The Life of Riley–An Epilogue

As you know from the first post on this blog,  we recently lost our beloved little puppy, Riley, an event that inspired me to start a second blog to explore the non-technical side of my life.   

Since then, a sort of amazing thing happened;  Riley sent us a cloud.

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This sighting occurred one evening as Kathy and I were sitting, sipping wine and watching the evening sky and the clouds as is our tradition. If it’s warm enough, we usually do this from the porch swing but in colder weather, we do it from our front guest room. Either way, it was one of Riley’s favorite things to do with us and he would become very excited around that time of day, barking and running to the front door or guest room to remind us that it was time, all accompanied by much vigorous tail wagging.

On the particular day of the sighting, it happened to be the anniversary of his passing several weeks prior, almost to the hour actually and Kathy and I were a bit melancholy as a result, sitting there and crying actually. But as we sat there and sniffled and talked about him and missed him, we all of a sudden noticed this little cloud bounding towards us. Initially, we saw the heart shape that you see in the image above. The cloud sort of bounded up to the sky over our house and dissipated, as clouds do.

But, while we didn’t realize it at the time, a friend of mine, when I shared the picture with him, pointed out that there was a second cloud with a shape involved. Specifically, if you look  in the upper left hand corner, there is a little cloud that, at least to our eyes, looks just like a silhouette of Riley when he would get in his down dog position with is little tail wagging and his ears flapping. It truly felt to us like Riley had sent us a special message that day to let us know he was O.K. and we were very touched by the whole thing.

Kathy and I both are members of the Cloud Appreciation Society,  which, when they are not otherwise occupied in assisting the World Meteorological Society with identifying a new cloud classifications, finds time to maintain a really cool photo gallery.  Given that heart shaped clouds are highly prized observations and given the special nature of the one we were blessed with,  we felt that we should share the our sighting with others with an appreciation for the things floating about over our heads. 

So, we submitted Riley’s Cloud to the Cloud Appreciation Society gallery about a week or so ago, which included our sharing with the photo gallery editor the story behind the cloud, which you just read.   In addition to having the submission accepted, we received a very touching reply regarding the loss of Riley because they too had experienced the loss of a beloved pet.  In their reply, they shared a poem titled The Rainbow Bridge;  if you have ever lost a pet, you should read it.   And if you are struggling with euthanasia for a pet, you may also find a poem Kathy’s sister Nancy sent to us titled The Last Battle to be of comfort.

One of the things that you can do to support the Cloud Appreciation Society once you are a member  is subscribe to the “Cloud A Day” e-mail.  Much to our joy, surprise, and honor, we discovered that Riley’s cloud had been selected as Tuesday’s Cloud yesterday.  So all in all, a silver lining for our special cloud.

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A Mason Bee Farmer’s Ramblings

My family roots are in farming and agriculture;  my grand parents on my father’s side were subsistence farmers in central Pennsylvania and in my heart, that is where I came from.   My Dad was a county agricultural agent; my observation is that his maximum comfort zone was in a field or a barn in touch with farming and animals and the earth. 

On my Mom’s side, you could give Grandma Martin a dead branch in the morning and by the end of the day, there would be blue birds nesting amongst its blossoms.  The gardens around her home were magical places in my childhood and they existed to a large extent because of the love she poured into them from her heart.

As a technical person, I have always felt that I sort of fell short of the mark that was set by my ancestors in terms of being in touch with the earth and the cycle of life that they depended on to survive.  But of late, I have become a Mason Bee and Leaf Cutter Bee farmer, an experience that has meant a lot to me and which I feel has helped me connect with my past.  So, the purpose of this post is to share that with you.

Unlike honeybees, Mason Bees are solitary bees, meaning they don’t all live together and work together as a society in a hive. Instead, after the male has fertilized the female, she spends her life building nests and laying eggs on her own. She may do that side by side with other bees of her type, but she works independently.

The bees I have are native to North America and the particular species is native to my area (Portland, Oregon). They are actually better pollinators than honeybees by several orders of magnitude and they are adapted to the native plants and climate. Honeybees are pretty adapted too but were introduced from Europe. If you want to see some really amazing pictures of honeybees, then you should visit Eric Tourneret’s web site.

http://thebeephotographer.photoshelter.com/gallery-list

I have one of his large format books, which is in French so I can’t read it, but I bought it for the pictures;  the pictures are  causing me to want to learn French.  Meaning I have typed paragraphs from the book into the Google translator to see what they say since Eric talks a lot about the life cycle, etc. of the bees he is photographing

clip_image001What follows are my Mason Bee pictures, which are in no way as spectacular as Eric’s, but still will give you a sense for the bees.  The little guy in the picture that follows was one of the first to emerge a couple of years ago. He is a male (you can tell because of the longer antenna and the shorter jaws) and once he has fertilized a female, is role is pretty much done.

