Modern homesteading is difficult. Rabbits love tender garden sprouts; every wild thing loves a good chicken dinner; and neighbors sometimes spew pesticides and herbicides about as if they don’t love bees, wildlife of any kind, or any shoot of green that they didn’t plant. Even so, I press on, carving out a niche for myself on this little twelve acres of wildness, buffered within a circle of trees. As I provide for myself, I try to share with and protect the wild things that also belong here and, well, to just hold out.
This is my tenth year of beekeeping, about as many years raising chickens, and too many years of gardening to admit to. Still, the learning curve just seems to get longer and longer and a bit more uphill. I will never ever be as smart as I was that first year of any of these endeavors. I’ve had both good years and lean years, times when everything just seemed to hum along and years when the humming (and buzzing) seemed to disappear. But…this year…has been especially humbling.
It started in the garden. I installed a fence around the perimeter last year after the new goat herd mowed down my garlic in the early spring. Later in the year, I added electric fence tape outside of and above the goat fence to keep out the deer and raccoons that had devastated my peaches and corn. This spring I was feeling pretty smug about my newly planted, little Fort-Knox garden as I showed it off to my good friend and fellow gardener, Ann Marie. As we left the garden and secured the gate, Ann Marie looked back and asked, “What about those guys?” Following her gaze, I saw not one, not two, but three rabbits watching us from inside the garden!
All spring, I fought the rabbits and the rabbits won. I added chicken wire to the inside of the perimeter fence, but the nightly marauding of the peas, and later the green beans, continued. But I am a stubborn woman; I reinforced my fencing and replanted the beans—four times! The rabbits just kept outsmarting me and eating the new beans. My 10-year-old beagle/foxhound mix used to keep them in check in her younger years. Now they jump over her as she dozes out her dotage.
Finally, I saw that all my fencing had just created a big, safe playpen for the rabbits and that I’d fenced a bunch of them in from the very beginning. So, I decided to trap them out. I set out a couple live traps and baited the traps with apple slices. I had to wait till the rabbits had finished dining on peas and green beans before they were the least bit interested in apple slices, but I finally caught one. Well when you catch one, you have to do something with it, and letting it off with a stern warning doesn’t work. Believe me, I tried. I won’t go into details, but sharing the garden wasn’t working, and a shotgun was involved. Yes, I feel very conflicted about the whole affair.
I still see plenty of rabbits around the place daily, but so far these are staying on the outside of the garden. That’s all I ask. Please, gorge yourselves on clover and wildflowers, but leave me this little bit of garden. Did I finally win out over the rabbits? Or did they simply move on to tenderer and greener gleanings once the peas and beans were gone and the garden matured? To be continued next year…
I was still smarting from the rabbit rampage, when the chickens were besieged—again! I will admit right off the bat that keeping chickens is not something I’ve been very successful with. I insist on letting them free range, even though that means they are free lunch to owls, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, opossums, weasels, the neighbors’ dogs, and I’m sure a few other wild things that I have yet to become acquainted with. But since I love the rich orange-yellow yolks that come from letting the hens roam about eating bugs and plants, I persist in my tomfoolery.
So, each year, I brood a new batch of chicks to replace my losses. (Overwhelm the predators with numbers!) But this year, like every year, I tried something new hoping to defray my losses. This time, my bright idea was to spend late winter and early spring building a chicken coop on a trailer that I could shut up nightly, move about the property to fresh pasture, and cover with netting to keep the hens in and the predators out. When the new batch of chicks came out of the brooder, I moved them into the improved coop. It worked beautifully for the first four months… until just a few weeks before the hens were old enough to start laying. Weasels care not a whit about netting and can shimmy through the smallest of knot holes or cracks between the boards. Not only that, weasels love killing hens for sport. Apparently, they get a sick thrill out of knowing that the most hurtful time to attack is at the moment of maximum investment in coop and feed and just before that investment brings any return in eggs. My hen population was cut in half in a night or two.
I dragged the besieged portable coop inside my fenced yard, and retired to the “think tank” (a very cooling stock tank/summer spa) to mull things over. After a good soak and much contemplation, I decide that I would leave the dogs out in the yard at night and keep the hens within the inner circle of my yard until I had weasel-proofed the coop. I lined the coop with wire screen and hardware cloth and nailed metal flashing over any cracks I could find. Like I said, I am a stubborn woman. It has been two weeks of quiet nights since I’ve moved the coop back out into the pasture. I’m still holding my breath. Just to be sure, I’ve cranked up the incubator with a new batch of fertilized eggs… before I lose the last rooster. Over the years, I believe my rich, orange-yellow-yolked eggs have cost me only between $50 and $500 a dozen.
