Back in winter, my friend Alex and I were planning on starting a mushroom farm on the property. Unfortunately our calls for logs (oak, birch, beech, etc.) didn’t produce any, and so the inoculation season passed us by. But all was not lost. In 2010 I bought and planted mycelium of King Stropharia. Stropharia rugosoannulata, also known as the wine cap stropharia, “garden giant” or burgundy mushroom, never materialized in the bed where I planted it, but a couple of years ago he started making regular appearances, all over the place, also in my vegetable garden. He did so again on April 5 after it had rained for a couple of days, and I was ready!
Alex and I had planned to buy spawn, but this was better. This was not some sterile, mamby-pamby lab-grown weakling but a rugged, over-wintered, tried and tested Stropharia who was already at home in my garden! I plucked some of the mushrooms (left some in the ground too) and collected the spores from several of them. Others I fried up with some onions, salt and pepper, but not before I cut off their stem butts and planted those in between two sheets of wet cardboard.
I put the butts in plastic boxes which I kept in my “cool closet,” where I keep all the medicinals. The mycelium grew steadily and today they are as ready as I’ll ever know they’ll be. Paul Stamets says something like: the mycelium runs and if you don’t let it, it will die. It is also overcast and threatening to rain, so the weather too said, let’s run with it!
I chose a spot underneath a small oak and my largest hazel (mushrooms and hazel nuts, can you think of a better combination?), carefully scraped off and set aside the top inch of duff/soil, then lay the cardboard mycelium down. Then I replaced the soil and added a healthy cover of decomposed leaves, then watered, with rain water, of course. Let’s see what happens!
And this wasn’t even the largest one of the clutch. Am I concerned about fungi all over my vegetable garden? No, on the contrary, Paul Stamets has shown that many fungi, among them King Stropharia, are great companions to plants!
From the beginning (2008), I have gardened organically – better than “organically,” actually. For instance, I always refused to use the hose, that is, tap water, in my gardens. Even as the garden grew larger and more labor intensive, I insisted on watering with buckets and watering cans. Some relief came when I installed drip in my big vegetable and berry gardens two years ago. And whenever I ran out of rain water, earlier and earlier each year even as I added more and more catchment, I still refused to use that tap water. That is because, in our town, the tap water is full of chlorine and fluoride, which are detrimental to the life in the soil.
And so, year after year, usually in August, I “lost” my gardens. Vegetables didn’t grow so lush, fruits didn’t ripen, berry bushes stayed small, hunkered down. But I insisted: the soil is more important than the plants that grow in it, because the soil is the long-term bank account, the wealth of nutrients, life and diversity that makes the plants possible in the first place.
I realize that I have the luxury of other food sources (our CSA, mainly) that make this attitude possible, and I am well aware that such a situation can make a body complacent. Truth is, I’d rather be a good tender of the soil and a good farmer/gardener, to triumphantly raise a handful of dark, thick, sticky soil shot through with worms and mycelium and a plump, juice, deep-red bell pepper or even a five pound water melon.
My first concern (but only for starters) was water. Our droughts have been getting worse and none of us expect it to get any better. So a friend and I arranged for another order of those second-hand 275 gallon IBC totes ($75 each), and soon other gardeners, schools and churches got in on it. One day a month ago a big trailer pulled up to my house and we shoved no less than twelve of those massive, ugly totes onto my driveway (the neighbors are used to it.) We rinsed out the left-over vegetable oils and then they were picked up, one by one, till I was left with four. We installed two of those next to my original two, making for 1,100 gallons of water storage. I plan to add a couple more smaller rain barrels in several places. As for the other two totes, the idea was to use one as a watering tank, the other as a dunking tank for mushrooms – about which later – but the mushroom inoculation season escaped us while we waited for logs to become available. I may hook them up into another tower in the chicken yard… One can never have enough rain water stored away!
