A Swarm in June…

So the saying goes:

A swarm in May, a bale of hay, a swarm in June, a silver spoon, a swarm in July, not worth a fly.

In other words, if you want to capture a bee swarm, let it be June, with several months of nectar and pollen remaining before the freeze.  Then they have time to get themselves established and food stored for the long winter ahead.  At least that applies to those of us in Northern climes.

With all this in mind, and inspired by Bello Uccello’s Klaus and Shirley, there is now a swarm trap installed in one of my cherry trees.

Swarm Trap in the Cherry Tree

There are not a lot of bee hives in my direct area; however, one neighbour had three hives, and all three apparently fled the coop in November.  Which is very odd.  He believes they didn’t like the site of the hive (too damp).  They didn’t die; he saw them many times returning this Spring to take their stored honey out of the hive and carry it off to their wild lair.  They must be hardy and healthy bees, they made it through one of the toughest winters I’ve ever seen, with snow five feet deep.  Perhaps in a hollow tree somewhere in the forest.

So the swarm trap is waiting.

I saw the honeybees in early Spring when they came in droves to the blossoms of the sugar maples all around my house.  They also returned during the apple blossom season.  This year is a strange year.  Everything is late.  Many days are cold, as much as 10*C below the norms.  So I would say the bees have been challenged this Spring.

Now the comfrey is blooming.  For the past week I’ve been watching for the honeybees. But only bumblebees and other wild cousins visiting the pink blooms. Today I spotted the first scout on the comfrey.  About an acre of comfrey in bloom, I’d say that qualifies as mother lode in bee language.  As I write this the scout is probably back at the hive already, doing the bee dance, giving directions.  “Fly this far then turn right, then over the hill, and then straight up the rise.”

Comfrey Blossoms


Songbirds Find their Way Back North

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

As we have had a particularly difficult winter, which has lasted right up to the month of May more or less, the return of the songbirds is even more welcome. Thankfully there are now some insects to eat as well. Modern farm methods don’t really take the birds into much account, which is so wrong. It’s just wrong!

Apart from their beauty and song, birds are part of the intricate web of life we didn’t make, and which we disrupt at our peril! Just like the insects which so many dread. The mosquito and the black fly I could do without, but I don’t think the birds could! Which is another benefit they bring, the devouring of vicious insects, everything from blood-sucking flies to spruce budworms and the grubs which destroy the crops.

If a farm had a songbird management plan, farms would look different.  Hedgerows would return for example.  One reason the hedgerows are often ripped out is to make the fields bigger, which accommodates larger machinery.  Which is supposed to translate into efficiency.  I would say there is a huge cost to that kind of efficiency.  One book I’m currently reading is The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier.  It’s an eye-opener as to how two or three people can earn a very good living intensively working very small-scale farm operation–all while using methods which build the soil instead of tearing it down.  I’ll be doing a book review on it later!

Flycatcher Returns to the Woods

Flycatcher Returns to the Woods

The Wonders of Comfrey!


Comfrey in its Glory!

Comfrey in its Glory!

When I first arrived here, I saw several tall, lush plants with rather inconspicuous flowers.  I decided I didn’t want them to stay where they were, so I tried digging them up and moving them.  That seemed to work, until a little later when I noticed numerous other small ones sprouted up everywhere.  I tried digging those out, and the same thing happened.  Yes, it was the war of the comfrey.  For years I tried to root them out, in vain.  At last, I surrendered.  Then I noticed a few interesting things about this amazing plant.

First of all, it is a darling of hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and several other flying things, including the hummingbird moth.

Hummingbird Moth 1 copy

This was my first glimpse of this moth, and I was wishing for a better camera than my ancient point-and-shoot!

Honey Bee Working the Comfrey

Honey Bee Working the Comfrey

Since the apple blossoms dropped a couple of week ago, I have not seen many honey bees.  I don’t have my own hives, and these may well be a colony of honey bees gone feral, as there are no bee keepers in my vicinity, to my knowledge.  The bumblebees have been working the comfrey since they started to bloom in the past week.  Finally the honey bees showed up!  First one or two, then a few dozen at a time were spotted just yesterday.  This is how they work:  the scout bees find a “flow”–which could be a blossoming tree, or a comfrey patch–then they go back and communicate to the hive.  The vigour of the dance communicates the magnitude of the nectar flow.  I expect my comfrey patch has now started to generate some attention in that particular hive!  I’ll keep you posted.

In my next posts I would also like to share other positive attributes of this plant I thought was a pest, and also, the other beneficial plants of the garden which are helpful to the bees in particular.


Agricultural Alchemy

DJ and Moji inspect the cow horns

The biodynamic approach to agriculture is similar to organic agriculture, in that there are no chemicals or artificial fertilizers used.  From there, it diverges into… I’m tempted to say “outer space,” it is that different.  And I would not be too far wrong, since the constellations, especially the moon, are recognized as influencing the way things grow, the way the soil behaves, and so forth.

