Archive | February 2015

A Surrogate Ski

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When I woke this morning to an inch of fresh snow and a clear sky with bright sun, I thought of my friend who got thrown by her horse last week. She is couch-bound for a long time, and in a lot of pain with some fractures and other injuries. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine her body wasn’t the only part of her aching when she looked outside this morning. We ski together sometimes, and I think when she looked out at the snow-covered junipers in the sun, her heart ached to be out there sliding through the woods on her skis.

I feel a cold coming on, and it was bitter this morning, below 20 degrees. I could have done what I did the past few snowy grey days: made coffee and sat warmly in the living room, working on the computer or reading a book. But I thought of my friend wishing she could ski and being unable, and I hauled my lazy, grateful ass out of bed, dressed, went out into the glorious morning, and snapped on my skis. With the balmy weather the past month melting what little snow we’ve had this winter, we haven’t skied in six weeks.

There is nothing graceful about me skiing through sagebrush and juniper on eight inches of crusty snow. But the dogs were thrilled and beautiful, flying away and back to me kicking up powder as I stuttered along the Typewriter Trail to the rim of the canyon and back. Snow blew from the trees in sparkles through brilliant air. She would have loved it.

I wish she could have skied today. Even immobilized, she is an inspiration. Because she would have and I wouldn’t, because I could and she couldn’t, I skied this morning. This one’s for you, neighbor.

 

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Rapid Change in an Ambivalent Season

The return of bees to the early crocuses thrilled and salved my soul.

The return of bees to the early crocuses thrilled and salved my soul.

The first few days after the crocuses opened there were no bees. When I was outside and I paused the noise in my head for a moment and just listened, the silence was eerie. I felt so sad. The naturalizing irises and daffodils began to open, and they were empty. It’s all starting for you, I’ve done everything I can to make it good for you, so please come! I thought to the bees I knew were somewhere near. I saw plenty of flies, even some small fucking grasshoppers. On Valentine’s Day! It was too weird.

Chris called that morning. I was just heading out to hand-water some things. “Already?!” she said, aghast. “Your damn onions!” I said. “They dried out over winter in that hoop house.”

In truth it wasn’t just the onions. The whole spring bed, the border on the south side of the house with the early bulbs and groundcovers (the crocuses, naturalizing irises and tulips, the thymes, veronicas, mat penstemons, mat daisies) was desperate for snowmelt. My approach to this bed in particular is “Prolong snowmelt.” This year I began prolonging snowmelt in earnest the second week in February. In previous years I haven’t had to water until late March or April, rarely as late as May. For all the fun of the balmy weather we needed snow badly.

We talked as I watered, and the conversation quickly turned to the bees. She said, “I thought you might tell me about your ambivalence.” I knew it was going to come to this, I’ve just been putting it off. What are my deeper, more complex feelings about the loss, the death of the beehive? What are and were my responsibilities? How did I succeed and fail? What did I learn? Shall I choose to feel guilt?

Chris talked about really learning to let go, and being amazed every day at how much she thinks she knows and then finding out how little she really knows. I think it was her way of encouraging me not to feel guilty, and it helps, but I still have this fundamental feeling that it was my fault the hive died because I didn’t know enough; going into this project, I acted in confident ignorance rather than in a “beginner’s mind” spirit of learning. I’m still unpacking my feelings. Meanwhile, as we talked, I saw a bee in a crocus!

“Gotta go!” I said, hung up the phone, and ran for the camera. For a few hours I was ecstatic.

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The Bee Doctor told me two years ago that these bees chose me, and the reason was mine to figure out. All along my intention was for the hive to act as an incubator, to grow enough bees for them to swarm out into the forest and the canyon, year after year, to populate the wild. The experiment was to try to establish a hospitable habitat for wild bees, not for me to get honey. I hoped they would manage themselves appropriately with minimal intervention from me.

I forgot the beekeepers’ wisdom, “When in doubt, wait it out,” and I made a mistake at the end of their first summer. Their hive was pristine before I opened it that time. I flooded it with honey and dead bees, I stole their larvae accidentally, and they were righteously angry. I can’t help but wonder if I derailed their success in that one stupid move. They had been calm until then; after, they were defensive. I went in the following spring with the Bee Doctor, and he told me they were more ancient, more wild, than any other hive he’d seen around here. When we opened the hive he mentioned that some of their behavior was more like Africanized bees. “Don’t wig out,” he said, clarifying that it was just an example of their wildness, not that they were Africanized. But in that moment, they were cast in a more primal light for me. It’s the honeybee not the bear, but it’s still a wild and dangerous organism.

