Vela Creations is an in-depth resource for off grid living. The site documents our research and experiences, hoping that they might help others interested in pursuing this lifestyle. This blog is designed to document our day to day experiences as we build our new, sustainable homestead. If you are interested in seeing more photos and videos, we have a flickr account at the following url:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Food systems

I think I have already mentioned this, but now that the house is so comfortable, we are focusing our attention this year on the power, water and food systems.

The power system is now done, at least for now. We will one day add another solar panel and get a freezer, and build a couple more wind generators (even though this site is not great for wind, we have the parts and we love wind power). For the first time, we have free refrigeration - having switched form propane to electric. We run what we want when we want (although we are conservative by nature - force of habit, I guess). We recently put a fence around the solar mount.

The water system will be addressed in a couple of months, so stay tuned.

As for the food, we are really enjoying working on that system. Until we have our big tank, we are taking it slow, not planting the majority of our seeds until the rains come - next year, we will be able to go crazy! For now, we have lettuce, beets, cabbage, collards, tomatoes, onions, carrots, leeks, radish all in the ground in the garden, growing like weeds on compost and worm tea. Inside, in seed blocks, we have turnips, eggplants, arrugala, chard, cherry tomatoes, rhubarb, comfrey, purslene, asparagus. We should be transplanting most of them this week.

Under the trees, we have all kinds of squash, beans, spinach, melons planted and they are getting big. All our trees are doing great and we will even get some fruit this year, which is incredible considering we just planted them.

The trees are on a drip system and they get watered twice a week. Their water comes from a small tank we set up uphill from them. We have a fishtrap in the river and we are trying to stock this tank. So far, we have 4 perch, 1 bass and 1 carp in there. We have a little solar powered pump set up that oxygenates the water. A small system, but Leo loves it. It is his job to feed them worms, which he also loves.

Of course, there's the bees and the chickens, mentioned in previous blogs.

And last, but not least, rabbits. We haven't actually got rabbits yet, but we are starting to work on their house. While I have been making garden paths, Abe has been leveling a 20' x 10' area. We will build a shed for them in this space, and then have pens coming off that. We are going to be keeping the rabbits in a colony setup instead of cages. We'll keep you informed.

More Bees

Here's another blog from Abe about "his girls"...

This week we bought 3 Langs (the traditional type of beehive) from a beekeeper about 50 miles from us. So, we had our first experience moving bees in hives, which went pretty smooth, except that I got stung twice, from a purely newbie mistake. I didn't have closed shoes, I wore my sandals, and once the hives were in the truck, a few bees managed to climb up into my sandal, and well.... you know the rest. So, I've been walking around with one big leg and one normal leg for the past 2 days! These stings did not hurt as much as my last prick on my nose, so maybe I am slowly building up a resistance. My foot still got very swollen, and I am going to try and test out a few remedies with bee stings (meat tenderizer, ice, toothpaste) to see if I can keep the swelling down in the future (I could hardly walk the next day).

Anyway, we got the girls settled in pretty easy, and they seem to really like it here. In their old setup, there was not much blooming right now, it was pretty desolate, actually. But here at our place, we have tons of wildflowers, apples, pears, plums, oaks, acacias and tons of other things that are in bloom right now. In fact, it is a bee paradise.

I opened up each hive today just to make sure nothing was out of place, and everyone looked fine to me. I will probably start adding supers soon, as the brood chamber is pretty close to being full. I didn't go through each frame or look for the queens. I want them to settle in a bit more before really getting invasive. I have been feeding them syrup, just while they adjust to the change, and man, they can eat! They've been going through about 600mL a day!

On another front, I also opened up my barrel hive to check on the situation there with the new queen and everything. The ants are still making their way in there, I noticed, but I don't think they are actually doing much harm. They seem to be focused on one of the older combs at the back of the hive that had quite a bit of dead larva in it. The bees were not even maintaining that comb, so I guess it is ok for the ants to have it. I went ahead and took it out of the hive in hopes to draw the ants away.

I didn't see the new queen, but it was pretty difficult, as there are a lot more bees than before. I guess some of the brood comb has hatched since we move them. I thought I saw a small section that looked like it had eggs in it, but I am not quite sure. I also noticed that they haven't built much new comb, yet. They have repaired a lot of the older comb, attaching it to the top bars and such, but not much expansion, yet. I assume they are focused on the new queen.

The queen cells were all opened and on the floor of the hive. I also saw 2 very large, almost developed larva, that I can only assume were queen larva, due to their size. So, I guess the queens did their thing, and I am hoping one killed the others, as is their way.

I did see a few drones in there as well, but not a whole lot. I think they were more apparent because I was looking for the queen, and anything bigger than normal caught my eye.

