We were blithely enjoying the fact that our gooseberries were tropically lush this spring when, yesterday, we noticed they were disappearing before our eyes. A closer inspection than we had done up to that point revealed hundreds of larva of the greedy, voracious, orc-like sawfly. These little bastards can do an amazing amount of damage seemingly in a matter of hours. Apparently, the sawfly lays her eggs on the bottom of the leaf stem. When the larva hatch they spread out and line of on the perimeter of the leaf and with impressive teamwork begin to eat their way to the center of the leaf. It doesn’t take long for the leaf to disappear.
So now, in addition, to my daily caterpillar check, I will be inspecting for sawfly. This can go on all summer according to my internet research to wit:
- The common gooseberry sawfly is the most troublesome pest of gooseberries. It can have three generations a year, with the larvae active in late April to June, July, and August to September
- The female sawflies lay eggs on the underside of leaves low down in the centre of the bush, so the young larvae go unnoticed until they have eaten their way upwards and outwards, devouring the leaves as they go. (My observation is that they eat from the outside in).
- Defoliated plants are weakened and may produce a poor crop the following year
- When the larvae are fully fed, they go into the soil, where they spin silk cocoons and pupate
- The pale spotted gooseberry sawfly only has one generation a year with larvae present in May and June.
- The small gooseberry sawfly has up to four generations a year with larvae present from late April.
My solution to the problem is to locate them and squish them. I have done much squishing of crawly critters this spring. I have to admit that on one level, it’s disturbing to kill so many little things. However, if I want to eat an apple or a gooseberry, it must be done. Yet, the swath of destruction I have left in my wake is nearly biblical.
“And there came great swarms of flies into the house of Pharaoh and the houses of his servants and the land was laid waste because of the swarms of flies in all the land of Egypt.”
I must go outside now and stand guard against the next plague that is to come.
We don’t have many dangerous plants in this area. No poison oak, for which I am particularly grateful, and no poison ivy. Some folks disparage the stinging nettle but, in reality, it is a beneficial, nutrition-packed vegetable and it’s so-called sting is rather benign when compared to a case of poison oak.
We do have poison hemlock and poison hemlock is sneaky, often showing up in your veggie garden disguised as a carrot. Our family had a run in with poison hemlock a couple of years ago when our grandson ate a bite from their backyard garden and ended up in the emergency room. He’s now quite the expert at identifying poison hemlock as is his mom who recently found a plant growing in our front yard garden in amongst some over-wintered carrots.
It’s pretty easy to identify from the characteristic purple mottling on the stem.
When it matures the poison hemlock can be mistaken for Queen Anne Lace, a common roadside plant.
The chart at the bottom of this article provides a good comparison between Queen Anne Lace and poison hemlock.
All parts of the poison hemlock plant can be poisonous so you should wear gloves when handling it. Best to dig it, bag it and put it in the garbage.
We have lots of wonderful, wild foods available for free on the island. Poison hemlock ain’t one of them.
This video linked below also has excellent identification tips for the fall version of poison hemlock.
The axe has a long and distinguished history as a mandatory tool for work and war. It is, in the language of high school physics, an inclined plane (two sided) attached to a level (handle) that allows one to deliver terrific force to a point. In the case of a round of wood this force causes the wood to split. In the case of a Viking holding an axe, heads split even more easily. The axe is what my physics teacher called a “simple machine.” The fact that its basic design has stayed constant for generation on generation attests to its usefulness and efficiency.
A wood burning home depends on the axe and variations of the theme. Our personal collection includes a standard axe, a maul, a hand maul, two hatchets, a collection of wedges and a thing called a “wood grenade.
Recently I took the plunge and purchased a Finnish Vipukirve http://www.vipukirves.fi/english/, a surprising new variation on the axe which increases the ease of splitting wood by a factor of at least two. That is, I think it is twice as easy to split wood with the Vipukirve.
It’s kind of amazing that it took 400,000 years or so for someone to come up with a completely new twist, an axe with a counter weight, that torques hard to the right as the blade makes contact with wood so that you get downward and sideways force at the same time. For someone who enjoys splitting a winter’s worth of wood it’s the equivalent of going from a wooden tennis racket to a one of those Prince oversize rackets that appeared in the 80’s.
The Vipukirve (or Leveraxe) is safer too. It has a longer handle which makes it more difficult to whack yourself in the leg. But what really makes it a safer tool is that you don’t have to swing so hard. Because of the design the Leveraxe never penetrates completely through the wood. In addition it doesn’t get stuck like a conventional axe which often means using wedges to extricate the blade.
