Archives for category: bees

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This is the second time we’ve had visitors to the bee yard. The hives are surrounded by an electric fence. Though the jolt it gives is pretty beefy, it’s not a very substantial enclosure. Some beekeepers we know have gone all out Fort Knox in terms of fencing.

We have (had) two “swarm boxes” outside the perimeter of the electric fence. The objective of the swarm boxes was to capture any bees who got ideas about relocating. Our visitors, the bears, knocked down both swarm boxes–smashing one of them. There was nothing in them–so the loss is just the boxes themselves.

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These bears must have experience with bee hives and electric fences. I say this, because the fence controller is in a box that looks like a bee hive–and the bear(s) upended that. No luck there. But, they (it) never breached the fence line. The bees remained unmolested. We had a similar visit last year–again they took down the swarm boxes. But so far, the bees are fine.

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I’ve seen hives ravaged by bears. They just demolish the entire hive structure. We are holding our breath, hoping that the bears (bear?) are  put off enough by the wires to keep clear of the enclosed space.

 

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The new queen has arrived, and has been installed in the hive with her new subjects. This finished up the day. All is well in the kingdom.

I’ve ordered a queen bee to replace our missing-in-action queen. When something is in short supply, it’s easy to get desperate. It’s worth it to take a deep breath and slow down.

Here in the north, it’s early in the season, too early for there to be ample queens available. We always try to buy local, over-wintered queens. We’re looking for hardy stock that can withstand our winters. At this juncture, I found three options. Two of them were local.

One local option wanted a queen’s ransom–literally. He didn’t want to sell a queen, he wanted to swap for 10 frames of drawn comb and bees! (A queen runs $35 to $50.) A nuc (five frames of bees and brood and a queen) runs $160. You do the math.

The other local option was $35. Although he indicated that his bees were Northern, we checked him out on Facebook. He overwinters in Florida (do his bees?) Hmmm. Looking a little more, it was clear he was a Trump-raving, gun-toting, conspiracy-spreading character. His business, but not my cup of tea. Could I trust his representations?

We went with the on-line Northern queen out of Iowa. Everything about her presentation said, solid bee-keeping without any wackyness. Even her shipping schedule was set up to best serve the bees and ensure survival. Sometimes, local isn’t the only, or best, alternative. I try to make my dollars reflect my values. It takes a little extra digging, and I may spend a little more. But I sleep better at night for the effort.

Without proper leadership, anything can happen, and things can go to hell quickly. Leader wannabees make their bid for the top slot–often without qualification. Without a leader, there is soon dissension in the ranks. A culture of rancor takes over. Socialization becomes charged and violence becomes more likely, at the least provocation. The question of legitimacy of leadership is paramount–especially when it is not yet time for new leaders to make their run. These are dangerous times, when the very fabric of culture begins to fray.

So we are desperately looking for a new queen bee. It’s still early in the season–most northern queens are not yet ready. We’d like to re-queen immediately, before all hell breaks loose. So far, the workers continue to make honey and bee bread–even in face of no new brood to feed. So far, we do not have a divisive laying worker. So far, they’re testy, but not aggressive. There’s still time.

We don’t know what happened to the old queen. She was very old, but we liked her. It doesn’t appear that the hive swarmed–because there’s no indication of a succession plan. Usually, a hive will make queen cups before a swarm, or supercedence cells if a queen fails. Anyway, there are far too many workers left behind, this early in the season, for there to have been a swarm. It’s a mystery. We’d feared we’d have to requeen this hive this year, because she was so old, but we didn’t plan on it in June! So we’re casting about looking for a source for a new queen–not just any queen, but a northern hardy variety, hopefully one that is hygienic, and resistant to the varroa destructor mite.

What, did you think I was talking about the other leadership vacuum?

 

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Emerging Knapweed, as far as the eye can see.

 

Trigger Alert: This blog post contains references to maniac-level gardening, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and other forms of mental illness.

In the early 1980s, the City of Los Angeles was confronted with a difficult problem. Renowned for its levels of air pollution, how would it deal with the upcoming Olympics? After all, you couldn’t expect world quality athletes to do their best breathing the yellow-brown gas that the city’s denizens accepted as air. Every unsolvable problem has a similar solution curve; you do what you can.

If you have followed this blog for any time, you are probably aware of my ongoing battle with the evil, invasive, Spotted Knapweed. I cannot complain, the knapweed was here when I purchased the property–I just didn’t know what it was. When Rick and I arrived to develop it, we joked that, if it weren’t for knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all.

We had it backwards. We had no weeds, because of the knapweed. Sigh. It is an earnest and dedicated competitor. As a refresher, remember that knapweed competes on a number of fronts: it poisons the soil around it (the toxins remain for up to three years after removal); it absorbs most of the available water in its fleshy roots (starving neighboring plants); it spreads, both by seed (viable for seven years) and by underground spreading roots; and it colonizes disturbed soils. If you pull it up–and any part of the root remains–it will return, which means that tilling is a disaster. Knapweed eradication is a myth.

And still, one must garden. We have a dual challenge, poor sandy dune soils and knapweed. So long as the knapweed remains, the soils will never improve. We were lucky, even in our knapweed ignorance, we knew the soils were poor. So when we planted the orchard we dug big holes. Very big holes, perhaps 5 feet across and nearly as deep. Our neighbors raised their eyebrows and inquired. We removed most of the native sand and amended heavily. Unbeknownst to us, this solved our knapweed problem. Our new trees thrived–even as friends of ours, with supposedly better soils, lost entire orchard plantings to the knapweed’s toxins.

But our gardens failed to prosper.

At one of our bee meetings, the guest speaker from the local Soil Conservation District, came to discuss bee-friendly landscapes. That’s how I learned about knapweed and its ugly dual nature. Sure, it’s bee-friendly, but that’s as far as any friendship extends. I did my own research and the prognosis was grim. Understand, we have acres and acres of knapweed. And we won’t use poisons. After all, we are beekeepers. I asked a friend of mine, with experience in park management, for advice. She asked if it was too late to consider selling.

And so we steeled our resolve. We narrowed our focus to the garden area–a mere 50 X 100 foot oasis of fruit trees and raised beds. Surely we could manage that. Let the knapweed, and the bees, roam the acreage–but save the garden.

I’ve been pulling knapweed for three years now. We’re making headway, but it’s a worthy opponent. Pulling weeds was my ‘free-time’ activity. I’d do some in the spring, but mostly the early season was for getting the garden in. And summer and fall were full of knapweed endeavors. After nearly every rain, I/we pulled it by the wheelbarrow loads. It’s exhausting.

A pattern emerged. Our main focus was around the garden beds and the fruit trees. The areas along the fenceline, and other open ‘yet to be developed’ areas tended to get the least attention. Naturally the weed dug in there, for the battle. Late season efforts only slowed the knapweed’s hegemony. By then, rootlets had spread–guaranteeing reinforcements for the next season. A thankless, and never-ending task.

What we needed was an early season surge. And, what else can you do in a pandemic lockdown? So this was it. We (mostly me, but Rick’s a maniac, too) have been up to our eyebrows in deep weeding. Every. Single. Knapweed. In some areas, the knapweed was so thick that our efforts left the soil barren. (Remember, knapweed loves disturbed soils. Sigh.) We re-seeded with soil-building plants, even knowing that the knapweed’s toxins might defeat the effort. So far this spring, we have over a hundred hours in, between us, in the back-breaking effort of pulling this damned weed.

We’ll take a break now, and turn our efforts to growing some vegetables. After that, we’ll be back to knapweed-maintenance duty.

In Los Angeles, the City wrestled with how to resolve their pollution problem. They limited driving, especially near competition venues. They located most of the events on the west side, nearest the ocean breezes. Ultimately, language was their biggest success. They changed the standards. Voila! Objectives met!