 

Mason Bees are very docile and I have them land on me all of the time when I am watching them, especially if it is getting cold and they are slowing down for the day.

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The females will spend their lives building in the little nesting tubes you see in the background of the first picture. They build a little mud stopper at the back, then put in pollen, then lay an egg, then more pollen, then another mud wall and repeat the process. When you watch them, they are constantly buzzing back and forth from the nesting tubes to flowers or to a source of mud, pretty much working tirelessly. They lay about 6 eggs per tube and about 36 eggs total, about one cell (one egg) a day.

The female can control the sex of the egg and lays about 1-2 female eggs for every 4-6 male eggs. She puts them in the middle of the tube to protect them and to ensure that it will be likely that males have already emerged before a female and that males will also emerge after the female.

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The picture on the left is a formation of three about to land in their respective tubes and do some work.  The photo to the right is a shot down one of the tubes where you can see the pollen being built up (it’s the yellow stuff) and the start of the next mud wall in front of it (the brown ring around the tube).   In the tube just to the right and below the one with the pollen, you can see a different bee working a way; a little fuzzy because it’s hard to focus on things To give you a sense of scale, the inside diameter of the tube is about 1/4 inch.

clip_image005In the next photo below it, you can see Mom working on the mud plug at the very end of the tube. A lot of times, the Mom’s seem to make a double plug at the end of the tube, I am guessing to better protect next year’s generation.    The tubes with mud plugs in the end of them are full, probably with six or seven cocoons at least based on what I see when I harvest them.  More on that in a minute.

 

 

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The photo to the right shows what a Mason Bee house looks like towards the end of the season, when most of the tubes are filled. You can see pollen in some of the tubes towards the top. This is the house we have on the front porch in front of the porch swing so we can watch it while we sit and drink wine and watch the sunset, which is Kathy’s and my routine every day when I am home, and a very special time for us and something I would highly recommend.

It has to be above about 50°F for Mason Bees to fly, so on colder days and mornings, they are dormant. But even if I space out putting my cocoons out so the bees can emerge until late in the spring, by the beginning to middle of June, they will have lived their lives and the little tubes will be full of next year’s generation. What that means is that this little creature basically spends 30-60 days with us and dies of exhaustion at the end of that period of time. If she and others like her did not do what they do, life would cease. It’s always a very moving thing for me to watch.

In terms of the details of what is going on in the tubes, the eggs become larva and then the larva spin cocoons inside the cells created by the mud plugs. By fall, there is a fully developed bee in each cell, ready to emerge in the spring.

In the wild, Mason Bees tend to emerge from the front to the back because emergence is triggered by warm weather (temperatures above 50°F for most of the day) so the cocoons closer to the front will tend to emerge first. If one further back happens to emerge first, they seem to chew their way through the tube or just crawl over the ones in front to get out.

clip_image007That said if you are trying to raise the bees, most people harvest the cocoons and clean them up sometime during the early spring months. I have started doing that the past couple of years because it gets rid of some of the parasites and the bees generally seem more successful. Here is what it looks like when you unravel one of the nesting tubes.

The actual cocoons are the little oval shaped brown things. You can see a couple of the mud plugs sitting on the paper at either end of the tube. The tiny yellow specs you see on the cocoon to the right are mites, a parasite that it is best to get rid of if you can although they are not generally lethal to the bees.

The little tiny black things are the larva “poops”. One of the ways you can tell one of the more lethal parasite cocoons (different from the mites and with a cocoon that looks a lot like a Mason Bee) from a Mason Bee cocoon is that the parasite “poops” will be curly.

clip_image008Once you get the cocoons out of the tubes, you can clean them up. There are a number of ways to do that, but I have been using sand. Basically, I just put them in a container of sand and swirl them around for a while, and then strain them back out. Here are the cocoons from the tube above after I got done with that process.

The large one is the female and the others are likely males. If you look closely, you can sort of see the form of the bees through the cocoon because at this point, it’s kind of translucent.

I learned most of what I know, aside from just working with the bees, by reading Brian Griffin’s book The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee. He wrote a really good book about Bumble Bees called Humblebee Bumblebee. The links take you to them on the Amazon site. The Mason Bee book is available in the Kindle format if you like e-books. There is also a book called Attracting Native Pollinators that is broader in scope that I really enjoyed and find useful for identifying various pollinators, plants, etc.

In terms of where to get stuff like tubes, liners, more cocoons, etc. they are becoming more and more common at garden centers. I originally ordered my stuff from Knox Cellars, which is the business that Brian Griffin started as he became more interested in the bees. I have not been successful in contacting them as of late so I wonder if they are no longer selling although they still have a web site.