Almost as valuable as the Vipukirve itself is the idea of putting your round inside a tire. This is magic. Check the video.
Transition Lummi Island has been quiet of late mainly because I get bored with myself and really don’t feel there is much to add to the discussion.
With three weeks to lay about I’ve been in a reading frenzy due, in part, to a trial subscription with Oyster (the Netflix of books) which seems to work very nicely. They have a good selection of books though not everything you would find on Kindle or iBooks.
I found myself reading these with “Transition” in mind.
Widow Walk by Gerard LaSalle makes Pacific NW history sound a lot more interesting than it did when we were force-fed a tedious view of Washington State history back in high school day. In Widow Walk we’ve got a pioneer couple on Whidbey Island, mentions of Bellingham, the Lummis, reef net fishing, Victoria, San Juan Island, Roche Harbor and various locations in BC. It’s a fast moving tale that involves a couple of real historical figures, a psychotic Haida raider, a kidnapped five year old, a brave frontier woman and her equally brave young daughter, a clever NW Indian guide, various nefarious characters, a one-eyed grizzly bear and even George Pickett, soon to become famous at the Battle of Gettysburg. (I did not know that General Pickett was once married to an Indian maid). At one level it’s a tale of disaster preparedness with fierce Northern tribes making boat raids to capture booty and slaves. The pioneers have developed early warning systems which, unfortunately, don’t work in the case of this story. Government is little help and the protagonist must take it upon herself to solve the problem (with a tiny but important piece of help from Captain George Pickett). Self-reliance, grit and determination and some luck win out in the end. It’s a pretty good book and will be particularly interesting to dwellers on the Salish Sea which doesn’t often provide the background for many novels.
Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne starts out strong but loses its way in the end. It’s about an intentional community in Wales that has been in business for twenty years. At the time of the book most of the characters are trying to find a way out demonstrating, I suppose, how difficult it is for even a small community with a similar philosophy and common goals to get along. Wild Abandon is the story of this unraveling but goes off in directions that cause the story to lose its arc; sort of like the community itself. Good start; poor finish. Keeping people on track is a difficult thing to do.
Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana is a wild and woolly history. There are some 2600+ volumes in the Library of Congress about Simon Bolivar. I’ve not read a one of them. In fact, even with a BA in history and some fifty years of additional reading since graduation, this is the first book I’ve ever read on South American history.
Let me tell you, it’s not a pretty picture: murder, torture, treachery, beheadings, flayings, rampaging ex-slaves, rabid Indians, cruel Spaniards, psychotic Creoles. And, that’s on a good day. What a mess? And what a difficult story to tell.
Bolivar, of course, is the key figure, the central theme in South America’s break with Spain. Spain didn’t give up easy. But they finally did. One can argue that getting rid of Spain is about all that the Bolivarian revolution accomplished as South American politics remains chaotic and unstable with lots of dictators, despots and warlords. What a mean, cruel history. Novelist turned historian, Marie Arana does an admirable job of detailing Bolivar’s life.
Even despots/dictators/presidents for life have a hard time getting things done.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Enough has been written about this one. With all the hoopla about “Wild” and its amazing success as a memoir, I was worried that it might be the hiking version of Eat, Pray, Love and as wretched in its self-absorption. I couldn’t stand EPL and didn’t finish it. Wild, on the other hand, is a surprisingly good read. There is self-absorption, though it didn’t bore.
I came away from Wild thinking that if you want to get something done you just have to keep putting one foot ahead of another; keep moving forward.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Could be a description of what we face if we don’t get our act together. As a book it’s overrated but still quite readable. The post-apocalyptic genre is a good exercise for stretching the mind and getting motivated to be ready for an uncertain future.
And I’m halfway through Population: 485 by Michael Perry which might be the most relevant book to the subject at hand. It’s a memoir of a very small mid-western told told from the POV of a volunteer EMT/fireman. Disparate people with varied backgrounds pulling together to help each other.
A little over three years ago a group of us got together informally to discuss the Transition Town Movement and how it might apple to Lummi Island. More details of that session were posted here in December of 2010.
It was essentially a brainstorming session that resulted in the following categories. There was no formal organization to put these into place; only the suggestion that these were things the island might wish to do. It was up to individuals or organizations to pick up the ball.
