Thoughts on the little things

Surrounded by wilderness, I am a person of small places. A rural person. It is enough to know that there are sheer cliffs nearby, long hiking trails, talus slopes, alpine lakes and meadows. But I am a person of fields, small shaws, marshes, creeks, ditches, meadows and farmyards.

There are parts of this land I “own” that I’ve gotten to know well. Take the garden, for example. The gardens, I should say. Hand-digging the thistle roots in year one was no fun, but I had four children and one reluctant wife to help. A fine loamy soil with sandy subsoil made me think I’d never need to “improve” it. Dandelions, chickweed and wild grasses thought the same. I think that most of the soil aggregates may remember my footprints, and my knee impressions made during 20+ years.

And the insects. I know few names. I do know that we have probably the world’s largest population per square metre of predatory ground beetles. “Eat, eat, eat,” abjure them, and apparently they do. But they do not eat slugs. Toads eat slugs, I am told, so I try to entice toads to the garden. No luck. I make little toad houses out of old flower pots, I put shallow saucers of water nearby so they can soak to their little skins’ content, but the only toads I see are in one of three places (none in the garden): 1) squashed on the gravel road, 2) sitting in the overflow creosote pan from the chimney where he will await discovery in another geological age, perfectly preserved and 3) in the outlet pipe from the sump pump.

That last one gives me hope. Maybe she (or he) will gulp the slugs. She does, but I count at night and there are 54 slugs within a few hops of her refuge so why should she imperil herself with a trip to the garden?

New neighbours

And then there are bees. We’re told over and over again that without the (non-native, domesticated) honey bee, we couldn’t begin to grow enough food due to poor pollination. That may be true for large vineyards and orchards and drastically-modified ecosystems, but here we do just fine, thank you, with our native bees: bumble, mason or whatever.

We love to see them work the apple trees in spring and the sunflowers in fall. We grieve with the bumblers when their slowed-down metabolism keeps them hunkered down overnight in a cup-shaped late bloomer. We rejoice with them when they stir in the morning sun, even if the rebirth is only temporary.

And now this year, we will have honey bees. When I drove down the road last week, I saw something strange. In the field just on the other side of the driveway, behind the lilac hedge, was a new building of sorts. Where did this come from? I got out of the car to look: it was a well-framed building with heavy page-wire sides, a tarpaulin roof, a door and insulators for electric fence wires.

Although the building was mostly on the neighbour’s side of the line, I wondered if my wife had commissioned someone to make me a free-range chicken or turkey coop. After some calling around, I discovered that it was a bee yard. It belongs to someone I have known for many years and whose children I had taught in school.

The next time the beekeeper came he brought the bees. We talked a bit about them, what “supers” are, and I admitted my ignorance about beekeeping. After stocking his hives the sun came out, workers milled around and Henry stood grinning with satisfaction. As we talked and watched together Henry got stung twice. He said he didn’t think he’d die.

I wonder about all of this: Will these new bees compete with the natives? Is there enough to share? Will the bears be scared off by our golden retriever, Rufus Barbaricus? Will the electric fence work? Will I find a swarm in my garage? (What is a swarm?)

This summer I’ll be learning from the beekeeper (and from my observations) some things about honey (and other) bees. Not in the threatened rain-forest of Brazil or even on top of the local ski hill, but here, on my “own little piece of land,” a wilderness in its own right.

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