About Kasey

Ph.D. in multicultural American literature. Research interests include girlhood, citizenship, transnational feminism, education, & media. In other words, I drink a lot of coffee and read big books & Teen Vogue.

Notes on a Bee Sting

IMG_20210720_111925228Now that summer dearth has settled in, I’ve had a lesson about honeybee psychology. 

I did a hive inspection on Tuesday and was puzzled to find that there were plenty of eggs, larvae, and capped brood in the second deep box, but wide patches of empty comb in the brood nest in the lower deep box. There was clear evidence that the hive was queenright, so I was confused. After doing some research, I understood that I was probably seeing a brood break in response to the mid-summer dearth. Sensing that resources are scarcer, the queen lays fewer eggs so there are fewer mouths to feed. That would also explain why the bees had not drawn any comb in the third honey super I had given them the week before—although they had drawn out the brood frame I had put in place of a drone frame. I decided to feed them 1:1 just to get them through dearth and to encourage them to maybe, just maybe, draw out that super. 

IMG_20210803_133307507 (1)I thought about the bees throughout my shift as a greeter at the Molly Brown House the next day, because I watched a single honeybee repeatedly fly around the front porch, where there were no plants, in search of nectar (I guess?). Bees checking and rechecking unusual places is one sign that dearth has set in. Later that night, I did some more research, deciding whether I needed 1:1 or 2:1 syrup for the hive and I asked Julio to make it for me. By the time our baby was asleep, it was almost 8:00 and, although the sun hadn’t set, it was probably too late to go into the hive. It’s fine, I thought, and besides, I didn’t even have to take off the inner cover to put the feeder in place. 

When I got to the hive, the back fence line smelled like the neighborhood skunk had been there recently. Skunks eat bees. I did not know that. I think most people think of skunks as Pepe Le Pew and not much else, but skunks have a voracious appetite for gardens, mice, and insects. Not only will they tear a hive apart to get to the honey, but they will also scratch at the bottom of a beehive and then eat the bees who come out trying to figure out what is going on. They chew them up, devouring their juices, and then spit the little bee carcasses out. Brutal. I had no reason to believe that the skunk had been bothering the garden or the bees, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bees, who seem so hyper-attuned to their environment, recognized the stench of skunk and were on edge. They were bearding dramatically over the front of the hive, too. All of these factors indicated that I should probably just wait to put the feeder in until the next day, but I figured if I did it now, I wouldn’t attract the yellow jackets, two of whom had been hanging around the hive inspection the day before. 

As soon as I took off the outer cover of the hive, I had hangry bees flying around me. I was wearing just a veil, a regular jacket, and one beekeeping glove. Not a smart move, but at least I remembered to take my rings off. I thought I’d just be in and out quickly, but the defensive bees made it hard to get the feeder in place and the box over it smoothly. Then, a sharp pain. I was stung through my pants right on the kneecap. I had the bees’ knees. 

The box was really crooked and I still had to get the outer cover in place. I grabbed a second glove and went back, but the bees were still angry. Fortunately, I didn’t get stung again, but I did get bitten by a mosquito on the bum. 

That night, as I drank my post bee sting beer, I remembered that the observation cover I’d put over the feeder box had upper vents and that created an additional gap that perhaps the bees might have to guard. I started thinking about yellow jackets and wasps I’d seen in the garden, on edge. A strong hive can defend against a few robbers, but could my hive withstand an attack? I’d have to keep an eye on things and flip that cover over when I could.

The next morning, as I left for my run, I could smell the skunk for a quarter mile up the street. What had it been up to? Had someone hit it with a car? Had the neighbors’ dogs chased it? The stink was everywhere. Earlier in the week, I had been startled by a giant bull snake while on my run. Snakes can also pose an indirect threat to a colony if they choose to take shelter in the bottom of the hive. 

Robbing insects. Skunks. Snakes. In a couple of months, as the nights get cold, mice might also decide that the hive looks like a cozy place to stay. I should probably put on a mouse guard, too. There is always the possibility of a bear, too, however remote. 

As my own anxiety about the security of the beehive rose, my frustration that the ungrateful bees had stung me when I was just trying to feed them ebbed. Seemingly every creature in the neighborhood was trying to steal their honey, their home, their very lives. Or, in the order of priority for the bees, their very lives, their honey, their home. They had worked so hard to build the nest and then to fill it with brood, pollen, and honey. Then, in comes some giant and pops the top off the whole thing just as they’re starting to settle down after a hard day’s work foraging? I’d want to sting me too.   -Kasey

(Disclaimer: I’m a first-year beek, so if any of this sounds really mistaken, please share some wisdom, fellow beekeepers!)

