Of Dearth Vader Bees and Bears

Seemingly, every June, the old men in my county will begin the annual ritual of lamenting the rain deposits in their rain gauge. And that’s if we even make it to June. Sometimes it turns dry and hot in May, at which point the sound of old men talking about dry rain gauges is the first indication that the Dearth has officially arrived, that nothing is blooming, that nectar has dried up, that the bees are getting ready to break bad and turn to the dark side. 

Dearth Vader bees, I call them. Angry, menacing bees that strike fear into even the bravest beekeepers. Not that I’m claiming to be one of them, but don’t let my trembling hive tool fool you–bravery is not the absence of fear, but action in the face of fear, trembling action included. 

Also, I just want to point out there is no shame in bravely running away from a boiling, raging Dearth Vader hive. Discretion is the better part of beekeeping. However, I’m pretty sure I have scientifically proven that bees can fly faster than an out-of-shape man can run, so you’re better off just laying down on the ground and playing dead–plus, that will save you from any Dearth Vader bears in the vicinity. Bees and bears alike, nobody likes the ninety-plus degree days of summer. 

Recently, a man spotted a large black bear in his fenced suburban backyard in our county, and it made front page news in our local newspaper (we don’t get many bears this far down the mountain). This particular bear was merely trying to empty a bird feeder of its contents. However, the man felt the need to confront the bear, armed only with a pot and large spoon. He said later, “I have read that that is what you’re supposed to do, but in retrospect that was probably not the best thing to do.”

I’m not sure what is more intimidating–Dearth Vader bees searching for any drop of sugary liquid or Dearth Vader bears that are willing to breach backyards for mere bird feed? All I know is that the Dearth is upon us, and bees and bears alike are hot and hangry. 

Ode to an Old Stove

Disclaimer: No mice were harmed in the writing of this blog post. One merely napped for an eternity after it chewed a wire in our old stove and decomposed, producing an oversized stench that was surprisingly difficult to trace. First, I checked the usual places for gag-producing odors—the trash can, diaper bin, sink drain, and dishwasher. Nope, not the specific odor molecules in question. Unable to pinpoint the source, I tried to drown it out with a downpour of Febreze. But, three days in, the smell grew worse than the time a possum sequestered itself in the wall. At our wits end, Natalie and I pulled everything out of the kitchen, stove included.

The movement caused the hidden carcass to emit an intense burst of unwholesome particles, at which point Natalie’s nostrils detected the proximate location. I trained my nose on the coordinates and confirmed that the odor originated deep beneath the left back burner.

The stove in question was an old Hotpoint stove, circa the 1950s. Natalie was quite fond it, since it had achieved vintage status, even though the stove was a danger to both mice and men. Before it killed the mouse, it had nearly killed me. A few years ago, I was cooking grits and frying some bacon at the same time: metal spoon stirring grits, metal fork flipping bacon. I can tell you from experience that one does not fly backwards, as if shot out of a cannon, when suddenly jolted by electricity. That is the stuff of cartoons. Instead, after becoming a conduit for electrons, one’s body merely goes limp and sinks to the floor. There, you feel like taking a nap for a while, save for a pounding headache.

Even after the stove electrocuted me, Natalie’s devotion to it held strong and she decided not to replace it. She recommended a much cheaper solution, a wooden spoon. So the moral of this blog post is if you ever want your spouse to discard a sentimental kitchen appliance in favor for something more modern and less life-threatening, place a dead mouse in it. Not long after we discovered the mouse carcass, the Hotpoint took its final plunge into the scrap metal bin at the trash depot. It had cooked its last piece of meat, a rodent.

Three Farming Poems

THE GARDEN SPOT

That patch of land beside the road,

below the old barn, is Kendrick land—

those terraces thrown up by a Kendrick man,

long lost the art of nine up, three down,

moving dirt by plow,

gone the cotton boll and wagon road.

All that’s left is hayland, cut by another,

and vegetables, worked and watered.

NEW FARMER

I wonder what the sight of it all

(the ground as hard as the fact of drought,

the corn so pitiful

and tasseled out at two-feet tall)

means for him who hasn’t seen

drought, flood, weevil, and wrath of God,

and if his corn is cause for doubt. 

THE BLACKBERRY ROWS

The men and women of the blackberry rows

work long: a long, long way from somewhere.

Some still have shirts draped over head, though

the moon is kinder than the sun, kinder but queer,

people picking blackberries at night, ghosts  

flowing in and out of flood lights, fingers

stained from blood or blackberries or both,

(those are no thornless canes, I assure you)  

with no sound but the electric hum

of generated light and the loud silence 

of men and women a long, long way from home. 

Save Yourself, not the Bees

Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart–or faint or mind either. A beekeeper who is “keeping bees to help save the bees” is a beekeeper who has yet to wrestle with the harsh reality that most beginning beekeepers will kill more bees than they will ever help save. The beekeepers who reload and return to the beeyard, despite the despair of dead outs, may eventually tilt their cosmic scales back toward bee savior, but, on average, I wonder how many hives die before a beginning beekeeper actually becomes proficient enough to save bees–that is to keep bees from drowning under the virus load of varroa. It probably took me thirty dead outs over five years before something finally clicked and I started overwintering hives successfully and my hive numbers started multiplying

Now I’m in my tenth year of beekeeping, at least if you count the first five years which were mostly me killing bees. Sure, I could say it was varroa that killed them or pesticides or small hive beetles or poor nutrition or extraterrestrial bee snatchers or whatever the excuse de vogue at the time was (at the time, I, like many others, just lumped all these excuses into a singular catch-all excuse called Colony Collapse Disorder). But the truth is my hives died because, first and foremost, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen to the advice of seasoned beekeepers because I thought I knew more than they did. I didn’t listen until, finally, enough cognitive dissonance erupted between my bee savior desire and my bee killer despair that I finally asked the great existential beekeeping question–“To beekeep, or not to beekeep?”

I chose to continue to beekeep–that is, to get serious about beekeeping, which is really the only way to keep bees now.

I hate to say this, but the term hobby beekeeping is now an oxymoron. Think about it this way: suppose you took up some other hobby for pleasure and relaxation. Let’s say fishing. You could just dig a few worms, buy a cheap Zebco and basic tackle, and then go catch bream or sunfish to your heart’s delight. And if by chance you don’t catch any, well, a bad day’s fishing is still better than a good day’s work. 

To fish, you don’t have to buy high-priced fishing gear, subscribe to Field and Stream, and join BassResource, the most popular bass fishing forum on the web. Of course, you could and many fishermen do. But even if you did–and this is the point–you still wouldn’t have to build your own farm pond and become an expert in farm pond management and ichthyological parasites to keep your bass from going belly up every winter. 

Or, put it another way: a fisherman just needs a hook, line, and sinker. A beekeeper needs a hive, veil, and standing appointment with a shrink.

Agriculturalists Anonymous: The New AA

Many have tried to quit farming. Many have relapsed a few weeks later by ogling a new tractor. If you ever see me riding around half-naked on a shiny new steed, you know I experienced a moment of weakness and lost the shirt off my back at a tractor dealership (and possibly my socks too if it was a John Deere dealership). In one of the great high points of my farming career, I once escaped a John Deere dealership only a $1.75 poorer. Still, the little washer was ten times overpriced, but previously I had never left there without the eerie feeling that I needed to sell a kidney.

If you ask me, tractor dealerships ought to own up to their moral responsibility and create a no-sale policy for customers showing signs of farming withdrawal. I know that’s probably wishful thinking, but if casinos set aside a portion of their proceeds to help those who eat, breathe, and play slot machines, then tractor companies ought to help those who eat, breathe, and play on heavy machines. Tractor companies don’t see it that way though. In fact, the manager of our local John Deere dealership once had the audacity to tell me his “primary responsibility was selling and not not-selling.” Talk about moral depravity.

To be honest, I’ve never been tempted much by shining new equipment (I’m more of a rust guy), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have other farming faults. For instance, at rock bottom, I once had more calves per acre than blades of grass, right out in the open for everyone to see. One of my neighbors made light of the situation, saying such insensitive stuff as, “Stephen, can I practice my short game at your place? Your pasture looks like a putting green.”

Any attempts at going cold turkey from calf buying were made difficult by the fact that I worked at a government agriculture office. Farmers would enter the office, manure wafting from their boots, and wax poetic about the beautiful weather, all while I was confined doing pointless government paperwork. At day’s end, I’d drive home despondent and then drown my woes in the bottle, that is until Natalie finally hid them all. Eventually I did find her hiding place and quickly started bottle feeding more calves.

The point, though, is farming addictive, which is probably a good thing—because if it wasn’t, I suspect we’d all be starving.