Friday, August 16, 2013

protective garb for the backyard wild

The Black Berry—wears a Thorn in his side—
But no Man heard Him cry—
He offers His Berry, just the same
To Partridge—and to Boy—

He sometimes holds upon the Fence—
Or struggles to a Tree—
Or clasps a Rock, with both His Hands—
But not for Sympathy—

We—tell a Hurt—to cool it—
This Mourner—to the Sky
A little further reaches—instead—
Brave Black Berry—

                                                                             Emily Dickinson (554)
* * *

Maybe it is just the antioxidants talking.  But I am having moments of exhilaration in the blackberry bramble.  Our very own blackberries, growing wild and relatively untended at the edge of our yard and down the river bank, are ripening.  

For a few days now I have been going out quickly and picking just enough to have with our meals.  But from where I stood last night on the edge of the bramble I could see large glistening black ripe berries that were out of my reach given that I wasn't wearing any protective clothing.  I kept promising myself I would put on long sleeves, long pants, and boots, grab pruners and gloves, and dive in.  

But an activity that requires additional special clothing is one that is hard to find time for when my moments in the garden already come in such short bursts and occur all too infrequently.

And yesterday had already not been an ideal day for finding extra time.

The day before, Bonnie, my bee mentor, and I had inspected one of my hives after having waited three weeks to go in due to possible queen succession.  This hive has been weaker than my other one, slower to build up, the population seeming smaller.  The queen's laying pattern is spotty.  And after fighting their unpredictable behavior including having built supersedure cells and swarm cells all summer long, we decided to close them up for three weeks and let them do their thing... make new queens and give the possible new virgin queen time to be fertilized and get to work before we disrupted her.

However, when Bonnie and I opened up the hive, it was a whole new place.  The bee population was huge.  Even before we opened the inner cover, bees were everywhere. 

Once inside, it was clear I needed to add a new hive box.  And we found the marked queen -- indicating there had been no supersedure -- in one of the first few frames I pulled out.  But still, the hive was behaving strangely, and we counted eight swarm cells hanging from the bottoms of frames, despite the fact that there was still a significant amount of space for them, many frames not even built out yet.  

We shuffled the hive.  Moving frames all around, moving brood frames up and empty frames down, trying to show them you have space... there is no need to move ...

All this shuffling between the three medium boxes full to bursting with bee population was slow and tedious work.  Given how long it took, we only got to that one hive, the other one quietly working away next to us.

* * *

So the next day, yesterday, I got the kids set up with some activities and headed down there alone.  
And stood and watched for a bit, noting that the hive from yesterday was very active, that it seemed to me to have lots of bees returning from foraging, their pollen sacks large with yellow and orange pollen.

I opened the second hive...and got to work.  This hive has been following the is doing what I learned it should do in my beekeeping class.  Building up steadily.  No signs of swarming.  Frames built out completely and filled.  The queen, though also laying in a rather spotty laying pattern, is now backfilling cells that have emptied in the brood areas.  And there is a healthy supply of honey and colorful pollen.  I will add a new box, its fourth, later today as soon as I put the foundation into the new frames.

But as I was working, I started to hear buzzing.  And looked over at the first hive and quickly realized something was up.  There was a cloud of bees, zipping back and forth in front of the hive, and large numbers were landing chaotically all over the landing board and on the front of the hive.  And it was a frenzy of bees, climbing all over each other, trying to get in the entrances, some going in and then out again.  Some of the bees now had full pollen sacks, but more of them did not.

I watched for a bit.  Louder buzzing.  And more chaotic behavior.  More bees.  Every once in a while a bee would purposely come out of an entrance, fly straight into another bee and lock onto it, and they would tumble and fall down the slope of the landing board and fall into the grass.

That hive was being robbed.  By other bees, from away, hungry for my bees' honey.

I moved quickly to finish what I was doing in the second hive, reorganizing a bit to move brood frames up to the top box, as there was mostly only honey in the frames up top.   Therefore, amidst the robbing next door, I was holding out uncapped honey three feet away.  Think of it like putting on a diamond tiara and heading straight into a bank robbery.  

I finally closed up the hive, carefully watching the front of the hive to see if it appeared that the robbing bees were coming over.  But they were not.

I moved fast, trying to remember my reading and what my teachers had told me about closing up hives.  I grabbed grass and stuffed it into all the entrances of the distressed hive...which was challenging because there were agitated and angry bees everywhere.  And I was stuffing grass where all the battles were being waged.

The kids arrived.  Whoa, Nicholas said.  

I was worried about what happens to the hive's foraging bees when they try to return, trying to go into the hive and relieve themselves of the load of pollen and nectar.  

Soon enough, the hive I had just been in also started buzzing and over a bit of time, it was clear that that hive was being robbed as well.  I plugged it up, and ran inside.  To do some research.  

It was a long afternoon of trying to figure out how to help them, and eventually I opened the bottom entrance again, so the foragers could get in.  Given that I knew, having just been in them, that the hives were strong and could fight off the robbers, I decided to let them fight it out.  I am going to make some robbing screens today that I found during my online research to try to help them out.

During one of my trips down to observe how they were doing, I noticed that one of my plugs had been pulled out.  I did not have my veil or gloves on and in my haste to try to keep three children happy while I worked through this, I went into the beeyard and replaced the plug of grass, using my hive tool to push it back in.  

