7/2/14

Save the Bees... Kill Your Lawn... Same Difference

“If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.”
–Principal McGee in Grease

Not everybody is cut out for beekeeping.  We are disappointed in how many people are cut out for it who simply will never consider it, for one reason or another, but it is nevertheless a fact with which we are willing to come to terms.

However, bees need our help, and everyone is cut out to help.

There have been numerous writings, many frantic and worried, about colony collapse disorder over the past decade.  Colony collapse disorder is a very real, very palpable threat to civilization as we know it, and that is not hyperbole.  Take away our pollinators, and you take away many of the building blocks of the food chain as currently constituted – how large mammals such as ourselves can adapt to such a calamity is an open
question.

However, we are not writing today with the purpose of spreading panic and hysteria; instead, we offer a solution.  We are a hopeful, optimistic lot by nature, and we see opportunities to not only save the bees, but also to beautify the world around us in ways far too often forgotten since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

First, a little background – several potential culprits have been identified for the mass die-offs of bees which began accelerating during the first decade of the 21st century.  The first to get attention was an old enemy of the honeybee, the varroa mite; beginning about fifteen years ago, commercial beekeepers noticed an increase in not just mites, but in mites resistant to the chemical treatments they typically apply to keep these pesky parasites in check.  Evolutionary biologists,naturally, pointed out that of course resistant strains are
increasing.  This is the natural outcome of any chemical based pest control method – eventually, you create a strain of superbugs, because the survivors of any treatment are left to breed, and they are genetically more likely to be resistant.  Duh.

There are other reasons for the increase in mites, though, most notably the design of commercial beehives.  Langstroth hives use preformed comb, requiring bees to build their comb to shapes humans have decided we want them to build, instead of in configurations the bees naturally want to utilize; it turns out, the bees are right, and we are wrong.  There are numerous characteristics (size being the most obvious) which bees choose to produce in their offspring in order to respond to their environment, and many of the adaptations they make “on the fly” are dependent upon resizing and reshaping the brood comb in which their young are
reared.  Take away their flexibility… and you leave them vulnerable to outside factors.  Like, say, mites.

Mites, though, are really a symptom and not the source of the problem.  In nature, bees are more than capable of fending off mites through the clever application of oils found naturally in a variety of plants which do not affect the bees, but which are fatal to the parasites.  Lavender, rosemary, creosote, western juniper, these are all plants around which you will frequently find a passel of buzzing bees, and most people never stop to give them a second thought.  None of these plants, though, provide very much in the way of pollen and nectar – the bees are not there to feed, they are there to clean themselves and their hive.

So, no, mites are not the cause of colony collapse.  Instead, they are increasing in number because the bee populations are weaker, more susceptible.  And why?

There are two primary reasons, closely related, and both of which ordinary people can do something to help resolve, whether they keep bees or not.

First, bees have been weakened over the last century by the application of various pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to a wide variety of domesticated plants, particularly large scale monocropped farm produce, and – more ubiquitously – suburban lawns.  All pesticides are obviously dangerous to any insect population, of course, which is frequently the point.  You put out ant poison because you want to kill ants.  QED.

However… ants are the closest living relatives of the honeybee.  What’s bad for the one is almost always bad for the other.

Beyond this basic fact, which suggests that even “organic” or “natural” pesticide solutions to infestation by ants, etc. are bad for bees, there is an even more insidious level to the story – unsatisfied with wide application of sprays and other application methods, farmers and gardeners began turning to modified crops
(genetically or otherwise) which produce “natural pesticides”.  This is, in fact, the most common form of GMO crop.  In spite of how creepy it sounds, most of these crops are perfectly safe for human consumption.

They are still a horrible crime against humanity, though, for a simple reason:  they are killing our bees.

These crops almost exclusively make use of a class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids; they are fatal to most of the targeted pests for which they were invented.  They are also fatal to bees in concentrations as low as one part per million.  And they are found in most large scale farming operations in everything from alfalfa to zucchini.

They are also found in most of the pretty flowers you buy from the large hardware chains – if you think you are doing bees a favor by planting flowers you’ve bought at Lowe’s or Home Depot, think again.  Even if
you never apply a single drop of pesticide yourself, the plants brought their own pesticide to the party.

The second factor which is in human control is similar to the first – we are putting out all these non-bee friendly crops, including lawns, and this is decreasing the available food supply for our honeybees.  In the 19th century (and the first half of the 20th as well) there were hardly any homes with what we would recognize today as a “lawn”.  Wild grasses, wild flowers, wild everything was pretty much the rule of the day.  Even without the invention of the “Victory Garden” in World War I, most people had a few flowers around, in addition to a vegetable plot, and a few herbs.  It was universal.  It was “just what people do” and it was healthy for the bees.  Nobody called the non-modified vegetables “heirloom” back then; they were just “vegetables”.

Modern homes, though, are surrounded by large lawns soaked with fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides which choke out “weeds”.  So-called weeds, though, do something grasses do not do:  most of them flower.  Every time you kill a dandelion, you starve a bee.  The bees used to be able to feed on every patch of ground for miles around in any direction, as far as the eye could see, no matter where you were in this country.  Now?  They frequently have to fly for miles just to find anything from which they can collect pesticide free pollen and nectar.

The solution to both problems is pretty much the same – replace lawn space (in some cases, at least as much as your homeowner’s association will allow) with wildflowers, heirloom vegetable plots, and all-natural, non-modified flowers with no neonicotinoids.  Plant as much lavender and rosemary as you can.  Replace those boring expanses of grass with clover, or better still, with a blend of all the wildflowers that grow in your region, hopefully with enough variety that at least something is blooming at any given time for more than half the year.

