How to Squirrel Proof Your Fruit Trees

IMG_7297We’ve been guilty in the past of claiming that growing fruit is labor-free. That’s a lazy blogger’s lie. The truth is that you have to stay on top of pruning, irrigation, fruit thinning, fertilizing and pest prevention if you want to harvest any fruit. After not getting a single peach off our small tree last year due to squirrels, I vowed to do things differently this year.

I considered a number of squirrel prevention techniques:

  • Metal collars on trunks. This doesn’t work, especially in urban areas. Squirrels are superb acrobats and can simply jump from a roof, fence or adjacent tree on to your fruit tree.
  • Trapping, killing, hunting. I don’t have the heart to do this and it’s illegal in urban areas but it is what professional orchardists do.
  • Electronic or visual frightening devices. According to UC Davis, these don’t work. Squirrels aren’t dumb.
  • Dogs. Maybe, but it depends on the dog. Our late doberman was more interested in alerting us to the mail carrier’s rounds. He was more interested but, ultimately, unsuccessful in his 13 year battle against skunks.

Exclusion with plastic bird netting is the most promising technique for urban areas. In order to do this you need to keep the tree pruned to a manageable size. I purchased a 14-foot by 14-foot piece of bird netting and Kelly and I put it on the tree (it’s a two-person job as bird netting is a pain to work with). We secured it with clothes pins. You must be absolutely certain to leave no gaps in the net. If you leave a gap you could trap birds and the squirrels will also work their way in. The next step is to keep a close eye on the fruit and harvest it as soon as you can, perhaps a little sooner than is ideal.

Unfortunately, squirrels can easily chew through bird netting so this method is far from foolproof. According to UC Davis, exclusionary methods will only work if the squirrels have other things to eat. Another argument for biodiversity in our landscapes, I suppose.

If you know of any foolproof squirrel prevention techniques please leave a comment!

A Lecture on the Connection Between Cats and Grain

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If not for cats would we have bread? On Saturday June 4th at 2 p.m. at the Los Angeles Bread Festival at Grand Central Market I’m going to deliver a talk on the connection between cats and grain. The connection is a basic one: store grain and you get vermin. Then you need cats.

But, in the course of preparing for this lecture, I discovered that the commonly held narrative of cat domestication is an unsubstantiated fiction. That narrative goes something like this: in a golden, ancient time Egyptians revered cats, Medieval folks persecuted them and enlightened 18th century philosophers rediscovered them. This is the feline version of the myth of progress whose ultimate destination is a world in which we spend all our hours spinning around in self driving cars while watching, on our virtual reality glasses, an endlessly looped 3D version of Nyan Cat.

Islam tells a much more succinct and, I think, more accurate version of cat domestication. An Islamic legend holds that Noah’s ark was overrun with mice and rats. God instructed Noah to pet the nostril of a lion, whereupon the lion sneezed out two house cats. Noah’s vermin problem was solved. The story highlights the two ways in which humans actually interacted with house cats for thousands of years: as rodent control and as the occupants of ships.

In my talk I’ll discuss what we know about early cat domestication in the Fertile Crescent (not much, but cat domestication predates Egyptian civilization by several thousand years). Then I’ll show how our feline grain guardians became ship’s cats and spread all around the world. Lastly, I’ll take a detour into the lives of famous distillery cats.

Hope to see you at the Bread Fest!

The Best Way to Get Bees For Free

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Free bees in my swarm box.

Since 2009, when our beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson showed up with some bees in a shop vac, I’ve kept our bee stock going and helped other people establish apiaries in just about every way you can. I’ve cut hives out of walls (a lot of work that fails most of the time). I’ve trapped them out (a huge pain in the ass). I’ve captured swarms (easy, but they often take off the next day). The only thing I haven’t done is purchase bees. At about $125 a pop, it’s an expensive option considering they often don’t make it. By far, the best way to get bees is to invite them to settle down on their own. Here’s how to do it.

