Nothing on the farm seems to work as hard–or with as much purposeful industry–as our honeybees. Sometimes I’ll just sit back on my elbows near the hives and watch the daily, wandering bustle of their lives: their black-banded bodies freighted with nectar from thousands of obliging flowers, their legs dusted in motes of pollen; so determined and ambitious, so organized. It’s hard not to feel like an idle slacker around them.
Being there: All magical bustle and industry
We’ve been keeping bees (or they’ve been busily keeping us) for almost five years now and they’ve become so essential to the macro organism of the farm that it’s hard to imagine growing without them. Beyond their remarkable, ambrosial honey, they are the planet’s primary pollinators, responsible for thirty percent of the food we humans eat.
What they draw from the floral landscape, the raw honey we harvest, is one of nature’s miracles. Honey is the only food that never spoils (they’ve found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs), and, in its raw form, is an excellent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal (it can even be used topically to treat infection). It’s rich in anti-oxidants, a boost to your immune system, and local, raw honey (not the pasteurized yellow stuff at the supermarket) even helps with allergies: A tablespoon a day of raw honey from within a 100 miles radius of your home acts as an allergy immune booster, since the bees are processing the same pollen that’s making you seasonably miserable.
Deep, Rich, Raw: honey ready for CSA members
The world would be bleak without bees, of course, so deciding to keep them–despite their unpredictable wildness–is an act of stewardship and conservation(oh yeah, there’s the reward of all that honey too). But I learned the hard way that becoming and apiarist isn’t just about setting up a few hives and letting the bees work their magic untended; like anything on the farm, there’s a fair amount thoughtful management and care involved.
Sweet, pleated quince blossoms in the orchard are delicious spring forage for bees
We’ve had our colonies collapse, or swarm out of their sticky, comfortable digs for no apparent reason, or perish in the brutality of a polar vortex, but we’ve persisted each year. Besides pollination and honey, keeping bees makes you something of an activist. Since bee populations have declined precipitously and mysteriously in the last decade (most likely due to the overuse of systemic pesticides), caring for a few of your own hives not only keeps you in delicious raw honey, but makes a small but meaningful contribution to the survival of this remarkable species. –Mb
“I must have flowers, always, and always” said Claude Monet, and, like him, Stonegate Farm is under the spell of a kind of wild, floral alchemy this season, with organic cut flowers having their magical way with us.
My daughter, Daisy Marlena, 11, with an early-morning harvest of Celosia ‘Ruby Parfait’. We think they make a beautiful bouquet.
With radiant blooms busting out all over, I think – even in his near-blindness – Monet would have fumbled for a fistful of horsehair brushes and gone at it, particularly the luminous, raveled clumps of nasturtium, which still grow so beautifully underneath his famous allée at Giverny.
There would be more for him to take in, of course: dark-plumed amaranth and velveteen sunflowers, towering above it all with watchful Cyclopian eyes; the blue, upright bristle of anise hyssop or the radiant chromatic whorls of long-stemmed zinnias.
A handful of multi-colored Benarys zinnias.
All of this color and form goes to my head (have you noticed?), but why not farm for beauty? If you’re looking for earthly transcendence, you’ll find it in flowers.
A bucketful of beauty at the farm, waiting for its arranged marriage
I’m up early, and usually make a bee-line (along with the bees), to the flower farm where, even in the half-light before the sun stretches through the trees, the blossoms are filling the air with fragrance. Besides the smell of dark espresso, that’s all I want my nose to know.
Harvests from the flower farm always happen in the early morning, before the blossoms fully unfold, so that they’re as fresh as possible for the CSA shares. With shears and buckets, they’re carefully cut just above a new leaf node, with a quiet “thank you, you’re beautiful” snip, and arranged into the week’s bouquets.
Our honeybees do their pollen dance around the eye of a sunflower.
It’s hard to go wrong with any of these, and they all cast a spell, but the neon buttons of pink gomphrena paired with the molten, lava-lamp purples of celosia is one of my favorites.
There is one flower above all that has my heart, however, and that’s my daughter Daisy; lovely and sweet, she is all flowers to me. –Mb
Visit Stonegate Farm
Late spring harvests at Stonegate Farm begin early in the morning, when the tender greens are cool and moist and the edible blossoms are barely open.