This won’t just help the bees, of course.  Yes, the bees will be thrilled… but so will people.  We live in one of the more picturesque parts of College Station, Texas, in an older neighborhood where lots of people plant a few flowers and herbs, and there are still some vacant lots which have been overseeded with wildflowers, so we are not in one of the cookie cutter neighborhoods with sprawling St. Augustine grass in every
direction.  Still, we are frequently amused by how often people driving by our house slow down (some even stop) just to stare.  All those flowers, all those herbs… people are just not used to the idea that you can have color, texture, layers in a yard.  And the smells!  A bee-friendly garden is a pleasure for all five senses.

We have definite suggestions for what sorts of plants are best for the bees… but the list is so extensive that no one yard could possibly encompass them all.  And this represents a great opportunity, all too often overlooked in an age of conformity, the chance to be truly individual and expressive.  Instead of tending a lawn that looks just like everybody else’s, we can help out our busy bee friends by making our garden spaces beautiful and unique.  Just a thought.  And who knows, maybe if you make your personal spaces bee friendly, you might find you want to keep a hive yourself, for grins and honey.


Happy farming!

6/28/14

In Which We Keep Bees, and Vice-Versa

“Time is an illusion.  Lunchtime doubly so.”
--Douglas Adams

The truth is, most often, something at least slightly (and occasionally wildly) different from what you may be hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, feeling, or most especially thinking at any given moment.  Including right now, of course, but if we chase that particular white rabbit, we’ll never say anything useful at all.

So it is with keeping bees.  Most of what people think about it (even people who already do it) is not quite right.

There are a number of questions sensible people have when the subject of keeping bees in one’s backyard comes up, among them:
  • Are you nuts?!  Bees sting!
  • Isn’t it awfully expensive, what with all the special equipment you need?
  • Doesn’t it hurt your back to lift a 50 pound box full of bees and honey?
  • Doesn’t it take a lot of time?
  • Are you nuts?!  Bees sting!
There are others, of course, but these are the ones we hear most often when telling people about our new hobby.  We don’t yet know anywhere near enough about beekeeping to consider ourselves “experts” but we expect that this will eventually change.  An expert, after all, is someone who has made every mistake possible in a narrow field; we certainly made a good start on that path last year; this year, we’ve encountered a few new doosies, but we figure we still have plenty more mistakes to make before we get our black-belts in bees.

So… to answer the common questions:

Yes, bees do sting.  But, to date, knock on wood, we have never been stung while working a hive.  We are sure that this will eventually change, but the truth is that bees are generally passive creatures, so long as you follow a few common sense rules.  The only times we have ever been stung have been when we were accidentally endangering a bee whose presence was unknown (sitting idly in the bottom of a sandal, for example, or resting on the hinge of a gate).  And both of these instances were before we got a beehive.

There have been plenty of times, in fact, when we have worked side by side with bees long before we ever thought about getting a hive of them in our backyard.  Our rosemary and basil plants are frequently buzzing with every kind of bee imaginable, and our raspberry autumn sage (you might know it as scarlet salvia) positively brims with bumblebees most of the year.  We get down in the dirt to tend to these plants, and have our faces and exposed arms literally inches away from the bees on a regular basis – we let them go about their chores, and they let us go about ours.  It is really quite peaceful.

As for when we are actually working the hive, no we don’t get stung, for a few simple reasons:
  • ·         Protective clothing.  Some beekeepers are good enough at it that they can go in sans hat-and-veil, with no gloves, and even in shorts and short-sleeves.  We’re not there yet.  We wear homemade veils, long-sleeve shirts, jeans and boots, and the tight-fitting gloves preferred by medical facility cleaning crews world-wide.  We suppose it’s theoretically possible a bee might be able to sting through these gloves, but they give us the extra confidence necessary to stay calm, which is really key.
  • ·         Mist of sugar-water.  Some (nay, most) beekeepers use smoke to “pacify” a hive of bees.  We reject this approach entirely, because, while it is effective, it is also a much harsher treatment of the hive than is typically realized.  The reason bees do not attack when they have been “smoked” is that smoke causes the bees to retreat to the hive in an attempt to minimize the damage caused by the supposedly impending forest fire – if the hive manages to go undamaged, then as many bees as possible must be alive to allow the queen to survive in the newly denuded forest – this is a highly stressful scenario for the hive; smoke doesn’t make them sleepy, it makes them panic.  We have not yet got enough experience to notice the difference (nor do we want it, frankly) but from at least one experienced beekeeper we have been informed that “smoked” hives take several hours to recover from this panic state and begin working properly again.  A sugar-misted hive (or better still, one sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar) is peaceful in the same way that office workers who are given an especially large Christmas bonus are peaceful.  They are temporarily out for a party, and return to work without too much grumbling.
  • ·         Top Bar Hive.  This is the biggie.  We don’t run nearly as much risk of getting stung as most beekeepers do simply because when we work a hive, we are only working one comb at a time instead of exposing the entire hive all at once.  More on Top Bar advantages in a moment, but this is one advantage that answers the most common complaint we hear.  Yes, we will eventually get stung working the hive, but no, not that often, and yes, there are ways to minimize the possibility.


Of course, we are not all that sympathetic anyway to the wimpy complaint of “ooh, aren’t you afraid of getting stung?” simply because we’ve been stung before, and it didn’t really hurt very much.  We’d much rather be stung by a honeybee than, for example, step into a fire ant mound without noticing it.  Yes, a honeybee sting pinches a little, but after a fairly short while, you forget it happened.  Fire ants, though, remind you for days that you transgressed on their territory.  Nasty blighters.

