Bees– Part 1

Until about a year ago, when I thought “bee”, I thought “honey bee”. I had no idea North American bees did all the pollination on this continent until the Europeans arrived with honey bees, nor did I know honey bees aren’t very good at pollinating tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins and watermelons, blueberries and cranberries, also natives. Native bees live in the ground, in logs and swamps; the majority are solitary. When I wrote in my earlier post, The Living Soil, that walking on the earth was walking on many forms of underground life, I had not thought about bees, who drill down and feed their babies in underground tunnels.

Of course, native bees are stressed by plowing, clear-cut logging and draining swamps. Along with their cousins, the honey bees, they suffer from toxic chemicals. Honey bees also currently endure disease and overwork when they are loaded on to trucks to provide pollination to big corporate farms–a discussion saved for Part 2, next week.

This week, I have to confess that my attempts to keep honey bees have not been a great success. Even though humans have been keeping bees for over 20,000 years, I have no feel for them, no instinct for their needs. I think I have more in insight into the needs of handful of dirt than a bee. After losing several hives, I now have a beekeeper, Tara Chapman https://www.twohiveshoney.com

Tara said this past week that my current hive is very vigorous and the bees have plenty of honey for the winter, but none to harvest. In October, she casually handed me four full frames, I stood each frame in a bowl, cut through the wax honeywith a butter knife and waited for the honey to flow out. Then I strained it (large strainer to leave in the pollen) and put the “raw” unfiltered, unheated honey in jars. Lovely. A gallon and a half.

Tara attends to the bees in jeans and a flannel shirt with her bee hat and gloves. The bees circle her benignly. It’s fun to watch someone Who Knows What They are Doing. You can see her pulling a frame from the hive here that is covered with bees. tara-with-full-frame

Do not imagine that I recommend anything other than a full bee suit for going into a hive. The favorite bee here and in Europe has been the Italian bee, docile and a producer over a long season. I have seen people caring for Italian bees in shorts. But in the 1980’s the tracheal and varroa mites began to decimate the bee population. That issue for me is mitigated by buying my bees from  BeeWeaver Apiaries, based in Texas. In the 1990’s BeeWeaver found their bee stock had been significantly affected by African bees, who were able to fend off these terrible mites. http://www.beeweaver.com/faq-cats/beeweaver-and-our-breed. The trade-off was that the “africanized” bees repel mites who come into their hive, but also humans who do so. BeeWeaver and other apiaries are breeding for a gentle bee that repels mites.

I have found that unless someone is going into their hive, my bees are perfectly good farm residents. Before I got my full bee suit, I was stung on several occasions going into the hive and did not find it to be a big deal; fire ant stings are much worse. My goals now are, first, to learn enough to be able to go comfortably into the hives and understand what I am looking at. Second, Tara and I have agreed that I have space for two more hives and she will set those up in the spring. If I have multiple hives I have to mark each with a symbol or paint each a different color so the bees will not mistake their home hive. I imagine pink and blue and yellow hives; maybe green. Carribean colors. And honey, I imagine lots of honey.

Note: Here is the website of a neighbor, very interesting and informative: http://blog.auldridge.org/2009/06/28/busy-as-bees/

Winter is Coming

Cauliflower

Putting plants in the garden in September for winter harvest seems crazy. What seems natural and right is to put down mulch and put the garden tools away, then sit in the warm house, read or sew or knit or play music or otherwise party until spring. Fortunately, there is a string of celebrations that last all winter

I suppose my European roots are showing. My Texas grandmother only put in one garden a year. Her summer vegetables wound up in canning jars on the shelves of her pantry: corn, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, green beans, tiny little potatoes and more. Only she would have had the patience to scrape all those new potatoes; we put them in what I know now is called bechamel sauce–we called it white gravy of course. Her maiden name, Henderson, is Scottish and my grandfather’s name, Miller, English/Welsh. He used the pronoun “he” for his grandaughters, a subject of some disapproval by city folk; but it turns out that “she” in Welsh is spelled “hi” and pronounced “he”. Old language and traditions stick, including the idea that planting one garden a year is quite enough.

