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Posts Tagged ‘Honey’

A Jar of Green Herb!

A Jar of Green Herb!

I know what you are thinking, and sadly the jar filled with green herb is not legalized marijuana!  While Minnesota is making strides with the legalization of medical marijuana we are still aways from legalized recreational use.  Yes, someday I hope to write an article espousing the benefits (which there are many) of both medical and recreational cannabis, but this short article is about a very different plant altogether.

 

As I have written about many times before, we grow a diverse array of plants throughout our extensive gardens.  Some of them are fairly uncommon perennials, fruiting shrubs, and vines and others are very common plants found throughout many gardens.  Its fun having so much diversity, but it is even better when you find a new use for something as simple and common as celery.

 

We have grown celery, Apium graveolens for years now.  Typically we have always harvested the ribs for use in soups, stews, salads and roasted vegetables, and have used the leaves as an addition to soup stock.  This last summer however, I dried the leaves as a means of preservation.  And that is the green herb in the jar, dried celery leaves!

 

The dried leaf of celery has an aroma and taste very similar to when it is fresh, but it is deeper and more earthy as well.  This winter I have used it in much of my cooking.  It is a great addition to any soup or stew, I have added it to bread dough when I make an herbed loaf, when making rubs for meats it works very nicely with all the other herbs and spices that are found on my spice rack, it adds a depth to veggie dip, and is a great all around herb that I am excited to have available.

 

PreservingFoodCoverI came across the idea for drying celery leaf in the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning.  It documents many of the traditional food preservation techniques found throughout France.  From lacto fermentation to drying, and the use of oils, salt, sugars, and alcohol in preserving food, it has many great ideas on preserving the surplus harvest from your garden.

 

Its also a fun book, because it so simply illustrates the depth and tradition that is found in European cuisine.  Not only do they know how to use all parts of the celery plant, but there are recipes for black currant jam with honey, lemons preserved in salt, lacto fermented veggies, and cherries soaked in brandy.

 

This spring as you begin to plan and plant your gardens keep in mind that there are many ways of preserving the harvest.  Some of these ideas won’t be new to you, but others may revolutionize how or what you grow!  You may have a treasure just waiting for you that has always been there, and maybe it will look good being kept in a jar!  Peace and Cheers!

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Here are my two helpers.  We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard.  The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free.  They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

Here are my two helpers. We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard. The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free. They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

As happens this time every year, I have hit a lull in my writing.  Not that there hasn’t been plenty to write about, I just haven’t had the energy to sit down in front of the computer screen and pull all my thoughts together and put them into written words.  The summer of 2013 has seen our backyard bees doing great,  my wife just picked our first real harvest of Haralson apples, and it has been a very bountiful year for us on our urban foraging adventures which yielded us more than a dozen pints of mulberry jam and close to forty pounds of really great apples gleaned from an old neighborhood tree.

One reason for the lack of activity here at Autonomy Acres is that I am now working two jobs, and neither of them are the one that I have spent the last 10 years of my life working at.  Back at the end of May I called it quits at the adult beverage factory where I had worked and took the summer off to rediscover what it means to be human.  I was burnt out and depressed by the endless daily routine of factory life and knew I had to make some positive changes in the way I live and walk on this Earth.

Having a couple months off to gather my thoughts, and to let my body heal was the right medicine at the right time.  When I decided to take my life back, it was one of the most empowering moments I have ever felt, and the energy and self knowledge that I gained from that choice has changed my life.  I have realized that all the “Things” that society tells us are important and that matter are meaningless.  No longer will I let a “job” define who I am as a person.  The accumulation of money and “Toys” is not a measurement of happiness nor are they milestones that should be enshrined in our personal stories. Finally, it was reinforced in my mind that nothing is more important than our relationships with our families, friends, and the Earth.

While I wish I could say that I am now a gentleman of leisure, relaxing in a hammock sipping cold beer and reading Edward Abbey novels, sadly, I am still just a common worker!  I find myself back in my old haunts though – line cooking!  I worked restaurants for many years and truly enjoyed the kitchen work, but not the hours.  But I got lucky and I am now  slinging hash and eggs, cooking up real stocks and soups, and working with a terrific crew of Food Service Pirates at a local music college in the early morning, Monday through Friday.  It is nice to be appreciated for my talents and skills, and to also work for decent folks who treat me like a human being, and not a machine; a big change from where I previously worked.

I am also pulling a few shifts a week at a “Hip” national grocery store chain.  And while I do enjoy this as a part time gig, the pay is horseshit, and the health care benefits I was hoping to get through them just got put through the guillotine because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which translated means – the big bosses saw this as an opportunity to make a shitload of money.  At least I still get a small discount on groceries!

It is interesting though to see a new side of the food industry that I was previously only a spectator and consumer in.  While I have written extensively about the global food supply chain and how it affects farmers and communities, and how it is ultimately not based on sustainable and local means and resources, seeing this first hand has been very educational.

freshly picked Haralsons!  These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard - No semi-truck needed!

freshly picked Haralsons! These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard – No semi-truck needed!

It is easy to use Wal-Mart as the poster child for the just-in-time, warehouse on wheels delivery model, but it is everywhere, whether that be a grocery store or a local brewery.  Anyone who has spent time researching food, how it is grown, and then how it is shipped to all parts of the world has seen the figures that say if a natural disaster or collapse of some kind disrupts the supply chain, grocery store shelves would be empty in 3 days.  Seeing how a grocery store runs, is managed, and is stocked I completely believe this.