One thing I did notice in the barrel hive was that they have been storing a lot of pollen. There is a lot more in there than before. The oak tree that they sit under is current blooming, and they are not having to go very far (4 feet vertically) for forage. I am sure the oak is producing a bunch of pollen, and they are taking advantage of the surplus. That might also be a good sign that they are prepping for a lot of babies, soon.

Anyway, it was very nice opening everything up and getting some time with the girls. The new Langs are a bit more aggressive than my barrel hive, but they also have more honey and bigger hives to defend. The barrel hive is growing in numbers of bees, and I hope has a new queen as well, so all in all, things seem to be doing very good with the ladies.

I will probably be able to harvest from the new hives this year, as they were not splits, but working hives from last year.

I have also decided to do an experiment with at least one of the Langs and test out a hive design from a man in South America. Basically, he gives them HUGE amounts of space (the brood chamber is 3 Langs deep, honey stores are 5 full supers). A lot of folks have had huge success with his system, which is very hands off (he only opens the hive once a year). Now that I have a few hives, I can compare different types of hives. I do like the idea of not disturbing them much (though I do like looking at them). In some of the tests that I have seen, folks have been able to harvest over 120 kg of honey from one of his hives (after a 2 year start-up time) compared to a 15-25 kg harvest from normal Lang setups. The large increase in production is attributed by the much larger brood chamber, which allows the hives to become quite big (150K bees or more) and thus, can harvest more honey. Larger hives seem to be more stable and less prone to some of the more common issues (Varroa specifically). This hive is called the Perone Hive (after Oscar Perone, the inventor), and we have been calling it the SuPerone, due to its size (5 feet or taller).

Chicken Tractor

We have always free-ranged our chickens in the day and then shut them up in a coop at night. But this system is no longer working for us. There were two major problems: predators and eggs.

Although the dogs do a pretty good job of keeping the coyotes away, they do allow a neighbor's dog (male) to come up here whenever he pleases. And he has a nasty little chicken-eating habit. We have lost too many chickens to this damned dog, and we had to decide whether to kill him or change our system.

It's the other problem that probably went a long way towards saving the dog's life. Free ranch chickens like to lay eggs where they please, and they are often difficult to find. Furthermore, whenever a hen decided to set on a nest outside, a predator would come up at night and grab her.

So we have now switched to a chicken tractor. We made a hen house on wheels and a pen that we can easily disassemble and move. We move the pen once a week. This way they get to graze on grass and bugs without ever overgrazing the land. So far we like it and the chickens seem very content. More photos

Where the chicken pen was is overgrazed, from having to keep them inside for too long (after each time we lost a chicken). We have made rock terraces throughout the area, to try and help limit the runoff when it rains. Once the rains start we will plant the area with some ground cover, preferably a clover or some other nitrogen fixer. Next year, we will plant trees in the terraces. For now however, it will be used as our biochar area, where we cut wood and chop the small branches for biochar material.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

2 Years Old

Well folks, Leo just turned two years old on Sunday. Hard to believe. In some ways, it seems like time is flying so fast. And yet, it also feels like a long, long time since he was that tiny, fragile creature that came out of my body.

Still too young to appreciate what a birthday is, we decided to celebrate on his behalf. Some friends came over (we call them Leo's God Parents/padrinos, though he wasn't ever baptized). We had a huge roast dinner and were too full for cake/Jello, etc.

So, as we digested our food, we decided to go to a friend's ranch that is further along our road. It is beautiful. Very remote, with HUGE Pine, Oak and Juniper trees. After walking around some, we all settled by a large pond and did some fishing. The cows came down to drink, and Leo was throwing rocks in the water, but otherwise very quiet!

Abe caught a couple of fish to put in our tree irrigation tank. We want to grow some fish in there, so that their poop can go to the trees, and we will have fish to eat later down the line. Our first (and very basic) aquaponics system. We want to go back, with a net, and get a lot more.

It was late when we got home, so we didn't do the whole cake/candle thing. We just split it and other desserts up so our friends could take a share home. A nice day.

More photos

A blog from Abe and his Bees

I was fortunate enough to be able to remove a hive from a house down in the village last weekend. It was a wonderful and amazing experience, and it left me with such an appreciation for bees.

Armando's nephew (Luis) is a pro keeper. He has about 30 hives, which he rents them to the orchards. He came down last weekend for Easter, and someone down in the village asked him to remove a hive that was in their roof. Apparently, it had been there for several years.

Well, he didn't have any equipment, but he knew I was interested in bees, as he has been looking for used hives and "splits" for me for some time, now. So, he proposed that we remove the hive together, using my equipment. The deal was that I could have the hive, and we could split any honey, if we found any.

