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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Lab Has Spoken…

WSU sampleI recently received an email from Erin O’Rourke of WSU’s Bee Diagnostic Lab, sharing the Lab’s findings of the sample of bees from my spring dwindling colony (see “Necropsy Pending,” 4/27/2012). Over the period of a half dozen days in March I collected dead bees from a catcher board placed at the entrance of the distressed hive, bottled them up, sent them off to the Bee Lab, and anxiously awaited their findings. The report was surprising, yet puzzling:

Nosema spores: 0 spores per bee (Good, but a surprise)

Tracheal mites: 0 % colony infection (Good news indeed)

Varroa mites: 1.6 mites per 100 bees (Seemed excessive…)

Here I quote from Ms. O’Rourke’s email: “Unfortunately, the data from this sample did not yield any definitive explanation for why the colonies are suffering such losses.” O’Rourke continued: “Varroa mites are present but at a relatively low level.” One and a half mites per 100 bees seems like a hefty amount of parasites…but Ms. O’Rourke and colleagues are the experts, not me. A strong colony can have between forty and sixty thousand bees at peak population; however, if a hive has a severe mite infestation, it’s not likely to achieve such numbers—if it survives at all. The Bee Lab and I did concur on one point. Ms. O’Rourke: “Your assessment of the seasonal presence of nosema symptoms in the spring that subside with the availability of fresh forage corresponds to our research. There was pollen in your sample.” I was aware that two or three deceased bees in my sample carried pollen pellets. That bees bearing fresh pollen should die before delivering the goods seemed to me an indicator that something was amiss.

I thought it only right, for the purposes of bee diagnostics and research, to respond to the Bee Lab’s findings…to thank them, of course, for the fine work they do for us beekeepers, but also to give Ms. O’Rourke an update on the hive sampled. In my letter to the Lab I gave a detailed history of my experiences keeping bees here in the Valley; however, I purposely withheld certain information about the distressed colony because it didn’t seem pertinent to my sample. I had examined the colony shortly before my sampling and straight off noticed a problem. In addition to the adult bees present, the hive had three frames of capped brood—bees in their pupa stage--shortly to emerge as adults. I would have wished for four of five frames in mid-March, but only three frames of brood did not spell disaster for the colony. I searched for new eggs on an outer frame of capped brood.

Examining the egg laying pattern of the colony’s queen is an excellent way to assess the health of the colony. A honeybee egg is translucent, shaped like a tiny bean. The queen lays one egg in the center of the cell and glues it on end so it stands upright like a tiny appendix. By tilting the frame to the light, the beekeeper can easily spot the eggs and thus check the queen’s egg pattern. The queen begins laying eggs in the center of the comb and lays outwards until most of brood comb is full of eggs. A sporadic egg pattern, eggs laid helter skelter, indicates a failing queen. The outer cells of the brood comb are left to store the nectar required to feed the larvae. Because the eggs laid in the center of the comb metamorphose first, the beekeeper knows to look for freshly laid eggs at the perimeter of the capped (pupa stage) brood on each frame. Years of beekeeping have taught me to look first for eggs and examine their pattern to assess the health of the hive and the vitality of the queen; eggs, larvae, and capped brood are the colony’s indicator of wellness.

That was why I was alarmed at what I discovered on a brood comb. I located eggs where I expected them but noticed straight off many cells contained multiple eggs, two and three per cell. In this case, strange as it seems, less is better than more. Multiple eggs per cell indicate something is amiss with the queen and the hive is no longer “queen-rite.” She has either failed or died and her attendants haven’t been able to replace her. In desperation, some workers try to rescue the colony by assuming the queen’s egg laying role and becoming “laying workers” themselves. And even though the worker bees are females, too, theirs is a futile attempt. The queen is the only fertile female and can lay at will both fertilized and infertile eggs: the former become workers; the latter drones. The eggs from laying workers metamorphose into males, drones, and once a colony is “governed” by laying workers, it most certainly is doomed to extinction (not meant as“male-bashing,” just a simple fact). Attempts to requeen the colony will fail because the laying workers will usurp any newcomer and sting her to death, further sealing the hive’s fate. Egg-laying workers lack the genetic code that signals them to lay one egg per cell and will lay multiple eggs. These are readily visible on the floor of the cell like little stacks of cordwood or a jumble of pick-up sticks.

