WTF–The Year is Half Over

We’re not even going to talk about the last blog post, where I went on and on about my New Year’s Resolutions and how I was going to get organized and accomplish amazing things. But the good thing about resolutions is that you can make them any time. You can always start over. The first of every year, every season, every month, every week, every day, even every hour you can decide once again to pay attention and do those things you meant to do. Today is as good as any day.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand why my dad, after being away at sea for 18 months at a time, would never ask upon his return what my brother and I had been doing while he was gone and never told us what he had seen and done. Instead he would act as though he had just stepped out of the room for a minute and would talk about Right Now, and How About Them Tigers, and Did You Get a Look at That Car and Looks Like It’s Going to Be Another Scorcher. Eventually I figured out that if you spend all your time trying to recover a past you never shared, you miss out on what’s happening now.

I don’t know what it’s been like where you live, but here in the Midwest, every growing thing has been about a month early this year, which only adds to the sense that time is slipping by in a frightening way. The daffodils were fading by mid-March. The strawberries had a brief moment of glory not too long after. The corn is by now way past knee high and we still have another two weeks before the Fourth of July. Peaches are already ripe. We picked blueberries two weeks ago and put them in bags in the freezer. And all this with no rain to speak of. We did have a good rain the last weekend of April and then nothing for six weeks, until last week when it rained almost an inch, and all the gardeners were ecstatic.

With everything coming on so early, by the time we were able to pick up new queen bees in late April, the main honey flow was already over, and we’re beginning to wonder if we will be able to harvest any honey this year. But we’re taking one day at a time, and we have established a most satisfactory routine.

On Sunday afternoons about 4:00 or 5:00, we head out of town to the apiaries to check on our bees.  This year we have five hives in two different locations: two hives that wintered over and three brand new hives that we made from splits from the established hives. Both bee yards are on land belonging to friends. The established hives near the well-manicured University farms are having some trouble finding enough nectar this year, but the new hives, which are down by the river, where things are a bit wilder, are next to a large field of clover and are drawing out beautiful white comb and filling the cells with light honey.

After checking each hive and marveling at the amazing bees, we head down to Coopers Landing, where we listen to live music, eat Thai food, visit with friends, and watch the sun set over the river.

Pippa and friends playing some old-time music at Coopers Landing.

A Dose of Venom is Good for What Ails You

Today was allergy-shot day. I am still on a weekly schedule, being injected with honeybee venom to try to build up my immunity. Eventually I hope I won’t have to worry about going into anaphylactic shock if I am stung again. I was just diagnosed with a bee allergy earlier this summer, and I’m not quite used to the idea yet. I had a good scare a year ago and then another bad reaction this past summer, so I decided to consult an allergy specialist, who confirmed that I am severely allergic and should do something about it. Since I keep bees and raise a garden filled with plants that bees love, the number 1 recommendation (i.e., stay away from bees) was not going to work for me. I decided to undergo immunotherapy, but until I have built up resistance to bee venom, I carry an epipen in case I’m stung.

Although my reaction was not that severe either time (my main symptom was dizziness), the more I read about anaphylactic shock and the more I thought about how long it had taken the ambulance to arrive at the beeyard, the more I realized how serious the problem could be. I also learned that once you have had a single allergic reaction, you have a 30% to 60% chance of having a similar allergic reaction in the future. I had been stung numerous times before (as a child running barefoot through clover and in the past 12 years since I started working with bees) and had on occasion been stung multiple times at once, but I had never before had an allergic reaction. I did, however, have large local reactions, which occur in about 10% of people. (Apparently, my mother was right to worry when I told her I was going to start keeping bees.)

Some people probably think I should just give up beekeeping, but it’s not that simple. I love being in the bee yard with my husband, especially on warm, sunny afternoons when the bees are buzzing contentedly, flying in from the fields in a straight beeline toward the hives, their pollen baskets filled with bright yellow and orange and red pollen. There is something imminently satisfying about all that industry and the elaborate forms of communication among the workers. I love the smell of the smoke and the wax; I love the creamy texture of freshly drawn comb; I love the taste of honey on my tongue. I love looking out on the world through the mesh of my bee veil at the bees that hover just before my face, as though trying to get my attention and tell me something. I enjoy searching a frame of bees closely to try to find the queen, and I find the contented buzzing of the bees soothing (or at least I did before I learned I was allergic).

