Honeybee Love: Deadly Sex and the Sweetness of Summer

The post office called on this mid-April morning,  8:00 o’clock sharp with a slight sense of urgency on their end of the phone.  It appears I have no ordinary package to pick up.  My thousands of honeybees have arrived.

They are not killer bees, so I decide to let the post office enjoy these honorary guests for another hour while I finish bottling milk, cleaning the milking machine and drinking a cup of tea made perfect with (what else?) honey.  Finally, I hop in the truck to go claim my nine pounds of bees.

So how do you mail nine pounds of bees from Jessup, Georgia, to Tamworth, New Hampshire?  The smart-ass answer is very carefully, and it’s true.  I start three hives every spring so I received three separate boxes, each one containing three pounds of bees.  They are wooden boxes a little bigger than a shoe box,  with screens for sides so the bees can breathe.  Each box also contains a can of high fructose corn syrup with a few tiny holes punched in it to feed the bees during their three-day first-class journey.  The bees spend their time in a cluster around the can to stay warm, texting each other on Hivechat.

IMG_2840There is one other thing inside the box besides the bees and corn syrup.  It’s a tiny box the size of your thumb containing a queen bee and half a dozen other bees known as her attendants.  They feed and care for the queen, allowing her to pursue her queenly duties.  I have always wanted a half-dozen attendants.

This little queen box with a screen top hangs next to the can of corn syrup, and all of the other bees can cluster around her as well, keeping her warm and passing on her pheromones as they all get to know her.  The three pounds of bees already know each other, since they were taken together from an over-crowded hive in Georgia.  But the queen is not from that hive and therefore must be introduced slowly from the little protected box, or they might kill her.  She needs time to win them over, but even a queen can have a bad day,  no matter how many attendants.

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Back at the farm, I wait for the calm of early evening to install each package into their hive.  It’s a bit tricky, but I carefully remove the queen box from the main box and put it inside the new hive.  Before doing so, I must “open the door” to the queen box so she can come out in the next few days.  The “door” is a plug of soft sugar the diameter of a pencil.  I poke a small hole through the sugar with a finish nail, and now the hive of bees can slowly chew their way towards the queen, and the attendants can  start chewing on the other side of the “door.”  After a few days of chewing the sugar will be gone, the queen will be known, and she can safely make her entrance into the hive as the accepted queen.

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She will soon discover it’s not all clean sheets and royal jelly.  Her life will now consist of mainly laying hundreds of eggs each day in the honeycomb, like a chicken on steroids.  Where, you might ask, is the rooster?

Ninety-nine percent of a hive is female; they do all of the work.  In their short six-week lifespan they will perform different duties for the hive, such as nurse bees taking care of the brood, guard bees at the entrance, housekeeping bees, and of course the field bees gathering nectar and pollen.  The few males, known as drones, exist only to mate with the queen, and she will only mate once, taking flight on some sexy sunny day with hopes that a strong young drone will catch her.

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When he does, they copulate (keeping it clean here) and the drone has his genitalia ripped from his body where they will now fertilize the queen’s eggs, thousands of them, for life.  The drone then goes into a death spiral, perhaps wondering how life can seemingly be so good and so bad at the same time.

I am not making this up, but I have never witnessed the mating of a queen and drone.  Some beekeeping books describe the fateful moment as having an “audible pop.”

I love having bees around the farm for spring, summer, and autumn.  They pollinate vegetables and fruit trees, and provide lots of wildflower honey.  But I no longer try to keep bees through the winter.  I did that for years and years, and typically what happened is this: You leave them 80 pounds of honey or so to get through the winter, and they consume most of that but still die in late winter.  The 80 pounds of honey is gone, which could have made me a thousand dollars at the farmers’ market, and I still need to spend more money on new bees.

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Since I am trying to make a living at small farming (and I have been for many years, now), it is most profitable to keep all of the honey, sell most of it, and buy new packages of bees each spring.  When late autumn rolls around,  I can’t get too sentimental about a fascinating but non-native insect with a six-week lifespan.  I have bills to pay.