The workers bees are acutely in tune with their leader’s health and in most cases will “supersede”(replace) her when they sense she is ailing, injured or suddenly dies. This period of interregnum is a perilous time in the life of a honeybee colony. Any fertilized egg has the potential to become a queen bee; however, there is a very narrow window of time for the workers to select the queen’s replacement. Larvae selected to replace their faltering mother should be 2 to 3 days old (to insure they are fed the maximum amount of “royal jelly,” a special ambrosia fit for a queen). If, for whatever reason, this narrow margin is missed, the colony will “drone” itself into oblivion. Larvae much older will not produce a perfect queen, either. Once the old queen is superseded, a new virgin queen will emerge as early as eleven days later. By the time she takes her mating flight and begins her egg laying duties, ten more days may have passed. (In the spring our fickle Valley weather makes a queen’s mating flight even more problematic.) And a full month may go by before any new eggs are laid. With a "gestation period” of twenty-one days from egg to adult worker bee, such an interruption in the brood cycle can have a significant impact on the strength of the honeybee colony.

My response to the superfluous eggs? “Oh, great…first disease and mites, now laying workers!”and wrote the hive off as a certain “deadout.” I didn’t trouble Ms. O’Rourke with this information because the hive was distressed before I discovered the laying worker scenario and for all I knew, its dwindling and queenless condition was cause and effect.

What I did share with Erin in a follow-up email was the surprise I found a week later when I looked in the problem hive and discovered a lovely egg pattern, and what’s more, a nice, plump, healthy-looking queen! I mulled over this new development and somewhere in my beekeeping repertoire of information, I remember reading that sometimes a new queen, healthy and vigorous, being new to her role, will sometimes enthusiastically lay more than one egg per cell. In retrospect I remembered that the excess eggs were not spread willy nilly  but were deposited in the cell on end, each correctly positioned, just as a single egg should be.

In talking with beekeeping newbies, long time beekeepers, or the purely curious about the satisfying pastime of keeping bees, I usually include this statement: “I’ve been keeping bees since I was fourteen years old, and every season I learn something new or experience some oddity I’ve never encountered before.” Perhaps that’s why I keep on keeping bees: you continue on, wondering just what’s going to happen next. And thanks to Erin and WSU’s Bee Diagnostic Lab, I feel I’m not alone in this mysterious and challenging era of modern beekeeping.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Salmon in a Spacesuit: The Asparagus Version…

SS ingredientsWelcome to The Ripple’s food page. So you’re scratching your head wondering what to fix for dinner? Why not try “Salmon in a Spacesuit,” an astronautical recipe guaranteed to elevate your kitchen status to that of a Julia Childs or at least our modern Goddess of the Kitchen (and everything else domestic), Martha Stewart. And in due respect to Marvelous Martha, I’ll credit her with the following recipe; however, when her apron was turned, a bit of sleight of hand (by me) whisked away the baby spinach leaves and replaced them with fresh garden asparagus from the same patch featured in the previous post.

The “spacesuit” component, by the way, is Martha’s clever way of embellishing her recipe: the “out of this world” material is simply plain, old parchment paper and you don’t need the Apollo astronauts to stuff it full, either. Have your grocery list handy? Here’s what you’ll need:

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temp

1 Tbsp capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped

1 Tbsp coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped

1 large (or two small) russet potato(es), scrubbed and thinly sliced (I prefer new red potatoes myself)

2 medium shallots, thinly sliced (or substitute red onions)

6 or 7 stalks medium thickness asparagus sliced in half

2 six-ounce salmon fillets about 1 1/2” thick (Spice up your recipe with some “seasonal” excitement: Copper River salmon is now booking flights in first class on Alaska Airlines, Washington bound, ready to be suited up…at its usual astronomical prices, of course)