Both my colonies perished over the winter. When I opened them up in early spring I found only a handful of dead bees (no queen, that I could see), and quite a bit of honey left. It was too late, the bee bodies were too decomposed, to send off a sample to the Beltsville Lab, where they would try to diagnose the cause of the demise (for free, too). So I can only speculate about what happened. One scenario is that on warm days foragers left to look for pollen or water and, for some reason (pesticides, mite disease), didn’t return, then a new group was roped into foraging, dispatched, didn’t return, and so forth, till there was only a handful left. Or they all left en masse, in a massive death exodus…
I asked my neighborhood beekeepers. The results alarmed all of us: some (strangely enough those with apiaries with more then six hives) did well, but most of us with smaller apiaries has 50-100% losses. Altogether, of the 23 hives that I know of (kept by 10 backyard beekeepers), 16 did not make it: a 70 percent loss. And in 90% of those cases the same scenario played out: a handful of bees left, and lots of honey stores. This situation is alarming because we don’t know the causes, so are groping for solutions – with a wide-spectrum approach on all fronts (pesticides, acclimated bee populations, mite treatment, etc.) a big task for the usual backyard beekeeper, and especially for beginners. It is also unsustainable. We can’t keep buying bees and queens from the state of Georgia…
Time to do something.
As a first step I put all my thoughts down in a letter to all my neighbors in our local newspaper (copied below). Then I ordered no less than four packages (yes, those Italians from Georgia – one last time) and started sourcing local queens. I also successfully petitioned the Wayland Conservation Commission to let me, and any local backyard beekeeper, keep those bees near the Community Gardens (pollination services), which is also near the Sudbury River and large stretches of conservation land (lots of bee forage).
I hived those packages on April 11 and they are thriving. Soon I will check for mites with a sugar roll – a new bee friend showed me how to do it properly, so I won’t have to repeat my one disastrous attempt. Then, if necessary, I will treat with the oxalic acid fumigator. I will also start the bees on rearing some extra queens from the Italians, and I’ll buy, beg, or borrow some other queens (local Russians, Carniolans, and mutts), for optimal diversity. And then I will split those four packages, and split again, and again, aiming to go into winter with around twenty colonies (half in Langstroths, half in nuc boxes – let’s experiment with that as well). The ones that overwinter will be split again and will be made available to the local beekeepers – no more packages and queens from Georgia for them either! Sorry, Georgia, but it isn’t working out.
Stayed tuned for lots of bee fun!
Wayland Earth Month: New Ideas to Help Bees, by Kaat Vander Straeten (Wayland Town Crier of April 15, 2016)
Every year the national news about the pollinators gets worse (for honeybees alone, the Bee Informed Survey shows this year’s losses at 40 to 45 percent), and every year it is matched by our local experiences. Of the 23 hives that I know of (kept by 10 backyard beekeepers), 16 did not make it through this mild winter. That’s a 70 percent loss. The alarm bells are ringing and I’d like you to hear them, too.
But to most of you, the complex of stressors assailing the bees (explained below) may seem like one of those Big Ones that is not 100 percent studied yet, or inevitable, or so difficult that there is nothing you feel you can do about it.
Let me tell you, when year after year I open my hives and find most of my bees dead, I know it’s 100 percent a sure thing, and I know that it’s not inevitable, and that there is a lot we can do.
The problems are complex, no doubt about it, but science and beekeeper experience have identified plenty of opportunities to contain them. Here’s one. Some years I have found my bees dead of starvation with plenty of honey only 3 inches away, but the long-lasting “troughs” of deep cold prevented them from breaking their warm cluster to get to it. I wrap my hives with insulation, and this year I will switch to a hardier breed.
Every year I see an abundant nectar flow in spring, with good amounts of honey to “rob” in early summer, but I’ve learned not to rob too much, because late summer and fall nectar flows increasingly disappoint. This indicates the gardeners and landscapers in my suburban neighborhood favor bee-friendly flowering plants in the spring, but not in late summer and fall, and that they’re good at eradicating the late-flowering weeds like goldenrod. Fall honey is the honey these colonies need to survive winter. Feeding sugar is a Band-Aid we often use, and we are switching to bee breeds that eat less in winter.
