138. the missing bees

I lied.

In a post a few weeks ago, I waxed poetic about the blooming catalpa tree in the side yard. And I said, “Birds and bees love her”.

This year there were no bees buzzing around the catalpa blossoms.

I know because the hammock is hung on the lowest branch of the giant catalpa tree, and this year, the only hammock hazard was from falling catalpa blossoms. There was no potential problem of a bee sting, because there were no bees.

In a beginning backyard fruit tree orchard, this is not good.

In an effort to see if the bees have really disappeared, we stopped mowing the back yard and let the clover bloom. There actually seems to be more clover in the back yard than grass — perhaps a leftover from when clover was routinely sown between the older apple trees.

And we watched.

Over a period of a week, we saw about ten honey bees in the clover (and five rabbits, ten deer, and a groundhog).

This has become such a worry that Mr. H.C. has actually suggested we buy a hive of bees for next spring.

We’re thinking of buying the hive, the bees, and some supplies, and asking a friend to take care of it the first year, while he is mentoring us. This is quite a step for Mr. H.C. — he actively dislikes bees — though neither of us is allergic to their stings.

It has become a national anxiety about bees. You can read about the issue here and here and here. No one will say exactly what the problem is, but to me, a non-scientific, tree-hugging, crunchy, suspicious-of-all-big-corporations type of person, it is obvious. Pesticides.

Duh. If we spray to get rid of insects, we’re going to get rid of insects, yes?

It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD for short) and since 2004-2005 beekeepers have reported a loss of bees in their hives from 35 to 90%. What is most mysterious is that rather than finding dead bees around the hive, the bees just disappear. And once I started reading about it, there are several dozen reasons/theories/government plots for the disappearance of the bees. (To be fair, there is a wide range of opinion –some people doubt if the bees are really disappearing and some people think the bees are being abducted by aliens….)

But if you want to be concerned about this issue, consider these points (that are all taken from the above articles.)

  • A full third of the American diet is dependent on pollination, and wild and domestic honeybees are responsible for 80 percent of pollination.
  • About 200,000 species of plants rely on insects and a majority of those rely on bees.
  • Commercial beekeepers are often feeding their bees on high fructose corn syrup, a questionable man-made sugar substance at best; a cancer-and-diabetes-and-obesity causing substance at worst.
  • Not surprisingly perhaps, organic beekeepers have not experienced CCD, leading to speculation that overall greener management practices could be the answer even if direct causes are not determined.
  • If honey bees disappeared, the following crops would be affected: tree fruits — think apples, oranges, pears, lemons; tree nuts — think walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, almonds;  garden vegetables — tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, onions, pumpkins; alfalfa and clover — think hay for animal feed;  berries of all sorts — straw, blue, cran, black and razz; coffee; cocoa; cotton; flax;  and you can read a much longer list here. (And also to be fair, I must note that we have a bumper crop of raspberries this summer, so something is pollinating the berries.)

So come next spring, we may look like aliens ourselves. But we won’t be abducting bees; we’ll be helping to pollinate catalpa trees.

And apples and peaches,

and cherries and beans,

and pumpkins and peas…

135. Hard work down on the farm

You’ve heard the saying that if you cut your own firewood it warms you twice?

Our friend, Joe, offered it to us — free trees already cut down and trimmed and dragged to the side of the road.

So, a couple of weeks ago, on the hottest day of the year so far, we cut and hauled and stacked firewood for next year.

Warmed us, yes…

Even Joe teased us, “You aren’t supposed to be cutting firewood in May,” he laughed.

But we were grateful for it — and we will be especially grateful when it warms us that second time next January… Thanks, Joe.

The entire time we were working on firewood, I kept anxiously thinking of the garden, which was supposed to be perfect beds completed in April, but were still very unmade. No spring lettuce or greens or radishes or peas here.

So now the  7 ft  fence is in –though Mr. H. C. is still fretting that our herd of deer will be able to jump the low side — there is a beautiful gate (awaiting permanent fencing in the future) and a summer garden is planted.

garden gate

It’s a first year garden with only some random compost dumpings from last year, and some mushroom manure, so we were excited to find a nearby farm that offered CSAs. That will take the pressure off our poor, small, first-year garden plot (and the gardeners too…)

It took hours days weeks of work just to get these two beds dug, free of grass, fenced, and the third one tilled up. The third one is outside our fence, so it has to be filled with veggies and herbs the deer won’t eat; I know from experience, there is no plant alive that a deer won’t nibble on and perhaps ruin. At the city house, I gave up vegetable gardening the morning I discovered one bite taken out of all the green peppers. They also ate the hairy, spiky zucchini plants that they aren’t supposed to like. So I’m skeptical even about onions and garlic, but I took the chance. I’m also going to plant some rhubarb there in the hopes they will eat it and die.

