Apis Mellifera

We love honey bees. They are amazing insects to watch as they visit blossoms around the farm and go about their duties within their hives. Bees visit 2 million blossoms to produce each pound of honey, and  an average colony can produce up to 100 pounds of honey. That’s certainly a lot of blossom visits and (importantly to us) a bunch of plant pollination. The colony is focused on preparing for winter by storing food (honey and pollen). The winter months are the worst for honey bee survival. When beekeepers get together this time of year, a common question is, “How are your bees?” The unstated question is really, “How many have you lost?”

Most folks have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The US EPA states that, “Colony Collapse Disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.” During the winter, bees do not hibernate; they form a cluster and keep each other warm. That means that the bees have to have a strong population going into the late fall months, plenty of food to feed them through the winter, and protection from the elements.

No one has determined with certainty the causes of CCD. What we do know is that when Verroa mites infest a hive, the colony’s health suffers. The “Varroa destructor” (what a scary, apropos name) can only reproduce in a honey bee colony. These mites reproduce by the female entering the brood cell and laying eggs on the honey bee larva. The young mites (several females and one male) develop as the bee develops, and emerge with the young bee. They attach to the body of the bee and weaken the bee by sucking hemolymph (blood), leaving open wounds and transmitting diseases and viruses, which can in turn spread through the colony like a small pandemic. To the honey bee, a Verroa mite attached to their body sucking their blood is a size comparable to a human having one or two football-sized parasites attached to our backs. That would certainly cause health issues!

Verroa mite control is essential to a disease free, thriving hive that can maintain a colony’s mass and food stores necessary to make it through the winter. Until recently, there have been few options for the organic treatment of mites. In June 2014, President Obama created a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. The President highlighted specific instructions for the EPA to expedite review of registration applications for new products targeting pests harmful to pollinators. Matching what has been legal for years in Europe, the EPA legalized the use of Oxalic Acid (OA) as a treatment for Verroa mites. OA is naturally occurring, and can be found in tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and bell peppers.

Like all beekeepers, we struggle to manage our bees through the winter. With this resource that has proven 95% effective against Verroa mites, we’re hopeful that we can keep our honey bees thriving through the winter, ready to buzz our garden and fruit trees through the spring and summer, and healthy enough to spare us a few extra pounds of honey in the fall.

Fodder Production


IMG_3113Here are a few pictures of the barley fodder system that we use in the winter.


We soak the barley seeds in water for 24 hours, and then sprout them in 5 gallon buckets with drain holes drilled in the bottom. They seem to hold moisture and warmth better in the buckets and maybe the darkness allows the seeds to sprout better.


We then spread the sprouted IMG_3116seeds out in these flood-and-drain aquaponic trays and let them grow. It takes around 5 days for the fodder to get to a harvestable stage.


We then score the roots so the fodder can be broken into pieces so the boss cow doesn’t get the whole thing, and then pack it up in the picnic basket!




We have not automated the process, so we water by hand two or three times a day. The drain water flows to a tub, a submersible pump empties the water into the sink, and the sink drains outside in a rudimentary gray water system.


Unfortunately, we don’t have any sewer lines to conveniently tap into, but at least we have an opportunity to recycle the used water. We still need to work on instilling a rainwater garden to catch and store the water.

IMG_2104We feed fodder to the cattle to offer a bit more protein in the winter. Sometimes, we buy lick tubs made by a cod liver company, but they are expensive and not always available. We don’t feed the regular lick tubs from the feed store because they are all made from GMO soy, which we avoid.

If you know where we can get non-GMO or organic protein lick tubs, please let me know. In the meantime, the fodder is just a bit of insurance to keep the veterinarian away.

Extreme composting

I am determined to make some good quality compost this year. I started this pile a few months ago, but unfortunately I put it on the north side of the barn.


The main motivation for the barn location was to be close to the water source, and of course the ease of manure collection from when the cows come in during inclement weather. But the north side of our barn never really sees any sunshine, so I am not getting the passive solar heat that helps create the environment so the microbes can do their work of decomposition.


I built this new pile on the south side of our house. I’m hoping that it heats up better in this location, where I also have access to water. My goal is to convert the leaves that we collected into leaf mold. Leaf mold is partially decomposed leaves that makes an excellent weed free mulch that holds an immense amount of water. I added some soybean meal and water to give the microbes some energy. I also collected some manure from the field to inoculate the pile and help hold the moisture.


The leaves are mostly oak, one of the most difficult leaves to absorb water and breakdown. I’ll cover and wrap the pile with a silage tarp. I just haven’t managed that yet, but I will post an updated picture once I get it covered. The plastic tarp should hold the dampness while allowing plenty of airflow for the aerobic microbes.

I’ll add coffee grounds and maybe some ground up food scraps to increase the diversity of materials. I do have a worm bin in the basement. Do you think worms would work in a set up like this if I get the environment right in the center of the pile?

It is always an experiment, one of the reasons why working with nature is so interesting and rewarding.

Black Box of Soil

We recently attended the Great Plains Growers Conference. Don attended an all-day session on bees and I attended an excellent presentation on soil taught by Joel Gruver from Western Illinois University.

He said science is opening the “black box” of soil and beginning to eavesdrop on the conversations taking place among the intelligent life in the soil. The research scientists of BioAg companies and universities are beginning to understand relationships among these underground livestock and how microbes can enhance crop production. The companies are quickly bringing their inoculants to the market.

As stewards of the soil, we must create the conditions for life to flourish. The old timers knew the cultural practices to increase the life-enhancing processes. I am sure you have heard of many of them as well: cover crops, minimal tillage, keeping a living cover on the soil as much as possible, organic amendments that feed the soil are some on the list.

Dr. Gruver’s talk was a validation to me that the paradigm shift of recognizing soil as a living organism has become mainstream. Hopefully, this will help all humanity recognize that all of our food either directly or indirectly comes from the soil and we need to protect it and the underground livestock that make it all work.

As we enter the growing season this spring, I will highlight some of the life enhancing practices that we use, including culturing microbes to inoculate our soil

New Beginnings for a New Year

A new year always ushers in excitement to make a fresh start, and—with apologies to Alexander Pope—hope springs eternal in the breast of a farmer. Last year was a good year for us, but we’re ready to let go of the shortcomings and omissions of that year, commit to “doing the work,” and strive to improve our farm, our community, and ourselves in 2016.

So, what will we see by the end of 2016? We want to continue to build upon the Farm’s success by increasing soil life, improving our water management system for the fruit and vegetables, and creating a planting/harvesting schedule that ensures efficient succession planting, increases soil diversity, enhances pest resistance, and achieves harvest objectives. Our new walk-behind tractor will help us prepare the soil with minimal disturbance, maximize the use of cover crops, and hill up rows to ensure the heavy rains do not drown our crops. We’ll continue our experiments with Jean Paul Martin’s tarp methods for preparing the ground for planting and weed control.

We also cherish the nascent group of friends and our weekly Sunday Salons, in which we have “conversations that matter.” We will continue to host the meetings this year and hope to expand our circle. We’ll start with a “book club” style discussion of the Pope’s encyclical, “Laudato Si/On Care for Our Common Home,” focus a discussion series on the principles of permaculture design, provide a forum for interesting workshops, and facilitate other topics of interest to our friends and neighbors. Let us know if you’re interested in joining us for Sunday Salon.

We are so very thankful for the soul-filling land that we tend, the animals that enrich our lives, and our community of kith and kin. We are excited about the possibilities of 2016 and are looking forward to a wonder-filled year.

Happy New Years, everyone!