Beez in the trap

I know the song has nothing to do with actual bees, but last night in a state of semi-delirium this was on repeat in my brain’s playlist, along with another primitive ditty of my own composition titled FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCKIN BEES (that is both chorus and verse. Catchy, no?).

So it was a bad evening in the beeyard, a very bad evening. Family out of town, at the beach. I stayed home to take care of farm duties. As much as I knew I would miss them, the idea of a week to myself had its appeal.

So I played golf til nearly dusk. Ah, the life. Then coming up the driveway, saw yet another cluster of bees hanging from a bush near the hives. I really didn’t know which hive had enough bees left for such a swarm but I knew I had to keep it from flying away.

I had gotten a little cocky about my routine (this would be my fourth swarm capture over the past couple weeks). Get a box, put a sheet  under it, shake the bees into the box  and watch their behavior. The queen was there and the workers were fanning, so I commenced Phase Two, shaking the bees into a new hive.

Phase  Two. Yeah. This is where the complications set in. I had gotten in the habit of sweetening the lure of the new hive with a frame of honey that I “borrow” from an existing hive (the bees see it a little differently).

I do this in a hurry with little regard for  proper beekeeper etiquette. Without bothering to light the smoker, I pop the lid off brusquely, find a fat honey-laden frame, grab it, and replace it with an empty frame. Bang the lid back on and I’m in business.

In this instance, it was near dusk and all the bees were home, and it was drizzling steadily. The hive was absolutely full of pissy bees. And then I got the replacement frame stuck/wedged and couldn’t get the lid back on. I had to struggle to get the frame down. Meanwhile, the entire hive went on major predator alert.

I’ve dealt with this but never on such a scale. Sometimes it just happens that the bees get ornery and bang at your headgear. They usually go right for the mouth. It’s a little unsettling but that’s what the suit and hood are for. This hive was “hot” beyond my wildest imaginings. As that dismal fact was dawning on me, I discovered yet another lapse in my preparations: I was in such a hurry that I had left a couple of gaps where I zip up my smock.

Aaaaaannnndddd…. DISASTER. Suddenly I had hundreds of bees on my bonnet (a phrase for which I have new-found admiration). Dozens of them were getting inside.

I suppose I must congratulate myself for recognizing that this was the rare moment when panicking was the best play. I dropped everything and started running, fast and far, and managed to shed most of the bees clinging to and stinging the outside of my suit.

Needless to say, I couldn’t run from the ones inside, buzzing loudly and stinging me about the head, and wrists, and up my back.

When I got a couple hundred yards away from the hive I tore off my gloves and suit at full gallop and then had to deal with the bees in my hair. I ran into the house and flapped and swatted and cursed — FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCKIN BEES– until I was finally pretty much rid of the bees. I had taken somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen stings.

(This was pretty much a textbook case of how NOT to work with bees, but it could actually Have Been Worse. My decision to put on a pair of jeans  was a last-minute call, and I don’t even want to think what would have happened had I not bothered to change out of shorts and had all the bare skin of my legs exposed…..)

I did my best to scrape the stingers out, sucked down a beer, and then returned to the scene of the crime, picking up my protective clothing, ever so sheepishly, and putting it back on en route way back to the hives.

I still had to get some kind of cover on the angry hive, sitting there open in the rain, which was coming down pretty well by this point. I did it. Wasn’t pretty. (Was anyone watching?) Then I had to get the swarm hive situated, make sure most of the stragglers were filtering back in, put the hive up on cinder blocks, and cover it.

All done.  Night. Time for a couple tall WL Weller Special Reserves, and the contemplation of one’s own stupidity (and mortality). And, as this was by far the most stings I had taken at one time, to monitor myself for symptoms of anaphylactic shock.

I drifted off during the Nuggets-Lakers Game 7, and woke up a few times during the night. Still alive!

Swarms, the Nasonov pheromone, drones

We continue our inexorable “snowball heading for hell”  momentum.

First, you have MCA, George “Goober” Lindsay, AND Maurice Sendak passing on in the span of a few days.

And out there in the world, the results in Europe’s elections presage much short-term chaos and uncertainty. On the plus side of the ledger, they do indicate a slightly cheering determination on the part of Continentals to show the political/banking elites  that the people are still in charge.

No such luck over here, where American domestic partisan politics keeps getting dumber and dumberer and the narrowness of the issues being debated–in the face of the need for an overwhelming overhaul–is mind-boggling.

