Some Serious Beekeeping Advice

There’s a certain cruelty to beekeeping: By the time you finally figure out what you’re doing, you’ll likely lack the drive to do it. And by drive, I mean the DMV will have revoked your license because you’ll be old and decrepit and generally untrustworthy to operate a motor vehicle. The learning curve for beekeeping is that long and arduous. 

This is my tenth year keeping bees, at least if you count the first five years which were mostly me killing bees. So in commemoration of ten years of beekeeping, I thought for once I’d actually try to give some practical advice on this blog, so here it goes: 

For bees, the next three months are incredibly important. Hives aren’t lost during winter. They’re lost during July, August, and September. Usually what happens is beekeepers (myself included) get really excited about bees in the spring. As spring progresses toward summer, some of that excitement fades because, let’s face it, working hives is hard work. Harvesting honey during the middle of July is even harder work. Once your honey is in jars or buckets or barrels, you feel like you’ve accomplished your goal and take a well-deserved rest. Wrong. At least here in NC, July, August, and September are the most crucial months in beekeeping. Often there is a severe summer dearth of nectar and pollen. Couple this with exploding varroa levels, and you’ve got a recipe for a dwindling hive. So by the time October rolls around, you may only have a few frames of bees, which is not what you want going into winter. Though that hive will likely die during a February arctic freeze, it was really lost in late summer.  

So my advice is this: steel yourself for the upcoming dog days of summer and invest in a bee jacket with good wicking technology. It’s a lot cheaper than buying new bees each year.

Happy July 4th!

How to Solve the Farm Problem

By George! I’ve done it. I’ve solved “The Farm Problem.” Well, really my wife solved it after I asked her if she had seen a hammer recently.

“Which hammer?” she asked. 

“Any hammer,” I said, “The red one or the blue one or the neon green one.” The latter was supposed to glow in the dark in case I ever lost it at night. However, I lost it during the day. 

“No, the last time I saw a hammer it was lying somewhere,” she advised.

I went to check all the usual places a pounding implement might lay, hang, or drop on my farm, but after an extensive search, I chalked up another casualty to the Bermuda Triangle for hammers, tape measures, and quarter-inch wrenches that centers over our farm. 

The Farm Problem, you’ll remember, is the fact that farmers can’t afford to farm. This problem has persisted for eons; in fact, some economists speculate it dates back to when the first nomads gave up hunting and gathering and decided to feed the world. And yet, my wife quickly solved it when I returned home with a new orange hammer from the hardware megastore. (Interestingly, I can’t remember the location of a single hammer on my own farm, but I’ve memorized the aisle and bin number for all tools at the hardware store). Upon my arrival home with a new hammer, she said, “We’d have a lot more money if you’d stop buying the same tools over and over again.”

“Oh contraire,” I replied. “You’re forgetting opportunity costs. By buying a new hammer, I save time searching for an old one–and time is money.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she said, “I believe there’s an inverse relationship between the time you spend trying to farm and the direction of our bank account.”

“Hmpph,” I said, “Just think about all that money we made selling homegrown tomatoes on the roadside stand. We even had a few Sacagawea coins in the honor box. Those’ll be worth millions one day.”

“What about that old rusty hammer-mill thing you bought,” she asked, “can’t you just make hammers in it?”

“No, absolutely not. A hammer mill does not make hammers. It grinds grain to smithereens so animals can get the full nutritional value of my homegrown oats, barley, and corn blend.”

“They should call it a grain mill then, not a hammer mill,” she said, “Furthermore, you should just put your tools in their proper place–that would solve the whole farm problem.”

And there you have it. Farm problem solved.

Our tomato stand.

Farmer Strong

I used to have a ball cap from my local farm credit. It simply said “Carolina Farm Credit,” and I wore it so frequently that after a few years my wife retired it in a trash can without my consent. So I asked our local farm credit representative if I could have a new hat, and he obliged–only, the new hat says, “Farmer Strong.” 

Ugh.

Might as well give a squirrel a hat that says “Grizzly Bear Strong.” Then the squirrel could stroll around the forest understory feeling self-conscious and a little ridiculous, all because of his headwear. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m used to feeling like a moron because of my actions, but feeling like an oxymoron because of my wardrobe is a step too far. Sadly, my physique does not exude superior strength, no matter what my hat proclaims. 

Case in point,  I was once blown away by a stiff breeze. Of course, had I known the power of hay tarps, I wouldn’t have tied a tarp corner to a belt loop (to keep my hands free while traversing the haystack) and, in so doing, affixed myself to a sixty-foot by forty-foot sheet of polyethylene. When the wind gusted, the tarp plucked me off the side of the haystack, and I instantly realized why parasailing occurred over water. It’s amazing the epiphanies you have while skittering across the stubble of a freshly-cut hay field. 

Then there was the time I lost a wrestling match with a pig. It was your basic muddy pig-pen match. My wife wanted to perform life-saving healthcare on the pig’s ear, so I jumped on the pig’s back and tried to pin it down. The squealing pig, however, performed a technically-demanding wrestling maneuver, what’s called a  reverse cradle, and quickly pinned me. In so doing, the pig busted my glasses (free farming advice: never wear glasses while wrestling a pig) and then trotted around the fence-line, grunting and gloating. 

And it’s not just me. Have you been to the sale barn lately? You’re not likely to see many strapping specimens of the human species. The sale barn is where farmers go to trade cows and cardiologists go to find new patients. Once upon a time the act of digging post holes, carrying feed sacks, and hefting hay bales caused farmers muscle fibers to expand. Now post-hole augers, front-end-loaders, and hay spears mean farming is less physically demanding than ever; it’s become more or less sitting in a tractor seat and moving a joystick. 