I thought it would be interesting to recap these categories and see what has happened in three years. I’ve rearranged the categories a bit to avoid being redundant in recapping where we are.
START AN ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARD — “Use this for ride sharing, exchange of items, time sharing, etc.”
What happened was “Nextdoor” which came along in a timely fashion. Nextdoor, supplementing Brown Betty and The Tome has provided a real time vehicle for an exchange of information, goods, skills, recommendation, gossip, etc.
SKILLS INVENTORY — “Which could include an on-line data base and a hard copy Island Yellow Pages (such as has existed in the past). Find out who knows how to do what and the kinds of equipment they have.”
Nextdoor provides the format for a skills inventory and for current recommendations and testimonials.
MATERIALS EXCHANGE —“Location where surplus stuff can be dropped off and picked up.”
Again, as it worked out, Nextdoor provided the perfect vehicle for not only a materials exchange but notifications for stuff needed and free items as well.
RESKILLING — “Using the skills inventory come up with a series of (workshops, classes, tutoring programs, mentoring situation) to teach a variety of subjects: gardening, food preserving, food storage, composting, beekeeping, thermal syphoning, welding, coppicing, charcoaling, fuel production, foraging, water catchment, animal husbandry, seed saving, plant breeding, etc. etc.”
What happened was the Grange Country Living Series which has been able to provide workshops for a number of these topics and more.
RECRUIT YOUNG GROWERS TO THE ISLAND — “Provide assistance with land and housing. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)”
We’ve fallen short here with the exception of the new Willows Garden and their full time gardener. But it would still be nice to bring some some farmers to the island.
PLANT FOOD PRODUCTION TREES —“in common areas. Trust land etc.”
What happened was two community orchards: one at the Curry Preserve near the Community Garden and one at the ferry parking lot. Both are maintained by volunteers and seem to be doing well.
COOPERATIVE BUYING GROUP — “To purchase food and supplies in bulk and get them to the island. Possibly to be done in coordination with a store.”
Nothing specific done here that I’m aware of with the exception of the backyard chicken people who seem to bulk order on a regular basis.
EXPLORE HEALTH AND WELLNESS —“It was noted that there are groups on the island working on this.”
As noted this was in process three years ago. But with the loss of two or three key players I think this committee faded away.
The last three items on the list have been addressed by our revitalized Disaster Preparedness group.
COMMUNITY WATER SUPPLY — Solar powered well; hand pumps; desalination.
CENTRALIZED ISLAND PROPANE STORAGE —From an earlier suggestion in the comments.
MAKE PLANS FOR ISLAND FUEL PRODUCTION — Using crop plants
All things considered, a pretty good report card for an informal get together. Maybe we should get together again some day and see what else we should focus our attention on.
Tim and I would probably not agree on our favorite tools as Tim always seemed to favor noisy power tools whereas I tend toward quiet ones. I realize that chop saws, table saws, power drills, routers, palm sanders, etc. have their place. But, a good hand tool is a thing of beauty and often of very intelligent design, has a long history and is pleasure to work with or hold in your hand.
I made a list of some of my favorite tools of the past year and why they were important to me:
Gimlet set: Usually comes in a set of four. It’s a hand drill for making a pilot hole or gaining purchase for a cup hook or hanging a picture. I read somewhere that in Colonial times entire houses were built using the gimlet. When you are making a single hole it’s a lot easier to get the gimlet than to get out the power drill.
Jaw Horse: I’ve used this so many times in the past year. It really grips stuff so you can clamp it, glue up, saw it, carve it, sand it or do what ever. Comes with attachment that will hold logs as well as one for full sheets of plywood.
Steam juicer: Live juices are no doubt healthier than cooked and canned juices but when you have lots of apples or berries to deal with a steam juicer is a pretty handy tool which allows you to make some juice and also creates pulp that can be used for jams and jellies. It’s more fun and tastier to use a cider press but I think you need a pick up truck load of apples to make the cider press worthwhile. We like pressing cider but the clean up is tedious and it’s usually cold when you do the pressing and cleaning up is a cold, wet job. The steam juicer can be efficiently used for small batches, is done inside on the stove top and is easy to clean up. We made quite a few quarts of apple juice plus lots of apple butter using the steam juicer.
Aeropress coffee maker: Makes one cup of coffee at a time. You need to grind some beans and heat some water. Takes about a minute and the coffee is consistently the same with each cup. It’s small, travels well and is inexpensive. Makes a better cup of coffee than a French press or Eva Solo coffee maker.