Now I must admit that since my diagnosis, I am much less calm than I used to be when thousands of bees are flying about, even on days when they are happy, and I am more attuned to the slightest change in mood, more alert to the different kinds of buzzing that might indicate that the guard bees are, well, “on guard,” ready to attack. I have since begun wearing gloves, which I didn’t used to do; I take care not to stand in the beeline; I always approach the hive from the back; I make sure to wear light-colored clothes; and if the bees seem even a little bit unhappy, I back away from the hives, trying to move slowly, without any jerky movements that might cause them alarm. I look forward to the day, three to five years from now, when perhaps I will no longer be allergic to these fascinating creatures.

close-up photograph of honeybee on yellow flower

This photo of Apis mellifera Western honey bee was taken by Andreas Trepte, http://www.photo-natur.de. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Memorial Day Weekend

I planted these roses years ago because they reminded me of the climbing roses my grandaddy grew on the fence surrounding his vegetable garden in Georgetown.

Amazing how fast a three-day weekend can go. Yesterday was warm and sunny and breezy. I spent a fair amount of time writing and waiting for my son Matt to come online, which he did around 3:00, but he has not been talkative lately. One of his friends last week stepped on an IED in Kandahar province, where they have been deployed for the last year, and got both his legs blown off. His name is Gregg, but I don’t know any more about him, how close he was to Matt, what his rank is, what job he was assigned, where he is from, where he is now, whether he is married or has children, whether Matt was nearby when it happened, or anything else. Matt said to ask him in a year how he’s doing; right now he doesn’t want to talk about it. I hope some day he can talk about all of this or find some other way to deal with it.

His grandfather Ralph, who was at the Battle of the Bulge and also with the troops when they opened up the first Nazi concentration camp, never wanted to talk about his experiences of war. The only hint of what he had seen was a brief poem he wrote once with images of blood on the snow after a battle. I wish he were here now to help Matt through the mindfields of life. There are so many amputees and brain injuries from these most recente wars. It is horrifying. Of course, the soldiers who are featured in gee whiz news stories are those who fight to walk again, with the aid of fancy new spring-loaded prostethics, and who go right back into the war zones to demonstrate, I suppose, how brave soldiers can be, leaving the others, who are justifiably bitter and angry about their injuries, feeling like lesser men, weaklings, when they can’t just buck up and carry on. On this Memorial Day, I am thinking of those who have died in war, along with their friends and families who have suffered such tragic loss. I am praying that some day we humans can find a better way than war to solve conflicts.

I got a little bit of work done in the garden this weekend, but I need to finish up. The main thing on my list is to find places for the new plants I bought recently—eight new perennials and about the same number of annuals (tomatoes, basil, lantana). I deadheaded the daisies and pulled up some of the chives around the mail box, until the ants came pouring out of the ground carrying their eggs everywhere. I also pulled out the asters that were growing over the surprise lilies, but I need to decide how many asters to leave and then cut those back, so they won’t get so out of control this year.

Apparently, you can cut asters back until July without affecting the fall bloom. I’m not sure which of the asters has spread the most. I have three kinds out there—one that blooms in September, one in October, and one in November. Maybe this year I can pay attention to which ones have replanted themselves all over the yard. I also need to figure out how many of the blackeyed Susans I want to leave. They really took off last summer and have almost filled the circular space in the center of the yard, which I used to call the butterfly garden, when it had more variety of plants. I picked some more brocolli and strawberries. Even though I am nowhere close to self-sufficient, it makes me feel good to grow at least some of my own food.

My roses are looking amazing this year. I have never had this many buds and blossoms. Always before the deer have bitten them off just as they were about to bloom. I’m not complaining, but the deer have been scarce this year. A couple neighbors even planted hostas right out in the open, and those are still looking lush and green. We have seen a couple deer in the back woods, but they have not (so far, at least) been a problem in the front yard. Maybe I’ll actually get to grow tomatoes for a change!

