Tag Archives: honeybees

CCD killed my bees; GMO corn suspected

Today I had to destroy my hives.

New beekeepers might find this surprising, that bees can die mysteriously. But it’s becoming a common problem for beeks.

About two weeks ago, I noticed that no bees were coming and going from my two hives. I watched them, and knew they were dead. It wasn’t a total surprise. Last summer, I had die-offs in both hives, so I didn’t rob the honey, hoping the colonies would bounce back. It was my hope that by leaving the honey, then they could survive the winter. They didn’t.

So, today, I opened up the hives — a chore I had been putting off.

Each of my hives held about 65 pounds of honey -- a classic symptom of colony collapse disorder (CCD): lots of honey, no bees. (Photo: shooflyfarm, Jim Ewing)

Each of my hives held about 65 pounds of honey — a classic symptom of colony collapse disorder (CCD): lots of honey, no bees. (Photo: shooflyfarmblog, Jim Ewing)

What I found was at first surprising. Each of the hives held about 65 pounds of honey. So, they didn’t starve (as I figured they wouldn’t if I didn’t harvest the honey this year). But there were no dead bees in the first hive. Just honey.

That’s a classic symptom of colony collapse disorder (CCD): lots of honey, no bees.

In the second hive, there was the same but with a difference. There was honey, but at the bottom of the hive were hundreds of dead bees. But, in addition, there were dozens of cockroaches, but also dead.

Whatever killed the bees killed the cockroaches that ate them.

I moved to town one year ago. While I had had ups and downs with the bees over the years when I lived out in the country, good years and not-so-good years, the bees adjusted to the various conditions. I requeened when I had to, captured swarms, and so forth, to keep them going. They survived drought and heavy rains, vicious cold spells and warm seasons. Adjusting.

But the moment I moved to town I had problems. The bees just couldn’t adjust.

I don’t think it’s just living in town, as urban beekeeping has become a national phenomenon. Hundreds of beekeepers live in New York City, for example; even swanky hotels have bee hives on their top floors. They are thriving.

But behind my house, a few subdivisions away and within the two-mile range of my bees, are literally miles of GMO corn. You can drive for 30 minutes and see nothing but corn fields interspersed with cotton fields.

Today, the harsh chemicals that once characterized cotton farming have become highly regulated with EPA rules that require quick breakdown of toxic chemicals. But the controversy rages over GMO corn and a host of pesticides for corn called neonicotinoids.

As Xerces has reported, neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death.

According to Xerces:

— Several of these insecticides are highly toxic to honey bees and bumblebees. Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
— Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
— Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
For more, see: http://www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/

Neonicotinoids are found in many garden products, and it’s possible that my bees died from that exposure here in town. But I suspect the corn, mainly because whenever herbicides and pesticides are sprayed on the miles and miles of fields outside of town, the odor permeates the area. It’s difficult to drive through or near those fields in the spring, fall and certain times in the summer.

According to various research reports, though the Big Ag seed producers and chemical companies vehemently reject the claim, it is believed that millions of bees die because of neonicotinoid pesticides. And the majority of GMO corn and soy are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides.

According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), 94 percent of U.S. corn seeds are treated with either imidacloprid or clothianidin (specific neonicotinoid poisons believed to kill bees) and as a result, honey bees are subjected to increasingly toxic load of neonicotinoids in corn fields.

Moreover, according to a Purdue University study released last year, the most damaging use of neonicotinoids is a type of coating applied to many genetically engineered (GMO) corn seeds to kill pests that the GMO Bt toxin (inserted genetically into the seed) cannot destroy.

While European countries have banned their use, neonicotinoids remain widely used in the United States, despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists have warned of the danger to the nation’s pollinators.

These nicotine-based neurotoxins impair the bees’ navigational ability and compromise their immune and nervous systems, causing paralysis and eventually death. It has been likened to a honeybee getting Alzheimer’s and forgetting how to return to the hive.

That would explain the first hive with its abundance of honey and missing bees.

But neonicotinoids use has an equally disastrous effect that research is showing (even research that the chemical scientists employed by industrial agriculture cannot explain away). And that is that even if a hive’s bees do not mysteriously disappear by the Alzheimer’s effect (CCD), the toxic load of neonicotinoids stresses hives to the extent that they die from other causes. Specifically, that can be either a disastrous increase in susceptibility to common diseases and parasites, or from other pesticides that might otherwise have sickened the bees but not killed them.

Nor do bees have to go to the corn to be poisoned. Pesticide-laden dust particles are carried for miles. And because the pesticides are systemic, they are absorbed by other plants, such as dandelions, that bees can be exposed to while gathering pollen and bringing it back to the hive.

The poison also is absorbed by soil and, hence, is found in plants that grow in that soil — as well as in our streams and rivers.

One might say, ah, but there’s no proof here that GMO killed the bees. To a certain extent, yes, there is no proven direct link, as there is no proven direct link between neonicotinoids and bee deaths (though the evidence seems overwhelming).

The fact is that rather than reducing pesticide inputs, GMOs are causing them to skyrocket in amount and toxicity because the most common forms of insect pests (not bees!) are developing immunity to those used in conjunction with GMOs. That means ever more amounts and ever more varieties of toxic chemicals being applied (including herbicides).

That also might be illustrated by the simultaneous effect in my second hive: CCD evidence with honey but no bees found, as well as hundreds of bees killed by an unknown cause that also resulted in the deaths of the cockroaches that ate some of the dead bees.

I am not a scientist. I’m just a backyard gardener, former organic farmer, and (now, regrettably, former) beekeeper. I can only present conclusions as to what might have happened to my bees based on observation, reading and my own firsthand experience.

I am also very sad.

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Drought? Water Your Bees!

Drought conditions?

Don’t forget to water your bees. They need water, too. They need it to make wax and to make honey.

Don't forget to give water for bees during drought conditions. They need it to make honey and wax.

Don’t forget to give water for bees during drought conditions. They need it to make honey and wax.

It’s very simple. Just find a piece of plastic — in this case, an old plastic picnic table cover — and put it on the ground. Spray it with water. The bees will find it.

Don’t worry about mosquitoes. If you keep the water fresh (spraying daily), they won’t have stagnant water in which to breed.

A bee drinks water from a simple watering station - a plastic table cover sprayed with a garden hose.

A bee drinks water from a simple watering station – a plastic table cover sprayed with a garden hose.