Our food supply chain is balanced ever so gently on a global house of cards that when it does fall, it will fall fast.  It could happen because of the loss of honeybees that is now in the news almost everyday, or it could happen from a natural disaster or escalating climate change, or in a worse case scenario could be triggered by a terrorist attack or a war that shuts down the supply chain.  Whichever way you slice it, this scenario is all the evidence anyone should need to dig up that lawn and get growin’ as much of their own food that they can and begin adding a bit of resilience into their lives!

To echo past essays here at Autonomy Acres and other sources that touch on these issues, this predicament of global climate change, energy descent and food security that we find ourselves in, need to be looked at as an opportunity to move the human race forward into the future.  While it may seem like a futile prospect to think we can take on, and ultimately overcome these challenges, the words of Permaculture Pioneer Geoff Lawton come to mind -”All the worlds problem can be solved with a garden”!

It may seem like an idealistic statement, but I truly think that there is a lot of truth and wisdom from such a simple idea as planting a garden.  If everyone who has access to a bit of land, whether that be in the city or out in the country began to grow a portion of their own food, we would realize the abundance that this Earth can provide for us.  And a garden is more than just growing food.  Once you make the leap to becoming a producer and not just a consumer, many other wonderful things follow in the footsteps of a garden.

Compost is one of them.  Food scraps, garden waste, animal manures, leaves and other plant debris can all be composted and be used to start healing our soils.  When our soils are healthy and filled with organic matter, not only can we grow lots of great food, the soil also becomes a living ecosystem, a sponge for holding water, and most importantly a place that can capture and store carbon.

When we start to tend the Earth as stewards rather than rulers, and begin to see how humans can have a positive impact on our surroundings, beautiful things begin to spring forth.  Where once there were manicured lawns that were maintained by a regiment of poisons and pointless labor, now there can be gardens packed full of both annuals and perennials providing food for humans, habitat and forage for wildlife, and many other products that range from fibers, fuel, and pharmaceuticals.

Where once there were boulevards and roadsides, those pieces of land that are cut off from each, now there can be fruit and nut trees, fruiting shrubs, and forage for all the pollinators.  These pieces of land can be reclaimed and planted with species that need little to no human maintenance that once again help to feed us, provide us with fuel, store carbon, and heal the soil.

My futue looks sweet!  We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive.  It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

My futue looks sweet! We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive. It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

The future is full of possibilities.  If we continue down the road we are on now, then there will not be a future for the human race.  Turning the ship around is not enough – we have run out of time to do that, we need to jump overboard and start anew.  It will not be easy, but for the sake of the generations that follow, and all the other critters and plants that call this planet home it is what we must do.

Starting over will require participation from everyone.  It will not happen because a government or a corporation tells us too.  It will happen organically, and from the bottom up.  When the people demand an end to the destruction of the planet and are ready to start the healing process, governments and corporations will have no choice but to listen, and eventually cease to be.

It is possible, and it is starting.  It is happening everywhere that there are gardens being planted, where land is being reclaimed, and where communities are being built.  It happens when people band together and stand against the machine of oppression.  It happens when people realize that everything we have been taught is an illusion, and that when we change our lives, we have the power to change the world!  Peace & Cheer

A great video about living a simple life …

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Our first ever plums!  On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum!

Our first ever plums! On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum! Tree…

It is that time of year again here in the northern temperate climate of Minnesota when we start to see the abundance that pours forth from a well loved and tended garden.  Ripe tomatoes off of the vine, apples that will soon be picked, bags full of potatoes, and another successful harvest of garlic curing downstairs.

It seems like every spring I have reservations about the year to come – things like too much rain or not enough, how bad are the Japanese beetles going to be this year, or is a gigantic wind storm going to take out my fruit trees; and each year I am surprised by what happens and what thrives or what  completely fails.  But regardless of the overall outcome, we have always had something good to eat this time of year.  That is one of the benefits of planting a diverse garden, packed with the  many varieties of plants we have available to us.

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

When we diversify our gardens, regardless of the weather or pests, we can almost always insure some kind of harvest.  Right now, if I were so inclined too, I could walk out into the gardens and prepare any number of dishes using beets, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, onions, swiss chard, green beans, a wide range of cooking herbs, eggs from our chickens, and if I felt like stealing a bit of honey from the bees, that as well.

This is not me trying to brag, but more to show what is possible when we decide to grow food, and not lawns!  Yes, it takes some work.  Yes you may get strange looks from your neighbors (but also gain some allies as well).  And yes, you will eat better and feel the benefits of joining the ranks of us crazy Urban Homesteaders!

As far as our gardens are concerned, self sufficiency has never been the goal.  For me the thought of trying to be self sufficient in food, whether that be in a city or a rural setting is a mute point.  The only way to be truly self sufficient is by building and living in a community that is based on mutual aid and respect.  When we can respect our neighbors and lend a hand when one is needed, than we can talk about being self sufficient, or more appropriately, self reliant.  Growing food is one of the ways we can start to build these kinds of communities, and start the process of reclaiming our culinary traditions.

For the rest of the essay I am going to highlight a few things already mentioned, the food that we receive from our generous gardens this time of year.

garlic

Here is a shot of some of the garlic we grew this year. We ended up with close to 250 heads, and almost all of them were as beautiful as these!

Garlic – Here at the Dead End Alley Farm we have been growing garlic for about 8 years.  The first couple of years were pretty rocky with very meager results.  But with a bit of homework, and some  perseverance,  we have now grown great garlic for the last five or six years.  Right now we grow 7 varieties – Chesnok Red, Georgian Crystal and Fire, Killarney Red, Marten’s Unknown (rescued from my neighbors garden), Mitachi, and Siberian.  All of these are hardneck varieties that are well suited to our northern climate.

