Ongoing Tales of an Urban Oasis:
Hot Bees, Queens & Bears
A cold, rainy mid-May day, long time residents call “blackberry winter” circumstantially tells me its time to write on these pages again. At Barefoot permaculture, Blackberries are in bloom, as are the naturalized Japanese, ruby-jeweled Wineberries, and our workhorses, the Heritage Everbearing Raspberries.
Twice already I’ve sprayed our apples, pears (European and Asian), and peaches with a mixture of Surround (organic Kaolin clay) and Serenade (Bacillus subtillis: a bio-fungicide), in an attempt to stay ahead of the Plum Curculio (earliest damaging insect) and last season’s devastating Bitter Rot (Glomarella) which reduced 98% of our red apples to scavenged sections, only suitable for drying.
In the high elevations of the American southeast, humidity presents a challenge to aspiring organic fruit growers. However, it is still very worthwhile to grow our fruits cleanly and ecologically, so we can eat them right off the trees and shrubs, as well as feel ourselves as valuable members of the ecosystems in which we live.
As a species, we arose in a landscape that met all our needs for food, medicines, shelter, and connection. Our cultural creation-myths refer to this as the Garden of Eden. In my belief system, the Garden was a state of connected consciousness, as well as physical reality, and the “expulsion” was really self-exile. The storyline follows the ones who left the Garden, not the peoples who remained.
On its highest level, permaculture provides us with a powerful change of direction, from a species self-exiled (apart from) our natural community, thereby willing and able to profit from its exploitation and extinction, to being a part of the ecological system that surrounds us and makes life possible. This latter state segues us back towards the Garden.
Our goal at Barefoot Permaculture, is to recreate the Garden.
Hot Bees: Hot Whispers
After 3 full seasons of keeping bees, and loving their gentle presence, a very recent change occurred. Suddenly, whenever I was out and about in our landscape, 2 or 3 bees would appear aggressively at my face. Several times, while on my knees working, sometimes out of sight of the hives, I was harassed, chased, and stung.
This behavior was very different from all previous experiences.
I didn’t get the message.
Chiwa was taking a break, lying in the sun of one of our first warm days of spring, when a bee nailed her in area of her nose, between her nostrils. Within 24 hours, as I was emptying the mower’s mulch bag (70-80 feet from —and out of sight of— the hives), I was stung in the area of my nose between my nostrils.
Out of our combined 129 years of life experience, within a 24 hour period, we were both stung, unprovoked, in the same sensitive and unusual location.
This time, we got the message: the bees wanted our attention!
Its spring nectar season, a time of much honeybee activity, rising populations, comings and goings of many bees, and the potential for swarming. When the hive feels crowded, several new eggs are selected by the bees, and their individual cells are elongated into a peanut sized chamber. The developing pupae are fed a steady diet of royal jelly, which alchemizes them into queens (as opposed to workers or drones).
The current queen is kept from food for several days in order to achieve flight capability, and then, in a magnificent moment, she and half the hive rise into the air in search of another place to live. Thus, a swarm, and a new hive is born!
Meanwhile, a new queen emerges from her chambers, disposes of the other potential queens, and rises on her maiden flights, mating multiple times with multiple drones.
Then, and only then, the remaining hive is ready to continue its functions as a living hive.
Her high altitude mating flights are full of potential dangers, such as hungry, sharp-eyed birds. Sometimes, she doesn’t return.
Message of the Hot Bees
The western hive looked good! I was unable to spot the queen, but I saw her tracks, in the form of brood. Small, close to being capped, and capped (pupating). Below the queen excluder, I put on a medium hive body of new foundation (ready for the hive to draw out in new comb), and closed up the hive.
The mid hive had all stages of brood too, so I just rearranged the two lower hive bodies, then closed up the hive.
Sure that I would learn the reason for the hot bees in our remaining hive, I opened up our eastern hive. I was not disappointed!
No queen, no brood: the hive was dying!
After an unsuccessful attempt to stimulate queen rearing (the introduced brood were too old), we were successful in introducing a frame containing new eggs from the western hive.
Immediately, the queenless eastern hive settled and calmed down. The hive knew queen potential was now present.
Return of the Bear
Meanwhile, we had begun to suspect that our solar fence charger was malfunctioning. Although the flashing, red indicator light was strong when it was first switched on in the evening, later the pulse slowed dramatically. And due to the bears’ frequent presence in our site, we did not want to lose our hives to a hunger for bee larvae.
One day’s test showed the charger working well, yet the next day showed no charge. Finally convinced that the fence was not under full protection, that very morning, during breakfast, a medium sized black bear sauntered into view and down stone steps 15 feet away, towards our back yard and chickens.
This healthy looking bear behaved well, and when I ran out and yelled, took off through out bamboo and Black Walnut woods.
Standing near the henyard gate, I made my best rooster crow call, letting the hens know that their rooster (me) had risen to the occasion and chased the bear away!
With such environmental affirmation, we immediately took the necessary steps and by evening, the fence was up and running under full charge.
In another week, a new queen should be hatching: we have the timing marked on the calendar, and will listen for her pre-emergent song (piping). Meanwhile, all three hives have lots of stored honey.
Two tables in the back are loaded with plants we’ve started from seed, and transplanting time beckons.
Several of my in-situ grafts have taken: I am dancing with excitement over the success of grafting a proven female pawpaw onto a so far flowerless variety; 2 heritage apples onto young native hawthorns that otherwise needed to be removed in order for last year’s successful graft of a selected American Persimmon onto a wild rootstock; and a first time success (after 2 failed attempts) to graft our favorite peach (Redhaven) onto an unknown chicken compost seedling.
Other potential grafting successes I await!
My brooms have been steadily selling. Many potential handles, in the form of looking like good walking-stick material, await transformation into handles. Broom making season beckons too!
May 16th was the feast day of St. Honore: patron saint of bakers, and we celebrated with good friends and fellow bakers and foodies with a pot luck gathering and wonderful foods, many baked! This we will add to our yearly celebrations…