Monday, December 17, 2012

The Philosophy of Orchard Bees

Blue Orchard Bee. Photo courtesy

I recently finished an article for Urban Farm magazine on the topic of Orchard Mason Bees.
 I’ve been trying to talk K into honeybees, without success. I did like the idea of harvesting honey, but found the idea of my own collection of pollinators to be a bigger part of the appeal.
Mason bees are benign (non-stinging), super-pollinators, native to the United States (honey bees are not), but they don’t produce honey. They are beneficial insects for anyone who has fruit trees and plants that benefit from pollination. One orchard mason bee can do the pollinating work of 100 honey bees. They can increase the cherry or apple yield by two to three times. They’re easy to house, and the more I learned about them, the more impressed I was.
One thing I found interesting was that when the female orchard bee lays her eggs (each with its own little provision pack of pollen) she lines them up and compartmentalizes them in a tube or reed. She may lay about six eggs per tube, lined up with female-to-be eggs in the back, and males-to-be toward the front. The males emerge first in the spring (and are slightly expendable), and hang around waiting for the females to emerge. The males live only long enough to breed, while the female does all the housekeeping and egg-laying for her specific tubes, then dies after about six weeks.
But the new bees’ emergence isn’t a matter of gestation, it’s a matter of temperature and timing. And this is what I think is really crafty of these industrious little insects: They emerge when the temperature is around 55 degrees which, coincidentally, is when the first of the fruit trees begin to bloom and make pollen available.
Sometimes the careful evolutionary engineering of nature is just a little breathtaking. It’s as if you can catch glimpses of the fingerprints of a master plan. Everything is interconnected and fits together.
That web is beautiful, whether spun of the carefully timed emergence of hard working bees, or the practicality of hens who act as natural pest control. This time of year, winter stills the garden and the interconnected threads are a little harder to see. But they are there, below the surface: Those small bees, nestled in a straw-like tube, are tucked away for winter, waiting, just as the fruit trees lie dormant, though it doesn’t appear that anything at all is happening.
This, I think, is a reminder to me to be patient. I am always anxious this time of year for winter to be moving along, seed catalogs to arrive and spring to return. Sometimes, though, when it doesn’t seem like anything is progressing, there is perfection unfolding beneath the surface. The point is to take pleasure in the stillness and steadiness. 
Ah, the philosophy of orchard bees. Monumental and miniscule at the same time.

(Special thanks to Dave Hunter for the information about the bees. You can learn more at his web site,

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Day and Night

As seasons have changed, we've been a little late getting our lights in the coop, and it has really thrown the hens for a loop (hey, a bonus rhyme!).

Is it day or is it night?
With days getting shorter, the chickens have slowed down on egg production, but by extending the hours of light they get we can ramp up their egg laying for summer-like production. Last year, we tried a red heat lamp and thought maybe it would provide enough light for their chicken brains to be tricked into laying more eggs. Some hens produced fairly well last winter, but we had four young pullets who weren’t producing yet anyway, so it wasn’t really a good measure. I did read that a red light won’t provide the stimulation that a white light will.

I liked having that heat lamp up in the coop for really cold days, though most poultry people will tell you that your chickens don’t need the heat. In fact, there is the chance that they won’t be acclimated as well to the cold when you have a heat lamp in the coop, and a power outage during frigid weather could be disastrous for your flock.

So I hemmed and hawed over what kind of light to hang in the coop.

The hens have not been laying much lately. Thelma and Pip have been pretty regular, but one to two eggs a day from seven hens just seemed a bit on the skimpy side. I really hate buying eggs at the store when I’m feeding my own suppliers.

This year we decided to try just putting a white light in the coop, on a timer that would extend the day a few more hours. But we should have hung it earlier in the fall for a more gradual adjustment.  For the last month or so, the hens have been heading for the coop early – sometimes at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon – even though it was light a little longer.

Last week, K tacked up the light and set the timer for it to come on from 5:30 to 9:00 pm. It’s a very bright light. It’s like someone is going to be interrogated. 

I went out to shut the coop the first night the light was on, and realized that the hens were confused. Inside their coop, it was daylight. So they went out into the yard, expecting daylight there as well, but it was dark. They saw me, and crowded around, tentatively looking for treats. But I could sense bewilderment clouding their feathered features. If they had dialogue balloons above their heads, they’d have looked like this:

?  or ?!

“Silly hens,” I said to them. “It’s bedtime.” I shooed them into the coop and they looked uncertain.

The next morning I found eggs scattered around the coop as if they were surprised by this sudden development—“OH my! An egg!” The rest of the week, I found myself feeling like the grand manipulator, because instead of one or two eggs each day, we were suddenly getting five a day. The light was definitely making a difference.

But evenings were still confusing to them. They’d head into the coop as normal, get all roosty and ready for bed, then the light would come on and out they’d go, bleary eyed as if the night had passed really quickly and they hurried out to meet the day. Poor things didn't know what to think.

I’d see them milling around in front of the gate. I could almost hear the conversations:
“I thought you said it was morning?”
“It was—you saw how bright it was.”
“But now it’s dark.”
“I know. It’s the darnedest thing. It’s like someone keeps turning the sun on and off.”
“That’s impossible.”
“I know, I know! Right?!”

And so I go out and shoo their confused and disgruntled selves into the coop, again. Note to self for next year: Be more gradual with our sudden substitute sunshine.