I am only starting to scratch the surface of biodynamic farming.  My interest started with a series of courses given at the local women’s centre by horticulturalist Rosmarie Bradley Lohnes.  My first foray into biodynamic practice was with a planting calendar.  What happened was enough to convince me that these unusual and almost ritualistic activities were not just ideas; I could not explain how what I did produced the results, but the results were there all the same.  I plan to write about my experiments using the planting calendar in later posts.  Stay tuned!

So now I am going further into it, with the “preparations.”  These are based on formulas and information offered by Rudolf Steiner during a series of agricultural lectures given in 1924.  The preparations are created to increase life in the soil and to stimulate the plants to grow in ways optimal to their particular form and purpose.  Biodynamic approaches do not see things in a merely chemical way; substances are only part of the story, along with forces.

I read about the role of natural forces, and how they come into play in powerful and sustaining ways when our work processes and materials support harmony.  For example, chemical products that kill insects and soil life are not going to engender better quality food!  Not just because they contaminate the soil and vegetables with chemicals, but because they are also working against the forces inherent in the world which work together to create more life.  The foods that are created using such things will have less to offer those who eat them.  I can grasp that concept, it makes sense to me.

My success with planting led to more understanding of the concepts behind it all.  It took a bit of reading and a workshop to get me ready to take the next step.  It all seemed very complicated at first, and I still have a great deal to learn; so many different preparations and methods that I have never encountered.  So I took it step by step.

I started thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if I had a cow?  I could really give biodynamics a try.  Wouldn’t you know it?  A cow became available, along with the funds to buy her and the help to set up fencing and housing, transportation to get her here, and even a young bull boyfriend just moved in next door!  It all happened rather fast.   So I was all set to continue on my biodynamic path, including making preparations.

Molly munches comfrey

Molly munches comfrey

One of the basic preparations is the cow horn manure.  This preparation is used to spray on the soil and increases the fertility, increases microbial activity and, in biodynamic terms, makes the soil more alive.

Basically you must take the manure from a cow–and not just any cow, it must be a cow who has had a calf and is preferably lactating–and place it inside horns–and not just any horns, they apparently should be from female cows–and bury these filled horns in the Fall.  They are then left in the ground for about six months, and dug up in the Spring.  If all goes well, the fresh dung will transform into crumbly dark compost-like material.

In reading up on the subject, I came across some articles about wineries using biodynamic methods to produce distinctive wines, from healthy vines.  One of those who converted to biodynamic methods said he tried the cow horn manure experiment, and also put some of the manure in other containers, along with the cow horns.  When dug up in the Spring, the cow horn manure had converted into crumbly, pleasant-smelling fertilizer; the manure from the other objects–such as an old shoe, a glass jar, a clay pot–had not transformed, except to become very wet, green and smelly!

So I ordered 25 horns.  The lovely Molly has had a calf at some point in the past, because I was milking her until recently.  I also chose a few non-horn objects to fill with manure and bury as well.  I buried the horns the first week in December, which is a bit later than the optimal time; I will be digging them up before six months are up.  Ideally, around the autumn equinox is a good time, marking the beginning of the cold season, and leaving a good half year to have the horns underground.  In a previous post I referenced Persephone, and the reason why the horns are buried underground in the winter.  You can read that post here.

I will present the steps involved, with the hopes that some of you will be interested in trying it!

First of all, you need to obtain cow horns.  This can be from an abattoir, or from one of the people who make it a practice to collect these horns and distribute them to biodynamic farmers.  In the U.S. the Josephine Porter Institute can tell you where to find horns.  They are also a good source of information on biodynamics.  I sourced them through a local biodynamic contact.  You can find some biodynamic farmers or gardeners in your area and ask them.

You will also need a good source of cow poop.  If you don’t have a cow, a nearby dairy or small farm with a milking cow is probably your best bet.  It should be fairly fresh, but not too liquid.

Nice Fresh Cow Poop!

Nice Fresh Cow Poop!

The hold should be about 18 inches deep (46 centimetres).  It is important to pick the right site for a hole!  Preferably on a high spot of land, where drainage is good.  If on low land, the water table might flood the horns and ruin everything.  If no high spot is available, the preferred site can be built up, and the horns buried in the mound.  They will still need to be covered by about the same amount of soil.  The quality of the soil should be decent, with good porosity and organic matter.

Hole for horns

Hole for horns

The horns need to be filed.  I used a stick to poke the contents as far into the end of the horn as I could.  You might want to enlist some help if you have a lot of horns to fill.  It took me and a friend about 45 minutes to fill 25 horns.

