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Monday, May 27, 2013

…In Praise of Old Men

Mr. B.'s rhodieWisdom comes with winters.

            Oscar Wilde

“ I find old men much more interesting than young men,” remarked Charles Kuralt, the docu-journalist when he was asked how he chose the subjects for his reports and commentaries.  At this time of year when we reflect on  those who have passed from our lives, Kuralt’s words resonate with me. On this Memorial Day I, in particular, am thankful for the old men who have touched my life and made me the richer for their wisdom and friendship.

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Lester Broughton kept a half dozen bee hives in his yard at the corner of Kelsey and Elizabeth Street and because he had bees, it was  inevitable our paths would cross. The spring of 1971 I lived in a townhouse apartment across the street. I would see Mr. Broughton tending his bees from time to time and it was all I could do to keep from crossing the street and asking if I could help. Out of respect for a man at work (perhaps I was a bit on the shy side those days), I would watch the old gentleman but not interfere in his business. It was a swarm of bees that finally connected us. One afternoon I saw the bees issue from one of his hives, become a spinning, swirling vortex of insects, and like a genie from a lamp slowly rise in a cloud. The ball of bees crossed the street, floated up and over the apartment. I rushed out the back and followed them to their new home, a hole in the siding of one of the neighboring houses. As one beekeeper to another, I was duty-bound to inform Mr. Broughton of the loss of his bees. And thus thanks to an errant swarm of bees our friendship began.

“Is the teacher here?” Mr. Broughton would ask my wife whenever  he came to call. In all the time I knew Mr. B, I can’t recall him addressing  me by any other name than “The Teacher.”And to this day, whether out of respect for an elder man’s  wisdom or a commonsense borne  of experience, I still refer to Lester as “Mr. Broughton.” (However, to spare the reader redundancy in this post, I’ll make an exception.)

Like most who weathered the Great Depression, Lester emerged thick-skinned, cynical, and where his wallet was concerned especially vigilant. Whether the Depression made him self-sufficient or he was simply “handy” by nature, Les was an accomplished cement man and roofer. His beehives sat on a cement slab intentionally sloped so the bees could light on a grass-free landing pad from which they could crawl quickly to their hive’s entrance.  Many of the original sidewalks in Monroe were testimony to his handiwork. The old cement bridge east of Baring on Highway 2 (since replaced) was another of Les’s cement projects. I watched seventy-six year old Mr. B help lay down a hot tar roof on the apartments across from ours, swabbing on the smoking tar in the hot sun alongside men more than half his age. He reroofed his own house, too…up and down the ladder carrying bundles of composition shingles. The Broughtons’ trim little house on Elizabeth Street to this day rests on a stonework foundation and full basement dug by Les himself with, incredible as it seems, the house perched above him as he removed the soil. The dwelling’s chimney and fireplace fashioned from river rock Les crafted as well.

Mr. Broughton was a wood worker (hand crafted  his own wooden bee ware), mechanic (and a good one; just ask “Eleanor,”Les’s little lady in black, his demure, gleaming Model A Ford he’d motor about town on special occasions), engineer, gardener (each spring he turned his entire vegetable garden by spade ), woodcutter, beekeeper…and still had time to befriend and mentor “The Teacher” in the apartment across the street.

For eight years I was fortunate to have Les in my life, and I think about him often, especially when I’m tending my bees. When I no longer lived on Mr. B’s street and moved to the country, Les allowed me the use of his honey shed and equipment to harvest my first honey crop from the Valley. And it was Mr. Broughton who helped this clueless soul with the construction of his own honey shed. He showed me how to align the shed foundation with our house. “You want their sides parallel,” Mr. B, the architect, explained. The shed was of prefab construction, and Mr. B saw to it the forms for the slab foundation were square and set exactly to dimension.

The cement man himself was on site the day of the pour. “I brought these,” Les said and produced what appeared to me to be four wooden boxes. When I called in the order, it was Mr. Broughton who told me how much “mud” to ask for. “You’ll have some left over,” he informed me. “We’ll have the remainder poured into these wooden forms and you’ll have yourself some pier blocks when you need ‘em.” Mr. B’s calculations were exact almost to the cupful; those pier blocks did come in handy when I built a grape arbor. Les set bolts in the wet cement for the wall plates. 

