Some of the fruits of our labors came together this weekend . . .
Finally a honey harvest!!!
Some lovely comb to use for our bottles of chunk honey.
About 4:30, I sent two kids to the pasture on bikes to look for our cow, Anabelle. We were in up to our eyeballs in stacks of unextracted honey, newly extracted honey, pots, pans, machines, and instructions, but no one had seen the cow all day. Her son, Buster, left the farm a week ago and I worried she might have gone off in search of him. The kids returned without success so my husband headed out. Meanwhile, Boy one and I soldiered on in the honey business. We had gone for a lesson on honey extraction the week before, but we still had to keep stopping to look things up.
After a good long search, the cow tracker returned with a grin. Honey had to wait while we went off to see for ourselves what Anabelle had been up to out there in the bush.
Anabelle had been busy getting out someone new for us to meet. Since she did all the work, the first picture features her! (Placenta was still hanging so birth was quite recent.)
Our new calf is a girl! We’re loving the look of the Hereford in her.
Naming the calf took a few days . . . but Almond Joy she is, with promises to Girl two that she will be called Almond Joy as one name, not just Almond, with Joy as a middle name – for reasons unknown, this mattered. The birth of Almond Joy means we’ll have a second cow to breed (very good news, we think).
Presenting her beautifulness. . . Almond Joy
And more beautifulness!
The honey operation that we guessed would be the work of a few hours that night took us almost eight . . . but even morning people need to stay up until midnight once in a while. A few weeks ago, we found the bee mentor I’ve been dreaming of. She is a goddess of reasonable, effective, low key beekeeping. Looking at our hives, goddess says the only thing we’ve really done wrong was use a cheaper kind of frame that the bees don’t like, otherwise things look good. (I held back just barely from throwing my arms around her neck. It helped that we were both dripping sweat like a faucet out there in the bee yard.) Thanks to goddess, Boy one and I are sticking with bees for another season at least.
Sweet to the last drop . . . 70 lbs of top quality honey plus a few lbs of home honey mightily helped to ease the frustrations of a difficult year with the bees. (Knowing we finally have our very own bee goddess in driving distance, who owns a phone, doesn’t hurt either.)
To our great satisfaction, our bees remain alive. Hive #2 is vibrant and buzzing madly. Hive #1 (which we worried about due to our human error) is not nearly as vibrant as the other, but it is alive. Buoyed by these wild achievements, we are with trepidation and a little excitement expanding our partnership. A friend is getting out of the bee business. Weather permitting, we are picking up two more hives over the weekend. Or should we get three? We can’t decide.
A brief list of the things I know:
- We don’t know very much about bees.
- We might not have what it takes to stick with it. Continued investment into something which has yet to produce a jar of actual honey is questionable.
- Bees are the only place where Boy one and I meet as two people who can’t do it without the other person’s help. In the rest of life, he’s struggling to find his feet in ways that don’t require stomping on other people’s heads. With the bees, it isn’t like that. I read, ask questions, try to figure out what we aren’t thinking of that we should be. (My most remarkable ability is that I can do something at an undesirable time because it needs to be done.) I am also ten times as afraid of the bees as he is. This is not a secret, but he never mentions it. I don’t tell him he has to do all the things that make me scared, he does them without me saying anything. 80% of the physical work on the hive is done by him. 100% is done by him until I observe that the bees are calm and work myself up to an approach. This doesn’t bother him.
- Boy one never self selects to do the next thing on the bee list. But when a teacher asked his class to fill out descriptors of themselves, he wrote down: trombone player, soccer player, beekeeper.Boy one is a mirror image of my quick, sarcastic, best defense is a good offense, approach to interpersonal conflict. In the winter I proposed a contest. We put a chart on the fridge. A point if you could respond to harsh words with a gentle reply (actual unfairness not required, just the perception of harsh). Boy one loved it. (When he started losing he found a ball and bounced it behind me one day for five minutes waiting for me to snap so he could come back with a gentle reply.) We kept at it for a weeks, awarding points to each other with grace. The whole thing reminds me of the bees. Where losing could still be winning.
- At the hives we’re not young man and a forty-two year old privileges/duties dispenser. We’re two people trying to figure out the art of bee keeping. One of us understands that it will probably prove beyond us. The other is a non-cheque writing optimist, with no concept that failure is standard practice for more than half of life’s experiments.
- What we are doing is not practical: but there might be more to it than honey.
You can see at least a few of the bodies here.
The business of bees nags at my brain. I want a sugar alternative, I want kids on fire for living things, and I like us learning whenever possible. People tell you to expect nothing for honey harvest in year one, while simultaneously telling you how much honey their uncle Harold, neighbor Frieda, and son, Billy, got their first years. We did not become a story like Billy; our first year we got zero.
I discovered in early January that the winterizing of the hives had not been done properly. Exits and ventilation are as important for bees as they are for people. One hive seemed ok. The other had both entrances inadvertently sealed. I removed hundreds of dead bodies and ice and settled into hopelessness. I mentally pronounced hive A dead and the hive B potentially terminal.