It’s been a strange spring in other ways. While cleaning out the gardens, we have found literally hundreds of acorns and dozens of small oak trees sprouting. I don’t know if the trees had a bumper crop last year, or if the squirrels forgot where they buried their stash, or if the snow covered the ground for so long that animals that normally forage for acorns (like deer, perhaps?) could not get to them, or what, but I don’t remember ever having to pull out so many oak trees. Fortunately, the spring has been wet, so the trees have not been too difficult to pull out. The yard next door has a forest growing in the front. The neighbors moved out some time ago, but there has been no for-sale sign and apparently no one maintaining the house and yard.

It’s been about a week since people started talking about the cicadas emerging from the ground where they have been lying dormant for thirteen years. The last time these red-eyed cicadas were around, Isaac and I were at scout camp in Arkansas. In fact, that year (1998) was the first time since 1777 that both the 13-year and the 17-year cicadas were out at the same time. It was certainly loud enough, especially when you added the annual cicadas to the chorus. (or perhaps I’m remembering the 400 screeching boy scouts!) From what I’ve been reading, the periodical cicadas generally emerge in May and stay above ground through June. After they emerge from the ground, their shells harden and they move up into the trees, where the males congregate to “sing.” After mating, the females cut slits in small branches and lay their eggs. When the caterpillars emerge, they return to their underground burrows for another thirteen years. What a life! Apparently, they do little damage to mature trees, so I don’t need to worry about anything, with the possible exception of my lemon tree, which I should probably cover with cheesecloth. If I liked to fish, I could use them for bait. Here’s more about the periodical cicadas.

We went out to the bee yard again last evening to put on the new supers Jim has made. They look so beautiful, with their fresh white paint, and the new frames with foundation all ready for the bees to draw out creamy white comb. I love the smell of the fresh wax foundations. I suppose the new plastic foundation they have been selling lately is more convenient than having to wire the frames for the wax foundation, but I don’t like the plastic, and we have had trouble getting the bees to draw out comb on the few plastic frames we have tried. We looked briefly in all the hives but did not see the queens in any of them. They all had good patterns of brood, though, with eggs and larva in all stages of development, including plenty of capped brood, so we think the queens are doing well.

One hive, though, has had numerous queen cells for about six weeks, so we’re not sure what they are doing, but it seems to be distracting them from collecting honey, even though there is plenty of clover in the fields right now. We think that hive swarmed earlier in the summer, and they appear to have a queen, who is laying eggs, but they also have several capped queen cells and a couple queen cells with larva and royal jelly. Not sure what’s going on in there, but they did not need one of our beautiful new supers. The new hives (the swarm hive and the split hive) are doing well and seem calmer. The hive we have dubbed the “mortgage lifter” is collecting honey like mad, so we have not looked very far into their hive lately, since they seem to be thriving. The old angry hive, which may have swarmed and which we also then split, is still somewhat defensive. When Jim was checking them, the bees kept bumping against his hands in warning but did not sting. I stayed back aways while he worked that particular hive, with my hands in my pockets, just in case.

After we left the bee yard, we went to Coopers Landing for beer and Thai food, but we had to park about a mile out and walk on the MKT trail to get there, because the road was covered with water. Some people ignored the signs and just drove on the trail to the landing. We had a very pleasant walk along the river and stopped to take a couple photos of the high water. The landing was crowded with people, and we had to stand in a long line in the camp store to get our beer and then in another long line to order our Thai food from the trailer out back, but everyone was in a festive mood. Every picnic table was filled with people; some had brought their own lawn chairs. A band was playing rock and roll, people were hula-hooping, boats were running up and down the river, children were riding bikes around the trails; the colorful umbrellas over the picnic tables were fluttering in the breeze.

After we ordered our food, we joined our friends Krishna and Eric at a table up above the loading dock and talked about plans for the upcoming Cumberland Dance Week, which we are all attending in July. Several men in a fishing boat motored by; one man stood up in the middle of the boat and raised up a huge catfish to show off. People at the landing cheered, and the boat circled and then headed up the river. By the time we finished our food and headed back down the trail to the truck, it was dark. Lightning bugs were flashing and the frogs were singing as the river rolled on.