This is my context-establishing tweet of the week, and it comes not from our political leaders or respected mainstream media sources. No, it comes from from Dan Alpert, managing partner of a New York investment bank, and it shows just how dire the straits are in USA 2012:

In a nation of 315 million people we have 115mm full time workers and 26.7mm part time (1-34 hours) workers. Not thriving!

Does anyone expect either party to address this before the next election in a meaningful way? Or ever?


But I won’t allow that to harsh my buzz. (Oh, yes, I did. I did make that terrible pun.) Because, you see, the world is for shit but my bees are thriving, and sometimes that’s enough for me.

Been a great year for the nectar flow, which started very early and is still going great guns, so much so that I woke with a start last night with the realization that I’ve got three bee hives partially resting on a single  horizontal plank, with an unprecedented mass of honey above. (File under complications resulting from unusual natural bounties–along with my heifer who died from bloat caused by the insanely rich pasture this spring.)

Another consequence of the nectar  bounty is that hives become so strong that they swarm.  Which is really not a bad thing for the bees. But for a beekeeper, aka honey thief, you like to avoid having swarms take away half your bee population, so if you’re lucky and observant you can catch your own swarms, which I did this weekend, twice.

On Saturday, after a little set-to with my increasingly emotional 11-year-old son (another ominous trend), I stomped out of the house and wandered to the beeyard, where they were swarming for the second day in a row.

If you’ve never stood in the middle of a bee swarm, put it on your bucket list. It feels like the early stages of the apocalypse might feel, and yet it’s really just a beautiful natural thing. Basically, the bee super-organism feels it is robust enough to reproduce, so it swarms. In a first swarm, roughly half the bees (five thousand, ten perhaps) accompany the old queen and look for a new home. Upon leaving the hive they fly in mad-seeming circles, creating a cone of bees about ten yards wide and forty feet high. It is noisy and scary and exhilarating. I half expect the voice of James Earl Jones to begin booming out.

The bees in this state are about as gentle as they can be. They’ve gorged on honey prior to leaving the hive, and are merely seeking an intermediate place to settle while the scouts find a permanent location. Lucky for me, they roost on a fence post right next to the hive, the same place another swarm had chosen just yesterday (and not, say, on a branch sixty feet off the ground).

I set to putting them into a temporary hive, as I had done with Friday’s swarm.

And let me talk about the Nasonov pheremone for a brief moment. Because it means a lot to me.

When I ponder all I’ve gained in moving to the country from a house and respectably well-paid job in New York, and giving up all that goes with same — annual 401k contributions, good health insurance, paid holidays, pay! — I can now add as a compensation an intimate familiarity with the workings of the Nasonov pheremone, which  is what worker bees release to orient returning forager bees back to the colony.

When capturing swarms, beekeepers are looking for the distinctive butt-up, fanning behavior (displaying the Nasonov gland) as an indication that they have succeeded in transporting the queen from the temporary roost to the intended hive destination. To start moving the swarm I  scoop handfuls of bees into the box. One random scoop had what looked like  a virgin queen but I wasn’t entirely sure. When I laid the scoop into the box, bingo! The timbre of the buzzing changed instantly and dozens of bees suddenly stationed  themselves at the edges of the box and began the fanning action. My work was pretty much done at this point. I walked away and returned at dusk, and the hive was full. All I had to do was put the hive cover on.

It’s possible that our generation may lose bees altogether. I won’t lay out the case for bee extinction, but a few minutes of googling around, and you will at least be familiar with it. It occurs to me as I type this that our kids’ kids won’t know what a real drone is, but they will be all too familiar with the mechanized war-fighting snooping machines that are named after the least useful members of the bee family. On that subject, I highly recommend reading Marcy Wheeler’s response to Drunken Predator’s fascinating essay on Oppenheimers and Orwells.

But that is some disturbing, dispiriting stuff, and as I have already said, today I’m not letting that sort of thing harsh my buzz.

The environmental impact of cow burps

For all the strengths of these alternatives, however, they’re ultimately a poor substitute for industrial production. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.

Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming. It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

This is not the first time the New York Times has given the prime real estate of its op-ed page over to James McWilliams, who has made a career out of tut-tutting the naivete of locavorism. It’s an easy target in some respects. But at least one of the claims he regularly trots out as fact — that raising livestock on pasture is worse for the environment than raising them in confinement — strikes me not only as counter-intuitive, but also flat-out wrong.

Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, cites a recent study by researchers from Stanford and Purdue Universities:

The authors create a model in which the US government cancels ethanol mandates, which would basically destroy the corn ethanol market and cause the price of corn to drop. If farmers responded to low corn prices would give farmers incentive to let their cropland revert to native prairie and put beef cows on it to graze, they argue, their land would store significant amounts of carbon in soil—more than offsetting cow-related greenhouse gas emissions like methane—thus helping stabilize the climate. Their bottom line:

Results indicate that up to 10 million ha [24.7 million acres, more than a quarter of land currently devoted to corn] about of could be converted to pastureland, reducing agricultural land use emissions by nearly 10 teragrams carbon equivalent per year, a 36% decline in carbon emissions from agricultural land use.

I have written before about McWilliams and the opportunities awaiting ambitious academics willing to crank out faux-contrarian arguments that, regardless of intent (McWilliams is a vegan) have the effect of bolstering the status quo (in this case the industrial meat system). Tom Laskowy has coined a name for this sort of thing: the FUDosphere (FUD standing for Fear Uncertainty Doubt), “a network of Sith-lord scientists and unrepentant PR flacks who have no compunctions about tweaking their research methodologies … to generate results both favorable to industry and confusing to those trying to understand the truth.”

God, I’ve totally forgotten that I’ve written on this subject at least three times in the past. But it’s kind of important to me personally. I raise a small herd of cattle on pasture, using intensive management techniques. I’ve invested in Philpott and the Stanford/Purdue study being right. And I know scientific studies offer results that are often all over the map. Might I suggest a debate between McWilliams and Philpott on this very topic?

And now … Farmopolis

For better or worse, the dowackado tumblr is a pretty good representation of my jumbled mind.

But recently I’ve come to realize that mine is essentially not much different from tens of thousands of other tumblr blogs. Yes, bien sur, my taste is far superior to that of my (all-too-often teenaged) tumblr peers, but at bottom it’s yet another attempt at curating stuff that’s already on tumblr. It’s fun. I still enjoy it, but I’m living a real life too, goddammit.

So, the need arises for farmopolis, an account, in text and images, of my family’s adventures in moving from the urban bustle and the supercilious certainties of New York City to bucolic Central Kentucky.

So … maybe you would like to check it out?

Music for a crispy winter’s day

I love this sort of morning, mid-twenties, clear sky, the ground crunching as I walk through the Minimal Cold Day Chore Set–scatter some scratch grains for the chickens, break a hole in their water dish and the cattle tank, gather a few choice logs for the wood stove.

The herd is grazing a tenant’s pasture that he doesn’t plan to use this winter. They’re a half mile away from the house, which is nothing for a real cattleman, but I’m used to being able to see them by looking out the window.  After dropping the kids off, I took the lazy way to check on them, by driving around the perimeter of the farm in the nicely toasty minivan until I established they’re where they should be.

Meanwhile, I was listening to some lovely music on the way. Cannonball Adderly was a nice palate refresher after the kids played Stereo Hearts on the Ipod three times on the way to school. I’m ready for them to be through with that song.

And this hauntingly beautiful She and Me by Heavenly, which never ceases to amaze me.


Putting chickens up at night

I was dreading it, but when it came to pass, remembered that I quite enjoyed crating the chickens for slaughter by moonlight.

It has to be done at night, unless you enjoy chasing birds through bushes, and they always seem to be able to hide in the young locust shoots. Spiny, sharp, skin-tearing locusts shoots.

At night, their flight instincts are at war with the need to roost and sleep.

I had to move slow, and was worried that my rechargeable torch was on the low end of the charging scale. But after a while moonlight is just fine.

I’d pick them off one by one. The boys into the crates. (The cockerel’s life is a jolly one, until this day.) The girls into the coop,  where they will, eventually, become accepted by the older hens.

I got ’em all up but one hen, who will be fine til the morning.

In previous years, it was fifty at a time, white cornish crosses, one indistinguishable from the other, and they never came out of the portable pen. This year, it’s just about a dozen cockerels, and they’ve had the run of the yard. They are all colors. The dominant line is buff orpington,  so a lot of orange birds,  but many reds as well, some speckly things (silver-laced wyandottes, perhaps) and a couple with whiskers, whom the kids have dubbed Chipmunk Fur #1 and #2.