The next big complaint, of course, was that beekeeping is an expensive hobby.  If you follow the traditional “rules” then, yes, that would be true.  Pick up a catalog from any of the handful of beekeeping equipment vendors throughout the country, and you’ll be shocked.  A full “starter kit” with Langstroth hive supers, stands, honey extractor, haz-mat suit, smoker, etc. could run you $600-800.  And that’s before you throw in a $100 for the actual bees.

Fortunately, you don’t have to follow those rules.

Top bar hives (more properly “horizontal top bar hives” or “hTBH”s – we’ll talk about “vertical” vTBHs some other time) can be made from scrap lumber (we’ve seen some stellar examples made out of torn up wooden pallets) for however much money you are willing to lay out for construction materials.  There are blueprints available on the web, but the truth is, you can use a little common sense to figure out what dimensions you want to use.  There’s a professional “large scale” hTBH beekeeper in New Mexico who has 50 acres of scrub land dotted with old water barrels sawed in half lengthwise – picture what kind of structures in nature the bees use, and you’ve got the idea – vTBHs are probably a little more realistic, since hollow trees are usually upright, but hTBHs work just fine, since bees are just as happy to build shorter comb in a longer lateral space as they are to build very long comb in a narrow space.

As for the extra “stuff” you don’t need any of it.  None.  Not one thing from those glossy catalogs.

You can make your bee suit from things you probably already own.  If you don’t have any filmy scarves long enough, maybe you’ll need to get some veil material from your local cloth store.  Other than that, maybe gloves (though, as mentioned, not all beekeepers wear them, and not wearing them has the advantage of letting you feel everything you are doing, and make fewer “oopsie, I dropped it” mistakes).

Hive tools?  Any strong flat tool will do; a sturdy carpenter’s ruler, a really good butcher knife, these will be just fine.  And as for a smoker?  Yeah, please don’t use one.  We’re serious.  You’ll want to get a spray bottle (preferably one that has never been used for anything else except maybe water) and/or something you can use to puff out powdered sugar (a baby powder container is a good example, though if you are going to use one, we recommend washing it thoroughly before filling it with sugar).  Neither of these items will run you anywhere near as much as the specialty equipment will, though.

The next big complaint is the heavy lifting.  We’ve got some good news:  in hTBH beekeeping, you’re not lifting much of anything.  Depending on how you construct your hive, you may have to remove a heavy lid (ours is made from a patchwork of scraps from old 2x8s, and is pretty heavy, but we’ve seen some that are nothing more than a piece of plywood held in place with bungie cords).  Once the lid is off, you only work one bar at a time (our bars are made from “1x1” lumber which is actually 1 ¼ inches wide), and the comb extending down from each of these bars will never, even when full of honey, be more than 2-3 pounds each, a weight we are fairly sure the big strong readers of this blog will be more than capable of managing.

The question, of course, arises because people are envisioning a Langstroth hive.  These are the big box hives you’ve probably seen if you have ever visited a commercial beekeeping setup of any size or scope.  They contain multiple boxes, one where the queen lays brood, and boxes above this where she is excluded (by use of a wire grate big enough for worker bees, but too small for the queen to get through); this is the perfect arrangement if your goal is to maximize the amount of honey you are stealing from the hive, but it is not so good if your goal is to cooperate with the bees.

It also poses the problem of needing to do a lot of heavy lifting – if you want to check on the health of the brood comb and the queen, you have to first remove the box containing all the honey, decide how much to take, and then get into the box with the queen.  You’ll notice this means you’ve got to expose every single bee in the hive, so you’ll be doing this in the midst of a frantic swarm of bees who are panicking because a) you’re messing with their house, b) you’ve probably “smoked” them, so their instinct is to huddle in the house you are messing with, and c) you’ve drastically altered the temperature in the hive, something they by instinct spend a great deal of time moderating.  So… why would you want to go through the trouble?

Taking a lot of time is probably the only reasonable topic to make the list of frequent complaints, but even then… we only work our hive for maybe 10 minutes at a stretch.  It is true that with a top bar hive, you really do need to work the hive more frequently than in a traditional hive (we inspect our comb once a week), but honestly, other than the initial building of the hive (which took a weekend, but could probably have been done faster if we were better carpenters), and the time taken to find a package of bees (we drove 30 miles to get ours; you could just as easily have them delivered to you), we can’t think of anything that takes more time than it would take to watch a sitcom on television.  Okay, we take a while to clean up after harvesting honey… but that’s a fun job.  30 minutes licking your fingers… a minute and a half washing up with soap and water.

That just leaves the final complaint, a repeat of the first.  And all we can say about those afraid of stings is, unless you are actually allergic to bees, you’re just a big ol’ wuss.  But don’t feel too bad about it… we, too, totally freaked out the first time we held a 3 lb package of bees, all buzzing at us like the end was nigh.  Trust us, though, if you can get over that initial fear, it is well worth it.

Happy farming!

6/12/14

Rethinking Our Place in a (Warming) New World

“It is notable that as these data records have grown longer and climate models have become more comprehensive, earlier predictions have largely been confirmed. The only real surprises have been that some changes, such as sea level rise and Arctic sea ice decline, have outpaced earlier projections.”
--“Climate Change Impacts in the United States”, U.S. National Climate Assessment, U.S. Global Change Research Program, page 2

We have, naturally, written extensively before about global warming and its likely impacts.  And most people who find this blog, whether intentionally or by accident, are likely to be of at least a relatively scientific bent, meaning that the obvious truth of global warming is taken, more or less, at face value.  There is legitimate debate in the scientific community over how quickly the Earth is warming, or what particular tipping points may exist, and what impacts will be felt where, and when, but there is no longer any legitimate debate over the most basic of questions, “Is the Earth warming?”