We, too, have re-framed the battle. It’s unlikely we’ll eradicate knapweed. We don’t even use that word anymore. And we’ve narrowed the playing field to the garden/orchard area, ignoring the acres and acres of adjacent infestation. (Hell, the bees like it, right?) We don’t even consider abandoning ‘eradication’ as a retreat. Facing similar obstacles, many pollution agencies have adjusted changed their mission–it’s about ‘management’ not ‘control.’

We know that we will always be fighting knapweed in the garden. Even if we are fully successful, weeds are not great respecters of fences. The objective now is to keep enough area clear so that we can go about the business of keeping the orchard and growing enough vegetables for our own consumption. We’re not farmers, we’re gardeners. And that’s enough.

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Sigh. Knapweed (only) removed, and nothing left but disturbed soil.

Beekeeping for Beginers

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Sounds like a political strategy, eh? It’s not. It’s an old-fashioned method of harvesting honey. There are two primary methods of honey processing, spinning (extraction) and crush and strain. What you choose depends upon the types of hives you have and what products from the hive you want to harvest.

Usually we use a frame spinner to extract the honey from the comb. This process leaves you with empty frames of drawn comb, which the bees can repair and re-use. When you consider that it takes about seven pounds of honey for the bees to make one pound of wax, it makes good sense to recycle it.

But sometimes, it makes sense to scrape the frames clean and strain the whole mess to get the honey. Perhaps you also want to harvest the honey and the wax–for soaps, or lotions, or candles. Perhaps, your bees have been goofy and making irregular and wacky comb–and you want a fresh start–so they won’t continue the weirdness. Or, maybe you only have a little to harvest and it’s not worth the set up and clean up for just a couple of quarts.

We had a few frames of wacky comb, so we decided to crush and strain. It’s simple–letting gravity do the work, and requires only the kinds of tools you’d find in any household–a collander, a big pot, and a paint straining net. It’s messy, but then, so is spinning.

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We had five frames of partial, or wacky comb. In total, it yielded two quarts of honey, a worthwhile harvest. We’ll save the full frames for later processing in the spinner. In the meantime, life is a little sweeter for the effort.

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Usually, we don’t put the jackets on the bee hives until December. But we don’t usually have temperatures in the teens and a foot of snow until late December. (Okay–I’m exagerating with the foot of snow–we aren’t there yet–but we will be by tomorrow if the forecast is correct.)

There’s a sweet spot with winter bees, between 37 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, at which it’s cool enough for them to be ‘semi-dormant,’ but warm enough not to make excessive demands on their stores of winter honey. Usually, at this time of year the hives stay ‘in the zone,’ without insulation.

Then as the winter catches its stride and cools, we suit up for the duration.

Usually.

According to the prognosticators, this is just a cold snap. They say December will be mild. But right now, the bees could use some extra help. So, today was a lovely day to do a little winterizing, in a light snowfall.

(If things seem a little out of order, yesterday I was gardening–in the snow–puting in bulbs for spring. It felt like, if I didn’t do it then, I wouldn’t get another chance until April. Those new gardens are now under seven inches–so maybe I was right.)

So much for usual in the weather department.

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There, snug for winter. (We have just the two hives populated this year.)

 

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It’s pretty, though.

 

Today was the big day. We’ve been watching the weather and today was possibly the last day. Tonight it will rain buckets. Tomorrow the temperatures begin to fall, and we’ll descend into winter-like weather. Of course, It could warm up again, later in November. But there’s no guarantee. So today was the day that we had to winterize the bees.

This year, we’ve done everything “right.” We kept a lid on our varroa numbers. We fed them through the dearth of autumn. (Though, in reality, they continued to bring in resources well into October and didn’t eat much of what we gave them.) And, because studies show that smaller hives fare better in winter, today we completely took their hives apart and reconfigured them for winter. We also harvested some honey for ourselves–but not that much.

We have two hives this year. One is a ‘pedigreed’ hive–fancy Saskatraz bees from out of Canada. They have a reputation for being especially winter hardy and resistant to the dreaded varroa mites. The other is a swarm hive–local mutts. They came from a swarm hive that our friends have kept, for years now. So we know they can over-winter in Michigan’s cold climate. The swarm bees are pretty mellow. The pedigreed bees have a pedigreed attitude. We paid good money to get bees who think that they are better than we are. We suit up fully when we open that hive.

Or, almost.

Bees are not always organized about how they occupy a hive. It’s their home, their choice. But what you want going into winter, (as a beekeeper) is bees in the bottom, with densely packed honey above them for their winter stores. That isn’t always what they provide. Sometimes the frames will be only partially filled, or only built out on one side, but not the other, or having some of the cells uncapped and “wet,” that is, not fully evaporated down to the 17% moisture level that makes it honey. Capped honey never goes bad. Uncapped wet “honey” can ferment.

So our job today was to tear apart the hives and inspect, frame by frame, and to rebuild the hives with the best, fullest, honeycomb frames above the bottom, deep super, that will start as their home for the winter. As the winter progresses, they’ll eat the honey stored directly above them, and move up in the hive as they eat their way through the winter.

Our work today was a pretty invasive process and the bees were not impressed. We want the total hive (bees plus adequate winter stores) to be as small as possible, because the bees have to heat it, with just their body heat. A cavernous hive with spotty honey resources peppered through it is not a good recipe for  winter survival. As extra insurance, we put hard sugar “candy” up in the very top of the hive, just in case the bees consume more in the winter than we’d estimated.

We started with the pedigreed hive. As anticipated, they were pissy about the invasion, and we had to smoke them aggressively. We were wearing full body bees suits, topped with heavy leather gloves. It was cool, about 54 degrees (F), so most of the bees were home.  We won’t open a hive under 50 degrees–the bees will lose too much needed heat. The air was full of peeved bees. We were covered with bees. When a hive is alarmed the tone changes–the low hum of a happy hive picks up to a loud whine. We tried to work quickly.

At one point, a bee discovered my Achilles heel. I stupidly wore thin socks. The bee stung my ankle, right through that thin sock. There was nothing to do, but press on. It was, after all, the last day. It was my fault, really. I never wear thin socks when working the bees. What was I thinking? Just as we were closing up the Saskatraz hive, another bee found my other ankle. Damn. Well, at least it’s a matched set.

The swarm hive was much calmer. They didn’t like the invasion, but their pitch never ramped up to that warning whine. We’d worked out a system by then, pulling and examining each frame and sorting which ones were best to pack back into the hive for the bees. Those swarm bees made the chore a pleasure. It’s amazing how different two hives, side by side, can be in terms of temperament.

We finished and carted our tools and our harvested honey back down the hill to the house. We had to stop, several times on the way down, to brush bees off of us. It’s best to leave the bees at the hives. You really don’t want angry bees hanging around, or on you when to start to strip down out of your gear. Finally, when everything was put away, I could settle in to tend to my swelling ankles. Now, with the help of a hot cider, with just a touch of Irish whiskey in it, I can put my feet up and reflect on the success of the day. Ready for winter. Nearly perfect. Marred only a little my my failure to dress for the occasion.

(Sorry, no pics, my hands were busy.)

 

“Hey, get out of here. Go, go, go. Go on”

This, punctuated by pounding on the log walls, woke me up. It was early, still dark. I assumed the problem was woodpeckers. Every now and then, usually spring or fall, our log home is visited by hungry/curious woodpeckers. It’s funny, until it’s not. They can do a lot of damage. Usually it’s me that hears them and runs them off, yelling and waving my arms. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But there was something off, and even my sleepy brain couldn’t let it go…woodpeckers? At night?

So I rolled out of bed and lumbered down the stairs.

“You’re up early.”

“Yeah well, sometimes you’re just awake.”

“Was it the woodpeckers that got you up?”

“Woodpeckers? No, I just woke up. What do you mean, woodpeckers?”

“Well, I heard you yelling and pounding on the walls.”