Garlic deserves its own essay here at Autonomy Acres, and someday I will get to that one, but for now I will leave you with this.  Garlic is a heavy feeder.  I devote a large percentage of my homemade compost to my garlic planting every fall.  So if nothing else, I know that wherever it is that I plant my garlic, that space also gets a huge addition of organic matter and nutrients once a year.  Two books that have been influential concerning my love affair with garlic have been Stanley Crawfords A Garlic Testament and Chester Aarrons Garlic Is Life.  Both are more memoirs rather than growing manuals, but they are great reads and may get you addicted to growing garlic, just like they did for me!

Tomatoes – These do not need any introduction.  The whole world loves them, and for great reasons.  They lend themselves well to many different types of cooking.  They can be blanched and frozen as whole fruits, chopped and prepared as fresh or canned salsa, or cooked down into the classic sauce that fills the shelves of so many of ours root cellars.

These were harvested as I wrote this essay.  There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on.  All of them are great eating!

These were harvested as I wrote this essay. There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on. All of them are great eating!

For the last few years we have grown on average about 15 tomato plants, some years more, some a little less, but that usually yields us about 15 quarts of canned sauce along with quite a few pints of canned salsa.  That does not include what we eat fresh, or what we provide in our CSA shares throughout the late summer.

Tomatoes should be a part of any homestead garden, if only for the taste and beauty that they add to fresh summer meals.  Stick to heirlooms, but don’t turn down a good hybrid or two for early fruits.  Be diligent on lite pruning and trellising, and you will be rewarded in bountiful harvests!

baggedpotatoes

These 3 bags of potatoes hold close to 80 pounds of spuds! Not bad for a $10 investment!

Potatoes – Potatoes, also known as Earth Apples, are a staple crop here at our city farm, along with the garden we have been establishing at my in-laws an hour west of St. Paul.  I my opinion, they are the best bang for your buck crop.  Seed potato is cheap, and if given the right environment, will thrive and more than triple its mass in return.

This year at our “country” garden, we planted three rows each with five pounds of whole “seed” potatoes planted offset in rows about 15 feet long.  We ended up harvesting close to 80 pounds from those three rows!  Talk about a real investment!  Once again, potatoes are heavy feeders, so any compost, manure, and mulch that can be set aside just for them is well advised.

We also have a number of potatoes planted here in the cities this year as well.  They take up two of our raised beds and were planted with pre cut potato “eyes”.  As of right now the jury is still out on how well they have performed, the plants are still green and robust so we will allow them to be for now and keep growing into the early autumn.  Otherwise, potatoes are a great staple crop that can be grown in smaller spaces and provide a lot of calories that we can not get from other garden variety crops.

So to sum things up in this installment of Autonomy Acres, plant, plant, plant!  Grow whatever, and wherever you can, and realize the abundance that can be had with a little time and effort.  I am going to finish this short essay with one of my favorite youtube videos, a short piece from a South African farmer by the name of Jo Dyantyi.  I can only hope to have his outlook on life someday!  Happy harvesting Amigos y Amigas … Peace & Cheers

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Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden.  Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden. Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

It is a beautiful afternoon here in West St. Paul, Minnesota.  There are a few clouds in the sky and a light breeze keeping this early August day at a nice temperature.  I am enjoying the modern luxuries of a few cold beers and a laptop in my backyard, a pork roast and chicken breasts being slowly smoked on the grill, and looking out over a garden filled with apple trees, sunflowers, and all other kinds of plants that the bees, birds, and butterflies are loving!

 

There are a few monarchs flying about and perching on the purple coneflowers, presumably enjoying the sun just like I am, and aside from the honey bees, there are also bumblebees, solitary bees, mason bees, and many other types of pollinators that I do not know the names of.  Some are wasp like insects that are all black with a blue sheen and long abdomens, others appear to be half  honey bee half fly, some look like apis mellifera, but are just different enough to be their own species.

 

But one thing all of these little critters have in common is their love of a healthy place to live.  All of our gardens, but especially the backyard garden that I am writing this next too, is a fairly overgrown collection of native and non-native perennials, self seeding flowering annuals, fruit trees, cooking herbs, and an assortment of other “weeds” that call this piece of ground home.

 

A wild cousin of apis mellifera.  I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty...

A wild cousin of apis mellifera. I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty…

For at least the last ten years there have been no pesticides or herbicides used on my property.  While I can not say the same of some of my neighbors, most of the yards around here have a bit of a wild side on parts of them.  Our neighborhood is one of the older ones in this part of town with some of the oldest  houses dating back to the late 1800’s.  Due to this, the demographics around here tend to lean towards the lower-middle class end of the spectrum, and many people that surround us (but not all of them) do not bother with heavy chemical lawn and pest treatments, which, as far as the bees and other pollinators are concerned, is a good thing.

 

As a result there are catnip plants, thistles, burdock, wild lettuces, purple loose strife and all other sorts of flowering weeds along the forgotten edges and property lines throughout the neighborhood.  You do not have to look hard or far to find fall asters, lambs quarter or dandelions, and there is a perennial ground cover of Creeping Charlie and white clover in many of the yards around our hood.

 

While this may not be aesthetically pleasing to the city council, or the folks who tend to their lawns with a devotion that is on par to religious fanaticism, this is a good thing for the honey bees.  These overlooked edges, and backyard weed orgies may be the honey bees (and their wild cousins) best hope for their ultimate survival.  It could be argued that urban neighborhoods like mine, with all the traffic and smog of city living, may be cleaner places to live and provide a more complete, and diverse diet if you are a honey bee.

