The Non-Farm of Now

The most self-torturous thing I do is to take a drive through farmland.  Especially farmland with plenty of sparkling streams and stone barns from the 1700’s and farmhouses that have hosted many a human story over hundreds of years.  If there is a summer kitchen AND a functioning pump house AND a spring house, I near choke on my longing.  If there are lambs frolicking about I am undone.

There’s something so wrong in it and I don’t see a way to fix it; when a county that is bursting at the seams with banks and shopping centers keeps paving over prime farmland in the name of more of them.  I just look at that good dirt, those wide sweeps of it, acres of it, that could keep on feeding us and supporting a family, and I think acerbic thoughts and half-sentences about the businessmen who see every bit of open ground as a financial opportunity rather than the treasure that it is, just as it is.  All for ANOTHER Chipotle or a Staples or a (shudder) Walmart?

And what of the farmers whose families through the generations have been sustained by the land, and suddenly in their retirement years they decide to parcel off their inheritance to developers, to be hacked into grids of streets, peppered with homes, and never again to be a farm?  Do they consider what they received?  And how many would love to take up their yoke and earn their bread that way, but because developers can offer so much they can’t even buy five acres?

So, no farm for us, leastwise here in Lancaster County.  And no chickens, no goats; our township having some prejudice against animals that actually produce something usable.  It is nonsensical.  But so is paving over farmland, so the course must be set.  Dogs?  That you have to haul in feed for and pick up poop for, poop which isn’t fit for composting but must be hauled out with the trash?  Sure, as many as you want!  Chickens?  That feast on bugs, mosquito larvae, weeds; who break down leaves into fine compost, who turn kitchen scraps into delicious eggs, whose manure benefits the gardens?  No, none of those.

I am aware I am ranting.

Switching course…. In my non-farm of now there’s still a lot of learning and living and production happening on our little .33 acre.  This spring will see three beehives up and running (Lord willing), three elderberry bushes, three grapevines, two apple trees, a peach tree, a nectarine tree, blueberries and strawberries, rhubarb, and a whole garden full of produce and herbs.  There will be clothes on the line, jars in the canner, and herbs in the dehydrator.  There will be kids in the mud, sticks that were swords and harpoons strewn about, and slowly rusting bikes in varying degrees of disrepair.  There will be life, cultivated right in the teeth of weeds and deferred hopes and expensive farmland and zoning ordinances.

_MG_4736IMG_2592IMG_0966IMG_1283IMG_1772work4notbusy4diapers2diapers3IMG_1895 IMG_0665 IMG_0672 IMG_1933 IMG_2139 IMG_2142 IMG_2146 IMG_2147 IMG_2155 IMG_2158 _MG_4875 _MG_4888 _MG_4890 IMG_4933 IMG_4947 IMG_2305 IMG_2309 IMG_2315 IMG_0966 _MG_5001  Yes, there will be life.

Honey Haul 2014

Well.  My goodness.  Fifty-six pounds of honey.

IMG_2566The mega extractor that we borrowed which spins nine frames at a time.  We also got to borrow a hot uncapping knife (cuts the wax off of the comb, exposing the honey), an uncapping tank (where all that waxy goodness is drained of honey), and a comb scratcher (used to scratch open comb that the knife doesn’t hit).  Fun!IMG_2567 Ten of the twenty-five frames we extracted.IMG_2575Tired, sweaty pregnant me with a lovely capped frame of honey. IMG_2581Cappings removed, ready to be extracted. IMG_2577IMG_2578IMG_2579 And this is why we have kids.  😉 IMG_2585 Bottling time!  Look at that lake of honey! IMG_2588IMG_2591IMG_2592 After the uncapping tank honey was added in, the total was 56 pounds of honey, and I think around 2 pounds of beeswax that, yes you guessed it, will go into my soap :).

As my husband and I stared at all those filled jars, I said the obvious, “The Lord has been very merciful to us.”

The Strangest Mercy

I was glad for the bagginess of my bee suit.  Not only that it gives a buffer zone between my tender skin and the stabbing dagger-like stingers of thousands of honeybees, but because at six months pregnant, I still fit into it.  Now, I may look like an astronaut trying to shoplift a basketball, but I’m relatively safe and comfortable.