That's when a guard bee went for me.  A loud bee hovered around my face and then moved to the back of my head.  It's intentional persistence made it quickly clear that I was in trouble.  I tried to be like Bonnie who stands, calm and still, and does not swat as she works bare armed and handed in my hives.

Inner peace, I thought to myself. I stood still.  Did not swat.  But they were not going away.  I started to slowly walk away from the hives, realizing I now had several bees attacking my head.   I noticed Julia watching nearby and told her to run away from me toward the house.  And then my slow movements became comic, as I started to run in the other direction from Julia, thinking I might outrun the bees.  

I remembered the two older men in front of me at my bee club meeting, whispering to each other, oh, you are going to get stung, as a new beekeeper introduced himself and said he hoped he would not get stung.  

I had not yet been stung.  But I knew I was about to bee.

I ended up falling awkwardly in the orchard as a bee simultaneously stung me on my neck.  It was really more of a last ditch effort to evade it, ducking so fast while running and turning. Combined with being extremely clumsy.  The sting did not hurt too terribly, but it is shocking as it happens.  And as I fell, I put my hands on the ground behind me.  And...I kid you not...planted my right hand on top of a snake.  Yup.

The snake slithered between two of my fingers and headed off...probably pretty annoyed with my antics.  

I felt my neck and could feel that I still had the stinger in my skin.  I headed toward the house.  And Nicholas calmly assessed the stinger for me.  

Ok, he said.  He sighed.  I read in the Worst Case Scenario Guide that you aren't supposed to pull out the stinger, that that will release more venom.  You are supposed to scrape it.  But that's going to hurt you.  Is that ok?

Despite my chagrin at my mistakes over the past few minutes and the pain from the growing welt, and it dawning on me that the icky feeling between my two fingers was in fact, yes, that really happened, from me going all snake tamer in the orchard, I was also proud of my kids.  

Without me asking, Julia and Elliott went running for the alcohol that they knew I kept in the shed, having seen Bonnie do this the day she was stung here.  And Nicholas, needing only to stand on the first step of the doorstep to be tall enough, expertly removed the stinger.

They didn't panic.  And I decided not to mention the snake.

* * *

Later that evening, Jonathan now home, I suited up again several times to fiddle with the plugs, removing some and replacing others, as the robbing decreased and the foragers returned.  

And then came inside and suited up for blackberry picking.  I covered all my skin and put my hair inside a hat.  Got gloves and pruners.  And a bowl.  

I'm going in, I said to Jonathan as I walked purposely through the kitchen and out the back door.  He just looked at me as I headed down the hill.

There is an invasive species attack of its own going on down there.  We have a vine that creates this bizarre prickly cucumber looking thing that reminds me of something out of Aliens when it drops large seeds, once ripe, out of its bottom.  Totally weird.  It is taking over the area where the grass turns to bramble and then woods,  It had spiderweb-like covered one of our peach trees and pushed the branches to the ground.  It astounds me with its strength and persistence.  It has done the same to an area of the blackberry bramble.  

It has a pretty white small flower, but do not be deceived.  It is a nasty invader.  I pulled it out of the area for a while and then set to picking. 

Despite the day...its mistakes and unfortunate events...I was elated by the blackberries.  They are everywhere.  And so delicious.  I did not plant these. They are wild.  And I do like the free fruit.  In my own backyard.  

The blackberry.  It's kind of Maine's ugly duckling when compared with the smooth and round and always sweet high bush blueberry.  Blackberry thorns and brambles make it difficult to pick without injuring oneself.  I love them so.

I started making plans for figuring out how to tend the bramble better, so I did not need to risk my life to be out there.  So I could safely enlist the kids to help me pick them.  

I was thinking about the ways I would use the a themselves by the handful...and freezing the rest.  

I watched Elliott and Jonathan in the garden, foraging themselves for dinner, as the day had not resulted in any dinner plans by me.  They were cheerily investigating the loot and chatting about what they could whip up.  It was going to involve carrots.  Elliott scooted over to me to show me their plunder. 

Meanwhile, I was getting completely stuck in the canes.  Trapped from multiple directions by thorns firmly planted in my clothing.  In my hat, pants, back of my shirt, even in my boots, all at the same time.

An image I had once seen of David Letterman in a velcro suit throwing himself against a velcro wall popped into my head.  It was kind of like that.  But scratchier. 

Will anyone come looking for me if I can't get myself out?

I am also quite confident that there was a creature out there with me.  Like the bear in Blueberries for Sal.  Or maybe a snake.  It was large and moving through the bramble just out of sight.  I am thinking a deer.  It was that big.  As I looked about for it, I sliced my nose on a thorn, blood mixing with my red berry stained finger tips when I touched it.

I decided to talk to myself to let the creature know I was there.  I never saw what it was but it stayed close by for a bit and then left.

By the time Elliott came looking for me to tell me dinner was ready, I had a large bowl full of berries picked, and it was just a small portion of what is out there.  I will head back there this evening, and back to the bees to see how their battle is going.

As I walked up the hill to the house, I realized just how dark it was getting. The lights were on inside and I could see Nicholas and Julia reading on the couch, the library bag from today's trip...before all the bee frenzy...between them.  And Elliott and Jonathan were busy in the kitchen.  The sun was setting over the river.

It all looked so beautiful.  And peaceful.  

See?  The antioxidants and bee venom were clearly a mind altering concoction.

So ended another August day in our backyard.

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