Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Local insects and animals- Elephant beetles

Look who flew into our humpy one night this week.

You can't tell from the photo, but this is one ENORMOUS beetle. The elephant beetle, or Xylotrupes ulysses grows to an average size of 60 mm long. Our visitor was a female as she didn't have the distinctive 'horns' on the front. She buzzed in like a small aircraft and proceeded to circle the light in ever diminishing spirals, when she landed we caught her for a closer look and a photo session (bug paparazzi). It is fairly rare to be able to call an insect 'he' or 'she' but the elephant beetle is sexually dimorphic (male and female look different) so it makes using the right pronoun that much easier.
Elephant beetles eat decaying organic matter so they are useful in the compost heap. The females lay about 50 eggs at a time although lots of the larval stage (white curl grubs) end up as food for foraging animals. They have a particular affinity with scrub turkey nests (big compost heaps) so I am now wondering if we have one nearby.
Adult beetles feed on new leaf shoots and have been classified as a native pest in some areas because of their habit of gathering together on specific trees (apparently this is the beetle version of a night club; where they go to find mates) resulting in damage to the tree..

She is a most impressive beetle.

Personally, I don't see these beetles as a pest, but as just another member of my ecosystem. I plan to leave some piles of organic matter around for them to lay in and maybe harvest some grubs for the chooks at a later stage.
Have you seen these beetles where you live?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

At last...the new toilet is operational

I finally decided to stop digging the toilet pit 'just a little bit deeper'and put it together. With the help of the whole family, we dug a final two wheel barrows of soil out of the pit, making the hole 1.5 cubic metres in size. Then my long suffering partner and daughters put the pedestal part together and bolted the whole lot to the floor.

The new pedestal on the floor. The floor is in two pieces and is not fixed, so it can be opened if the pit ever needs to be emptied.

The inside of the pedestal; The square inner lining is made from two old buckets with the bottoms cut out. This inner lining extends down through the floor and can be cleaned easily. The outer pedestal is a steel drum with the top and bottom cut out.

A flash new toilet seat bolted onto the pedestal completes the set up.

We put up the movable toilet tent over the whole thing for now.

So now the experiment begins, I hope this system works and we don't have to do this all over again.

The toilet building itself comes next, but that's another story.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

How the humpy was built...or 'Slap it all together and hope it stands'

In the last couple of weeks I have had a few questions about how we came to build our little humpy in the bush, so I thought I would lay it all out here is question and answer fashion. If you have more questions, please leave a comment and I will answer them to the best of my ability.

Question one; Why did you build a temporary dwelling rather than a house?

Several reasons; firstly we could not fund the building of a house as we were busily trying to pay off the purchase of the land, secondly because we (well, I really, my partner doesn't care where he lives) were not sure where on the block would be the best place to build for passive solar and storm protection advantages.

Question two: How long did it take to build?

The real answer to this one is "Years", but we build the roof structure, some walls and a lock up area in about three weekends with the help of a borrowed tractor and some ropes (and a chansaw). We are still building the temporary dwelling now, making it more usable and completing little projects that make our life easier.

Question three; What is the humpy made from?

The humpy is made from round poles and corrugated iron. We began the building with cutting down enough trees from our property (of species scorned by white ants) to make 5 metre long poles for the uprights. After these were towed in, debarked (with an axe) and stood in the pre-dug  (1 metre) holes, we went out and got more trees for the beams on which the roof is built. On top of these beams we put smaller saplings which we attached the iron to. The timbers are held together with metal strapping which allows them to move as they expand and contract and move in the wind. All this was covered by sheets of (nearly) new roofing iron and a gutter made from PVC pipe cut in half was attached. Then we moved the caravan, and ourselves in.

The metal bits on the pole are the strapping, without which the roof would blow off.

A shot of the unlined ceiling of the bathroom. It shows how we spaced the saplings on the beams.

We paved the floor with outdoor pavers (cheap seconds) which gives us a hard, semi-level and (most importantly) sweepable floor.

This is the northern view of the humpy. The tarp is covering where the front door will one day be.

This is the western view, again this tarp is covering a section of wall not yet completed.

I know it all looks a mess (because it is) and Jerry built (because it is), but it is a very strong structure which has been through a lot of wild storms and has been built for a tiny cost from second hand materials. Our home is mostly happy, filled with lots of laughter (and some tears) and most of all is a haven for any creature who needs healing (sometimes human animals too). My house is a mess and always half finished because I have the concentration span of a may fly and the curiosity of a squid, meaning; I want to try everything, and I want to try it all now.

Desperate times call for desperate measures...or shearing sheep with scissors.

The extreme heat of the last few weeks has driven us to take our sanity to the edge in regards to our sheep.
They have been shedding their wool very slowly over the summer and I have left them to it as shearing in the middle of summer can sometimes lead to sun burnt backs (for the sheep as well as the shearers), but now they are beginning to grow their winter wool underneath the old fleece it is time to tidy up their haircut (woolcut?) a bit. We discussed getting someone to come and shear them for us or buying/hiring some shears but in the end decided that money is just too tight, so out came the scissors. We looked at a few 'how to shear sheep' sites and decided to have a go at shearing them while they were standing up.