I waited until Henrik ceased his happy pre-nap shenanigans (i.e. throwing his blankets out of his pack and play, belly-flopping delightedly, and grinning at me over the top of the sides in a most awake-and-knows-it way).  When he finally succumbed to the nap, I prayed in a whisper that God would protect me as I went to rob tens of thousands of honeybees of their hard-earned honey (not all of it, mind you, just their spare pantry).

I got my smoker going strong on the most tailor-made-honey-collecting day ever (mild temperatures, little wind, and undiluted sunshine).  I don’t normally even inspect my hives without another adult at home, because I’d like to have some back-up if I get stung and have a reaction, but a string of cloudy days and conflicting schedules and a limited time frame in which to borrow an extractor meant that on this one sunny day, I was going in Lone Ranger.

I did Les Abeilles hive first (which is French for “the bees”), which is my older colony and quite a robust one.  This hive alone swarmed twice last May, forming two new colonies of sizable populations, while still leaving behind a great multitude.  I’d be harvesting twenty frames of honey off of them. It’s an intimidating thing to approach the home of thousands of stinging insects.  Worse yet to attempt to plunder their reserves.  I steeled myself for the worst, though I’ve yet to be stung in my two years as a beekeeper, I could just imagine that today would be my initiation rite into true beekeeping.  “Stung forty times, huh?  Well, you’re a true beekeeper now”, I imagined some seasoned beekeeper saying, while slapping me on the back.

I puffed the smoke into their front door and breathed the pent-up nerves out.  Let’s do this. I worked my way through, frame by frame, puffing with smoke (which tells the bees, ‘Hey, there’s a forest fire going on, you should probably chow down on honey because your home is going to be burnt up.’ or ‘Was that an alarm pheromone I just smelled?  No….I just smell smoke….I’m so happy now.  Nom nom nom.’).

I took each frame and gave a few swift shakes over top the hive, harmlessly dislodging the bulk of the feasting bees right back into their home.  Some get understandably irritated.  Wouldn’t you be?  There you are at the fridge, grazing on some cheese and reaching for the milk when all of a sudden someone picks up your kitchen and shakes you out the door.  And if you don’t fall out of the doorway, well then you are swept out with a giant broom. I hustled the bee-less heavy frame of honey to my wagon awaiting downhill, where I put it into a box and swiftly covered it with a sheet so the bees didn’t try to claim it again.  Repeat twenty times while sweating profusely from every pore on your body and keeping your smoker going, and hoping against hope that they don’t smell through the smoke haze the scented alarm that the guard bees are emitting, and you too could harvest honey!

Amazingly, no stings.  Not even more than a handful of fly-bys (when the guard bees attempt to kamikaze my veil in indignation).  I put the hive back together and said, “Thank you, ladies!” and carefully navigated the heavy wagon back down to the house.  I then repeated this with The Bee-Bee Boomers (my first swarm catch colony), and they too amicably allowed me to plunder their pantry.

There are twenty-seven frames of honey on my back porch under sheets awaiting extraction tomorrow.  And no painful stings on my body.  And the baby is still napping.  Mercy.

And that’s what it is.

It’s not because I’m some wonderfully intuitive bee-whisperer.  It’s not because of me.  It’s one of God’s strange mercies for me, for this day and the other days past of hive inspections and honey harvests.  It implies nothing about tomorrow, or the next day, the next harvest.  No promises for a sting-free future.  But a mercy for today. I’ll take it.  I’ll give thanks and thanks again. For every strange mercy, giving thanks.

The Birds and the Bees, the Literal Ones

Reuben came in rambling at a full-tilt high pitch, “MOM-I-FOUND-A-BABY-BIRD-ON-THE-SIDEWALK…(takes breath and goes on in like manner).”  He must reason that unusual circumstances call for unusual speech rapidity and volume.  I was expecting one of those shriveled, prune-like baby birds that I’d see slowly drying out on sidewalks in my childhood, always evoking tears and a sense of injustice at this cruel heartless world where such things could happen.  I never understood how adults would just shrug and mutter something about “letting Mother nature take her course” or “that happens”.  I was, on the other hand, quite at the mercy of my boundless mercy.

