Category Archives: Honey Bees

A New Year Starts at Living Land

This has been a good week for reflection and planning. We’ve gotten out the new calendars, are noticing the growing light, and we’ve been driven inside by storms and bitter cold!

First, a look back to consider accomplishments on the homestead in 2017. I tend to push forward and move on to what’s next, but I know it’s good for me to take time to learn from successes and problems we had, and to allow for a sense of satisfaction and gratitude for what worked. I will make better, smarter plans coming from this place.

One of my bean plants produced this seed. I have no idea what it is – anyone know?

In the plant realm: we expanded our growing areas using swales, sheet mulching and hugelkultur. We planted 5 new trees, 10 new berry bushes, many new perennials, and a big garden of annuals. I tried some new crops: various heritage dried beans, a heritage variety popcorn, and 3 new types of potatoes. My records show that the Bora Valley and Nicola potatoes were my biggest producers this year. Yay for record keeping!

Beautiful Bug-free Broccoli

We had very few insect pest problems this year, other than some early squash vine borers. I had almost no colorado potato beetles, and the cabbage worms didn’t become an issue until much later in the season than usual. I planted both of those crops late this year possibly missing the first reproductive cycle for the pests. That was purposeful for the beetles, but accidental for the cabbage worms.

In our animal endeavors: We raised new chickens using 2 broody hens and 1 incubator hatch. None of our ducks succeeded in brooding, so we just had a few new ones from the incubator. We kept milking the goats, although the previous

Steve Building a Hay Shelter

fall’s breeding failure meant less of it. I built my apiary back up after a lot of winter hive losses. I did have one hive that overwintered well and had an amazing season.  Steve built a new shelter for hay and animals which I anticipate will help us get much more organized thus saving us quite a bit of work in the future.

This year I also taught classes in beekeeping, soil building, animal care and permaculture. I accepted the 2017 NOFA-NH Gardener of the Year Award. I wrote new blog posts to share here on our website.

Successful Bee Hive – Hope to Have More Like These in 2018!

In the new year, I look forward to more plants and animals and continued good work with the earth. Our seed, potato and tree catalogues are spread out to choose next season’s varieties. We did save more of our own seed this year, but not for all crops. We’ve identified where we want to expand to next and even got that started in the long, warm fall we had. I have learned not to order trees or bushes for the areas we didn’t finish yet! We have some unhappy plants overgrowing their nursery beds from the years I was too optimistic about how fast the work would go.

For my blogging this year, I am going to try something new. Often I am asked: “what do you do at your farm?” and “how much do you grow?” I never have great answers. Each season and every day is so different, in terms of what we do and what we harvest. In 2018 I am going to try to give a monthly update, summarizing what we did and what we harvested in the previous month. It won’t be a quick answer to those questions, but it should be informative.

I hope you’ll follow us and join me in charting the next year as we experience it!

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Speaking for the Bees

At the Concord NH MAM 2017

[Note: I gave a version of this talk at the March Against Monsanto Rally in Concord NH on May 20, 2017. This was also the day after the news broke that NH lost the majority of it’s honey bee hives over this past winter.]

I am here today to speak for the bees and the beekeepers.

As a chemical-free, permaculturally-based beekeeper I am extremely careful about what I put into the hive. But being a steward of bees means knowing the limits of my control over the world. That’s why I need all of you to help me and my bees.

A bee can travel as far as 5 miles from her hive. That’s 50,000 acres of land that she can cover – far more than I personally can protect for them. Any harmful substance that she contacts she will bring home to her hive where the queen is laying eggs, the next generations are being nurtured and they are creating their magnificent honey. What they bring back will have consequences for all those activities.

I received my first package of bees in 2005, so when the Colony Collapse Disorder news hit in 2007, I started getting questions about bees, most of which boiled down to: “What is the thing causing bees to die?”

I’m not sure what it is about humans, or Americans at least, that makes us crave simple answers. But, I don’t believe that thinking is helping us and I am not here today to tell you one or a few simple tricks to saving the bees. Instead I want to tell you a story about bees, humans, how we got here and how we might walk a better path for all of us.

It is still a simplified story, from the perspective of one human (me) who works with one type of bee, apis mellifera, the honey bee.

Let me tell you more about bees, to make sure that all of you are amazed and in love with them and the sweet, beautiful world they contributed to making.

