I woke up this morning with bees on the brain. Squinting into the sunlight, I looked out my window and surveyed the field for indications of the night’s weather. White frost shimmered across mud and brown stubble, but only a few patches of dull snow remained of the hip-deep drifts that I snow-shoed across only a few weeks ago. I’m not sure that I’ve ever in my life been so glad to see so much brown.
It’s been a long, slow winter here on the farm, as it has been most places across this state. John, Bud, Roxie, and I holed up in the house and the Ducker-Doodles snuggled up together in the straw of their coop, resting and waiting out the cold. My job teaching and directing the writing center at Kalamazoo College kept me busy, though, and I delighted in the privilege of reading and writing ecologically themed poetry with fourteen bright and compassionate students in my winter Ecopoetry class.
This winter also allowed us time to make new connections with folks in our area who are doing things that we want to learn more about. In November, John attended the Michigan Permaculture Convergence to learn more about permaculture philosophy and practices. Permaculture is an ecological approach to farm and garden design which uses techniques that work with rather than against natural systems. At the Convergence, John met folks practicing these methods in the Van-Kal Permaculture group. We’re excited about what we have to learn from these new friends, who possess a wealth of lived knowledge on diverse topics such as orchard management, mushroom growing, wild edibles, grains, alternative fuels, and apiculture.
Speaking of apiculture, in February we attended the Kalamazoo Bee School and became acquainted with the Kalamazoo Bee Club. We got so excited learning about bees that we went ahead and ordered some! My parents have kept bees for many years and I’ve helped them care for their hives. When they’ve had an abundance of honey they’ve generously shared it with our CSA members and it’s been so well received that we figured we should go ahead and invest in hives for the farm. As you probably know, honeybee populations have been declining for many years now. This past winter was particularly hard on bees. Many experienced beekeepers, including my parents, lost many or all of their hives.
It’s clear that we have to change the way we care for honeybees and that we have to take their well-being into account when making decisions that affect the ecosystems in which they live and forage, decisions to reduce the amounts of bee-toxic pesticides they are exposed to both within their hives and in the fields where they collect pollen and nectar. Lots of people are also experimenting with a variety of new (and some old) methods of caring for bees, including using different hive types and breeding more locally adapted and resilient queens. But there certainly isn’t a consensus on the “best” way to keep bees—as one veteran keeper commented during Bee School: “Ask twelve beekeepers a question about the best way to keep bees and you’ll get fourteen different answers.”
This is enough to make a soon-to-be new beekeeper startle awake on a bright March morning several weeks before her first package of bees is to arrive via semi-truck from California with a swarm of urgent questions buzzing around her brain: Where is the best place to put the hives? Should we use a deep or a medium-sized super for the brood box? Ten-frame or eight-frame boxes? What type of foundation should we use? Small cell or regular cell? Wired or unwired? Or maybe we shouldn’t use foundation at all? What if there aren’t flowers when the bees arrive? What should we feed them? Will I be able to identify the queen once she’s released into the hive? What other questions should I be asking that I haven’t even thought of yet?
Well, one thing I know—it will be an adventure and we will learn some stuff about bees! And that’s why I love this farming thing. Every year is a new venturing into the unknown and a new opportunity to learn more about this amazingly complex world I inhabit. Who knows what this year will bring—new weather patterns, new varieties of vegetables, new pests, new friends. Bring it on, Spring! Bring it on.