“Oh no. That was the bears.”

“Bears?!”

“Yeah, I heard noise on the front porch. I thought that Kilo (the cat) might be in a tussle with some critter, so I opened the door. When I looked out it was a mamma bear looking back in at me. She wasn’t alone. She had two baby bears with her, but when I turned on the light, I saw a third one at the bottom of the steps.”

“Bears!”

“Yeah, my first Michigan bear. I’ve been waiting to see one, didn’t think it would come about like this.”

“What did they want up on the porch?”

“Damned if I know.”

“Geez, I hope the bees are alright.”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking of that, too.”

“We’ll have to check later.”

“When it’s light out.”

“Yeah.”

I pondered whether I should just go back to bed, but you know, sometimes you’re just awake.

I’ve Taken Up Smoking

I’d always avoided it before. Smoking seemed, well, filthy, and unfair. Instead, I’ve just girded myself for those high stress, even invasive, situations. Sometimes I used aroma therapy, a light mist of mint–it seemed calming. But not enough. So now I’m smoking.

We have two very large hives. We will probably split them before winter. Recent studies show that small to medium size hives fare better in over-wintering. These two hives have been enormously productive. Because we were busy building the barn, we just added additional supers when the bees filled things up. Now, the hives are so large, it’s become difficult to work the bees. Any hive can get pissy if you’re in it too long. With such large hives, it takes time just to get to the bottom on a simple inspection. So I’ve reverted to smoking.

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Smoke doesn’t calm the bees. It alarms and distracts them. Faced with smoke–the prospect of fire– the bees prepare for an emergency exit by gorging themselves on honey. Then, when the emergency turns out to be illusory, these gluttonous bees are too stuffed to move, or get back to work. Smoking bees costs you at least a full day of productivity. Think about how most Americans feel after Thanksgiving dinner. That’s what smoke does to bees.

One thing I learned recently is that the beekeeper can smoke him or herself. The bees avoid the smoke smell, so you can turn the smoker on your gloves or veil and make yourself an unattractive target–if a smoky one. It works.

We tested the bees for mites today–and found ourselves on the threshold for treatment.  Though we intend to split them, and add queens to the newly formed hives (as it’s too late in the season for them to make their own and still get ready for winter), we don’t want to do mite treatment on the new queens. So, we’ll use Mite-Away strips this week, and split them next week. We are fortunate that a local beekeeper is breeding queens and has Michigan-hardy, mated, queens available now.

So that’s the plan. I’ll be glad when it’s done. The resulting smaller hives won’t need so much smoking and both we, and the bees, will be happier for that.

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

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Even well after the hive was removed, the mob refused to disperse!

The Plundering Season

It’s September, a time when beekeepers assess whether the season, and the bees, have produced enough honey to permit a harvest. It’s also a time when the bees themselves try to maximize their stores for the winter. Responsible beekeepers will leave enough honey in the hive to allow the hive to overwinter. Others will take all the honey, and feed the bees sugar water. (You can tell already where I fall on the spectrum.) I think that the perfect food for bees is honey, and that’s what my bees get.

September is also the time when you really need to be prepared for bear attacks on the apiary. Bears are readying for winter, too, and honey is a great (and tasty) source of calories to fatten up for winter. But bears aren’t the only predator.

September is the robbing season. The robbers? Other bees! Okay, so there are other flying robbers as well, wasps and yellow jackets, but bees are major culprits. If a hive is weak, queenless or disorganized, other bees can seize the opportunity to raid their stores of honey–or even wax. That hive that was limping along, but suddenly seems very active? Look again! That new activity might just be looting neighbors!

Not only is robbing devastating for the hive/victim. It can be a loss of resources for the beekeeper. Sometimes a less than thriving hive is kept for combination with another hive at the end of the season–or its resources can be used later–honey for overwintering stores or wax in the spring for splits or new bees. A robbing frenzy often kills the weaker hive’s defending bees. Sit close and you can watch the battles at the entry.

There’s another reason to discourage robbing. Why was that hive weak to begin with? If the reason the hive wasn’t thriving was because of mites or pathogens–robbers may well carry them home and spread disease*. Serves them right, eh? Well, consider that the culprits are often members of one of your other hives. Robbing only amplifies bee losses.

Recently, we lost a hive to robbing. As the home-bees were thoroughly beaten, we sealed the hive to reserve possible resources for later AND we put entrance restrictors on the remaining hives. Frenzied robbers deprived of their target often pick the next weakest hive…and so on. Like any mob, they’re not easily directed or dispersed.

Over the weekend we brought some “empty” boxes to a bee event, to use for demonstration purposes. Apparently there was some leftover honey in the empties. On our return, we left the demonstration hive in the back of the truck overnight. By morning, the robbers had found it and the truck was in a cloud of bees! They were so loud and so numerous, we wondered if we had caught a swarm. No such luck. We had to suit up, and then break down the hives (far from our bee yard) and let the bees disperse. We didn’t want to bring that robbing frenzy anywhere near our hives–even if it was our bees in the mob. It took hours before we could get back into the truck. It was a dramatic display of seasonal bee behavior.

We tend to think of our bees as docile and malleable. But they can be triggered to behave as a mob. We hear from other local beekeepers that this was not a good year for honey production. Our own bees seem not to have suffered, but apparently the word is out that resources are scarce–and regardless of actual hive conditions–the bees are listening to the rumor mill. We’re keeping an eye on the bee yard to jump on any indication of mob rule. Who knew that we’d end up as bee referees?

 

 

* If you suspect that a weak hive was diseased–you should thoroughly investigate and diagnose, before using its resources in other hives. Sometimes all you need to do is to let the hive “freeze over winter” and sometimes you need to treat the hive equipment–and sacrifice any resources. The good news is that often you can still harvest any honey for human consumption–so it’s not necessarily a total loss.

“Conventional Wisdom”

A.V. Walters–

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Conventional wisdom says that bees located in the shade will be cranky. Conventional wisdom says that bees that get too hot in the full sun, will be unproductive and may tend to swarm. We’ve seen hot bees in the sun. They “beard” on the outside of the hive. Once the sun is up–and the heat–they return to the hive and quit foraging. What’s the point? The nectar dries up. Back at the hive, it’s too hot to go in. Other bees are busy, cooling the hive with the wind from myriad wings. What would conventional wisdom have us do?

We have relocated the bee yard up the hill and into the pines. There were plenty of reasons to do it: to avoid wind blown pesticide contamination from the adjacent farmer down at the bottom of the hill; to put more distance between the bees and any neighbors; so that the bees would not be visible from the road (some of our beekeeping friends have experienced thefts!); to get the bees out of the direct sun during the hottest part of the summer; and to reduce bee “issues” in the garden, that can lead to gardeners being inadvertently stung.

I’ll miss being able to see them from the house. Bee hives have a way of saying, “here we are, and we belong.” This is the first year that the orchard really looks like an orchard–and that, along with the garden, will have to satisfy our visual boundaries. The bees’ new digs enjoy the dappled light of the pines–and a regular refreshing breeze. It’s only a few minutes walk, one that will pull us into the forest with more regularity. And it’ll be cooler for us, too, during the dog days of summer. Often beekeeping requires suiting up–and those extra layers can be really stifling in the heat.

Rick put up the new fence. Then he marked it with ribbon tape to alert the deer. Not that they’d have any reason to invade, but we’ve had problems with deer colliding into fences and tree cages, if they weren’t marked. You’d think the fence would be enough… but those deer aren’t looking. A deer can really mangle a tree cage. The fence is really for the bear, and it’ll deliver quite the jolt. I hope it’s enough to dissuade them. There are three hives, now. By mid-season, we hope to split them–for six, going into winter.

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We moved the bees in, this morning. They were a little crabby at first. But by the end of the day they had settled nicely. I’m sure there will be some adjustments as we all adjust to new routines. It’s beautiful up there. I hope the bees enjoy it. By my estimation, they have nothing to be cranky about.

