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
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
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
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
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.
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