Whenever I walk on the floor of my shed, I think of Mr. Broughton. The surface, thanks to him, is mirror-smooth. Not a crack or a wave in the cement. “Here,” Les said as he handed me a surfacing trowel. “Now back and forth in a semi-circle arc.” Five minutes later after my floating attempts produced peaks and valleys…no floors, Mr. B said: “Here, let me have that!” I handed over the floating trowel and the shamefaced Teacher stood aside and watched as the master cement man finished the slab. Before he left, Les handed me a roll of tarpaper. “What do I do with this?” I wondered, my thoughts being it was just a bit too early to worry about the roof covering. “Be sure to have your builders layer this between the cement and the wooden wall plates,” he explained. “The moisture barrier will keep your walls from rotting from beneath.”

Anyone experiencing the Great Depression was bound to have a story or two about those days of struggle and Mr. Broughton was no exception. He remembered working in the ice plant on the old Diamond M Dairy site. “We wrapped our feet with gunny sacks,” he recalled, “…couldn’t afford to buy warm boots. “Les related a story about a strange job he had during Prohibition. His assignment was to drive a truck from point A to point B. He was given directions to where the truck was parked, walked to the vehicle, in which he found further instructions on where he was to drive and park the truck. Afoot again, he walked the long way home. “I never asked any questions,” Les remarked, “and once a week I’d find an envelope containing my pay in the mailbox.” When I asked Mr. B what cargo the truck contained, he told me he wasn’t sure, and not wanting to acquire TOO much information, never dared check. “I think I was delivering sugar,” he said, smiled and added “…or corn.”

My favorite Les Broughton story, one I never grew tired of hearing, also concerned the Depression years. To help with the grocery bill Mr. B tended a small flock of chickens which he kept in the backyard coop that later became his honey shed. “Someone was stealing my hens. In those days a chicken made a family a good meal.” The thief would come in the night, snatch a sleeping hen from its roost, and carry it off. “I rigged up an alarm from an old doorbell,” Les said,  “ran a wire from the coop to my bedroom. If anyone opened the door, the circuit would close and the bell would ring at my bedside….”

“One night I had just come back from the pool hall and was slipping off my trousers when the bell started ringing. I picked up my 30.06, quietly lifted the bedroom window, fired a round at the shed, and then crawled into bed. The next morning I went out to investigate. The bullet passed through the shed, narrowly missing the roosting hens.” Then Les would begin to chuckle. “I went around back and there scattered helter skelter across the railroad tracks were twenty-seven gunny sacks!”

Of the eight short years we were friends, I  took only a few photos of Lester Broughton. They were pictures of him at one of his favorite pastimes: messing with bees.Lester Broughton One fall Mr. Broughton and I spent a memorable afternoon on Barr Mountain searching for wild bees. Les brought along his homemade bee box, a contraption he  used to locate bee trees.the bee box

Pearly Everlasting, a fall nectar plant, was in season and there were honeybees foraging the blossoms on Barr Mountain. Les would pluck a bee from a flower, put it in a box with some honeycomb and sugar syrup, and close the lid. Immediately the bee would go to work on the honeycomb, gorging itself on the sugar water. When it was full, the bee flew to the glass window of the box and began buzzing for freedom. When Mr. B slid the lid open, the bee shot off. We  noted its “beeline” and moved the box several feet in that direction. lining the beesSoon the bee returned along with a few more hive mates. We repeated the procedure, each time moving the box further along the beeline. This was how we spent that warm September afternoon, watching the flight of the bees—a swarm of them by the time we had moved the box to the wall of the dense forest into which the bees disappeared. It was late in the day, and we decided to let the bees have their privacy, but that afternoon on Barr Mountain The Teacher learned how to  “box for bees.”boxing for bees

Whenever Mr. Broughton visited our home in the Valley, he would have one request: “Could I have a glass of well water?” he’d ask, which brings to mind another Mr. B anecdote. Once when I visited him on Elizabeth Street, I noticed a garden hose spewing water into the street gutter. “What’s going on there?” I asked my friend. Les replied, “The city charges me a monthly utility fee for water usage, whether I use that much or not.” His water meter showed less than the flat amount  for which he was billed monthly. “I paid for it, and I’m going to make sure I use it!” he fumed as the gutter gurgled away.