 

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

While I am not typically a doomer, and try to stay rooted in reality, the honey bees are in a bad place right now.  You do not have to look far in the world of online or print media before you come across a piece about the plight of the honey bees.  Millions of bees dead in Canada, CCD getting worse, and struggles to get crops pollinated are all making headlines on a daily basis.  Are these headlines exaggerations?  I do not think so at all.  While I do not think the honey bee is going to go extinct anytime soon, I do believe that the food production system (which is based almost solely on honey bee pollination) that we have built over the last 100 years or so and rely on for almost all of our food is in great danger of collapse.  Mainly for the simple reasons that it is too big, too polluted, too dependent on fossil fuels, and no less damaging to the planet and her inhabitants when compared to things like clear cutting, mountaintop removal, tar sands, or hydraulic fracturing.

 

It is almost a catch 22.  If it weren’t for the honey bee, we would never have been able to start growing our food the way we have over the last 100 years.  But now it is this same mode of food production, the megalith of industrial agriculture that would not be possible without apis mellifera,  that is killing off the honey bee.  Because we have plowed up so much land, or in the words of Earl Butz – “Fencerow to Fencerow”, and have replaced it with monocrops of  GMO corn and soybeans, almonds and other regional crops that are all dependent on huge inputs of fertilizers, fuel, herbicides, and pesticides; we have basically created food deserts for all of the pollinators and other wild critters that use to called these areas home.

 

So is it possible that urban and semi urban (especially those in lower income) areas could be the honey bees saving grace?  I think it may be so.  Acre for acre, more poison that is harmful to insect and plant life (and all life in general) is being applied to rural land, especially in the areas that are growing corn and soybeans.  Glyphosate and Neonicotinoids make up the majority of the chemicals being used in modern agriculture and are being implicated with each new study as one of  the main causes in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Add to that fungicides, loss of habitat, varroa mites, and an artificial diet of high fructose corn syrup that is being fed to the bees to replace their stolen honey and lost forage of flowering “weeds”, and you have a perfect man made storm that is wiping out the bee population around the world.

 

Now that we have a fairly clear picture of the situation that the bees and other pollinators are facing, we can start to act in ways that can benefit and promote their survival.  As far as our broad scale agriculture is concerned, it ultimately may not be salvageable, at least in a form that is recognizable to most privileged humans if we want to insure the continuation of pollinator genetics.

 

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Looking at the almond orchards of California as an example gives us a perspective of how large and complicated modern industrial agriculture has become. These orchards, which bloom once a year and cover an area of around 800,000 acres (or roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island), leave nothing else for bees to forage from after the spring bloom is done.  The orchards require close to one million of America’s honey bee colonies for adequate pollination each year, for about a three to four week period early in the spring.  Once the almond trees are done blooming, the migrating beekeepers pack up their bees by the semi load and move on to the next stop in their annual travels.  It may be fruit orchards in the Pacific Northwest, or tomatoes and melons in Florida, or fields of alfalfa and clover in the Dakotas, but the constant movement of the bees to one pollination center to another is also weakening them by exposing them to disease due to the high population density of bees from around the country.

 

If these orchards could move away from the monocrop mentality by reducing the amount of chemicals being used and provide other forage (perennial weeds, polycultural alley cropping, etc…) for the bees throughout the year, less bees would have to be shipped in each spring, and little to no high fructose corn syrup would need to be fed back to the bees, and we would start to reduce the demands that we have put onto a large segment of the bee population.

 

Will this happen?  Probably not anytime soon.  The almond business in California, the largest area in the world where almonds are grown, is a multi-billion dollar industry for California.  To question this industry or any other giant agricultural venture and it’s impact on the bees is bad business, and one of the reasons that our food system is balanced on a precipice overlooking collapse.  When we value money and profit over the health of ecosystems and all their inhabitants, we are no longer stewards of the land, but slaves to the almighty dollar.  Almonds, just like corn or soybeans (these two are not directly dependent on bees though), have gotten so large and complicated, that they are bound to eventually collapse underneath their own weight and hubris.

 

This is where the small scale farmers, urban homesteaders, permaculturists,  guerilla and backyard gardeners, environmentalist, and nature lovers can all play a huge role in supporting honey bee health, and ultimately their continuation on this planet.  It is true that it will take a massive paradigm shift to change agriculture as we know it, but we forget how powerful individuals, communities, and backyards can be.

 

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie.  This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie. This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

Let’s start in the backyard and boulevards of Everywhere America.  The first and most effective step an individual or family can take is to stop treating our lawns like it is royalty.  The lawn was a creation of the rich upper class in the 1700’s in western Europe, and was a symbol of wealth by showing you no longer had to devote your land holdings to food production.  This has continued on into the present and has only gained momentum.  There are whole sections of hardware stores and Wal-Marts devoted to this weekend pastime and all of the “Toys” you need to maintain a perfect Victorian lawn.

 

Lawn Boys and Yard Man mowers, leaf blowers, home scaled amounts of broadleaf herbicides to keep the dandelions (and other bee forage) at bay, and a whole universe of different sprinklers, fertilizers, and ornaments that tell your neighbors that you have succeeded in life!  All of these to some degree play a role in pollinator habitat destruction.  So the first simple step is to ditch all of these inputs and the traditional lawn and start planting bee friendly habitat.