Bees love it. As the photo shows, they will come to drink. The water is shallow enough so they won’t drown, and leaves simply allow a place for them to perch.

Drought? Water your bees!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

An Exclusive July Fourth!

July 4, 2013

Happy Fourth of July, Everyone!

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

We decided that since our bees have been so productive this year, we’d go ahead and harvest a little honey. Actually, I was going to wait until my normal time, the end of August, but I bumped into a friend at Rainbow Co-op Grocery who is also a beek, and he said he was already harvesting.

I said, “Isn’t it a little early?”

He said that he was running out of supers. I got to thinking about it, and figured, well, why not? I plan to adding the super back, anyway. Just trade it out now and see how they’re doing in the fall. As long as they have adequate honey for winter, skimming some off the top now shouldn’t hurt.

So, I’ve just come back from preparing to harvest a little honey. Not a lot: just a little. Note, we didn’t actually harvest honey today. But we’ll have some, hopefully, in a couple of days. This is just the preparation.

A lot of folks, I guess, think that you just go out to the bees and they give you honey. It’s not that easy. Actually, you have to separate the bees from the honey. And that can be messy — or it can be rather gentle.

Since I’m a natural beekeeper — barefoot beekeeper or whatever you want to call it — I prefer nonchemical, easy and gentle.

In the old days, when I started beekeeping back in the 1970s, we would use “fume boards.” They were stinky arrangements where you dosed a board with a stinky substance that the bees — and beekeepers! — couldn’t abide. That caused the bees to leave the box adjacent to the board, and the beekeeper removed the box.

But somewhere along the way, somebody got smart and developed an excluder board that does the same thing — separating bees from honey — without the stink. It’s a board with a hole in it that’s covered in a screen arrangement, so that the bees can go back down into the main hive at night but are prevented from getting back into the box when they try to return in the morning.

So, today, I put in the excluder. Here’s a step by step.

When you gather pine straw for your bee smoker make sure and gather some extra and keep it in a dry space. At some point,  you may need to smoke the hives and find that all your outdoors pine straw is too wet to use. Photo by Jim Ewing

When you gather pine straw for your bee smoker make sure and gather some extra and keep it in a dry space. At some point, you may need to smoke the hives and find that all your outdoors pine straw is too wet to use. Photo by Jim Ewing

First, you want to gather some pine straw for your smoker. Some companies sell material to be burned in bee hive smokers, but why spend money when there’s a natural substance that’s free? One caveat: I’ve learned the hard way not to just go out to the pine trees and start gathering straw to be used that day. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself wanting to mess with the bees and the pine straw will be too damp to use.

Rather, I keep a bucket in the garage with gathered pine straw in it. That way, the pine straw is always dry. When the bucket starts to get low (pictured), I just take it with me and fill it up along with as much as I need for that day, and bring it back to the garage when I’m through.

Pine straw works pretty good. Take some newspaper and tear it into strips and put them in the middle of a handful. Light the paper and once it starts burning, stuff it into the smoker. Puff it a couple of times to make sure it’s well lit, then close the top. You should be good for a session in the bee yard. But always carry a lighter, just in case. It doesn’t take but a moment to relight the smoker if it goes out.

As you can see, the smoker is smokin' and we're ready to lift the top off the hive on the right. Photo by Jim Ewing

As you can see, the smoker is smokin’ and we’re ready to lift the top off the hive on the right. Photo by Jim Ewing

Here’s the smoker in the bee yard. Another tip: It it seems to be going out, only lightly use the bellows. Don’t pump it hard. That will almost certainly cause a dwindling spark to go out. Rather, gently squeeze the bellows in slow, long steps. You’ll see the smoke gradually get thicker. Then, if you set it down, it may get thicker still.

We’re going to install the excluder in the established hive (not the swarm hive) on the right. We’ll get back to the swarm hive in coming weeks.

The bees have been busy building new wax onto the frames added less than two weeks ago. Photo by Jim Ewing

The bees have been busy building new wax onto the frames added less than two weeks ago. Photo by Jim Ewing

As you can see, the bees have been busy. It’s only been 10 days since we put this super on the hive, but the bees have built wax all the way to the the end frames and have actually started putting honey in the center frames.

The hive is now open. The newest super (the green one) has been removed, at right. Notice the top box now covered with bees. That's the super we want to prepare to remove for its honey. Photo by Jim Ewing

The hive is now open. The newest super (the green one) has been removed, at right. Notice the top box now covered with bees. That’s the super we want to prepare to remove for its honey. Photo by Jim Ewing

So, I took off the top super off and set it to the right, as you can see in the photo. The top of the hive and inner board are on the ground to the left. Next, I pick up the super that’s now shown as the top one (the one covered with bees) and set it on the saw horses, on the right. I put the newest (green) super where it had been, and put the excluder board on top of it. Then, I put the hive full of honey on top of the green super, with the inner board and hive top on top of that. Here’s a photo:

The brown line at the bottom of the first box is the excluder board. Now, we wait. Photo by Jim Ewing

The brown line at the bottom of the first box is the excluder board. Now, we wait. Photo by Jim Ewing

So, now, the hive box filled with honey — and believe me, it’s filled with honey, maybe 50 pounds — is the top box. You can see the brown line beneath it that is the excluder board.

We’ll come back Saturday and check and see if it’s empty of bees. If so, we’ll take the box and remove the honey. If there are still some bees in it, we’ll give it another 24 hours.

Using the old stinky fume boards was quicker. But I’m grateful that this method has been developed. I don’t mind waiting for honey, or for the bees to very gently be removed from their honey. I think it’s just good energy! Right now, they’ll be focused on filling that new box with honey and will forget about the top box.

Now, we’re ready to celebrate! This EXCLUSIVE Fourth of July, in hopes of sweeter times, still!!!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Super Bees — Literally!

June 23, 2013

By Jim PathFinder Ewing
Just got inside the house a little while ago from messing with my bees. Boy, are they producing honey! Super Bees! Literally!

That’s a pun. For those who aren’t #beeks, the boxes #beekeepers put on the hive during the honey season are called “supers.” They are where the bees put the honey. Normally, down here in Mississippi, anyway, you have a deep hive box for brood on the bottom, then another box, either a deep or medium box for more brood and honey; those stay year round. Then, in the spring and summer when the nectar stars flowing, you add boxes for honey: the supers. They are later removed and the honey harvested.