Narrow collinear hoe: Bought one after a tour of the Loganita gardens where they used this hoe to “floss” between and around plants. It’s a brilliant tool which can be used with surgical precision. Perfect for the anally retentive gardener. I have two. One has a three and a half inch blade. The other has a seven inch blade. Both are narrow with long handles allowing your to hoe without bending. Both use a scraping motion like a hula hoe. But, they work better than a hula hoe. I do sharpen them from time to time.
Two wheeled wheelbarrow: Don’t know why anyone uses a wheel barrow with single wheels. The argument is that you can’t maneuver it into tiny spaces. I rarely have a problem navigating mine with two wheels down garden paths or in between rows. Whatever disadvantage exists is offset by the fact that they never tip over and you can move them with only one hand. One of my most important tools.
Silky pruning saw: When it’s too much trouble to get the chain saw out and put on all the protective gear just grab your Silky saw and start sawing. Amazingly efficient on limbs up to six to eight inches. Great for pruning any size limb. Couldn’t be without this tool. I have a spare blade on hand to replace my saw if it ever wears out.
Post puller: Just a big lever but invaluable if you have to pull any metal posts that you’ve use for fencing. Had to redo our orchard fences which meant pulling 48 posts. Thirty dollars well-spent. I’ve pulled narrow diameter wood posts well (like the ones you use to stake trees).
Kuhn Rikon knives: Amazing knives. Colorful. Inexpensive.
Carving Chisels: I’ve got some nice carving tools but I’ve found this really cheap ($17) set from Harbor Freight to be very useful for a variety of tasks. They are so cheap I bought two and don’t have to worry about them like you do with expensive chisels.
I’m always interested in learning about other people’s favorite tools.
Chime in please.
First thing every Monday I read James Howard Kunstler’s blog. He writes essentially the same essay every week and has for years but is such a skillful and colorful writer that I still look forward the latest iteration. His thesis is easy to recap: Happy Motoring will come to an end. Suburbia is screwed because it is so auto dependent. The party is almost over. Things could get pretty bad. Young people ought to become farmers. And, we better get used to the idea of living smaller and more locally for the time when we no longer have fuel or are able to afford fuel to jump in our car and drive or fly wherever we wish to go.
I’m sympathetic to his point of view and have taken some basic steps to prepare (as in “prepper”) for the economic and social disaster that might be just around the corner. That is, in fact, the continuing point of this blog—to suggest that, while we do our thing, we should give some thought to what our future might look like as individuals and as a community.
Living on an island it is a bit easier to imagine being cut off, to be forced into localism by circumstances beyond our control. As an example, if the ferry craps out we have a whole lot of problems to solve quickly and probably expensively. In the case of a general economic breakdown which more than a few commentators believe is possible, we’d need to do some real work to keep our heads above water.
One interesting thing to think about is who would have value if we were forced to go it alone. If we had to rely on ourselves and our own resources it’s obvious that people who grow food, raise food, know how to forage for food or catch food would be extremely important. Anyone who has skills relating to wells, water, water systems, water purification would be in demand. A person capable of making fuel out of available material could write their own ticket. Those with construction, mechanical and engineering skills would be very busy. A bike builder or bike repair person would be a VIP. Scroungers and inventors would be very popular.
We would need medical and surgical talents as well as unconventional healing skills. Security could be an issue. Like it or not, islanders knowledgeable with weapons could be important to us. We would want to keep our fire department staffed and trained and fueled somehow. Woodcutters, bakers, home health care, nurses…I could go on about skills that would be required to maintain some semblance of comfort.
Saturday, at the Grange Country Living Series Workshop, Ann MacDonald, a voice coach and therapist took a group of us through an hour of voice work, a reminder of another important set of skills a small community would need if cut off for what ever reason. We would need, in fact demand, the ability to entertain ourselves: to sing, play, act and write.
Ann’s workshop reminded me that I (and we) don’t sing enough. There is a psychological obstacle for most of us to singing. We don’t think we sound that good. Shockingly, with Ann’s coaching the singing among the dozen or so who were there was very pleasing. We learned, for example, that it was easier to sing standing on one foot. It forced us to concentrate on balance and those balancing muscles in the core of our body, which are the muscles that actually produce the sound, rather than thinking about making a noise in our throat. It was fun. It was therapeutic. It was motivational. We ought to start now to develop a choral group on the island as one of most important things we could do to get ready for an uncertain future.