We also see more “shotgun frames,” capped brood frames in which many cells have been emptied out. Often this means that the queen mated with one or more drones too closely related to her. She is now laying “inbred,” nonviable eggs. The nurse bees have a way of sniffing these out, and they get rid of them. When the beekeeper replaces that queen, she may find the next one is just as bad. That is because the genetic diversity of our bees is coming up on a major bottleneck. Parasites and viruses, pollution and loss of habitat have wiped out the genetically rich feral bees with whom our queens could mate, and commercial queen breeders use too few queen mothers (it is estimated that less than 500 queen mothers are used to produce around 900,000 daughter queens annually for commercial sale in the U.S.). Moreover they breed queens for honey production and gentleness, not for longevity. All this is not so easy to solve, but breeders are working on it, and adding diversity to the backyard apiary will help.
We also see increasing pressure from varroa mites. Imagine a parasite the size of a rabbit sinking its teeth into you, spewing all kinds of viruses and diseases into your body. That is “varroa destructor,” the pest that, in the ’80s, killed off almost all the feral and “kept” bees (those were hard years). Injudicious use of pesticides soon created “super-mites,” which we cannot get rid of. Beekeepers can use Integrated Pest Management and organic treatments. We can also switch to so-called “hygienic” bees, which groom each other of most mites.
The lost bees of Wayland may have suffered from any or all of the above – not acclimatized, lacking in forage, compromised by their breeding, weakened by mites and diseases. Marla Spivak, in a TEDtalk that I recommend, asks you to think back to the last time you had the flu. Now imagine you have to search a long time to find any nutritious food, and that when you find it, it is poisoned.
Our bees may, at the end of fall, have had the misfortune of foraging a patch of late blooming and exceptionally toxic flowers. Or they may, over the course of the year, have foraged several below-threshold toxic fields of flowers – below threshold for one dose. Usually the toxin in question is a neonicotinoid, a type of systemic pesticide used in monocultures of corn and soy and in gardens all over our town. This would have weakened their immune systems even further and/or messed up their orientation. And so they didn’t make it home.
The last thing I want is for this lineup to masquerade as “hopeless.” It truly isn’t. With our BEElieve beekeepers group, I plan to change my beekeeping practices and start raising a diversity of local, acclimatized, hygienic bee – a “Wayland Bee.”
May I ask you to stop spraying the neonicotinoids, to ask your landscaper to stop spraying them and your favorite garden center to stop selling them? “Neonics” come in two forms. The first is in a bottle that anyone can grab at the garden center or hardware store. If the list of active ingredients names one of the following, that bottle contains a neonic – Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiocloprid, or Thiamethoxam. You can safely dispose of it by returning it to the store or by bringing it to Household Hazardous Waste Day at the Transfer Station, which takes place twice a year, the next one on June 18 (register here).
The second way you may be importing neonics is in seeds and plants. Neonics are systemic in that you need to treat only one part of the plant, or the soil in which it grows, or even just the seed, and it will suffuse the entire plant, including the nectar and pollen. More and more ornamental plants are being grown by a few ultra-large suppliers, and virtually all of them use neonics. Ask your garden center if the plant you like has neonics in is history. If it does, or they’re not sure, leave that plant on their counter.
But wait, there is even more you can do! Grow bee-friendly gardens that set out a nectar buffet from early spring to late fall. Join me in asking our town, the state’s Highway Division, and the utilities to plant low-growing flowers in fields, along roadsides and under power lines. You will be helping not just honeybees, but all the pollinators.
We can do this out of admiration for these amazing, hardworking creatures, and also simply because we like to eat. Without pollinators, we’d have no broccoli, cucumber, tomato, eggplant, lettuce, watermelons, apples, pears, almonds, cotton, and much less meat (alfalfa, the main livestock food, needs pollination). Let’s make it safe for the pollinators to feed themselves, meanwhile feeding us as well.
Kaat Vander Straeten lives in Wayland and has been a beekeeper for six years. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
I got a comment from Ashley about her mead. My apologies, Ashley, for responding so late, but in any case I can’t help much. I’m just a dabbler in mead myself, and do most mead making by the seat of my pants, eyeballing it and experimenting. I’ve not yet had to throw away any mead, but some (usually a melomel) has tasted better than others! If you would still like some ideas, I’d say your yeast didn’t have enough sugar, or lacked something else, and so consumed all it could then died too quickly. I’d rack the mead to get rid of the graveyard at the bottom and to oxygenate anew, then add new yeast and sugar.