Perhaps I subconsciously arranged their demise with my reluctance to try again, to persevere with this hive. Last fall I did have, in the most private inarticulate place in me, the thought that maybe they would get honey-locked this spring and leave. I could start over with more mild-mannered bees. When I saw how few bees were in the dead hive, I hoped it was because they had swarmed. But then, a few days after pulling the last combs from the hive, I found this:

It pains me to share this picture.

It pains me to share this picture. In front of the hive, behind the insulating straw bale, a mass of bee carcasses. Maybe they didn’t swarm. Maybe they were busy all summer and fall hauling out mite-killed bees, and that’s why there were fewer bees going into winter. Maybe there just weren’t enough healthy bees for the hive to survive.

How did the mites get into the hive, anyway? Where did they come from? Unfortunately, as one local beekeeper said, “The mites win all too often.” From what I’ve read, these mites arrived in this country in 1987, and spread rapidly through the wild honeybee hives. Originally parasites on another species of bee, Apis cerana, the mites jumped species, and Apis mellifera has not been able to cope well with them. In combination with neonicotinoid pesticides and possibly other environmental factors, the varroa mites are wiping out honeybees everywhere. I’ve read that they can travel from one hive to another on the bodies of drones, which are apparently allowed to enter any hive. In a sense, the mites are like a sexually transmitted epidemic. Once inside a hive they reproduce inside brood cells, raising a whole family in the time it takes a larval bee to mature, and compromising that bee’s health.

It’s time to really let go. I know today how much I don’t know about bees and how to keep them. If I’m going to continue to try to help save them, I’ve got to do it with Beginner’s Mind, and a lot more courage and skill. I hope that more good than bad has come out of my first foray into bee guardianing. Either way, I need to forgive myself my assumptions and mistakes with them and move on. Forgiving and moving on have never been easy for me, but I’m learning, and not just with the bees.

Honey candy, dense crystallized honey and comb.

Honey candy, dense crystallized honey and comb.

The last honeycombs from the salvage operation, three on the right from the middle of the hive and four on the left from the front.

The last honeycombs from the salvage operation, three on the right from the middle of the hive and four on the left from the front. There’s not much honey in the front combs, I may do something else with them.

Honey in various stages of salvage.

Various stages in the honey salvage.

Experimenting with the best way to get the honey out of the combs.

Experimenting with the best way to get the honey out of the combs.

I’ve got one loaded comb left to process. The honey is so thick it’s taking a long time to drip out of the combs. After slicing the caps off sections of comb and letting them drip, then flipping them over and letting the other side drip, I squish them and let them drip again. Not very efficient, but I get to lick my fingers a lot.

Meanwhile, outside I’ve been cutting back and raking paths and pruning shrubs and trees. This is the best place to be on any day in any season in the garden: I can look out with pleasure at what I’ve accomplished thus far, and simply sit with the joy of it, a dog rolling at my feet, far more done than undone at this point in the season, the whole garden vista ahead of schedule.

A bitter wind blew in a few days ago, ahead of the snowstorm that started yesterday morning. Evening grosbeaks peck in a frenzy at the sunflower feeder. The patio rug blows up with a thump against the table. I scramble to batten down the hatches. This constantly shifting spring weather heightens minute to minute uncertainty: A cold shadow falls over the yard with a bleak wind, the mood becomes more urgent; the sun blows free of the clouds and optimism surges. There is this apocalyptic deep fear: what will happen next? The clouds exacerbate that, the sun relieves it; being thirsty exacerbates it, a drink of water relieves it.

Just yesterday morning when this snowstorm was starting.

Just yesterday morning when this snowstorm was starting.

Twenty-four hours later we have eight inches of snow. All the little flowers and shoots are buried, and getting a deep drink. More snow is expected later this week. What do we call the spell of spring that lasted almost a month and brought so many species out of their winter sleep? If the warm weather that follows the first cold spell in fall is called Indian Summer, what is the name of the first warm spell that precedes actual Spring?