I can’t walk our place without seeing Mr. Broughton’s legacy, his gifts to me. There’s the huge rhododendron bush, given by Mr. B, at the front of the house (Les started the plant by the “brick method”; he nicked the cambium layer of  a branch, pressed it to the soil with a brick until it rooted). Our boxwood hedge separating lawn from garden…a half day’s work to trim each summer… all cuttings Les stared from his boxwood hedge in town. And there’s that smooth cement floor of my honey shed where I’ve extracted a few tons of honey since Mr. Broughton gave it his special finishing touches. The cedar bean poles I used for years Les split for me from a log on his Woods Creek property. He shared his wisdom (“I’m thinking about buying gold as an investment.” Mr. B.: “Gold doesn’t pay interest.”), his time, and his friendship. My daughter was born in 1979. On one of my last visits with Mr. Broughton the summer of that year--Les was bedridden then—he gave me five dollars. “This is for the little girl," he told me, “not for you.” At his word I took his gift and purchased her a savings bond.

There is a belief among beekeepers that when one of us passes, our bees fly away too. I’m not one to say such beliefs are nonsense. Mr. Broughton passed away, July, 1979. The day after his death Les’s wife Fern called to say one of his hives had swarmed. She had no idea where it went, what had happened to it. I did, though. I was certain of where it had gone and that it was in good hands…hands I had shaken in friendship…hands that had known hard labor…hands that loved and worked cement.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Them Again’ Us…

literate animalsI look up from my bowl of bran flakes and see a gray squirrel perched in a devil-may-care attitude on the rail of my raised asparagus bed. “Now what’s that rascal up to?” I wonder. Squirrels (Scurrilous scurrilous, in my opinion)…that gleam in their eye… mischief, that’s what it is,  mischief and up to no goodness, that’s the modus operandi of the squirrel. One thing I can tell you for sure, that ne’er-do-well astraddle the asparagus patch rail has more than hollandaise on its furry little brain.

I think of the history of warfare, the longevity of some of the great historical conflicts: the Hundred Years’ War waged in the fourteenth century between the Kingdoms of England and France, a dispute over the French throne (actually a 116 year war); the Wars of the Roses spawned by the Hundred Years’ War, a tiff between the Houses of York and Lancaster over the English throne; and the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century, a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. And then there’s the Thirty-Eight Years’ War right here in the Valley, a conflict that has this gardener at odds with a goodly number of enemies…a war that shows no signs of letting up. A ceasefire appears out of the question, and while I can count on the old familiar foes, as the war drags on, it seems my list of enemies grows.

My garden is the battlefield. As soon as the first seed sprouts, the first berry or fruit blossom unfolds, the yearly battle is joined. Sometimes I think I’m at war with a good portion of the hierarchy of the animal kingdom. Of course there’s botany involved, too, but weeds are more a bother than anything, a constant easily dealt with. Animals and insects, on the other hand, roam the garden at will, strike without warning, most often under the cover of darkness. It’s guerilla warfare of sorts, and every crop in the garden is subject to merciless attack by vertebrates and invertebrates alike. Let me list a few of the four-legged intruders I’ve battled during my thirty-eight years of warfare:

Deer—Fortunately we’ve been spared these sloe-eyed varmints foraging in the garden, but last year I saw the tell-tale pointy hoof prints in the tilled ground. Now the master gardener Cisco Morris refers to a deer as a “two hundred pound slug,” and when I saw the tracks, I looked for plant destruction. At first it looked like the critter was just passing through. I traced the prints across the entire garden. The deer had daintily stepped over a row of lettuce and leaped the hedge, heading east and away. Later I discovered two or three new sprouts had been nipped from my newly planted black raspberries. The young cherry and gravenstein trees lost new shoots, as well.

Dogs—For some reason they love the loose earth of the garden and don’t tread as lightly as did that deer. Valley dogs tend to be large and a loping canine can easily churn up a section of garden row.

Cats—Plenty of these in the Valley, especially with the barn cats at the horse barn next door. The garden becomes one big litter box for them…and in their hygienic manner of “covering” their business they can root out many a tender shoot. The sweet and garden peas, the first crops I plant, have experienced considerable cat “thinning” over the years. cat-astropheThis I have discouraged by twining the rows as soon as the seed was planted and covered. Not wanting to hogtie themselves while seeking relief, the prowling felines avoid the taut twine, step over it and move on to open space yet to be planted.