 

While it has become my goal to eventually have no more “lawn”, I do still have areas for the kids to play on and the dog to roll around in.  However these areas are packed with creeping charlie and dandelions in the spring, and white clover throughout the summer, all forage for the bees.  I will never completely get rid of our lawn because my lawn is an ecosystem, filled with flowering groundcovers and nutrient accumulators that provide pollen and nectar for the bees. It is also a self fertilizing closed loop system that stays green most years with no water except for that which it receives from the rain.

 

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

Lets now take a quick look at boulevards, those small strips of land between the sidewalks and the streets and are typically planted with grass.  Not only are these once again useless lawn spaces that require watering, fertilizing, and fuel for excessive mowing, they also shed water in huge amounts.  If we made it a national effort to start planting our boulevards into rain gardens that were filled with bee friendly natives, perennials, fruiting and flowering trees and self seeding annuals we could increase total acreage of habitat by thousands, if not millions of acres.  This is huge when you think about how easy it is to convert a boulevard (or a whole lawn for that matter) to a no-mow, low maintenance landscape that can provide pollinators with forage and retain water in our drying landscapes.

 

And briefly, let us discuss park lands, roadsides, and other forgotten parcels that can also aid the bees in their quest for survival.  In my essay Guerilla Forest Gardens I talked about taking guerilla gardening to a new level by starting and tending clandestine orchards and food forests using edible woody perennials, shrubs and groundcovers.  This same principle can also be applied when it comes to planting habitat for honey bees, and many of the trees and shrubs that may be used in a Guerilla Forest Garden also provide great forage for bees.

 

Focusing on trees, there are many different kinds that also provide great forage for our pollinating friends year after year.  Here in Minnesota great trees to have around for the bees are Basswood, Black Locust, Autumn and Russian Olive, Poplars (bees use resin from these trees to make propolis), Mountain Ash, and any of the common fruit trees that are found in backyards.  Even though trees like these only bloom once a year, they can provide so much pollen and nectar at such a crucial time in the season that the more of these trees that are around, the larger the population of bees that can be sustained and thrive in any one region or neighborhood.

 

Trees that thrive here in Minnesota are obviously going to be different than ones that thrive in other parts of the country, so find your local and regional equivalents and get your cities and counties to plant more of them!  And if you are so inclined to plant trees yourselves (whether on your own land or in a Guerilla Forest Garden), many extension and county services have tree sales each spring where you can pick up bundles of trees like these for wholesale prices.

 

So aside from making our own yards and farms, local city parks, boulevards, and highway roadsides friendly to bees, what else can we do to aid the honey bees?  Ultimately it comes down to education.  First and foremost is educating the next generation about honey bees specifically, but nature and biology in general.  There has been such a disconnect over that last few decades involving our youth and the natural world that first needs to be addressed.  This trajectory follows the bulldozing of what was once rural, agricultural and wild lands, and the rise of the ever present and sterile, cookie cutter suburbs.

 

Most kids no longer have the luxury of getting lost in the local woods, or having adventures around a small creek; mainly for the reason that places like this hardly exist anymore.  So not only do our kids suffer from growing up in artificial environments mediated by a TV, an Xbox, and junk food, but these same woods and stream banks that once fueled a childs imagination and play time can no longer feed and house our pollinators.  So if there is any hope for the ultimate survival of the bees specifically, and a diverse ecosystem to support them, it lays in the hands of the next generation of young people and adults.  People who are not scared of the outdoors or bugs, people who can appreciate simple pleasures, and people who care for the natural world are what we and the bees need to successfully move into the future.

 

And second we need to help educate our families, friends, neighbors, and communities about honey bees and what they need to live healthy, productive pollinating lives.  The good news is that everyday, more people are becoming aware about this issue, and all the implications and connections that can be made to habitat loss, GMOs, and pesticide use.  The bad news is getting people to act on this new awareness that they now have.

 

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

Not everyone needs to run out and become beekeepers.  Some people just aren’t suited for it, and that is okay.  But something everyone can do, and quite possibly more important, is help to create the habitat and healthy environments that the bees need.  Tear up your lawns and start planting food for yourself and the bees!  Plant your boulevards in rain gardens that provide forage for the bees throughout the seasons.  Quit using the pesticides and herbicides that are killing the bees.  Contact your local and state governments about these issues and advocate for ordinances and zoning laws that are friendly to beekeepers and bee friendly habitat.

 

On the local level we can change things, even if it is one small yard or park at a time. True change, no matter how small, starts at home and with ourselves. When our lives and our actions are put out there to be positive examples to others, we can start to change the world.  Have the conversations with people who are ready to hear about these issues.  Take a class at a local nature center and learn more about the bees.  Write letters to your state representatives, boycott and protest Monsanto, go to city council meeting and make your voice heard, volunteer to help out a local beekeeper for a day, read books and watch movies about the bees, and always keep educating yourself.  And if you are moved by these little critters to the point of becoming a beekeeper, go for it and find the joy in getting stung a few times (it is really not so bad)!

 

The problems that face the bees are huge and are bigger than any one person or homestead.  But just like a colony of bees, when we do our individual jobs along with what everyone elses contributes, cooperation helps us to reach our goals.  We all have a part to play, and if we can succeed and overcome these problems together, the world may just end up a sweeter place to live upon.  Peace & Cheers

 

 

 

 

 

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Dead Bees!

Dead Bees!

Death.  More death here at the Dead End Alley Farm.  This time it was our bees.  The bees that up until a few weeks ago I thought were going to come through the winter successfully.  But as life has shown us recently, nothing is for certain when walking down the path of homesteading.