I never thought I’d be grateful to live in Colorado because of the mild winter! Though we loved this balmy break in our short winter, everyone is celebrating the return of the snow. We think about “percent of normal” snowpack in the mountains, and what it means for our water this summer. Skiers are ecstatic with feet of new snow in the high country. Down here at 6800′ we welcome the moisture in fields, yards, gardens that were already drying out. The almost non-winter this year is as eerie as the absence of the bees. So with deep relief, after a brief frenzy of garden cleanup, I settle back into winter pace. When the snow melts again the garden will be well ahead of itself, and maybe the grasshoppers will have frozen.

Free at last, thank Dog, I'm free at last!

Free at last, thank Dog, I’m free at last!

And once she was off the leash, Stellar just had to make her play.

And once she was off the leash, Stellar just had to make her play.

Big goofball heeling for no reason.

Big goofball heeling for no reason.

A dark-eyed junco fluffs in the desert willow outside my office window.

A dark-eyed junco fluffs in the desert willow outside my office window.

A young buck mule deer passes in front of the lion gate after digging and browsing around under the snow in the garden.

A young buck mule deer passes in front of the lion gate after digging under snow and browsing in the garden.

Beenundrum…

The first crocuses opened this morning, bereft of bees.

The first crocuses opened this morning, bereft of bees.

One day a month or so ago I saw bees flying in and out of the hive. It was very early, some time in January, but it was a warm day. I was a little surprised but had enough else on my mind that I didn’t pay attention to it other than to pause a moment to watch them. There weren’t a great many, which made sense for the time of year. I wish now I’d watched longer, paid close attention to what they were doing, where they were going, if they were only bringing carcasses out of the hive or were flying for water or what. I may have been in the midst of the Raven crisis, or it might have been even earlier, in December. It struck me as only a little odd, and easily explained by climate change (or just weather). I failed to write it down.

Then it was cold again for awhile. And then it was warm again. Early last week the eerie absence of bees came over me like a chill when I suddenly realized it was warm enough for them to be out. We were just days away from crocus blooms, and I’d heard the occasional bee buzz by during the week before. I went to the hive with foreboding. Sure enough, dead silence. I unhooked the insulating panels and looked in the window. No bees.

In the doorway, a couple of dead bees. I pulled them out and more dead bees fell into the doorway. I scooped out three or four spoonfuls with a twig, until they stopped coming. I did what I always do with a shock: acknowledged it and moved on to something else, set it aside until I could pull together the wherewithal to face it. In this case that meant, in addition to emotional fortitude and another pair of hands, a big chunk of time free of other obligations and demands, uncluttered and scrubbed kitchen counters and sinks, and a collection of sieves and containers.

I anticipated a large honey haul, one silver lining in this bee tragedy. Another was a sense of relief. Maybe there are just those two, maybe I’ll come up with more as this loss unfolds. I’ve not been in right relationship with these bees since the beetastrophe at the end of their first summer here. I fucked it up. I learned a lot from that, and I’ve learned a lot more investigating this beenundrum.

So far the honey haul hasn’t materialized, and the relief has darkened with sorrow. The only comfort I can take is that in the fall, before I hooked on the insulating panels, I could see there were far fewer bees in the hive than there had been going into the preceding two winters. They must have swarmed sometime during the summer and I missed it. I wasn’t outside as much as usual. I was away five days in September. It could have happened any time.

All along in this adventure my primary reason for keeping the hive has been to provide habitat for bees, a garden for them to feed in and a home base for them to swarm from, intending that they would spread out from here, colonize the canyon, some of the hollow trees in the woods. In short, especially since the beetastrophe, I have regarded my hive as a conduit for the propagation of this superorganism rather than as a honey source for me. So if they swarmed at least once they’re on their way.

We used the hive tool to scrape propolis and separate the false back and the first bar.

We used the hive tool to scrape propolis and separate the false back and the first bar.

Deb and I opened the hive on Sunday afternoon. The lid was sticky with a big wad of propolis in one back corner, but there was nothing trapped within it to suggest an invader. The bars were tightly sealed together and to the hive frame with propolis as well, and a good comb had been started on the back of the false back. It took forever to get the back off and the first bar separated, and when I lifted it out it was solid honey, and I mean solid. It had all crystallized, like maple sugar candy only honey instead. It was delicious.

