That also means the seasonal honey flavors can be harvested and bottled separately.
  • Since the bees spend more of their resources building comb rather than storing them as honey, there tends to be overall lower honey production.
  • Top bar beekeepers are in the minority so there’s less information available and a much smaller community of beekeepers for support.

Some details about my hive specifically:

  • I purchased it from Chuck and Tanya at Bee Friendly Austin.
  • I’m using wedged bars without wax and so far the comb is staying attached very well.
  • I used cinder blocks to help bring the hive up to a comfortable working height, and to protect the legs from direct soil contact. The increased height also makes it harder for predators to access the entrance of the hive.
  • I sited my hive more than 25 feet from the property line per the City of Austin Code of Ordinances with the entrance facing south-south east so that the sun shines on it as early as possible. I could have positioned the hive closer than 25 feet to the property line but that would have required a 25′ long fly-away barrier in order to be in compliance with the ordinance and I chose not to be constrained by that since I didn’t need to be.
  • Rather I chose to place the hive in a previously leveled place in the yard, where my above-ground pool used to be. The bees build comb plumb to the ground so the hive must be level in order for the comb to be straight.
  • I ordered my hive with an observation window and it has been invaluable for inspecting without having to open the hive.

Installing the Package

The most common way to install a package of bees is to use a method where you ‘bonk’ the bees into a ball by tapping the package on the ground and then you shake the ball out of the package box and into the hive. This leads to lots of homeless and disoriented bees in the air, who may or may not figure out to go into the hive. I didn’t do that. In Dennis Brown’s Spring Management class, I learned a much simpler way that was significantly easier on us all.

Instead of the “bonk and shake”, I simply opened the package, removed the syrup can and the queen cage, and then, after positioning the queen cage, I put the open package into the empty hive and let them come out at their leisure. Everyone was in the hive and there was minimal chaos outside. It was pretty great.

I also did something different with how I positioned the queen cage. Most books, etc. tell you to hang the queen cage, which can introduce a number of complications. But again, Dennis taught us a much simpler and reliable way to do it: just place the cage on the floor of the hive, wire-side up so the attendants can still feed the queen, candy-end into the hive. The workers eat through the candy and the queen walks out after a couple of days, easy peasy.

I did a few other things to try and ensure that the girls accepted the hive:

  • When I picked up my hive, Tanya at Bee Friendly Austin was nice enough to give me a couple of pieces of old comb since these were my first bees and I didn’t have any comb of my own. She was pretty adamant that having comb in the hive was the key to acceptance. The old comb also encouraged straight comb-building from the start. I tied the pieces onto bars 2 & 4 with fishing line.
  • My hive has a screened bottom, which most Texas beekeepers recommend having; however, at first, I wanted to mimic a hollow tree trunk as much as possible, so I taped a piece of cardboard over most, but not all, of the screen for the first week. That’s how long it took until I saw them bringing in pollen. Collecting pollen indicates brood and once they have brood you know they’re staying.
  • I also used a follower board to reduce the space they felt they had to defend. As they built comb, I moved the follower board further back in the hive.
  • I kept all of the entrances closed for the first 24 hours. I left the bottom entrances corked but I put a rotating, disk entrance-reducer on the top entrance, set on the ventilation screen so that they still had good air-flow but they couldn’t leave the hive. After 24 hours, I rotated the entrance reducer to the queen excluder screen so that the queen could not leave once she was released from her cage but the workers could start foraging.

Dean Cook, a Houston-based top bar beekeeper, has instructions that are pretty close to the package installation process I followed posted on his website.

The package installed on its side in the hive, allowing the bees to exit at their leisure.

The package installed on its side in the hive, allowing the bees to exit at their leisure.

The First Month

The first month was pretty bumpy as I expected it might be. Beekeeping has a pretty steep learning curve and I definitely felt it.

