Saturday, June 25, 2016

Climate Change Visitors?

The first time I saw a deer in my in-town garden was in 2012.  I stepped out onto the back porch early one morning and there she was, a young doe, slip-sliding around on the boards of the catwalk running house and shop.  She looked to be clearly confused by her surroundings, just as I was surprised to see her that far down out of the South hills.  She ambled off...didn't seem to really want to be there.

That was the first time since 1997 when I move into the house.  Granted, our lots are likely much more inviting to deer now that the grass is all gone and there is an abundance of food as well as cover, but now that these deer are showing up with increasing frequency and not just in our garden but all up and down the street, it seems that some larger pattern shift is occurring.

Last year two strapping bucks with full racks wreaked havoc on our bean patch for about six weeks, on at least one occasion driving Kristin out into the night in her pajamas wielding a kayak paddle to instruct them on some of the finer points of trespass.  The deer were not impressed and only stamped at her and more or less refused to yield.  I think she was lucky to present herself so ridiculously what with the paddle and nightwear and all. Had the deer taken her more seriously as an antagonist, things could have gone badly.

For a while I plotted deer murder, doubling down on my efforts each time I went out to pick beans only to find the entire top layer of the plants neatly sheared off and no beans below.  Bow? Snare? Crossbow? Souped up pellet gun?  The farthest I got was to plink one of them on the backside with a BB around dawn one day.  The result was completely disappointing....a minor "huff" from the deer who then continued to munch apples before moving toward me to begin a next course of semi-ripe plums.  Insulting.

This year they are back again, once more a couple of bucks.  They are beginning to make a dent and once more we find our evening conversations turning to cervine skulduggery.  Pragmatically speaking, simply offing these deer (even if we could do so without winding up in jail) seems like it would be a temporary solution at best.  Next year other deer would show up and continue the marauding.  If this is the pattern it seems to be--rather than a problem with a particular non-human neighbor--we need a different approach.

All of this has led me to ponder the origins of the pattern.  Here in Western Oregon we've had several dry years now, though the current year has been more normal.  That dry weather means less forage outside of town where watering does not occur.  Our in-town gardens where we use quite a bit of water, must certainly look good to the deer by comparison.  Kayak paddle wielding women notwithstanding, town is also probably much safer place to be if you're a deer.

It's hard to talk about climate change meaningfully in its connections to specific events and problems like deer showing up in your garden or even a run of dry years, but by the same token it seems even more foolish and stubborn to simply deny any connection whatsoever.  Fly over Western Oregon and you'll see a slow but steady drying out of the land as you get south past about Roseburg.  Decades of aggressive cutting practices have impacted the land differently depending on factors like soil quality and annual rainfall. The north recovers relatively quickly (meaning within a few decades), but the south has been pushed past recoverability in many parts.  Forests have given way to savanna. Species are on the move, some out and others in.  It's no longer the temperate rain forest it used to be.

My deer are species on the move.  I would like them to keep moving...nothing to see here.  But I think that even if they take that option, the pattern so far suggests that I will have to wait another decade and donate another dozen or so bean crops to see them gone.

My garden--though it provides at least half of the food we eat each year--is still frankly a luxury item for us.  We eat marvelously well as a result of it, but could eat well otherwise.  That's certainly not the case for most of the planet.  Everyone who cares understands that water scarcity is coming quickly on a global scale.  What we grow now will likely not grow well in the same places in the future.  Species will move in and some will move out as this happens.  We will move them ourselves, aggressively in some cases if past behavior is any predictor at all.

The prospects for tackling these changes by focusing on individual species (like my deer) seem dodgy at best.  Very smart people doubt very much that bio-engineering our way out of this is going to work.

These are very big genies that we've let out of the bottle...and I don't think they have manifested in order to grant wishes.  My sense is that whatever successes we have in these challenging new circumstances will come because we pay close attention at a very local level and adapt quickly and creatively and collaboratively and pragmatically to keep beans on the stalk, bees in the hive, etc.

Friday, April 22, 2011

And now they're back...

Two weeks ago we all piled in the truck and drove across town to pick up two 4 pound packages of bees complete with a couple of "Minnesota Hygenic Queens".  The man providing the bees had just driven through the night up from California to fetch about a million bees from an apiary near Chico.  We arrived at his place down a long gravel drive to his little corner of rural improbably located in the middle of town.  Just beyond his own orchard bee-yard and garden, we found him at his barn/shop with another fellow standing a little bleary-eyed next to crates of bees stacked six feet high.