Rabbits—The nursery stock next door and the woodshed out back provide cover for these little nippers. I’ve had to place empty bee boxes around my carrots and lettuce to protect the crops from these little mowing machines.

Raccoons—Shucks! That’s what a pair of them did to my corn patch a few years back. A pair of the varmints pulled down a half dozen stalks, shucked the ears and had a corn feast two nights running. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for the masked bandits, the state highway out in front solved my ‘coon problem.

Moles—&*$%!! The enemy below, I call them…and I could write (and will) a post or two about these subterranean demons. While they don’t eat the crops, they burrow beneath them or push them out of the ground. furry devilTheir tunneling allows the roots to dry out and no amount of irrigation can save the plants then. I planted garlic in a raised bed one season. The moles built a network of tunnels in the moist soil and the garlic shriveled. For two seasons in a row a mole tunneled beneath my cucumber row. My pickles came from Freddies’ those two years.

Livestock—Yes, believe it or not  one year we had an escaped horse make a dust bowl in our squash and pumpkin patch. Cows, too, three of them. A bull in a china closet? A cow in the vegetable garden? In either case, you’re going to sustain considerable damage.

As it has been and now stands, my garden is  “free range” and critters can come and go at will. I suppose I could fence the plot which would discourage somewhat the incursions of the hordes, but as the fence would have to be weeded and maintained, I’ve staunchly refused to fence in my vegetables. Besides, a fence is no defense against assault by air.

Birds. I have no one to fault for the avian intrusion on my crops than myself, but speaking about pecking the hand that feeds you, bird damage is the thanks you get for your thoughtfulness. Our winter bird feeder and suet blocks attract a host of birds. When the feeder is shelved for the summer, the birds transition to the garden for its bounty. Sparrows forage in the blueberry bushes, pluck the blossoms, pecking the berry buds in the process. As soon as the blueberries leaf out, robins move into their shade, waiting  to gash a berry at the first hint of color. I’ve since learned to remove all feeders from the place at least a month in advance of the berry bloom. Bird pluckedLast spring I had to tent my pea sprouts (we used leftover tule from my daughter’s wedding) because the LBBs (little brown birds) found it hard to resist the tender pea sprouts. Just the other day I noticed a few bean sprouts plucked and shrunken around the bean poles…no thanks to my little feathered friends. (Years ago after I spread some dairy cow by-product on the garden, a small flock of pigeons descended on the plot searching for kernels of undigested corn. As soon as the last kernel was gone, the pigeons moved on to my pea sprouts.)Blasted birds

One year I made the mistake of feeding “squirrel” corn from the cob to the jays. When the last cob was pecked clean, not only did they make a cribbage board out of my corn patch when the young sprouts surfaced, but they planted the field corn all over the place: along the fence lines, in the flower beds, flower pots, and the asparagus bed. (One thing I’ve learned about about jays: they’re good planters of corn, but they couldn’t plant a straight row if their lives depended on it.) And then there’s the big walnut tree out back. I waited for years for that tree to yield a crop. Finally the fall came when the tree produced two or three dozen walnuts. I wish I could tell you how wonderful they tasted, but no…you’ll have to ask the flock of crows that descended on the tree and made off with the entire crop in a matter of minutes. The garden’s strangest bird encounter, however, was back in the day Carolyn Peters had her animal farm on what is now Beebes’ Corner. I looked out at my blueberry row one morning and saw three hulking shapes lurking dangerously close to the fruit-laden bushes. Peacocks…, well, one cock and two peahens. I ran them off only to find them an hour later in the open garage along with the mess they’d made.

And then there are the bugs: the cabbage row in August is a blizzard of cabbage whites; aphids infest the sweet peas every single year, making the bouquets alive with more than color; leaf miners carve intricate designs in the beet greens; wire worms riddle the carrots and radishes (and turnips? You can see daylight through their roots when you hold them to the light).

And so the war rages on. During the recent Federal budget debates, the “sequester” and all, the word “entitlements” is bandied about between Washington and the press. I guess it’s this entitlements thing that’s so frustrating about my garden enemies: the cost and labor is mine; they think they’re entitled to the rewards and they don’t lift a wing, beak, paw or hoof to assist with any of it.