 

Last fall I brought our bees back to our property in the city after they had unexpectedly swarmed in late August.  I knew I would have to help them through the winter (supplemental feeding) because of their small population and lack of honey stores.    In early March on a nice sunny day, I decided to open them up and see how they were doing.  To my surprise, there was a small cluster of bees right in the center of the hive box.  I couldn’t believe it!

 

They had gone through most of the sugar I had given them, so I gave them a bit more and called it good.  I left them alone for for about 2 weeks, and checked back on them on another sunny day.  Sadly, on this next visit I did not see the cluster, but only a few random bees that were moving along the top bars.

 

I closed them up right away knowing that in the next few days the weather would be warm enough to do a real inspection.  That is when it was official, they were all dead, most likely from starvation.  Even though I had given them more sugar (not really true bee food, but it can help sustain them), they could not find it.  The little bit of honey they did have going into winter was not even touched and only one frame over from their cluster of death.  I found many bees with their rear ends sticking out of the cells, a sure sign of starvation.

 

It saddens me that once again I have lost critters that are a part of my homestead and that play such an important  role in adding beauty and sustenance to our lives.  Most people are aware of the plight that the honey bees have been facing for the last half of a decade.  Colony Collapse Disorder hit the headlines back in 2005 and has been a mounting crisis ever since.  Here are a couple articles, (and this one) that summarize the history and some of the latest research concerning CCD and the effects it has had on bees and beekeepers alike.

 

Needless to say, it seems overwhelmingly obvious that Monsanto, Bayer Corp, and the other big PHARMA corporations play a huge role in the demise of the honey bee, and need to be held accountable for their actions.  While I have never held a lot of hope in letter writing and legislation, it would be wonderful if we could get the EPA and the USDA to ban the use of Neonicotinoids until more independent research can be done without the influence of big PHARMA skewing the results.  Places in Europe  like France and Slovenia have seen their honey bee populations stabilize since these insecticides have been outlawed, and these countries should be heralded for their efforts in aiding the honey bees.

 

Coming full circle and returning to the dead hive in my backyard, along with the obvious evidence of starvation, I also checked for other possible causes that lead to the death of my bees.  On the screened bottom board I found very little evidence of  Varroa Destructor, the bane of beekeepers the world over since the mid ‘90’s.  If you look very closely you can spot these parasites on bees as well as on a bottom board, and I only found about 10 of them amongst all the bee corpses.  This tells me the colony was not weakened by varrao, great news even though the bees perished.

 

Second on the autopsy list was checking for signs of American Foulbrood, a bacterial infection that will wipe out a colony and readily spreads to other hives in an apiary.  I have never seen foulbrood in person, but it is unmistakable if your hive(s) are infected, American Foulbrood liquefies developing brood into a brown goo and has a horrendous odor (often described as rotten meat) – hence the name!  The spores of foulbrood will survive in beeswax, honey, and woodenware, so if you have a hive that has succumbed to AFB, burning the entire setup is the suggested means of disposal.

 

Thankfully there were no signs of foulbrood.  Even though there were thousands of dead bees littering the hive box, there was still the pleasant, sweet scent of a healthy colony.  The few brood cells I found with developing bees within were healthy and probably only a week or so away from emerging as a mature bee.  This also means that the naturally mated queen had already started laying eggs in preparation for the spring.

 

The last thing I noticed, but was not intentionally looking for was evidence of Nosema.  Nosema is basically bee diarrhea and is primarily caused by the consumption of refined sugar or syrup.  While nosema is not typically fatal to a colony, this should be all the motivation a good beekeeper needs to not harvest honey greedily, and to only feed your bees as a last resort.

 

With the autopsy completed, where does that leave me as a beekeeper?  While I am totally bummed out by the lose of these bees that I tried so hard to help through the winter, I am very optimistic in regards to my future as a beekeeper.  I have learned a lot in the last year, and the mistakes I have made will never be repeated again!

 

As far as new bees are concerned, here is what I have lined up.  Back in December or January I met the beekeeper who supplies my local food co-op with their bulk, raw honey.  It turns out they are only about an hour south of me and also sell 5 – frame nucleus colonies for $100.  This is a pretty good deal and I am slated to purchase two of them sometime in May!

 

Swarm Traps Ready To Go!!

Swarm Traps Ready To Go!!

Even cooler than that is finding as even closer source of bees!  My friend Don who is the farm manager of our local nature center is going to let me set up a few swarm traps in his bee yard.  What is a swarm trap you ask?  All a swarm trap does is provide a friendly and comfortable environment that a swarm of bees can create a new home in.  In this instance, I have built deep hive bodies that hold five frames, essentially a five frame nuc.  In each trap I will put at least 1 frame of drawn comb and a small wad of paper towel scented with lemongrass oil.  Both the drawn comb, and the scent of the lemongrass oil act as a kind of bait that will lure in the bees and say “Hey, this is a great place to make a new home!”

 

So best case scenario is that I could have up to five colonies by summer if all three swarm traps work, along with the two purchased nuc’s.  The swarm traps are pretty much done except for the outer covers which I should hopefully finish this weekend.  The traps were constructed out of all salvaged lumber, and painted with discounted outdoor paint (I love when people return paint to the hardware store that was mixed wrong – $3 for a gallon!!).

 

I still have a bit of work to do finishing up the other woodenware I will need.  Inner covers, screened bottom boards, and boardman feeders all need to be built, but I already have all the deep boxes and the outer covers to accommodate up to five hives ready to go.  If time allows I will do a post soon about the rest of the equipment I need to build.

