Ongoing Tales From An Urban Oasis

For much of Turtle Island (N. America), winter 2011 – 2012 was the warmest winter in meteorological history. Over this winter that almost wasn’t, trajectories were initiated that, while pleasant to the body, can wreck havoc on natural systems.

Early March In The Orchard

Prolonged, well above average temperatures affected even the most native of fruiting trees, such as American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) to break bud much earlier than normal. The new leaves are extremely tender, and even a light frost can melt them. An older, well established tree, with lots of stored energy in her roots, has surplus energy to send out another flush of growth. The tree is knocked back  —health, vitality, and fruit –wise— for a year or two, yet usually recovers over time.

Tip Kill on Grafted Meader Persimmon

Plants carry the genetic memory of every environmental condition their ancestors experienced. This intelligence normally prevents a native plant from breaking bud (leaf and/or flower) early.

For a younger plant, the frost damage to tender leaves can be fatal: not enough energy in the roots to push out new buds. Indeed, several years back, we lost a 2 year old Asian Persimmon under the conditions described above. She was able to push out a few leaves, and even with tender care, perished several weeks later: a sad passing.

Pollination Enhancement of Paw-Paw

This winter past was the warmest in meteorological history.

Day after day, week after week of very warm days (prolonged mid and upper 70’s) overcame the genetic instructions of even our native plants, rendering them helpless to resist breaking bud.

After 1 & 1/2 months of very warm weather, nature’s hammer descended. The major climatic patterns affecting the Arctic Oscillation, which controlled the southern movement of the winter jet stream (keeping frigid weather fronts way to our north) shifted, and a major cold front descended, affecting western North Carolina (11-13 April).

At Barefoot Permaculture, we covered what plants we were able to, with light fabric (remay and inner curtain material gathered from thrift shops). We also prayed, invoked help from the climatic, weather and local elementals, to help soften the potential cold damages.

As it was, we had very light frosts those mornings, and minimal damages. We have some melted grape leaf and fig tips, as well as some light damage to annuals (such as potato leaves). What we were able to cover (the most tender) survived with minor damages. The lillys, lovage, and other lightly frozen plants bounced back largely unaffected. A degree or two less may have been fatal, yet we were on the good side of the temperature!

For the moment, all is well!

In our basement, on heating pads, under grow lights, is a pleasing sea of green: Blue Hopi Corn, Black-eyed Peas, Okra, various Winter Squashes (our saved seed O.S.S.), Cucumbers and more. In larger pots are several varieties of tomatoes (O.S.S.), Moonflower, Chia, and more: all awaiting return to a table outside, as the day warms.

Starting Plants Indoors

I enjoy taking each group of plants out into the sun for their first time. Although representing ancient species, each individual is new and fresh, and up until this moment, has spent their young life under artificial lighting. I imagine the feeling and pure thrill as sunlight fires up their systems!

                                                                         Meanwhile, The Bees

With such a, not only mild, but warm winter, with its strings of very warm days, our honeybees were actively out and about; exploring, searching for what might be harvestable (water, nectar, pollen), flying for the pure delight (as we might venture out into the calm eye of a hurricane).

Activity takes energy: energy takes food. The amount of honey left in each hive for their normally dormant winter, wasn’t enough. By the time we realized this, our eastern hive’s population was severely diminished. We fed then a 2:1 (sugar water and honey) mixture (which they took, but by then, it was too little too late.

Early Spring 012: Empty Hive on Right

They perished.

The two other hives still had honey weight in their hives, so after one 1 quart feeding, we left them alone and just monitored bi-monthly. Queens begin laying small numbers of eggs in late January, and in such a  warm winter, could move into production before the environment supplies the necessary pollen and nectar.

They didn’t! The ancient wisdom they embody, came through: the environment was not ready.

In our five years of keeping bees, this was our first loss. We felt saddened for the loss.

Our five choices were to: 1) not replace the hive; 2) do nothing and hope a swarm would find the empty hive; 3) wait for new eggs in one of the other hives, and make our own “nuc” (by removing a frame with day old eggs, along with attendant bees and 2 additional frames of brood, honey and nectar); 4) purchase a nuc from nearby beekeepers; or 5) catch a swarm.

I put the word out to the Universe that if a swarm was available, we would like to entice it to our empty hive body. Three days later, our friends Eve and James Davis of “The Hawk & Ivy”  (a holistic B&B) in Barnardsville, NC, called with news that one of their 2 hives had just swarmed, and was nearby.