They all have names. It’s kind of a sad thing. They put up the most awful fuss when I grab them, but when I squeeze them to my side they calm  down so quickly.  “We’re going in the crate? Well, OK. Time for some shut-eye.” They trust the farmer.

In the bucolic bubble

We incubated baby chicks in two batches this spring, and now they are feisty grown birds. The males are feeling their testosterone.

A mature rooster goes about his breeding duties with clinical efficiency. It’s hop on, bite a piece of neck for stability, thrust, and hop off. No fuss. The hen gives a little indignant shake and clucks away.

With these callow cockrels, it’s considerably more chaotic and comical. (Alliteration!) They chase and grab at the hens but never get a good grip, and end up tugging on pieces of skin or a couple of feathers, the hens screeching a cross between “I’m being murdered” and  “not in a million years, pal.” Most times, they escape.

I can’t lie. I find this entertaining. We have friends who also keep chickens who coined the phrase watching Chicken TV. It’s a pretty good show.


After a wet spring, the rain stopped abruptly (in May!) and we edged into drought territory. Nothing like Texas (these images are heartbreaking),  but plenty bad. The garden was a disaster, my cistern was dry for more than a month, the pasture became dominated by weird weeds, which the cows wouldn’t touch, and Johnsongrass, which they would eat at least. Some of my neighbors were already feeding hay before the first of September. The irrational thought that it will never rain again seemed entirely sensible to me for all of July and August.

But  suddenly two weeks ago, the clouds parted and we’ve had plentiful and steady rains.  My herd will be happily grazing well into November.  I like to think this is because of my pasture management, but am not ready to take credit yet….

We’ve had eight calves (the latest born just ten days ago) and all are doing well. The mommas too. Seven of the eight were male, which is pretty weird, and a little disappointing, since my prime directive is to grow the herd, but having seven steers to market next  winter will be good for the cash flow.

The fall has been much greener than the summer. My hives are bustling, and the recent rains have salvaged something like a fall honey flow for the bees. This weekend I’m hoping to get work started on installing a wood stove to reduce and (I hope) eliminate the outrageous propane bills we’ve been paying for seven years. The cows are getting good and fat, and the garden is teeming with volunteer greens, arugula especially.

Tonight the state of Georgia will execute a man for a crime few believe he committed. At the United Nations today the president announced that “the tide of war is receding,” even as new bases to launch Predator drones are being built in the Horn of Africa, where a quarter of a million people will likely starve to death,  in no small part due to my country’s intervention. (Everyone should read that article, by the way).

The wider world we’re bringing three kids into is getting uglier, greedier and more dangerous. For the moment we are living in a little bucolic bubble where they bounce on a trampoline for hours at a time, amidst tame chickens foraging in the grass, and calm cows staring at them through the fence.

Winter is coming, and I know I can’t protect my children from the outside world forever. It’s autumn. Things wither and die, and new life comes along.

Some days I’m not so sure about the second part, but for now I’m determined to enjoy this little autumn interlude. I think I’m happy.

Bittersweet milestone on the farm

I’ve had steers killed and butchered on the farm before, but today marked the first time for a calf I had observed being born.

Here is the calf in question, just new to the world, with his momma in July 2009.

It’s a bittersweet milestone. This is what I had set out to do, and three years later I am still at it with the cows. They are gentle, and tame, and I have gotten more than a few compliments from neighbors on the temperament and condition of my herd.

They are so tame, in fact, that when Dicky the butcher drove up, the entire herd ran towards him and lined up at the fence, curious about the stranger’s truck. I had only to point out the animal in question, which made me feel a little weird. Dicky said, “I’ll just drop him right here, then,” and so he did, from four feet away.

“That better be the one,” he chuckled, as the steer went to its knees, then rolled over.

Today, the herd behaved fairly strangely compared to previous visits from Dicky.  Last year, I had one done in a pen, away from the others.

It was going to be two at once, but the second one literally jumped out of the pen.  As it happened, steer #2 still needed a little filling out. When steer #2’s time came, he was dropped  in the pasture, and the other cows just went about their business after the initial ruckus caused by the rifle report.

This time they were curious to the point of nearly interfering with the skinning and gutting.

I honestly have no idea what kind of bond remains between mother and calf nearly two years old,  but I thought I sensed a special unease or melancholy on the part of the momma. That might just be me. Suddenly (perhaps guiltily?), I found myself motivated to do a lot of field work, mostly involving enlarging marginal grazing areas. The herd followed me everywhere. They were almost … clingy.  And they didn’t seem to associate me with what had just happened, or maybe they didn’t understand it.