There was the time I brought in a bat with a broken wing.  Even I could admit that it was an ugly creature, but my benevolence was unwavering.  My parents, who had suffered the admittance of broken-winged birds in shoeboxes and a baby mouse who’d been attacked by another mouse, drew the line at the bat.  I remember the reasons, disease, nothing to be done anyways.  I remember carrying the bat back outside and gently placing him on the boughs of a small pine tree, cradled above the predators below, to die in dignity and peace.  I wept for him and for the stray kitten at a gas station.  It was my first exposure to the helplessness one feels in the face of another’s suffering.  I was not immune, I wanted to respond.  A commercial about children starving in an African country compelled me at a young age to call the toll free number and volunteer that surely my parents would pay to help those poor swollen-bellied children.  Mom did donate, and then had a long talk with me about spending other people’s money without asking them.  Oh.

So as Reuben sped ahead on the sidewalk, I wondered how much of me was still that tender-hearted little girl and how much of me had steeled-up after the things I’ve seen in this world; the things I learned actually happened every day to people, over in Africa and down the block.

There sat the baby bird, most of the adult feathers were in, but with some downy fluff here and there.  Knowing that the neighborhood cats roamed all about, we needed to get the bird to a better location.  I scouted the nearby trees for where the nest was, but couldn’t find anything.  Gently I scooped the frightened bird up into my hands, cupping it and to my surprise, it shut it’s eyes and nestled in.  I placed it into a vacated robin’s nest in our nectarine tree and had the boys go dig some worms.

As I placed each wriggling worm into the bird’s gaping, peeping mouth I realized how very much of the wide-hearted girl still existed within my world-weary, suffering-battered adult heart.  How much I yearn to see God’s shalom blooming everywhere, right in the middle of tragedies and hurts and embittered souls.  Right in this borrowed nest with this hungry bird.  Right in my own wounds.


When I become passionate about something, it’s as though I start whirling into a vortex, trying to pull all my loved ones into my excitement and delight.  So when my fellow urban-farmer Andrea expressed interest in seeing inside my hives, I was near beside myself to get her up close and personal with my dear bees.  I should have been a bit wiser though.  The skies were overcast and the cardinal rule is to only check the ladies when the sun is high, otherwise they get cranky and there’s too many of them at home.  Well, sure enough.  We were fine going through the honey supers, no ominous irritated buzzing, but once we started pulling brood frames, the ladies got testy.

They stung Andrea!  What the world, ladies?!?  I was the one pulling their house apart and smoking them and poking about, but they were all over her like she’d been dipped in honey.  One stung her leg and two more worked themselves into her bee jacket and veil!  It was quite a scene peeling her out of the suit without prompting more stings.  I felt the vortex losing it’s strength; how could I ever convince her to enjoy beekeeping if my ladies scared her off on the first try?

I scolded the bees.  What inhospitality.  They buzzed back angrily that what should I expect on a cranky overcast day and that it really was my fault.  The guard bees bounced off my veil in a huff.  They were right.  I thought we could do a fast inspection and that they’d give grace about the weather, but no.

As they roared about me I realized that I wouldn’t be able to show Andrea the egg frames, the baby bees chewing their way out of their cells, the larvae, and all that fascinating jazz.  I called across the yard where Andrea was at a safe distance that “Wisdom tells me to close the hive”.  Of course it had whispered to me earlier that the hive should have remained shut to begin with, but I had a vortex to whirl.

Ah, timing.  There’s a good time for birds to leave their nests and a very vulnerable, too-early time.  There’s a good time to check a beehive, when the sun is high and the wind is low, and a very bad time indeed.  Screw-ups happen, but as the Athonite monks would say, even these can be worked to our spiritual benefit, if we humbly see our folly and let God use the mistake to teach us wisdom and discernment.

And I discern that I shan’t be bothering my ladies on overcast days anytime soon.