Lately, I have ordered things from Crown Bees. They seem to be very responsive and responsible about how they run their business, publish a regular newsletter, etc. They also have other native bee types like leaf cutter bees, which I tried last year and am going to try again this year (they fly in warmer weather, so July – September). Instead of mud, they cut tiny pieces from the leaves of roses, and other plants and build their nesting cells that way.

So that is what it’s like to be a Mason Bee keeper.    Its something Kathy and I really enjoy and I think most people would find it interesting.  Plus, its a way to counter-act the current decline in the honey bee population, which, would be a disaster for life as we know it if  were they to become extinct.

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The Life of Riley

imageOver the years, I have been blessed to share my life with a number of furry and feathered and finned companions.  They have all made me a better person and I have learned a lot from them.  My focus here is driven by a recent event that moved me deeply, and continues to move me deeply.

In reflecting on it, one could say that what has actually moved me so deeply are the things that happened in  the thirteen or so years leading up to the event and that the event was simply the trigger that caused me to contemplate those things even more deeply than I had in the past.  Perhaps the emotion recollected in tranquility  that William Wordsworth spoke of .

Riley came into the world on January 22, 2004 and subsequently came into Kathy’s an my life about 2 or so months later.   Riley was one member of a litter of puppies that were born to Smoochy who is a a member of Jordy and Kimberly’s family ( our son and daughter-in-law).  Fairly early on, Kimberly became convinced that Riley was intended for us and was somewhat relentless in her efforts to have us take him into our home, something I will forever love her for.

But Kathy and I, after talking about it, had concluded that we just were not ready for a dog at that point in our lives, and certainly not for a small dog, like the three quarter Shih Tzu- one quarter Miniature American Eskimo that Riley was (we came to call him a Cute Tzu).

In early 2004, I was performing construction observation for a fairly large project up in Seattle and frequently spent 4-5 days a week on the site.   As a result, Kathy would occasionally come up to Seattle to spend the weekend with me there instead of me traveling home.   At the time, the kids lived near Federal Way, which is about 20 or so miles South of Seattle.  So, after deciding we didn’t really want a dog, we agreed that Kathy would go past their place for a visit on her way up to see me one weekend , at which time, she would ooh and aah over the puppies and then politely say we just were not ready yet.

imageWhen  she arrived, Riley immediately bounded up to her, put his little front paws on her leg, and presented his cute little face and wagging tail to her; basically the face you see in the picture to the left.   As a result, by the time I caught up with her at the hotel after work, she was speechless –    literally.

Meaning she was so excited about the prospect of having this cute little ball of fur in our lives that she could could hardly talk.   But, as we discussed things over dinner that evening, we returned to our original conclusion that we were just not ready to have a puppy in our lives.  That meant that it would fall to me to break the news to the kids on our way home later that week.

When the door opened on the day of our return visit;  I had the same experience as Kathy;   this amazingly cute little ball of fur bounded up to me with his tail wagging and his eyes full of unconditional puppy love.  And in one or two seconds, I went from …

We really are not ready for a dog yet …

to

What do you mean we can’t take him home with us today?

The reality then, is that Riley picked us, and Kathy and I are forever the better for it.  In the two or three hours that we visited with the kids that afternoon, Kathy and I both bonded with him, each in our own way.

One of Riley’s gifts was that he could make great big people, man or woman alike, pipe fitters and test pilots even, pick him up and snuggle him and talk in little high pitched squeaky voices about how adorable he was.  As a result, Kathy spent quite a bit of time doing just that, receiving vigorous tail wags and puppy kisses in return.  Between things, she was talking with Jordy and Kimberly about the details of being Mom to a puppy, something she had never really done before, but something she would be a natural at.

I was a big more reserved;  scared really.  Eight years prior, I had lost my faithful companion, Trixie, as the result of her finding and snarfing down a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken that someone had tossed out of their car in front of our house before I realized what was going on.  The subsequent GI disorders and dehydration triggered kidney failure and other issues that her little aging body could not deal with and  she quietly passed away a couple of days later while asleep under my desk.  Eight years subsequent to the event, I still teared up at the site of a toy poodle, especially a toy poodle puppy.

imageSo, part of my reluctance, I realized, was not because I didn’t want to have a dog in our life.  Rather, it was because I knew how quickly the time with them would pass and how much it would tear you up when they reached the end of the line.

But, at one point on the afternoon that I met Riley, while snuggled up on the couch, kind of like he and I are in the picture to the left, there was a moment when he looked straight into my eyes,  snuzzled me,  and gave me a little kiss on the nose, as if to say its O.K.;  I will love  you  deeply too.  And by the simple magic of that, we were bonded and I lost all reluctance to letting  him into my heart.

imageThree weeks later, Riley came to live with us;  an exciting time for us, but I think a scary time for him.

