Friday, June 22, 2012

Meet the wasps

A tiny colony - right, and last year's abandoned cells to right 
 My favorite way to kill time is watching the paper wasp colony in the greenhouse. Several gardens farm is home to many kinds of wasp, from parasites that eat our aphids, to bald faced hornets that hunt down and destroy flies on the wing.

The only wasps that have ever given us trouble are the yellow jackets. I was once stung by them, when I accidentally mowed their colony's exit site.

That wasn't really their fault, but we have other problems with them.  We trap and destroy them to protect the bees.

The greenhouse wasps are a different species, some kind of Polistes or paper wasp.

The greenhouse - favorite building spot

Paper wasps look similar to yellow jackets, but with longer, reddish antenna and narrower bodies. They build open celled paper nests on sheltered spots a few meters above the ground. They build new nests each year, but they strongly favor certain sites and like to rebuild there. In the nest below, they built new cells right next to an abandoned nest built by a different colony last year. They simply will not reuse!
Closer view of the colony.

The colony pictured was one of several built in the west eves of the greenhouse. For reasons of their own, the wasps usually build in the west side of structures.  This picture was taken on a cold, rainy day, when few insects were flying. I'm guessing the wasps shown represent 75% of the whole population. A tiny colony, where every worker matters. No wonder they are reluctant to take risks, like flying out to sting me. Not complaining, mind you.

On sunny days, the wasps wander around inside the greenhouse or fly out through the vents to gather their favorite food - caterpillars and other insects. These wasps are part of our pest management system.

Achocas (green) were pollinated by wasps last  season
They serve another role as well. They are our greenhouse pollinators. Paper wasps are not known as pollen distributors, but I've seen plenty of them on flowers, drinking nectar. Though they do not have furry bodies, the better to transport pollen granules, their smooth skins seem to hold enough of it that last year I have a great crop of achocha squash, which has separate male and female flowers, and relies on insects to bring their parts together. Only the wasps had access to the greenhouse where I grew these squash, so I am almost certain they were the pollen distributors. Perhaps one day they will be used commercially?

Paper wasps have small colonies compared to yellow jackets, honey bees or bumble bees. On sunny days, there may be just a handful of insects at the nest, with everyone else out hunting. I have not spent enough time with the colony to know for sure whether the same couple of wasps is always at home, or whether they take turns. I guess the next step would be to color mark them and see. I'm still a little too shy to try that.

Being a queen wasp is a little more flexible than being a queen bee. In the fall, the wasps born near the end of the season are big, plump, and exceptionally well fed. The females of this group mate, and then go into sheltered spots to hibernate till spring. They found, populate and provision colonies in spring, and thus each one could be a queen. But in reality, several often share the same nest, and even take turns hunting and laying eggs until one gradually pushes the others out of the role of queen. Or if one has more viable eggs, her daughters may help her suppress the others.

I have stood under colonies, sometimes for half an hour or longer, and never been bothered by the wasps. I've stood right next to them while they gathered wood, chewing splinters off our fence and stashing them in their gullets. They take the wood home, chew it up, and turn it into paper. If I offered them colorful material, they might make pinatas. I haven't experimented with that.

I've watched one lay eggs - a sweet, domestic sight. When I was taking pictures, I was a typical noise, clumsy, human, and jarred the nest a couple of times.  The wasps did come out and menace me. One even flew a few centimeters, landed on an eve, and crouched in a threatening manner, but didn't approach or try to sting.. I haven't pushed my luck further than that. I know that bees hives seem to retain memories of individual people for weeks or months, and I don't want to find out that wasps do too. At least, not bad memories.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Solar shortcake

Friday was one of those beautiful Seattle days when the sun shown all day, the temperature soared up above 70 (18 c), and anyone visiting would wonder why we always seem to think it rains here. Time to break out the solar oven. I used to make a massive, box style oven every year. I would cut up two boxes and fit them inside each other, stick in insulating material, glue aluminum foil to cardboard to make a reflector, paint the inside black and glue a piece of plastic over the top. It would take two days to make and dry it, and then it would start raining again and warp the cardboard. At best, the oven would be large, cumbersome, and poorly made - more because I am a klutz than because of poor design.
Sun reflector for a car or truck
Finally, I gave up and went the easy route. It works just as well, and all the parts serve useful functions as separate items when I'm not cooking with them.

Component one is a sun shade for the windshield of a car. I used one for a Chevy truck - it's a bit bigger than the standard, but folds up neatly when not in use. Better yet, when you aren't cooking you can use it as it was intended, to keep your car cool.

I fold the shade around the keyhole opening in the middle, so that it forms a cone with the reflective surface facing in. This is my reflector, which will send sunshine into my oven.

It was hard to get a good picture of it because it was sunny out and the metallic inside was sort of blinding. You shouldn't look directly into your solar oven - it is reflecting sunlight, remember, and can hurt your eyes.