But I’ll tell you who is strong. It’s the unseen men and women in the blackberry rows, the one’s picking tractor-trailer loads of berries, berry by berry, until their fingers are stained with blood or berries or both (those are no thornless canes, I assure you). It’s the five-person Guatemalan “catching crew” whose job is to bend down and pick up every eight-pound chicken, in a poultry house full of twenty thousand chickens, and stuff them in cages for transport so we can later devour those Chick-fil-A sandwiches. It’s the workers in the pumpkin fields who heft every single jack o’ lantern, all so we can carve a silly face in it. 

All kidding aside, a “Farmer Strong” hat would look a lot better on them than me. 

Bon Appetit, Your Pipe Repair is Served

I know most people are tired of masks, but they do come in handy in times of crisis, like when you smell like a sewer and need to purchase miscellaneous items for an emergency pipe repair. Under normal circumstances, after digging up the oozing drain pipe, I would have at least taken a few seconds to spritz myself in Febreze before departing for Lowes. In Covid times, when people’s nostrils are covered, I figure I can save a few seconds and go straight to Lowes smelling like a swamp rat and not bring shame and disgrace on my household. 

My wife is not a big fan of malodorousness. In fact, one of her major weaknesses is sensitivity to smells, mainly those that adhere to and emanate from my person. Sometimes she says I smell like the barn, calves, pigs, or moldy hay. The fact that she can distinguish each of the aromas is proof that her petite nose is fertile ground for olfactory receptors. Meanwhile, the large acreage inside my nostrils is mostly barren wasteland, incapable of growing much but mucus. Of course, if an overactive nose was her worst feature, then I’d be just fine. Wearing deodorant mostly everyday is a small sacrifice to make, and everybody has flaws. But the fact that she also has a weak stomach compounds the problem.

“That smell makes me feel queasy,” she says one day.

“That stench is nauseating,” she claims, as I walk through the door.

“You smell like a trash can. I’m going to throw up,” she warns.

“What smell?” I  ask.

To help me understand the subtleties of my aromas, she often resorts to food analogies. Stale means I’m past my expiration date for a shower. Sour means the sweat on my body is fermenting and rising. Burnt means I smell like the charred inside of my bee smoker and need to be hosed down before the fire spreads. Fishy means I protrude the smell of freshly-caught bass, hopefully of the wall-hanging variety. 

Anyway, I made it in and out of Lowes without leaving a trail of dry-heaving and gagging people in my wake, successfully completed the repair, and then (after all that work, in the misting rain no less) was barred from entering my house by my very own wife. She stood guard at the back door and made me strip off my clothes and put them in a trash bag. I was only allowed entry on the condition that I would go straight to the shower and scrub real good. 

“You smell like rotten eggs,” she said. 

an oozing burst drain pipe

Good Fences Make Poor Farmers

My neighbor Nell is a real agricultural ignoramus, pardon my French. A thousand times, I’ve told her cows are herbivores, and as such, my cows eat her herbs, particularly her basil and oregano. It’s just simple biology. Hence, there was no need for Nell to buy a shotgun and take shooting lessons, all just to pepper my cows with bird shot. Really, all she had to do was stop planting culinary herbs and start planting inedible weeds. A garden of pigweed, curly doc, and buttercups would suffice. Cows hate those pasture weeds; in fact, mine walk right past them on the way to Nell’s garden. 

Unfortunately, Nell always finds the hardest way possible to solve a simple problem. Concerning my cows crossing her property line, she now believes a good fence is the solution, which is exactly what someone who hasn’t studied agriculture would think. A good fence has never solved anything. For instance, the Chinese built an impediment fifty-foot high and 13,000 miles long, made of stone no less and with archers atop, and cows still got out. Cows will find a way.

The problem is Nell has no mind for agriculture, no mind for anything but sappy poems and iambic pentameter. A former English teacher, she is particularly fond of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”—you know the one where the old farmer says, “good fences make good neighbors.” Like most English teachers, she ignores facts–and the fact is Frost was a pitiful farmer whose agricultural advice should be altogether disregarded. He was such a bad farmer he quit and made more money writing poetry—rhyming poetry!

Thus, I had to set Nell straight, lest she make a big mistake. I told her listening to Frost for farming advice was like listening to Emily Dickinson for travel recommendations. I told her a good fence is a lot of work, even for a small garden like hers, but she could borrow my post hole diggers if she’d like.

“My garden, lordy no,” she replied. “I meant your pasture. Your fence is falling to pieces. Isn’t it the farmer’s responsibility to maintain fences to keep good neighborly relations?”

She delivered this with a straight face, an attempt at deadpan humor, which she really sold by pointing the shotgun at me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for second-amendment rights, but I believe there should be restrictions on gun ownership for people who like poetry. You never know when they may have a “spontaneous overflow of emotion,” as Wordsworth put it, and blast somebody. 

“Now, Nell,” I said. “That’s funny—though you really shouldn’t have taken the safety off. In fact, for a split second, I thought you were serious. But then I remembered everybody knows good fences make poor farmers.”

“How so?” she asked. 

“First, if farmers had good fences, they wouldn’t gain experience chasing livestock, which is an essential animal husbandry skill. Second, if farmers spent money building good fences, they’d be so poor they couldn’t buy livestock to go in the fence. Third, farmers have a lot more important stuff to do than mending fences, like chasing livestock.” 

“Powww!”  

Had I not ducked, I likely would have been sprayed by bird shot—but I noticed Nell starting to froth at the mouth as I talked and figured she was about ready to burst with one of those spontaneous overflows. To miss the second barrel, I timed my leap perfectly, springing upward right after she said, “Die, cow farmer!”