The harvest is over |

The harvest is over

I try to make it to October every fall before I turn on the furnace. It’s dropping down into the 40s most nights now and if I’m going to be around the house I start a kindling fire in the morning to take the chill off. The chokecherry boarder that died back last winter yielded half a cord of limb wood from the size of my thumb to the size of my wrist or forearm and it is great firewood. It burns hot, not too fast, and leaves a nice bed of coals that give off heat long after the fire has died down. I don’t suppose I save a whole lot of money by doing this, but money or not I enjoy those first September fires and it doesn’t take much wood to make the house warm and cozy in the morning.

I suspect I may have inherited that frugality from my Midwestern roots. Barbara and I always listened to Prairie Home Companion because we could both relate to Garrison Keillor’s Minnesota humor, and I’ve continued to listen since she’s been gone. This weekend his monologue was about the approach of fall and he noted that as a matter of principle Minnesotans don’t turn the heat on until October. Minnesota and Wisconsin aren’t that far apart, geographically or culturally, maybe that’s where it comes from.

On Sunday I finished this year’s honey harvest, what we beekeepers call “extracting” (usually with the emphasis on the ex). I didn’t get out of the Honey House until 8:00 Sunday evening, which is typical at harvest time. Although it has been a short harvest, the days are still long and tiring, there just aren’t as many of them.

Actually the extracting had been finished Saturday and I started disconnecting and draining all of the equipment and piping so that by Sunday everything was in the bottling tank. No more than a few ounces escape my process, I have always felt that honey is too precious to waste, and that is painfully true this year. Just a few drops of honey represent the lifetime contribution of an individual bee and collectively, enough drops for a pound of honey represents 50,000 flight miles. I feel an obligation to be a careful husband of these resources and see it as part of my contract with the bees — they make it, I don’t waste it.

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This has been a very discouraging season at the end of a series of seasons where the problems just seem to get worse and worse. Initially it was the loss of numbers, but the remaining colonies were productive and we were able to pull off a reasonable honey crop. (I use we out of habit, when Barbara was alive it was always we, the bees and I are we, but in reality I’m a one man band now and it is usually just me, but I still like the we part so humor me.)

It took extra work to replace lost colonies and bring them on line as producers, it took some ingenuity, some fancy beekeeping, the crops might not have been as large as we would have liked, but we had a big enough crop to pay the bills and satisfy the customers. This year was a disaster, a virtual crop failure, replacement colonies failed to thrive and didn’t come on until late in the season. At best they will make their winter stores, some may have to be fed up if they are to have any hope of making it through the winter. With few exceptions the overwintered colonies didn’t do much better, with the result that the crop was a tenth of what it should have been.

Any time you concentrate livestock you have a host of things that want to kill it, eat it, or make it sick, and bees are no exception. As beekeepers we have dealt with these challenges, for the most part successfully, for the past 150 years, but the wheels have been coming off the wagon for the past few years and losses are unsustainable. It is my view that what has changed and brought on these conditions is the change in agricultural technology, systemic pesticides and to a lesser degree perhaps, genetically modified crops. The honey bees are on life support and it seems no matter what we do to help them they have to hustle their living and mine in an environment that is increasingly hostile to life. There were a few local beekeepers who appeared to escape these problems and produced a fairly good honey crop and I plan to spend a little time this winter picking their brains to see if I can figure out what made the difference.

It takes as much work, sometimes more, to produce a small crop as it does a big one, and this is beginning to wear thin with me. I’m beginning to get calls from customers from different parts of the country who have bought a case or two of honey every fall for more than 30 years and I have to tell them that there won’t be any honey to ship. Not fun.

I’m not quite whipped yet though and I’m going to take another whack at it next year. I’ll try to bring as many of the colonies as I can through the winter and if all goes well Miles and I will make another trip to California for packages. I’m supposed to be a good beekeeper, and I’m just cussed enough that I’m not going to let these problems pound me into oblivion. We may pull out of this death spiral yet, but it is going to take more than dedicated beekeeping, we are going to have to see some significant changes in agricultural technology and they are going to have to come soon. Systemic pesticides and genetically modified crops may be bringing some short term gains to agriculture, but the evidence is mounting rapidly that these gains are coming at a very high cost to the broader environment.

The harvest is over. Will there be another? ❖

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