By way of analogy, let me share a story that aptly sums up my exasperation with gardening and my hard fought efforts to wrest a salad from the spoils of war. I’m a big fan of eggplant. Not only is the eggplant a beautiful vegetable, a sensual globe with a dark purple sheen as if it’s been Simonized, but it’s actually edible, you know, and can be fried, casseroled, or parmesaned. Eggplant is not easy to grow here in the Valley…not enough heat…too short a growing season. I’ve had success growing it in whisky barrel containers on the hot, summery south side of the house, but my first experience with  eggplant was in a row of  six or eight in the garden proper, if I recall, .

As the summer progressed, a few purple, yellow-centered flowers appeared among the  plants’ velvety leaves.  To my dismay the flowers aborted, dropped off, one by one; however, one blossom  finally set,  became a plump, purple node that slowly swelled as the days went by. Not a day passed I didn’t check that one lone fruit. Oh, the emotional energy I invested in the small, pendulous globe.

August, and the eggplant had grown to a length of five or six inches. Then it abruptly stopped growing, just hung there in its immature purple glory. “Just not enough heat,” I worried, “too short a summer.” I gave it one more week, but it was no go—or should I say, no grow. Regardless of its size, I vowed to pick the solitary fruit, bring it to table, so at the end of the month, clippers in hand, bent on harvest, I headed for the only plant to bear fruit. I reached in under the leaves to locate the stem, shifted the eggplant to one side to give the clippers better access. As I lifted the fruit, its heft seemed strangely light to me. When I twisted the lobe halfway round to examine it, my hopes for a slice of fried eggplant drizzled with tabasco sauce were shattered. The eggplant was just a shell of glossy skin; the insides were gone, the flesh eaten neatly away as with a scoop… my summer hopes and dreams slimed into oblivion by SLUGS!

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Gladys and I were riding the lower Loop Road the other day and as we churned past Jeff Miller’s (aka “Willie Green’s”) vegetable field south of the bridge, I noticed a sign and was startled by its revelation. “All those years of garden warfare,” I reflected, “when a sign was all I needed!  A sign,” I marveled, “ A simple sign. Can you imagine that!”Good luck with this

(That squirrel, by the way? He had excavated a walnut from the minefield he planted in the asparagus patch last fall, breaking off  pair of newly sprouted spears in the process. A sign…I have to get a sign!)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bringing Home the Bees…

The Beez Neez“The thing I like most about beekeepers is they’re such interesting people,”remarked  Jim Tunnell, proprietor of The Beez Neez Apiary Supply in Snohomish. That’s one of the reasons I’m here at Jim’s store helping to distribute 480 packages of Italian honeybees. Jim’s right about beekeepers: in their interesting lives they are gardeners, orchardists, tenders of poultry and ducks, sheep, goats, so I guess it’s not unusual they have added beekeeping to their other interests.

This mid-April ritual is one I’m always excited about…the chance to meet other beekeepers and the “newbies” who have answered the calling. With the former it’s the opportunity, especially in these challenging times for us keepers of bees, to mourn our winter losses-- brothers and sisters in bereavement (I lost four of my five colonies this year)-- support each other, scratch our heads and lament the deceased. With the newcomers to the avocation, it’s a chance for you to showboat a bit, share your beekeeping knowledge with them, demonstrate how to install their packages of bees, encourage and wish them the best, for it’s just folks like these who will sustain the industry, help “save the bees.” They have taken classes, read Beekeeping for Dummies, purchased the equipment (hopefully not having to take out second mortgages), are ready to put all that theory into practice. They quiver with excitement when you present their packages. (But they’re only too happy to let you handle the cages, carry their new bees to their cars.)480 packages

In my nearly five decades of beekeeping, the wonder a clustering “swarm”of bees creates never wanes. These packages? Each is a swarm in a box, between 10,000 to 12,000 bees, plus one: the newly crowned queen. Being in the presence of 480 packages—some quarter million bees—is awe inspiring. People passing by on the street slow to stare. Others afoot approach to get an up close and personal with this multitude of bees, even pose themselves in front of the stacks of cages for a photo op. In the fifty years I’ve kept bees,  I learn something new about the enigmatic honeybee each bee season. Last summer I had a colony that issued a swarm twice—the same swarm, I’m certain (A Swarm in July, 7/14/’12). Past experience taught me a swarm, once it has settled, stays put overnight at least. Not, so I discovered last year. Both swarms settled in our walnut tree, the second within five feet of the first. The first swarm, I’m certain, returned to the hive the evening it issued. The second took wing a brief four hours after it had settled and departed for parts unknown…a new experience for this seasoned beekeeper. Apis mellifera, the domesticated honeybee, is just a mere wing beat away from being a feral creature, a wild thing.