Red Cabbage

I have grown three winter gardens since I came back home to Texas from the North, and if I had to choose, I might give up summer gardening in favor of winter. My Brassicas: cabbages, cauliflower,broccoli and brussel sprouts survived a hard freeze of 27 degrees last week.

Why go to the trouble? Why is right. 

Characters in need of food pull them from their gardens in movies like Dr. Zhivago and Little Women and the Cranford series on BBC. But all the Brassicas are available, even organic ones, for only a few dollars at the grocery store. So there is no need. Most children are indifferent at best to these vegetables and it’s hard to convert adults to the taste, if they are not already a fan. No amount of bacon or cheese will help either. But I like seeing the cabbage get round and heavy, watch the cauliflower turn into a beautiful white lumpy thing—not a flower at all; it’s broccoli that will flower fast if you don’t keep an eye on it.

It’s fun. Not party fun; but it’s like looking into a fire for hours or looking at the moon rise. Deep in our hard wiring, or at least mine, is great gratification at watching a tiny seed produce these beautiful plants.

cabbage1

My beekeeper is here in a couple of days and I’ll try to make a movie for my post next week. I am hoping she will let me harvest some honey, but I know her priority is the bees and whether or not they have enough honey to last them over the cold months ahead.

Winter is Coming.

 

Giving Thanks

We’ll sit down at our feasts tomorrow inspired by the First Thanksgiving in 1621.

The Pilgrims landed in November of 1620. Half died of disease and starvation before the famous harvest of 1621. They were likely joined by thanksgivingthe Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. This tribe had been infected by the bacteria, leptospirosis when European ships had visited in 1616. This disease, thought at various times to be typhus or small pox, killed 90% of the Wampanoag people by 1619. A microbe. Invisible to the human eye. The most horrible, horriblest-ever human invader would stare in amazement at such a death rate.

These grieving people gave thanks and, no matter how much controversy swirls among historians of the “real” truth of the event, we should hold the idea of peace between diverse peoples and thanks born of suffering as sacred. Worth remembering and celebrating after hundreds of years.

My personal thanksgiving goes out to the Native American who planted my 300 year old tree mott..The huge Live Oak has an Elm tree in its center. I understand that the Native Americans planted these trees together. It is horticultural genius, since the shallow roots of the Live Oak are held in place by the deep roots of the Elm, and the tall and brittle trunk of the Elm is protected from our sometimes ferocious winds by the Oak. After a storm, giant Live Oaks will be lying on the ground throughout my neighborhood, their roots exposed; and not 50 feet from my front door a 60-foot Elm (not protected by its own Oak) cracked in half last year during a terrible spring wind.

Comanche woman
Comanche woman

Back in the 1800’s a the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes lived near my home.

The Comanches had come tearing down from the Pacific Northwest, drove most of the Apaches out of the Southwest and were putting pressure from the west on the Tonkawa by the 1800’s. The Tonkawa, called the “original people of Texas”, were pressured at the same time from the east by the white settlers. But some skilled horticulturist from one of these tribes likely planted my combination tree.

Of course, hunting and meat eating were important to the Native Americans, but both the Comanches and the Tonkawa commonly ate corn; roots like potatoes, prairie turnips and onions; vegetables such as spinach; and also wild berries and fruits.

Colin Tudge and other scientists believe that agriculture began after the last Ice Age. Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers:

Tonkowan John Rush Buffalo
Tonkowan John Rush Buffalo

How Agriculture Really Began, Tudge. That is another post, but the idea is that, although remaining on the move, ‘hunter-gatherers’ had sites where they promulgated and cared for plants and trees. It is not hard for the Plantswoman to believe that people who could drive Mastodons over cliffs or shoot Buffalo from horseback were horticultural experts who could gather some seeds from a favorite herb and plant it or, when digging onions, notice that the clumps made up of many tiny onions could be divided and planted for gathering the following year. It is likely they cared for fruit groves, cleaning them up, propagating new starts. Easy stuff compared to tanning a hide and sewing beautiful clothing with a bone needle.