February broke all kinds of weather records for average cold, most consecutive cold days . . . This past weekend saw warmer temperatures. Despite the sunshine, I walked with heavy steps through snow higher than my boots (or knees) to make myself look at the hives.
“Good news!” I told my husband afterwards. “There were dead bodies all over the snow.”
I had hoped to see a bee or two fly out into the sunshine (they use the warm days to relieve themselves). I didn’t see that, but I did see a lone bee fly. Granted, she flew straight to the snow and committed frozen harakari . . . but before that she flew.
“It’s kind of weird,” said my husband, “when you say, ‘good news,’ because you discovered dead bodies and witnessed a suicide.”
But good news it is. Dead bodies on the ground mean the girls inside are alive and cleaning house. Should the buzz continue into spring, I’ve made some resolutions in celebration of hope’s resurrection:
- We’ll buy better bee protection. Winterizing would have been done better if we weren’t so sick of getting stung.
- I’ll give up expecting the boys to own the bee project. We all find the bees exciting. The boys are willing to work and willing to get stung. For the foreseeable future, they aren’t going to carry the emotional burden, initiate anything, or wake in the night with what they’ve forgotten to do. I can own the project or we can quit. I can be bitter about what my bee men aren’t doing or be happy for what they are.
With dreams of project watching gone, I am officially the project manager. May the eventual honey sweeten the gaps in working style among the partnership. I’ve got the ability to make myself do what I don’t feel like doing at a particular moment because it needs to be done and the notion that the pursuit of ongoing knowledge is required. The boys are actually much more comfortable handling the bees than I am. We could do worse for a combined skill set.
This past weekend we took the plunge. I took the boys to a bee keeping class an hour away. It was scheduled to be three hours long. It went longer. At the two hour mark, I offered to leave early and get the rest of the information to review at home. There were no other children there. At ten, Boy two was deemed the youngest student the classes had seen. I don’t think they were flush with a history of thirteen year olds either.
I wondered if the boys would be intimidated by the six or so other adults. In things like getting cookies or choosing seats, they were. The minute things turned to bees, they didn’t even remember the other people were in the room. Boy two was raising his hand, asking questions, and offering his own ideas. I tried to kick him quiet with my toe, but before my foot touched him, it turns out he was saying the right answer.
When our delightful fourth generation, all organic bee keeper and teacher, took us out to open up a hive and look at the bees, Boy two was actually dancing. Boy one was motionless, watching every move she made.
If you want to go now, we can, said Boy one when I asked.
No way, said Boy two. I’m not missing anything. This is awesome.
Which probably makes you think there were bells and whistles instead of an off the cuff, slightly meandering, but very experienced beekeeper in her sixties. Boy two jiggled his foot and fiddled with knick knacks. Whenever there was a chance to walk around, both were up and moving. We went to the class with my provisos about not a done deal. If the bees seemed too complicated, the class too long, the whole thing too much work, anything, we could go home and call it a day.
We were the last to leave. We left with a book, equipment, and two hives to paint and set up in preparation for our bees which will arrive mid-June. For the way home, Boy two was squished in the back seat with hive parts beside him, at his feet, and on his lap. Boy one was in similar straights in the front. The car was peaceful; the boys content.
I know I don’t show it like Boy two, said Boy one. But I’m really, really excited about this. Thanks for taking us to the class today.
I smiled relieved that I was right. It was his intent look, I’d been watching all afternoon, not his polite one.
The bees are a win-win in my mind. In the best case scenario, the kids love it, we get honey, they get money, and my apple trees get pollinated. In the worst case scenario, we try it, the bees don’t work for us to upkeep, so we stop with the hope that in a small way, we added to the honey bee population on the farm.
I’ve already started looking at recipes if we make it until the honey comes.
To bee or not to bee; that is the question. We are thinking about getting bees again. Not because we are managing our current farm responsibilities with precision and ease, but bees are just so amazing. (And we really like honey.) 5 apple trees and bees. Doesn’t that sound like a nice improvement for the farm this year? This was all scratching away inside me when I found out about a bee seminar and read an article by a friend and master gardener, Margaret Rose Realy, within twenty-four hours of each other.
“A decade ago the fruit set was about a third more than it is today. Extra plants are needed to get the same amount of food. The issue is not with the cultivars, and the problem is pretty straight forward—no bees.
And no bees, no food.
It doesn’t matter if you’re growing in containers on a patio or running a multi-million dollar farm. Without pollinators—I’m talking about insects—fertilization and fruitfulness doesn’t happen. No apples or oranges, no cucumbers or tomatoes,” she writes.
Read the whole thing here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/prayergardens/2014/03/bee-mindful-practical-gardening-series/ and find out what you can do to help bees (oh, and plants, animals, and humans, too) when you’re heading out to buy plants this spring.
And while your at it, pray that all the buzzing in our heads here on County Road 21 yields sweet results, in the form of either honey or infusions of common sense about the matter of bees. It’s too soon to say if we’ll try it, much less if we’ll like it, but one thing is for sure. Reading about it is very interesting.