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(Really, only three hives. That tall stack is extra honey supers for when the nectar flow really starts.)

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

Earth Day Sale

A.V. Walters

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. But really? I have a little trouble with the whole concept of ethical consumerism. Consumerism is the problem. I cannot celebrate it by putting a positive spin on it.

Sure, when you shop, buy smart. Do your research. Reuse, reduce, recycle. (And don’t forget repair!) I’ve never seen shopping as a leisure activity. I have a nice lifestyle–most of what I buy is food. My main purveyor of non-food items is craigslist. Nothing pleases me more than to find someone else’s cast-offs, repair them and give them new life.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s coming. I’m bracing myself for the Earth Day Sale–or a two-fer-one, or all-you-can-eat Earth Day restaurant coupon.

In the meantime, it’s Earth Day. Go outside. Pick up some litter–and make sure that you recycle it. I’m getting ready for our annual tree planting extravaganza. But today I’m doing bee events. Let’s all raise awareness of our precarious place on the planet and our individual, and singular role is setting things right.

Save the bees.

Spring? A.V. Walters–

Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. But we’re nearly halfway through April. We’re having a blizzard. There’s no point in posting a picture–it’s all just white. In less than a week, 100 or so trees will arrive for planting. They ship on a schedule rooted in season. Sigh.

I’m ready for sunshine, and the smell of fresh dirt, and bees, and watching the tiny new leaves on the trees.

I’m eternally grateful for a snug new home, and a lovely fire in the wood stove. But Spring! Is it too much to hope for?

Connecting the Dots…

A.V. Walters–

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As I washed the dishes this morning, I glanced out and was taken aback at the sudden increase in bunny scat, dotting the landscape. Was there some kind of a bunny event? Then it dawned on me. We’re experiencing a winter heat wave. Everything is melting. This is not an overnight accumulation; this is a mid-winter exposé. By observing the accumulated droppings, we can actually map the bunnies’ trails and activities. Funny how a turn in the weather can reveal what’s been going on, all along.

Like yesterday, today will reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, before a wave of unseasonable rain and fog heralds in the next cold front, dropping us back into the low double digits tonight. Then, Winter, having taken a breather, will return in full force. Tomorrow will be an icy, slippery mess.

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We took the opportunity to check on the bees. The snowy caps on their hives, so pronounced just three days ago, are gone. When winter temperatures reach the high forties, bees will fly. I doesn’t matter that there’s nothing to eat or gather. Supposedly, bees are loathe to soil their hives, so the warm weather gives them the opportunity to take a “cleansing flight.” Often it doesn’t go so well…it really isn’t warm enough for them. The snow around our hives is dotted with dead bees. It’s a good news/bad news conundrum—proof that our hives are still alive, but learning that came at a cost. I wish those intrepid bees would stay put in their clusters. This erratic weather, glimpses of climate change, is really hard on the bees.

Tomorrow it will snow again, covering the bunny scat and the unlucky bees. We’ll descend back into winter, a little wiser for having connected the dots.

 

 

Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Multi-Part Saga of Succession: Part 1

A.V. Walters

Any population lacking authentic leadership is in trouble. Without authentic leadership, any group can fall for the antics of power hungry posers, whose influences, over time, can only disintegrate group cohesion and direction. You know the type, charismatic thugs capable of whipping up an excitable crowd. Don’t say, “It can’t happen here.” It has.

And such was the case with our largest bee hive. It’s been a productive year, ample rain has fueled a pollen and nectar bonanza. We’ve been doing regular hive splits, trying to avoid last year’s swarming losses. Those bees have been keeping us on our toes. But in early August, we ran out of woodenware, the boxes, bottoms and tops that make up a Langstroth hive. By then, we’d split all the hives, but one and we didn’t have time to build anew. Summer’s like that. We still had plenty of honey supers–so we just kept adding “up,” giving them space to grow, and to store all the honey they were producing. We needed the honey, because all those split hives were going to need resources, heading into winter.

Finally, we were able to catch our collective breath and assemble and paint new hive parts, to split the big hive. But we were too late. When we inspected, we could not find the queen–she and her entourage had already swarmed. There were still gazillions of bees, enough for at least two full hives, but there were signs of trouble.

A queen bee reigns by virtue of her hormonal influences. Not only are the bees connected and loyal because of pheromones, but all those female worker bees’ reproductive urges are suppressed by the queen’s control. When a hive goes “queenless,” either because of swarming, accident or mutiny (yes, mutiny), the bees will endeavor to create a new queen with one of the recent eggs or larvae. This takes a couple of weeks, and in the interim, you’re at risk of a “laying worker.” Without the constant hormonal suppression of the queen, a worker bee can begin laying eggs–and exert a similar hormonal control on the hive. The worker is unmated, so she can only lay drone eggs and she does not have the full complement of pheromones. A rogue hive like this can be mean and unpredictable.

Our inspection revealed problems, there were eggs–but no fresh larvae. The laying pattern was erratic–sometimes two eggs per cell and eggs laid on the sides of the cells, instead of the bottom. These are clear indications of a rogue, laying worker bee. The laying worker bee can interfere with normal royal succession. She may kill the larval queen–or kill her on hatch. After all, who wants to give up newfound power? To save the hive, we needed to re-queen it, and quickly.

Since the hive was still huge, even having swarmed, we opted to get two queens and to split the hive into two before we re-queened. As it was so late in the season, we wanted  already mated queens. We needed them to get in, and get to work, quickly. We wanted to find Michigan, winter-hardy queens, to maximize the chances of surviving the winter. We tried to see this as an opportunity to increase our genetic diversity, instead of just the loss of a truly productive queen.

Online, I found just what we needed–and I zoomed off to pick up our new royals. Though  we weren’t happy about having lost the swarm, we were confident that we could make the best of the situation.

What? Did you think I was carrying on about something other than bees?

 

 

 

A.V. Walters

They’re hounding me to renew the registration of my hives. In theory, it’s a good idea. If beekeepers register their bees–how many hives and their location–farmers will know to alert them when they plan to spray. That way, I can close up the hives when they are most at risk. They’re emailing me to tell me that if I don’t renew, my listing will be dropped. So, why do I resist?

First, registration hasn’t done anything for me. Doesn’t that sound selfish? In fact, I reached out to my neighboring farmer on my own–we formed an understanding, and now he gives me 24 hour notice of any chemical spraying or application. My idiot neighbors to the west apparently are uninformed about the registry–and they spray, willy-nilly, without notice. Their property looks like the lunar landscape–nothing grows there, not even the things that they plant. The crop registry didn’t help me with my notification success, nor with the failure.

I suppose my resistance is rooted in principle. I don’t want to participate, or be complicit, with the powers that are killing the bees. Late last year the registry unveiled a “new look,” complete with corporate sponsorship. The primary sponsor? Bayer. Wow.

For those who don’t know, Bayer is the primary player in the neonicitinoids game. Neonicitinoids (or “neonics”) are a class of insecticides that science shows are a primary killer of our honeybees. Of course, the industry denies it, in the time-honored tradition of corporate denial (think DDT, Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Climate Change, or, soon at a theater near you, Fukushima!) The usual game plan is to float a disinformation campaign and to deny as long as possible, only to quietly acquiesce to the underlying science AFTER using influence to secure liability protection.) I don’t want my participation in such a program to provide “cover” to corporate malfeasance.

Bayer sponsoring a Bee Registry is like General Mills giving out free wildflower seeds to help the bees. (Oops, that’s a real thing, too!) Is it cynical greenwashing or brilliant PR? I can’t tell, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Am I tilting at windmillls? Should I cowtow and collaborate? I cannot tell anymore.

 

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the Sting Out of It–

A.V. Walters–

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We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.

Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.

I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.

Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.

Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.

There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.

There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)

This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!

Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.

Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.

Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)

Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.

 

 

 

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.

 

 

 

 

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.

Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.

Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.

We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.

So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.

So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.

By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.

I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.

 

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

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We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.

 

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

The day before yesterday, Rick and I went for a walk in the woods. There was a wind-storm over Christmas, and we wanted to see if any more trees were down. We wore our regular shoes. There was no snow. So, we busied ourselves, with some minor trail-clearing, before yesterday’s predicted storm. (It’s nice to remove the trip hazards, while you can still see them.) At least the additional trees that fell were already dead—this is normal winter renewal.

We also wanted to check on our “widow-makers,” trees that came partially down in the wind-storm last August, but that were caught in the surrounding trees—hanging, but not stable. These are a woodsman’s worst nightmare. They are extremely dangerous to clear, as you can tell by their name. We have several snarls—where a fallen tree smashes into its neighbor, and that one into its neighbor—and so on, until four or five trees are entangled. We’ve been slowly clearing them, hoping that winter would level them for us. No such luck, so far.

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Widow-maker.

Unfortunately, several widow-makers block, or threaten, our trails. One of them is further complicated by being bound up in some of the ancient, barbed-wire fencing. The trees have grown, embedding the wire deep into their trunks. A big maple, split at its base, leans heavily on a smaller maple, over our main access trail, both of them wired together. It’s just a matter of time, and wind, until the smaller tree splits or collapses under the burden. (Should the bigger tree fall fast, that entrapped wire could cut through a bystander like a hot knife through butter.) We decided at least to clear the wire. Tinsnips in hand, we do what we can.

Yesterday morning we woke up to a different world. Finally, winter has arrived. It’s tough to estimate, with the drifting, but I’d guess we got a good six inches of dry, fine, powder. It’s about time.

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What a difference a day makes.

Though the mild season has seen great savings in heating costs and convenience, it is disconcerting not to have a real winter. This new blanket of snow sets that to rights. It will also provide needed “chill” hours to our fruit trees and down-time for the bees. Not that the bees need super-cold temperatures, but it is hard on them to have warm weather with no blossoms. Now, they can huddle and give up on the search for pollen and nectar.

Now, one would think that, being late December, we’d be ready for winter. Were we that well-oiled, seasonal machine, we’d be waiting, ready, with the snow-blower already set up on the Kubota. Yeah, right. Instead, we flailed about in the snow, disconnecting summer implements and hooking up the blower. The reward is that the blower makes short work of snow removal. Rick did the driveway, parking area and paths at the house site, and the drive at the apartment—ours and our landlady’s, in a couple of hours. Altogether it’s over a thousand feet of plowed road and path, about ten feet wide.

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Suiting up.

We’re settling in now, to the slower pace of winter. Things need to be more deliberate. A trip to town requires clearing the car, first. Work on the house requires warming glue or caulking materials. You have to think ahead. We don’t mind. We have the necessary tools and we like the snow. Another snowfall like this one, and we’ll break-out the snowshoes.

 

 

The Reward of the NewBees–

A.V. Walters.

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Perhaps, a tiny basement apartment isn’t really the best place to process honey. After all, it is a sticky business.

Last week, we “harvested” the honey—which was simply removing the frames from those hives we decided could afford to share their honey with us. That’s honey “in the comb and on the frame,” though—nowhere near ready to pour into jars for the pantry.

Some people just eat comb honey—wax and all. It is certainly the most “natural” way to do it—but I have limited patience for that much wax in my teeth. And, it’s messy. There are several options for how to separate the wax from the comb. You can cut it from the hive frame, crush it and filter it—an insanely messy business. Or, you can spin it.

We picked spinning. We bought a cheapie, two-frame spinner, online. It came with no directions. (I guess we’re supposed to know what we’re doing.) We looked at the tools recommended, in the many catalogues and bee sites, and decided to improvise. Our process is based on common sense, not experience. We’re winging it here, so don’t think this is the right way, or the only way, to do it.

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We start with the frames. There are ten frames in each layer of a standard Langstroth hive. Many backyard beekeepers use an eight frame configuration, for lighter, more maneuverable supers (hive boxes.) It’s not a bad idea, but since we went with a mix of used and pre-fab hives, we stuck with the standard, larger ten-frame design. We removed a full hive layer (super or bee box) of honey—so ten full frames. Once you lift a full ten frames of honey, you begin to appreciate why the smaller eight frame configuration has become popular. (We’ll just have to grow muscles.)

If you harvest early in the season, you need to first separate the bees from the frames you want to remove. This is done either with a “bee escape” (it allows the bees to leave, but not come back in) placed in the hive a day before harvest, or by using a blower to remove the bees from of the frames. But, when it starts to get cold, the bees crowd lower in the hive for warmth and we took advantage of this with a late season harvest. We only had a few of workaholic bees on the honey frames, which we brushed off with a feather. (That’s not a metaphor, we used an actual feather.)

We placed the honey-laden frames in a sealed bin (so the bees couldn’t go after them) and brought it inside for processing. The honey is much easier to spin if it’s warm. We don’t keep it very warm in our home, so we had to turn up the heat to a sweltering 72 degrees. We used a sharpened putty knife to skim the top coating of wax from one side of each frame, the “capped” comb—and then placed it in the spinner. Voilà, liquid gold! Then we flipped each frame, skimmed the cap off that side, and repeated the process. We put the “skim,” (a mixture of beeswax, with some honey) into a crockpot. On moderate heat, the wax softens, and floats to the top, leaving honey below. After it cools, we pulled the hardened wax off, and poured off the remaining honey. That way, we don’t waste any honey.

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A two-frame spinner can only handle one side of two frames, at a time. Spun, the honey flies against the inside of the spinner and collects in the bottom as you process. It’s slow and tedious, but it smells incredible. Honey and beeswax—sweet and clean. This very tangible reward is enough to keep you going.

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After it was all spun, it sat over-night. (Though it wasn’t our intention, letting it sit allowed almost all the bits of wax to float to the top, making the next step easier.) We then cold-filtered the honey and put it in jars. (We used paint filters from the hardware store.) Most of our canning jars are in storage, so we’d been saving store-bought honey and peanut butter jars for months. As we filtered, we began to panic. This was much more than we’d expected—and we were nearly out of jars (oh, and lids!) Soon we were using old honey-bear squeeze bottles…and anything else we could find. We ended up with over 35 pounds of honey. (At roughly 2.85 pounds per quart, it left us scrambling.) That’s enough for us for maybe a year—and some gift jars. Not bad, from one hive, in a ‘bad’ year. (According to local beekeepers, this was a low-yield year.)

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Now, we need to do is figure out how to process the wax. We’re thinking, candles. And amazingly, the place is not too sticky.

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And, The Winner Is…

A.V. Walters-

hives

Home, sweet home.

Where is winter? We have no snow. Though the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) typically gives us a mild winter—this is the most extreme in forty years of Michigan, El Nino tracking. The temperatures are hovering in the mid 40s during the day, some days it’s warmer. If I’d known, I’d have planted chard, and maybe garlic. On warmer days, our bees are out and about, but I have no idea what they’re doing. There’s very little blooming in this odd December weather. I’ve heard that bees enjoy the occasional mid-winter jaunt—out to stretch their wings and to defecate. Like most creatures, they hate to soil the nest.

The mild season poses tough questions for us as newbee beekeepers. On one hand, the bees, so far, have not been subjected to the temperature extremes of the past few years. That must be good. On the other, they are out and about and active—potentially increasing their caloric needs. How do we balance this out? It’s like the old question, do you get wetter walking or running in the rain?