In any case, it is not only the horticultural expertise of the Native American who planted my tree mott that I admire. I am amazed, humbled at his or her long view. This person was creating shade, not for his or her generation, but for generations a hundred and more years away. Oak and Elm are slow growers, planted for great grandchildren. The tree mott may have been 10 feet tall in by the late 1800’s when the American army ‘relocated’ the Comanches and Tonkawans to Oklahoma. Now it’s 50+ feet tall and my grasses, microbes, chickens, sheep, and I seek the shade of this tree on hot days. And we give thanks.

img_0105

 

Chickens, Dinosaurs, Why I have a Rooster

First, while I have made it clear that I believe non-humans can be sentient beings, I don’t really think mushrooms are on the intimg_0761ernet.   img_0763 But last Wedimg_0762nesday right after I published the mycelium essay, dozens of mushrooms popped up everywhere. The three photographs here were all of different kinds and there were more, many more! I assume they are on the mycelium network. Which leads to the issue of plowing; whether it is better to break up the mycelium or leave it in tact. I had several lively responses about plowing and about the joys of turning the earth. I rode with my Grandad on his tractor mile after mile under a little canopy with big jugs of cool water to drink when we got hot and thirsty. It was a great pleasure. But Edward Faulkner in his 1943 book, Plowman’s Folly, set off what has been called an agricultural bombshell blaming the plow for the Dustbowl and the destruction of soil in general. My grandfather, in the prime of his life in the 1940’s would have considered Faulkner’s ideas great nonsense. One day something is not only a fact, but part of the fabric of your life. Next day or year or decade we’d best be ready to open our minds. As we had to do with chickens.

In the 1990s, dinosaur fossils were excavated in China with plumage, quills and……… well, feathers! So it turns out that birds of today descended from theropods, two-legged dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-dinosaurs-shrank-and-became-birds/

I was floored by this idea until I started keeping chickens and their exalted lineage is pretty obvious. They really think this farm is run entirely for their benefit. Not that they don’t work hard all day long, searching out bugs and heaven only knows what else. They are omnivores, and like us, and eat almost anything.

Despite the activity, I am getting very few eggs because we are in the dark days of the Solstice. They will begin laying in earnest again when the days get longer in January. I could rig up auto lighting to trick them into thinking spring was on its way but it sounds like a lot of work and some part of me does not approve even though it is considered a fine idea by many chicken people.

My rooster and his coterie of 7 hens remind me of some colorful 18th century court with their beautiful feathers and chatty ways. calico-and-his-hensThey have much to say to each other. There are two hens who are loners and don’t travel with the rest. This is typical of any flock and it is accepted that the best hens are the hens who flock together with the rooster, but I have great sympathy for my two hens who prefer their solitude.

My rooster, The Calico Kid is of course noisy and his romantic demands are seen as somewhat over enthusiastic by some of the hens. Still, he will find a treat, a big worm or something and instead of gobbling it down, he calls his hens over to share. I have a family of hawks in my big trees; there must be half a dozen circling on some days. The Calico Kid has big spurs and if the hawks dive he spreads his wings and stares them down.

He is not really necessary since the hens can find their own bugs and my Great Pyrenees dog loves to chase the hawks. But the Kid is so beautiful. Gertrude Jekyll, a much revercalico-kided gardening writer in the late 19th century created dazzling gardens and she would agonize over allocating space to one plant or another. She was drawn as we all are to some sturdy plant with a long season of bloom. But, if a plant was supremely beautiful, she gave it space no matter how much care it needed and how short its bloom period. So the Kid gets space on our little farm because he is supremely beautiful.

