Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Tonight there will be fresh baby greens and sweet little French breakfast radishes with our supper, because even fried egg sandwiches call for some dressing up on the side. The sandwiches, of course, will be way past ordinary courtesy of the chickens I’m watching now through the screened walls of our back room.
Except for the bread, which I could have baked but didn’t, the fixings for our meal – even the butter for the skillet – were produced on Shuddering Squirrel Acres. We’re a long way from self-sufficient, but even a longer way from Detroit.
Vicki works hard most of the day, every day, nurturing new plants in her greenhouse, planting those that are ready for our gardens, prettying up unsightly areas out front and behind the house, arguing with the chickens over their choices for taking dust baths – almost invariably on a freshly seeded patch of lawn or in a newly planted flower bed – researching and reading in the ongoing battle with garden pests and blights, keeping our birdfeeders filled, watering, moving kitchen scraps to the compost bins, keeping an eye out for Larry the rooster who has turned completely bad to the bone and attacks us both without provocation, and much more, lovely through it all. The last doesn’t take work on her part, at least not much that I can see. She just is.
I have nearly as many chores generally related to upkeep of our property; tending the chickens and my honeybee hives; using the tractor in a wide variety of tasks like digging new garden space in ground that is more rock than soil, bringing in the topsoil and compost to fill it, clearing fallen limbs or dead tree trunks from the path in our woods and grinding the smaller stuff into chips for a number of uses, spreading and grading gravel on our always eroding driveway; pounding fence posts and hanging wire to keep critters out of Vicki’s gardens; tending the compost bins; building things that need to be built; fixing the odd broken toilet; this and that.
We both constantly search for materially gainful employment because we’re neither independently wealthy – or any kind of wealthy – nor entirely self-sufficient. I’ve found some work as a substitute teacher, all grades, which allows us to buy minimal health insurance for most of what I earn doing it. After a long dry stretch, I was hired last week to do some writing. The paid kind. I’ve written quite a bit lately, but all without gelt. I’m told there are benefits to this, but they don’t put pork in the pot and this, you see, is how I’ve always made my living.
So it’s good to find promise in the coming season that was almost entirely unrealized in the last. We’re already eating from the same gardens that, due to drought and pestilence, gave us almost nothing at all last spring, summer, and fall. The potato tower I recently built and seeded is now nearly covered with strong, healthy plants. Our two dwarf peach trees are loaded with nascent fruit, and I’ve already spent hours thinning it out to encourage a healthy crop. Both the black mission fig and Montmorency cherry trees are stronger and healthier than before, as is our small magnolia, planted for its singular beauty and perfume.
And there is honey. I spent an hour or so suited up in yesterday’s unseasonal heat working with my bees and monitoring their progress. There are two hives, and while both colonies made it through the winter, one is very weak.
I blame it on a heavy infestation of the damned small hive beetles that afflict southern beekeepers and against which there is little practical remedy. I refuse to poison the ground around my hives, which is one purported solution. It’s effective against the beetles, they say, but if you catch a bad break will also kill your bees.
The other common remedy is to place oil-filled traps in corners of the hive boxes. But this requires the bees to “herd” the beetles into the traps, where they suffocate, or accidental capture as the beetles wander. Possibly there are some suicides. I have no way of knowing. The hive is suffering and the colony is minimal.
But the other hive has been bursting with action since the first warm weather a few weeks ago. The air in front of its entrance was so often thick with traffic that I was worried a swarm was in the making, and they’d take off for some other home. At that time, when I opened the hive, the honeycomb frames and all space above, below, and between them, were packed with frantic activity. I inspected further and found several cells the workers had built to raise new queens, a big danger sign that a swarm and decampment is coming soon.
Here I took a big gamble, and so far so good.
Beekeeping literature new and old, and beekeepers of the same vintage, are full of advice for swarm prevention. Like most everything else in this pursuit, much of it is conflicting. Some advise a search-and-destroy mission for queen cells, maybe leaving one in case the bees know best and their original queen is weak, ill, dead, or otherwise gone. Some say to split the hive, turning one colony into two, to eliminate overcrowding and eventually double your potential take in honey. But I’m greedy this year, since last season was for building size and strength in my hives and yielded a pittance in excess honey that I could keep. The drought and lack of nectar-laden blossoms foretold that anyway.
So I took a shot – and admittedly the path of least resistance – and simply put an empty “super” on top of the crowded hive. Supers are shallower than the two main boxes in a beehive, and intended to collect the excess honey stored by the bees after the comb in their living and brood-rearing chambers is full. They can be stacked as long as the bees keep filling them, and then removed and drained of honey, although some beekeepers harvest the honey as each super is filled.
The gamble was in whether my bees would stick around and find enough new space to give up swarming. So far, it has worked. I put the first super on three weeks ago, and little more than a week later it was near capacity with full, sealed honeycomb. I left it in place and added a second super. During yesterday’s inspection I found it more than half full of honey. Excess honey. Honey that we can harvest, bottle, eat, share, or sell as we see fit. And there is also the beeswax that we can use to our own devices and/or sell.
When the second super is full, I intend to take that honey, put on a new super, and continue that way until the spring harvest ends. If luck holds, we’ll do as well or better in late summer.
Two curiosities remain that I’ll have to explore soon. First, despite watching for a long time, I have yet to spot any bees returning to the hive with pollen in their leg baskets. I don’t know how this can be, and have to find the answer.
The other thing that concerns me is the temperament of my strong colony. They’re Russian honeybees, which I chose because they’re resistant to the scourge of varroa mites, known to be highly productive, and are generally of good mood and docile. But this year, they’re very aggressive, cover my gloved hands almost immediately after I open their hive, and die in alarming numbers of their ineffective kamikaze stings. I try to work quickly but calmly to minimize their upset.
I recently read reports that Africanized honeybees have been found in East Tennessee, but nothing about them reaching the middle of the state where we live. Their aggression is well documented, though exaggerated in their depiction by over-stimulated media as unstoppable death-dealers when they moved north into the U.S. a decade ago. They crossed first into Texas, and as far as I know it’s still there.
So I’ll be back in the hives soon, trying to solve a couple of mysteries and shooing the bees out of the supers so I can tote them back to the house, slice the wax caps off the combs and draw out the honey.
It’s tangible, sweet reward for toil, which is what all this is about anyway.
(If you’re inclined to read more about our homesteading life on Shuddering Squirrel Acres in the hills of Middle Tennessee, kindly check out my other blog, “I’m Mildly Concerned that One of My Hens is a Rooster…” and poke around in the archives.)
Photos by Ric Bohy