First we haltered one of the girls, in the handling pen with her sisters. That way she was calm and happy to be played with. Then my eldest daughter and I took turns cutting the old fleece off while the other held the lead rope. The sheep were surprisingly patient and calm while we did it, which helped matters immensely.

We sheared (clipped?) two of the four girls each one taking about an hour and a half to do. We had originally planed to do one a day as it its hard going and very frustrating work, but when we let the one shorn sheep go her sisters butted her and chased her from the herd (she looked different) so we caught the worst bully and gave her a clipping too. This seemed to even out the odds and they all got along again.

I managed to salvage two shopping bags of usable wool from the two girls, the rest had started to felt and is too matted to use. Next year I will have to clip them in the spring so I can get better wool. I got shedding sheep so that I didn't have to worry about shearing if I had no use for the wool,  but it seems I will have to shear them anyway. However, this is only their second molt, so it is possible their shedding will improve next year (I hope so anyway).

This is Gaia before her clipping

You can see where they have been shedding...and where they haven't.

This is Gaia after her clipping, somehow she looks smaller.

She really appreciated the cool breeze on her skin, and being able to scratch every itch.

This is the usable wool from Gaia and Kraken (sorry about the terrible photo), after I took all the felted stuff out and the really dirt stuff around the edges.

This is the wool close up, it looks like clouds to me.

I hope I can get enough usable wool from my girls to make something to wear (it's been a dream for a long while). The girls (Gaia and Kraken) certainly appreciate the new coolness, now to do the last two; Nut and Kore.

What do you think I should make from their wool?

Monday, 10 February 2014

Local insects and animals- Yellow faced whip snake

This is Esmerelda, the Yellow faced whip snake that calls our yard home.

The yellow faced whip snake is a very common visitor to yards in our area, we see the two that live in our yard regularly. This particular snake (Esmerelda) is fond of following me around as I feed the chickens (if I feed late) and I have had to chase her off when I feed the sheep so she doesn't get trodden on. Whip snakes are friendly and curious creatures, they like to know all the gossip and will come very close to you if you sit still for a long time (although, as most sources say they are timid snakes, that might just be the ones that live here).
They eat small reptiles like skinks and frogs, are diurnal (not night owls) and home bodies; staying within the same area all their life. They have been known to lay eggs communally and may even exhibit pairing behavior. They would rather get away from you than bite and there has never been a fatality from a whip snake bite.

Basic information

People in our area often kill them thinking they are Eastern brown snakes (they do look a bit like baby browns), but their behavior is very different and the extra large eyes give them away if you stop to look closely. Whip snakes are mildly venomous; having the same kind of venom as bees. If you are allergic to bees, don't get bitten by a whip snake. They are not aggressive at all if you don't try to pick them up (they hate that), but they will crawl (slide?) over your legs in a friendly manner if you are sitting on the ground near them.

Differences in behavior between whip and brown snakes
Brown snakes

  • Mostly encountered at dawn and dusk, unless you disturb their resting place.
  • Behave aggressively as soon as they see you; rising to striking position, swaying and coiling body together.
  • Flick their tongue rapidly and often.
An Eastern brown snake in an aggressive pose ready to strike.

Whip snakes
  • Mostly encountered from mid morning to mid afternoon.
  • Behave curiously; rising up above grass to watch but not in a striking position (see photos). Will follow people or animals but usually puts out a 'just passing through' vibe.
  • Do not often flick their tongue, instead remaining still and quiet.

A curious whip snake checking out the area.

Esmerelda watching me to see if the camera is dangerous.

Deciding that the camera is not dangerous she shows me her good side and goes about her day.
Do you have any interesting snakes in your yard?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Making hot process, vegetable oil soap

Yesterday I made soap. Some to sell and some for us to use. In the past I have found that making one batch every three months or so gives me enough soap for the family, for gifts and for selling at markets and such.
Soap making is an interesting (and sometimes dangerous) pastime, but it is economical and useful (for the cost of buying four cakes of vegetable oil soap I can make forty two cakes). I thought I would share my basic soap recipe and some tips I have discovered over the last decade or so.......

Basic Soap Recipe
250g coconut oil
100g beeswax
2650g sunflower oil

409g caustic soda
5 cups water

Add caustic soda to the water in a large heat proof container (stir carefully and add caustic soda slowly).

Combine oils and waxes in a stainless steel boiler and heat to 38 degrees Celsius.

When both solutions are the same temperature (use a candy thermometer to test this) slowly pour caustic solution into the oils. Stir this mixture for several minutes with a long spoon (being careful not to get the liquid on bare skin).

Blend the mixture with a stick blender until it thickens (reaches trace).

Pour the mixture into molds and leave (covered) to set for two days.

Remove soap from molds and stack (with cakes not touching) for six weeks to cure in an airy, dust free environment.

Oil, bees wax and caustic soda, waiting to be soap. 

Water and the kitchen scales, all set up and waiting.

Oil and wax combined and heating in the boiler.

My you beaut, flashy, expensive soap mold. It makes 42 approximately 100g cakes when you use the amounts in my recipe.