Once it is cooking, you should also treat the solar oven like any other oven, or you will burn yourself. I used to think of it as a sort of "easy bake for grownups" but it's not.
Next, I have my cooking equipment. These are lightweight black camping pots, a glass serving tray and Pyrex bowls.

The clear bowls and serving tray let light through, and trap the in heat. The black cookware absorbs light and heats up. It gets hot enough to hard cook eggs, boil water, and occasionally burn brownies.

When cooking with a solar oven, I think about size, color and material, both of my equipment and of the food I am cooking.

For example, dark colored things absorb light and heat better than light ones. A dark chocolate cookie will bake faster than a pale sugar cookie. Black beans cook faster than great northerns.

Water takes a long time to heat up. If I wanted to make a pasta dish, I would either cook the noodles on the stove and then bake a casserole in the solar oven (which seems a lot like cheating to me) or mix dry pasta with sauce and cheese, add extra water, and bake a long time.
Once I've assembled my cooker and put my food in it, I orient it toward the sun, or toward where the sun will be in an hour or two.

John Donne, in A Lecture Upon The Shadow, says:

But now the sun is just above our heads
We do these shadows tread
And to brave clearness all things are reduc'd

I don't believe him, because he lived in England when he wrote that, and would have been at an even more northern latitude than I am. The sun is never straight overhead here in Seattle, even on the solstice it hangs in the south part of the sky, 66 degrees above the horizon
When I want the cooker angled directly toward the sun, I look for the point where its shadow is directly behind it and small. If I want it to point toward a future solar position, I first point it to the sun, and then rotate it toward the south. Because I pay attention to the sun, I've gotten pretty good at positioning.

I have learned that I do my best cooking in the morning and the first hour after noon. Donne's comment that "the first minute after noon is night" is an exaggeration, but it's not completely wacky.

I started this shortcake at 10:30 and "turned off the solar oven" at noon, by turning it to face out of the sun. The cake had a dense, sponge cake like texture, denser and moister than if I'd baked it in a conventional oven, delicious with June's first juicy strawberries.

I used a standard pancake batter, because I didn't want a very sweet cake. If I bake cookies, I use about 1/4 of a recipe and make one huge cookie out of the dough. We slice it like pie and dip it pointed end first into a glass of fresh goats milk. Summer heaven.

Before I go, I want to challenge those of you who live further south, or at a higher elevation than Burien, which is 47 north lattitude and near sea level. The sun works hard to shine on me here. It has less distance and less air to travel through to get to you.

Here, it is strong enough to make me a late breakfast of poached eggs, pancakes and coffee. What can it do for you?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Meggie and Gloria have kids

Gloria, the Glory Goat, was our milk goat last year. She may be too high strung for our home under the runway - the airplanes bother her, visiting children bug her, the hay isn't to her taste - she never seems satisfied. She may become someone else's milk goat soon. Or not. It's hard to say no to 1 1/2 gallons of sweet, cream milk a day when my son tells me that no other milk compares. Or when she licks your hair and tries to sit in your lap.

Meggie is Gloria's daughter, and in many ways her polar opposite. Meggie is the strong but silent type. Nothing bothers her. Nothing makes her happy, either. She does her thing, and that's that.

And here's the deal with goats. They are mammals. They make milk, but the primary consumer of the milk is meant to be their babies. So if you want them to give milk, you have to start by them having babies.

And that means a buck (male goat) has to get involved. And a buck goat is not an animal you can keep in a suburban backyard.

Bucks (male goats) smell heavenly to does (female goats), but to us they just smell to high heaven.

So Gloria and Meggie were loaded up in the back of the station wagon for a week's visit to a buck.

Once they got there, they had a great time...  ;)

Gloria kidded while we were at a little league game. She was a couple of days early. So there are no pictures of her kidding.  We were disappointed not to have seen the signs of kidding, but we got back in time to clean up after it and make sure their umbilical cords were clean.

Her babies were shy at first. The first time we ever had baby goats, we did not realize how long it took for them to accept and like people. We tried to socialize them, and when it didn't seem to work, we decided they were just not friendly. We gave up on them and let them be unsociable.

I have always regretted that decision. It meant they couldn't be pet goats. At best, brush eaters for someone with horses. At worst, one of them was dangerous to children and fought with the goats at the only good home we could find him, and had to be slaughtered. It was sad, and now I know we wrote them off too soon, and could have taught them to be more trusting.

 Meggie had her kids while I was at a conference. Luckily David and our little leaguer were waiting for it to happen, and helped her. A friend and her family stopped by too, and helped too. There was a lot of running inside for one more item.

It was Meggie's first time having babies, and she was not as confident as Gloria. So taking pictures was not in the cards. 

Each goat had one boy and one girl. As my son used to say when he was younger "twins, a boy and a girl, born on the same day" his notion of the perfect family unit.

Although I will always regret my mistakes with our first baby goats, it is more important that I learn from them. Now we make a point to socialize the goats every day, even when we don't think we have time. They have no one to depend on but us. If we don't give them the chance to be friendly, we are letting them down.