Every January, just like ordering seeds for the gardens, I make my call to the same apiary in Georgia for the bees.  Sometime in mid-April I will get the phone call that symbolizes, for me, the beginning of another year of farming, another New England summer where most everything in life is about to get a little bit sweeter.

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24 Teats Below Zero

Darkness and cold are powerful partners.  I am no match for them on these arctic mornings, so I always stay in bed until one of those partners dies.  Darkness seems to roll over and perish much quicker than the frozen air on these January mornings, so I exit the sheets when that eastern light comes knocking.

Twenty below zero this morning, 45 above zero in the bedroom, not much better in the kitchen.  But soon the old Queen Atlantic cookstove will be casting heat from a fresh fire, the tea kettle will boil, and I can begin the usual routine for dealing with 24 teats below zero (or six cows if you do the math correctly and divide by four teats per udder. And not to belabor the anatomy lesson, but if this were a goat dairy, 24 teats would equal 12 goats).

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The routine commences with a brisk walk to the barn in my slippers to simply turn on a hair dryer that begins warming the vacuum pump.  The pump won’t pump in these anti-pumping temperatures, so I built it a wooden box and put a hair dryer inside.   I suppose I could just milk by hand during the winter, but the milking machine on vacuum is a quick, airtight system and perfectly clean.  Milking into an open bucket is neither quick nor clean.

Back in the house I assemble the milking machine, then assemble myself beginning with a sweatshirt on top of my t-shirt and flannel shirt, a warm vest, and finally my insulated coveralls to complete the wrapping.  Insulated boots and a couple pairs of socks take care of my two-wheel drive.  I return to the barn with the milking machine, extra milk totes, two gallons of hot soapy water, wash cloths, rubber gloves, iodine teat dip and teat salve.

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Hot water is key (and fleeting) at 20 below zero.  Even with warm gloves, my fingers get cold quickly while bringing the first two cows into the barn for milking.  Once locked in their stantions, I switch to rubber gloves and plunge my cold hands and a clean cloth into hot water.  My fingers are so grateful for the CPR, and I take a steaming wash cloth to each udder and wash the teats clean.  Each teat is then dipped in an iodine and comfrey/glycerine solution, wiped off with a fresh cloth, then attached to the milking machine for anywhere from five to 20 minutes depending on the cow and its stage of lactation.

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When milking is complete, I rub a protective salve onto each teat, mostly to help guard against frostbite.  Frostbite creates a wound that cannot heal if the teat is being milked each morning, forcing that quarter to be dried off until spring, losing valuable milk.  Which begs an obvious question I’ve been asked most winters: Why not let the cows live in the barn during winter?

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First, it would double my morning workload, which is already full with milking cows, bottling milk, making yogurt and kefir, cleaning equipment, feeding and watering cows, etc.  With cows living in the barn I’d be forced to deal with the aromatic offerings that frequently exit their bodies just a little north of the milk.  The milk I can sell, but you won’t find their pies in any bakery.

I think cows are healthier when they’re outside, moving around in sunshine and fresh air.  Their udders stay cleaner when they bed down outside versus in a confined space.  I also don’t need to spend lots of time and money procuring sawdust or shavings, and their manure ends up on the pasture naturally without me spreading it.

The biggest threat to outside cows is wind chill.  I have a section of woods fenced off near the barn, and I feed them hay in that protected spot when the wind is blowing. When the wind and cold temperatures are both extreme, I put them in the barn where I love to hear them quietly chewing their hay while a nor’easter  rages at the door, testing the limits of lumber, nails, and trigonometry.

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Several years ago I stopped the evening milking and began milking just once a day each morning.  The cows stay in better shape, but more importantly, I felt as though I’d been let out of prison, a release from bovine bondage.  Now, in my new halfway house,  I was free to pursue other interests or chores in the late afternoon and evenings without being shackled to that relentless second milking.  The extra freedom felt like a gift I’d been waiting to open for many years.  Now, as the seasons and years keep rolling by, all of them measured in lactations, my body is hungry for a little more of that freedom.  I think I know where to find it, and thankfully, I am my own parole officer.

