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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Three in the Hive is Worth One in the Bush…Or Who Am I Kidding?…

swarm cellsShortly after noon yesterday I was agonizing over an ongoing carpentry project out back when I heard that all too familiar crescendo of sound, the drone of insects, honeybees, thousands of them taking flight. As they fled, the bees were easy to see, back dropped as they were against the dark foliage of the walnut tree, each insect a glint of silver as the sun caught its wings.

I have seen countless swarms of bees in flight but the sight of a  horde of honeybees lifting into the air, a reverse vortex of sorts, a “bee”nado, impresses me still.

I have come by three new colonies this season: “freebees,” I call them. Two I hived myself'. The third flew in from somewhere and hived itself in a catcher hive. Of those three swarms one may have come from one of my two strong colonies, but I doubt it; I noticed no significant drop in population in either colony and flight to and from the entrances did not seem reduced. No question, however, about yesterday’s swarm; it  issued from a hive I’d nursed all winter by feeding sugar boards (two-three pounds of granulated sugar piled around the vent hole on an inner hive cover…seven sugar boards, to be exact).

A week ago I removed a super of maple honey from that hive and while the smoker was still fuming, checked the brood chambers for eggs, larvae, and capped brood. What I found on the bottom bars of the second box, dangling there like small thumbs, were a dozen or so swarm cells. At that point I made a snap decision: not to cut out the cells and discard them but leave them alone to twiddle away. My decision? I was planning on requeening that colony later this season. Allowing the hive to requeen itself saved me the $33.00 expense of  a new queen. The bees, in their infinite, instinctive wisdom would choose the most promising queen cell for their successor, and I would have a young, vigorous queen at work for this season and at no cost. The hive would first have to swarm. Then most likely it would settle in my walnut tree or cluster in another tree nearby… easy to recover, easy to hive. Seemed, at the time, a good plan….

The humming cloud hovered in place as more and more workers issued from the hive, taking flight, joining the air show. Soon the sky was alive with bees, a mass of insects aimlessly treading forty feet of airspace. Yes, aimlessly. Until the queen and her locator pheromone started the whole ball rolling.  Then almost imperceptibly the swarm began to shift position. Whoa! Wait a minute now. North?   No, not north…north, toward the property line?  What are you thinking? “Oh, no,” I thought, “they’ve filed their own flight plan.”

Bee lore has it that swarming bees can be coaxed to settle if someone (the beekeeper?) clanged and banged pots and pans together, a method this beekeeper has yet to practice. Too late to experiment now,  however, run to the kitchen, scoop up cookware, as by this time the swarm had already cleared the hedge bordering the property and like an alien horde hovered in whirling stasis over the neighbor’s roof.

When the queen alights, her court clusters around her immediately. In less than a minute the observer knows where the swarm will gather. Five minutes later the swarm has formed and clings to that spot, held there by their queen magnet. Now what once were my bees clung to a branch of an evergreen tree just off the neighbor’s deck—twenty-five or thirty feet off the ground, so high up, I couldn’t photograph them for this post. Definitely in the “no climb” zone for this beekeeper.

This morning I took my pair of binoculars, stepped through the hedge into the neighbor’s driveway (Unfortunate timing on my part. Just as I was lifting the binoculars, the neighbor’s daughter stepped out on her way to work, prompting an extemporaneous explanation as to why I was so close to their front room windows carrying a pair of binoculars). The bees still hung on high, clustered tightly together for warmth after overnighting out of doors. “A swarm in May is worth a ton of hay,” and as the bag of bees swung back and forth through the lenses, I felt a keen sense of loss--as if all the mechanics and engineers from Boeing had walked off the job at once without notice. No workers, no product, no profit.

A cool day today, and this afternoon I wandered back across the neighbor’s driveway expecting to see the swarm still huddled on the branch, but it was nowhere to be seen; only a half dozen laggards hovered about the abandoned branch, misled by their mistress’s lingering perfume.  Bees, I know from experience, are just a flight away from being feral; wild creatures have their own mysterious ways of doing things, and honeybees are no exception. You don’t own them; you only tend them for as long as they allow.

Thinking the swarm might have shifted position, moved closer to the trunk,  thus harder to see, I went for the binoculars again to make certain they had fled. Sure enough they were gone, leaving a new queen behind, and me with a memory and a reminder of a plan gone awry, of all the sweetness that might have been….

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Protocol of Ball Caps…

Go to meetin' capThe other day I visited Rosario’s Flower Stand (aka Kurt’s Vegetable Stand--to us Valley long timers) to see Jesus about a minor bit of business. Jesus, an amiable, well-mannered young man with a hint of mischief in his smile, was wearing a baseball cap sporting the distinctive Old English “D,” logo of the Detroit Tigers baseball franchise. My business concluded, we shared gardening information for a while and then I headed home.

Later in the day I got to thinking about Jesus’s Detroit Tigers baseball cap, wondered if he had any idea of the rich history he had perched on his head, if he knew about Tyrus Raymond Cobb, “The Georgia Peach” who played for the Tigers for twenty-seven years and tallied the highest lifetime batting average in the history of the sport: .367. According to The Baseball Encyclopedia Cobb hit over .400 in two consecutive years: .420 in 1911 and .410 the following year. A “peach” of a player in Old School baseball, Ty was rumored to take his bats to Georgia in the post season so they’d stay warm all winter. Competitive to the point of aggression, Cobb was notorious for sliding feet first into second base, spikes flailing like a vegematic, targeting not so much the base as the opposing second baseman’s thighs. No, I’m certain Jesus knows little about his ball cap’s legacy.

Kerplop.” I heard the noise from my desk where I was doing some computer work. I followed the sound and there on the deck was my ball cap. In disgraceThe sound blended into an echo: “That thing stays outdoors.” My wife again, at odds with my ball cap. There it lay, banned, tabooed, excommunicated, exiled to the out of doors…the world of fresh air. The cap police on the march again. Makes no difference  in which room the cap happens to be, she’ll sniff it out, track it down, gingerly scoop it up and “Kerplop.” there goes my headgear out the door, spinning across the deck. A ripe ball cap has nowhere to hide in this household.

I was jinxed with a thinning hair gene. Two of my brothers are likewise jinxed, their legacy, as mine, from Dad’s side of the family. To cover our shortcomings, we’re always ball capped. Brother Kevin, however, won the hair lottery: his head is coiffed like a pale gray shag carpet, courtesy of his maternal grandfather. Kevin also sports a ball cap but only to let his unruly hair know who’s boss.

Wearing a ball cap became a routine cover up for the barren landscape of my scalp, (I admit to suffering from a mild form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from seeing Bill, my long time school bus driver, hatless for the first time and exposing a noggin that gleamed like it was simonized). My ball cap is just an extension of myself; I never leave the house uncovered; my cap protects me from the sun, from the rain, from self-consciousness.

One’s ball cap does not become the sacred object it is overnight but like a sturdy pair of boots must be broken in over time. A good ball cap must conform to one’s unique phrenological blueprint, its brim sculpted into a semi-arc, not flat-lined like the mouth of a stick figure drawn by a preschooler. A serviceable ball cap, when you think about it, undergoes an evolution of its own. In its primeWhen it’s new, the ball cap is your “Sunday Go to Meeting” hat, what you wear in public, if not tasteful, at least not conspicuously disheveled. More and more it becomes the headgear you wear as you’re working around the place…in the garden, splitting and stacking firewood, mowing and trimming the landscape… soaking up the sweat of your brow, acquiring what I like to call “the bouquet of labor.” Into the wash the cap goes a few times, staving off  for a time that inevitable unceremonious fling to the deck. Between launderings your cap and you become as one, a Zen-like relationship; your cap has you comfortably covered, is an extension of  your head.

Time passes and just short of looking like it’s a nest for rodents, your faithful cap comes to the end of a most serviceable life, destined for the trash can; however, what it really deserves is one final act of deep respect: a solemn burning like a tattered American flag, at attention, hand over heart.indoors restraining order

Back to Jesus’s ball cap. In post season play the boys of fall religiously wear their regular season game caps, their “gamers,” caps that have faithfully brought them this far…to the Championship Series, the World Series, perhaps. You can see, riding their crowns, the ragged tidelines of salt, sweat stained rings wrought of hard work, dedication, day-to-day perseverance, extra inning games, doubleheaders…. Do the managers of these hardworking young men take a whiff in the locker room, snatch up any offending caps and fling them from the clubhouse to the playing field? Most certainly not. Superstition forbids it. caps in the quequeBut then the person wearing my sweat stained, aromatic cap, symbol of a long day’s honest, hard work hasn’t signed a multi-million dollar contract to hit, throw, and catch a baseball either, has he? 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Diabrotica undecimpunctata

W. spotted cucumber beetleSay that three times really fast, will you? Can you? A long time ago I read in one of those “Believe It or Not” books that if one were to put all the Earth’s vertebrates in one pan of a scale and then all the world’s insects in the other, the scales would tip in the insects’ favor.

Yes, this gardener knows there are a lot of bugs out there and a good many of them are on the march to my garden. Just the other day I noticed shrinking foliage on my prize gooseberry bush, several bare branches with stems minus their leaves and fruit. Immature berries nipped from their stems lay beneath the bush. I bent close to investigate and thought I heard the faint sound of insect mastication. Probably my imagination, but what I did find was a host of green caterpillars, camouflaged, going about their guerilla warfare, at one with the color of the vegetation they were feeding upon…consuming their cover, you might say. The currant leaf worm (larva of the sawfly) attack my gooseberries a couple of times per summer but never this early in the season. My large gooseberry bush was crawling with the fat, green grubs, reminding me of a movie line I heard years ago, a film in which an entire Zulu nation was about to attack a group of  white explorers: “They are many, like leaves on a tree,” one of the scouts reported. I tried picking the worms off and giving each a hearty squeeze between thumb and forefinger but soon gave up. (One website I visited suggested plucking off the grubs and dropping them into soapy water. Sorry, I have neither time nor inclination to give my garden bugs a bath.)currant leaf worms But at dusk last evening, rain in the forecast, I went to the bush and bathe them I did with some no nonsense, foul smelling stuff ending in  the suffix “thion.” This morning the ground beneath the bush was dotted with the deceased. Won that battle….

But it’s the midsummer war I’m fearing, another incursion of a horde of Diabrotica undecimpunctata, the Western Spotted Cucumber beetle. (Another mouthful I dare you to say three times fast.) Tualco Valley has been invaded by these beetle buggers, causing, for starters, crop losses at Willie Green’s Organic Farm and damaging Frohnings’ silage corn. I first noticed the pest in our 2013 garden. In early fall I observed some on our dahlias,  a variety I had paid seven dollars for and nursed along for two years. The dahlia, a light lavender color (reputedly the closest to “blue” of any dahlia variety), no sooner opened its first bud than two or three of these little varmints set to work perforating the petals of the delicate blossom before the blue had a chance to color up.

Last year in late August the beetle moved in and stayed until the first frost. The bugs proceeded to wreak havoc on the garden, preferring the pole beans; they chewed notches in the pods and chewed the leaves into doilies. I had tried the Three Sisters combination: squash, beans and corn, using the latter as poles for the beans. The beetles pounced on the bean vines, ravishing them, and then turned to the leaves of corn, which they soon filigreed. The dahlias came next, then the zinnias. I counted as many as a half dozen beetles on one dahlia blossom. They feasted on the tender petals; the result: each flower looked like it had been peppered by birdshot. I was helpless against them, couldn’t spray because my bees were foraging the dahlias for pollen. We were unable to salvage a single bouquet from the entire patch. Evenings when the sun was low, the air was filled with the glint of hundreds of  wings, bugs moving at will from beans to dahlias to zinnias.

A while back Matt Frohning and I commiserated on this beetle onslaught. According to Matt, cucumber beetle larvae feed on the corn roots; as adults, the bugs feed on the corn plant itself. The Frohnings and other Valley farmers have had to spray their fields with some sort of pesticide (organic, I’ve been told) to combat this voracious crop consumer.  I wish them luck and need  more than a little of my own as the garden season approaches. If they win the beetle war, perhaps I’ll be a victor by proxy here in our garden.

I know they are out there again, poised, mustering their legions. On my Valley walks I’ve seen them already on warm days as early as February, flitting back and forth across Tualco Road, hungrily questing for the first dandelions. beetle pest

Strange thing about the cucumber beetle, though…I have yet to see a single one gnawing on my cucumber vines. A bug, however, by any other name can still be a pest.