We were all ready to harvest some honey in October—but it didn’t get cold. We could see the bees out there, still gathering. So we waited and debated. We are in this, for the bees, and honey is a fringe benefit, not the primary objective. Our first inclination was to leave all the honey for the bees during the winter—perhaps to harvest a little in the spring. Our bee group looked at us like we were crazy. Not only was that a waste (in their view), they added that a hive, top-heavy with frozen honey, was a liability for winter survival. That swung us back towards a harvest. All this extra warm time has only compounded our confusion.

We have two issues: winter-wrap and harvest. In northern climates, beekeepers have a variety of bee protection measures to keep bees warm (other than carting them off to Florida.) There are simple hive-wraps, insulated hive-wraps, or baffled hive enclosures. Then, there are special feeding formulas, and the debate of the protein/carbohydrate balance suitable for winter nutrition. It’s daunting. The catalogues are full of bee pampering solutions, vitamins and herbal treatments. We shrug. Honey is bee food. We’ll leave them with their honey. After all, our goal was to keep Michigan-hardy bees. We selected our bees from Michigan over-wintered stock (not those pampered, Florida snowbirds.) We see over-pampering as part of the problem. As for the winter-housing, we do intend to wrap the hives when temperatures fall into the 20s on a regular basis. The biggest issue is to protect them from wind. Bees huddle and give off heat and moisture during the winter. The northern beekeeper must be careful not to impair circulation too much, because trapped moisture can lead to mold and mildew borne bee illnesses. Really, there are almost too many variables!

Finally, over the weekend, we did an inspection and took some honey. It was winter-warm—low 50s, so the bees were in slow-active mode. Mostly, they ignored us. At first blush, the hives looked terrible. We know that there is a normal fall die-off—but nothing prepared us for the mound of dead bees on the ground in front of each hive. Oddly, that may be good news. The location of the bee bodies (just below the entry) indicates that bees, dying in the hives, are being tossed out the front door—in a normal, housekeeping kind of way. A true hive collapse has few bodies—since the bees just fly away and die, mysteriously. Our active bees, though slowed by winter, look good. And the scouts are doing their jobs. Both Rick and I received “warning thunks” as we disrupted the hives, but no stinging.

We first investigated the two friendlier hives, Niña and Pinta. I’ve been worried about Pinta, since it was the first to slow down, back in October. We have limited experience, so we can only compare the three hives to each other. Pinta seemed listless—and had the most noticeable pile of corpses. But her guards were quick, and the bees inside were clumping in the middle—a good sign. We were disappointed that the top super (a hive box) held only some beeswax comb—no honey. Below, things looked good—plenty of honey and bees. We found the same situation with Niña, the other mild-mannered hive. We decided not to harvest honey from either of them. Maybe we are too conservative, but we’d like our bees to over-winter naturally.

Of course, the winner is Santa Maria, our beehive on steroids. Santa Maria, (our problem child of the summer) calmed down after we added an extra super to the hive. We think the aggressive behavior was just because the bees were busting out at the seams of their space. We’re lucky we caught it, and they didn’t swarm! This is the upside of an aggressive hive. They are industrious! These bees went right to work and filled that entire super with honey. We were shocked. Looking deeper, the hive had more than enough for winter—two full supers of honey! We relieved her of one whole super. (Ten frames from a standard, medium, Langstroth hive.)

This was the hive we were so anxious to trade! We’ll just have to learn to harness that energy, and keep them busy! (I remember parents saying things like that about us as kids. There may be something to it.) With this new appreciation for “busy as a bee,” we closed up the hives and carried off our bounty.

Next, we’ll deal with processing.

Note: I realize that the recycled photo, above, may give the wrong impression about the mild winter. I didn’t take pics when we harvested honey–so I used one from earlier in the summer. I didn’t think of it until later–but our trees are bare and most of the greenery is gone.

Critters and Bunnies and Bugs! (Oh My!)

A.V. Walters–

Welcome to Michigan. Gardening in California was a formulaic cinch, by comparison. There we had concern about water, and gophers—but there aren’t many insects in California’s parched climate. Of course, we had the flies from the dairy, but they didn’t bother the garden.

Gardeners here have to be a hardier lot. There are seasons, with their never-ending uncertainties. We had a late May frost that zapped the blooms, and may cost the region much of its fruit this year. It didn’t affect our garden, because I was too chicken to plant with the night-time temperatures dipping so low. Our starts were safe and snug indoors, by the window. Not that we’ve been without garden trauma. The deer jumped the fence and did all that damage to our fruit trees. The trees are slowly recovering, the pears in the lead and the apples trailing. I think they’ll all survive. Deer are a serious garden hazard. At least we think we’ve ironed out the fence issues with deer.

We have gophers, but so far, they haven’t been seen in the garden. Most everything is in buckets (except lettuce and greens—fingers crossed.) Right now we’re trying to figure out how to amend the fence again to keep out the bunnies. We thought we had the spacing right, but somebunny is sneaking in at night and nibbling away at the peppers. Too bad we always have to learn through losses.

That’s true for the bugs, too. We’ve lost almost half of the tomatoes to insects. I’ve been out of area so long, I don’t even remember the names of all of the voracious 6-legged predators. Some kind of leaf-hopper-thingie is chewing through the tomato stems. One solution seems to be that our starts need to be bigger before we set them out. The larger ones have not been munched by bugs. Alternatively, we are considering floating row covers, which will outwit the bugs, and give us some frost protection, too. We lost some squash to cutworms—not a crisis, but the tomatoes came as a shock. In California, nothing touches the tomatoes. Here, it’s a race between the bugs and the bunnies.

The bugs are after us, too. Black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. We’re sitting ducks out there. The worst are the black flies. Thank God they have a pretty short season and should be gone by July. We mixed up a concoction of vinegar, water and vanilla, which seems to keep most of the bugs at bay. Before we found that, we were swollen and itchy—to the point of under-the-weather.

My father used to shake his head at scant summer clothes. As teens, we ran around in cut-offs and tank tops, oblivious to the hazards. Between the summer sun and the bugs, you were toast. Now, I dress like Dad, long sleeve tees, jeans, a neckerchief and a hat. Sometimes older is wiser.

Even our bees are plagued by bugs! Of our three hives, one has always been a little vulnerable. The ants have discovered the weakness, and are trying to set up shop in the top of their hive. Several times a day, I interrupt their efforts, and squish every single ant that doesn’t move faster than me. There are thousands of them. Rick has a plan for ant-wells*. We’ll get the supplies on our next town run and then we’ll foil those ants!

* hive stand legs in sheltered oil moats. More on that later.

Welcome Homebees!

A.V. Walters/Photos by Rick Edwards–

Bee transport next to new home.

Bee transport next to new home.

Opening up the "nuc" box.

Opening up the “nuc” box.

Checking the frames.

Checking the frames.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

Stragglers, joining the rest in their new home.

Rethinking Hunting

A.V. Walters

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

It’s been a busy week–construction, completion of the fence, the arrival and installation of the bees, and putting all of the little plant starts into the ground. What a relief when the last yogurt container was empty and we could survey our little garden kingdom without the feeling that something else was needed…immediately. With the fence up, we moved the tomato cages (which had been protecting the new fruit trees) into their positions over the baby tomato plants.

The bees appear to be very happy. Their comings and goings are fun to watch. They have settled in and now they they probably know the neighborhood better than we do. It rained yesterday, and the morning saw a few dead bees on their doorstep. We weren’t alarmed. Bees die everyday. The average worker bee lives no longer than 45 days. By the end of their lives, they’ve done just about every job in the hive, starting with tending the young and moving on to more skill intensive tasks–building comb and maintaining the hive, guarding, foraging and scouting for pollen and nectar, and finally, returning to the hive to again tend to the young (and to teach new bees the ropes.) What was interesting was that we first noticed the dead bees on their doorstep on a rainy day. A rainy day is an opportunity for a little housekeeping. The bees can be crabby when they have to stay inside.