Our Living Soil

“When you thrust a shovel into the soil or tear off a piece of coral, you are, godlike, cutting through an entire world.” Edward O. Wilson

Good soil is alive, a small pail of soil has more microscopic organisms than there are people on earth. http://www.sustainable-gardening.com/inputs-tools/soil-fertilizers/great-soil For the gardener the most magical of these tiny organisms is mycelium—fungus.

paula-flynn-iowa-state-universityFungal mycellium is a web. It is called “the neurological network of nature”. It is believed that behaves like a “sentient membrane” channeling information about nutrients and disease across a garden, across a prairie, across miles of forestland. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets. I’ll say it again and again, it is clear humans do not have a corner on the sentience market. Stamets’ book is a rocking good read, and in addition to his theories on the communication skills of underground mycellium, the book contains a thorough description of the many forms of fungus that appear above ground: mushrooms, the poisonous, the hallucinogenic, the edible.

Two things are necessary to encourage mycellium in the garden where it protects plants from disease and helps them take up nutrients. The first is a practice of no-till gardening, the second is adding as much organic matter to the garden as you can get your hands on.

No-till gardening is far from an accepted practice. I am pretty sure that the spade, the rototiller, the plow break up the mycelium networks that protect plants from disease and assist plants in the uptake of nutrients. Edward H. Faulkner shocked the farm and garden world in his 1943 book, Plowman’s Folly, arguing, in his charming sort of grumpy writing style, that “no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”

It seems logical that friable, loose earth would allow roots to spread evenly and to proliferate, and short term, this is indeed the case. But in the long term, tillage has a disastrous effect on fungi as it physically breaks up the mycellium network.  http://www.soilquality.org.au/factsheets/soil-bacteria-and-fungi-nsw

I have dutifully plant my garden to avoid disturbing the mycelium. But gardening is not all smooth sailing. I recently planted garlic in a 4×8 foot raised bed making small holes for each clove. My guardian dogs, given access to the garden for the benefits of their predator scent, have now converted this little area to a kind of dog lounge with their big paws, digging as deep as a foot within the cedar planks that surround the “garden” bed. dogs-in-gardenI explained to the dogs that they had torn up my mycelium that helps decompose organic matter; that the mycelium improves soil structure and has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, called mycorrhizae. I went on to tell them that many kinds of plants require mycorrhizae in order to absorb the nutrients they need for healthy growth. These relationships between fungi and plant roots have developed over MILLIONS of years. The dogs were indifferent to all this science and very proud of their new doggie lounge.

Setbacks aside (the dear dogs are up all night these days driving away foxes, coyotes, cats, raccoons, skunks and heaven knows what else; all born in the spring and present now in my little canyon in great numbers) it is the time of year to add organic matter to the garden so it can decompose over the winter and the hot summer days ahead. This can also be called ‘making compost’. I. I layer the summer waste: melon vines, tomato greenery and grapevine leaves with cow and sheep manure, hay and soil from the stock pen. This creates a little mound about 2 feet tall and 3 feet across. Next September, I’ll rake it out and have a lovely planting space for my 2017 winter garden. Composting always sounds complicated, huge piles, turned by a tractor, measured by a giant thermometer. Or expensive, purchased at nearby nurseries. But it can just be making a layer cake of what’s on hand and being patient. The mycelium love my little garden layer cakes of organic materials. I can tell since small mushrooms (nonedible) tell me so by sprouting up all over the place.

Who adopted who? Cycles, circles, life just goes round and round

 

This is in part a tribute to our ram, Rojo, perhaps a eulogy is a better word. He had a kind of grandeur with his huge horns and yellow eyes, and he was the smartest animal on my little farm.

 rojoThe word sheep is associated with being a mindless follower. And stupid. Like so many things, this turns out to have been wrong and work at the University of Cambridge reveals that sheep have intelligence equal to monkeys, rodents and score higher than humans in some tests. Living with sheep for the past six years, I am not surprised scientists find sheep capable of advanced learning, are able to map out their surroundings and can, perhaps plan ahead.

I had to laugh at a ‘test’ administered by a Professor Jenny Morton: sheep were shown yellow and blue buckets to find out how long it would take them to learn that food would always be in the same colored bucket. It took the sheep seven tries, the same number of times it took monkeys and humans to solve the same problem. When the color of the food buckets was switched around, the sheep quickly adapted. And when color and shape were introduced together, the sheep quickly learned color was irrelevant and shape was the key to the location of the food. Professor Morton wrote: “This is a really sophisticated rule change and is generally something that humans take some time to learn. Mice and rats can’t do it at all. Marmosets take longer than the sheep did to learn while Rhesus monkeys are quicker.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html All of this is a citified way of saying what shepards have probably known for hundreds of years.