We chatted for a bit, mostly about bees and new mite treatments and whatnot as he pried loose a couple of screened boxes for us and then 'bee-vac-ed' a handful of hitch hiking bees from the outsides of the boxes so as to make the trip home with five humans and 40,000 bees in the cab of our truck something other than a temptation of fate.

Installing bees in hives is a great treat, one I've enjoyed only a dozen or so times in my life.  It's actually a very safe exercise, one that looks much more harrowing that it is in fact.  The bees want to be in a new home and because they have no hive to defend, are docile and easy to handle.

This time around I did the first of our two hives and Kristin tried her hand at the second.  We pulled the queen in her small cage out, gave the bees a generous misting of sugar water, unceremoniously tumbled them into the hives we'd prepared, gently swept stragglers off the rim of the boxes, and replaced the roof.  Within the span of  about 30 minutes we were done and smiling broadly at the fact of our garden once again blessed with a pollination solution of unsurpassed quality and beauty.

Earlier in the season, with empty hives from our winter disaster, I'd been worried about pollination.  As the plums bloomed almost no bees visited their blossoms.  The pears flowered next and appeared to be similarly neglected.  Even the irresistible cascading flowers of our Red Flowering Currant were mostly bee-less.  It  was Silent Spring in miniature and, from the narrow perspective of a gardener, portended a potentially cheerless harvest.

Now, however, things seem to be gently swaying back to resemble the springtimes I remember as a boy when every flower and budding thing teemed with so many bees they could be heard from yards away on any given day.  As our new bees progressively map their forage in helical fashion, I see them find and begin to enjoy each new set of blooms as they come into season:  apples, collards, strawberries, cherries, poppies, tulips, daffodils, maples, and on and on, a different feast for them each week for the next three months.  Mindful of my friend Whitey's wonderful garden in which our native Douglas Asters abound, I have this year propagated some in my own beds purposefully to offer the bees the unusually late-season bloom and nectar flow the asters provide.

Bees fill me with a sense of gratitude and wonder that is difficult to express.  I watch them closely in their doings and every year notice some thing I had not before, some thing not new....or new only for me...which bees perfected some millions of years ago and despite such perfection continue to practice each day, colony by colony, flower by flower, ad infinitum.  Watch one grazing on lupine flowers someday and you will see what I mean.  Though harvesters, they are experts at giving as much as they take, by the act of pollination ensuring and even vigorously expanding the livelihood of their food sources.  Gentle creatures by nature, they are also prodigiously weaponized for their size.  They are master builders capable of crafting perfect, flowingly ordered comb in spaces of even the most unlikely and random configuration.

I am happy to once again have the opportunity to share space with these marvels in my garden.  So is the Western Jay who lays in wait at their hive entrance to snatch a few bees in flight as a snack now and again.  I'm sure my garden in whatever way one understands it is also 'happy' for their renewed presence.

We are all fortunate here and elsewhere beyond our knowing.

make our drive home  be collaborating on the task of

Monday, March 7, 2011

And now they're gone...

Sadly, my two hives fell victim this winter to some unknown malady, which I suppose means colony collapse or 'CCD' as it's known nowadays.

Bee colonies have long suffered from common ailments such as mites, fungal infections, and bacterial diseases. But, of late, their fortunes have taken a serious downturn. Colonies simply disappear leaving plenty of food behind and no signs indicating what was the matter.

These apiary Roanokes have puzzled scientists, but they don't much puzzle me. I say that without the least bit of arrogance or pride, but with more than a little sadness and frustration.

We treat bees badly on the whole, so badly in fact that given a sane moment or two we might better ask ourselves how in the world they've lasted this long rather than why they're now vanishing. We steal their food, move them around to suit our ends, breed them into shockingly narrow genetic corners, and poison them with millions of pounds if not tons of commercial herbicides and insecticides each year.

The barrage of bad behaviors we've inflicted on bees is the problem. But, maddeningly, our reductive penchance for quick fixes and 'answers' now has us mostly casting about for the 'secret' behind bee die-offs. We've pointed the finger at everything from cell phone signals to viruses.