There are some interesting questions to be raised from a purely sociological perspective, however, in recognizing the uncomfortable truth that not everyone accepts the very real, very palpable fact that human activity is largely responsible for changes to our climate which are both irreversible and incomprehensible.  Douglas Adams once quipped that the last thing a human being needs is a true sense of perspective, since our utter insignificance would destroy any individual ego if we ever felt the full scope of it all at once.  In that context, it is perfectly natural that – in spite of overwhelming evidence – any given human being would deny that we have, collectively, done irreversible harm to the very ecosystems which allowed for our existence.

Enough warning flags have been raised about potential disasters related to climate change; we are not writing today to cause any more alarm.  Instead, we would like to suggest some small shifts in perspective which might be helpful to those who will find disaster unfathomable, even as it occurs.  The truth is, our species is likely to survive global climate change, and some members of our species, at the very least, are likely to thrive under whatever conditions emerge at the other end of the change curve.

What we are interested in is teaching people to care about the idea that we should minimize the harm we are doing, and maximize the good we can share.  Plain and simple, why don’t we all try to do what will be of most benefit to the most people?  Sounds simple… but it is a radical idea.

We would like to interject at this point that we are not talking about some utopian ideal.  Socialism, communism, fascism, libertarian capitalism… all of these economic and political ideologies are based upon prima facie assumptions which are not founded in any kind of scientific principle.  And all are inconsistent with the physical realities of human existence.  No economic theory, after all, has ever been formulated with the thought in mind that basic economic activities in and of themselves have an impact on the viability of ecosystems

The basis of economics is exploitation, and we do not mean that in a pejorative sense.  It’s the simple truth – some raw material is plundered, molded, and bartered in exchange for either another manufactured good, or else for currency, which may then be used to purchase a manufactured good.  But all of it, every last bit, begins with the extraction from nature of a raw material.  Economics of any ideological stripe are by nature at odds with the environment.

Slowly, humanity has become aware of the impact this friction has imparted – crop rotation, an invention of American farmers in the late 18th century, is an example of an adaptation humans have made to a uniquely human-caused problem, soil depletion.  There are other examples, and it is no accident that they come primarily from industries in which humans exploit other life forms.  Forestry is largely the study of how to rejuvenate woods which have been exploited for lumber.  Fishery science largely relates to management of fish populations exploited for human consumption.  Even the field of microbiology is inundated with studies related to molds, bacteria and viruses which have undergone wild evolutionary shifts due to human behavior.

So – human beings are changing the world in ways we do not always immediately perceive.  Some of those changes have consequences we would probably not have invited upon ourselves had we been aware beforehand, but since it is too late now to remake those fateful first choices, what ought we to do about it?

*Revisit cosmological assumptions – most world religions (Buddhism being the most notable exception) place humanity at the center of existence.  Even historically, this makes little sense, but it is especially narcissistic and asinine at a time when we know that the universe has been expanding for  14 billion years, and that even if there are other self-aware beings elsewhere in that vast, inconceivable void, we will likely (the laws of physics being what they are) never encounter them.  The basic problem with most human religions is… the stage (aka “The Universe”) is far too big for the drama (aka “our measly little human problems”).  No offense to anyone, of course.  We’re just not really that important, universally speaking.


*Redefine our values – note we do not say “change”; we must merely find a way to restate our human values within a more realistic context.  There is an almost universal moral aversion to murder, for example.  Perhaps we would be better served by asking ourselves why we share so many fundamental moral opinions.  In context of global warming… are there things we would not be doing if only we had the perspective from which to see what impact they are having?  Who would consciously buy a Hummer, for example, if they realized that guzzling gas at a ridiculous 8 miles to the gallon was causing every man, woman and child in Vanuatu to be homeless?  Yet, that is precisely what has happened.  You drive a gas guzzler, you are guilty.  QED.

*Educate ourselves to the degree possible/plausible.  Not everyone is capable of reading through a Scientific American article and making heads or tails of what has been said/described/discovered/discredited.  However, everyone is capable of reading more than one source (yes, I’m talking to you, FOX News viewers), and paying attention to what kinds of consensus are being built around given ideas.  You would never know from talking to a member of John Q. Public who is a “climate skeptic” that 97% of the scientists who study climate hold the belief that not only is warming happening, but that humans are the primary cause of warming.  This is because the general public, in general, chooses not to be educated.

TheU.S. National Climate Assessment released earlier this year is an excellent place to start, for those who do not truly understand the issues involved.  For one thing, over 300 different scientists both in and out of government worked on this document.  For another, the issue is broken out into a variety of contexts – global warming is discussed in terms of each sector of the economy, and for each section of the country, and response strategies are laid out (both for government and the private sector).

Perhaps the saddest (most telling?) part of the whole story is that much of the American South – home to some of the most closed-minded, bigoted, ignorant climate change deniers in the world – is actually experiencing either only modest temperature increases, or even (particularly for large swaths of Mississippi and Alabama) declining temperatures.  For a self-absorbed population with a history of egocentrism (okay, too polite – we’ll go ahead and say it, racism), it makes perfect sense that there would be an inelegant ignorance of what is happening in the rest of the world.

But make no mistake, we are all in this same lifeboat together.  There are few local advantages to be gleaned from a collapse of global ecosystems.  Adaptation and survival will depend very much on not only our own actions, but also on the actions of our fellow humans hundreds and thousands of miles away from us – we must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately.