Now, it was our turn to provide reassurance.  After all, this was his first time away from his mom, his litter-mates, and the only place he had ever known.   Who wouldn’t be a bit nervous and scared?

Initially, he would hide behind Chris’s CD tower peering out at us and occasionally, emerging to play with us and the toys we bought for him in anticipation of his arrival.  But it did not take that long for him to decide that things were pretty safe.  So, he proceeded to occupy himself with retrieving underwear from the laundry basket and dealing with errant purses and such.

One of the things Kathy and I had agreed upon (after agreeing that perhaps we actually were ready for a puppy after all) was that Riley should sleep in his own little bed, in our room, but not in our bed.

That lasted about 15 seconds after we turned the lights out that first night.  He sounded so sad and scared the we could scarcely resist bringing him up into bed with us.   After all, he was really  not that big and was extremely cute and fluffy.  And at our core, I suspect we knew how he felt and didn’t want any creature to feel that way,  He immediately fell asleep curled up between us.

And then, there was waking up and seeing this cute little face peering out at you over the covers with a tail wagging vigorously in the background;  the memory of it melts my heart to this day.

imageOur first family trip together was to Neskowin, a quiet little place on the Oregon Coast;  a place where Kathy had grown up camping on her family’s vacations as a child.  It was a  place where we eventually came to own a share of a fractional, which was and still is our little piece of heaven.  But at that point, the fractional was still a dream.  So, on the occasional special weekend, like a birthday or Valentine’s day for instance, we would rent a place there and dream of what might be.

Not long after Riley came to live with us, Kathy’s birthday rolled around.  Since we had already planned the coast trip and the place we were staying was pet friendly, we figured that it was a pretty good time to introduce Riley to the beach.

He loved it;  in the course of three days, he discovered that he loved chasing waves and digging holes in the sand  but that he didn’t actually like getting wet.  And best of all, he discovered horse poop,  which he found on the beach and immediately, upon finding it, picked some up and headed straight back to the place we were staying at high speed.   You could practically hear him thinking you told me this would be great but I never imagined anything like this.

imageOne of the hardest things for me personally was Riley’s first haircut (usually, that’s the Mom, right?).   Up until that point, he was this little fluffy ball of fur that was softer than anything I had ever touched other than Kathy.   At one point, Kimberly had told us that once he had his first haircut, that special softness  would be forever gone and I was not quite sure I was ready to give that up.  But Kathy’s motherly instincts prevailed, as they should have, and he was groomed.

That led to one of my favorite pictures of Kathy and Riley.  I realized today while talking to Kathy about the picture, that part of the reasons that the picture is a favorite of her is that she is wearing what she wore on one of the first evenings we “officially” were living together in our little house.  Riley’s presence in the picture just makes it even better.

Shortly there-after the picture was taken, Riley dug his first hole in our yard, an achievement he was quite proud of but which also, to some extent, eradicated the benefits associated with the grooming appointment.

imageRiley never met a cat he didn’t like;  as a puppy, he spent quite a bit of time (along with his litter mates) wrestling and playing with a (very patient) Siamese cat, whose name escapes me at this point.  Having said that, when Riley came to live with us, we also had something like four or five cats living with us as a result of Kathy and I each coming with a cat and a number of neighbor cats moving in with us when the neighbors suddenly left with out them.

But while his relationship with them, was quite congenial, it was nothing like the relationship that evolved with a kitten named Hobbes who came to live with us while Aaron, my son, was living here.  From Riley’s perspective, Hobbes was his little brother and nobody was going to mess with him as long as Riley had anything to do with it.

Hobbes loved Riley in return.  Hobbes is a bit skittish and will be off like a flash at the drop of a pin.  Yet, he would sit, with out a care in the world, while Riley, being extremely excited to see him,  barked at him at the top of his lungs, only  inches away.  The two of them spent a lot of time together.

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imageThe bottom line is that for Kathy and I, the life of Riley was a blessing far greater than we could have ever imagined.  Summer afternoons on the beach were made more memorable, sunsets from the porch swing were made warmer, and family walks, and in his later years when he could no longer walk, wagon rides and bike rides around the neighborhood were made more colorful.

Riley passed on February 23rd, about two weeks ago now, quietly snuggled between Kathy and I on our love seat,  playing with his favorite toy while everyone talked about him and pet him and loved him.  The thirteen plus years he was a part of our lives went by so quickly I can scarcely believe they are gone.   But the place the life of Riley holds in our hearts will be eternal I think, just as it should be.

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