1 lemon, thinly sliced

2 twelve-by-seventeen-inch pieces parchment paper [Note: This recipe serves two, by the way…dare we think Martha was expecting a gentleman caller?  Salmon in a Spacesuit can easily be prepared for the lone diner or the number of guests at your family reunion, prepared ahead of time and refrigerated until mealtime. And unlike most of Stewart’s recipes, with this one you don’t have to hit the kitchen at dawn to prepare for a dinner at 8:00]

Preparation: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a baking sheet in oven to preheat. Make caper butter: combine, in a small bowl, butter, capers, parsley, and garlic. Mix well.

Fold each piece of parchment paper in half crosswise, then open, creating a crease. Lightly spray one side of the crease (the right, for this right-handed guy) with vegetable oil (prevents your meal from sticking to the “suit”). Divide potato slices between the two pieces of parchment paper, creating a bed of spuds on each. Season with salt and pepper.Potato bed

Top each bed with one-quarter of the shallots (or onions). Lay half the sliced (to prevent movement) asparagus halves (six or seven) on top of the shallots.SS Asparagus version

Place salmon fillet on top of asparagus, divide remaining shallots or onions between the two packages. Top each piece of salmon with two or three slices of lemon and dot the top liberally with the caper butter.Ready to wrap “Suit up” the meal by bringing together both ends of parchment paper, roll, fold and crease them until the fold rests gently on the contents. Fold and crease the short ends next. (Note: I like to seal the short ends with metal paper clips.)parchment clips

Lay your spacesuits on the pre-heated baking sheet, load them into the “capsule” (400 degree oven), and after a twenty-five minute countdown, the spacesuits will be ready to orbit around the dinner table. An out of this world meal--without the zero gravity.

Friday, May 18, 2012

…And Then Sprinkle Lightly with Fresh Parmesan…

Asparagus bedIt’s asparagus season. Local asparagus, that is, tasty stalks grown right here in Washington State. Road side farm and vegetable stands entice you with their signs. “Local asparagus,” they read—and unlike the stuff imported from the four corners of the earth, “locally grown” always commands a premium price.

When I was boy growing up on a Douglas County apple orchard, our family never paid one thin dime for our  asparagus. The plant grew wild in the orchards, spread by birds and the cultivator which chopped up the crowns and replanted them everywhere throughout the orchard. (Let me know if you remember the often ridiculed Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus fame.) Those days our family of eight had a tight budget; we cut corners wherever we could. We had access to an abundance of gratis fruit: cherries, peaches, apricots, and, of course, plenty of apples and pears which we ate fresh. When these fruits were in season, our childish summertime antics were put on hold and we children became sweaty wards of the kitchen until the crop of the day was canned, preserved, dried, and stored away for winter. “I always remember freezing asparagus on Lisa’s birthday,” Mom told me a while back. My sister Lisa’s birthday is May 6, and I imagine she had immunity on her special day, but the rest of us were sent out to forage for asparagus. In those days before herbicides withered the stalks and poisoned the root systems (the spaces between trees were “defoliated” to prevent rodent damage during the winter time), with little effort we kids could pick an entire apple box full of tender spears in half an hour. It was random harvesting: we hopped from row to row, snapped a handful of spears while keeping an eye out for the next cluster of stalks. Ten, fifteen pounds of delicious vegetable we’d haul home and when the asparagus plate made the circuit of the table at winter meals, we were instantly transported back to May, the warmth of spring, and hands sticky with and smelling of asparagus juice.

Once you’ve had something for free, it becomes a matter of principle not to pay for it again if you can help it. As I said, asparagus grows wild in Eastern Washington. Harvesting it now in orchards is problematic because of  herbicides used in routine weed management. Besides, the new agriculture of cover cropping, which necessitates frequent mowing between rows of trees, prevents asparagus from the normal cycling the plant needs to store nourishment for next year’s crop.

