October 17, 2013
We had a good rain last week as I was finishing up the column and it was followed by warm sunny days. The green continues and the fields and foothills are lush, as pretty as it gets in this country, and I'm trying to savor it because I know it won't last. A few 90 degree days and we will dry out in a hurry and be back to our true climate, which is high desert.
Spring is a difficult time for me in ways that wouldn't be apparent to anyone else. Barbara not only brightened my life with her presence, she was an avid fan of flowers of all kinds and she had them growing everywhere. I've lost most of her more formal gardens because I simply couldn't keep up with them, but some of the tougher perennials she planted pop up here and there throughout the spring to remind me of her; starting with the blue crocus by the front step in February, followed by Grape Hyacinths on the south side of the shop, then the bright yellow miniature Japanese Iris in the garden and Sweet Woodruff in the moist, shady spots, The yellow roses are blooming now in the hedges around the garden. These are the roses you see on many of the old farm and ranch homesteads. Barbara saved at least three from some of the homesteads and they may trace their origin to the earliest days of settlement. They claw at me with their thorns whenever I get near and I joke that it is Barbara telling me she is still watching and I had better remember that and behave myself. The 15th of June will mark what would have been our 50th wedding anniversary, It's been almost seven years now and I've come to terms with her loss, as much as anyone ever does, but not a day goes by that I don't think of her. I was fortunate to have 43 years I guess. Life goes on.
The last planting of buckwheat came up yesterday, only five days after it was sowed. This shortens the germination from the first sowing by almost half and the difference is soil temperature, buckwheat likes really warm soil and I'm pushing the buckwheat season by sowing in early May. If I get good germination from the early sowings then I'm just that much further ahead and if the early planting fails all I've lost is some time, effort, and the cost of a little seed.
As it turns out I've been lucky this year so that now, at the first of June, the fallow garden is already in buckwheat in three stages. The earliest planting will start to bloom in another week and it will draw in pollinators from a half mile or so. Indirectly I know whose bees those are because there aren't many feral colonies anymore. Like the home flocks of chickens, managed colonies of bees have proliferated as well and the bees in the buckwheat will come from Red, Jeff and Brenda, Sherry, Mark, and maybe one or two others I don't know about. There may even be a few from my own beeyard south of town, but my small patch of buckwheat is probably too far out on the edge of their range and most of the foragers from that yard will be diverted by some other bloom before they ever reach my garden.
It would be interesting to mark a large number of fielders from these varied colonies to see just how they do distribute themselves around a neighborhood like this. It could be done, fairly simply I think, but with everything else I have to do I haven't had time to pursue that interesting question.
If I was to do it though, this is how I would approach it.
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In the old days it was common to do what was called "bee lining." There were even special little boxes designed to accomplish it. Miles made a gift to me of one he had made early in our friendship.
A small dish of honey or sugar syrup was put in the box and you waited until there was some significant traffic at the dish, bees coming and going, a bee line. It usually doesn't take long because each forager that finds the honey will go back to the hive and recruit others to the food source it has found. If natural sources are scarce and the colony is close the bees can overwhelm your little box in short order so sometimes you have to move quickly.
A bee lining box usually has multiple little compartments to move the bees along from one step to another, there were many designs depending on the approach of the bee liner, but basically they were made to accomplish some fairly simple steps, however intricate the box might be.
The first step was to attract some bees, establish a bee line, from the colony to the little dish of honey or sugar syrup you've put in the box. Once you have a bee line, dust one of the bees with something non-toxic, a little flour on an artist's brush, some chalk dust, even powdered sugar will work, however if the bees are hungry they may clean off the powdered sugar too quickly for it to be effective.
If all goes well that forager will fly home, drop her cargo off and return for another load. You can time her for several rounds, or if the flour wears off, mark another and repeat the observations until you have a pretty good idea how long the trip is taking. Bees fly at about 15 miles an hour, so allowing for a little time at the hive, with some simple arithmetic you can get a rough idea of how far away the colony is.
Next, trap a few of the foragers in your box and move perpendicular to the bee line you have identified, a hundred yards or so, let the bees out and watch to see what direction they take. In unfamiliar territory they will circle a couple of times before heading home. If the few you release don't give a clear direction then let another bee line build up. You can repeat this triangulation as many times as you need to until you have a clear direction you want to move in. Start following the bee lines and look for a bee tree or maybe a colony in someone's back yard. If you lose the trail just sit, gather up a few more fielders in your box, turn 'em loose and follow them.
To find what bees are coming to my buckwheat I would work this bee lining in reverse, I would dust an ample number of fielders as they leave the hive and see if they show up at the buckwheat. This could be done on successive days, one hive at a time, or could be done with several colonies simultaneously by using different colors of chalk dust. It sounds interesting enough now that I write about it that maybe I'll try this someday.
Sure, I'll put it on the list. ❖