Not that Rojo did not have his faults. He had that clunky sheep shape, especially with his winter wool—and skinny legs. But he could move like lightening. I was on the ground twice before I knew what had hit me. Once, when I was nudging some small chickens away who were pecking my multicolored socks and another when I was carrying a bucket of food. I don’t think he ever used full power, just a ‘pop’. A half grown calf knocked me over in the barn one day, quite by accident, and I imagined the calf and Rojo saying to each other, “These things go down easy!” I have walked many steps to go around the pasture where the ram was grazing and armed my guests with a stick in case Rojo took it into his head to charge them. But the wobbliest new born lamb could safely walk right up to him and get a gentle sniff of acknowledgment.

One would want to theorize he was a bit wild, not really domesticated. But he, in fact, exhibited the neonatal earmarks of domestication; a shortened snout, permanent growth of his horns and the juvenile habit of begging for food. Scientist Stephen Budiansky’s controversial book The Covenant of the Wild, Why Animals Chose Domestication proposes that domestic animals picked us and not the other way around. This bends my mind. Sheep have been domesticated for as long as 6000 years, following humans, eating the leftovers from human fields and then exchanging human protection for lambs and wool and fertilizer. Perhaps a deal with the devil given the current practice of factory farming. Genetic changes are documented that control the dramatic physical and behavioral changes in domestic animals versus wild animals. Id p. x of preface.

It didn’t take wolves long to start following the big garbage trail left behind by humans. Ten thousand years later their dog descendants are a great evolutionary success story with their begging ways, soft ears, short snouts. We revere and respect the wild wolf. But in the United States there are perhaps 12,000 left, over half of which are in Alaska. There are 70 to 80 million dogs. For now, at least, dogs seems to have bet right. And who is in thrall to who? Anyone who has rushed home to let the dog out knows. I know as well, when on a freezing cold day in January I am breaking the ice so my stock can drink or taking the frost covers off the more fragile plants in my garden instead of curling up under my covers with my coffee. Yes, plants are a part of this story.

Michael Pollan in his wonderful book, The Botany of Desire theorizes that domestic plants actively sought out humans to care for them. Pollan writes, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh” that did it. This was a trivial, semiconscious event; it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter was of any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. Yet evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalog on a particular January evening counts as one of them. “Evolution: tiny steps leading to survival. Bargains made; deals sealed.

We all know that flowers change colors and shapes to attract bees for the work of pollination. The apple trees and the bees engage in this coevolutionary bargain, food for the bee hive and a system of transport for the apple genes. Domestic plants spent thousands of years evolving ways to heal us, cloth us, intoxicate us and feed us. And the attraction is not all practical; the perfect beauty of flowers is a compelling draw to humans. I cut down spinach bothering a rose bush just last week because of the perfect color and form of the rose. Pollan says, Plants are so unlike people that it’s very difficult for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophistication. Yet plants have been evolving much, much longer than we have, have been inventing new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say that one of us is the more “advanced” really depends on how you define that term, on what “advances” you value. Id Botany of Desire, PollanWe learned to make tools, to walk and talk. Plants invented photosynthesis and a large array of chemical compounds, some of which serve humans. And we serve them in return as anyone who gardens or farms is well aware.

This circle of service, the master/servant relationship is natural. Nature embodied. Who is master and who is servant is interesting. I know my Broccoli thinks I serve it; Rojo certainly thought he was the master. I will pick up my dear old ram in a few weeks from the abattoir (naturally the French word just sounds better than the American word, processing plant). He was lame, his teeth falling out, he was in pain but I’ll bring him home cut up for food for the dogs. If this upsets anyone, I’ll be happy to research the ingredients in modern dog food and I guarantee, they will not be very nice. What the dogs will be served out is a regal creature, so productive: 14 lambs, his last shearing made the wool rug for my son and his fiance’s wedding present and the green grass now growing in what was rocky hard ground is due to Rojo’s part in the marvelous ancient herbivore-pasture marriage.

