Firsts for the Fourth | TheFencePost.com

Firsts for the Fourth

Tom Theobald
Niwot, Colo.

Saturday the 29th of June I ate my first tomato out of the garden. It came from an heirloom variety I've grown for several years, have come to really like, and it will be a permanent member of the cavy from here on out.

Actually I shared that first tomato with my friend Miles. Miles is a tomato lover, too. I'd been talking about the approaching ripeness for several days, anticipating that first savory mouthful, and I'd mentioned it more than once to Miles, not intentionally to entice him, I don't think, just to share the anticipation. Or maybe not.

As it turned out, when the day finally came Miles and I had been to Denver, he was dropping me off and we were sitting on the back deck when I thought of the tomato and mentioned that I was going to finally pick it. Miles' eyes brightened and I could see what he was thinking, but I wasn't about to make it easy so I held off for a bit, made him think I wasn't going to share it, made him think I was going to just keep it all to myself.

The tomato was great. We shared it, halved it down, piece by piece, until it was all gone, not a smidgeon left. There's something symbolic about the first tomato for tomato lovers and there's no better way to appreciate it than to share it with someone who looks forward to that first tomato just as much as you do.

That first tomato was even better because it represented a chain of connections with friends. It was an heirloom variety called Glacier and the seed came from Gary and Dagma, Tomatofest. They mothered over it along with all their varieties, from greenhouse seedlings to planting to mature plants, through the California summer. They harvested the seed, took it back Little River, cultured and dried it, and each morning their small crew shows up to package seeds and fill orders that go out to tomato lovers all over the country, all over the world. They are doing that when we stop each spring on our way to get packages (bees) so we know all of the packers, too, and each year we give a little talk on the status of the bees.

Saturday there was another first along with the tomato. I've written a little each spring about the Mason Bees I propagate, also called Blue Orchard Bees or BOBs. I've raised them for many years, long before they were popularized to the extent that they are now. I've tried a few others over the years when they were available from a researcher who has now retired. For the past several years now I've been down to the BOBs, almost.

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The BOBs nest in straws, about 6 inches long and a little smaller in diameter than a common drinking straw. They only have one generation a year, their active life is about 5 or 6 weeks, from late March to early May. The eggs that have been laid hatch, the larva eats a small pollen ball that has been left by the female, moistened with a little nectar, then the larva pupates.

By late August the pupa has metamorphosed to what is called a "pre-adult." The metamorphosis is complete, but the pre-adult has to go through a cold period, much like a lot of seeds, before it will emerge. This is nature's way of setting the clock to the season.

Well, like a lot of other stuff I get involved in, things sometimes fall behind and don't get tended to in as timely a fashion as they should. I'm sure none of you have that problem, but I do.

Once the BOBs have finished nesting the nest boxes should be taken down and moved inside where they are protected from predators and from the elements, after they are pupating, say early June.

About four years ago I got busy with other things and didn't get the nest box under the eve on the south side of the chicken coop taken down, and on the 5th of July a new bee showed up and began nesting in the straws that hadn't been filled by the BOBs. After a little investigation I was able to identify them as Sunflower Leafcutter Bees. Smaller than a Mason Bee, about half the size of a honey bee, the queens make individual cells (capsules) in the straws using leaf cuttings. The Alfalfa Leafcutter Bees, commonly used for alfalfa pollination in the West, do the same.

So now I have one more thing to occupy my time, propagating these Sunflower Leafcutters, for no practical purpose other than to satisfy my curiosity, and the feeling that now that I've gotten this started I have a responsibility to see that whatever bees I accumulate in my straws get a shot at life the next year.

You may have either or both of these bees around your house or farm. The Alfalfa Leafcutters like to utilize roses for their cuttings while the Sunflower Leafcutters focus on the sunflowers. Watch for circular and oval leaf cuttings on your plants, and for the bees themselves. One favored habitat when natural burrows or artificial straws aren't available, at least for the Alfalfa Leafcutters, is the slots between wood shingles on old farm buildings. If you're on a farm and have some of these old buildings watch them and you may find that you have a large population of nesting leafcutters.

Everybody has generally agreed that spring was two or three weeks behind this year, but given a little time Mother Nature has a way of catching up. Normally I would expect the Sunflower Leafcutters to show up just after the 4th of July, the 5th is my reference date, but this year they are almost a week early, so by that measure at least the season is ahead, not behind anymore.

There are lots of tomatoes coming on now that I'm looking forward to, but they are a ways off — Aunt Ruby's Yellow Cherry, Thessaloniki, Black From Tula, and oh that delectable German Queen, but there is a second heirloom that comes along right behind Glacier, called Bloody Butcher.

It produces medium-sized tomatoes from now to frost, deep red inside and out. It is another of the heirlooms I've come to favor and down at the base is a reddening tomato that I've had my eye on for the past few days and I think tonight's the night.

Sorry Miles, but it looks like I'm going to eat this one all by myself. All of it. Every tasty bite. ❖