Build it and they will come
Set up your bee housing (Langstroth hive or top bar hive) and the bees might just move in on their own. It’s happened to me twice now in seven years. You should have your boxes ready to go anyway, since you can never predict the day someone will call with a swarm that needs a home. This readiness applies to tools too. Have all your bee tools in an easily accessible toolbox, always ready to go.

Where to set up your hives is one of the great mysteries of beekeeping. Here in Southern California they seem to prefer some sun and some shade. But I’ve found feral hives both in total shade and full sun. Your results will vary, depending on your climate, but they probably won’t do well in the bottom of a cold canyon or the top of a windy mountain.

swarm blox plansSwarm boxes
Instead of setting up a proper hive, bait a bunch of boxes and place them in your yard, in your friends yards and in random places and you might just capture a swarm or two. You can buy or make swarm boxes. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has estimated that bees show up in around 10% of the swarm boxes he sets up. He also suggests hanging them up around 10 feet high for best results. I like swarm boxes that hold frames so that you can transfer the bees easily to your hive boxes without having to do a cutout.

And guess what? A bee swarm box and a birdhouse are pretty much the same thing. So get friendly with birdhouse enthusiasts.

Baiting swarm boxes
You can buy swarm lure, a kind of synthetic pheromone, but it’s expensive and doesn’t last long. Some folks suggest a cotton swab dipped in lemongrass oil and stuck in a medicine bottle with holes in it. Better, I think, is to mix wax and lemongrass oil and paint that on your frames.

Used equipment that once held bees is also a powerful attractant. Once bees figure out a good space they will come back to it.

Where to put a swarm box
Something that happened to us last week will show you how random and inexplicable bees can be when it comes to occupying a swarm box. I had a swarm box up on top of our shed roof, near our neighbor’s orange trees, because bee swarms have landed there in the past. But even though that box has been up there for years, bees never moved in. So, about a month ago, I finally took the swarm box off the roof and tossed in haphazardly, upside-down, in a large plastic pot that was half filled with chicken litter. I intended to throw the box out at some later date.

Then, a few days later, as a neighbor was telling me about his favorite climbing roses, Kelly called me from the porch, saying there was a”bee situation” going on in the back yard.  I ran up the stairs and behind the house to see one of the awe inspiring miracles of nature: a hive moving into their new home–that new home being the upside-down swarm box in the plastic pot half full of dirty chicken litter. Being bloggers, Kelly and I should have whipped out our smart phones to catch some video. Instead, we sat on the patio and watched the swarm buzz around for ten minutes before they settled in the box.

I put a bee suit on (swarms are usually docile, but it’s best to be safe) and took the box out of the pot and righted it carefully, setting it near my established hives. I’m going to give the queen plenty of time to settle in and start laying eggs –at least 28 days–during which time I won’t touch or look at these bees. Since I already have two hives, I’m going to give these bees away. Anyone want bees?

Have you had a swarm move in on its own?

Meet the Amazing Sierra Newt

Nature!!!!

I join generations of gobsmacked naturalists in saying O. M. G.

Meet the Sierra newt (Taricha sierrae). I’m a dryland girl and don’t have much acquaintance with the salamander family, though I have spotted these guys over the years during different trips to the mountains. Last week, I was camping in the Southern Sierras and saw several of them around the campground and out in the forest. The area seemed oddly newt-rich. One even waddled right past our fire pit late in the night, braving our head lamps and chair legs. I could tell by the look of them that they liked moist places, but I did not know they also swam. I had never seen them on river banks, only away from the water, in campgrounds and off trails.

So imagine my surprise when, hanging out by a stream (Water! Living water! I hadn’t seen any for months) I found one of these guys coiled up and still on the bottom of the stream bed. It looked so out of place–I thought it might be dead, dropped in there by a predator, perhaps? So I poked it with a stick — a favorite primate tool–and was surprised to see Mr. or Ms. Newt jump up all affronted and wander off under water. He (I’m going to call him he) didn’t swim. He walked. He had no gills. He released no air bubbles. He just wandered around under water like it was no big thing.