Fall Gardening, the sentience of animals and the destruction of our planet

What marvelous things plants are. In the hierachy of my mind, after my children and a few close friends, plants are at the top. Of course, my 300-year old Oak tree is at the top of my plant heirachy and today the bottom, is my Malabar Spinach malabar-spinach–doing its best to kill my favorite climbing rose as I write this. It is very enthusiastic and wants the rich ground the rose uses. This spinach is immune to any disease as far as I know and amazingly healthy food for humans; it self seeds, requires no care and is absolutely beautiful. Why do I prefer the rose? I have no idea.

Plants are so varied and change so much in any calendar year, that any list of preferred plants shifts dramatically with each passing month. In early December I think fondly of cauliflower as I roast it for dinner. Now? Not so much. Many plants change in chemistry when attacked by a pest emitting a taste or scent to ward off enemies. Although I have planted three kinds of cauliflower, they all just sit there and let the caterpillars of the white fly eat their leaves. I don’t mean just a few holes, I mean nothing is left, nothing. So I use my battery of help for the wretched creatures because of the previously mentioned December love in the kitchen: cayenne sprinkled on the leaves, garlic spray, dish soap spray– three different organic sprays (and that is an entire post for the future). I am told to ‘pick off the caterpillars’; but, of course, they are not to be found (by me at least) until they strip a plant, turn into a white fly and proceed the the next generation. The kale and brussel sprouts are no better at defense. They are like a really bad football team.

These beautiful beets  have some magic that repels disease and insects, humans have only the dimmest understanding of these plant abilities. img_0598

It’s like fingernails on a blackboard for me to hear my dear Vegan and Vegetarian friends take pride in not eating animals, as a moral choice, and instead eat plants. Like plants have no soul, like plants are not sentient beings. Like plants are comparable to the plastic wrap they use or other disposable things in such abundance in our world. More than 150 acres of rainforests are lost every minute of every day, and 78 million acres lost every year! More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and much more is severely threatened as the destruction continues. It is estimated that the Amazon alone is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year.http://rain-tree.com/facts.htm.

And the rainforest destruction is not to make pastures for domesticated animals to graze upon. There is plenty of pasture on the planet, much of it is not in very good shape, but it’s there. Unfortunately, our corporate culture finds feedlots a much more profitable way to raise animals. Big Agriculture wants new land to cultivate for grains, fruits, vegetables, palm oil and other oils. All this ‘food’ is more ‘moral’ somehow since it does not kill animals. Yet the expansion of ‘farmland’ does kill animals. Among a host of other ecological aberrations, this has induced what has been called ‘the sixth great extinction’ (Kolbert, 2014). Over the last 40 years we have destroyed over 50% of Earth’s vertebrae wildlife. (mammals, birds, reptilians, amphibians, and fish) (WWF, 2014).

I love animals, I think they should be nurtured and cared for and protected, especially in the wild. I just don’t think they are better than plants. I have animals. My family and friends always ask about the cow, the sheep, the dogs, the chickens. Never about spinach. Or the sunflowers now in their October bloom. This Maxmillian sunflower img_0091is a great bully of a plant shouldering its companions aside but is covered in this photo with honey bees.

I only wanted the animals to help improve the soil here and they have done a wonderful job. Our beautiful hill country was plowed and the topsoil ran off in the drenching rains that come up from the Gulf of Mexico. The rocky clay that remains is full of nutrients and when loosened makes a fine soil. My herbivores do what herbivores do on pasture, loosen and improve it. Think of the buffalo and our great American grasses in the 19th century sitting on top of 2 to 4 feet of rich topsoil in some places.

Perhaps this little farm is more like a puzzle; a place where hierarchy is meaningless since every piece, however small is necessary. My 300 year old Live Oak told me to buy this place many years ago and has provided unlimited mental energy and emotional support to me; but even this grand old tree needs the living soil with its microbes and tiny, even invisible creatures that make life possible.