I was only away from the hives a couple of weeks, but they got overgrown — and full of honey! Photo by Jim Ewing

I was only away from the hives a couple of weeks, but they got overgrown — and full of honey! Photo by Jim Ewing

As you can see from the photo, my hives were getting covered up by vegetation. Even though I’ve only been out of pocket for a couple of weeks (up on Butte, Mont., for NCAT training, then back, and getting settled in my new job), field grass was almost covering the hives.

But once I waded into the bee yard, and lifted the top, boy was I surprised! You may recall that in April, I captured a swarm of bees and put them in a hive box with one super: the normal basic arrangement. In May, they needed another box, so I added one. When I last checked on them, before I went to Butte, about three weeks ago, they had filled those boxes, so I put another super on them. Now, imagine my surprise to find they had almost filled that one, too!

As you can see, the middle frames are filled with honey, and the outside ones are beginning to be filled. So, it's time to add another super. Photo by Jim Ewing

As you can see, the middle frames are filled with honey, and the outside ones are beginning to be filled. So, it’s time to add another super. Photo by Jim Ewing

Normally, a swarm hive won’t produce much honey the first year, expending its energy building out wax in the frames and reproducing to build up hive numbers. But this hive is going great guns. The middle frames are filled with honey, and the bees are already filling the outside frames. Normally, in any hive new or old, you want to add another super when 2/3 of the frames are filled — as in this case. If the bees run out of room, they’ll start creating queen cells, preparing to swarm. Hopefully, I caught them before they decided to swarm — again! Both hives needed supers, so I added a super to each one.

As you can see, the hive on the right, which was just a two-box swarm of bees in April, now has as many "supers" on it as the established hive (left). Photo by Jim Ewing

As you can see, the hive on the right, which was just a two-box swarm of bees in April, now has as many “supers” on it as the established hive (left). Photo by Jim Ewing

As you can tell from the photo, the new swarm hive now has as many supers on it as the established hive! Notice also how I took the trimmer and cut the grass!

That was a trip, too! Normally, my bees are pretty docile. They’re used to me puttering around and rarely sting. But when I started up the trimmer, you wouldn’t believe how riled up they got! I’ve taken off boxes of honey and not seen them so upset! I guess it’s the vibration from the motor. Maybe they think is a bunch or hornets or something. I got popped a few times.

 

We’ll check the hives again in a couple of weeks and see how they are doing. We should be harvesting honey in about a month or so.

Jim PathFinder Ewing’s new book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

More New Bee Adventures

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

In our last Bee Swarm episode, we had captured a swarm of bees and put them in a hive box. So, we decided to check up on them. And, perhaps more important, make sure they were well fed.

When bees swarm they first gorge themselves with honey, which is one of the reasons they are so docile in a swarm. They aren’t protecting a hive, so have no need of aggression. Moreover, the honey acts to calm the bees. That’s the main reason why smoke works to calm bees. When the bees sense smoke, fearing that their hive will be consumed by flames, they gorge themselves with honey, which calms them. They, then, carry the honey where needed; so, in case of disaster, or when swarming, they will have their honey to store.

A natural way to calm bees is to spray them with sugar water. It’s not quite as effective as smoke, but has a calming effect. I used to use sugar water, but found that my intrusion on the bees was disruptive whether by sugar water or smoke, and the bees are adapted to smoke; it’s a natural occurrence. Being squirted with sugar water tends to confuse them.

In any event, I went out first to make sure the bees were in the hive. Which they were. So, I came back inside the house and mixed up some sugar and water to feed the bees.

The proper ratio for sugar to water in mixing sugar water for bees, in my opinion, is as much sugar as the water will absorb. Photo by Jim PathFinder Ewing c. 2013 blueskywaters.com

The proper ratio for sugar to water in mixing sugar water for bees, in my opinion, is as much sugar as the water will absorb. Photo by Jim PathFinder Ewing c. 2013 blueskywaters.com

There are differing opinions on the proper mix of sugar to water. I just mix sugar in warm water until it starts to precipitate. If the sugar stays suspended in the syrup, it’s the right mixture. You will notice in the photo that we use a water filter; that takes out the chlorine and any other impurities. If you don’t  have a filter, you can pour water into a container and wait 48-72 hours allowing the water to release harmful gases.

Since we grow organically, we believe in keeping toxin levels down in all we do. So, we use organic sugar for our bees, ensuring there are no latent pesticides.

Since we grow organically, we believe in keeping toxin levels down in all we do. So, we use organic sugar for our bees, ensuring there are no latent pesticides.

Of course, since we grow organic, we prefer to use organic sugar. That way, we are assured there are no pesticide residues in the sugar water we feed the bees.

Now, what’s next? What I do is use what’s called an entrance feeder. You can see it’s turned upside down in filling it with water and sugar. Normally, one would turn it upright and slip the flat feeder portion into the entrance to the hive.

Empty hive box

But as you can see here, what I’ve done is take an empty hive box and placed it on top of the hive (see the top box on hive to the right); the inner cover acts as the bottom for the top box.

Having the entrance feeder inside the hive protects against stronger hives "robbing" the feeder.

Having the entrance feeder inside the hive protects against stronger hives “robbing” the feeder.

I put the feeder there. Having it inside the box protects against stronger hives “robbing” the feeder at the entrance. Since the swarm in the new hive is smaller than an established hive, it pays to protect it and help it get established.

The honey flow is just starting here. Butter cups are abundant, and white clover is now just starting to blossom.

Our "new bees" are happy bees laden with pollen.

Our “new bees” are happy bees laden with pollen.

If could could see closer you would notice that the bees are laden with pollen.

While I was out fooling with the bees, I switched my iPhone over to video and took a video of them, following one of “my girls” out to the field of buttercups behind our house. Here it is on YouTube: http://youtu.be/1tpm-ltlTrk

Or:

If you choose to watch it, make sure and stay for the end, for a special appearance of Phoenix, our cat. 🙂 The video is only two minutes and 15 seconds long.

Enjoy!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Check Your Bees for Hive Health

In March, bees may need more food if their honey stores are depleted. Photo by Jim PathFinder Ewing

In March, bees may need more food if their honey stores are depleted. Photo by Jim PathFinder Ewing

Here’s a photo I took of one of our bee hives on Tuesday (March 19, 2013).

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

Blog followers may remember that I was surprised in December that I had a whole super full of honey — due to the unusually warm temperatures and a huge goldenrod crop. Bees were still gathering nectar and making honey.