But, more likely, we are the problem or, more precisely, our relationship with the rest of the biosphere is the problem. Somehow, we've come to the conclusion that we own it. Planet as chattel.

If there is a smoking gun here, my guess is that it's probably the neonicotinoid pesticides we've grown attached to in the past decade. These beauties are sold under trade names such as "Cruiser", "Platinum", and "Admire". We like these insecticides because they're easy on mammals.

By design, however, they're not easy on insects. Neonicotinoids are built to wreak havoc on insect nervous systems. It's hard not ask whether that might also have something to do with the fact that bee colonies stricken by colony collapse simply get confused and wander away from their hives.

Whether by design or chance, it can hardly be lost upon the creators and purveyors of poisons like these that their apparent lack of effect on humans and other mammals would considerably enhance their saleability in this day and age where 'green' is increasingly a feature and a commodity in its own right. It's always important to hide the bodies.

Ironically, the very reason we're able to be so naughty in a planetary sense is also the bad news we're going face in the form of consequences: we're perched precariously atop the food web.

Bees, those lovely insects we're busy trashing, do all their magic quite a bit farther down the line...but not that much farther. We depend directly upon them for about 30% of our food supply via pollination. If bees go, we'll know about it in the worst possible way.

Here's the short version: If you use toxins, don't. Find alternatives. Accept tradeoffs. Think farther out in your own self-interest. Be more patient. Try participation instead of control.

There's a good chance your next meal or the one after that will depend upon it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

New Visitors

At the beginning of this growing adventure, I was skeptical that I'd be able to do much to broaden the animal community calling my garden home. But this spring has shown me a surprising variety of visitors and new residents.

The bees, of course, are here and thriving. The hives are so happy and clearly thriving. The east hive is up to four supers now. The west hive is about to have a fourth added. I've seen at least a half dozen other species of insect pollinators (wasps, other bees, etc.0 as well.

The bees have attracted a couple of scrub jays who zoom in to snatch a few bees for a snack each day. I know beekeepers who make an effort to shield hives from marauding birds, but watching these jays I find it hard to believe they make much of a dent and find it much more encouraging that a small foodchain has arisen around the beehives. In addition to the jays, a rich community of detritus feeders clean up the bee corpses which typically appear just off the front porch of the hives each spring.

An abundance of helpful garter snakes has turned up this year too. They're out hunting bugs and whatnot and love the woodpiles and tall grassy areas left around the garden at various spots.

My six new chickens, though hardly volunteers, are also much to my dismay leaping their coop bounds and making their presence in the garden obvious. They scratch too much for my tastes, but also wreak havoc on the slug population which has afflicted my strawberries this year.

Frogs this season were present, but seemed more subdued than in previous years. I don't know why.

A deer even ventured in the other day....quite a rare sighting. She moved gracefully through the garden around dawn one day last week. I have never seen a deer in this part of town before.

And, lastly, though I do not like them much at all and make mildly murderous efforts to control them, rats seemed to make a particularly strong play for my compost piles earlier this year. When their numbers began to offend my sense of balance, I culled them out with a BB gun and let a couple of neighborhood cats take care of the remainder. I'm not a good shot anymore, but think that my efforts at least allowed the cats to regain the upper hand. Cats and rats also make for a little bit of a food chain.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Sweet Thing!

Few experiences I've had equal that of pulling new honeycomb from a perfectly calm beehive, feeling the amazing weight of slabs of honey and seeing them emerge into the light for the first time ever.

I've done this a few times in my life, but only a few, and just yesterday for the first time with unframed comb. It was a lovely day, gentle temperatures, a little sun, plenty of shade, a few flowers still out for the bees to browse on. In keeping with the unframed comb, the come-as-come-may pace of the day, and the wistful awareness of fading warm weather, my honey-taking was incidental and gentle. I worked slowly and took only a very small fraction of what was in the hives. Of perhaps 80 lbs or so of comb, I only took about 12 lbs and left the rest to the bees with wishes of an easy winter and strong start next spring.

My real objective for the hives yesterday was in fact not to take honey, but to fit the hives with new roofs and quilt boxes, replacing the temporary plywood tops I'd had on since April. I use the Warre system for my hives: simple, no frames, excellent construction, moisture/heat management, etc....all of cedar! I have no notion of what the bees feel about these truly cadillac hives I've built for them, but the boxes certainly look sharp and elicit frequent compliments from non-bee garden visitors.

