Of Birds, Bees and Apple Trees

It has been an active spring season on the homestead, and this post is the resulting “grab bag” of topics.  Last year I had made a commitment to myself to put up a couple of nest boxes, in hopes of convincing a pair of tree nesting ducks to stay, as opposed to passing through on migration as they did last year.  Perhaps it was a bit too late, but I did in fact build and install two nest boxes.

Everything I purchased for the project is pictured (L); 12 feet of 1 in. x 10 in. cedar board, cut in half at the lumber yard, a roll 25 foot roll of 2 foot wide aluminum flashing, and a box of 50 stainless steel deck screws; the instructions are from Ducks Unlimited.  In the second picture (R) the boards have been cut to length using the Skillsaw.  Not pictured are a few roofing nails for attaching the flashing to the tree, two big nails for mounting the box, and some 1/2 in. hardware cloth, all of which I had on hand.

As projects go, this one is simple and easy.  Simple in that the design of the box is simple, and in that little material and few tools are required.  Once I had the materials and tools assembled, it probably took me less than three hours to build and install both boxes; most of that time was spent building the first box.

Of course much tree duck habitat has been removed to make way for development or agriculture, but the biggest reason for providing nest boxes is to protect the ducklings from predators.  One study I read [1] put duckling survival rates at about 35%.  “Of the total number of ducklings produced, about 65% (11 l/171) were lost and over 68% (76/l 11) of all duckling mortality resulted from the loss of entire broods.”  The loss of entire broods was attributed solely to predation, specifically to mink predation.  Yes, this study looked at Mallard ducklings, which nest on the ground, not tree ducks.

Left (L) image shows hardware cloth that allows ducklings to climb to the entrance, and the 4-1/2 in. wide by 3-1/2 inch tall entrance hole. The image on the right (R) shows the box mounted on a maple tree, with the predator guard in place below the box.

A second study [2], this one of Wood Ducks, indicated that the “overall survival of ducklings only ranged from 15-28%,” though this study was made in Mississippi, so it too is perhaps a bit “weak” as an indicator of duckling survival rates in Michigan.  Later in the paper: “By now, you are probably wondering what was responsible for the relatively low survival of ducklings? The answer was PREDATION!”  From my point of view it seems safe to say that duckling mortality is high, something close to 65% – 70%, and that protection from predators can improve the survival rate.

Another first this spring was grafting.  The cleared area around the house has on its perimeter approximately 25 crab apple trees, which are well established and date, I am guessing, to the early 70’s when the house was built.

Left to Right, cutting through the outer and inner bark to the cambium layer (L); the bark has been “slipped” at the cambium layer and the prepared scion inserted (C); and finally the wound has been protected with grafting compound and the branch wrapped with grafting tape (R)

The deer love the crab apples, though the same cannot be said by any humans I know.  Fruit trees have been a part of the plan since the earliest days, and grafting apple scion onto established root stock is one of the quickest ways to a harvest of eating-apples; 2-3 years or so.  I used Tanglefoot 300000529 1-Pint Tree Wound Pruning Sealer and Grafting Compound
and Parafilm® Grafting Tape (Genuine by Parafilm®) 90′ Roll Clear (1″ – One Inch).  I chose Honeycrisp and Winesap apple varieties for this experiment, and am now putting a frequent eye on the scion for growth; it felt right, but we shall see. <Leafing out of some scion was seen on 16 May and growth continues.>

And finally, on the “sad news” front, there is the condition of our sole remaining colony of bees.  When the temperatures were peaking at over 50 degrees F in mid-April, and no bees were flying, I decided to go into the hive.  What I found was certainly not what I had been hoping for all winter.

A mouse or a vole had taken up residence in the hive.


Dead bees preserved in time at the top of the hive.  There was no honey in the hive; they either starved or were chilled, or more likely some combination of the two.

It was a complete mess, as the picture at left attests.  Some sort of small rodent had taken up residence, and of course destroyed most of the comb in the process.  Even in the comb that was still intact, there was no honey.  I am not a specialist in failed hive forensics, but I believe the colony had failed and all of the bees had died before the squatter showed up to stay.  In the first part of June last year, with only two boxes on the hive since installation of the colony in mid-April, I checked to see how much comb the colony had built out.  Sure enough, they had built comb all the way to the bottom of the lower box; I felt lucky to have been just in time in adding boxes to make more room before the colony swarmed.  This was documented in the 18 June 2014 post entitled, “Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part III, Beekeeping.”  As I took the hive apart this spring though, it was perfectly clear that the bees had built no additional comb in boxes three or four, none, since the end of the first week of June.  What happened I do not know.  Is this what “colony collapse disorder” looks like?  I cannot speak to that.  Regardless of the reason why, I do not think that two boxes would hold enough food stores to get the colony through the long Michigan winter.

I went 0 for 3 in 2014; three colonies installed, zero survived to spring of 2015.  The list of mistakes I made at colony install in 2014 is long.  In mid-May of 2015 I installed two new colonies, and benefiting from the failure documented here, and from additional research, it seems we are enjoying at least more early success than last year.

More will be posted on the 2015 grafting and bee installation in a future post.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

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— John, 29 May 2015

[1] “Survival of Mallard Broods in South-Central North Dakota,” http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=usgsnpwrc, accessed 24 April, 2015
[2] “Wood Duck Broods in Dixie:  Striving to Survive Early Life,” http://www.fwrc.msstate.edu/pubs/ducklings.pdf, accessed 24 April, 2015

2 replies
  1. Luckymortal
    Luckymortal says:

    You should title that picture "the Last Stand of the Bees" and send it out to publishers. It's an underrated aspect of the homesteading life, and ecological gardening, that it puts you in touch with realities and truths that others can easily ignore. Ultimately, those truths are beautiful, if hard. Keep writin' em John, I always enjoy readin' em.

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Thank you for the comment Lucky! I subscribed by email to your blog today, and I look forward to catching up on my reading. I like your title for the picture; I have a good friend who is a pro photographer, so I will ask his advice about how to get it published. Thanks again.

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