I always come away with some new knowledge when I hand out the bees…those interesting people, you know. Not all knowhow, however, has to do with bees because those interesting beekeepers are a font of interesting facts. I carried two packages to the trunk of one patron. He covered his packages with some gossamer cloth. I asked him if the material was “row cover,” cloth, a protective fabric that serves as a barrier against ravaging insect pests. I was told “yes,” which led me to pose the question about radishes and the plague of worms. That’s when I was informed about “companion planting,” a way of seeding a desired crop along with other plants that discourage pests. “If you mix your radish seeds with cilantro and dill,” I learned, “the radish fly will take his business elsewhere.” (Plan to do so; nothing ventured…). One fellow had six bags of chemical fertilizer in the back of his truck. “Those aren’t bomb making materials you have there?” I joked. “No, I think that’s ammonium nitrate you’re thinking of,” he replied, pointing out the calcium nitrate on the bags. “I’m putting the grandkids to work fertilizing the apple orchard.” As I loaded two packages in the back of a Subaru, I noticed two large bales of seedling potting soil. “I see you’ve been to Steubers, haven’t you?” This lady beekeeper worked with a Seattle volunteer group who supplied urban gardeners with plant starts for their pea patches and backyard gardens. I tell her I need to visit Steuber’s myself for some label stakes. “Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that,” she exclaimed as she shut the hatchback. “Back to Steuber’s, I guess.”

I set aside two nice packages for a quiet-mannered gentleman who afterwards just hung around on the fringes of the action. He was a man of many questions, and when one of us answered a query, he would appear to be satisfied and fade into the background again. Just when you thought you’d seen the last of him, there he’d be at your elbow with another question. He seemed to want answers on how to manage his colonies during the winter: how much surplus honey to leave for stores; how was the best way to shelter his hives from the winter elements; how to provide the best ventilation when snow covered the hive entrances. As it turned out, the fellow lived at Stehekin, the head of Lake Chelan. When I learned this, it was my turn to ask questions. “Tarpaper,” he told me…”I wrap my hives in tarpaper to insulate against the cold and wind.” I discovered he winters his bees with a full super of honey, an amount that would be an excess here in our Pacific Northwest maritime climate. “How many colonies do you have?” I wanted to know. Five, he told me. “How many survived the winter?” I asked tentatively. “Five.” If my jawed dropped, the Stehekinite was courteous enough to disregard it. My thoughts: “And I had an eighty percent mortality rate with my five colonies this winter.” I thought about Stehekin—52 miles of inland fjord: that’s a lot of water to put between the industrious honeybee and the destructive varroa mite, the bees’ anathema here in the Valley. I looked at this reserved fellow and gave him the best advice I could muster: “Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it! I wouldn’t change a thing!” He smiled and then requested I dislodge the two or three hitchhikers on the OUTSIDE of the cages. “I don’t want passengers jumping overboard on the way uplake,” he laughs as he loads his two packages in his station wagon, and with a smile and a wave—and no more questions--off he drove.three pounds of bees

This old dog  learned two more things that day: one practical, the other…well, should I say gourmet? A regular came into the shop toting a plastic tote. For some strange reason the box prompted the appearance of paper plates and forks. Not unusual, I thought…it’s lunchtime. I’m hoping for barbecue—some oven fresh pastry or baked bread, perhaps--but when this business-like fellow popped the plastic lid, I saw the bottom of the tote was filled with brood comb, all of it drone, larger cells filled and capped with plump male honeybee larvae. larval delightPractical application? This hunk of larvae-filled comb, I learned, was the byproduct of just one management technique a beekeeper can use with his colonies to control the number of varroa mites, the previously mentioned nasty little arachnids that parasitize the honeybee. Knowledge of mite and honeybee behavior work in a beekeeper’s favor in helping reduce dangerous infestations of mites. Studies show that Varroa destructor, the varroa mite, prefers drone brood comb because the drone’s longer incubation period allows the female mites two additional egg laying cycles. By using shallower, removable frames in his colonies, the beekeeper can encourage the bees to build drone comb and attract the mites. This comb can then be scraped away and discarded, destroying the mites in the process. The drone comb in the tote was the discarded mite-infested comb.

