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What a Difference a Season Makes

What a difference a season makes

A few weeks ago, a list was created of all of the things we had to accomplish before the snow begins to fly here in the frigid north. It wasn’t a short list- a full sheet of paper by the time we were done. Winterizing vehicles, getting livestock barns in place, moving nursery stock, insulating buildings. But I am proud to say that almost all has been accomplished, and the winter has yet to set in on us. This has been the nature of things over the past eight months: create a seemingly insurmountable list of things to accomplish to make the vision of Blue Dasher Farm a reality. Then we throw ourselves against the wall, making mistakes, and overcoming hurdles as we tumble through each challenge. Like in many stories, we are not the same people as when we started. But we have built something good here.

Facilities/renovations. The break room, kitchen, and bathroom are complete, except for a bit of trim work and final decorating, which is actively ongoing. The biggest project was finishing the floor; Jacob and I sealed the floors with some epoxy (and paint in the lab). This made the stained concrete floor we applied shine and gave a really cool finished look. It has been nice to be able to use this space, and for the students to have a home base for lunches and whatnot. We transferred most of the molecular equipment into the new laboratory, and are now using the smallest lab for a rearing room for our numerous predator colonies (for the Varroa mite work) and the monarchs (which are quickly dying…bloody milkweed plants are a pain in the neck to grow in the laboratory). Elsewhere on the farm, I wired both of the barns (the hive shed and the chicken barn). In a long day, Jenna and I installed outlets, lights, and ran the wiring into the breakers all by ourselves. This was not something I would not have been able to do in March, but I had a very good teacher. This electrical should make working out there after hours a lot easier. The sun rises at 7:00 and sets at 5:30 these days, which doesn’t give us a lot of daylight. There will always be something else to do for the facilities, but we are in really good shape heading into winter.

Research. Claire harvested her last corn plot, and this grain analysis finalizes our field season. Projects worked out well, and now we have to make sense of all of the data and process a bunch of samples. Both Jacob and Claire are already working on their theses, hoping to graduate in May with their Master’s degrees. The Varroa mite predation project has quickly risen to prominence. Old Mill Honey Farm generously donated a few rogue, heavily infested hives so that we could have live Varroa for assays with our mites and other predators. A big constraint will be getting pure cultures of these predators that we can release en masse into hives to see how the Varroa-infested hives respond to having these predators in place. Our students are world-class; at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, our students formed a debate team to discuss issues facing the bees. They were ranked 2nd overall against the university departments, and won their individual debates. As if this weren’t enough, Jacob’s presentation won first prize in his session, and Mike took 2nd prize in his session. These students are truly exceptional, and are going to make some substantive contributions to our world- I am really proud to get the chance to work with them.

Cropland. All of the trees and shrubs have landed in the fenced paddock, and we are starting to wrap some chicken wire around the stems to fend off rabbits. Leif, our pup, spends quite a bit of time in the same paddock, and we hope that this presence will deter deer from causing too many problems. The Euonymous bush on the side of the house has been nibbled quite a bit, an indication of an active deer population. After dark the other night, we flushed a deer that ran through our harvested cropland. The crops are now all in, and we are trying to figure out how to dry and clean the seed. Seed cleaning of specialty crops is largely a lost art form; luckily Corey from Timber Lake has been willing to try to clean this sweet clover up. Not only does the seed need to be dried, but it also needs to have the hull scarified (rubbed) off. It ends up being a 4-step process, once the seed is out of the field and dried. Combining the hubam clover went really smoothly, and we got a good crop off of that 4.5 acres (approximately 250-300 lbs per acre of cleaned seed). Not bad for a first try with no fertilizers nor insecticides/fungicides. A lack of seed cleaning is going to be a hurdle as we continue to develop new crops.

Honey bees. We harvested the honey last weekend; results were disappointing. We gave the hives everything that they could want- these 25 hives were embedded in acres of some of their favorite flowers, which were chemical free (at least, no chemicals on our land). We poured resources into getting them to expand their hives and put on some honey. But they just limped along all year, so honey production was less than stellar, and the number that will survive the winter is questionable. Still, it is our first year getting our hives established, and several beekeeper friends said that we should be happy to see any honey extraction in our first year. The big barn is all cleaned up, and ready to receive the hives for overwintering. We need to build some new deep boxes, and have had a pledge or two for new queens first thing in the spring. This should bump us up to our goal of 100 hives next year, if all goes well. We converted a closet in the lab barn into a honey warming room that worked really well for us.

I am convinced now more than ever that the colony troubles is a queen issue, and I believe that it is pesticides that are hurting the reproductive capacity of the queen. Recent studies have shown that the queens are less vigorous and drones less functional after exposure to insecticides, and there are dozens of pesticides found in the hives’ comb. What are we going to do about it? Well, big picture is reforming how we produce food, and that is the point of Blue Dasher. But more proximal in our own operation is that we are going to try to get my hives off of their drugs. We aren’t going to do much for these hives over the winter season, and we are going to base our hives next spring on the strongest survivors. I suspect that feeding and treatment probably has hurt the resilience of our hives. This could be naïve of me, but our constant intervention to stem the hemorrhaging may be hurting more than helping in the long run.

Travel and outreach. The travel season has begun in earnest. I presented for the HMI- the Savory Institutes’ educational arm. We were lucky enough to get to see Joel Salatin speak there, which was my first exposure to his style and message. The meeting was held at Paicines Ranch in Central California, and it was great to spend time with Kelly, Elaine, and Sally who run the joint. What an amazing place this 7600 acre ranch is. Another highlight of the trip was hanging out with my old post-doc Michael and his wife Bonnie (and kids). It has been good to get to know these guys again after a few years away. I just got back from New York, where the Empire State Beekeepers had me out again this year. What a great group of folks there, and we wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for their tremendous support.

I believe that things happen for a reason. Some reasons we can see and others we can’t. It was one year ago that I decided to defend myself against my former employers for their research suppression and retaliation against inconvenient science. The anniversary of the Washington Post story that sent my life and the lives of everyone I care about down a different and unsure path was on October 28. Nobody celebrated. The motivation for this decision was sound, and I don’t regret my decision. The path we are on is a good one. I know that now, but we didn’t know it then. Ultimately, it was the farmers and beekeepers that showed us this direction, and we will continue to work on their behalf.

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