Yesterday was an eye-opener. Rick was up early, anticipating the construction crew. We had a dense and drippy fog–so there was the question of whether or not to start the roof. We’re watching the forecast, hoping for a window of dry, so we can safely pull off all the tarps that have kept the weather out of the house all winter. He wandered over to the garden to get a look at how the bees were handling the fog. Bees are generally early risers.

What he wasn’t expecting was the ravaging of the fruit trees. A deer had come right over our new 5,000 volt electric fence and sampled the leaves of of every single tree! Some she liked better than others. One poor little apple tree was completely denuded. The garden plants were unscathed–probably too small to attract deer attention. Still, we were in shock. Everyone we talked to had said that the deer won’t often jump an electric fence. Once they do, though, they’re trouble. What’s up with our deer? We suspect that the fenced area is so large that it doesn’t post a mental logistics problem for leaping deer. We are reduced to guessing at deer geometry.

We think most of the trees can be saved. I immediately zipped over to our neighboring cherry farmer to buy more small “tree cages.” Now, we have fences within our fences. Today, we’ll have to solve the problem of this deer–who now thinks our garden enclosure is his personal dining room. (Just where are those guard bees when you need them?) We’re debating two options: extend the fence higher with non-electric lines (as Rick pointed out, if they’re not touching the ground, the deer won’t be shocked in the air, even if they touch the fence); or set up a lower, perimeter line to interfere with the “jumping zone.” Maybe we’ll have to do both. (Then we’d have outer fences, to protect our electric fences, which protect our tree fences.) This is getting to be the Fort Knox of gardens.

The day was otherwise so busy that we didn’t have the time to work up a really foul mood about all of this. I did see Rick brooding a bit–asked what it was about. (After all, we have so many fronts on which to fret.) He looked up and said that he might reconsider whether to hunt on the property.

(Sorry, no photos, trouble with internet connection. I don’t have the skills to do pics from an internet cafe!)

Baby Steps

A.V. Walters

Looking deceptively innocent.

Looking deceptively innocent.

The fence is complete. After tonight, the last night on which we expect a frost alert, we can put our garden starts outdoors into their permanent homes. We’ve been hauling them out every day (all seventy or so of them) and then hauling them all back in at night. They’ll join the orchard whips, to be protected from the deer by the new fence. If we had any doubts about whether the fence was needed, in the interim, a few deer stepped in to convince us we’re on the right path. We hope the trees will recover.

The bees arrived today. The same fence protects them from the bears. Today we simply placed their bee transport boxes next to their hives. They were too agitated from the trip to pull the frames and place them into the hive bodies—we’ll do it tomorrow. When we pulled the plug from the boxes, the bees from one of the hives poured out in an angry mob. I was afraid they’d swarm (and I’d fail on my first day of beekeeping!) Within an hour they’d settled down and already some of the bees had found the pin cherry trees, blooming right behind the hives. The autumn olives are in bloom, too; their near-tropical fragrance is the perfect bee balm. The bees wasted no time and got right to work. Tomorrow we’ll do the transfer to their permanent homes.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

The roof framing crew showed up, too! Soon we’ll have a roof and we can settle in to the summer’s rhythm of finishing the house, minding the garden and the bees. We’re all on the same trajectory here. Things are looking up.

Good Fences Make…

A.V. Walters

electric-fence

It’s nearly time to put in the garden, and that means that we need to make fence decisions. Our biggest garden problem is deer. The deer are also a threat to the orchard saplings. We’ve combined the garden location with the orchard to consolidate fencing needs. We’ll also have the bees in the corner of the garden, which complicates things a bit. Locally there is a split on the type of fencing or garden protection needed from the deer. (Oh yeah, and from the bunnies, too.) No matter what you do, it’s expensive.

Some install tall traditional fencing—at least seven feet tall. Others go the electric route and install a multi-strand electric fence. One neighbor has completely foregone fencing. They protect their garden with a motion detector connected to a sprinkler system. We walk by regularly and we laugh when our meanderings, on the road, trigger the sprinkler response. Hey, I guess it works! (If not for the bees, I’d be tempted to go this route.)

The uber-tall solution looks fortress-like and it’s permanent. I’d like a little more flexibility to move the fence, in the future, when the garden expands.

So, I stepped into the vast world of electric fencing. Too many decisions! What’s the power source? Is it close enough to the house for AC power? (Not really, we’d have to underground several hundred feet of wiring for that.) That leaves us with the choice of solar, or DC. Solar sounds so….progressive and green. I was predisposed to that direction. Unfortunately, my research into reliability and power needs revealed that the system that would meet my needs (and have the warranty life I’d want) would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves us with 12 volt, DC batteries.

The pebble in the shoe of all these plans has been the bees. You see, bees attract bears. (The hives down the road were raided by a bear, last summer—it isn’t a hypothetical problem.) An electric fence system strong enough to get a bear’s attention has to be pretty beefy. Fence controllers are rated in several ways, by distance, by ‘joules’, and by the type of hazard (animal) contemplated. Though a “5 mile” fence would be fine for deer, to get the kick you need for bear, a 25 mile fence is needed (even though the fence dimensions themselves don’t change—it’s not the length of the fence that counts, it’s the total length of the wire strands you use.) A bear fence calls for a minimum of four strands. Some contend that seven is required. Not that appearance is the arbiter, but a seven-strand fence looks like a maximum security prison—minus the razor wire. (One beekeeper actually suggested a double fence—with a 30 inch no man’s land between them!) I think we’ll go with four strands. The fence must deliver a minimum of a one joule charge to dissuade a bear. That same power will make our fence pretty unfriendly to incidental human contact. It’s not a ‘leaning on the fence talking to neighbors’ kind of a fence. We worry about the cats.

All of this has been Greek to me. I’ve been researching the fencing on the internet. It’s quite an education. For every fencing option, there are at least three alternate opinions. Unfortunately, our tailored needs will make it near to impossible to pick anything up second-hand. I have about a week to make up my mind. By then, our seedlings will be busting out of their pots, begging for a permanent home in the garden. And right after that, about the first week in June, the bees will arrive. We’ll need to be ready by then.

March of the In-Betweens

A.V. Walters

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

T.S. Eliot was dead wrong. April is not the cruelest month. March is. One day it’s warm and lovely, the next, snow is falling and the ground is white, again. For those of us waiting to build, to plant, to get a jump on the season… it’s agony. Those nice days—just teasers—don’t let them fool you into starting your seeds early. It’s March, the season of the lions and the lambs.

My years in Northern California, where daffodils come up in February and (if you’re lucky) March will deliver a seasonal, finale rainstorm, have confused me as to the truly transitional nature of March. March, in Northern Michigan, is here to teach patience.

I’m trying to find transitional, spring-readiness things to do. I’ve hung my laundry on the line in the snow. (Yes, it works.) We’ve assembled, primed and painted the bee boxes. I’m pulling nails out of some recycled flooring we bought on craigslist. It’s a time of enforced waiting. Today we’ve seen light snow and temperatures in the teens, again. By midday, we may see twenties—what’s spring-like about that? Those stellar 40s and 50s of several weeks back, spoiled us. Now, temperatures in the 20s and 30s feel cold. We’d spent February hiking in single digits and teens, without complaint but now, we turn up our collars on much nicer days.

We’ve been tempted to take the snow-blower off of the Kubota (and maybe replace it with the backhoe, for building) but for the fear that we’d trigger one of those late-March snowstorms. Maybe that’s the origin of the term ‘March Madness.’ (Basketball may have nothing to do with it.)