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Ninety percent of my farm income is made from May through December.  With just a small loss of income I can have a large gain in freedom, eliminating milking altogether from January through April.  It seems like an elegant solution to the arctic milking blues, when the icy air and tired sun make me feel like I’m heading outside to commit my last act of agriculture.  It is a logical next step for a farmer who, I dare say, has probably already seen his greenest pastures.

Gusting To 60

The clock reads just past midnight, October 30th, and I am about to spend most of my 59th birthday wide awake, from start to finish.  Three hours earlier I had fallen asleep knowing what was coming: heavy rain and wind speeds approaching and exceeding my age.  But I have always slept the sleep of the dead, like a January bear.  Once, as a boy enjoying an outside sleepover with friends, they rolled me down a small grassy hill to try and wake me.  We had plans for the Saturday morning movie at the local theater.  They left without me, no need for a 911 call.  Bob is just sleeping.

This night is different.  It is the eve of All Hallows’ Eve, or the contraction Halloween as we call it, the time in the liturgical year when the dead are remembered, and the time when pagans may have believed that the boundary between our world and the spirit world grew very thin.  I am not sure what spirits are riding the 60mph gust that hit our house just past midnight, but I awake with the certainty that I am about to join them.

I fear the pounding wind will collapse the old single- pane six-over-six windows and blow the flesh-eating glass all over the bed.  I lie awake listening for most of the night.  Happy birthday.

Morning light comes, but no electrical light.  I prepare to milk cows with the generator, and go looking for them in the pasture.  As usual, they seem fine, unflappable, even after a long cold shower with a serious blow dry.  No toppled trees into the pasture that threatened the cows, but I think back several years to the one tree that did.

I am still amazed and embarrassed to think that I may be the only farmer in the entire human history of farming to ever drop a tree on one of his cows.  But I did, andIMG_2412 there were witnesses, otherwise I would have taken that secret to my grave.  I was cutting firewood along the edge of a pasture and periodically keeping track of the cows, especially when I dropped a tree.  At one point, with two gardeners watching from the neighbor’s house, I went to cut a 12-inch diameter ash tree and drop it into the pasture.  The cows were nowhere to be seen.  The brush at the base of the tree was thick, and I removed that while also taking time to remove some old fencing wire near the tree.  Then I cut the notch and made my horizontal felling cut.  I stood and faced the pasture at the same time the tree began its slow, precise fall.  And I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was as if my favorite and oldest cow had blown in from the spirit world on a 60mph bovine breeze from the other side of the pasture.  I only had time to scream her name as the gardeners watched in disbelief.

She took a direct hit across her back, right above her rear hip bones, and all four legs buckled yet IMG_2457she caught herself and refused to collapse.  She lunged forward and out from under the tree like only a thousand pound cow could do.  I ran to her feeling as sick and awful and low as I could possibly feel, and not surprisingly, she hobbled away from me with fear in her eyes.  The last thing she had just heard was my voice yelling her name before a tree came thundering across her back.  It’s true that cows aren’t very good at math, but she put one and one together pretty well and kept her distance from me.  Later that night I gave her a handful of cow aspirin for the pain ( yes, cow aspirin; each one the size of a cocktail wiener), and she lived out her life with a bit of a limp to remind me of my historic blunder.IMG_2436

This stormy morning there are no trees on cows, but thousands of trees on power lines across New England.  After milking, I do the generator dance for my birthday.  It involves moving extension cords and the generator to different locations outside the house and cellar every few hours, to keep five refrigerators and four freezers nice and cold.  What could be scarier on Halloween than a hundred quarts of warming yogurt?