The honeybee is just one of at least 20,000 species of bees. Bees began evolving about 100 million years ago, when wasps and flowers shifted their relationship from one of predator and prey to one of not just cooperation, but of symbiosis – they need each other now. Forming this partnership, called

A Single Poppy Flower, Opening

The Angiosperm Explosion by botanists, resulted in a tremendous increase in plant and insect diversity and, in our human eyes, beauty. (Iris Murdoch said: “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”)

By now, 2017, there are over 200,000 species of animals that act as pollinators. Most of those are insects, with bees pollinating the largest number of plant species. There are others, though: birds, bats, and even some mice!

The fact that there is such a diversity of pollinators in existence, tells me how important they are. This is a job that cannot be left to just a few. We are lucky that this redundancy and resilience is built into the system given the losses that have occurred or might happen, but it’s time to heed nature and learn to respect and protect them.

A Sign Held at the Concord NH MAM 2017

There are now 8 bee species on the US endangered species list (7 in Hawaii plus the Rusty Patched Bumblebee). Even more disturbing, a study released in March 2017 by The Center for Biological Diversity found hundreds of North American bee species now face extinction. The reason for their decline is believed to be the complicated interplay of: loss of habitat, pesticides, diseases/parasites which move easily around the world with our current transportation system, and climate change.

But, let’s take a small step back… the trouble for our bees did not start in 2007.

The best way to track this would be by looking at colony losses over time or wild bee numbers, but that data isn’t available going back very far.  We do have information about overall colony numbers in the US going back to the 1940s, which American entymologist & MacArthur award winner, Marla Spivak, used to piece together at least a part of the story.

Spivak pointed out that honey bee colony numbers have been declining in this country since the end of World War II. In 1945 there were an estimated 4.5 million managed honeybee hives in the US and in 2007 that number had fallen to 2 million – despite an increase in crops planted that need insect pollination.

What happened?

A number of changes occurred, one being World War Two’s legacy of dangerous substances and technologies which we are still dealing with.

As a permaculturist, I am all for turning problems into solutions. But I am really coming to question the idea of turning swords into ploughshares in any literal sense, especially given the research showing the plough to be one of our oldest, ongoing agricultural sins.

Of course, these corporations were concerned with profit not peace anyway. Rather than shutting down their war-making factories in 1945, companies including Monsanto managed to keep running by setting their sights on a new target, and a chemical-dependent agriculture system started to take over. A DuPont Farm Chemicals brochure from the 1950s told us outright: “Man against the soil… rise from savagery to civilization.”

This new system concentrated crops into huge monoclutures, which could not support pollinators, but did create the opportunity for certain crop eating insects to proliferate in an out-of-balance manner, leading to a huge call for pesticides. With synthetic fertilizers now cheap and available, the practice of cover cropping, which had been great forage for our beneficial insects, diminished. And abundant herbicides meant weeds could be eliminated in crop fields and at our homes – but

Bees Love Dandelions!

many plants we call weeds are great food for many insects. (Let your dandelions grow!)   (See Marla Spivak’s TED Talk for much more detail on the post-WWII agricultural shift)

In his book Natural Prophets, Joe Dobrow describes our culture as we came out of that war as encouraging social and political conformity, respect for authority, patriotism, faith in science and government. But within a few decades other voices started to emerge – they are our predecessors.

Many people will remember that Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring due to a decline in birds linked to DDT, but not as many know that she also warned of a fruitless fall, a time when “there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.” This is what we face today.

(Of course, there are even more issues affecting agriculture and bees.  Farm policy, US diet patterns, food growing economics, and specific beekeeping economics are a few.  Remember that the world is complex!  But, I can only tackle so many issues here.  I provided some links for your further research if you are interested.)

What do we do?

A Bee, Making Honey

This winter I heard natural beekeeper Ross Conrad speak. He reminded us of the fact that one honeybee can only make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime to contribute to her hive, which needs about 150 pounds of honey per year. And yet, she does not fall prey to the illusion that what she does doesn’t matter. She does not waver in her work or dedication. She knows her place in this world and embraces it.

We humans are not blessed with that certain knowledge of what we are supposed to do here. But, I believe that we are alive in a time that is calling us to find our place and make a contribution.