As for my mead, DH will need the two big carboys soon for his wine, and so I had to empty the one with an old mead that was still sitting in the basement (started in August 2014). It was flat and tasteless, but it hadn’t turned to vinegar, so instead of chucking it, I decided to experiment. I racked it into two smaller bottles. In one I put dried apples and peach leather. In the other, one fresh green apple and a large spoonful of a friend’s raspberry jam. I put the bottles in the porch to warm up a bit and will add fresh champagne yeast and some more honey and let it ferment away again. Like I said, it’s all an experiment.
Music is such a large part of our lives. Amie is playing classical pieces that truly ask the best of her. It is a marvel to see her small fingers dance on the fretless fingerboard, touching each note. Her playing folk with some of the kind folks of the 12 Georgia is a lot of fun. So far, the guitar sings Twinkle Twinkle and House of the Rising Sun. I love it when she practices. When I bring her with me to visit our friend Rebecca, we bring her cello and she plays. Rebecca, who can no longer speak, studies her intently, like she is trying to engrave her, or her song, in her memory – I like to think so she will remember them on the other side of life.
As for myself, I never had any musical education and can’t even read music, but I do have a good singing voice. Never very confident, I’ve always kept silent, but now I am changing my mind about that. I may never play the cello, but I can honor the world with my song and tell story and make beauty that way. So I picked up my courage and sang, full-breasted, “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” for Rebecca. Apart from my closest family, she was my first audience and she liked it very much, I could tell.
Because it is for the world I want to sing, I want to sing songs from all over the world, songs that go way back or way deep too. Right now I’m learning Gaelic “Song of Amergin,” which according to some sources means “Birth of Song”. It is an ancient wizard riddle that may go back to the 4th or 5th century. The language is wicked hard to pronounce and then to memorize, and so are the subtle pitch changes, the unexpected melodies, and the tremelos. I take it line by line and it becomes an invocation. My guide on this song too is Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance (she sings it here, but I wish it didn’t have the ever louder background music).
With song comes wine. We measured the specific gravity of the crushed grape juice (1.04 for the Malbec, 1.08 for the Cabernet), then put the yeast to it. We need to feed it in a months time.
I just went into my two hives. One of them at least has overcrowded and hot – indicated by the massive bearding that begins in the late afternoon and continues through the night until the foragers go out again in the morning. They don’t abandon this way of keeping the hive cool inside even when it rains: scores of bees drown then. No swarming, though. Knock on wood! But if these hives survive the winter, I’d better be ready come spring!
I harvested 90 pounds of honey at the end of July. Considering these were first-year packages (on fully drawn-out frames, however), that was a gift. For the harvest I used a bee escape built and lent to me by a friend. It was the first time I used it and it worked great, on both hives (24 hours each). No more brushing angry bees off the individual frames, what a relief!
Today’s quick inspection when the hives were in the shade was pretty mellow. I just took a peek in the supers. There’s some honey in there, not much, and nothing capped. This was expected as the nectar flow has been bad, what with the drought. I had one and a half supers still dripping with honey from the harvest, so stuck one on top of each hive to let the bees clean out the frames. I’ll take them off again in a few days, before they start putting new honey in there or putting burr comb all over them.
Hopefully there will be another honey harvest after the fall nectar flow. We’ve had a week of good, mostly gentle rains, so hopefully the flowers will get going and flowing again.