I don’t entirely understand it either. It all  makes sense on paper. Take grass, rain, sunlight. Add cattle. A sustainable system. The pastures get taken care of by the cows, and you get thousands of pounds of protein as a happy side result. But it’s still heartbreaking for me when the day comes, and Dicky drives up with his .22 magnum and his winch.

Trivial things like bee extinction can’t get in the way of our industry-friendly EPA

Tom Philpott, writing in Grist, on the crazymaking consensus that Obama echoed this week in the WSJ, that there is TOO MUCH regulation in the United States.

Echoing this classic right-wing talking point seems an odd move in the wake of Wall Street meltdown, the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, and the BP oil spill — all directly related to excessive de-regulation. And let’s not forget the sad saga of the EPA’s attempts to reckon with clothianidin, the agrichemical giant Bayer’s blockbuster pesticide that the EPA’s own scientists think may be harming our extremely fragile honeybee population.

As many of you know, I keep bees, and it is a more-than-occasionally futile endeavor. This big infographic at the, ah, (is there another word for these things?) leaves me with mixed emotions. Slightly relieved that it is not (entirely) my own incompetence that is holding me back. But appalled at the numerous threats–pests, pesticides, weather, radiation, and stress from overworking–interacting together in evil synergistic combinations, to drive the honeybee to extinction.

The video below comes from Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper, the recipient of a leaked EPA memo. He is a new personal hero of mine.

You really should take the time to watch it.

Oh, well, it’s only bees. Just another species. Only a third of our food supply.

Next time anybody tells you there’s TOO MUCH regulation, show them this video.

Waiting for the dead truck

In the last year I’ve become a little too familiar with DARS, the Dead Animal Removal Service. The Dead Truck, in local parlance. The dispatcher always calls you “hon” on the phone. The driver of the truck hauling the trailer with stiff limbs sticking out the top is a college kid who navigates with GPS on his IPhone. A great service. I’m glad it’s there. Just wish I never had to use it.

But I do today. Again. Number 23, a cow I really could never stand, got sick suddenly, and now she’s gone.

On Sunday I watched her drinking from the tank and thought she looked great. On Monday I found her wandering far from the herd and had a weird wild look in her eyes. Tuesday she laid down and couldn’t get up. This morning, Wednesday, I had my neighbor Dave come shoot her and drag her out for the dead truck.

Tuesday might have been the day to do something, but can’t really beat myself up about it. I had no way to get her loaded onto a trailer, and the vet would have charged a fortune, if I could have gotten him to come out. Standing a 1200-pound animal up in the mud on a slope would have been a hell of a chore.

So she is gone. She was from the original five cow/calf pairs I bought a couple years back, and she was by far the worst. Nervous and unpredictable, I could never walk near her without being on my guard. She had very low status in the herd, and always ate last. And something happened to her calf this summer. Either she miscarried, or had it and lost it in the tall grass to coyotes. Whatever happened, she didn’t “clean up” well, and dragged that placenta around for a couple of weeks. I speculate that she slipped the calf she was carrying this winter, but my neighbors don’t think that is likely. Her udders were massive, and would have led to problems down the road. I was going to see if she could calf one more time and then sell her, but never got the chance.

I allow myself sometimes to indulge in anthropomorphic comparisons with my cows. Number 19 is a fearless, intelligent cow, but as a mother leaves much to be desired. She is a fallen woman from a country western song, in love with dim lights, thick smoke, and loud loud music. Or to bring things up to date, would be most likely to become a crack whore. Numbers 25 and 119 are solid citizen cows, even temperament, attentive mothers.  Number 23, may she rest in peace, was a good mother cow, fiercely protective of her calves, but nervous to a fault. She would be the mother most likely to develop a Zoloft habit.  Her calf from last year inherited her crabby disposition and her propensity for causing trouble. She managed to get pregnant by a bull that was left with the herd a little too long, and actually became an underage mother, delivering a runty calf in September to the surprise of everyone, including (I think) herself. She would have nothing to do with that calf.

All this trouble I trace back to the problematic Number 23. And yet I feel like I’ve done her a bad karmic turn. I was pretty much helpless to do much of anything, but I still feel awful about leaving her in the mud to die.

So, I will say that I  am deeply sorry.

Here’s hoping DARS comes in a timely manner. Last year, when my donkeys died, it took five days for the dead truck to come.

Scroll to top