At the end of the session she sang for us sitting in a chair, relaxed and patient, letting the sound flow. It would be nice to be able to sing like she did.
Maybe we can.
“Beans are good food. They have no cholesterol and almost no fat. They are loaded with Proteins, calcium and iron. They have soluble fibre, which many people associate only with oat bran and they have omega-3 fatty acids which we tend to think of in fish oils. About the only thing that beans do not have is a good lobbying group to promote their advantages.”
– Neal Barnard, M.D. Foods that fight pain.
Surprising for a vegetarian I have never been a big fan of beans. Not until I started growing my own. After reading The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe I changed up my garden planting scheme to follow her formula for growing lots of calories and protein. I was already familiar with an array of bean choices from some presentations that Krista Rome of the Backyard Bean and Grain Project had made to our Gardener’s Network. Krista has reintroduced some old bean varieties in Whatcom County and sells them on her website.
Three years ago I had a good crop of shell beans (a couple of quarts) and was surprised at how satisfying they were compared to beans I had previously eaten. My guess is that the beans you buy in the store have been around so long they’ve lost their flavor and, more importantly, their texture as every bean I had every eaten was mealy or crunchy even with long soak times. The beans we’re eating now are smooth and flavorful.
Last year I had a good bean crop going. They made it to the bloom stage when, apparently, a few hundred rabbits showed up one night and ate them to the ground. Last year—no beans. And, if I can digress, I’m starting to understand why sheep herders shoot coyotes, wolves and mountain lions. After deer rampage through your orchard, the rabbits eat all your beans and orc-like swarms of yellow jackets decimate your beehives it is probable that one will begin to feel illiberal and develop an us-against-them mentality.
This year I put poultry fencing around the bean patch and now we have a cat. We call him Little Buddy but could have named him Dexter because he is the sweetest little serial killer you’ve ever scratched. Buddy has kept the rabbits on the run. The poultry fence kept him from using the bean patch as a cat box.
This year we got two gallons of beans in four varieties: Ely, Saxon, Jacob’s Cattle and Ireland Creek Annie. (Two gallons represents 32 entres for the two of us). Jacob’s Cattle and Ireland Creek Annie are bush beans. The others are pole beans. All are quite delicious spiced up with a bit of onion, green pepper, salt and touch of Tabasco. So far I like the Saxon the best. Because beans are such an important food for the non meat eater I think I will expand the bean patch next year.
But these were not the only beans for 2013. Gary P. and I decided that we wanted to experiment with growing food for the island. We were allowed to use a 1500 sq ft plot on some other people’s property. The experiment was to try and grow food with a minimal amount of work and no irrigation other than normal rain water. Interesting that we decided to do this in one of the driest years on record. Gary plowed, disked and tilled the plot with his tractor. We planted soybeans. I hoed it once a week and we were amazed that we got about 100 lbs of beans off the plot. These were the edamame variety which you steam or boil and eat from the pod. They are quite addictive and I’ve got about 25 lbs blanched and vacuum packed in the freezer.
“A 1/2-cup serving of shelled edamame contains only 100 calories, with 3 g of unsaturated fat and 8 g of protein. It also provides 4 g of fiber and is a good source of calcium, copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, thiamin, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K. Edamame doesn’t contain any cholesterol and has very little sodium.”
Many people complain that beans cause “digestive upset.” Carol Deppe points out that if you eat beans regularly your body will adapt.
Eat enough beans and you might write a poem.
Next to white rice
it looks like coral
sitting next to snow
Hills of starch
The burnt sienna
Azusenas being chased by
the terra cotta feathers
of a rooster
There is a lava flow
through the smoking
spills on ivory
Ochre cannon balls
next to blanc pebbles
Red beans and milk
make burgundy wine
from the eggshell
tinge of the plate.
My brother-in-law came for a visit. He brought a box of Twinkies. He offered me one. I declined, but then decided to take a bite for old time sakes. I used to love the Twinkie back in the 50’s. In fact, the Twinkie was one of my favorite snacks along with another Hostess House product—the cream filled chocolate cupcake.
The Twinkie disappeared for awhile when Hostess House took bankruptcy protection. But a financial holding company bought the Hostess House Brand and relaunched the new Twinkie this past July. The advertising on the box proclaims, “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever.” I don’t quite understand what that means. But the point is that the Twinkie is back on the shelves and people will be consuming them in large quantities.