Clean empty comb on the back side of the false back. Hmmm.

Clean empty comb on the back side of the false back. Hmmm.

The first bar of honey was SO heavy, and even the comb had been crystallized. Eating a mouthful yielded only a tiny bit of wax.

The first bar of honey was SO heavy, and even the comb had been crystallized. Eating a mouthful yielded only a tiny bit of wax.

We worked apart the next three bars one at a time, a tedious sticky task, and the scene became macabre. Dead bees littered the floor, and clung scattered to the combs in various positions as though frozen, some emerging from the combs, some heads in; some with an arm raised or tongue out, wings open or closed. As we worked, a lone honeybee sipped from the exposed comb oblivious to us. This was heartening; at least there are some bees in the yard from somewhere.

Small and large blackish patches showed on the walls and the floor and we wondered if they were mold. As we pulled each bar we scooped dead bees off the floor. Those next three combs each had a lot of capped honey and a little bit of empty comb. Much of the capped comb looked greyer than I thought it should, and we wondered if that was mold, but when I sliced off the caps the honey inside looked clear and dark and perfect.

A robber bee from somewhere else drinks from exposed comb as we work.

A robber bee from somewhere else drinks from exposed comb as we work.

We see dead bees on the floor after we've removed the first two bars.

We see dead bees on the floor after we’ve removed the first two bars.

Three bars full, heading for the kitchen to see what we can salvage.

Three bars full, heading for the kitchen to see what we can salvage.

Slicing off the caps reveals clear dark honey inside the cells.

Slicing off the caps reveals clear dark honey inside the cells.

I decided the honey was clean and the caps look grey just because the honey is so dark and distilled; these back combs must be two years old. I didn’t open the hive last spring because I was dizzy, and never quite had the confidence or energy to tackle that task. I have only harvested honey twice, and the first time was the beetastrophe. The second time, with the bee doctor here, went well. We pulled three combs that were golden and full, but only about half the honey had been capped; the rest were cells that were half-full of half-formed honey, more like thick nectar. So I don’t really know what fully capped honey should look like especially if it’s been there awhile, or what range of colors is normal for healthy comb.

Sunday evening I cut and sliced and tried to chop two of the combs into pieces to strain through a screen colander into a stainless steel bowl. Much of it was crystallized or so thick it just wouldn’t drip from the comb. The next day I tried the the third comb in a stainless colander with bigger holes, and it still drained sluggishly. I put both bowls in the sunroom, and warming the comb helped it drain better. Still, for all the pounds of honey in those combs precious little fell through to the bowls.

Moving toward the front two bars at a time the dead bees on the floor become thicker.

Moving toward the front two bars at a time the dead bees on the floor become thicker.

Frozen in time.

Frozen in time.

Dark old comb near the nest holds more dead bees, and what are those weird nipple-like things in the caps on the top right?

Dark old comb near the nest holds more dead bees, and what are those weird nipple-like things in the caps on the top right?

As we proceeded pulling bars the next afternoon, the honey caps continued to look grey, and most of the empty comb darker and darker brown the farther forward we got. That made sense; this was the original brood comb, yet parts of these combs were also full of honey.

Another couple of bees flew in from somewhere to scavenge with us. We found more black stains on walls and floor, more dead bees on the combs, and more and more on the floor. In the front corner where they clustered there was a mound just behind the door. I slid all the full bars toward the back and we scooped out the dead bees, then I put fresh bars in the front of the hive and we closed it back up temporarily.

The rest of the honey salvage operation will have to wait until I process the three combs we pulled Monday, and I’m still puzzling over the best way to do that. Will it all be as thick as the first three combs? Should I try to cut off all the caps or just mash the comb? And where in hell did I put my honey-straining kit that I spent good money on and saw when I was cleaning out the storage unit last fall but can’t for the life of me find right now when I need it?

Deb doesn’t like the look of the capped comb, which is funny because I’m usually the germaphobe and I feel oddly secure about this honey. She doesn’t want me to put any more of it in my mouth until I’ve ascertained whether it’s safe, i.e., exactly what happened in the hive, and is the honeycomb moldy or otherwise tainted?

