The Dog Days of Summer
July 25, 2017
For every summer, there is a honeymoon period. Early in the season, everything is new, the work is fresh, and there is so much energy and life. People are on good behavior, and all seem to get along pretty well. Frankly, I think a lot of us are just happy not to be snowed in. As the calendar turns into mid-July, the temperatures become hot and muggy, punctuated with severe thunderstorms in the evenings that remind us on the prairie how small we are. It is at this time of the summer that pretenses are abandoned and we really get to know one another. Not everyone gets along every day, but hopefully the mission drives us closer together. It is a poor time to make rash decisions, because the memories and stories that define us aren’t made during the easy, fun times. It is helping one another wade through the rough or stagnant that makes us stronger as both individuals and as a community.
The summer heat has been hard, and with a lot of irons in the fire the past few weeks has not allowed me to sit and process much. A lot of days it feels like I am losing more battles than I win. And I can rationalize a silver lining to every cloud, thinking about how I am still better off by entering into a commitment or pursuing an idea. But failure leaves a residue that takes time to scrape away. Rejections on grants and papers can fester in a scientist. Fear of future failures are so insidious. Petty disagreements, wishing that I could be more than I am, and an inability to meet others’ expectations all aggregate. But at heart, I am an optimist, and am reminded so when I take a moment to reflect and watch the evening lightning show that seems to have been planned for just that purpose. Ultimately, I believe in the people around me, and our collective strength makes light of even heavy burdens. But only if I choose to let it.
Cropland. The crops are growing strong, and it has been fun to watch the farm change to a warm season plant community. We planted our hubam into living warm season perennial grasses. This is a bold move, but fits within our philosophy of farming within a biodiverse system. The hubam seems to be taking to this well. The timely rains and heat help the clover, but also help the grasses. And for now it is a war to see who is going to win. Interestingly, volunteer borage is going strong in this field. Indeed, the borage looks better here than in the field I planted to borage. I doubt we will harvest the volunteer borage crop from the hubam field, but we certainly will pull some honey out of it. The Phacelia is flowering full steam, but in a very strange pattern. The outer perimeter of the field is blooming well. Inside the field is an odd dead zone. Few plants at all are growing there, including the grasses and forbs characteristic of the farm. I am not really sure what is going on there; perhaps it is a moisture thing. But we should generate plenty of Phacelia seed to expand the planting for next season. And I think that there are more bees than flowers out there. The Canada wild rye field turned into a mixture of volunteer hubam and forage. A neighbor came by and asked what we were going to do for weed control. I looked out over the field, and replied “I don’t see any weeds…I see forage” The sheep have been grazing the weeds to the ground as I slowly move their paddock through the field. I am hoping that the $700 in grass seed I planted there will germinate and put on some growth this summer. But regardless, I am taking forage and honey off of the resulting forbs that sprung up. Ah, an integrated system!
Livestock. We met quite a few of our neighbors while trying to find our rampant sheep earlier in the spring. The other morning, one that we hadn’t met drove into the driveway in their side by side and introduced himself and young son. Last year, we didn’t hay the ditches around the properties, and we have quite a perimeter of grass. He asked if he could hay this year, which I had no problem with. But I asked whether he could provide a few square bales for the sheep in exchange for the lion’s share of the hay. After two long, hot days of work, our neighbor stopped by the house. “Is 41 square bales enough?” Our sheep will be well fed if forage is scarce this winter. For now, and as I mentioned above, the sheep are grazing on our cropland that had something of a weed problem. Instead of spending money on weed control and spreading toxins onto our farm, we are making money off of this weed patch. They have slowed feeding down a bit since cleaning our entire shelter belt, but have done a good job. The sunflower tops are left, along with amaranth seed heads. But 15 minutes with a weed whacker after they move to the next paddock is sufficient to clean everything up. A couple of weeks ago, I switched our weed whacker’s business end to one with plastic blades. Whoever forwarded the idea that we should remove overgrown plant material with a fast-spinning, thin plastic string probably giggles maniacally to themselves. Many hours were wasted this summer and last on resetting that demonic green plastic fiber.
The broilers are dead! In a Saturday morning filled with carnage and merriment, we butchered 100 chickens at our friend’s place, Prairie Couteau Farm. We raised Freedom Rangers and they lived their lives bumbling around the homestead on the farm, being housed at night in a somewhat-mobile former dog kennel made of chain link fence. They started getting more aggressive toward the layer chicks as they got a bit older, so it was certainly time for them to go. We had around 8-9 people helping us on the butchering project, each with a job to play along our assembly line. I was the head and leg man. The birds cleaned beautifully (sharp knives make a huge difference), and looked like those at the grocery store but tasted much better. I think we will try Cornish crosses next time and see if they have a little more tender meat, but as a first try at raising meat birds Jenna, Gabby and many other chicken wranglers did really well.
Bees. Our hives on Blue Dasher have become zombies again. The bottom box or two are filled to the brim with bees, sometimes with 9 frames of capped brood. But they have an empty box on top and the bees cannot figure out how to move into it. The hives actually lost weight during the strongest period of the honey flow, within spitting distance of a field of their favorite flowers. It is as though they have forgotten how to be bees. Hives off of Blue Dasher seem to be doing better- we added several honey supers to the 40 off-site hives over the past 2 weeks.
I have talked with many beekeepers and thought long and hard about it. This is likely pesticide related, and through observations I now believe that the contaminant is in the comb. Possibly some genetic problems are at play as well. One source of our bees this summer gave us 15 nucs that have almost caught up with the splits we made in early May. The splits consisted of an entire box full of bees each, and should have launched into the summer season. I have a couple of leads that might help.
Our bee research has started to yield some strong leads, especially given our recent trials with the hives on Blue Dasher. I am leaning toward a causative issue with bee declines being pesticide disruption of hormones in the honey bees. Initially, we devoted 20 hives to a study on Stratiolaelaps releases to control Varroa mites. A single release indicated a small positive effect of the predator mites on Varroa counts and hive weights (data hasn’t been formally analyzed yet), but nothing that looked biologically or economically relevant (several other predators are yet to be tested). In our final observations on the experiment, we noticed a decline in all hives. I decided to try some of the Citronella (lemon grass) essential oil that I had been hearing about. Half of the hives were treated with the oil, and the others received a placebo. The change in vigor overnight as a result of citronella treatment were surprising and positive. The main active component of the lemongrass oil is citral, which is a component of bee hormones (the Nasonov hormone) which is used in communicating foraging cues and in relocating the hive by foragers. I feel like we are onto something here, and have devoted more time and resources to sleuthing this out for the beekeepers.