I have two hives and the one with the Cordovan bees had enough honey to harvest, while the other one of Italian bees was not so full. I went ahead and harvested honey from the Cordovans, even though it was late, but left the Italians alone, making a note that I would check on them in early spring to see if they needed feeding.

Well, I checked them and both hives came through winter without problems, the Cordovans quickly populating. When I took off the top box, there was the queen busy laying eggs right there!

However, it appeared they were a bit low on honey. So, I checked the Italians and, guess what? They, apparently, were continuing to harvest nectar in December and had plenty to spare. So, I took two frames of honey from the Italians and gave them to the Cordovans, putting empty frames (shown in the photo) from the Cordovans to the Italians.

I’ll check back in a couple of weeks and see how they are doing. But, for now, they look great!

Check your bees to make sure they have enough food to eat before the honey flow. Now is the hardest time for bees as they rely on their stored honey while building populations. If they need food, you can mix organic sugar with water to make a syrup. How much?

Experts differ on ratios. I use hot water to mix; as long as the sugar when stirred in is absorbed, keep pouring; when it starts to precipitate (grains falling to the bottom)  then stop. That’s generally around 1:1 – or one cup of water to one cup of granular sugar, more or less. Let the water cool before giving it to the bees.

To feed: I usually put an empty box without frames on top of the inner cover, with feeder sitting on top of it, then covering it with the telescoping top. That way, more aggressive bees (and wasps) are unlikely to fight for access to the sugar syrup, as with an entrance feeder.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Bees and Honey in Winter?

Dec. 9, 2012
Bees and Honey in Winter?

Annette and I got a real treat this past week: about a gallon of honey — harvested from our own beehives.
Bees and honey in winter? Yep. Surprised me, too.
I have two hives — one painted white, one painted yellow. In the white boxes are Italian bees; in the yellow, Cordovan, an Italian variety.
Some people say that there is no difference between the Cordovans and their Italian relatives, except for a lighter color caused by a recessive gene.
I’ve read that Cordovans have a longer tongue and are able to obtain nectar from flowers that other bees cannot and have read also that they tend to have larger hive numbers — which I’ve found to be true, at least comparing my two hives. The Cordovans outnumber the others 2-to-1 and also seem to gather honey earlier, increase their numbers earlier, and have honey longer.
That’s not a scientific observation; it could be that it’s just the difference between the two colonies of bees that I happen to have. But it could also be what it seems to be, too: that Cordovans are better adapted for our area.
Which brings us back to the honey.

When I was harvesting our honey a couple of months ago, I left both hives with a super (i.e., a box usually removed for honey harvest).
The reason was twofold:

1) Last year, I just assumed our bees were fine for the winter and didn’t check on them during the winter months. That was a mistake that almost proved fatal — for the bees.
I was at an agricultural conference and mentioned to a fellow beekeeper how the unusually warm weather was probably good for the bees. “Have you checked on your bees lately?” he asked. “There have been a lot of colonies dying because they ate up all their honey.”
The hot winter provided some blossoms for the bees, but not enough; since it never got really cold, the bees didn’t reduce their hive populations much and, so, they needed more honey to keep them alive until the spring nectar flow started.
When I got home from the conference, the first thing I did was check on my bees and the beekeeper was right. While the Cordovans seemed fine, the Italians were almost out of honey. I started feeding them sugar water and they rebounded.
So, this year, when I harvested I figured I’d wait and see if the bees needed extra honey; I could always harvest it, if I wanted. I left a super on each hive, as insurance for them.

2) The bees are still making honey.
When I harvested my bees, the supers that I left on the hives each had about 3 frames of honey in them (the were the top ones). I had removed the middle supers and left the tops.
When I checked them last week, the Italians had about half filled their super; the Cordovans had totally filled their super and looked like they wanted to keep going. Mind you: This is December! But it’s been in the 60s and 70s for weeks. We have spring flowers blooming.
See photo: Henbit and buttercups — usually betokening Spring.
We had a high today of 75 degrees! it’s supposed to be in the 60s and 70s for another week, at least.
It did not appear that the Cordovans had reduced their numbers and were arriving laden with pollen and, presumably, nectar for honey.
So, I went ahead and harvested the Cordovan honey.
When I was finished, I replaced the Cordovan super with 2 frames of honey from the Italian hive, so both still have a super with honey in it, in addition to a brood box and second box. So, each hive has three boxes instead of two.

I’m not recommending that anyone do as I’m doing. I don’t know what the weather is going to do, and it could very well be that: a) they don’t need the supers; or b) they will need to be fed sugar water anyway. But this weird weather is hard to figure, for me, and, I guess, for the bees (and flowers), too.
I’ll keep an eye on them over the winter, hot or cold, this year.

Note: The honey we harvested is very pungent; mostly from golden rod. I noticed that we still have patches of new golden rod blooming! (See photo)

Photo of buttercup (center) and henbit in a field near our house in Lena, MS.

Photo of buttercup (center) and henbit in a field near our house in Lena, MS.

Goldenrod growing in our  field Dec. 9, 2012.

Goldenrod growing in our field Dec. 9, 2012.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook or follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Heat Reported Devastating To U.S. Beehives

Heat Reported Devastating to U.S. Beehives

Linda’s Bees in Atlanta (http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com/) reports that the extreme heat and drought in portions of the eastern U.S. (and I’m presuming in the West and Midwest, too) are devastating to bees this year.
She writes that The Macon Beekeeper (the monthly newsletter of the bee group in Franklin, NC) reported that there was little nectar in the area:

“Reports from all over indicate that at this point the honey crop is a failure. With one exception beekeepers report that their honey supers are, essentially, empty. A few are feeding their bees to hold off starvation. It’s no different here. The tulip poplar did bloom. I do see some dark nectar in a few colonies. However, in reality, the nectar flow did not happen. My bees continue to work, and they are not starving. But there is no excess honey. It’s hard to take, but that’s agriculture.”

Wildflowers, like these shown in our front field in Lena, MS, photographed today via iPhone, are still abundant in east central Mississippi — providing nectar for bees despite the heat and drought. Other areas are reporting severe effects from heat and drought, however, with bees living off of stored honey and beekeepers forced to feed the bees to keep them alive. Photo by Jim Ewing/shooflyfarmblog

Linda (a Mississippi native who still has family here by the way) reports, however, that although the temperature in Atlanta was to hit 106 on Saturday, and the bloom is almost over for the one source she can detect, her hives have stored honey and uncapped nectar. Her bees are still working and surviving OK.