For several years my free asparagus came from a thirty acre field in Chelan County. During asparagus season locals from all over the county thronged to the site to pick the crop. This non-local had to get up before the sun to make it to the patch (a two and a half hour drive from Monroe) to stay ahead of the competition. Even then there were always pickers ahead of me, sometimes half a dozen or so, ballooning plastic bags in hand, on the hunt as they marched across the field through the early May morning. A few years back my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L and I arrived at the plot (we left town at 6:00 a.m.) around nine in the morning. Five hours later we had bagged over fifty pounds of the tasty spears between us and were back in Monroe by six in the evening.Free asparagus

A couple years ago I got to thinking about those trips east: up early, three hours there, three back, all the time, the traffic, the gas…maybe those bags of asparagus weren’t that cheap after all. It was then I remembered Old Baylor’s place (now Kelly Bolles’ Organic Farm). Aside from his strawberry business, Baylor had a nice asparagus patch. I remembered seeing a forest of lacy fronds of the seeded out stalks and marveled at how Baylor had mulched the patch with sawdust to keep his asparagus weed free. “Why not add an asparagus patch to my garden inventory?” I thought and set myself to the task.

I hauled out my stack of seed catalogs, sorted through them, and ordered fifty-two asparagus crowns, two dozen from the east coast (Vermont, I think), the rest from Oregon’s Territorial Seed catalog. Then up to Lowe’s for some 2” x 12”s. Measuring twice and cutting once, I constructed a 5’ x 8’ x 12”raised bed frame and waited for the UPS van to visit our driveway.lagged corner

In the meantime I filled the raised bed halfway with soil from the garden. The Vermont crowns arrived first (Territorial Seed’s wouldn’t show for another four weeks). I hoed three deep furrows, spread the crab-like roots of each crown along the bottom, and filled in the furrows. When the remaining crowns were shipped a month later, I repeated the procedure: six furrows’ worth of crowns. As the first spears sprouted, I added more soil, covering the tips until the bed bulged with fresh dirt.

The asparagus gardener, according to the experts, should allow his new asparagus bed three years to develop a vigorous root system before he harvests a full crop. On one of my Valley walks I stopped to chat with Tony Broers and mentioned my asparagus enterprise. Tony told me he watched growers in Toppenish plant their asparagus fields. “First, they dig a furrow three feet deep,” Tony explained, “and spread the crowns at the bottom. As the stalks grow, the grower adds more soil until the furrows are completely filled.” This technique guaranteed a deep, sturdy root system. When I heard this information, I wished I had tilled the location first, then planted the crowns below ground level, and finally set the wooden bed frame over the planted crowns, and then layered on the dirt. Had I used a little forethought, the crowns would have had an extra foot of earth in which to stretch and grow. 

This spring was the third for my new bed, and I looked forward to a full harvest of tender, delicious stalks to steam, broil or grill on the barbecue—our favorite mode of preparation. The first heads appeared in mid-April and with our recent stretch of warm, summer-like weather, we are able to pick a hefty meal every three days. To date, we’ve harvested nearly two hundred tasty stalks from the little 5’ x 8’ patch. I plan to continue harvesting until mid-June and then let the bed go to seed and replenish itself for next season.

The nursery crowns I purchased were hybrid crowns, which made me wonder if the plants would throw seed, and if any did, would the seed sprout? asparagus pods and seedTwo large fronds seeded out last summer. I harvested the berries, cast them about on top of the bed, and brought fifty or sixty ripe pods into the house where they wintered in a paper cup behind the woodstove. My plan: plant some seed indoors to see if it was viable and would sprout. Back in mid-March I planted several seeds in eggshell halves (for the calcium boost, you know) and installed them, egg carton and all, in my little seed starter. To my delight, all the seeds sprouted. asparagus sproutsAnd furthermore, the seeds I spread about on the surface of the bed sprouted as well. Asparagus propagates in the wild thanks to the dispersion of seed by birds. I decided to forego the avian route and do the work myself. Hopefully, through my efforts, I’ve  guaranteed future crops—perpetuating many more asparagus meals smothered in white and future stalks