And now it’s time for a taste test.come and get 'em Friends have urged Jim, an interesting fellow in his own right, to taste a drone or two. He tells me about a book that’s been written on the subject of edible bugs. “There’s one recipe in there,” he chuckles, “called ‘Three Bee Salad.’” Using a cappings scratcher, Jim breaks off a promising chunk of juicy larvae and plops it on a paper plate. Next he pries through the encased larvae looking for the presence of mites (no extra mite protein for Jim if he can help it!). Mites are indeed present in the sample. (Note  the dark dot at the seven o’clock position in the photo below.)picking at your lunch

Now the moment of truth. Jim spears a plump larva morsel, brings it to his mouth, and chews tentatively. “You know,” he nods and comments, “given the larval bee’s honey-rich diet, I thought it would be sweeter than that.” take your pickI’m not one to be outdone when it comes to sampling exotic fare (when I was a kid, I once downed a couple of live grasshoppers; I had read ‘hoppers were a staple in the diets of Native Americans…). I select and separate a couple big-eyed morsels from their dwelling and, one at a time, place them in my mouth, chew thoughtfully. The texture is creamy, chalky, like eating plain yogurt blended with strings of fiber. The taste? I can’t quite pin it down. The Ripple, as you know, strives to bring the best investigative reporting to its pages, and to sustain that high level of journalism, I take a second bite, roll the pulp around on my tongue, subject it to all my taste buds, search my gustatory memory for some analogous food. Nothing registers. Jim says a friend of his, a fan of bee larvae, told him they taste like creamed corn. I, for one, have never eaten creamed corn that tasted like what I forked into my mouth. taste test

So I learn a second thing: what it’s like to eat honeybee larva. What does bee larvae taste like? I can’t tell you. One thing’s for sure…it doesn’t taste like chicken.

At the end of the day I bring two packages of bees back to Death Valley,for that seems to be their fate here the past several years. They will do well this summer; they always do. It’s Valley winters that are deadly to my bees. You know, I'm considering booking fall passage for them to Stehekin on the boat. Of course, I’ll pay the extra freight for a roll of tarpaper.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Climate Change and Tradition…

ring and runA new year, but the same sad, old story. May Day and the traditional May basket brims with spring color, none of which, however, came from the backyard or Valley flowers. I have no idea where they came from—you would have to ask the local florist. The May basket is homemade (our household’s seasonal “celebratory” basket ) and should be filled with local, homegrown flowers. Years ago, if memory serves, I used to fill a May basket from the yard landscape. One such basket I remember arranging (in a style I’d term amateurish at best and clumsy at worst) trailed bleeding hearts, pink iridescent azaleas, bell-like Solomon’s tears, a dark, red rhody floret, and white and lavender lilacs, all floral bounty from our yard. These I intermingled with delicate ferns (whose pale green fronds shriveled in a half hour). If I were to use those resources this May Day, my May basket would be all buds, stems, and leaves…plenty of monochrome color. (Well, everything is green this time of year, isn’t it?) Rhodies are still swollen buds; lilacs, just beginning to unfold; Solomon’s tears are just starting to well; azaleas are at the pink bud stage; daffodils and crocus are bloomed out; the ferns…I learned my lesson with them.

On Monday, April 29, we returned from eastern Washington over Stevens Pass and drove through a series of whiteout snow squalls before we dropped below snow level. Traction tires were recommended over Snoqualmie Pass, which was periodically closed due to hazardous driving conditions. The mountain passes have a history of spring snowfalls, I know, but April 29? That’s a month and a half into spring!

Whether or not you can fill a May basket on May Day is hardly scientific evidence the climate is changing. Foraging one’s landscape for blossoms and not finding them doesn’t point to fluorocarbons perforating the ozone layer. An empty May basket isn’t proof the polar ice caps are melting and the seas rising.just dandy  But something has shifted; spring has somehow been deferred the past few years and the blossoms hold back on May Day. Yet again it’s a visit to the florist’s this year. I could fill a May basket with dandelions, I suppose; there are plenty of them in bloom. Their sunny little faces are cheery enough, but stuffing a basket full of weeds and leaving it on the doorstep seems more like a prank than an act of endearment.The May...brought inside