Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bees, Beesness and Beeswax


Let me start out by saying that I'm a beekeeper who is afraid of bees. It doesn't matter how many times I get stung, I'm terrified of bee stings. While Filipe throws his bee suit on over bare skin and assumes that a few stings will go through, I layer up. I wear tall socks, jeans and a long sleeve shirt under the suit as well as tall rubber boots and the customary long gloves so they don't sneak in anywhere. Although I get stung much less often than Filipe, I sweat like marathon runner, I probably look like I'm tying some kind of detox. In my defence, the species of bee that we work with which is native to the region- the Iberian honey bee is far more aggressive than the Italian variety most often found in the United States. Although bee stings hurt a little- the itch the next day is by far the worst part, although none of it really justifies an adult beekeeper running screaming from the hives because a single bee might have found it's way into her suit. Whatever, I soldier on.

Getting suited up- notice the fleece, collar up, under my suit.
This lady in my beekeeping course made a suit for her baby, adorable!

      Now on to the more interesting developments in my apicultural world. We started out this season with six hives, meaning we lost three over the winter. They say you should always expect to lose at least 20% over-wintering. The hives that we lost were all in one area and when we took them apart we found mold along the bottom. This tells us that we chose a bad location for the hives; too much moisture/too close to the ground and not enough sun. Since it was our first year here it was hard to predict what the conditions would be like and where the sun would be during the winter. Luckily we had hives in several different places and some even grew over the winter so we know where the new ones this year will go!

     Last year being the first season we had a relatively small take of honey. I know I should get all giddy and discuss terrior and notes of forest berries etc. But I just wasn't that impressed with the honey. Additionally, the cost and time required to meet regulations when it comes to the storing, packaging and labeling of food products make selling it on a small scale seem pointless. That's why we're going for wax. Wax has a about the same bulk market rate as honey (8€/kilo) but because it's not food, there are no regulations. To get bees to produce wax rather than honey is also fairly simple. A wild colony produces it's own wax combs as soon as it settles in a new place, once the comb is complete it begins to fill the cells with honey to save for the winter. To get bees to produce honey you give them the wax they need so they can start producing honey immediately, as soon as the first blossoms come. By the time winter comes there's enough for them and plenty left-over to take. To get them to produce wax you give them empty frames so that the comb is straight and easy to remove. They make the wax and fill it with honey for themselves for the winter. At the beginning of the following season (after they have eaten all the honey they stored) you take the wax and give them new empty frames to start again. This week we began melting down the wax we took at the beginning of this season. In terms of selling the wax, there is always a market for beekeepers who want wax to put in the hives, but the real money is in the crafts- the candles, soaps and even crayons. For now, we'll be selling wax to crafters and beekeepers, but I'm a keeping a little stash to try my hand at some of these projects.
We removed last year's wax from these frames and now they'll go back in the hives so the bees can make more!
Melting down last years wax in a double boiler.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Losing Farm Animals

     The first animals I got on the farm were two geese. The first animals I lost on the farm were these geese. Before this, I had had little experience with losing animals, only a dog when I was much younger. Most importantly, these geese signified the beginning of a new phase in my life, the beginning of the farm. They were a couple and I named them Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve
     Adam and Eve died as a result of my own negligence, which leads to why I don't want children...what if you make a mistake at just the wrong moment? But I digress. I went to an all day beekeeping course and left them outside, figuring that I'd be home before dark, something I wouldn't think of doing with my geese now, not because of what happened, but because it's just so obviously risky, foolish and unnecessary. We ran late and got home just after dark and they were nowhere to be found. I walked around for hours calling them, hoping they were curled up somewhere sleeping. I woke the next morning to find Adam dead, headless to be precise, in the driveway right in front of the house. The thought crossed my mind that he was laying there all the time I was walking around calling for him, right in front of me but not visible in the darkness. The fox that killed them had apparently gotten away with Eve. As I grabbed a shovel and carried him off dangling by his cold foot to be buried, I felt more than sad. I felt old and changed like some character in a coming of age novel who's just learned a big lesson that he was too young for. Looking back though, I'm almost amused by how devastated I was over losing those geese. Not amused in a funny or even condescending way but more in the that head-shaking, 'you think that's bad,' way of old people. I would go on to lose five more geese before I'd be able to keep three alive. Not great odds if you're a goose, to be sure. Three would die of some mysterious illness, two of which hung on desperately (and rather depressingly) for days. By the end I was feeding them a broth and coffee mixture through a syringe and letting them sleep in the bed next to us on a towel. The final one, Cain, lasted a week like this. I woke up a five AM to him chirping weakly next to me and I fed him his mixture. When I woke up again at seven he was stiff. Filipe said he'd never seen a bird survive even a day like that- I guess that was supposed to mean I did a good job. Again, I was devastated, but not as much as I had been after Adam and Eve. It took me weeks to even think of getting more geese after Adam and Eve. This time I went the following Saturday to the animal market.
Sick goose baby
     The final two geese were lost in even more mysterious circumstances. I came home one night and they were gone. They had been inside a latched, wire house and nothing looked amiss. I still think they were stolen, but we'll never know. I was briefly devastated and took a break then, and several months later when my dad came to visit he encouraged me to try once more. I now have three happy adult geese, Flora, Fauna and Fungi. In the meantime we had more than ten chickens die of old age (they belonged to the landlord but were in my care) and to William Hawkner (my dad's name for the hawk that stalks the property.) 

Only four of these are still with us...
       The final blow, at least so far, came when my beloved horse Lucien took sick. I had had him for four months and was convinced he'd live a long life with me. When I got him he would barely take a rider and knew no commands and four months later I was riding up and down the mountains bareback. That's to say, he had huge potential. Then, over the course of several days he became lethargic, his feet started slipping. He was eating and drinking fine so I thought we'd wait it out, the vet agreed. One night I left him for a few hours. When I left he was eating, when I got back he was laying down. We tried for hours to get him up, we even made a makeshift pulley using ropes and my Volkswagen, but he barely had the strength to lift his head and within a few hours my sweet horse was dead. I found out later that he had contracted botulism from some corn straw that I was feeding him. My fault again. I cried for two days. Everyone was a little worried that all this loss might finally be breaking me, especially with this being my horse. In fact, it wasn't like that for me at all. On the third day I started looking at horses for sale. It just didn't hit me the way those first geese had, even though it was much worse in many ways.

Lovely Lucien

--> I wouldn't say I've gotten used to things dying- that would sound cold and crass. It's more a matter of reaching a point where I don't feel attached to the animals in the way I used to feel about my pets. They are here and I'm here. They bring me great pleasure but I can die and they can die.
It seems to me that you can spend years meditating hoping to achieve 'detachment'- or you can get farm animals.
Camila, who isn't able to stand being lifted. Filipe is massaging her legs.
     As I write this we have a cow that might not make it. She's been hanging on for several weeks with compounding problems, and though she's showing signs of improvement, it may be that it will be in her best interest to end her life at some point soon. The thing about farm animals, especially cows, is that they aren't pets, they have a monetary value and the farm cannot succeed if too much is spent maintaining lame animals. What I find most amazing these days is that I can love my sick cow, Camila, so openly. I can spend rainy evenings in the stable brushing her while I listen to her rhythmic rumination and feel peaceful and connected to her and yet fully accept that I might have to make the decision to end her life in the very near future. The same goes for her baby, Bambi. I wont lie, I'm working hard to convince Filipe that we can keep him....train him and take him to shows...use him to pull a plough... Although, in all likelihood he will be sold after a year just like the other calves we have, because that's how the farm pays for itself. This is just life on the farm. 
It's all worth it.