The new Twinkie doesn’t taste vey good. I may suffer from nostalgia infused memory but the Twinkie of sixty years ago was quite tasty, a rich sponge cake with vanilla filling. It was, no doubt, replete with offensive ingredients as is the new Twinkie which, I’m certain, if kept in a cool, dry place you would be able to eat one hundred years from now. The ingredients give the impression that it was conceived in a lab. It’s something the Uni-bomber might have kept on hand to avoid trips to town.
Here’s what’s in the new Twinkie: Enriched wheat flour, sugar, corn syrup, niacin, water, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable shortening – containing one or more of the following: partially hydrogenated soybean oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil, beef fat, dextrose, whole eggs, modified corn starch, cellulose gum, whey, leavenings (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate), salt, cornstarch, corn flour, corn syrupsolids, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, polysorbate 60, dextrin, calcium caseinate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, wheat gluten, calcium sulphate, natural and artificial flavors, caramel color, yellow No. 5, red #40.
Much of our processed food is loaded up with these emulsifiers, desiccants, preservatives and colorings. And, the evidence is becoming clearer and clearer that high fructose corn syrup is the work of the Devil. One wouldn’t think this kind of article from this week’s Yahoo.com news would be even necessary—that soft drinks (loaded with corn syrup) make little kids aggressive. High fructose corn syrup is ubiquitous. Soft drink annual sales are $60 billion. Average number of cans consumed by males in the 12-19 age group—an astounding 868. High fructose corn syrup is no doubt responsible for the epidemic of obesity. I’m talking sloppy fat; not healthy fat. Go-to-the- doctor fat.
I understand why people eat processed food. I understand why I eat it. It’s easy. Making your own food is not so easy in that it takes a lot of time. I’m reminded at how much time it does take to provide for oneself this time of year as the harvest gets heavy and we begin to put food by. Yesterday I started working on beets at 8am. Pull the beets, trim them, cull the leaves for freezing, wash the beets, boil the beets, remove the skins, cut the beets, measure the amount, make the brine, etc. etc. Finished that up about 1pm then went back to the garden and harvested about a third of our dried beans. Of course, once you pull those bean pods off the stems you have to get the beans out which took two of us another hour. Got about a gallon of beans.
There’s so much to worry about: Big Brother, Fukishima radiation, climate change, economic collapse. Yet, I become more and more convinced that the only constructive thing we can really do in a positive way to change things is to grow and preserve healthy food. At least it’s the only thing I can think of to do to affect change. Driving to the market today I noticed a guy down the road, a retired doc no less, spraying weeds across from his house. I doubt it was fertilizer. I expect it was Roundup. Lots of people are still spraying Roundup. It is nasty stuff and there is scientific proof to back this statement up.
It’s frustrating that Roundup, corn fructose syrup, and Twinkies are more popular than beets and beans from the garden.
We live in Twinkie World.
So here’s a question for you problem solvers out there: What do you do if your bees swarm and decide to land on a branch twenty feet above the ground?
I picked up the phone and called Mike M. On the island Mike gets lots of weird calls. “Could Mike come over with the bucket truck and help me catch some bees that are way up in a tree?” I asked. Pretty soon I got a call back. “Mike wants to know if he has to go up in the bucket and get the bees.”
I don’t blame him for not wanting to. Most people are wary of bees as bee stings do hurt a lot as both Mike and I can attest to after our adventure today. Of course, I didn’t want him to go up and get the bees. I wanted to do that. Catching a swarm is a real thrill for most beekeepers. It’s hard to explain why. You can stop swarms from hiving but I don’t want to do that. You can get more production if you stop the swarm but I’m not into production; just into having pollinators around and making a home for the endangered honey bees. I use top bar hives and don’t really do much in the way of animal husbandry. We just watch them and enjoy having them in the yard and garden.
I’ve not had very good luck as a beekeeper to date and am now in year three. The first package of bees didn’t survive the winter. Last spring I bought two packages and changed to a Carnolian queen. Carnolians bees do better in colder weather and as the worker bees only live four to five weeks, after a very short time your hive is full of hybrid bees who are more adapted to our climate. Last July those two packages swarmed a few days apart. The first swarm landed on the tip top of a forty foot cedar trees. No chance to get them. The second hive wrapped themselves around a vine maple low enough that I could reach them with a 16′ extension ladder.
