Urban Farming: Beekeeping Can Be Friggin' Annoying

Church of the Pilgrims started its apiary, or honeybee yard, about four years ago. We have a beekeeper, Jeff Miller, who started DC Honeybees, who helps keep our hives healthy and alive. I fell in love with the bees, beekeeping, the role they play in our ecosystem, and their liturgical symbolism in congregational life. I've written several articles about honeybees at Pilgrims: here, here and here. When we moved into a new house two years ago, I decided to get my own hive for our backyard. Goal: have Jeff as the beekeeper for my home hive and build the best backyard honeybee hive ever! Image: I'll have honey flowing all over the place and create Etsy like mason jars with cute "Nelson Street Garden and Apiary" labels. Piece of cake!

Except that beekeeping can be friggin' annoying. I can write all I want about the sacred symbolism of honeybees and their vulnerability from human created colony collapse disorder. And, at many times, I can get downright greedy for honey.

The first year my queen flew the coop after a spring time swarm and that messed up the production of the hive.

This year my bees made it through the horrendous winter with the help of a couple of 1975 sleeping blankets my kids lovingly placed over the hive for warmth.

In March, I was convinced my hive was the last one standing on the East Coast. THIS WILL BE THE YEAR OF HONEY! My bees NAILED IT! Take THAT Colony Collapse Disorder!

I put two honey supers on top of the two big boxes so my backyard could turn into a river of honey. I keep clover growing in our backyard, I planted borage and the cover crop, buckwheat. All are loved by bees.

In this area, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, honey flow is in June and then again in September. So, a few weeks ago I check my hive and no honey in the supers.

WTF.

I had a swarm in May. Did the queen again fly the coop? Did the queen die? A queen is essential for the health and growth of the hive.

Sigh.

I called Jeff, my beek, who is now Interim Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development for  D.C. (I like my beekeeper to roll in high places) and he came out this  morning to check. Still no honey.  I see the empty supers and want to process with Jeff---"But why? Why no honey? What happened to the queen? Why is my hive lame? Should I have checked the hive more? Given them more attention?"

I want answers.

Jeff hits the limit of knowledge with me and comes back with, "Not sure. I'll get you a new queen" as he gathers up his equipment. He knows the hive has a life of its own, humans can only do so much, and you just forge ahead.

Beekeeping can be friggin' annoying because I'm not in complete control of my hive. Romanticizing bees and a honey flow doesn't help either. I can be attentive to the hive, do the checks, put out water for them, and feed them sugar water in the early spring season for food. Ultimately I have to wait on the bees to do their work, and the waiting sucks.  I can feel unbeatable but, well, the hive isn't about me. The bees are in charge. I hit a setback and go forward. Humility arises in this sacred endeavor of beekeeping.

Urban Farming: Plants are Political

How gorgeous is this? Native plants creating texture, color, light, and shadows.
How gorgeous is this? Native plants creating texture, color, light, and shadows.

The day of the native ornamental is drawing near.  ---Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home

Historically, gardens were intentional, artificial, human creations loaded with exotic plants. Exotic introductions were (and still are) plants that are brought from outside the local landscape and imposed on the natural landscape.  The exotic species of plants had the aggressive ability to colonize, displace, and disrupt the original community of plants.

Meaning, the outsider/exotic plants would be plants then take over the original, native plants and disrupt the natural ecosystem of the land that the native plants were creating and sustaining.

Image: White Europeans coming to North America and dumping their exotics into Native American land and trashing their crop landscape with foreign plants. Native plants were seen, or constructed, as unwanted plants.

Colonization of land.

What's an exotic plant? A plant that did not occur naturally in that particular area (example: Chesapeake Bay Watershed) and was brought to and planted into the ground by human agency.

A native plant is defined by Douglas Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, in this way:  "a plant can only function as a true native while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it."

Butterfly weed plant: Monarch can eat nectar, lay eggs. Life cycle on one plant.
Butterfly weed plant: Monarch can eat nectar, lay eggs. Life cycle on one plant.

For example, many garden plants are nectar supplies for bees and butterflies, few are able to be a breeding host ground for native insects, or beneficials. A butterfly weed is an example of a plant where the monarch butterfly can get food and lay eggs--using this plant as host for its complete life cycle.

A native plant is essential to a garden's eco-system, and it can be of great value when the plant has a connection with the geographical area where it was planted. Biodiversity depends on native plants for food, shelter and living space for birds, insects and animals, All depend on indigenous plants.

In my garden at home and at Church of the Pilgrims, native plants dominate the landscape.  Native plants have gone into the ground as food for our honeybees.  Native plants invite the beneficial insects that chomp away on the insects that can create chaos in the garden.

Garden can look like, and be, individual endeavors. I have my garden in my house. Pilgrims has its garden on its land. My favorite farm, Red Wiggler Farm, uses native plants as part of its organic agricultural ways. On the surface they appear as separate from each other.

But our gardens and farms are connected and political in nature---building a community of healthy bugs in the soil, creating homes for insects and animal life, retaining water through bioretention or controlling natural water run off through plantings.

Mexican Feather Grass--one of my favorite native plants.
Mexican Feather Grass--one of my favorite native plants.

Plants are political. Gardens are a communal endeavor, even if separated by neighborhood and a river. Gardens are more than creating a Martha Stewart, well manicured beauty-for-the-eye only experience. Plants are part of our ecosystem and, like humans, can disrupt, destroy, and dominate an already existing cycle of life.

Native plants extend the story of creation---they are an invitation to see the web of political life, the human and the non-human. And create beauty that persists.