Reading this got me concerned (here in Lena, MS, 50 miles north of the capital, Jackson), so I went out and checked my hives. Though the bees were in a bad mood (one popped me on my crown chakra — a bee blessing with a point to it!), they also had stored honey and uncapped nectar.
They weren’t as far along as I would have hoped — one that struggled this spring despite the warm winter had only four filled frames in its one super, and the other had only put wax and was just starting to fill the cells in its second super. But I’m glad they seem to be doing OK. They are working, adding wax, and filling cells with nectar.
Given the heat, Linda has some good advice, though: Check your bees!
Also note my earlier post, and water your bees! They need it.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Naturescaping’ garden feeds body, soul

Feb. 24, 2012

‘Naturescaping’ backyard garden a way to feed body, soul

It’s time to consider which herbs you would like to plant in your organic garden for spring, or keep in little pots on your windowsill to add to foods you prepare.

When you put them in the ground, you can arrange them in a way that provides spice and flavor for food, as well as feeding your soul with inviting greenery.

A new book that can help give you ideas for shaping your yard is The Naturescaping Workbook by Beth O’Donnell Young and beautiful photographs by Karen Bussolini (Timber Press, $24.95).

One of the joys of backyard organic vegetable growing, whether for food or profit, is the variety of delights that can be discovered even in small spaces.

Naturescaping is an incredible guide for innovating in the garden, providing outlines for a variety of edible arrangements.

For example, it gives lists of edible trees, vines, shrubs, flowers and herbs, and shows photos of gardens in different arrays.

Another book that picks up where Naturescaping may leave off is Better Homes & Gardening’s new book: Herb Gardening (John Wiley & Sons, $19.99) and also just out in bookstores.

Herb Gardening gives astounding “plant by the number” garden plans that can provide any gardener with a spectacular display of herbs. It gives advice on herbs for different seasons, pairs that do well together, histories of where they come from and delicious-looking recipes.

Here is a Top Ten of grow-your-own culinary herbs for summer:

Basil

Thyme

Mint

Parsley

Hyssop

Bee Balm

Lavender

Sage

Dill

Coriander

I would add Stevia, a natural sugar substitute, and also warn that mint can take over your garden if you are not careful.

With these two books, a garden enthusiast could have a great deal of fun shaping, or reshaping, a diverse and edible garden that feeds body and soul.

Honeybee report: Speaking of bees, retired extension service apiculturist Harry Fulton warns beekeepers that the warm weather may be setting up their bees for hive failure.

He writes: “Bee colonies are consuming a lot of honey now because of the mild weather in January and early February, which resulted in early and unusual brood rearing. They gathered a lot of pollen then, which stimulated egg laying also.

“Consequently, please check to see if your bees have plenty of honey stores. They will not be gathering significant food stores until mid-March, unless you are in south Mississippi, where things will bloom earlier which produce nectar. There is some indication that fruit tree bloom will occur early, but do not let this fool you. Bees normally begin to ‘make a living’ by then, but this year is unusual. More cold weather could come, which will shut it all down.

“The general rule is that if bees have less than two full combs of honey, they should be fed immediately. They could need as much as 30 pounds (6 full deep combs) to get them through. For each full comb of brood emerging, it has been said that the bees need one full deep comb of honey/pollen stores. If they are not able to gather due to rainy weather or cold weather, then honey stores disappear quickly (one or two combs a week).”

Come see us: I’ll be speaking on Organic Backyard Market Gardening Saturday at the third annual Sustainable Living Conference by Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi at Eagle Ridge Conference Center in Raymond. For more information, see: www.ggsim.org.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Gluten-free, organic still means great flavor

Aug. 12, 2011
Organic or gluten-free doesn’t mean food without flavorOne of the great things about growing your own organic food is that you know what you are eating. You grew it from scratch.
Even so, we can’t produce every single item that we eat, and let’s face it, life would be pretty dull without a pizza or hot dog now and then.
Being “organic” also doesn’t mean you have to become some other type of person – such as wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and sandals – or being a “food nazi” about eating. It just means you are careful about what you put in your body and pay attention to where your food comes from, how it was grown, and whether it’s nutritious.
Mindful eating is something that becomes a good habit. But it can also be frustrating, given the paucity of information we’re often given at the grocery and the ingenuity food manufacturers have when it comes to labeling.
Sometimes, we have to do more research.
Gluten-free: I certainly hope no one has to use it, but a great resource for those who require gluten-free diets is a book just out titled The Cooking Light Gluten-Free Cookbook: Simple Food Solutions for Everyday Meals (Oxmore, 2011, $21.95).
I got the book because my mother-in-law Betty, who lives with us and turns 90 next month, was having difficulty digesting some foods and I thought it might be helpful.
I learned a lot; for example, gluten intolerance is more widespread than I had thought, and is, in fact, a growing health issue. Studies reveal that it’s four times more common in America now than in the 1950s.No one knows why that has occurred, but it’s believed that food processing isthe culprit.
People who are gluten sensitive may be so without knowing it. With proteins in wheat, barley and rye in almost everything available in the supermarket in processed pre-packaged foods, many may dismiss the symptoms as caused by something else.
Symptoms may include diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain in those with celiac disease, estimated to afflict 2 percent of the U.S. population. But allegeric sensitivitity – now estimated at up to 10 percent of the population – can have less obvious symptoms such as gas, bloating, weight loss and even malnutrition.
As it is, Betty is doing just fine with a variety of foods. But the Gluten-Free Cookbook is going to stay handy. It’s a real treasure trove, with more than 250 pages of recipes for virtually every food possible, from pizzas to chocolate cake that are gluten-free. It’s also a primer for those with sensitivities on how to stock their kitchens, and how to determine foods that are safe to eat.
Gluten-free doesn’t mean flavor-free, and eating healthy can mean greater food
enjoyment.
To broaden this a bit, some people have also corn allergies and may suffer from headaches, nausea, etc., from food additives derived from corn. Often, corn products (as with wheat gluten, and soy byproducts) are hidden in food labels.
Even items that are labeled “all natural ingredients” and “no artificial preservatives added” can have processed corn (and wheat) products in them.
There’s a lesson here: The further away we are from natural – read organic! – foods that aren’t processed and/or actually knowing what we are putting into our bodies, the greater the chance for irregularities.
Whenever possible, eat local, eat organic, know your farmer, know your food!
•Online: Want to know the nutrition facts about what you’re cooking? An online resource allows you to type in your dish, and it will provide various recipes along with a food nutrition label. Very cool:http://www.foodily.com/
•The annual meeting of the Mississippi Beekeepers Association will be held at the Gulf Coast Community College campus in Gautier Oct. 27-30. For more information, contact the MBA at P. O. Box 5207, Mississippi State, Mississippi 39762; or call Secretary Harry Fulton (662) 325-7765, or
e-mail harry@mdac.state.ms.us
•The Mississippi Fruit & Vegetable Growers Conference & Trade Show will be held at the Vicksburg Convention Center in Vicksburg, Nov. 14-16. It will be held in conjunction with the Mississippi Agritourism Association and the Gulf South Blueberry Growers Association. For more information, see:http://www.msfruitandveg.com/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Why store-bought tomatoes taste like cardboard