As a healthy place to start, we humbly ask that you read the U.S. National Climate Assessment.  Even if you find it a bit dry, we promise… it’s better for your brain than turning on the tube to find out what that wacky Kardashian clan is up to.  Seriously.


Happy farming!

5/7/14

Storm's a'comin'... Eventually...

"For the rain it raineth every day."
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act V, scene 1

Delightfully, as we write this, a Pacific low pressure system is winding its way across Mexico, and will most likely bring us some much needed rain here in the Brazos Valley over the next few days.  While we recently heard a little league dad complain that there have been numerous rainout days this Spring, we also know that our rainwater collection ponds are both almost empty, in spite of the fact that usually at this time of year they are both overflowing.


What gives?  Well, what gives is this:  it has been raining as often as normal here in College Station, Texas, this year, but it has not been raining as much.  A sprinkle here, a sprinkle there, enough to irritate those infernal non-gardeners, but not nearly enough to satisfy those of us with even partially green thumbs.

In spite of the brief series of showers we are about to receive this week, we are fully aware that the lack of rain will continue to be a trend for the duration of this year, more than likely.  We will undoubtedly post about drought later this Spring/early Summer, as there are things an urban farmer can do to help your plants survive the dry heat we will all be feeling, but at present we merely wish to report on long term trends… because they are interesting, and because they have a great impact on what long term plans need to be scrapped, and which plans make sense.

For starters, know that heat and dry weather make for a self-sustaining loop in the central part of the United States.  We have come to loathe the mid-continental high pressure ridge that is a familiar feature of the summertime weather chart – it is a high pressure system with a center which variably anchors anywhere from the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex to somewhere over the Dakotas, and pushes or pulls 100°-plus temperatures with it wherever it goes.

So unless we get a series of torrential downpours over the next few months (and that does not appear likely), then the prediction of above average temperatures for the next few months does not bode well for the Brazos Valley even reaching its normal summertime precipitation levels – and keep in mind that these are normally our driest months of the year anyway, so getting even an inch of rain for the entire month of July would have to  be considered a minor miracle this year.

We fully expect, therefore, for our rainwater collection ponds to be completely dry within a couple of months, except for the water coming from our newfangled, high-falutin’ washing machine, which alas! is so efficient that it hardly puts out much water at all – certainly not enough to keep pace with evaporation in June/July/August, even if we manage to get every article of clothing we own dirty on a regular basis.

We also expect the raised garden beds we built this Spring to be burnt to a crisp if we were to attempt to plant anything remotely tender in them during this time period.  Hardy hot weather crops like amaranth will be okay, but anything else?  Forget it.

So, as you can see, we have to adjust our plans for the summer according to what the environment dictates – no experimenting with new crops, and no reliance on pond water.

What we can do is make improvements which might not otherwise be possible.  For example, one of our ponds is only about four feet deep at present.  As soon as it dries out, we can deepen it (hopefully as low as 10 feet), and finish off the fence line behind it, completing the physical barrier at the bottom end of our property.  Ironically, that would make this pond the only part of our yard which is in the 100 year flood plain, but that is a subject for another time…

Likewise, the pond at the top end of our property, where we collect both rain and washing machine water, is 8-10 feet deep at its lowest point… but only about 2-3 feet deep for roughly half its area.  We need to deepen it as well.

And when we are done digging big, dry holes in the ground?  We can add gutters to the roof of our house.  Our roof is roughly 1,000 square feet in area, and as a result, were we to collect water coming off the roof in gutters, and funnel it through the yard in appropriate new pipes or gulleys, we could fill both ponds with as little as 5” of rain.  Since we average 5” over the course of a summer, that would mean that in most years, as dry as we are, we could manage to water the garden from the ponds even in the hottest, driest time of the year.

And, as it turns out, these ambitious plans will probably take a good six months to complete…. which means we have plenty of time before the good news hits.  As it turns out, most statistical models are now suggesting that we are moving to a period of strong El Niño conditions starting some time this Fall.  Normally, the onset of ENSO-positive effects (wetter weather for the Southern U.S., drought for Australia and Polynesia) lags a good six months or so from the onset of the upwelling of warm water in the Eastern Pacific… and sure enough the NOAA long term charts show wetter weather for the Gulf Coast of the U.S. for the three month period of February/March/April of 2015.

So, to recap, the bad news is:  drought and hot weather for the rest of 2014 (though, with the coming of summer in a month or so, if this surprised you, there’s no hope for you).  Good news?  Wet weather is coming, and we have almost a year to get ready for it.  Here’s hoping this time a year from now we have to hold an umbrella over ourselves as we ponder what unusual goody to plant next.


Happy farming!

4/28/14

Have a Heart... Yeah, Baby! Have a Heart!

"Vous au moins, vous ne risquez pas d'être un légume, puisque même un artichaut a du cœur. (You couldn't even be a vegetable — even artichokes have a heart.)"
--Amélie Poulain

One of the things we at Myrtle’s place find fascinating about people who ask us gardening advice is the idea that there is a legitimate calendar which can be followed for exactly when certain plants should be put in the ground.  Newsflash:  if such a calendar had ever been valid in the past, it most definitely is no longer valid, thanks to global warming.

One of the concomitant truths of which we find people (on a more or less regular basis) ignorant in some degree or other is the notion that gardening in the Brazos Valley is a year round event.  In some measure, this means that during each season of the year, there is some crop that can be grown. 