Halloween dawns and the yogurt is still cold, courtesy of gasoline and internal combustion.  The grid is still down.  The day passes with chores, planting garlic, the generator dance, and finally kindling a Halloween bonfire for neighbors, friends, and passers-by.  And the flames shed light on kind faces and old souls, some of them sneaking in while the boundary is still thin.  There is no power in the cables overhead, but all the power we really need is gathered around this fire.  Friendship and community mix with  smoke and cider and laughter.  At age 59, I am hoping, like the midnight wind, to gust toward 60.IMG_2459

The Joys and Dark Secrets of Haying

It is true that you have to make hay when the sun shines, but beneath that welcoming veneer of azure skies and warm temperatures are unintended consequences, and many of us who cut hay would rather not talk about them.  I will ease myself into that darkness by starting on the bright side.

Imagine the perfect forecast, three days of sunshine and warmth, low humidity and perhaps a nice dry breeze out of the northwest.  Then imagine that all of the equipment is greased and tuned and unlikely to fail, and you have the auspicious beginning to a round of happy haymaking.  The tractor is humming along on a textbook summer day, cutting row after row of knee-high clover in full view of the White Mountains.  It is actually a field of winter-time yogurt and other dairy products, each cow needing 200 bales of hay to pass the winter.IMG_2285

After the field is mowed on day one,  I’ll return the second day to flip it over and fluff it up with the tedder, an egg-beater-like implement that speeds the drying process.  On day three the happy farmer is all smiles raking the now dry hay into windrows in preparation to bale.  And when that amazingly complicated baler, built the year I was born, starts spitting out perfectly tied bales until 300 of them are evenly spaced where the clover used to be, farming might not get any better than that.IMG_0152

But it does. The field is now quiet, no tractor and clanking baler to break the silence. Friends, kind friends (is there any other kind?) show up to help load bales onto pick-up trucks.  There is camaraderie built on easy conversation and a shared task, and that feeling of accomplishment facilitated by no broken equipment or unscheduled thunderstorms.

IMG_0190We head for the barn and stack that hay like bars of gold, knowing full well its value as currency in our own little economy.  When the sweating is done, we might share a meal beneath the apple trees, pleased that the barn is one step closer toward another successful journey through winter.

That narrative, of course, is far from complete. Any hayfield should also be thought of as a little ecosystem with lots of life and death going on amidst the grass.  When a farmer shows up with fast-working mechanical equipment, the death toll spikes.  Sometimes you see what you’ve killed, mostly you don’t.  It is impossible to drive across a field with sharp knives whirling like propellers, and avoid all of the life hidden in the grass.  It’s not as though every hayfield is another Gettysburg, but I have killed mice, voles, frogs, snakes, bird eggs and even newly hatched turkeys. The unluckiest of farmers have collided with young fawns lying low in the tall grass.

Last year, for the first time, I noticed a fawn in the hayfield the day before I was going to cut.  That night I was anxious about it so I called two friends to walk the hayfield that following morning.  They found the fawn and marked its location so I could steer clear. But you are never certain that the grass ahead is simply grass.

All food systems have their ugly secrets, but there are winners here, too.  The ravens, crows, and coyotes show up to take the dead and wounded from under the hay.  Nature’s undertakers.  The ravens and crows fly over-head within minutes of my beginning, and soon they are landing and taking off with an easy meal.  Once a coyote came trotting behind the tractor, just ten feet away, leaping and pouncing on the newly exposed mice and voles running for their lives.  When I stopped the tractor and stood up, the coyote bolted for the woods.  When I started mowing again, he came right back and followed within ten feet, grateful for the new buffet of local meats.  We could learn a lot from these masters of eating locally.  No shopping.  No cooking.  No dishes.