April 1, 2011

Store-bought tomatoes taste like cardboard? Here’s why

People who buy fresh local organic produce are often astounded at the rich, succulent flavors that seem to explode in the mouth.

There are a variety of reasons for this, some of them quite technical, not only involving the fertility and trace elements in soil, but also the chemicals plants use to defend themselves when left alone (rather than grown in industrial farming monocultures with poisonous pesticides, herbicides, etc.).

It’s often most pronounced when tomato season arrives and people ask, why do grocery tomatoes taste like cardboard?

That also is for a variety of reasons, including the above and also the fact that most commercial tomatoes are hybrids grown with a preference to be a certain size, weight and shape so that they can be shipped in uniform boxes and also so they will all ripen at the same time (determinate) and have a long shelf life, rather than taste. Add to this the timing of picking.

For tomatoes to be shipped, they are picked at what’s called the “breaker” or “mature green” stage, which is not mature at all.

It’s when the tomato is showing the first hint of blush on the skin. Only 5 percent of the potential flavor of the tomato is in the fruit!

Yet, this is the stage from which the tomato you buy in the grocery is picked, so that it can be trucked across country, or countries, held in warehouses, distributed to stores sites, displayed on shelves and, ultimately, bought by a consumer.

So, what do we want in a tomato?

Here in Mississippi, in addition to flavor, we want the plant to survive the hot, humid weather.

Most of our tomato problems are because it’s too moist, and you get all kinds of rots and blights, or because it’s too hot (more than 100 degrees) and the fruits won’t “set.”

Here are a couple of varieties to consider (though by all means, if you are successful with what you are growing, stick with it!):

•Homestead24 (certified organic; for hot, humid weather, from Florida);

•Neptune (certified organic, hot, humid, from Florida);

•Cherokee Purple (heirloom from Tennessee; hot weather tolerant);

•Arkansas Traveler (heirloom, hot, humid).

If not available at a seed store, near you try: TomatoFest (http:// store.tomatofest.com/); Box 628; Little River CA 95456.

Faith, mustard seeds and jets. During U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ recent visit to Mississippi, he mentioned that the Navy is venturing into biofuels to end reliance on fossil fuels.

I asked him if it was corn-based (ethanol hikes food costs and is nonsustainable, using more energy to produce than it produces) and he said, no, it was a type of mustard seed. I thought maybe he had gotten his facts confused with a biblical verse.

But, intrigued, I inquired further, and his office reported it’s specifically Camelina sativa, and sent the following facts:

•Camelina is a genus in a flowering plant family related to the mustard plant, and its seeds can be refined into a biofuel.

•It can be used as a rotation crop or on fallow land.

•It is naturally occurring in all 50 states except Hawaii.

•It’s currently cultivated in Florida: 7,000 acres.

•On Earth Day last year, the Navy flew an F/A-18 Hornet – named the “Green Hornet” – 1.2 times the speed of sound on a 50-50 blend of camelina and JP-5, and is testing and certifying all its aircraft on the same blends.

This might be a cash crop for Mississippi farmers.

It’s certainly worth exploring.

News for Beeks: Those interested in beekeeping should check out their local Mississippi clubs. They love newcomers! See:

•Central Mississippi Beekeepers Association, for beekeepers in the Jackson, Clinton, Ridgeland, Raymond, Madison, Pearl, Florence and Brandon area. Meetings are the third Tuesday night of each month in Clinton. For details, contact Stan or Cheryl Yeagley at (601) 924-2582, email candsyeagley@ netzero.net

•Marion County Beekeepers Association meets monthly for beekeepers in the Columbia, Foxworth, Sumrall area. For details, contact D. L. Wesley at (601) 736-3272, email dwesley39483@msn.com.

•Southeast Mississippi Beekeepers Association meets monthly for beekeepers in the Laurel, Ellisville area. For details, Contact John Tullos, (601) 782-9234, email jtullos@bellsouth.net or Hubert Tubbs, (601) 382-2607 or email Karen_tubbs @bellsouth.net

•Gulf Coast Beekeepers Association meets monthly for beekeepers along the Gulf Coast. For details, contact Doug Lowery, (228) 826-2234.

•N.E. Mississippi Beekeepers Assocation meets quarterly in Fulton. For details, contact Romona Edge, (662) 862-3201, email romonam@ext.msstate.edu.

•Delta Area Beekeepers Associaton meets as scheduled. For details, contact Stanley Holland, (662) 745-0529, email holland_stanley@bellsouth.net.

•Lafayette County Beekeepers Assocation meets as scheduled. For details, contact the local county extension office or Harold Brummett, 25 CR 4009, Oxford MS 39655.

Bee Workshops: The April 7 Jackson beekeeping short course by the Mississippi Beekeepers Association is filled to overflowing; but there are upcoming ones, May 13-14 in Jackson (hosted by Central Miss. Beekeepers Assn.) and in Verona June 3-4 and in Columbia June 15-17. For details, contact: Harry Fulton, Box 5207, MS State MS 39762; email: Harry@mdac.state.ms.us.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Natural, organic, edible yards

March 11, 2011

Maybe chef will say ‘bee-YOU-tee-ful’ over edible yards

I guess I’ve been watching Emeril Green too much on TV, as I found myself hearing the popular chef’s voice in my head while out picking greens in the field: “Ah, bee-YOU-tee-ful!”