However, there is another sense in which gardening here is year round – there are a wide variety of perennial plants which do well here, and in the world of comestibles, this is not limited to just herbs and fruit trees and vines.

We recently visited some friends of Myrtle who have a smashingly successful crop of asparagus growing in a pile of chicken-enhanced compost, and while for most folk, asparagus is considered a “northern” crop… it is possible, with care and attention (particularly during our blisteringly hot summers) to keep it going.  We wait with bated breath (and hovering forks) for the results of our friends’ efforts.

Meanwhile, we have decided to get into the perennial vegetable game ourselves this year, with a new raised bed which we will dedicate to the growing of artichokes.  A friend of ours from Turkey (a botanist, no less) gifted us with a packet of seeds, and it would be the height of rudeness not to take up the challenge.

Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus otherwise known as the “globe artichoke” is grown commercially in the part of California where so many other Mediterranean delicacies seem to be localized; in fact, Castroville, CA, is the “Artichoke Capital” of the United States, and there are no challengers to their claim.  The long and the short of it is, even there, artichokes require protection from frost in winter, making consistent production a challenge in most of the U.S.

For a climate to be considered truly “Mediterranean” there are strict limits on both annual temperature extremes, though in the case of artichokes, the more important limit is the winter lows; technically, they can be grown as far north as U.S.D.A. hardiness zone 7, though for most of the U.S., that hardiness zone gets cold enough that they may only be grown as an annual.  It is possible to get a limited crop in one growing season from the artichoke…. but the vast majority of the harvest from commercial production is from plants that are at least a year old.

So, what are we going to do about that here in College Station, Texas, where just this past winter we had at least one stretch of thirty-six consecutive hours at or below freezing?

We’re going to do for our artichokes what we have been meaning to do for a couple of years now for our tomatoes:  we’re going to “hoop house” them.  A full-blown greenhouse would be too much, and between the chicken coop and our proposed new tool shed, we are pushing the limits of the city ordinances on permanent structures anyway.  Temporary coverings draped over a PVC frame, however, would be just the thing.

Assuming we can work out the logistics, we can probably even heat the interior of our artichoke frame with, say, Christmas lights, or maybe a heat lamp designed for chickens (delightful irony, given that we never use such a thing in the chicken coop, it never getting that cold in there).

And if it works well enough on the artichokes, it’s a dead certainty we’ll do the same thing with our tomatoes – which, after all, are also naturally perennial in their home habitats.  Provided they never encounter a frost, and they can manage to survive the heat of July and August, tomatoes can provide fruit for multiple years as well. 

Meanwhile, as a hedge to our betting against Mother Nature, we will not just be planting artichokes (much as we love them).  We will also be planting the hardier relative (and probably ancestor) of the artichoke we know and love.  Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is really just “an artichoke that doesn’t have the cool head/fruit”. 


Cardoon is native to drier portions of the Mediterranean, though notably it is an invasive species in the Pampas of Argentina, an area where, let’s face it, it requires a particularly tough and hardy character for a plant to survive.  In the culinary world, cardoon is a little more difficult to utilize, as only the stems are typically eaten, but if treated much like asparagus, the same artichokey flavor comes through.

And while technically perennial as well, it usually dies off after just one season when grown in more extreme climates than in its native Mediterranean home.  However, the advantage of cardoon is that it reseeds heavily when allowed to do so; the result is a more or less perennial patch – much like clover or alfalfa hayfields.

We are not yet ready to plant – we have, however, finished building three new raised beds, and will be doing all the soil treatment necessary for our new perennial food crops.  And next fall, we’ll be putting in the hoop frames.  New projects, same old story – lots and lots of energy investment upfront; if you want a project to “take care of itself”, you’ve got to put in all the effort up front.

We’ll keep you posted.

Happy farming!

4/21/14

Busy as Bees... and our responsibility to the same

“Gentlemen!  You can’t fight in here!  This is the War Room!”
--Peter Sellers fictional American President in Dr. Strangelove

We experienced a hive death this winter, and while experienced bee keepers have all had this happen to them at some point or other, we are not (yet) experienced bee keepers, so this was more than just a little traumatic for us.

That having been said, we are not a family that rests on its laurels.  Every experience must be milked of all possible lessons, and made worth its own pains by serving as a teaching moment.  So the first thing we did after cleaning out our first top bar hive, naturally, was start reading source materials again.

And we have learned a lot, as ought to be expected.

There is no solid evidence one way or the other, of course, as to exactly what happened to our first colony of bees, apart from the fact that one day they were there, and then a few days later, they simply weren’t.  There are some telltale signs, though, which give us more than sufficient clues.

First, there was still about a pint or so of honey in the combs.  Our bees, more than likely, did not starve to death.  There were only a small number of dead bees trapped in the comb, which suggests that while our backs were turned, they simply migrated, probably due to queen death.

There was no brood left in the comb anywhere, either.  Granted, the die-off happened in late February/early March, so there would not have been a lot of eggs there in any event… but it looks like our queen either died or left.  No way to be sure which… but it is safe to say that she was not in the hive the last time we checked.  Lesson learned – don’t open the box without locating the queen, and making sure she’s still there.

We have learned other lessons along the way, some of which had nothing to do with our colony die off, but which are important all the same, and how we handle things will be completely updated when our new package bees arrive in May.  Some of the more important changes to bee keeping at Myrtle’s place this year:

·         No more smoke.  The classical description of why smoke is used actually even hints at why we will not be using a smoker any more… from the Wikipedia page on collecting honey:

“Collecting honey is typically achieved by using smoke from a bee smoker to pacify the bees; this causes the bees to attempt to save the resources of the hive from a possible forest fire, and makes them far less aggressive.”