But let me return to the bright side, to something all New Englanders love as much as apple cider, maple syrup, and brown eggs: a great view.  Were it not for a little bit of agriculture here and there, New England would be a blanket of trees right up to the edge of every road.  Hayfields give us a place where the breeze can get rolling, a place to clear our minds, to let in the light and show us the surrounding geology of gorgeousness.  Hayfields are, indeed, places of darkness and light, sadness and inspiration, easy explanations and complex mysteries.  As a New England farmer I will always love setting sail through the forest for those verdant little islands of poetry and purpose.IMG_0196

Taking The Sons And Daughters

The philosophy of food can sometimes make my brain feel like a forgotten fried egg in a smokey skillet.  What is really best for the human body?  Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, slow-cooked, fasting a little, fasting a lot, or just sit tight and eat right for your blood type?  I think, after many years of feeling passionate and curious about food and food production, I’ve been asking the wrong question.  There is no singular philosophy of food that is best for the human body.  There is only that philosophy, or even lack thereof, that seems to work for our own bundle of biology.  I am more certain than ever that certainty has no place in a food fight, with the one exception that fresh, real food of any kind trumps processed, industrial food every time.  Otherwise, we could use far less preaching on food, and perhaps even religion, since each of us can gauge for ourselves what makes our bodies, and our souls, really sing.

There is one aspect to my own eating that is particularly sorrowful, but first I want to put it into context.  I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables, and fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir, etc.),  so if you’re looking for a philosophical label I suppose vegedairyan might work.  But I also occasionally eat beef from our farm and fish from the sea, so, in fact, I sound like just another omnivore.

I have always gravitated to a homesteading, farming lifestyle for food production.  I enjoy the work, but I am not preaching to convert.  It is just an interest of mine that makes me happy.  What a mess we would have, at this point, if everybody on Earth wanted to farm.  But if you want to farm and eat somewhat sustainably in New England, putting animals on the rocky, grassy pastures seems like a good bet.  Something to transform all of that abundant New England grass into human food for the long winter ahead.  Something like a dairy cow.  Something like the six dairy cows that currently graze these hilly pastures of home.

This is where the sad part comes in.  When a cow freshens (gives birth), she begins lactating so her calf has the milk it needs to survive.  It is a beautiful sight to see a cow with good maternal instincts standing still while her newborn stumbles to figure out the workings of her udder.  It is equally beautiful to see them curled-up together in the green grass, napping hard beneath the warm sunshine.  But it cannot last.

Virtually IMG_1794all big dairy farms, and even most of us on a small-scale, separate the calves from their mothers.  The big farms do it right away, and I usually wait about a week, keeping the cow and calf in a big,  clean stall in the barn.  Imagine the logistical chaos if newborn calves were left with their mothers on a large farm.  Getting the cows into the milking parlor would be a nightmare each day, and cows that are nursing calves don’t always let their milk down for the farmer.

IMG_2268My biggest reason, however, for separating the calves from their mothers, is safety.  Valuable calves are easily taken by coyotes and bears, so I like the calf in a safe barn while mom is out grazing under the stars.  But it is mostly my safety I’m referring to.  I want the calf to bond with me, not its mother, because in two short years it will be pushing a thousand pounds with legs powerful enough to hit the delete button on my life while I’m milking her.  I want her to remember all of the times I gave her a bottle with mother’s milk, all of the times I scratched her chin and led her to fresh green grass beneath the apple trees.

The only way that happeFullSizeRender(2)ns, and the only way I can easily get milk from the mother (which is my income), is to separate the mother from her calf. I do that after their week of bliss together in the barn.  Mom goes back out to graze, but soon, within hours, she will start to bellow for her calf.   It is the sorrowful and sometimes panicked sound of a mother who cannot find her child.  I have heard it for 17 years, several times each summer, and it haunts me most at night when I’m laying in bed.  My heart aches every time.

And every time I remind myself that she will get over it, and they will reunite in a few months to once again eat grass together.  But the sound of that pain is a dark and empty hole in the philosophy in which I’ve chosen to eat.