I’ve become a much more hands-off beekeeper over the years. In my first year I used to go in every two weeks. Now, every time I prepare (lighting the smoker, getting into my gear in the backyard) and walk over to the apiary, I need to take a bit of a breath to calm my heart. Over the years I’ve come to realize that these are massive organisms I am messing with, often 50,000 bees busily doing their complex and enigmatic thing, who knows in what kind of mood, under what stress. That I am bigger may mean nothing to them: they’re 50,000, I’m just one. I often imagine what it would be like to accidentally drop a full frame or box, to go in at the very wrong moment, smelling of the wrong thing. Yes, there’s some fear there, but not the paralyzing kind, so I am not hands-off because of it. If anything, it makes my experience when I go in so much more intense and pleasurable. No longer thinking I am in control, but more there, with them, more respectful and awed (I for them, if they respect me, I wouldn’t know or presume), and more myself, too. So, if we realize Neighborwoods – a bit more land – I think that I’ll build a much bigger apiary. Twenty, even fifty, hives, with room for queen and bee rearing, now that would be life!
Today the doorbell rang and the box the mailman handed to me was heavier than I expected. It was:
I hope it will get my creative juices flowing again, for this blog, among other places. I certainly am fully convinced that any art I make or text I write needs to be made and written “as if the world mattered.” It doesn’t need to matter to the world, as in, it doesn’t need to change the world. But it needs to be in the service of the world. As for the “as if,” I take that in the sense of: I make it so, I make it the story. I take that in the same vein as the subtitle of the blog: Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. It is not (only) about how things are (however that is) but about my strong intention of offering beauty and story.
I’d been struggling to reconcile two insights: One, that whatever I do I would do not to change the world, but to change myself. And Two, that I would choose not what I want to do, but what the world needs doing. Those two seem to me very admirable plans, but it wasn’t until I added something to the first that they became compatible: Act not to change the world but to change yourself in the world. Ah, there’s the connection, the hand shake, the hug that gets the blood flowing!
It has been a while, hasn’t it? A lot has happened and all of it soon overwhelmed my ability to write about any of it at all. Thus I was already struggling in April, when I wrote my last blog post. On the one hand, I seemed to be writing about the same things as I did last year, and the year before. On the other, the big things that were going on were either too big or too new, or as yet too unclear, or all of those, to capture into words. When one writes something down prematurely, it becomes too much of a definite thing, too much of a promise, than it really is. I’d like to write about these now, though. This post could be a stopgap, a Bung Puller (in the meaning of Ursula K. Le Guin), and an apologia (in the Greek sense), or at the very least a chronological list of what happened, for my own reference, later, when I hopefully get to do all of it justice.
In April Amie and I were still homeschooling and having a blast with it, addressing all the issues we had had with her public schooling, and more. One of my best friends, locally, Rebecca and I had successfully launched the All Things Mortal program under the umbrella of our group, Transition Wayland. We had organized a “Reclaiming the Care of Our Dead” workshop on home funerals and a Death Cafe (which we dubbed “Cake and Grave Matters” since no one in our town would rent us a room if we stuck to the original title). We were planning a Death Film Festival, a talk on Green Burial, and more. Another big one were our efforts for a screening of Griefwalker, the film about Stephen Jenkinson, with Stephen there for a Q&A and a book signing of his new book, Die Wise, in August. Rebecca and I also attended Stephen’s Orphan Wisdom School for five days in April. Last but not least, we (Rebecca, Amie, DH and myself) were thinking, out loud by now, about a project we called “Neighborwoods,” which involved selling our houses and moving together to one (larger) house on an 8-acre plot, here in Wayland, the beginning of an intentional community or, as we liked to call it, a village.
Homeschool, All Things Mortal, Orphan Wisdom, Die Wise, Neighborwoods, all this was happily fermenting that Spring in the vat of daily life, with concerts, new bees, seedlings springing up in the basement… Then one day in mid May Rebecca was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a Stage Four inoperable brain tumor. In the next few days while she still had clarity, she expressed and advocated for her wish for non-intervention, for good dying at home, for a home funeral, and for a green burial. Suddenly all the theory and talk about dying and death came home, hard, and had to be put into practice. And not just dying and death, but elderhood too, and village-making.
I visited every day – and have done so, mostly, since then – taking care of lots and helping all of Rebecca’s local friends to help in the Work. There is so much to write about those acts of friendship: all of us making rhubarb jam in Rebecca’s kitchen/living room when she had already gone a good way away from us but could still celebrate our presence, building her coffin to her specifications (plain white pine, local, and no metal), weeding her garden together, innumerable grocery shopping trips and immeasurable conversations, with her, and among each other. Our joy and grief in this work were (and still are) a true lesson, a treasure.