After the frosts, we got a beautiful new crop of collards which, when picked fresh, are so sweet and tender they can be eaten raw – which I was doing: pick one, eat one, pick two, eat one, pick three, eat one …. and so on. (Kind’a reduces your yield that way!)

Collards, when fresh, can be lightly steamed, as well.

I love watching chef Emeril Lagasse’s show when he actually goes to a farm or farmer’s market and talks with the farmers, and then cooks what they provide, often right there adjacent to their farm fields. It certainly shows folks who think food comes from the grocery store where their food actually originates, and that there are real people involved.

Organic lawns

Lately, I’ve been rather overwhelmed by “pre-emerge” poisons being sprayed all over the countryside.

There’s not much that can be done about poisons in farm country (until people start buying organic en masse!), but you can control your own property. The safe lawn movement promotes chemically free, organic lawns.

One method is what’s called an “edible lawn,” that is, not composed of turf grasses, but instead, plants that can be prepared or eaten raw. It also includes traditional lawns but without the use of herbicides or pesticides and only natural fertilizers, so that children, pets and the environment are not harmed. For more information, visit http://www.safelawns.org.

Natural alternatives

If you are one who abhors traditional lawns, you might consider natural alternatives to the monoculture turf grasses. For example, Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com) offers a variety of lawn and meadow mixes, such as its herbal lawn seed mix: Roman Chamomile, English Daisy, Snow-in-Summer, Sweet Alyssum, Creeping Daisy, Blue Pimpernel, Creeping Thyme, and others.

Or, how about the Kaleidoscope Meadow Mix, composed of various colored fescues, Forget-Me-Nots, Strawberry Clover and other wildflowers?

Local garden stores offer wildflower mixes, as well. Then, again, you could just plant your yard in vegetables as an edible foodscape!

Now is the time to plan how you want your garden.

Edible flowers

Try Nasturtiums. They are beautiful flowers, offered in various colors, that not only work to deter pests, such as cucumber beetles, squash bugs and caterpillars, but they can be eaten, used as garnish to brighten up salads or as a side for standard fare (and conversation starter!).

The flowers are spicy flavored with a peppery taste. Since you are growing organic, without poisons, you can nibble them right in the garden (I do!).

Pollinators

Another idea is to plant flowers that attract pollinators. Here’s a list:

Wild lupine, smooth penstemon, Ohio spiderwort, wild bergamot, purple prairie clover, pale purple coneflower, Culver’s root, butterfly milkweed, prairie blazing star, purple giant hyssop, New England aster and giant sunflower.

These suggestions are from a new book that’s chock full of interesting info titled Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting America’s Bees and Butterflies by The Xerces Society (Storey Publishing; $29.95).

Another good book on bees for beginners (and foodies!) is just out in paperback: Honeybee: Lessons From an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese (Black Dog & Leventhall Publishers; $14.95).

It details a woman’s education from knowing nothing about bees to becoming a master “beek,” with lots of eye-opening culinary and medicinal lore learned along the way.

I should have mentioned last week that the henbit (little purple flowers growing everywhere right now) is also an edible wild plant. Here’s a photo and salad recipe: http://bit.ly/ePSri4

Websites

A great column in The New York Times by Mark Bittman, exposing the inequities of the agricultural subsidy system: http://nyti.ms/gos66i.

A primer on subsidies, explaining types and purposes by the Environmental Working Group. (Also, you can enter your zip code and see who in your neighborhood is receiving a USDA farm subsidy and how much): http://bit.ly/fqor64.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Soil amendments

March 4, 2011

Greensand, trace minerals offer good soil amendments

The warm weather has people in their yards and it is a good time to work in soil amendments for your 4×8-foot organic “Jim’s plot.”

Lately, for example, we have been working in greensand and lime.

Greensand is mined from deposits of minerals that were originally part of the ocean floor and is used as an organic fertilizer (0-0-3) and soil conditioner.

It contains potash, iron, magnesium, potassium, silica and as many as 30 other trace minerals. It helps loosen heavy, clay soils, soften hard water, improve drought tolerance and boost root growth.

Lime, more specifically for organic gardeners, palletized dolomitic lime, adds calcium and magnesium, helps soil structure (by aiding soil bacteria), raises soil pH (makes it less acidic) and allows plants to utilize soil nutrients more efficiently.

Both are sold locally.

If you have sent for a soil test, the results will tell if you need these ingredients.

I was picking greens in the warm weather and a bee landed next to me. When temps are more than 50 degrees, they forage and the mustard greens are bolting, that is, flowering and going to seed.

Folks may be familiar with the little gentle yellow Italian bees popular with beekeepers in the 1950s-’60s. But this was one of the local dark feral bees, called the European dark bee or German black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera).

These were the first bees brought to America, coming over in the 1700s with the colonists in New England and Spanish friars in the South and Southwest (to provide honey to eat and wax for candles).

I laughed because I read somewhere (probably the Internet) that the dark bee was extinct, wiped out by the varroa mite and colony collapse disorder. Well, whoever wrote that needs to come to Leake County. We have plenty of them!

We also have another bee that’s rarer still: a dark bee with little black veins going through its wings, called Apis mellifera mellifera nigra.

I’ve noticed that our little golden “girls” (Russian hybrids) are interbreeding with the locals and lightening them up some.

I’m glad there are plenty of bees, and lots of variety, to keep us company in the garden.

Speaking of bees, beginning beekeepers may qualify for up to $180 reimbursement state ag grants to get started. For more info, see http://bit.ly/g1kliG ; or write Harry Fulton, Box 5207, Mississippi State MS 39762 or e-mail harry@mdac.state.ms.usn.

Reader response: Remember, when I started this column, I said there were no “dumb” questions. You want to pick your greens by plucking the larger leaves on the outside, using the first finger and thumb in a pinching motion. Don’t twist or pull. By pinching off the leaves, it’s easier for the plant to repair itself. Do not cut the plant from the stalk.

I know that people are used to, for example, seeing organic collards and other greens offered with a cut stalk at the grocery store, but that’s for a reason. Most grocery stores, even with “organic” produce, are supplied by big industrial agriculture conglomerates that plant all their plants at one time and harvest all their plants at one time. They don’t care if they chop down the whole plant because the entire 1,000-acre field is denuded by clipping the plant, then replanted.

But organic gardeners and small farmers pick their plants again and again until the plant’s life cycle is over. That means, going out and taking a few leaves from this plant, a few from that, picking the larger leaves from the outside, so that in a few days, the smaller leaves will have grown larger – ripe for picking – along with producing new baby leaves as the stalk grows taller.