 

A quick aside before saying goodbye, I have started a Facebook page for Autonomy Acres, so if you are into that kind of thing, click the like button and start following me on there and look for small updates as to what is happening.  I have also started a new project called the Permaculture Free Press.  Basically it is a news aggregation site dedicated to all things Permaculture, check it out, subscribe, and follow it on the Facebook.  Until next time my friends … Peace & Cheers


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bee ad

An old ad from the early 1900’s – it has nothing to do with this article, but it is pretty cool!!

Throughout the long shared history, and co-evolution of Apis Mellifera and humans, honey bees have adapted to almost all of the different climates and landscapes this Good Earth has to offer. From the dry heat of Yemen, to the cold mountainous valleys of Russia, the damp grey heath lands of the British Isles, all the way to the sunny plains of the American Midwest, honey bees have proven to be true survivors. With the ability to make a home out of a hollow cavity in a “bee” tree, the over hang of craggy rocks, or boxes nailed together by human hands, bees’ adaptability has proven time and again to be their evolutionary ace-in-the-hole. As long as there is adequate forage of wild flowers, weeds, and other flowering plants for them to collect pollen and nectar from, and a source of water, bees will make a home.

While it is true that the co-evolution of bees and humans has played out over millennia, it is only in the last few hundred years with the rise of industrial agriculture and modern civilization that the honey bee has been truly domesticated. And with this domestication comes all the problems, afflictions, disease, and trappings that co-exist and thrive when animals (or in this case insects) are forced to live in ways counter to their evolutionary upbringing. Despite the problems that modern day bees and their human keepers face, whether it is the varroa mite, disease, or loss of habitat; resilience and adaptability remain our strongest allies in this fight for survival – not just for the bees, but for Humankind as well.

Even though it appears that the cards are stacked against the bees right now, I do believe that it is not too late to change the direction of current events. In the same way modern day homesteaders (both urban & rural) are taking back control of where their food comes from, divorcing themselves from consumer culture, and ultimately creating the world they want to live in; we can help create, facilitate and support a symbiotic relationship between us and honey bees. While the easy answer to the continued existence of honey bees would be to shut the doors on Monsanto and Bayer  Corp, outlaw all pesticides, herbicides, and GMO crops, and no longer rely on industrial agriculture to feed us – the reality is much different. In a world of 7 billion people who all want to eat, the current paradigm of food production will not voluntarily change to accommodate the survival of the honey bee. That is up to us – the bee keepers, backyard gardeners, urban homesteaders, and organic farmers.

What follows are a few thoughts and ideas on what we can do to help aid the honey bee, and ultimately humans, in the fight against industrial agriculture and the Destroyer Mentality ….

More Bee Keepers – I don’t know who said this, but I heard a quote that went something like this – “ We don’t need one beekeeper with 10,000 hives, we need 10,000 beekeepers with a few hives.” I think this is incredibly important. We need more people involved with the bees, and we need greater number of bees, but in less density. When beekeepers follow the pollination routes from California to Florida, with hives congregated in the tens of thousands for a few weeks at a time, with the bees relying on high fructose corn syrup for nutrition, of course the bees are going to get sick and spread disease. By keeping our operations smaller, and more diverse, we can monitor more closely for disease and varroa, and ultimately figure out more holistic ways for remedying these problems.

Let Bees be Bees – So much of beekeeping in the last 200 years has been figuring out ways to make the bees produce more honey so we can sell it for money. Plastic foundation with a larger cell size, stealing too much of their honey, and feeding processed shit back to them all weaken the bees‘ ability to survive on their own. While I do not have an issue with people incorporating bees into their home businesses, it is the scale at which it is done that is the problem. When we turn the bees into machines, and repeatedly strip them of their food, we weaken their genetic base, and in the end breed a weaker, less resilient bee.

Habitat – At the same time that the bee was being domesticated, we were also in the process of converting our original wild prairie grasslands and forests into agricultural behemoths. This has continued through the present, and now we are plowing under that farm land to build suburbia. Because of this habitat loss, the feral population of bees in the United States has been decimated. Without the wild nooks and crannies available, it has gotten much harder for the honey bee to survive on its’ own. The more we can do to start replanting forests, reclaiming prairies, and greening our urban landscapes, the better the bees will do. It is a daunting task, and currently maybe impossible to achieve, but we have to try! Create bee gardens on boulevards and front yards, plant fruit trees and other bee friendly plants, and let those dandelions grow!

Education – Most gardeners, homesteaders and holistic, organic farmers already know the benefit of honey bees. It is our duty then to help educate the general populace about the beautiful, little creature that Apis Melliferra is. Yes, bees can sting you, but it is a misconception that they are out to get us. They tend to be gentle, and only get aggressive when truly stressed or threatened. That said, if the general perception of the honey bee can be changed from pest to beneficial insect we will all be in a better place. That education starts with our kids. If we can raise a generation of people to not be scared of bugs, and bees in particular, then we will have made some big progress. When kids learn from an early age about the beneficial aspects of insects, the less likely they are to support a life filled with poisons created by Monsanto and Bayer Corp.

These four points of interest and action are only a beginning. The world of bee keeping is continually evolving and innovating. There are many hive designs that are well worth experimenting with – Warre and Top Bar hives to name just two. Brood cycle interruptions and different non-poison based treatments to combat varrao, and a spirit of cooperation with the bees, other bee keepers, and the general public will see us through the crisis of modern day bee keeping. I am not an expert about bees, or the husbandry that goes into keeping them, but I am passionate and can be humble about this past time that is close to my heart. While I have done the best to present accurate information –  do research, get stung a few times, get your fingers sticky with propolis and come to your own conclusions. But most of all, create safe and verdant places for honey bees in your homestead, neighborhood, city, state, and Planet …. Peace & Cheers

Here are a few links that I have found lately that have been helpful, educating, and inspiring ….