So much of our work “before” had been about death and dying, so it comes as no surprise that much of it continued, though in its changed form. The only things we (and by that I mean I, since Rebecca soon lost the ability to make decisions) effectively canceled was the Die Wise event, as it was a Big One and I couldn’t conceive of doing all the promotion by myself while also giving so much of my time to Rebecca’s care. As for All Things Mortal, I shelved the Film Festival and the next Death Cafe, but of course the public work of changing the culture with respect to dying and death continued as we planned the first home funeral in our town, which necessitated coordinating with curious and (fortunately) open-minded town officials (police, Board of Health, Town Clerk, and cemetery directors).
Rebecca had also made me promise to continue doing our very best on the Neighborwoods project. She had loved it so, the prospect of growing old (she is 69) and dying and maybe even being buried in such a village! In her later confusion she often told people she was moving there soon, as if it was already a reality, as if it was not too late for her, and we rejoiced with her. This too is part of our Orphan Wisdom, now put to the test and into practice.
I return for the fourth and last session of my Orphan Wisdom class in September. It will be without Rebecca.
Meanwhile the vat of daily life in which all this bubbles away does not yield much. Homeschool concluded a little unconventionally as I brought Amie (and her math books) along to the ER and various hospitals. Music has been a mainstay. Amie played some beautiful classical concerts and also picked up some Irish Jigs and Reels which got her introduced, via our Farmers Market, to a group of older gentlemen who play Civil War time music: she is now their cellist. She also had her first guitar lesson. Best of all is that she played one of my favorite pieces, the Prelude of Bach’s first cello suite, for my birthday. The new bees arrived, were hived, and thrived so that we had a lot of honey in July. Amie got two “Fancy” mice for pets – one died of fright during a massive hail storm: here we were having so much fun and excitement with that storm, and look! It was very sad. The garden received all the seedlings that had grown up in the basement, but nothing much else, and the drought – broken only by hail and thunder storms – does not help, so I also won’t have much of a Fall Garden. Our house has been full up with my parents-in-law and soon my parents will join the mix. In a little over a week the new school year starts: we’ve enrolled Amie in an online public school which looks promising: a flexible curriculum, a lot of parental input. I’ve struggled off and on, in the wee hours after researching condominium schemes and cluster housing, with my new novel, a dystopian science fiction affair already too massive and unruly for its own (or my) good.
I’ve been an admirer of Ken Rose and his radio program *What Now* for years now. It was through Ken’s first interview with Stephen Jenkinson that eventually I came to be in the Orphan Wisdom School. Stephen could not have talked in such a way as to touch my life so deeply without Ken being on the other end of the line and, of course, sharing the interview. You can hear that first interview here, and I encourage you to explore the other interviews with Stephen and with countless others.
Ken suffered a stroke in February, and he needs our help. I donated to his fund (you can do that through Paypal here) but there are other ways you can help, just by spreading the word about his program so that he knows people need him to return to it, by leaving a comment for him, etc.
Ken Rose needs us because we need him. It comes around, and around again.
On Monday I picked up my new bees – two packages. Before that I built quite a few extra deep frames for them. It was easy to do, as I had blogged the process before and just had to refer to that old post.
Amie helped put the puzzles together:
The reason I made new frames was that I had pulled quite a few moldy frames out of the dead hives. I had planned to throw them all out, even the ones with just that blue/green/white sheen on them. But then – after I made the new ones – I read that a bit of mold doesn’t hurt the bees. It may even inhibit other micro-organisms that aren’t good for them. So I rescued the least affected frames and set them to dry in a warm spot with a fan on them.
The two new hives now have all drawn-out comb in their bottom deeps, and two frames of drawn-out frames in the middle of the top deeps, surrounded by empty frames. It’s always a good thing to exchange 1/4 or 1/3 of the comb every year, as comb accumulates pollutants. With the dried out box and the rest of the new frames, I’ll be ready for a third hive. Hopefully these two are strong enough and I can make a split soon!