An assembled salad mix, with three varieties of loose-leaf lettuce, plus broccoli rabe and garlic chive blossom.
Our old school honey harvest meant using the slow drip method; letting gravity do its thing as open combs were warmed in front of the fire.
Newly-jarred honey, almost a gallon of it, glows on the window sill.
A planet without bees is not just a planet without the miracle of honey: bees pollinate 30% of our fruit and vegetable crops. The imbalance will lead to increased consumption of petro-chemical grains and feed lot protein – already a scourge in our fast food nation.
If the vanishing bees are a warning, their decline may be prophetic. Monocultures made possible by corporate profiteers such as Monsanto, ADM, and Cargill will be all that’s left; acres of GMO produce dripping with lethal chemicals It’s no wonder we’ve been kicked out of the garden by higher powers.
Einstein wisely said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” and small organic farms are on a mission to change consciousness, one bee at a time. –Mb
The new hive supers and brood boxes arrived this week, sent in a backbreaking UPS shipment from Brushy Mountain Bee. Along with a smoker, protective clothing, and a Spring order for sixty thousand Italian bees, we’re getting serious about honey.
Last season’s colony rallied valiantly against the cold, but the brutal, permafrost Winter this year proved too much for them, and they succumbed. Their stores of honey exhausted, and their thousand fold wing-beats unable to keep the hive at a survival temperature of 94 degrees, they died of exposure and starvation. In December, the hive seemed to be humming along. Bees that were terminally exhausted had clambered out and perished in the snow, which they’re predisposed to do (they’re fussy that way), and I watched workers occasionally cleaning out the hive near the entrance.
All seemed well until mid-January, after a week in the single digits, when the humming and cleaning stopped. I’m not sure If the bees were Neapolitan or from the Italian Alps, but trying to raise internal temps by almost one hundred degrees would take one hell of a furnace, no matter what your origin.
When I opened the hive, all of the honey stores were exhausted, and I found a tight cluster of lifeless bees huddled in a sphere around their queen, who seemed to have died on the throne. The bees had needed more protection from the elements, more routine care, and I felt as though I had failed them. Any success in farming is always guarded and qualified, tempered by the humbling reality of caring for living things.
So we’re starting over. In fact, as I was assembling and painting the new hives, a few curious bees showed up and started inspecting the bundles of wax frames. They’re from a small colony that swarmed last season and took up residence high inside the wall of our pool porch. Like real estate speculators, they figure it’s a buyers market, and the porch wall is no match for a brand new duplex.
The new hives will be placed out in the Southeast corner of the orchard, where the glacial snow has finally retreated and the hens are now out and about on the sotted earth, looking to scratch up a thawed worm or two.
The farm looks a bit scrappy this time of year, not quite camera-ready, with the swill of Spring mud, the storm scattered branches, the gray wall of leaf-less trees. I feel the onset of that seasonal impulse to regenerate, to make my world good and green again.
In a few weeks, seedlings will be started, one or too hens will get broody and begin set on a clutch of eggs, and Spring onions will pierce the earth with their soft, aromatic spears. All the frustration of Winter, like the interminable snow, will have faded to exuberant green.
It’s hard to conjure green in January. While it dominates the landscape for most of the year, in mid-winter it is a fugitive from the cold, hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. We’ve just had our third major blizzard of the season here at Stonegate Farm, and only the fence lines now mark the faint contours of productive land.
The chore-worn path to the coop marks the
daily routine of ritual and care.
Snow transforms not only the visual shape and color of the farm, but it alters our behavior as well. In Winter, we are deliberate. Our days are marked by the lines we make in the snow between outbuildings: feeding, filling water, warming. The woodpile, the coop, the greenhouse, the barn are all tended to. Our chore-worn paths mark daily routines and the ritual of care.
The fence lines that neatly define the perimeter of the farm are the only indication of productive land.
Most of our paths through life are more circuitous and indirect, affected by circumstance. Starting a farm for me was an indirect line, a scribble in the margins of an established career, but it has helped me to discover something fundamental that was lacking: finding purposeful work that’s connected and deeply rooted to place. If, as John Kabat-Zinn said in his meditation on everyday life, “wherever you go, there you are,” then I am here, and plan to stay. Planting an orchard or building barns presumes longevity, after all.