When I pulled the temporary roofs off, I saw quickly that the bees had been very happy and productive all summer. The hives were packed full with honey, completely full, three stories high. That made me so happy in turn that I determined on the spot to sample a little from one of the hives.

The bees were remarkably calm and seemed not at all to bother about my presence nor even about my hands (gloved!) in their hive carefully removing comb. I cut the comb from the box with a kitchen knife where needed and gingerly hoisted it out using a BBQ fork and a big spatula as aids. I used my bee brush to carefully remove the hangers-on. What a treat!

After a quick go-round to provision neighbors with samples, I took the rest inside to the kitchen (which still looks like a sort of Noah's Ark for vegetables owing to harvest season) where I continued to pull lone bees off of the comb and walk them back to the hive to rejoin their sisters.

The honey is delicious. In the comb you can see different honey of varying hues owing to the different nectar flows the bees harvest from across the growing season. There are sparsely scattered cells of pollen mixed in. Their construction skills are beyond compare, exercised completely in the dark to produce weirdly wild and yet uniform structures in flowing patterns built of fragrant and antiseptic materials.

It's all a miracle.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bees Suffering the Beekeeper

My bees have by all signs had a pretty good first season. They've clearly multiplied (greatly!) and are now happily ensconced in a wildflower lined corner of the garden. I made the decision not to take any honey this year so that they'd have better stores for the winter. I keep waiting for them to post little Thank You notes on my office door or something, but so far...nothing.

This weekend I'll be attempting to redress some early foibles in my hive construction. To get them in early in the season, I put them in their hives with temporary roofs rather than the considerably more pimped out ones I've now constructed: real Warre quilt boxes with cedar shaving moisture buffers and lovely gabled roofs. So, I have to pull the old plywood temp roofs and put the new systems on.

This will be interesting because the bees have hung comb from the old temp roofs. I'll be gently separating the comb from the roof, pulling the plywood, and replacing it with the cool new versions. I'm expecting a lot of buzzing and protestation, but it'll mean much better digs (warmer and drier) for the hives this winter.

But, bottom line: this weekend's intervention will be the result of bad beekeeper planning. My bees do indeed suffer me as a beekeeper, but hopefully not too much! I'll throw in some more wildflowers next spring to make things right.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Entrance of the Bees Into Valhalla

We picked up the bee packages last weekend and put them into their new homes after a marathon session finishing up the hive construction. It all went pretty well (only one sting...for good measure) and there seems to be excellent hive activity so far.

The process of installing bees into a hive is unglamorous and un-gentle. You basically shake the bees out of the container they come in, giving it few sharp raps with your knuckle to dislodge hangers-on, and they fall in a clump down into the readied hive box. The queen (assuming you've purchased your bees...I've hived caught swarms on occasion, in which case the queen is just part of the clump) comes in a small screen-sided cage stopped with a tiny cork on one end. You pull the cork, plug the hole with a finger to prevent her from escaping, and then re-plug the hole with a piece of soft candy that the bees can eat through and place her little cage into the hive. Within a few days the bees will eat the candy, free the queen, and set about their reproductive business. Those few days afford all parties the opportunity to get to know each other well enough to avoid conflict or rejection (death!) of the queen.

I've been reluctant to poke my nose in on my hives again so soon, as they no doubt need time to settle. However, temptation got the better of me a few evenings ago and I cracked the top of one hive to see how they were doing. Naturally, the bees were doing their own thing and had decided to hang some comb off of the roof of the hive. I was delighted that they'd built so fast, but the hanging comb will present me with a minor challenge as I'll eventually have to move it when I add the Warre quilt box and roof setup later.

My starting arrangement involved two boxes on each hive with only the bottom box outfitted with top bars for the bees to build comb on. I put a single top bar in the top box, hung the queen's cage from that, and used the remaining space to accomodate the small tin of food that shipped with the bees. As there's plenty to eat now nearby, I elected not to provide them with any additional artificial food. My fruit trees, several maples, and the red flowering currant are within a few feet of the hives.

I'll be adding a hive box to each this evening and removing the temporary food can as well.

It's such a great thing to see the bees at work. Their place in the garden and in the grand scheme of things is so obvious. It's hard to imagine something making more sense.