Sunday, May 28:
There are lots of books out there to tell you how to manage bees better than we could do, so we only share our experience here as a point of reference for other amateurs.
We have been into the hives a number of times in the last two weeks, determining the state of our captured swarms and checking the status of our older colonies. Mostly we have been looking for queens. Experts find queens easy to spot, giving us the suspicion that there is some magic involved, but we generally ascertain the presence of the queen in a hive by peripheral evidence, usually the number and age of “brood” – larvae and pupae – in the hive.
A colony without a queen has no way of replacing its numbers and will die, so keeping track of queens is important. The colony on hive stand number one must have lost its queen to a swarm about two weeks ago, and we have been watching anxiously for a sign that a new queen has hatched, established herself, mated, and is laying eggs. On Monday we examined each and every frame in the hive – twenty frames total –searching for eggs, and found nothing; three days later a second examination showed us dozens of cells each with a bit of white jelly in the bottom, larvae only a few days old. Always braced for a new failure, now we take a moment to relax.
For the next five minutes we are successful farmers.
Almost all the seedlings started in the greenhouse are set out now, only the basil and marigolds, which were started late, and a few extra zinnias, being still in flats. Even these are set out on the timbers that frame the raised beds, where the seedlings will receive full sunlight, getting them ready for life in the garden. In the home gardens sixty tomato plants and two dozen pepper plants will, if all goes well, supply the raw ingredients for something shy of one hundred quarts of salsa and the same amount of red sauce for pasta and pizza.
The remaining seedlings, another four dozen or so, we have planted in the big garden at the monastery, where they will have to take their chance with marauding deer and rabbits. Last summer when we sowed that garden to buckwheat, the deer grazed our green manure down to stems. All conventional wisdom says that the block of corn we planted there last week will be harvested by the deer long before the ears are full enough to interest human appetites, but we had the seed corn left over from our home garden, and thought we might just as well. More as a psychological comfort than anything else, we threw a loop of electrical fence around the tomatoes, peppers, and corn, and hooked it up to the solar charger that powers the steers’ paddock. Maybe – not probably – it will deter some form of wildlife sniffing around for a free meal.
The potatoes and onions look very good.
The steers at the monastery seem to have benefited from a day behind polywire in the barnyard to learn what a hotwire is for. Having spent two months on the far west pasture, which is large enough that they might never have had a serious encounter with electrical fencing, they were a risk when we put them in the paddock at the Franciscans’. Chasing animals around a big field with no perimeter fence is very low on our list of amusements, and not the way to ingratiate our farm operation with our generous hosts. The Franciscans might reasonably be concerned for their landscaping if they saw Sirloin and T-bone, as they have christened the steers, skipping through the weeping maples and bayberry bushes. Fortunately the animals seem to have attention only for the tall forage in their paddocks, and taking breaks in the shade under clumps of overgrown raspberry cane.
As for the milk cows.
Lesson: when a man tells you a cow is due to calve in a particular month, ask him how he knows. Did he see her bred? Does he know for certain that this exact cow was mounted by the bull in the pasture? Was she artificially inseminated, and if so, by whom, and with what? Did he make sure she didn’t come back into heat a month later? Or was she pregnancy checked by someone (not me) who knew what he was doing? Find out.
This particular bit of advice was available in our dairy cow reference book The Family Cow, by Dirk van Loon, but we forgot about it until about thirty seconds ago. You can’t teach some people.
The clock never ticks slower on a farm than when you are waiting for the parturition of an animal the breeding date for which is unknown. Baby Belle, our young second-calf cow, is hanging fire. She has been bagging up (her udder has been expanding and filling) and growing fat – some of us have felt the calf kick when we were rubbing her down – but the man from whom we bought her said she was due to calve in March, and, folks, it’s May already.
It’s like watching someone blowing up a balloon and waiting for the moment when it goes bang. She has never come into heat since we acquired her in November; we are not doubting her state of pregnancy, but the waiting has gotten tedious. It is impossible to plan for new baby bulls and piglets to be milk fed if you can’t predict when your glut of milk is going to come in. We have now much the same feelings as we have had toward the end of eight (human) pregnancies, that maybe we just dreamed it all and this baby is never going to come.
This one is all positive. The three hogs in the home pen, which have been fed mostly on swill (cooked kitchen waste) and dairy waste, now number two. We took the largest hog to the local abbatoir two weeks ago. Half of the pork came home to our freezer, the other half was sold to one of our friends and regular customers. Our half is delicious; more importantly, the remaining two pigs are now supported comfortably with virtually no supplemental feed. That means no feed bill (for the pigs) and the steady conversion of all our food wastes into solid flesh food. And the profit from the half hog we sold covers a good portion the previous feed bill.
The laying hens are giving us one and a half to two dozen eggs per day, not counting the ones they are stealing that we don’t find. When time allows we need to cull hens again, putting up the hens which are past laying in quart mason jars, where they will be ready for making chicken pie and soup. Hens are versatile creatures. The freezers are so full we have not yet ordered broilers, which are butchered at nine or ten weeks, and take up a good bit of space. We’ll wait until our summer hamburger feasts have diminished the congestion in the freezers.
The three Pekins and their adopted sister Pasqualle, the Speckled Sussex pullet, love their new house by the pond.
Pasqualle is one confused hen. The other day she swam across the pond. We think this may be some kind of record. Who ever heard of a hen that swims?