Out in the snow, the footprints of deer and rabbit and cat are present, as is the random scurry of a vole. The finches and sparrows perch like quarter notes in the limbs of crabapples, whose ice-bound fruit is pecked at. The hives hum faintly as bees cluster for warmth. They too have their winter routines.
While Winter is a stern editor of possibilities, routines are sometimes broken by chance encounters with the unexpected: An old maple, its branches burdened with snow, succumbs in the middle of the night, taking down a stretch of fence line; the alarming sight of female worker bees, who expired keeping their precious queen warm, scattered in stiff curls on the snow outside the hive. Even hoof prints along the orchard fence, where deer make their habitual circuit each night, seem deeper and more clustered, as though they’ve begun to nose the the perimeter of the orchard with curiosity and hunger. They could strip the bark off an entire planting of young fruit trees in one fatal, ravenous binge.
The chickens don’t get out much in winter. They don’t like the frost biting at their feet, and with nothing to scratch but snow, there’s not much point. May as well hang out in the coop, lay a few eggs, crow and squawk a bit, fight over a perch. I’ll come out and throw them some scratch, or freshen up their bedding with new straw, harvest eggs for the weekly egg share. I could be the most exciting thing to happen in their day, and that’s not saying much. At night, the coop glows like an ember with its 200 watt warming light, and inside the chickens are fluffed up and roosting in their brightly feathered duvets.
It’s up tails all as the hens try to make sense of snow.
Before Spring turns down the bed of snow, the boot-stitched lines that mark the back and forth of winter work and the hours of obligation will widen, as will our ambitions. We know how the growing season will overwhelm us with possibility and choice making. For now, the winter simplifies, letting our ambitions hibernate too. – Mb
It turns out our dizzy, mop-topped hen, Phyllis Diller, is actually Phil S. Diller, a trans-gender cockerel. He went from dulcet murmuring to an all out strident crow in the space of a week. Give him some Spandex and he’s like a relic from an ‘80s hair band. Chickens are full of peculiar surprises, but this one I didn’t see coming. We put him on Craigs List and a very nice couple from Connecticut adopted him. Apparently they’re into leather.
Phil S. Diller: A bird of a different feather.
A new flock of fuzz (all female, I’ve been assured) arrived via the P.O. today. They, along with these beautiful, warm April skies have put dance back in our weary Winter bones here at Stonegate farm. The sugar snap peas, savoy spinach and tender varieties of early lettuce have been hardened off and are upright and steppin’ out in the Spring beds (var. ‘Red Fire’, ‘Red Sails’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’). Other delicious greens such as Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, arugula and mesclun are warming up and waiting their turn to flee from the hot confines of the greenhouse.
The only caveat to such a glorious early Spring is the dark, foreboding lurk of a late frost, ready to take out all that’s in bud or bloom. Like a wolf crossing the property line (if I hear Prokofiev I’m going to scream!) We’re in zone 6B here in Balmville along the Hudson River, meaning our potential final frost date is May 15th, so who knows? Erratic weather seems to be the new normal, and humble resignation to its mood swings is a hallmark for those working the land. To put a spin on an old chestnut: Hope, in Spring, (and Summer, and Fall) must be eternal, otherwise we’d all be in therapy.
Far From the Madding Swarm was where I stood as hive and housing were introduced.
True to our goal of sustainability, and our dogged, hopeful nature, we’ve said Benvenuti to a hive of 12,000 italian bees in the orchard. These insatiable, chatty, free-range pollinators and makers of organic honey (maybe we’ll have some dripping out of the combs come Fall!) will add viability to both fruit and vegetable crops. Despite our being programmed to fear their Vespa-like buzz, they’re generally ambivalent about us, and have their own Dolce Vita to live.
My Swiss friend Rudy, who’s a pastry chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, set up the hive last week. As a master of all things sweet and delicious, Rudy has a fondness for bees. He showed up and built a tower of boxes and frames, emptied the thrumming swarm into them, gave me some bee-keeping-for-dummies fundamentals and told me to hope for the best. That I can do, eternally. – Mb.