Oh, How Far I’ve Fallen

Not that I’m jealous, but I don’t get all the hullabaloo over bees’ work ethic. Sure, a bee may transport pollen to and fro 50,000 times over its sixty day lifespan, but by the time I retire, I may have pushed paper to and fro a gazillion times over my 30 year career–and yet you rarely hear us paper pushers lauded as hard-working, industrious creatures. 

And I don’t get those beekeepers who say humbly, “Well, the bees did all the hard work.” I say humbly, hogwash. Bees don’t lug sixty-pound supers around on 95 degree days while baking in a bee jacket. Nor do they lug cases of honey to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings to peddle honey to the masses. And, let’s be honest, some patrons of the farmers’ market just need to be told, “Buzz off!”

ME: [trying to remain polite] “Not worth 20 dollars? If you knew all the hard work that went into that quart of honey, you’d probably say it’s worth more.”

CUSTOMER: “Well, don’t the bees do most of the work?”

ME: “KA-BLOOM” [it’s hard to write phonetically the sound of a beekeeper’s morale imploding]

Best I can tell, my bees work four months out of the year–March, April, May, and June–then they shut down shop and goof off in the dearth, then eat and mingle with each other all winter. Meanwhile, a lot of us sideline beekeepers work full-time jobs all year long just to afford our beekeeping addiction, and yet the bees steal all the credit. 

And, I hate to admit this, but sometimes I feel a little resentful toward all the press that bees get about being endangered and on the verge of extinction. You know what’s on the verge of extinction? Beekeepers’ backs, and I can’t remember the last time I saw the press writing about the chronic back problems that beekeepers face. Heck, if they need a catchy scientific name to drive traffic to their articles, may I humbly suggest, “SCCD:” Spinal Column Collapse Disorder. Basically, it’s when a beekeeper’s lower vertebrae abscond from normal alignment and leave behind only a few pinched nerves and a big chiropractor bill. 

And let’s not forget the parental responsibilities that many beekeepers face that bees just don’t. Bees emerge from the womb of their hexagonal cells as fully capable members of society. There’s no tantrums of the terrible twos, no pre-teen drama, no teenage wasteland, no adult child living in the basement eating them out of house and home. Sure, I guess drones fit that latter category, but even then, the worker bees usually kick them out before they turn 35 years old. 

For me, trying to balance sideline beekeeping with working a full-time job and corralling a toddler who has more energy reserves than a small solar system–well, all that, feels like hard work. Add to that the call from my neighbor about a cloud of bees plundering her trash can, and you’ve got a recipe for burnout. Yep, no one ever told me when I was a new and aspiring beekeeper that one day I would be dumpster diving through my neighbors’ trash to excavate Coke cans, but that’s how far I’ve fallen. 

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.

Raising a Man of Taste

Thomas is not a picky eater–he will eat chicken feed, goat feed, cow feed, and cat feed indiscriminately without pretense or shame. I guess it serves me right: I was secretly hoping Thomas would enjoy helping me do farm chores, but instead of helping me feed the farm animals, he mostly just helps himself to the farm animal’s feed. In the process of trying to deter my son from binging on calf starter pellets, I’ve learned that explaining to a toddler why he shouldn’t eat feed meant for other species is a task that should only be undertaken by someone with a Ph.D in logic. Toddler logic is the hardest logic to defeat.

ME: No, no, we don’t eat goat feed.

THOMAS: eat! eat!

ME: “No, it’s the goats time to eat, we just ate. Thomas, stop!”

THOMAS: [grinning with a goat pellet hanging from his lip] time to eat!

ME: “No, goat feed is yucky!”

THOMAS: “No yucky–yummy!”

In the barn, we have three big plastic  trash cans that serve as feed bins to contain the livestock’s vittles. They also serve as Thomas’ buffet line. Of course, the easiest way to keep marauding pests out of feed bins is to shoot them, but you can’t really do that with toddlers (at least you can’t in the South–gun culture is so strong here, the toddlers would likely shoot back). 

And honestly, I’m not sure if I really want to deter Thomas’s adventures with taste. It’s not like he’s only eating highly processed animal feed, he is also developing quite a fondness for farm fresh salads, in particular a fresh orchardgrass/fescue mix which he shoves into his mouth while toddling through the pasture. Anyway, my theory is that if he eats grass as a toddler, he’ll eat broccoli as a teenager. I’ll report back in 11 years.

Thomas caught with hand in cookie jar.

Gluttons for Punishment

Not to get religious, but one thing I find interesting about the story of Adam and Eve is the fact that God punished the first couple by farming. That seems about right. Out of all punishments in the primordial soup, and I’m sure there were some tasty ones in there, God chose boring old “soil cultivation” as his foundational punishment. Eventually, God added some spice with plagues and floods and such, but those wouldn’t add nearly as much misery without farm crops to ruin. 

The point here, though, is farmers are gluttons for punishment. Year after year, farmers come back for another round of woe and bear the weight of original disciplining. In my innocence, I used to think farming was fun and exciting (a belief quickly dispelled when I planted and picked a quarter-acre patch of strawberries by myself), and I see a lot of new farmers come into the agriculture office where I work thinking the same thing. But most quit after a few years–sadly, can’t take the pain.

Not to get even more religious, but I’ll bring up another point. Right there in Genesis, written thousands of years ago, are the first documented descriptions of the two farm paradigms: (1) the organic, ideal, untainted, natural, sustaining garden planted by God and (2) the cursed and fallen land outside it, destined to be worked by the toilsome efforts of man. Whatever you make of Genesis, the point here is the two conflicting paradigms of agriculture are accounted for thousands of years ago. 

Humanity has been in a state of cognitive dissonance ever since. Which is kinda reflected in my own thoughts about agriculture: I support farmers who shoot for a higher ideal (we may not be able to get back into the garden, but maybe we can get closer to it). Meanwhile, I also support conventional farmers who undergo the toilsome and often thankless labor of feeding the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants, and in so doing bear the brunt of original disciplining while the rest of us eat and critique their farming methods. 

The way I look at it, there’s no perfect paradigm of farming, no perfect farm, no perfect farmers. Just people, most of whom are exhausted and trying to make it through the day, doing the best they can with their particular helping of primordial soup.