Archives for posts with tag: bees

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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.

 

“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.)

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

Queen Santa Maria: “Off With Their Heads!”

A.V. Walters

Too Close For Comfort

Too Close For Comfort

They say that a beehive takes on the personality of its queen. That may be a little much, but they are all her children. I don’t know whether there can be a true personality in a critter that has a colony culture. Much of bee activity is driven by pheromones. The queen’s chemical aura both binds the workers to her, and simultaneously suppresses their reproductive systems. They communicate via the famous “bee dance” and with a complicated and primal chemical/olfactory messaging. If you think bees don’t communicate, try disturbing the hive or, more tellingly, mess with one of the scouts.

Our bee adventure has had mixed results. At the outset, shortly after “installing” our bees, I became ill. As a result we lost precious time learning to speak ‘bee.’ Our bees had minimal interference for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Sure, we watched their comings and goings, but until I was back on my feet, we didn’t do full hive inspections.

Just watching from the outside, though, there were clear differences between the hives from day one. We started with two “nucs,” which are established mini-hives—a queen, workers and a few frames of comb with brood and food. Alternatively, you can buy “package bees” and a queen, but they take a little longer to get established. With our short season, we decided on the nucs. We started with two hives and the transfer was pretty uneventful. In the first few days it was clear that the activity levels between the hives was alarmingly different—one was inching along while the other was a bustling center of action. We thought there was a problem with the “smaller” group (who, to their defense had been smaller in number from the start.)

Then, we got the third hive. With three, we needed to identify them better so we named them—Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Niña was the hive we thought was struggling. When Pinta arrived, it became clear that Niña and Pinta were far more alike, and that Santa Maria, (going gangbusters) was the outlier. Pinta came with a few more bees than Niña—so it was a little more active. That Santa Maria, though, was the New York hub of bee-dom. We even relocated the hives further apart from each other, out of concern that the Santa Maria mob might overwhelm the territory. Other than that, we left them alone to do their bee-thing.

It’s fun to watch them, their comings and goings. By careful observation you can see whether they’re coming back to the hive laden with pollen, or empty-handed. While gardening I spent a lot of time observing the bees. People from my bee group warned that there can be hungry times for the bees, between various blooms, even in summer. We saw no such lags. We are really well located to take advantage of several different biomes—forest, open fields, stream habitat and swamp. It seemed something was always blooming. Our intrepid workers were always coming home with saddlebags full of pollen. We’d check, peeking in from time to time, (especially when we had the ant problem) and as the colonies grew we added additional supers on to the stack. Even our little Niña was doing well.

It is enormously gratifying to see your own bees pollinating the vegetables in your garden. As we move around the property we keep our ears open for the buzz of pollinators. Sometimes its one of the local native varieties, but often we spy our honeybees out working the fields. There is something peacefully pastoral about the steady work rhythms of the bees. They remind us that “measured and steady” is a template for natural success.

Santa Maria, though, is like a hive on steroids. It is what beekeepers call an aggressive hive—and that’s a good thing. Aggressive hives produce far more honey than loafers like Niña and Pinta. Some beekeepers search out aggressive hives for breeding. If we get that far, it’ll be interesting to see how the different hive types do in over-wintering.

If we get that far.

You see, like some ominous Frankenbee hive, Santa Maria has become a problem. Our bees share the fenced area with the garden and the orchard, or at least Niña and Pinta do. Santa Maria is not so keen on sharing. Twice, I’ve been driven from the garden, stung, because something about my activity alarmed the Santa Maria scouts. Once I was coiling hose. The other time, I was weed-hacking, but not near Santa Maria. Beekeepers learn to expect the occasional bee sting. It goes with the territory. We suit up for working with the bees. The rule of thumb is, suit up and move confidently—without any fast or threatening maneuvers—and you’ll be fine. That is exactly the case with Niña and Pinta. Steady and just a touch of smoke and the bees tolerate an amazing level of interference.

But, Santa Maria has me wearing my bee gear to garden! We noticed last week that Santa Maria bees sometimes came from underneath the hive. A cautious peek revealed that there is hive building outside the hive box. That either means that these overly busy bees are building unauthorized honeycomb or, worse yet, that a small offshoot swarm has taken up housekeeping close to the old homestead. Either way, it helped to explain why they are so aggressive in the garden.

So, Saturday, we suited-up to investigate. Keeping in mind the general attitude of Santa Maria, it felt like we were arming for war (and it’s a good thing we did.) The objective was to lift and move each of the stacked bee boxes, so that we could flip over the bottom board to get an idea what they were up to, down there. This is a bit of a chore, because at this time of year, when the bees are well stocked with honey, each of these frame boxes can top 70 pounds! (We guess that ours were at about 50.) We got past the first two layers, oohing and ahing at the stores of honey. The bees were well smoked and on alert, but not hostile. When Rick cracked loose and started to separate the third box, the bees went crazy. Some people are afraid of a “swarm” of bees. A swarm is a relatively gentle bunch. They are in the middle of relocating and they have bigger fish to fry than some human. However, bees pouring out of a hive in defense of their home is a thing to behold. Within seconds I was inundated with bees. We kept our cool, that is, until the bees started stinging me through my jeans.

We had agreed, in advance, that in the event of a problem, the stung person would retreat and the remaining person would close up the hive. I retreated—bringing with me a small cloud of angry bees. Once I’d cleared the worst of them off my legs, I went back to help Rick. After all, the retreat didn’t really solve the problem and it wasn’t fair to leave him with the heavy lifting and the defensive smoking at the same time. Ultimately, we just closed the hive back up, but didn’t succeed in checking out the problem under the hive. So, we still have the problem.

Tonight is our beekeeping-group meeting. We are eager to get advice, from the more experienced keepers, on how to handle the-hive-on-steroids. For those of the group, who like aggressive bees, we may offer to swap for a kinder, gentler hive. Maybe what we need to do is replace the queen. (“The Queen is dead… Long live the Queen!”) Whatever the solution, we’re ready to gear up, again, (with more layers) and literally, get to the bottom of this problem.

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.

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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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….