I’ve looked online and found a few videos of dead hives, all of which look similar to mine: Bees frozen in place, comb of all colors, capped honey from gold to grey, masses of dead bees on the floor. Some of the narrators concluded that their hives froze; another sent his bees off to a lab and confirmed varroa mite infestation. One showed how to look for tiny white specks of mite poop in the cells. Nobody mentioned the various comb and honey colors.

So I pulled out the microscope, and shook some of the dead bees out of the jar I’d collected them in onto a piece of freezer paper. Sure enough, mites. Lots of them. Maybe it was mites alone that killed the bees, weakening them or infecting them with a virus. Maybe the extra warm winter combined with the insulation caused a ventilation failure and mold contributed to the die-off. Maybe they did freeze, one bitter cold day in January following their first foraging. Maybe all these challenges stemmed from the mess I made of their hive that first terrible time I opened it. Probably some combination of the above wiped them out.

Now that I've seen the mites through the microscope I can see them in this image. Naked eye not so well, especially in the first flush of discovery. But now I know what to look for.

Now that I’ve seen the mites through the microscope I can see them in this image. Naked eye not so well, especially in the first flush of discovery. But now I know what to look for.

Same thing here: mites everywhere in and around the pile that dropped in front of the door.

Same thing here: mites everywhere in and around the pile that dropped in front of the door.

Once I dumped some of the dead bees onto white paper and looked under the microscope it was easy to discern the varroa mites.

Once I dumped some of the dead bees onto white paper and looked under the microscope it was easy to discern the varroa mites.

Zoom. Two mites. Nasty creatures.

Zoom. Two mites. Nasty creatures.

I’ll continue to investigate and inquire. Meanwhile, the house is redolent with honey. I need to clean up the kitchen and jar the honey I’ve already collected. I need to decide whether to try to salvage the rest of it, or simply cut the combs off the bars and fling them willy-nilly over the cliff for spring bears to find and feast on. I need to steam clean the hive at the car wash. I need to look up how to make mead. I need to take a nap.

I don't know enough to say what I'm seeing here. Some of these cells may have held bee larvae. The white speck top center might be mite feces. The glistening blobs inside the cells could be calcified honey. The bee doctor identified some cells as such when he opened the hive two years ago, and he was perplexed by the phenomenon.

I don’t know enough to say what I’m seeing here. Some of these cells may have held bee larvae. The white speck top center might be mite feces. The glistening blobs inside the cells could be calcified honey. The bee doctor identified some cells as such when he opened the hive two years ago, and he was perplexed by the phenomenon.

In the center cell in this image there are a couple of white things that look like the discarded skins of the last stage of mite metamorphosis.

In the center cell in this image there are a couple of white things that look like the discarded skins of the last stage of mite metamorphosis.

Just another cool picture of the comb.

Just another cool picture of the comb.

A poor dead bee like so many just hanging out where it expired. It strikes me as odd: Did they all die at once, instantaneously? Why are some frozen in mid-stride and others fallen to the bottom? Complex and full of mystery.

A poor dead bee like so many just hanging out where it expired. It strikes me as odd: Did they all die at once, instantaneously? Why are some frozen in mid-stride and others fallen to the bottom? Complex and full of mystery.

“Will you get more bees?” the friends ask. I don’t know. Not this spring, unless they move in on their own. “How do you feel about this?” they ask.

The bees gave me three summers of ecstasy photographing them, and three years of living intimately with them. I learned a whole lot. They inspired me to buy close-up binoculars and an excellent macro lens, opening a grand new universe of tiny creatures in the garden that I had never seen before. They enhanced and expanded my world view. I feel exceedingly grateful. If they did swarm, those bees know where the garden is and will be back. I feel hopeful. The silence in the garden makes me ache like the absence of a dead pet. I feel sad, but not guilty.

I did not have great success with mammals initially either. The hamster died when I was six or seven, the rabbit a couple of years later, both probably from neglect. It took decades to learn the patience and the language required for each species, each individual dog or cat that followed those first ill-fated pets. Animal care is a steep learning curve, and mistakes can be costly. Now I’ve got the mammal thing down. I’ll try again with bees eventually, and I’ll be a better bee guardian for all I’ve learned during these first few steps into the realm.