So, I saw it as an awesome opportunity. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous when we arrived at the house. I had never been around bees like that, and I didn't really know how I would react.

We climbed up to the roof and started removing pieces of tin where the bees were coming out of the roof. It soon dawned on us that they were not in this part of the roof, so we went to another part, removed more tin, and later learned that they were not in the roof at all, but down below the insulation just above the sheet rock. It so happened that this was right above a closet, which made it hard to work with the limited space and light.

In any case, we started tearing down sheet rock and quickly found the hive. IT WAS HUGE. It measured about 4 feet long and 3 feet wide. There were so many bees, I could hardly believe it.

We started pulling down combs, one by one. I was on the ground sorting them into "honey" and "brood" piles. Once we got most of the hive down (who knows how long it took, at least 2 hours), we started tying the brood combs to my tops bars and putting them in a box I brought up to serve as a temporary hive.

The honey combs went into a 5 gallon bucket that we quickly filled, so we got another, and it filled up as well.

As things started to calm down a bit, we began looking in the hive I brought, which by this time had tons of bees in it. We were looking for the queen, and I am proud to say that I was the one that spotted her! She seemed ok, but had honey on her, and as the day progressed, she moved less and less. The workers didn't really help her much, which worried us a bit.

We scooped up as many bees as we could, and then we took the hive up to our house. I dropped Luis off at Armando's house so that he could start processing the honey.

I arranged my barrel hive up here in a nice spot under an oak tree with a real nice eastern exposure. Getting the bees into the hive was very easy, I pretty much just poured them in. I ended up with about 6-8 heavy brood combs, all tied up to the tops bars and arranged in the hive really nice. The bees took to the new hive quite well, and I noticed they were even helping the queen a bit, though by this time she was barely moving at all.

Anyway, by the end of the day, we processed about 4 gallons of honey that we split between us. We also gave some to Armando and Estela, plus some to the people whose house we destroyed earlier that day! :)

I did end up getting stung once. When I was pulling down comb, a bee walk right onto my veil, which was pressed up against my face. She stung right through the veil on the tip of my nose. It didn't hurt much, and I just kept on working, and when we were done, Luis pulled the stinger out for me. The next morning I woke up with a big, swollen nose, and I now look like a sesame street character.

All in all, it was a great day, and a wonderful experience. I felt like a pro by the end of it (especially when I spotted the queen!), and I am excited to do it again soon. We will see if the hive survives, as I have doubts about the queen.

So, there you go, my first bee experience. I have been eating the dark, rich honey every since we robbed it, and I can't get enough of it. Luckily, we have a lot, plus a lot of clean wax as well. Leo loves the honey, so we are all just pigging out around here on Dad's latest adventure!

Yesterday I opened up the hive to look for the queen and also tie a few bits of comb to the top bars. As I was going through the hive, everyone looked really good, but I didn't see any signs of a queen. There was a small piece of comb leaning against the back of the hive, and when I picked it up, the back side was covered with thousands of bees. I thought that I had finally found the queen, but instead were 4 large queen cells. So, the hive is making a new queen, and if my calculations are correct, she should hatch sometime around April 20-25.

More Photos

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Odd Jobs

We've been doing lots of odd jobs around the place.

Our small worm farm has grown so much that we had to make them a new worm bin. We cleaned out the old one and split the worms between the two bins. Both of us had handfuls and handfuls of worms, like spaghetti. Now that our original two small tubs have grown so much, we will soon be setting up a proper system for them, which separates the poop (which goes on the garden) and the worms (which help compost scraps and feed the chickens).

I finished the toilet's sawdust container.

Abe planted 10 more apple trees, given free by the local council. All the ones we planted before (cherries, apricots, plum) are now leafed out and pretty. The only one that hasn't is the pecan, but it is certainly very healthy.

We're making a movable hen house and pen. We have lost too many to coyotes free-ranching them, so we are now going to do a chicken tractor system, where you just move their pen so they can continue to graze grass. The house will be on bike wheels, so we can just push it to a new location.

We're also working on the garden. We have a bunch of plants outside now, and another 132 soil blocks started inside. It is now super warm (no more socks or sweaters, windows open, etc.), and no more chance of freezes.

Another super exciting addition to the family is a beehive. Abe was asked to remove a hive from someone's house, and we got to keep the bees and honey. Stay tuned for Abe's account of that episode!

Leo's first hair cut

We gave Leo his first hair cut the other day. It was a little bit of a struggle. I did it with scissors when his hair was wet, and he cried. The funny thing is that Abe did some trimming with clippers a little later (which we had thought would scare him) and he loved it!

Anyway, the end result is a very cute little boy.

I put some more photos and videos in 24th month.

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