Less aggressive, maybe, but also more stressed.  Pacifying the bees by kicking in their fight or flight instincts?  Sorry, that is on its face an intuitively bad idea.

Instead?  Pacify the bees the way they pacify themselves.  Prior to swarming, bees gorge themselves on honey, storing up for the uncertainty of flight and finding a new home; swarming bees are the least likely to attack of bees in any state in nature.  This state may be duplicated with the use of a spray bottle full of sugar water or honey water… and even better with a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar.  Puff them ‘til they are a dusty white and they will be peaceful and happy, not peaceful and panicky.

·         New front door – the traditional entry to even top bar hives has been located fairly low on the box, mostly out of habit, tradition, and sloth.  Langstroth hives are designed with the entrance on a “landing board” at the base of the hive, in fact, and on our old hive, the holes we drilled in the side were near the bottom.  Landing boards, of course, are a human invention – old hollow logs in nature don’t have them, so why did they ever gain hold in the mind of bee keepers as a necessity?  Who knows, but they go hand in hand with a “front door” at the bottom of the hive.
This is the wrong place to put the entrance, as a simple observation of hives in nature would have told us, had we bothered to observe.  Bees prefer to enter near the top of the hive, for a very practical reason – diseased bees (and mites and other intruders, as well) fall to the bottom.  If the entrance is at the bottom, then every single worker has to pass through the hives’ mortuary on their way home after every single flight.

A much better arrangement is to allow the detritus to be collected at the bottom of the hive where only the worker bees tasked with cleanup have to deal with them.  Exposure to disease, pesticides, mites, etc. is inevitable; however, by moving the entrance to the top of the hive, the amount of exposure is reduced.  By how much?  Well, only a few hundred bees are necessary for cleanup; by contrast, there may be as many as 50,000 workers who have had to cross the debris with the traditional setup – that’s not just a minor change, that is an orders of magnitude change.


·         Related to the new front door, actually…. Instead of a screen at the bottom of the hive (suggested in some designs because it “allows trash like dead bee carcasses or mites to fall out”), we are putting in solid bottoms on all our top bar hives from now on.

How will we remove the dead bees, mites, etc.?

We won’t.  The bees will.  Remember those bees tasked with cleaning up?  Yeah.  Turns out in nature, they do their job.  When entomologists study wild hives, they do not find a lot of detritus – there are very few carcasses because they are removed from the hive and flown away several yards. 

On the other hand, when an open mesh exists at the bottom of the hive… it doesn’t just allow things to fall out, it allows other things to crawl in.  Bees choose to live in seclusion for a reason – they want to be able to control their environment.  We should let them, as much as it is possible to do so.

There are all sorts of elements of “natural” bee keeping that make it a better system.  Experienced Langstroth hive keepers ask all sorts of wrong questions, like “how do you limit the number of drones” or “what do you do about temperature control” or the like.  And the answer is “nothing”, because the bees know their business better than we do.  In any hive, there are exactly as many drones as there ought to be.  And one of the reasons is because they help regulate temperature.  There are others, which we can’t even guess at, because we are big lumbering primates, not small and nimble bees.

We’ll be back in the honey production business soon… probably as soon as June… but we’re only partially in it for the honey.  Mostly, we’re in it for the bees.  Well, the bees and the flowers.  No garden is ever going to thrive quite as well as a garden well tended by bees.  We’re hoping to make our next colony of bees as happy and healthy as they make us.


Happy farming!

4/7/14

How Not to Be a Sucker... or at Least Not Get Bitten By One

Reasons to avoid mosquitoes are not difficult to find.  Their bite does not particularly hurt, at first anyway, but even one bite can become an itchy nightmare, and they seldom bite singly.  In addition to being a nuisance, these bites carry numerous diseases, not the least important of which is the dread West Nile virus, frequently the cause of an extremely uncomfortable illness, and too often fatal.

So, mosquitoes bad, no mosquitoes good, right?

Here is the point in a Big Myrtle posting where you expect us to whip out some kind of scientific explanation for why it is important to keep in balance, yada yada yada.  If that is what you are waiting for, you are going to have to keep on waiting.  On the subjects of fire ants and mosquitoes, we are not objective in the least.  We hate the little blighters.  And at least some scientists agree with us – a July 2010 article in Nature entitled “Ecology: A world without mosquitoes” posited that there would be minimal impacts if all genera in the family Culicidae were eradicated.  We don’t hold quite so extreme a view, but still, it’s nice to imagine.

So… what to do about them?

More on fire ants in a later posting, as they are the more difficult pest with which to deal.  Mosquitoes, for a resourceful gardener, are actually one of the easier problems to solve.  All it takes is some resource allocation (and no, we don’t mean money, though you may have to outlay some of that), and the sweat equity necessary to put things in their proper places.

The secret to fending off mosquito attacks is partially to be found in the advice given by practically every municipal government in the world – limit the availability of standing water in which the creatures breed – but more importantly to be found in limiting the spaces in which mosquitoes are comfortable.  Yes, the mosquito has a life cycle, and interrupting the larval stage of that cycle will reduce the overall population, but you still need to be prepared for the dangers represented by adult mosquitoes on the prowl, and the best way to do that is to design your living spaces in such a way as to make them feel unwelcome.

What do we mean by that?  Well, stop and consider how the mosquito spends its day.  A creature that small would rely very heavily on one sense above all others – smell.  Sight, they have… but they do not primarily rely on it to discern friend from foe, food from fen.  No, they spend their time sniffing out either the sweet, sticky smell of plant nectar (particularly of smoother grasses), or the telltale odor of mammalian perspiration.