Large, Beautiful, and Classic Swarm

Not a moment to waste, Chiwa and I drove the 23 miles in safe but record  time. When we arrived the bees were still in place. The situation was classic: the large swarm was on a small shrub, 4 & 1/2 feet above ground. I quickly pruned away the briars and other interfering vegetation, so that the swarm was close to fully exposed.

Just in case I ever come upon a swarm, I carry in my truck, a 5 gallon food grade plastic bucket with holes drilled in the lid. As a backup, I brought a  wooden “bee tool box” that is built to also function as a nuc box.

The swarm was big! I positioned the bucket under the swarm and gave a good rap on the shrub (above the swarm) with my shillelagh. The majority of the bees dropped into the bucket, which we then lidded. What was left was a bee cluster the size of a cantaloupe. Since it was possible that the queen was in this remaining cluster, I repeated the process with the wooden box as a receptacle.

Clearing Brush for a Clean Swarm Recovery

The entire swarm yielded around 2 & 1/2 gallons of bees! The capture took about 4 minutes.

Back at Barefoot Permaculture, I added a second hive body (with drawn comb), rubbed lemon balm leaves (as a welcoming) over the frames and throughout the 2 hive bodies, and added an empty hive body on top (as a receiving space for the swarm).

I poured the wooden box bees in first, then picked up the plastic bucket, removed the lid, and promptly (and accidentally) dropped the open bucket. Fortunately, the large cluster of bees stayed together in the bucket. I quickly retrieved it and poured in also into the waiting hive body. Breathing a sigh of relief and gratitude, I closed up the hive with the top cover.

Several hundred bees were still in the air, swirling around, as well as clinging to the wooden box. I sat very nearby and watched as several bees came out the entrance, faced the opening, and began to fan their wings; spreading queen pheromone, signaling the others that the queen was inside, and to come on in.

Pheromone Wafting Workers Call the Others

Within moments, the air cleared and the box-clinging bees also flew in. Another minute, and the scene was natural and peaceful!

Pheromone Wafting Works! All Bees Inside

With the intent of removing the empty hive body before the bees could begin building free-form comb, the next day I returned and lifted the top cover. Many of the bees had moved down into the 2 fully equipped hive bodies below.

Still clinging to the sides of the upper hive body was around 1000 (or so) bees ( 1 & 1/2”  depth of bees on the inner sides, as well as an inch deep on the top of the lower hive body. I picked up the hive body —bees and all — and placed the box in front of the hive, leaning up against the hive front. After replacing the top cover, I sat nearby to watch: if the queen was on the outside box with these bees, the bees inside would come out to join her, and I would need to repeat yesterdays’ process.

To my delight, over the next 20 minutes, almost imperceptibly, the bees walked onto the hive front, down to the entrance board, and into the hive.

Remaining Bees Enter the Hive Proper

Our first capture, relocation and hiving of a swarm!  All is indeed well!

Yummy Gleanings

With such a warm winter, attended by regular rains, thunder and lightning storms, and warmer than normal soil temperatures, I felt that morels may have come and gone extremely early this spring. (In a normal year, their rising seems to correspond with the first confluence of 50 degree soil temperatures, lightening, thunder and rain).

Last week (2nd week of April), after hearing that some friends were finding these so ephemeral and tasty mushrooms, I went out with a friend and fellow morel enthusiast Patty Vanden Berg, and to our delight, were successful in our searching.

True Spring Beauty: First Morel Find of 2012

That, will be another story in the continuing tales of an urban oasis…

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About goodheart

Education: Warren Wilson College (BA Environmental Studies) 1987: University of Wisconsin Stevens Point (MSc. Natural Resources) 2005 Permaculture Design Certificate (The Farm, TN) 1994 Presidential Volunteer Award: 2005, 2006, 2007 Experiences: National and international Permaculture teacher and practitioner since 1995; Sustainable land use and permaculture consultant; International consultant for small plot sustainable agriultural projects; Home orchard consultant; Endangered species observer for sea-turtle and whale projects; Field biologist and naturalist; Gourmet natural food chef and teacher; Home baker (artisan breads) brewer & fermenter; Home orchardist; BeeKeeper; Ecological gardener; Broom-maker in the Southern Highland Craft Guild, and general bio-philiac...
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