Garden Update

As a very wet May turns to June, there is a lot going on in our garden! In all, the garden is going much better this year. I’m going to give credit to the alpaca beans we amended the soil with. ($1/lb if you need some!) IMG_20210604_181027748 IMG_20210605_095331361There’s a lesson to be taken from my garden this year about being patient. First there were the seedlings that sprouted randomly in the containers I dumped my soil from failed seed starting into. The mystery seedlings are still going strong. Then, in the patio garden, I had some squash seeds that I didn’t think had germinated, so I did a second pass and now I have a crowded, random batch of plants. I will probably have to move some once they get bigger. I am very proud of how tidy the rows of greens are. I can be a bit of a chaos muppet, as evidenced by my carrots and onions, but those neat greens make me smile every time I see them. IMG_20210605_095219486 The corn is growing! Last year the seeds did not germinate, so I am very excited. This Indiana girl is hoping to see it knee high by the 4th of July. Last week, I planted a second type of sweet corn and some more beans to fill in gaps where seeds didn’t start. It has been so wet this year, that mushrooms have come up in a few places in the garden. It was one item on the long list of things we’ve had to check to see if they are toxic to alpacas now that we let the girls graze the backyard. (On that list, the Columbines, poppies, and, yes, the mushrooms.) I planted three packets of sunflower seeds and they’re starting to pop up in a lot of borders and fence lines. I’m feeling very protective of them and managed to chase Clementine away from one just in time yesterday. I am excited that one of the Icelandic poppies is getting ready to put up flowers again. I put four plants in that old trough. One died, the other hasn’t started to bloom again, and then the fourth has seemingly transformed into an entirely different plant. I am mystified and letting it grow, hoping that eventually it will reveal what kind of plant crowded out that poppy. I am also excited that the wildflowers I planted in pots last year are coming back. The seeds I put by our front door did nothing last year, but they are sprouting this year! They look like weeds for now, but I know better and am pleased as punch. IMG_20210605_103853174The rabbits have dug the entrance from their warren into our pumpkin patch again. I filled it in again. I keep seeing the snake by the raised pumpkin beds. I spent some time on a website about Colorado snakes yesterday. I think it is either a garter snake or an Eastern racer. Either way, it poses no threat to anything unless in the unlikely event it decides to climb into the beehive. I spent some time this morning on my own and then with my little helper watering, weeding, and doing succession plantings or “try again” plantings of almost everything, including greens, herbs, corn, beans, cucumbers, and several types of pumpkin. The pumpkin patch is starting to show lots of growth, so hopefully we will see you in October!  -Kasey

How to Use Alpaca Manure as Fertilizer and Why

One of the things that we love about alpacas is how efficient and eco-friendly they are. Without using much land or food, they produce pounds and pounds of soft, warm, hypoallergenic, flame-retardant (yes!) fluff and even more pounds of fertilizer good for gardens or crops. 

Some alpaca farmers refer to their animals’ manure as “magic beans.” That’s because the poo pellets that alpacas produce are prized as fertilizer, particularly by experienced or niche gardeners. 

All fertilizer is made of a balance of three major nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen is important for the development of protein and helps leaves grow lush and green. Phosphorus helps plants photosynthesize. Potassium helps defend against disease and assists plants in developing strong root structures. 

Most manure is very high in nitrogen and if placed directly on crops can “burn” the plants—causing brown spots and stunted leaves. Alpaca manure, by contrast, has a lower nitrogen content and is thus considered a “cool” fertilizer that you can mix straight into beds or use under mulch around your trees. Alpaca manure is about average in its potassium and phosphorus content.

Although you can use alpaca manure mixed in with your garden soil on its own without “burning” your plants, it is best practice to compost all manures before applying them to food crops. You can also steep the beans in water, creating “alpaca tea” and apply the liquid to your garden beds. Doing so helps to break down the hard pellets for better absorption.

There are plenty of options for how to use alpaca beans and the benefits for your garden are wonderful. In addition to being healthy for your soil, alpaca manure is relatively odor free, and lightweight—if you’ve ever cleaned up after a horse or cow, you know what a bonus that is! 

Plus, picking up some beans can come with the chance to say “hello” to the source of your fertilizer. At Sol Homestead, you can buy our “magic beans” for the low, low price of $1/pound with free local pickup or an added $5 for delivery in the Denver/Boulder metro areas. Contact us to buy our alpaca manure by the pound for your garden. (For a limited time, you can even get some aged horse manure for free–local pickup only!)