Or hollandaise sauce, if you prefer. Again, we like our asparagus brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with garlic salt, broiled or barbecued (but not too long…leave it al dente--over the coals for three or four minutes. Roll it once, cook three or four more minutes and remove… ). Top the hot stalks with a light sprinkling of fresh parmesan and let rest until melted. But the extra, added flavor comes from the satisfaction of knowing what you served up for the evening meal came from your very own asparagus patch.  And for an “out of this world” asparagus recipe, don’t miss The Ripple’s next post.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Canola? Dale Can…

field of golden c“…through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”

[the night preceding the funeral of Jose Arcadio Buendia, beloved patriarch and founder of Macondo]

One Hundred Years of  Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Maybe they were canola flowers….

Drivers crossing the Lewis Street Bridge might be tempted to reach for their sunglasses when they glance east up the south riverbank toward the mountains. A splash of tropical sunshine, as if someone had taken a giant paintbrush and daubed the landscape a brilliant yellow, bathes the riverbank. It’s a wonder drivers don’t cause “gaper’s block” as they slow to take in the spectacle; or rear end other drivers who abruptly flip on their left turn signals to turn down the side road for a chance to photograph the four acre swatch. It is a yellow found only in nature; there’s no such thing as a Crayola “canola yellow.”

Dale Reiner likes to talk; he especially likes to talk about farming. I called him the other evening, and we talked for over an hour about canola, the crop now yellowing his four acre parcel of riverbank.

Canola, along with its cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale cousins, is a biennial belonging to the plant family Brassica. The mustard plant, the same whose seeds you find in the spice section at the grocery store, is a near relative as well. When it seeds, a canola stalk produces hundreds of slender, finger-like pods, each, when mature, contains several 1-2mm seeds.C Before The seeds are harvested for their oil content which is pressed from the seed. Canola oil may find its way to your kitchen or into the gas tank of your diesel-powered vehicle. (That canola is a valued source of bio-diesel fuels proves its high demand and further explains its higher cost as a food product in the supermarket.)Brassica seed pods

A half dozen years ago, Dale continues, Snohomish County in cooperation with five County farmers, funded by some Federal grant money, embarked on a feasibility study of canola as a County cash crop. Reiner was one of the five. Canola’s appeal to Dale is its two season productivity: first season, a silage crop; seed crop the second. (Reiner is even mulling over the possibility of double cropping canola and field corn.) Because canola is a biennial plant, its first season yield is primarily leaf matter, vegetable material. Summer and fall of Year 1, the plant can be chopped for silage like pasture grass every thirty days. During the winter months surface growth slows but our temperate climate allows canola’s root system to flourish and store the nutrition that come the following summer, produces vigorous stalks, an abundance of blossoms (plus the current virtual study in yellow) which seed out into hundreds of thousands of pods of oil-producing seed, doubling one crop for the farmer’s effort.field of yellow

In the fall I have shelled out the seed from my summer garden broccoli plants and wonder at the ability of a machine harvester to separate these miniscule 1-2mm seed from pods and stalk. Modern combines, Dale replies, can be calibrated to separate just about any seed or grain crop (according to Reiner, even sunflower seeds). It took a bit of experimenting to find the most efficient way to harvest the seed. Combine and header were used at first, but because of canola’s numerous side bracts, too much seed was lost or knocked to the ground. Dale decided to cut the field with a side swather first, rake the stalks into windrows, and then combine the downed stalks.