I line the mold with a thick plastic sheet because the caustic soap would damage the wood of the mold.

The perspex grid divides the soap mixture into neat little cakes. I pour the mixture into the wooden mold, then push the grid down into it.

The soap mixture after stirring but before blending.

Blending in action. You don't need to blend the mix to make soap, but it does make the process much quicker.

See how the mixture changes colour as it begins to become soap. You can see the soap is now thickening; the dribbles from the blender stay on the surface for a while, that is called 'trace'.

Neat little cakes of soap, hardening slowly.

Useful Tips
Gather all the ingredients together before you start. Rushing around the house looking for the thermometer or the blender tends to mess with your equilibrium.

Use a good thermometer. I use Fowlers Vacola thermometers for my soap, but while the backing is stainless steel and the thermometer itself is glass, the ties that hold the thermometer to the backing are just alloy; this often results in the thermometer falling from the backing into the mixture as the caustic eats through the metal.

Use stainless steel and heat proof glass and plastic to make soap. The caustic soap solution will eat through just about anything; I have made interesting patterns on my old wood table with spilled or dripped mix (it is useful to clean the black stuff off the backs of baking trays though).

Wear shoes, long clothes and gloves while making soap. I have spilled soap mix on my feet before and given myself an accidental chemical peel (on the up side, my feet looked ten years younger for a year or so).

Be careful with the caustic and water mix, the fumes can be very strong and they are dangerous. Make soap in a well ventilated area and keep children, dogs, husbands/ wives/ partners and stray feathered friends well clear (I had to lure Roadie the butcher bird away with meal worms and cheese).

Don't leave the cakes to air outside or in an exposed position (Currawongs think they are cheese and fly off with them). Store the cakes in a well ventilated but safe area to 'cure'.

Finished cakes, waiting to be stacked to cure.

Have you made soap before? Have you ever wondered at the miracle of chemistry that happens so we can be clean?

Apparently, soap was discovered in ancient Greece (by women, of course). The temple of Zeus on Mount Sapo sacrificed bulls regularly by slitting their throats and burning the bodies, over several thousand years the fat from these sacrifices mixed with ash and seeped down to a pool beside the river. Women coming to the river to wash clothes discovered that the slime from this pool made the washing extra clean and eventually figured out where the slime came from and how to make it. Soap was born.

Friday, 7 February 2014

My new Etsy shop

You may have noticed that I have changed my pages (the tabs along the top of the blog) so that they take you straight to my Etsy and MadeIt stores. I have added links to my stores for one simple reason; I am trying to sell stuff.

This year, due to funding cuts in the education department, I only have one day per week work (and full time study) which makes it hard to pay bills (something most of us are familiar with) so I began casting around for an income stream that would allow me to stay home (studying, gardening, crafting and blogging) and would make enough to pay the mortgage. I came up with selling my crafting efforts online.

I am selling my hand made knitted items, home spun wool, hand made soap and herbal ointments.

Please have a look at my wares so far and let me know what you think; I am looking for ways to improve my shop (and I love to read peoples comments).

Hand knit finger-less mittens made from recycled acrylic yarn

Hand knit and felted tote bag, made from pure wool.

Home spun cream coloured Suffolk wool

Home spun Merino wool

Homespun white cotton

Hand made vegetable oil soap in a hand knit cotton bag

Hand knitted phone cosies

Local insects and animals- Cicadas

It's the beginning of autumn (planetarily speaking) so the cicadas have gone, but I keep finding shells on the trees around the property and it brings the hot days of summer to mind every time. I love to hear the songs of millions of cicadas in the trees on a hot summer day; it reminds me that every season is short lived.
A while ago I found a recording of crickets slowed down (on the net of course) and it sounded like a choir, I wonder what cicadas slowed down sounds like?

There are about 2000 species of cicada world wide; 220 of them are found in Australia. They have a really interesting and mysterious life cycle; spending years (up to 14 in some species) living underground sucking sap from the roots of plants and emerging in the summer,when sap flow is high, to sing, mate and be eaten by hungry birds and animals. They seem to be emerging earlier each year to me and an article in the Blue Mountains Gazette backs up that observation, stating that planetary warming is resulting in big changes in insect behavior.
Around our humpy the emergence of cicadas in the early summer coincides with the hatching of insect eating birds like the black faced cuckoo shrike, butcher bird, magpie, satin bower birds and many others. The blue faced honey eater gets it's food from nectar plants (as the name suggests) and fruit for most of the year but just before they lay eggs they eat large amounts of insects (to boost their protein levels, which boosts fertility) and they feed their young on insects too. The emergence of the cicadas fits in neatly with the beginning of the blue faced honey eater breeding season. I have also seen (only once) a koala eating cicadas like they were chips (absentmindedly but constantly feeding them into his mouth). I think that cicadas provide a huge boost in protein for many birds and animals at a time when they have young or are breeding and that makes them a very important part of the ecosystem.

Interesting cicada facts

Cicada life cycle

I took these photos this summer while working around the humpy.

An emerging adult, not yet dry

The adult just emerging from the shell, looks like an alien doesn't it.

What interesting insects have you found?