The biggest drama had to be when I broke a comb off of the bar while trying to straighten it. It happens to everyone but it still sucked. A lot. I read that all you have to do to straighten comb is push the wax onto the bar where you want it, which is what I tried to do. The detail I hadn’t read, or had missed somehow, was that you have to cut it from the bar first and then push it back into place. So, since I didn’t cut it first and just started pushing on it clumsily, it eventually broke off the bar and crashed into the hive. The worst part was that comb was full of eggs and larvae at a time when my package bees were aging and I couldn’t afford to lose any new bees. Plus, it was possible that my queen had been on that comb. I had looked for her before messing with it, but my queen-spotting skills weren’t great. Needless to say, I was pretty distressed by the whole thing.

A week or so later, right at the three week mark, that distress turned into full-on panic as a number of patterns that I didn’t fully understand, came together to convince me that I had indeed killed my queen and now my hive was queenless. The bees had stopped taking the sugar syrup, they were less active, they stopped building comb, I couldn’t find larvae, I couldn’t find my queen, and I saw a couple of drone cells which I thought might be laying workers. I called Tanya at Bee Friendly Austin and she came right over to help. Together we found my queen and she explained that the the bees had stopped building comb because the package had aged and older bees wax glands atrophy. And since they weren’t building comb, they didn’t need as much sugar syrup. They were less active because the weather had been kind of bad, with intermittent rain showers. The drone cells were just drone cells. And sometimes the queen takes a break laying eggs during times of bad weather or if the brood combs are full, which mine were. All-in-all, it was a great learning experience, but it was not fun.

Some other things about the first month:

  • I didn’t anticipate the weight of the bees on the pieces on old comb that I had tied onto the bars. Turns out my knots weren’t good enough and one of the pieces fell off the bar and right on top of my queen cage, leaving the attendants unable to get to the queen. Luckily, I discovered it when I went in to remove the empty package box on Day 2 and no harm was done.
  • I was in the hive almost every day for the first few weeks, mainly to replace their sugar syrup. I did not expect that I’d be getting into the hive that often.
  • They had built out 8 bars with the 9th started right at one month. That is great progress and bodes well for them getting through the winter.
  • I’m leaving the entrance reducer on the drone setting indefinitely. The reducer makes the entrance four small holes instead of one big hole, which makes it easier to defend.
After a month, starting the ninth bar of comb.

After a month, starting the ninth bar of comb.

New Chicks

It’s time to add to my flock and so I decided to take my chicken knowledge up a level and raise hens from chicks for the first time. Since I eventually want to get a rooster and hatch my own chicks, I figure I better learn how to handle them.

I picked up three Easter Eggers. They’re supposedly very heat and cold tolerant, have sweet personalities, and will (fingers-crossed) lay blue eggs. I intended on only getting two but, after thinking about it, I decided three would be better, in case something happens to one.

Welcome to the flock, girls!

Chicks

Spring 2014 Learning Plan Goals

Two months into the next three month period of my Learning Plan and I’m finally getting my goals posted. Thankfully the delayed posting doesn’t mean that I haven’t been getting things done.

My goals for the first six months were far too ambitious, and in hindsight, read more like goals for the next year or two. This list feels much more realistic to me — plenty of things to do, but plenty of room for unexpected opportunities as well. Also, planning for only three months, rather than six, worked much better for me. Season by season.

April

  • Build water garden.
  • Install beehive.
  • Learn to use the dehydrator.

May

  • Get bees.
  • Finish Master Naturalist Training.
  • Install washing machine greywater system.
  • Build new chicken coop.
  • Install chicken coop rainbarrel.
  • Harvest and dehydrate herbs.
  • Spread warm season cover crop seeds on Cosmo’s garden.

June

  • Install rainbarrel on garden shed.
  • Dehydrate backpacking food.
  • Build greywater basins.
  • Can fruit.
  • Get a chest freezer.
  • Experiment with rotating chicken ‘paddocks’.
  • Start a plant specimen book with pressed plants from the house and farm.
  • Hands-on Top Bar beekeeping class.
  • Cistern install workshop.
  • Read Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.