I know that we live now with some terrible examples of what humans can do, and we should let that inspire us to be very cautious. But, we’ve also been able to fix problems, such as banning DDT. The great news is that a lot of solutions in front of us will bring only benefits. A sustainable food production system can provide good food for pollinators, grow healthy soil which can pull carbon out of the atmosphere, offer meaningful work for people, and produce much healthier food for all of us.

So, I ask you to consider all these options to help bees: YES – plant for pollinators flowering plants, especially trees (make sure they are pesticide-free!), choose and grow your own organic food, buy local honey! ALSO – take back our food supply and our health from companies who do not have our best interests at heart. Work to curb corporate power (so we can stop these problems before they are started), promote peace, build more democratic institutions, organize your communities, attend rallies.

Don’t just resist – commit to participation and action as part of your life, not a task that will end when one politician or company is defeated. Let’s take back a sense of responsibility and ownership for our lives and communities, shake off the illusion that our actions don’t matter and support each other in creating a healthy world.

Poster at March Against Monsanto 2017

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My Honey Bees, Healthy but Hungry in 2016

I did not have a great beekeeping season here in NH, but not for the reasons you might have heard about, like colony collapse disorder, pesticide kills, or varroa mites.

bees-pollen in comb

Orange & Yellow Pollen in the Comb

My hives came through last winter well, four full hives and one smaller nucleus hive.  The spring was slow to really get going, but they hung in there and started building up their work forces well, bringing in dandelion nectar and so much beautiful pollen (you can see them packing it away in the photo here).  I implemented my non-chemical mite control strategies at the correct times and my bees looked and acted healthy.  I hoped for a great honey harvest, and in the meantime started making splits to start new colonies to expand my apiary.  I planned to go into this winter with at least five nucleus colonies that could be my new hives for 2017 rather than buying any Southern bee packages.

And then… the drought hit us.

At the beginning of May we in the Seacoast of NH were classified as “abnormally dry” and by now we are at the “extreme drought” level.  All over New England, in a strange, spotty pattern, the drought is hitting farms, wildlife, and wells.  Hay was hard to come by (we had to order it from Vermont), our garden and orchard suffered… and the bees.

Nectar in Comb

Turning Nectar into Honey

The nectar that honey bees bring to their hives to turn into honey starts off with about 80% water content.  So, if a plant is dehydrated it can’t make much nectar.  The bees go out to forage, but just don’t find much to collect to make honey out of.

My overwintered hives only made a small amount of extra honey – they need the first 75# for themselves, and there wasn’t much more than that.  What excess I did pull out, I gave to my new little nucleus hives who barely made any with their small number of foragers.  I have had to step in and feed them sugar water – which is just not as nutritious or healthy for them.  But bad food is better than starvation, and the weather is not their fault.

Workers Emerging

Workers Emerging

All my hives are strong and show no signs of illness at this point.  I kept up my mite control all summer – drone comb removal, doing some splitting to create broodless periods, and dusted them with powdered sugar at specific broodless times.  Most importantly, I got all my new queens from Northern beekeepers: Troy Hall in NH and Bob Brachmann in upstate NY.  The research I’ve seen and my experience

Queen Bees from Troy Hall

Queen Bees from Troy Hall

point to the tremendous importance of genetics and of bee stock that is adapted to our colder climate.  Counting on genetics, breeding and evolution to help us save our bees is certainly not a quick fix – but, as Permaculture Principle #9 tells us: Slow and Steady Wins the Race.

Two of my hives also made their own queens, which I will be watching

Cold Country Queen Bee on comb

Queen Bee on comb

closely to evaluate.  They were hives with fabulous Russian Queens from Bob Brachmann.  They came through two winters beautifully, have been gentle and productive.  But I had no say in the drones their daughter queens mated with and don’t really trust that all my fellow local beekeepers aren’t using a lot of Southern bee stock.  There’s actually not enough Northern stock to supply us all at this point.  So, I fear that I will have trouble doing good queen breeding here – but it never hurts to try, especially when the bees did most of the work of it!

I am feeding and prepping my hives for a winter that’s predicted to be a long, snowy one.  We’ll all try to get through that and hope for a better season next year.

Beyond hoping, I am also reminded that the personal is political and it’s important to keep agitating for good environmental and energy policy. I have plans to get more involved with some of 350 New Hampshire‘s campaigns over the winter, while the bees and gardens sleep!

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