I’m curious about harvest time in our short season, rainy climate. Seed maturity needs to be closely monitored. When the majority of seed pods present brown or black seeds, the field is ready for harvest. Doesn’t our typically rainy Octobers make harvest difficult? Certainly, Dale replies: our climate has its special challenges for canola. Isn’t it easier to produce grain or seed in a drier, arid climate like Eastern Washington? It’s all our annual moisture, I’m surprised to learn, that makes Snohomish County ideal for the biennial plant.mellow yellow As earlier mentioned, our mild winters allow canola’s root system to grow and flourish. Not so in arid regions where single season crops are the rule. Dale tells me Eastern Washington canola yields average 1,500 pounds of seed an acre whereas in our County the yields per acre ranged from 2,500 to 3,000 pounds. What about marketing, I ask Dale. I learn the first seed crop was transported to Hermiston, Oregon, but most of that season’s crop went to waste: the seed hadn’t been properly cured (dried) and most of it sprouted. For the portion of the crop that was salvaged, Dale tells me he was paid thirteen cents per pound. The second crop sold for fourteen cents. Today’s going price for a pound of canola is double that: a whopping twenty-eight cents a pound. Reiner continues, explains how the County and the Canola Cooperative with the aid of grant monies, built a seed/grain drier on the old Cathcart landfill. Methane is collected from the fermenting site and used to fuel the drier which now serves the County growers. Curing the seed eliminates premature sprouting and preserves the crop.

For your information, that four acre splash of yellow will not be harvested. “Not cost effective,” Reiner says. “By the time you figure in the cost of harvesting—machinery, marketing expenses, fuel—I’d lose money on the deal. Now if more acreage were involved, it might be worth it.” Equally interesting is the fact the field of yellow is all volunteer; Dale did not sow a single seed of it. What a crop, that canola! Not only does it yield two crops in consecutive years, but it seeds itself as well!Closer inspection (Dale cites some figures: it only takes three pounds of seed to plant one acre. For a 2,500-3,000 pound yield, that’s a tremendous return on your capital.) Because of canola’s propensity for self-seeding, no canola crop is allowed north of a certain point in Snohomish County. Fears that it might hybridize with other Brassica seed crops in Skagit County restricts the crop to certain areas of our County.

Reiner shares that cropping canola has yet another advantage. Because of its long root system and profuse vegetation, a crop of canola plowed under can rejuvenate over-cropped farmland, replenish the nutriments in depleted soil. When I ask Dale what’s the future of canola for him, he says the five farm cooperative has learned a lot about the crop, and as he’s a firm believer in diversified cropping, canola continues to be among the crops in his inventory.                  

For a storyteller like Dale, it’s no surprise he has a canola story or two. He chuckles as he tells about trying to “shrink wrap” his first silage canola, put up the crop in those white plastic pasture muffins you often see in County hayfields. The crop was so full of moisture, the resulting bale was like a giant water balloon; when Dale tried to pick it up and transport it, the bale slipped off the forks like a waterbed mattress. “We only baled two,” Dale laughs, “and left the rest of it in the field to compost.” One sunny weekend day when the field was bursting with color, Dale drove down to tend to his cattle. He was surprised to see an entire Hispanic wedding party using his four acres of sunshine as a backdrop for their wedding pictures: a white wedding gown against a field of yellow! Canola…now there’s an original wedding flower for your future bride!

In gathering material for this post, I learned something else. While I was visiting Reiner’s field, taking pictures for my blog , I picked a blooming flower spike and took it with me. The flower buds and four-petal flowers seemed familiar and I wanted to do a floral comparison. My last summer’s crop of collard greens wintered over and is now in bloom. The buds, flower spikes, and blossoms are identical to the sprig of canola blossoms from the riverbank acreage. A little research tells me why. Collards are Brassicas, too, a near cousin to canola. Can you tell which is collard, which canola?Brassica blooms

Canola blossoms

(Canola on the right.)





The Skagit County may boast tulip fields but Tualco Valley has its own floral spectacle: canola…and just right up the road.

Dale said the yellow bloom is waning. The golden petals will sift down, leaving nothing but nondescript green stalks flush with pods. If you are planning a wedding and want your wedding album to spotlight you and your blushing bride silhouetted against a field of flowers so yellow it hurts your eyes, I wouldn’t wait till June; by then you might as well pose next to a cow pasture. Every day I drive by Reiner’s field, the yellow seems more pastel, more washed out, less and less a spectacle. If you wish a photo op, it fades away day by day, for as Robert Frost observed, “Nothing gold can stay.”visiting collards