Notes:

Alpaca Manure Fertilizer

Modern Farmer Manure Guide

What is the Value of Alpaca Manure

The Fertilizer Institute

Alpaca poop like black gold

Preparing for Christmas at Sol Homestead

If you have longed for a simpler Christmas in years past, 2020 has provided you with the opportunity. For us at Sol Homestead, it is our first Christmas in our home and also our daughter’s first Christmas. Due to the pandemic, we are not traveling to spend the holiday with either of our families and we are trying our hardest to make things merry, despite the circumstances. To do so, we are focusing on starting traditions with our daughter that we plan to continue through her childhood. In short, the joy of this Christmas, if we manage it, comes not from bustle and merriment, but from designing what Christmas will feel like in our home for the first time.

We are trying to keep things simple and cozy in the traditions we establish, focusing on togetherness and simple pleasures. It has been on our hearts how much of a struggle it will be for some families to celebrate this year, not only because of a pandemic advisement against travel, but also because of economic hardship. We look at our newborn, who won’t really “get” Christmas this year (beyond lights—she loves those) and our hearts hurt for parents who may struggle to get gifts for their children. In that spirit, we think it is best to keep our celebration modest—for the most part, making due with what we have, even though the tree skirt is too small and some of our lights burned out, etc. (Of course, we got each other alpacas for Christmas, so that feels pretty big!) We did get a real, tall tree, and Kasey invested in the supplies to make the JOY garland on the railing, an idea her mom found on Pinterest.

The additional benefit for the long-term is that trying to keep things simple this year will hopefully set a foundation for Christmases that don’t get super commercialized every year. One of our hopes for our girl is that she does not get stuck on the consumer hamster wheel and we want to do our part to keep the holidays feeling homey and special without them feeling too much about stuff. So, here is what we’re doing.

Advent We are Catholic, so Advent is a special part of our preparation for Christmas. It feels like the verse on our advent wreath really hits home this year: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1). We use two advent wreathes, even though it is awkward to find a place for them both, because the first Christmas we were married, Kasey’s dad sent us one, not knowing that we already had one. He has since passed away, so it feels extra special to put out the one he sent. We also use our nativity set, just like the Fontanini one Kasey grew up with. Baby Jesus arrives for Christmas night and then the three wise men start their journey from across the living room to the nativity for the Feast of the Epiphany. This year, we also have a felt advent calendar where we will put up a different character in the nativity each night before bed. We imagine these things will only get to be more fun as the baby grows.

Pajamas for St. Nicholas Day We love the idea of giving Christmas jammies but wanted our growing girl to get to wear them all month (especially since zippy jammies are the easiest thing to dress her in), so we’ve decided that we will give her new Christmas pajamas on St. Nicholas Day each year. We will also continue our tradition of listening to David Sedaris’s hilarious story “Six to Eight Black Men” that morning over coffee (Caution: it is not safe for little ears).

Jólabókaflóð A couple of years ago, we went on a trip to Iceland, which was amazing, and Kasey was really drawn to the Icelandic tradition of giving books for Christmas, Jólabókaflóð. That year, she gave everyone on her list a book and made bookmarks to go along with them. The leftovers have become her very favorite bookmarks. Starting this year, we are making it a tradition in our little family to exchange books and hot cocoa on Christmas Eve and getting snuggly with them before bed.

In the meantime, we checked out several Christmas books from the library to enjoy for a few weeks. So far, our favorite has been Tonight You Are My Baby, which focuses on Christmas night from Mary’s perspective and, we think does a better job than The Christmas Baby. We will also enjoy some of the wintry books that we were given at baby showers, including The Mitten and The Snowy Day.

Christmas Eve Dinner Christmas Eve is the day when our family traditions will be most blended. A big meal and celebration is traditional in Julio’s family. We already feel so grateful that his mom brought us two bottles of coquito when they visited in October. In Kasey’s family, her dad also made a meal of soup and a big salad (and also usually a roast for the carnivores). This year, we will enjoy coquito, Kasey’s dad’s Hungarian Mushroom Soup, and either a drive-in Mass or streaming Mass, hopefully at Midnight.

Gingerbread Alpacas Kasey loves making Smitten Kitchen’s spicy gingerbread and will miss making sugar cookies with her mom this year. We were gifted a couple of alpaca cookie cutters and a llama cookie cutter last year, so the perfect combination of all of these things will be making alpaca and llama Christmas cookies for friends and neighbors this season.

Lights Finally, we are putting up lights as much as we can. We found 500 feet of Christmas lights when we were cleaning out the barn, so that will go a long way. (Metaphorically. Literally, it will go 500 feet.)

We hope that you all have ways to make this Christmas season cozy and special. What are your traditions? Let us know in the comments.