You want to develop a relationship with the plant, so that it keeps producing tender, tasty, healthy leaves. You both benefit: the plant by living out its life cycle; you by harvesting fresh produce again and again.

Back to rural life: When I was lamenting the demise of rural communities in last week’s column, I should have added that one of the greatest treasures lost by depopulation as farmers have gone out of business and farms have become big corporate concerns with only a few owners is the demise of knowledge.

The residual wisdom of rural people is a tremendous asset now largely gone, along with the power of communities as viable, self-sustaining units.

Our civilization is so bombarded with TV images of stereotypes and the promotion of caricatures that few may remember that real, live, living, intelligent, thinking, feeling human beings once populated those now lonely expanses between the population centers.

Rural life was neither Green Acres nor Mississippi Burning, and isn’t still.

If you notice, the fields are covered with tiny purple flowers called henbit. Farmers, if you can wait a bit before you plow again until the flowers are gone, the bees will thank you with more honey!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Bee Natural

Nov. 19, 2010

Order honeybees now for organic gardens to be abuzz in spring

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

As winter approaches, and Thanksgiving looms, it seems an unlikely time to consider something so quintessentially “summer” as honeybees, but it’s time to order them, if you plan to start a hive next spring, or replenish colonies that are lost.

If you grow organically (and even if you grow conventionally, whether a garden or farm field), honey bees are essential to pollination.

For folks who are dabbling with an organic garden in the backyard, there are actually small “English Garden” hives that can do the job of supplementing local pollinators.

I’m skeptical of “organic” labeling with honey. A bee collects nectar and pollen 1 1/2 miles in every direction from the hive. You would have to certify that no one with a 3-mile radius is using chemicals to kill weeds or bugs or spray their crops, flowers, lawns, etc. Unless you live out in the absolute middle of nowhere with no human beings around, that’s impossible. So, maybe USDA-certified organic honey is wishful thinking. You’d have to check the location.

I messed with bees for commercial production back in the early 1980s and 1990s and have only dabbled with it since. A lot has changed, with new imported insects that prey on honeybees, as well as the unexplained Colony Collapse Disorder that causes hives to die (possibly because of agricultural or commercial insecticides or, some say, the Bt maize cultivar in genetically modified corn; or neonicotinoid-coated corn seeds; no one knows).

To combat the array of threats, most commercial beekeepers today use antibiotics and pesticides in their hives. Many also pasteurize the honey and strain it and may even add coloration or agents to thicken it or thin it for easy pouring and appearance. It’s all legal under U.S. product labeling laws as “natural.” This is one true instance where, in my opinion, it pays to “buy local” and ask how it’s made. (Plus, there are the health benefits of local honey with local pollens to help people with allergies.)

If you want to truly go natural, then only buy “raw” honey that’s chemically and additive free, that has not been strained and has not been pasteurized. It’s available locally or online, if you look for it.

There’s been a movement in recent years for beekeepers to go chemically free, or “barefoot,” practicing what’s called Natural Beekeeping. This requires using what’s called an Integrated Pest Management system, or IPM, which is a fancy way of saying “growing organic,” only in this instance, with bees. The theory behind IPM is that a healthy bee colony can fight off any threat with just a little help, and that help is chemically free.

For example, to fight the varroa mite, instead of using pesticides, you use a screen board for the hive bottom and “poof” the bees every once in a while with (organic) powered sugar. The mites can’t hold on to the bee with the slippery sugar and fall off through the screen to the ground, where they die. The bees lick the sugar off each other and use it in their honey making (free lunch!).

IPM also encourages the use of nontraditional hives, such as “top bar hives,” called Kenya hives (because they were used in Africa in the 1970s for their ease of use in impoverished areas). Or, if using what is considered the standard Langstroth hives, one may order smaller cell foundations for the bees’ honeycombs.

It’s important also, in IPM, to order bees that have not been raised with chemicals, and not use an existing comb that has been used with chemicals; or, because of chemical loading, the bees will be overwhelmed by disease and parasite outbreaks once the chemicals are removed. Also, only order bees that have been bred for mite-resistance, such as Caucasian, Carniolan or Russian hybrids.

One chemical-free apiary I’ve dealt with is BeeWeaver Apiaries in Navasota, Texas: http://www.beeweaver.com. But there are a growing number of chemically free suppliers of bees. You really need to order now, if you want bees to be sent to you in the spring. When the flowers start blooming, supplies of bees disappear fast.

Bees are great for the garden, and the major suppliers, like Dadant and Brushy Mountain, offer beginners kits. Unless you’re handy with tools, you’d be wise to purchase the finished and painted boxes. Also, if you mess with bees, expect to get stung no matter how much you use smokers or bee-resistant clothing.

The good side: beekeepers have remarkably low rates of arthritis, and honey, propolis and the like is excellent health food, perhaps the oldest raw natural and complete food in human history. Honeybees originated in the Middle East and are mentioned often in the Bible. They are not native to America (called “the white man’s fly” by Native Americans), but they are now vital to farming. For example, one study with cucumbers showed that fruit production increased 400 percent compared to plots without bees. It’s believed that if bees weren’t trucked to the almond farms in California, the industry would collapse.

Keeping bees is a wonderful hobby (though it can easily become an obsession), and having one or two hives near the garden is great joy. Around ShooFly Farm, I love to watch “our girls” work, and each year we plant some crops just for them!

On the Web

Miss. Beekeepers Association: http://www.mshoneybee.org

Great blog on bees by a Master Keeper in Atlanta (with Miss. relatives): http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com

Dadant beekeeping supplies: http://www.dadant.com

Brushy Mtn. bee supplies & English Garden hives: http://www.brushymountainbeefarm.com

Integrated Pest Management, Cornell University: http://www.nysipm.cornell.edu

Kenya hives (explanation) : http://www.beekeeping.org/articles/us/ktbh.htm

Some Kenya top-bar hive plans: http://www.ccdemo.info/GardenBees/KTBH.html

Are you a beek? Check out our beeks tweets on Twitter: @OrganicWriter

good reads

Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad (Chelsea Green, 2007)

Beekeeping: A Practical Guide by Richard Bonney (Storey Publishing, 1993)

Contact Jim Ewing  on Twitter @OrganicWriter or @EdiblePrayers, or Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc.