The history of bees

A man at the 2008 NC BugFest wearing a bee \"hoodie\"This weekend, Maggie and I went to a beekeeping workshop at the NC Museum of Natural History as part of BugFest 2008. The theme this year was bees, wasps, and hornets–with an emphasis on bees, since they’re the most sympathetic. It was fun to see a guy with a bee “hoodie” (like a bee beard, but placed differently) and the kids pushing around a giant ball (as dung beetles), but the crowds were overwhelming. Luckily, the workshop was in a private classroom so the only distraction was the small hive in the corner buzzing away.

Even though the class was less than two hours long, we really learned a lot. The instructor took a very organic approach to beekeeping, recommending that we avoid chemicals and pre-made foundations. His favorite solution to get rid of mites, apart from prevention, was powdered sugar! You dust the bees with it and it not only makes it harder for the mites to hang on but it also activates the bees’ grooming behavior (and who can blame them)!

Historically, he talked a bit about the three stages of bee cultivation or, as he put them, bee killing, bee having, and bee keeping. The first stage required finding a wild bee hive, killing all the bees, and taking their wax and honey. During the bee having stage, people would build upside-down baskets for the bees to inhabit. When a basket was full, they’d kill the bees in that basket and take the wax. They didn’t get much honey this way, so honey was rare, but the bees from other baskets would move into the empty one and soon fill it again so it was an improvement.

Then, in the late 1800s, L L Langstroth discovered that bees would create hives in rows if the space between layers was exactly 3/8″. If it were less, they’d seal it up and if it were more, they’d build a bridge between the layers. With this knowledge, he created the Langstroth hive, where bees build their layers in wooden frames that can be easily removed without harming the rest of the hive.

The class instructor favored a modified version of a Langstroth hive called a top-bar hive. It’s basically the same except that instead of a full frame, you just put in wooden slats on the top of the hive. The bees then build down from those however they like, leaving you with triangular comb (with a point facing down).

I also learned that Langstroth hives, and the introduction of beekeeping rather than bee having) revolutionized the agriculture industry. Most of the vegetables and fruits we eat today wouldn’t grow properly in the US without the active pollination of honey bees. Cultivating bees allowed farmers to grow more crops in the same space.

Our next step is to talk to some beekeepers in Indiana and see what’s different. I figure that it’d cost about $500 to get started if we purchase everything, but we might be able to knock that figure down by doing more of the prep work ourselves. Either way, we’ll have to decide if it’s something we want to spend money on, because now is the time of year to start setting things up. We were told that if we order now, we might get a queen and her colony in time for spring.

No comment »

A purposeful cycle

A pregnant sheep from the Corrys\' farmToday was a beautiful day. Mandy Corry invited us to visit her family farm and see her new lambs and we jumped at the opportunity. The lambs were very cute, especially the two premies, who were barely as tall as the grass they were in and had to keep bounding around to find their mom.

The sheep were great, but my favorite part of visiting the Corrys’ farm is seeing how well they use the space. In the same pen as the sheep was a llama used to discourage predators. Behind the sheep are the chickens, with their own llama to drive away hawks and owls. The sheep eat the grass down enough that the chickens, who don’t like tall grass, can forage happily. Next to the main chicken corral, both for meat and eggs, we saw the chicks that Mandy and her husband Matt had put out just this afternoon. If I’d though the premie lambs had difficulty with the tall grass, the chicks were absolutely swamped! Still, they’re bravely clearing away a little of the grass jungle around them. You can see where the chickens have been because that’s where the grass is greenest (by a lot!). The chickens eat pests and fertilize the land, leaving it even better than they found it. In a more permanent area is the sow, along with some chickens for company. There are also two steer and the boar in a pasture toward the front of the property. Mandy is also working on a patch of garden, but it’s early yet for that.

For those keeping track, that’s sheep, pigs, chickens, heritage chickens, cattle, grass (for hay) and eventually more tomatoes than they will ever be able to eat. It’s on a lot of land, so it’s not something Maggie and I could do, even if we wanted to. The good thing is that we don’t want to. The Corrys have a great farm and I love visiting, but that’s not the life I’d like to lead.

On the way back home from visiting the farm (it’s only about ten minutes from our place), I realized what attracts me to the concept when I don’t actually want to do it. The Corrys have a full-fledged system. It’s not perfect and they’re tweaking it all the time, but everything they do is purposefully cyclical. They don’t need fertilizer because they have chickens. They don’t have to mow (as much, anyway) because they have the sheep. They don’t need more hogs because the chickens keep their sow company.

They’ve expanded a lot even in the short time that I’ve known them, but they still approach things as a balancing act. Mandy was telling us that they were given the opportunity to rent 40 acres. They could have used it, but that would have unbalanced their work. Too many sheep, not enough of everything else. Eventually, maybe, they’ll be ready for that space but for now, that’s not what they need.

It reminds me of Michael Pollan’s work where he talks about how bad it is to buy foods that are “fat free” or “sugar free.” When companies focus on removing fat or sugar, they dump in a bunch of other stuff that can be even worse. It’s much better just to buy overall good food. I view the vegetarian argument that animals are inefficient in a similar way. How can you look at a farm like the Corrys and call it inefficient?

In my own life, maybe I’m guilty of doing the same thing. I’m focusing on a “plastic free” and “trash free” and not enough on leading an overall good life. I’m beginning to agree with Andy’s comments that a week or month of cutting something out isn’t the right tack to take.

Instead of removing plastic from my life entirely, perhaps I should be looking for an equilibrium that uses less. Less plastic, less trash, whatever I want to change. I’m starting to value the balance more than the specific items balancing.

Comments (1) »

Using chickens for tractors, fertilizer, food, income, and more…

chicks hatchingI went down to Brambleberry Farm today to help out my friends with their fruits, vegetables, chickens, ducks, pigs, goats, sheep, and… well, I think that’s everything. It’s a very small farm run by a husband and wife who are very into homesteading and small-scale farming. I am learning a ton and wanted to share some of the information. I think it’s essential for everyone to understand where our food comes from, even if we are not in the position to grow it ourselves.

The big news on the farm today is that a batch of chicks hatched. They are quite cute and fluffy and peep in a cute way not quite as deafening as the spring peepers (frogs), although I’m sure they’ll get there. Espri gathered the fertilized eggs a few weeks ago and has been keeping them in a little incubator, which looks rather like an alien spacecraft, probably due to the large amount of aluminum foil and the heat lamp that blinks on and off every 3-5 seconds. The chicks started peeping inside their shells a couple days ago and began breaking out this morning so Espri was transferring them a batch at a time to their new temporary home in the greenhouse. They have to be taught how to drink water, by dipping their beaks in the water trough, and are also introduced to their feed trough. In a few weeks they will be big enough to join their parents in the chicken tractor outside.

A chicken tractor is basically a portable shelter for chickens with no floor. This allows the chickens to scratch and dig for worms, grubs, insects, grass, clover, and whatever else tickles their taste buds. After awhile, the tractor is moved to a new plot of ground, leaving the old plot tilled and fertilized (with chickenchicken tractor manure). Espri & Darren’s chicken tractor is a little more elaborate, with a large fenced area adjacent to the shelter providing even more ground for scratching. The design is pretty clever; it’s a simple wooden A-frame made of mostly scrap lumber with an old billboard for a roof. The billboard is lightweight, waterproof, light-colored to let in some light but dark enough to provide shade, and is a free waste resource. I helped install the roosts, which are long boards strung from the ceiling so the birds can perch above ground at night. There is also a wall of nestboxes where the hens can lay their eggs in peace.

Chickens offer a lot of benefits. They lay eggs, which can be either eaten or sold. Their droppings make great fertilizer. Their scratching provides both tilling action and some pest control. They can also be used for meat or feathers. With a little more work, they can be bred and the chicks can be sold, or even just fertilized eggs. (On a side note, did you know baby chicks are often shipped by mail? It’s the craziest thing but they don’t seem to mind although they do peep a little.)

chicken roostThere are a few downsides to chickens, like the way they constantly fight with each other to establish dominance, or the fact that hens really only lay well for a couple of years and then you have to decide whether you want a pet or perhaps a meal. They can also be extremely loud although I think they’re a lot of fun to listen to. I’d like to have a flock of my own some day but for now I’m happy to be a part-time assistant farmer. Wait until I tell you about the pigs!!

Comments (6) »

The cost of abundance

King Corn movie posterTonight, Maggie and I were finally able to watch King Corn. We’ve been hearing good things about it for a while, so when we noticed that it was playing on PBS, we headed over to Maggie’s parents’ place last night to check it out. Unfortunately, the times listed were wrong, so we watched a really interesting Frontline on universal health care instead. Tivo rescued the situation and recorded it for us to watch tonight.

The documentary follows two Bostonians as they head to the small town in Iowa where (coincidentally) their grandfathers made a living based on corn. The one grandfather grew it and the other made tractors to plant it. The creators, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, borrow an acre of land from a local farmer and plant (what else?) corn. As they say on their website, “a story about one acre of Iowa corn quickly becomes a story about everything: soil, water, energy, history, genetic modification and, of course, food.” Focusing primarily on food, the two friends go from farm subsidy to planting to spraying to growing to harvesting to industry (and end with another little subsidy). Once industry gets a hold of corn, it uses it everywhere, from a rather unhealth feed for cattle to rather unhealthy food for people. There’s a great scene whereh Cheney and Ellis brew up some homemade high fructose corn syrup. Neither of them like it at all.

The great thing about the movie is that there are no villains. Even the much maligned Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture who told farmers to “get big or get out,” is given a fair viewing.

Overall, the story of US corn since the 1970s is one that’s familiar to any reader of The Monkey’s Paw. Butz’s goal was to make food cheap and he was incredibly successful. We now pay half as much on food (as a percentage of income) as did our parents or grandparents. Imagine paying twice as much for food as you are now! And that includes eating out.

The monkey’s paw comes in with the fulfillment of the ideal of a land of plenty. We pay a lot less for food because our food is almost entirely based on getting higher yields in return for increases in fat, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and reduction in nutrients. Corn nowadays has almost no nutritional value and yet it’s a cheap filler for everything.

Cheap corn affects all of our food supply. One of the scientists quoted said that a grass-fed T-bone steak has 1.3 grams of fat. A T-bone steak from corn-fed steer has almost 7 times as much at 9 grams!

So yeah, we’ve got cheap food which allows us to spend more on other things. Unfortunately, one of those things is our increasingly high health care now that our food isn’t as healthy.

Abundance is great, but not at the cost of our lives. This may be the first generation that doesn’t live longer than its parents.

Comments (2) »

Maple Syrup and other Pioneer Inspirations

Maple TapThis time last year I was busy making maple syrup out at Five Oaks Farm. It’s funny how I really miss it even though I remember being painfully cold during most of the process. We tapped about sixty trees and installed a tubing system so all the sap would flow down into a big holding tank. Then we pumped it up in batches and boiled it down using an old sorghum pan over a wood fire. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.

I don’t know that I’ll ever get involved in a “sugar bush” operation again but I’d love to do a little home sugaring or maybe help out with a program like Rent-A-Sap-Bucket at a local park. I do love the fact that I got to do it once from start to finish. There’s something powerful about being involved in the process of making your own food, whether it’s growing your own vegetables or learning how to butcher a cow. (Warning: the cow butchering link contains graphic pictures of dead animals, although I must confess I found them fascinating and I really love the idea of taking a class about butchering.)

The maple syrup operation I worked with was relatively modernized but syruping seems like a pioneer tradition to me.  Lately I’ve been thinking about pioneer skills and how learning from our ancestors (or other people’s ancestors) could inspire us to live more sustainably. There are several places in Indiana like Spring Mill State Park and Conner Prairie that are dedicated to historical reenactment and offer classes in everything from spinning to candle-making to blacksmithing. How many of those skills are really useful today? Probably most of us will never be called upon to run a grist mill or shoe a horse but I believe there’s something powerful in studying the old ways of life.  For one thing, it’s great to be reminded of all the things we can do with our own two hands.  At the same time, it’s very humbling to think about the work that goes into making anything by hand.  Consider the process of making a sweater from scratch – shear the sheep, card the wool, dye the wool, spin the wool, weave the yarn, and two hundred man-hours later you have a lumpy looking garment that will probably keep you warm if you don’t accidentally shrink it in the wash.  Suddenly $60 for an eco-sweater seems almost reasonable.

I am also amazed when I think about all the knowledge a typical pioneer had about his or her environment. Which wild plants are edible? How do you find deer (or avoid wolves)? What do you do when your cows eat herbs that make their milk poisonous? Granted, we know lots of other things they never dreamed of but I still am impressed by anyone who can live off the land.

I don’t really aspire to become a pioneer woman. Well, sometimes it sounds really cool to be able to be entirely self-sufficient and know everything from how to help a ewe give birth to how to construct a log cabin, but I know it would take me years to learn it all and that most of the knowledge is only appropriate for a lifestyle that is totally foreign to me. So I dabble here and there, and I think the greatest benefit for me is reconnecting with my body and my environment.  There is just nothing like getting hands-on with natural materials and natural settings.  So, anybody know where I can find a good “Sheep to Sweater” course?

Comments (1) »