Our First Year on the Homestead

It is autumn and we have pulled up the last of our tired squash vines. The pots and garden tools are tucked away in the tack room and Julio is busy getting the barn ready for our herd of alpacas. 2020 has been a wild, difficult year in many respects, but here on Sol Homestead, we have so much to be thankful for. Our first year produced a puny harvest from the garden, but our family and our homestead still grew and we have a better idea of what we need to do to succeed next year.

Let’s recap.

Farmhouse Updates

Kasey’s library

We moved to the homestead in January after painting almost every room of the house. We also replaced the carpeting on the main level with Cali Vinyl Pro, which looks gorgeous. It is also the most eco-friendly version of faux hardwood we could find (we couldn’t spring for the real deal). The previous owners left behind several nice bookcases and Julio helped Kasey set them up as a library corner, which saved the work of doing builtins for the library. It is easily Kasey’s favorite space in the house.

In August, Julio tore down the shed. It was described as “serviceable” on the real estate listing, but Kasey thought “ramshackle” would have been more accurate. Over the summer we saw a skunk come and go from the shed and it seemed like just a matter of time before something made the shed its home. With a small dog on the property and no real use for the shed, it made more sense to tear it down and use the space to expand the garden.

Kasey the preggo wannabe farmer

Garden Trial and Error

During lockdown from COVID-19 in March and April, we started the garden. First, we tilled a 48’x4′ patch of land by our western fence and planted cold weather vegetables there. In late March, we planted five bareroot apple trees, two pear trees, two plum trees, and a peach tree. The late hard freeze that was so bad for Palisade peaches also killed our peach tree. One of our apple trees scorched, and one was smashed by a construction crew working on the edge of our land. They replaced it. Our other seven trees took well and hopefully will start bearing fruit in the next few years.

In May, we added four 4’x4′ raised garden beds, which Julio built. Kasey also planted some seeds in the containers that we used for a balcony garden at our apartment and placed them on the porch. The porch garden did the best, but we did not get much of a harvest this year. We got several zucchini, a few cherry tomatoes, and two small pumpkins. Our winter squash was taken out by frost before it reached maturity. Early in the season, the arugula got eaten by bugs and the spinach bolted. A lot of our other plants either never grew or got scorched during the seedling stage. From all of this, Kasey learned several good lessons. First, she needs to be more methodical in how she plants things. There were no neat rows in her garden. Second, she needs to be more dedicated to sprouting seeds and hardening them before transplanting them. With our short, intense growing season in Colorado, that work will go a long way. Third, our soil needs some help. This year was really about experimenting, so here is hoping that the lessons learned this year lead to a more fruitful 2021.

A Flood

In mid-July, the waterline into our dishwasher burst and flooded the kitchen. Water made it into the heating vent and ran downstairs into our guestroom, soaking into walls and the carpet. Thankfully, insurance is covering almost all of the repairs, but we have had to replace the carpet, the ceiling, and sections of drywall downstairs and the flooring on the main floor—that new flooring we put down when we moved in. It has been four months, but we are finally getting that flooring done. Water damage is a beast.

New Members of the Homestead

Dear Theodora

In August, we welcomed a new human member of the homestead—our baby daughter! We are looking forward to raising her in an environment where she will help with gardening and taking care of the animals. As a friend of Julio’s explained once, it is good for kids to grow up shoveling shit sometimes.

In early November, we purchased our small herd of alpacas from LaZyB Acres Alpacas. Our four girls have great genes and sweet personalities. We look forward to bringing them home in about a month, after we finish fixing up the inside of the barn.

Looking Ahead

Our plans for 2021 include a chicken coop and our first flock of laying hens, residing the barn, replacing the pasture’s fence, and revamping the garden. We are also going to have to figure out how to process the girls’ fleece. Most likely, in the first year, we will send 3/4 of the fleece out to be processed and do one blanket by hand to learn how to do it.

Our first pumpkin

After tinkering around this year, Kasey has decided that in the next season, she wants to focus on growing pumpkins and herbal tea for market and then puttering around with the rest as a kitchen garden. We plan to build four more raised beds, till some flowerbeds for wildflowers and the tea garden, and amp up the pumpkin patch with some more quality soil. We also want to keep developing the orchard. This winter, Kasey will be building a seed starting stand and doing some serious planning for the garden layout and succession planting schedule.

We are so excited about the fun and fluff that the animals will provide and the hard work that bringing these plans to fruition will demand. We hope to see you in the Fall of 2021 with a plentiful harvest. Fingers crossed.

Stay tuned for more information on the herd. We are excited to introduce you to the girls!

A before shot. Time to beautify!