There are a few other chemical markers they track, notably carbon dioxide, but the chief thing to note is, it’s their sniffers you need to attack if you want to make them leave you alone.

And the easiest way to mess with their sniffer is to create an environment in which their sense of smell is completely overwhelmed.  A pretty herb garden is not just pretty, and it’s not just useful for natural medicines or for culinary delights, it is also your first line of defense against biting insects.

As it turns out, you are orders of magnitude less likely to bit by mosquitoes when tending a bit of garden comprised of pungent plants like rosemary, basil, catnip, sage, lavender, oregano, fennel, anise, mint of all kinds… the smells simply overwhelm the ability of small insects to differentiate plant from person.  And if your garden is not monocropped, but is instead a healthier random hodgepodge, even better.  The more interspersed the smells are, the greater the effect.

We had read about this phenomenon before, of course, being English literature baccalaureates who don’t’ believe something exists unless it is in print, but experiencing it firsthand has lent us an air of expertise on the subject we might not otherwise have acquired.  We noticed several years ago that we were far more likely to get bit in the backyard rather than the front.  Numerous experiments reduced the possible number of variables to an acceptably low level to allow us the rather novel conclusion that, by jove, those organic gardeners know what the heck they are talking about.

The usual approaches to the art and science of repelling mosquitoes, of course, are the familiar bug sprays (both those designed to kill and also those designed to repel), in addition to the use of excluding or filtering spaces with screens and netting.  The limitations of these approaches are telling – sprays designed to kill end up poisoning more than just the bugs being targeted, while sprays designed to repel end up wearing off (particularly in water); and screens and netting, of course, limit your movement in addition to the movement of the bug – plus, once a hole in your armor is found, the bugs will simply pour through in an unstoppable wave.


The advantage of smelly herbs is that they are there year round (particularly the perennials, such as rosemary, lavender and oregano), and just so long as you plant enough of them all around your yard, they are effective all the time, everywhere, rain or shine.  If you happen to have a backyard pool, the effect doesn’t wear off after a dip, either. 

And then there is this ancillary factor – we think of mosquitoes as “blood suckers” but the truth is that mammalian blood is only one part of their diet; mosquitoes mostly thrive on nectar from their favorite plants.  A grassy field is their favorite abode (watch a squirrel or rabbit run through an open expanse of unmown grass and see the midges fly up from the ground if you want visual evidence).  By replacing their natural roosting and foraging grounds with pungent herbaceous plants which provide neither food nor shelter, you can reclaim your territory, enjoying it more on every level conceivable.

There are other advantages to this approach as well, most notably the idea that interspersed herb beds are an excellent exemplar of the forest gardening approaches favored by permaculturalists.  Edges are the microecological hotspots, and permanent herb gardens form an exceptional intermediate layer in this multilevel canopy approach to gardening.

We get requests for advice from all over, and one of the more common (and eternally surprising) questions is “How do you keep your rosemary from spreading too much?”  The answer, of course, is “Why would we want to stop it?”  As far as we are concerned, the rosemary, lavender and fennel can spread as far as they like.  Not only do we enjoy the smells…. we know from hard earned experience that mosquitoes don’t.

One final note, about that standing water idea.  We have heard numerous people comment on our rainwater collection ponds, saying they would be too nervous about mosquito control to attempt something of the sort.  This is a common misconception – the “dangerous” standing water to be worried about is in open containers – old tires, uncovered buckets, clogged gutters and the like.  As with so many things, manmade structures are the worst danger – places where mosquitoes might thrive, but none of their natural predators can get at them.

In a natural setting, there are few places less hospitable to mosquito larva than a well tended garden pond – in addition to natural predators such as fish, dragonflies, turtles, lizards, frogs, crayfish, and gude kens wha else, a pond tended by a careful gardener experiences enough maintenance that any mosquito infestation can be readily observed – and dealt with.  Baccilus thuringiensis dunks are available at practically every garden supply store, and even these may not be necessary, provided enough natural flora and fauna exist to keep larvae in check.

And, as it turns out… our ponds are not the source of the few mosquitoes we see each year anyway.  Scientists have a word for the nesting preference of the truly dangerous mosquitoes – “phytotelmata” is a fancy word for “natural reservoirs on plants” and it is here that the mosquitoes carrying disease are most likely to be born. 

Water standing in the stumps of trees, or in standing water in a clogged gutter, or in open buckets, old tires lying around with water in them, or open sewer drains are far more likely to be the cause of a rampant mosquito problem than ponds, creeks or even drainage ditches.  This is both because the presence of natural predators is inhibited in these out-of-the-way breeding grounds and also because these places are also the best environments for disease-causing bacteria and viruses to thrive, out of sight from cleansing ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which kills virtually all bacteria and viruses, given enough exposure time.

For those things you can control, like any containers on your own property that you can either remove or clean, or gutters on your own roof that you can clear of debris, the solution is straightforward:  clean it, clear it, remove it.  For those things you cannot control, like the cleanliness of your neighbors’ yards or gutters, the solution is smelly herbs.  Areas of your property where there is likely to be an incursion of visiting mosquitoes should be overplanted with every variety of pungent plant you can imagine – go wild.  A rosemary hedge can be a symbol of health and wealth, and a talisman against irritation.

So, as you prepare for summer, you can either get ready to smell like deet, or you can take Myrtle’s advice, and decide to smell like a lovely bouquet of mint, lavender and rosemary.  Our approach is more pleasant, we believe, but to each their own.


Happy farming!