When a hive swarms the old queen takes about half the bees and skedaddles. The swarm makes its way into a ball around the queen and scouts go out to look for new real estate. They come back from their missions to report what they’ve found doing special bee dances that tell the hive the location, size, etc. Over a two or three day period the hive reaches a consensus on the best location, location, location and takes off for their new digs. So, the beekeeper doesn’t have to be in a hurry to grab them. But, who wants to wait?
Thus, last summer I ended up with three hives. The remainder group of the hives one and two and the swarm that I scraped off the vine maple. One of the remainder hives failed to make a new queen. It died out. The other two made it through the winter but this spring, hive number one discovered that hive number two was weak and robbed their honey, causing them to starve. It is a cruel world.
I was very anxious to catch my swarm, elated when I was around to hear the swarm music (they make a tremendous noise) and very annoyed when they landed twenty feet up. It would be nice to capture a swarm with my feet on the ground. Not to bee.
Mike showed up with the bucket truck. I showed him the bee ball up in the tree and explained that I wanted to lop off all the branches around the ball, then cut the branch loose and put the bee branch in a cardboard box. Mike was going to maneuver the bucket from the ground. My first surprise was how deep and narrow that bucket was. I managed to get both legs into it and my loppers, hand pruners and pruning saw but had to balance the box on the edge of it.
Mike raised the bucket toward the branch and I tried to give hand signals because we couldn’t hear each other but it’s hard to signal well when you are holding a large cardboard box in one hand and loppers in the other. He got me within lopper range and I cut off a bunch of branches. But then I discovered that the ball of bees weren’t wrapped as tightly around the branch as I thought and the ball was drooping down and a big wad of bees dropped off. I had to change my plan which meant holding the box under the bees and using my gloved hand to scrape them into the box. This was hard to do from the bucket and I was working too fast. I was sloppy and cloddish and clumsy and the bees were getting really pissed off and swarming all over the place. I heard Mike tell Linda, who was taking pictures to back off, that he’d been stung. I looked down to see a pile of bees in the bottom of the bucket and covering my shoes and worse, could feel them crawling up my legs under my pants (I had neglected to tuck my pant legs into my socks). Getting stung now was inevitable but also didn’t matter. I scraped more bees into the box and motioned for Mike to take me down. Dude was still there. He doesn’t run.
It was hard to get out of the bucket as there were bees all over the edge of it but I brushed some out of the way and hopped out. I figured bending my legs would trap the ones in my pant and sure enough the stings started as I climbed off the truck and headed toward Mike and Linda who had finally backed away. I gave into to sting panic and began to smash the girls who hadn’t stung me yet.
Mike had been stung on the ear and I felt badly about that. If you are going to get stung, the face is my least favorite. On the legs it’s not so bad although it always hurts.
“Sorry,” I said. “That didn’t go as planned. What do I owe you for a lift and a bee sting?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mike said. “I’ll get even with you.” Can’t wait for that.
He took the bucket truck and went home. I looked up the tree where it appeared there was still a good sized ball of bees. What you do after you get the swarm in the box is to put the box under the tree, hoping the queen is in the box. If she is then over time the rest of the bees will fly to the box to join their queen and then when you have most of the bees you can hive them. Last year I saw the queen in the box and knew I had her. But today I couldn’t spot the queen and there were lots of bees in the air. Maybe she was still in that ball in the tree. Three hours later the ball of bees was still in the tree but there were way more bees in the box. I decided I might have her and suited up to hive them. At dark they settle down and are much less active, just working to keep the queen at the proper temperature. I had prepared one of my old hives and even left some comb in there to give them a head start.
I picked up the box which felt like it weighed at least five pounds, walked fifty yards, tipped the box and dumped the bees into the hive. Suddenly, bees were everywhere but most were in the hive. I closed it up and called it a day.
The big event for bees is the blackberry bloom which is about over so both hives have their work cut out for them having swarmed so late. They will need to lay lots of eggs and make lots of honey before winter sets in. The bees that are left in the original hive will await the maturing of a new queen. Preparing for the swarm the bees have created several swarm (queen) cells. The first one of these to hatch will kill the other unborn queens then go on a mating flight and then begin laying eggs to keep the population growing.
In a perfect world I will end up with two healthy hives that will survive winter and swarm again next summer giving me four hives and so on. That’s in a perfect world. It probably won’t go that smoothly. It hasn’t so far.
Pray for the bees. Thanks be to Mike.