Highs and Lows in Crazy Early Spring

IMG_3384 First a word about my breakfast. I am so aware of where my food comes from. I realize it might seem off the deep end to friends in other places, other lives, other worlds. But here, in this fertile creative valley, it feels so easy and right to be mindful of every bite. Or nearly. Time to focus on slowly consuming what’s in the freezer, because in a couple of months or less we’ll have half a pig to put in there. I found a couple of rolls from Monica’s brick oven bakery, so I thawed and toasted them. Pamela’s hens are laying and I’ve got a dozen fresh eggs. Suzi called the other night and squealed “I picked up your birthday present today!” That’s when I started thinking about a homemade eggamuffin. She’d asked me a few weeks earlier which part of her pig I would like for my birthday present. Bacon! I cried without hesitation.

This year when friends announced a joint birthday party for Elena and me, she said “no presents.” Great idea, I thought. I have too much stuff! But I’d already told a couple of friends all I wanted was socks. Socks used to be a bit of a disappointment at Christmas. Imperceptibly over the years I came to appreciate the gift of socks. Maybe it began after my mother died and I no longer routinely got socks for Christmas or birthday presents. Auntie sent me socks in recent years, and I’ve been delighted to get them. So I replied to the group invitation, “Me too! No presents. Unless I can wear them or eat them.” Because I suddenly remembered the fresh oranges and other gifts of food I’ve received since living here, and I didn’t want to discourage more of those. So it was a meaningful breakfast, chock full not only of pure and local nutrients but also full of neighborly friendship and love. A fulfilling and tangible taste of community. Yum.

The lettuce was store-bought organic. The garden is crazy early waking up, but no edible greens yet except the early blue mustards, whose bright green rosettes are popping up in vibrant patches as the snow melts. All manner of other little green shoots are poking up or unfurling, crocus and iris leaves, miniature daffodil tips, curly grape hyacinth leaves, and the hardier perennials like RatibidaGallardia, and columbines. I’ve been puttering in the garden for at least a week, and the past few beautiful days we’ve started spring cleanup in earnest.

Time to break back the columbine stalks to free the new growth sprouting.

Time to break back the columbine stalks to free the new growth sprouting.

It’s only been a couple of weeks since the snow has melted off the front of the hoop house, and when I opened it the other day I realized I should have done so as soon as the east side was free of snow. The Vidalia onions survived! At least, some of them did, and when I checked, expecting frozen ground a finger depth down I was stunned to find the dirt was bone dry. So I dragged out the hoses and watered the bed deeply through the afternoon.

I'd say maybe 35% of the Vidalia onions in the hoop house made it through winter. I texted this image to David, who sent me the starts last fall from Florida. "Look who made it through the winter!" I crowed in a text.

I’d say maybe 35% of the Vidalia onions in the hoop house survived winter. I texted this image to David, who sent me the starts last fall from Florida. “Look who made it through the winter!” I crowed in a text.

"Their cousins," he wrote back with this image. Well, but to be fair, the southern cousins did not have to contend with below freezing temperatures through the winter.

“Their cousins,” he wrote back with this image. Hmmm. Well, but to be fair, the southern cousins did not have to contend with below freezing temperatures through the winter.

Three years worth of amaryllis add color and structure to the sunroom in winter. I can't eat it or wear it, but each year a friend gives me an amaryllis for Christmas. This year's amaryllis popped open this week, while the other two are growing great green leaves. One of them bloomed twice last summer out on the patio. Three years worth of amaryllis add color and structure to the sunroom in winter. I can’t eat it or wear it, but each year a friend gives me one for Christmas. This year’s amaryllis popped open this week, while the other two are growing great green leaves. One of them bloomed twice last summer out on the patio. Raven, all well again, naps outside the windows.

This year's amaryllis.

This year’s amaryllis.

Sunset on Saturday night.

Sunset on Saturday night.

With all this rejuvenation in the garden I was surprised to notice in these recent warm days that there were no bees coming out of the hive. I went closer and listened; no buzzing from inside. I realized with mixed emotions that the hive had died. Deborah came over yesterday afternoon to help cut back penstemon stalks and other seedheads, and we embarked upon the adventure of opening the hive, which revealed a Bee Tragedy…