There are things that need this on-again-off-again season. Warm days and cold nights wake up the trees. Sap begins to run. March is the sugaring season. Without the stuttering warm-cold cycles, the sap production would go straight to manufacturing leaves—and we’d have no maple syrup. I’m a little in awe of the sugaring process. Who thought that up, all those eons ago? The whole thing is an exercise in patience; collecting the sap, literally, drop by drop; boiling it down, for syrup it takes forty gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup; and bottling it up. Sugar-maple candy boils down even further, and then gets instantly crystalized, ladled into the snow. Around here, it’s mostly the old timers who still tap the trees. Our neighbors do, using new-fangled drip collection bags, (if you’re patient, you can watch the steady dripping that turns the season.) We’ve talked about it; we certainly have the maples. It goes into our ‘maybe someday’ list.

maple

The critters are out. We’re in a walk-out, basement apartment, so we see them almost eye-to-eye as they wander about, unfettered by deep snow. There’s a herd of deer who happen by everyday at dusk. Just before the deer show up, there’s a small parade of turkeys. The bunnies come out just as the last light fades. If we miss them, we can take attendance by the tracks left in the thin spring snow. Two days ago, the robins arrived. I was sitting by the window and suddenly the yard was full of them. To the impatient among us, they are a sure sign of Spring.

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

IMG_2078

I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

indian pipes1
We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Learning the Language…

A.V. Walters–

IMG_1897

I had the best of intentions this spring. We walk most days, and my plan was to try to identify all the new plants as they popped up through the leaf litter in the forest floor. Ha! Then, we started work on the apartment, putting in such long hours that we didn’t get out for our regular walks. By the time we got back into the forest, it was lush and green, overgrown way past my ability to catch up on the name-game.

It’s not like I don’t know anything. After all, I grew up around the Great Lakes—most of these plants are familiar. But I know them by the names that kids use, like sour grass, white man’s footsteps and sugar plums (oxalis, plantain, serviceberries.) I’m looking to upgrade my botanical vocabulary.

We’re back to walking regularly. My new goal is to positively identify at least one plant a day. We come home from our walks with pockets stuffed with leaves and berries. Then I hit the books (and the internet) to find their “real” names. We notice other things along the way, too. A few weeks ago someone dropped off a load of bee hives in a clearing along the road we live on. Sometimes, you can hear their hum from 100 feet away. A few weeks later, an electric fence went up around them. We scratched our heads. Just who was that fence supposed to dissuade?

According to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), there are no wolves, bears or cougars in Leelanau County. You hear of sightings, but they’re never “substantiated.” I’ve been hearing of them for 25 years. I can’t imagine that the DNR has a stake in not acknowledging them, but neither is it comforting to think they’d be wrong for so long. (More head-scratching.) Almost twenty years ago I found a deep and impressive set of scratches in the bark of a tree—six feet up from the ground. That’s a bear. This winter, on one of our snowshoe hikes, we found (big) cat scratch marks on a deadfall tree—with big cat prints to match. (More tree scratching.) Yesterday, on my walk I found bear scat. I spent my childhood summers in Keweenaw County—I know bear scat when I see it. Then, I heard through the neighborhood grapevine that one of the neighbors had seen a bear in her yard.

For whatever it’s worth, these things don’t scare us. It doesn’t change how we move through the trails. (I might re-think planting blueberry plants around the new house, though.) I’m glad that the forest is healthy enough to support the critters all the way to the top of the food chain. Other than us, I mean. I have no intention of setting the record straight in any official capacity. I’ll keep cataloguing my way through the plant kingdom, so I’ll feel more at home, in my new home.

 

 

 

 

 

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

This Is How It Goes–

A.V. Walters–

Up north, in the U.P. where my mother lives, folks are getting Lyme disease. These are hearty, out-doorsy people, who spend a lot of time in the woods. Lyme disease isn’t new—it’s been around for decades, just not up there. It’ll take a little time for people to wise up to the new reality—the ticks have moved north. Soon, folks will take precautions, recognize symptoms, and will have made the adjustment so that a bite doesn’t necessarily mean a long-term, debilitating illness. You adjust.

In Michigan, (and southwest Ontario) the forests have been devastated. A shipment from China apparently, and inadvertently, imported the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s a pretty, little bug. Here, we have plenty of ash trees, and no predators. Estimates are that, so far, 20 million trees have been infected and died. There is no cure—they offer some heavy-duty, toxic treatments that can hold it at bay, (if your favorite yard tree is at risk) but nothing can be done to protect the forests. Before it runs its course, we will lose about 80 million trees. Now that the seasonal leaves are gone, you can look into the woods, as you drive by, and see all the fallen trees. It’s heartbreaking. Ash naturally grows in a diverse forest—so there are still plenty of other trees standing but, like the elm before, this area can kiss its ash good-bye.

We have forested property. We walk its hills, shaking our heads. The ash are dying and falling. The tree has a distinctive bark, so even in the winter it’s easy to identify. As we walk, we see not only the downed victims of the blight, but every one of those standing trees, with that lovely deeply-grooved bark, is doomed. They say to expect 100% losses. There are timber restrictions on the movement of ash wood-products. Areas are quarantined to try and prevent the spread. Our quarantine area is Lower Michigan. It’s spread to some counties in the U.P. now, too. So far as I can figure, the only winners in this game, and it’ll be short term, are the woodpeckers, who eat the larvae.

Bat White-Nose Syndrome is spreading across North America. It’s caused by a fungus. In some bat populations, the mortality is 95%. Because it affects a wild species, and the primary transmission route is bat-to bat, there’s not much that can be done. It originated in Europe. Nobody knows how it arrived here, but human transmission is likely. The fungus can be transported by the movement of people and equipment, in the forest. That’s the likely way that it got here. Unlike the European bats, ours have no immunity to the disease. It thrives in cold temperatures, infecting bats during hibernation. Unfortunately, the close contact of bats cuddling in hibernation, speeds its transmission. People shrug. Too bad about the bats, eh? Well, it’s more serious than that. The bats eat the bugs. What are we going to do with the resulting bumper crop of bugs?

Dutch Elm, West Nile, Lyme disease, Emerald Borers, White-Nose. I could go on. (Don’t even get me started about the bees, who are primarily the victims of neonicitinoid pesticides.) These are pests that are spread beyond their borders by the impact of people. In some cases, it is simple relocation, like our Ash Borer. In others, because our climate is changing and so extending the range of existing critters.

Maybe, like Lyme in Northern Michigan, we can adjust to new threats. What about the bats, or the bees, or the ash trees? How will we adjust to a world without bats? What will we do with the resulting bonanza of bugs? More poisons like neonicitinoids? How can we know the rippling impact of these changes? It threatens to change the face of nature. Most Americans don’t live in nature and they won’t notice. They get their food—sprayed, plastic-wrapped and GMO’d. They fail to comprehend that diversity is a necessary component of a healthy environment and take no notice of the rapid level of extinctions all around us. Most Americans don’t know we have a bat crisis, or that the Ash trees are dying.

For my part, next spring I’ll put up bat houses and maybe purple martin condos. I’ll shun chemical interventions and try to live lightly on the planet. I’ll read and try to stay informed. Because this is how it goes.

I don’t usually stoop to political pandering, but here’s a message I truly value. As a gardener, and a lover of bees, this is an important message from Credo. Later today, I’ll get off my soapbox and post a regular Two Rock kind of post.

A.V. Walters

Subject: Tell the EPA: Immediately suspend the pesticide that’s killing bees!

Dear Friend,

A blockbuster study released this week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has for the first time labeled the pesticide clothianidin as an “unacceptable” danger to bees.

Scientists have long thought that clothianidin is at least partially to blame for the alarming rate that bees have been dying off in the U.S. – nearly 30% of our bee population, per year, has been lost to so-called colony collapse since 2006.

But the EPA has repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and Americans’ urgings to ban its use, citing lack of evidence.

Now, the EFSA study could be a major breakthrough to convince the EPA to take emergency action, and suspend the use of clothianidin to stop the precipitous decline in global honeybee populations.

I just signed a petition urging the EPA to take action. add you name here to speak out for the bees:

http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/efsa_bees/?r_by=53573-44197-rKQIoXx&rc=confemail