Call me naive, but for me, this was shocking. Miraculous. I had no idea these guys were aquatic. It was like seeing a human friend casually take flight and flap away. I watched him for a few minutes with my mouth hanging open, and then, like a good modern citizen, dutifully recorded the moment for the social media.

Back home with the wonder of the Internet, I was able to identify Mr. Newt and find out what was going on with him and his semi-aquatic lifestyle.  This type of newt is born in the water, and at that stage it has gills. When this newt matures, it will leave the water for some kind of amphibious rumspringa in the woods. They are crazy toxic if ingested–they excrete the same neurotoxin as pufferfish– so no one eats them except garter snakes, who are acknowledged bad asses.

(The toxin won’t hurt you if you touch a Sierra newt–which is lucky since I had petted them before bothering to look this up–but don’t lick your fingers afterward. Or the newt.)

Due to this indigestibility, I suppose, Sierra newts waddle around slowly, almost imperiously, right out in the open, like they don’t have a care in the world.  None of that paranoiac lizard-style scurrying from rock to rock for them. Sometimes, though, they get stepped on or run over in busy campgrounds, because evolution did not factor in hiking boots, distracted campers and Subaru Outbacks when designing the defensive systems of the newt.

When they decide it is time to meet a special friend and lay some eggs together, the newt returns to the pool from which they hatched–or tries to, since it might be difficult with all the pools in the Sierras drying up–but my guy found his way to the stream, and perhaps was napping, waiting for his lady newt to come by.

But here’s the best part–he was breathing through his skin. The gills he had as a baby are long gone, traded for fledgling lungs when he left his birth pool. But once back in the water, he dispenses with those clumsy organs altogether and draws oxygen out of the water straight through his skin, in a process called diffusion. That’s right. This handsome orange show-off breathes in three different ways over the course of his life: by gills, by lungs and, call it what you will, by magic, because this diffusion business is obviously pure sorcery. No wonder witches keep newt parts in their spice cupboards!

How to Rodent Proof a Chicken Coop

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One morning I opened the metal trash can I used to keep the chicken feed in and plunged a scoop into the feed. In that cup of feed there was some additional protein in the form of a small, freaked-out mouse. I shrieked and the mouse jumped out of my hand and dashed off. Then I peered into the bag of feed. Like the plot of a rodent horror movie, I found two other mice running around along with a dead and bloody mouse. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the mysterious details of that story. But I knew it was time to deal with the problem.

Thankfully, like Dr. Maurice Pitesky mentioned in the podcast on Wednesday, most chicken pest problems can be taken care of with simple sanitation. In my case that meant putting the food away at night and investing in rodent proof feed containers.

Every night I put the entire feeder within the trash can you can see in the picture on the right (it has a much more secure lid than the larger can I used to keep the feed in). In the morning I put the food out again for our four hens. It means that I have to get up just a few minutes earlier than I usually do but that’s not a big deal as I’m one of those tedious and boring morning persons.

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Some folks use rodent proof treadle feeders. These feeders open when the hens step on a small metal platform. I was sent a treadle feeder like the one above but my skittish hens would not get anywhere near it even with the treadle kept open. I probably could have trained them to use it but I’ve found that putting the feed away at night is no big chore. I gave the treadle feeder away to some other chicken enthusiasts whose hens are less afraid of the contraption.

As to rodent-proof feed containers I’m using two Vittle Vaults, one for the feed and the other for scratch. They have a locking, rodent and water proof lid. The small trash can in the picture (that I put the whole feeder in at night) seems to be working.

For more information on controlling mice and rats see UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management information for rats and house mice. We used to have mice in the house but the cats have taken care of that problem. As to the issue of rodents eating fruit, I’m still working on that problem.