 

 

A Note From Bob

I’m sorry for the long absence since my July post, but I injured my arm (more on that later) at the same time my 2006 laptop suffered a fatal injury.  I just upgraded to a 2008 for fifty bucks, and now I can get back to checking the weather forecast, sending e-mails, and posting now and then on The Farmer’s Pencil.  I’m hoping you will scroll down and read the latest posting  “A Market Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants.”  It was published last summer in “Tamworth As We See It”, a book that offered perspectives on our town at 250 years.  I offer my piece again in honor of a town I’ve loved for 27 of those 250 years, and also in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week.  I think it was last week, but really, who knew?

A Market “Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants”

Hunger has always been a relentless motivator for human beings, right up there with the ubiquitous call of our thirst, and perhaps even love. So I should not have been surprised when a friend showed me our Tamworth Town Charter from October 14th, 1766, and the role that hunger played.

The document is four pages long, but early on, after a surveyor-like description of the 23,040 acres we all love as Tamworth, it gets right to the point: “…as soon as the said Town shall consist of Fifty Families, a Market may be opened and kept one or more Days in each Week, as may be thought most advantageous to the Inhabitants.” This was no rustic Hannafords, it was a farmers’ market. You had to farm, and it says so right in the document: “…every Grantee, his Heirs or Assigns shall plant and cultivate five Acres of Land within the Term of five Years for every fifty Acres contained in his or their Share…” Food came first in the Tamworth Town Charter, followed by the politics and particulars of running a small town in a land of “Rocks, Ponds, Mountains, and Rivers.”

Oh, what I would give to rise early on a Saturday morning and saddle-up for a slow ride off of Pease Hill, heading for that first market and the fifty families that then called Tamworth home. Riding toward the brightening sky, one hundred years before the Mason jar. Riding toward the unportioned raw reality of frontier food in a land defined mostly by winter. The vegetables might be ugly, but at least there would be plenty of parking for the horse.

We will never know what those first markets really looked like, but we know what it looks like in this century, and what it says about food and farming in the “Six Miles square” of Tamworth in 2016. We begin our tenth year in Tamworth of watching farmers and families rise early on a Saturday to go to market. Myself among them, I load-up rather than saddle-up a pickup truck in the darkness of an old dairy farm. Perhaps 250 mason jars on a busy summer Saturday, testing the leaf springs with dairy and maple syrup.

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Rolling through the village at dawn, crossing the Swift River and gently rising to a crossroads and height of land, I arrive at the market. And this market, in this century, is courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist congregation, opening their fertile parking lot so 30 or more vendors might blossom here each Saturday from May through October. When the leaves have fallen and the chevrons of geese have passed, we head inside for Holiday Markets at the Brett School, and Deep Winter Markets at the Town House. Again, I wonder about those first fifty families, the markets they may have had when the kettles of hawks had long migrated and the pounding obstacle of snow came blowing down from the White Mountains.

But here in the parking lot the sun is rising, chairs and shaded tables made ready for market-goers to visit, eat, and listen to music. And now the current face of farming in Tamworth comes forth, one vendor at a time pulling into the parking lot, unloading their goods in the usual spot. From the Bearcamp Valley comes vegetables, honey, and eggs, from Chocorua comes sweet cider and beef. From Wonalancet comes lamb and hay, and bread still warm from the wood-fired hearth. From the heights of Cleveland Hill comes more meat and vegetables, and a rainbow of mushroom varieties roll in from Gardner Hill. And still more vegetables from the edge of the Hemenway Forest. From the village itself comes jams and jellies, sausage and cheese, baked goods, hard cider and mead, and pastured chicken and turkey.

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Indeed, we have a market as called for all those years ago by King George the third and Governor Benning Wentworth, and their antique eyes would shine with incredulity at the sight of a thousand market-goers on an August Saturday in Tamworth.

Today, most people in Tamworth are not farmers. But many residents are celebrating the comeback of local food and farmers’ markets. They come to the market for the same compelling reasons those first fifty families did all those years ago. Our physical and metaphorical hungers come in many shades. We hunger for connection, for community, for love and acceptance. Two hundred and fifty years later, it truly is “most advantageous to the Inhabitants,” and they are us.