Despite sharing so much of my bounty with the wild things, they’ve left me plenty to eat (just not any green beans or peas or extra stewing hens this year). But I do love having those chicken-(pea-and-green-bean-)fed wild things share this place with me and fancy it a wildlife sanctuary. I am sure that in time, I will get better at protecting the hens and the garden so that I can keep more for myself. Living in such a wild space and sharing my life with these wonderful creatures is well worth the losses of veggies and hens. But this wildness, that was once so good for the bees, is increasingly threatened. I’m not so sure I’ll be able to save them. The bees are in real trouble.
When I started keeping bees here, the farms around me were pasture for cattle. My literary bee mentor and idol, Sue Hubble, who wrote A Book of Bees, would have abhorred pasture-land as poor forage for the bees. (I highly recommend her book to any would-be beekeeper.) But back then, I was also surrounded by a lot of fallow land and forest—a very good thing for bees. It was the perfect bee sanctuary, and the bees and I thrived here for several years with good harvests and very few hive losses. I slowly developed a line of bees that were resistant to the varroa mites that were causing problems for so many beekeepers. I sold bees and honey; beekeepers loved my strong, healthy bees, and everybody loved my honey. Even though I produced more honey each year, I also sold out more quickly each year as the word spread. I was beginning to think that I had it all figured out. I loved being known as the “Honey Lady.”
Things changed. Old farmers retired and sold out, or died. Absentee owners bought the land surrounding me and rented it out to row croppers. Land was cleared of native forage for corn and soybeans. Corn prices went up and more land was cleared, and more corn planted.
Corn and soybean monocropping, and all the herbicides and pesticides it requires, is slowly but surely killing my bees along with my reputation as the honey lady. This is my biggest setback, but the one I can do least about, so just have to make peace with it. We have one bee inspector for the whole state of Tennessee and my communication with him has gone unanswered. I’ve talked with the neighboring farmers and gotten nowhere. They see it as their livelihood against mine.
I start new hives every year to replace my losses and work harder than ever to keep the bees alive. The country’s beekeepers as a whole lost more than 42% of their hives last year. I was right up there with the rest of them, and it was my worst honey harvest ever. It rained for two weeks of the nectar flow, and the bees sat in their hives eating, rather than making, honey. Nearby more fields went into corn and soybeans, and the spraying stepped up. More no-till farming meant more Roundup and 2-4D. Not only that, I read a new study that says Roundup, which the farmers use tons of around here, poisons the bees at a sublethal level so that they behave as if they’ve forgotten how to forage. Great! Now on top of everything else, the bees are getting dementia!
After a long, hot day working to sling a pitiful honey harvest, I retired to my “think tank” to cool off and ponder my beekeeping dilemma. After leaving the bees plenty of honey to get through till fall foraging begins, my customer list was far longer than the line of honey jars I would bottle in the next few days. I feared that my days as a beekeeper were coming to a close. I finally decided that I would keep back an extra gallon of honey to make one more batch of mead in which to drown my sorrows and then just practice saying, “I’m sorry, the honey’s all gone for this year.”
I repeat, I am a stubborn woman (refer back to the all-but-razor-wired garden fence and armored chicken coop), and I will keep working with my bees as long as I have bees to work. But I know it is easier to fight the rabbits in the garden and the weasels in the henhouse than to fight Big Ag. The rabbits and the weasels are just taking some of my crop for themselves—after all we are sharing the same space. They aren’t killing every living thing in their wake and grubbing it all up for themselves. Maybe the bees can develop immunity to all these chemicals like the super weeds and super bugs have? Yeah, when pigs fly, but bees don’t.
I am making peace with the fact that I may lose the bees. You can fight, but you can’t win every battle. And even though the garden and henhouse took big hits this year, next year may be better; I’ll solve the old problems and be faced with new ones. But the bees are being overwhelmed.
In the past few years with the bees so besieged, I’ve started keeping myotonic goats. They are sturdy, easy keepers, and native to this area. My little herd is growing readily. These days, the goats are the bright spot on my homestead, and I’ve begun to sell the surplus kids as pets, breeding stock, and meat. It is true that they may one day make up for the losses in my honey sales, but will they ever learn how to pollinate?
Even though homesteading failures are heartbreaking, reasons to start anew and press on abound. All I have to do to be reminded of this is to stop, look, and listen. As the night closes in after a day in the garden, a gentle, cooling rain rolls across my homestead. I sit on the back porch with a glass of mead and a plate of steamed vegetables. As I eat, I look out over the pasture dotted with goats calling softly to one another as they settle into their little family groupings for the night. From the tree-line ringing the pasture, a chorus of frogs and toads sing out their celebration of the lush night. Not to be outdone, fireflies accompany the singing amphibians with a sparkling show of love lights. Dinner theatre at its finest.