Okay, I know that sounds rash, but fencing is expensive, people! And it takes time. And it is awkward — I’m bumping up against the Industral Deer Strength Netting all the time.

But truly, the deer are also eating our fruit trees, which I foolishly set free from their cages too soon. They looked so lovely, wild and set free from their prisons.   

until overnight, this happened:


So the trees are caged again to protect them from the evil deer, and Mr. H. C. is reading up on solar electric fences. 

And though I’m not counting the peaches before they’re ripe (there’s 16) the peaches look hopeful.   

And there are walnuts on the walnut tree…

132. The last bowl of walnuts

Last year there was not a single walnut on our tree. We are down to our last bowl of walnuts.

After two years of abundant harvests, it was quite disappointing. It had been so nice to look at the bags of walnuts in the grocery store, nod, and think, Yes! I don’t have to pay those prices. And mine are organic.

The unproven theory — put forth by our neighbor — was that a late freeze killed all the buds, but the first-year-peach tree had five delicious peaches on it, and the two trees are within a hundred feet of each other. Seems like a killer frost would have killed those peach buds too.

We’re only beginner backyard orchardists, so we have no answers, but we are checking on that walnut tree every day for signs of blossoms and keeping tabs on the temperature at night.

Walnut tree bud

English Walnut trees — also called Persian Walnuts or Carpathian Walnuts (Juglans regia) are not native to Southwestern Pennsylvania, so it isn’t surprising that the harvests might be sporadic. They are commercially grown in this country in California, Oregon, and Washington, and PA’s climate is very dissimilar! Native to Southwestern Asia and Southeastern Europe, every site on the internet assures me that they are cold tolerant to thirty below zero. (It didn’t get that cold this past February, thank goodness.)

English walnut tree
But some optimistic soul planted it, and it’s doing well here in USDA Zone 6A, with abundant harvests two out of the last three years.

The Penn State Extension web site tells me that Juglans regia does not self-pollinate and two varieties are necessary to get nuts. Hmmm. I wonder where those bumper crops came from? We do have several native black walnuts (Juglans nigra) down over the hill in the woods. Perhaps theory two is that the factors for pollination were just not right last year. That same website gives the requirements for pollination: the temperature has to be between 60 and 85 degrees, not windy, not rainy, and not much else blooming. No wonder there weren’t any walnuts last year — it is always windy up here on Apple Hill, and it rains a good bit, too. Today, April 22, it poured rain this morning, the sun is shining now, and it is 44 degrees at 2:00 pm. Not ideal for pollination.

Walnut tree

Another site on the Internet tells me that plants don’t like to grow under walnut trees because of a substance they emit called juglone, which is a natural herbicide. These daffodils don’t seem to mind.  And note the grass growing in the middle of the three trunks.

Theory three of the “no nuts last year phenomena” is the seven year cycle of productivity. I might be more inclined to accept this one if there had been just a few walnuts; however, the fact that there was not one nut, nothing, nada, makes me question that theory.

But when I googled seven year cycle of fruit, I got some very interesting results: the story of the seven year cycle ordained by God in Leviticus 25:1-7 — that the land should lay fallow the seventh year — like the weekly Sabbath, the seventh year (or Shemitah year) would be a time of rest for the land and for the agricultural society. They wouldn’t plant; they wouldn’t harvest; the land would lay fallow. Instead, God would provide food miraculously for the people, as He provided manna and meat for them in the desert.

Now, I don’t think that we need to follow the Levitical rules that God laid down for the Hebrews in the Old Testament, but I do believe that God gave humankind those rules for a reason. Does the land need to rest? Absolutely.

Do we need Sabbath rest? Absolutely.

Does the walnut tree need to rest? Hmmm….

If you’ve followed this rabbit trail of a post this far, you should be rewarded. So though I can’t actually make it for you, I will tell you it’s one of the easiest, best treats ever; you can have it on your plate with a warm mug of tea in under an hour. And it’s heavy on my two favorite ingredients: apples and walnuts. How can you go wrong?

Apples and chopped walnuts

Apple Walnut Pudding Cake

Apple Walnut Pudding Cake

And what better way to use that last bowl of walnuts?