This is a presentation Sam Comfort gave about top bar hives, DIY queen breeding and his story of keeping bees. Anarchy Apiaries is his company, and he has a lot of great stuff on his blog!  Here is part 2, part 3, part 4 …

The Strathcona Bee Keepers of BC, Vancouver, Canada, have put together a wonderful web library of how-to’s, resources, and a ton of videos. This website will keep you busy all winter!

BeeSource is the latest forum I have found and it is all about bees. If you have a question, it has most likely already been asked and you can find the answer here, sign up today!

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Bees looking for their food!! Sugar Syrup!

In the last article I wrote about our bees, I gave an overview of events starting with the installation of the 3 lb. package in the spring, all the way to comb and honey production through the end of July. Since then a few exciting things have occurred, but none of which I was anticipating!

These are queen cells on comb that I removed during surgery. They are on the bottom surrounding the quarter

I did a hive inspection in early August, and everything was looking good, however, I noticed some comb that looked different from the rest. It seemed bulky and out of place, sort of like a small, candy circus peanut. I noted it as possible queen cells, but did not think too much about it until the end of the month. Sometime around the 20th of August, my wife received a phone call from her mom saying that the neighbor who mows the lawn where the bees were being kept, saw “all” the bees out and was scared to mow near them. This is a swarm. After hearing this news, my earlier suspicions of queen cells made sense. When a hive is unhappy with their queen, or they feel like they are running out of space to grow into, the worker bees have the ability to turn eggs of future worker bees into what are known as queen cells. This is an evolutionary trait that they have developed over millennia for their survival and the continuation of their species.

As beekeepers, we can use the evidence of queen cells to help successfully manage our hives. When queen cells are present, but not yet finished developing, a hive can be split to prevent swarming. The original queen is left in the original hive along with frames of brood and honey. Most of the mature workers who have already started scouting and foraging will stay with her. As for the “new” colony, the frames with the queen cells are moved, along with brood and honey to a new hive box. The younger house bees who have not yet started orientation flights will be the initial population of this new hive.

As for the queen cells, an epic battle will soon happen. If a single queen emerges before the rest, she will go to the other queen cells and destroy them, otherwise, if more than one emerges at the same time, they will battle to the death leaving only one virgin queen. Once the matriarch of the new hive has been determined, she will make the first and possibly only flight of her life. This flight out of the hive is her one chance to mate, and if successful she will be inseminated by up to 15 different drones, thus increasing the genetic diversity of all her future offspring.

Everything just described happened to my colony with one main difference, I was not able to prevent them from swarming. So, sometime in the last part of August, my original marked queen, along with about half her daughters and a few sons, left and found a new home. Upon the final inspection I performed at the end of August, the colonies’ numbers were drastically reduced and the bees were already digging into their honey stores. This was not good!! For the sake of their survival, I decided to move them the 60 miles from my in-laws to the Autonomy Acres homestead so I could provide for their needs through the winter to come.

This was the second unanticipated event concerning the bees that I had to contend with this fall. After reading The Beekeeper’s Lament, by Hannah Nordhaus, I figured if migratory beekeepers can move thousands of hives, multiple times a year, I should be able to handle moving one. So on a Saturday evening about 3 weeks ago, we drove down with our trailer and prepared to move our hive. With a collection of tie-downs, ratchet clamps, a few well placed cinder blocks, a piece of cardboard, and some duct tape, we loaded and secured the hive to the deck of the trailer. The cinder blocks were a second defense against the hive sliding or moving too much and the cardboard was used to block the entrance to the hive. Although it was a bit nerve racking on the drive home, the move went perfect. We got the hive situated in it’s new spot in our yard, and the next morning after they had a night to calm down, I took the cardboard off of their entrance. Aside from some dead bees due to stress from the move, they have taken nicely to their new surroundings. They have found some sources of nectar and pollen, and are starting once again to build up their numbers a bit before it gets cold. And this leads me to the third, and not so unanticipated, but just COOL event!!

Here are two pictures of our new queen! On the left my finger is pointing to her. On the right you should be able to see her with no problems. In both pictures you can see uncapped larvae and capped brood.

Upon arrival, I gave them a few days to get situated before I performed some much needed, major surgery on one of the frames. As mentioned in my previous bee article, the package installation went less than perfect and caused the bees to draw comb into a void I had left in the bottom hive box. This made it impossible to get into the bottom hive box for proper inspection, and may have been a contributing factor to the August swarm. Using a sharp fillet knife, I got in there and cut the comb off of the bottom of the frame above it. At that point I was able to remove the top box and finally get in and inspect the lower frames. This is when I found our new, naturally mated queen!! I also cut the removed comb to fit into an empty frame and bindered that in place. Since than I have done one last inspection and have found capped brood, uncapped larvae, pollen, and a growing honey supply! Awesome!!

As we slowly get closer to winter, I can look back on this adventure of stewarding honey bees, and can honestly say I am glad I have made the mistakes I have made. I am a better beekeeper for it, and will never make these mistakes again. If I can successfully get these little critters through the winter, than it will all be worth it. Using this story as an example, us Urban Homesteaders need to embrace our mistakes! Most of us did not grow up canning garden produce, or raising chickens, or doing DIY projects at home. Luckily we have some good books to help us, and the internet is a wealth of resources, but it is our mistakes, and our ability to learn and grow from them that truly teach us! I hope to make mistakes for the rest of my life, because than I will know I am still learning new skills and will always be striving to be a little bit better of a person ….. Peace & Cheers!

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