Filling the horns

Filling the horns

Place the horns in the hole with the open end facing down.  That way, the surface water draining down will not fill the horns with moisture.

Place the horns

Place the horns

II also chose to replicate the experiment of the wine expert, by filling a few objects of varied composition, such as a glass jar, a hollow bone and a clay pot.

Control experiment!

Control experiment!

Control Object

Control Object

Now we are ready to bury the horns, but not before Chief Inspector DJ makes sure the job has been well done!

Dj gives the okay before the horns are buried

Dj gives the okay before the horns are buried

Here we are in January.  The horns have had almost two months buried in the earth by now.  I wonder what’s happening?  I plan to dig them up around the end of April.  Hopefully we will have a better Spring than last year, which was exceedingly wet.  And we can see for ourselves if a transformation has happened under the blankets of ice and snow!

Winter in Hades

Solstice Sunset

December Sunset

Experimenting with biodynamic practices includes doing some things that are a bit off the beaten agricultural path, such as filling cow horns with manure and burying them.  The cow horns full of manure are fermenting underground as I write, under a layer of snowy white.  More on that in a post soon to come!  There is a reason the cow horns are buried in the Fall, as opposed to the Spring; they need to be underground during the dark winter months.  Why? you ask. Rudolf Steiner made the observation that in the summer “life forces” are strongly focused above ground, and in the winter, things reverse.  So in winter, there is much activity under that blanket of snow, and the soil forces are most powerful.  Powerful enough to transform fresh manure buried in cow horns; hopefully in Spring we shall see if the experiment was successful!  I’ll be sure to document the results.

In winter, the underground life, the soil forces, are more active.  The Greek myths tell us about the abduction of Persephone by Hades, borne away into the underground.  But for her mother’s persistent love, and the ability of Hermes to negociate, there would be no reprieve!  However, in Spring, she is allowed to come back to the world of light and brings that living activity.  Persephone, the mythological goddess daughter of Demeter/Mother Earth, is spending her days underground, very much alive but out of sight.

Here in Nova Scotia, we have just come through several weeks of arctic cold, which is unusual for here.  Another snowstorm hit yesterday.  Working around the farm, I see some life in the form of animals; the farm animals and also wild birds looking for seeds and other things to eat.  The woods, the plants that are above ground, seem to be asleep.  I take it for granted they are alive, but they don’t show much by way of life signs at the moment.  They are silent and still.  Except when being whipped about by wintry winds.  It’s hard to imagine the world of summer, the bursting green fertility that can’t be held back. Right now, I see a world that is dreaming. At least on the surface.  I see a world hunkered down against the cold.  Waiting it out.  Awaiting the release of Persephone once again.


Winter is near, days are short. The good news is that in a few weeks the days will be lengthening again! There are a few apples left on this late tree. It’s an heirloom apple that was planted long before I came here, and I am not sure what kind it is. It does ripen late, and the apples will keep in storage until March or April. Before that it’s not that tasty. It may be what some locally call a “Christmas apple,” presumably because it is good to eat about that time, but not before.

Learning About Pollinators

In late September I was working around in the vegetable patch, and wondering if my squash plants would mature fruit before the frost, when I was struck by the amazingly loud hum of insects nearby. A number of years ago I had planted rapini and probably mustard greens of some kind. Lots of it went to seed and every year thousands of the plants sprout up in the Spring. If they are not in the way I just let them do their thing, and their thing means blooming and going to seed and starting more plants. So they have become an established resident of the vegetable patch, and I get to eat the greens from May to October, without even having to sow a seed.  They are delicious, and their bright yellow blooms add a cheerful note all season long.

I have now discovered that these brassica family plants produce lots of nectar, and letting them flower and go to seed is a boon to the native pollinators, and honeybees.

Like everyone else, I’ve been hearing about the demise of the bees, and I’ve done some reading into the problems with modern beekeeping, not to mention pesticide use. I’ve been thinking of bees for some time, with the idea to have honey bees here on the farm in future.

Well, the bees are already here! This photo is not great, I don’t have a macro lens. These were the little creatures making the buzz in the rapeseed. Honeybees with arrows

What an exciting discovery!

There are not a lot of houses in the area, and no bee keepers within honey bee range, so I assume these are honey bees from a wild hive. They may have swarmed from some distant hive, perhaps more than once. Apparently there is a significant population of feral honey bees now thriving in the wilds of Nova Scotia.

So next year I will be planting rapeseed on purpose, and sowing it in scattered patches far and wide on the property and in wild meadows. The reason I think this plant is so special for the bees, apart from the fact it produces a lot of nectar, is that it blooms and re-seeds, so there are blooms available from June to October. I plan to sow the seeds every few weeks to keep a good number of blooms going. The only reason I noticed the honey bees was that in October there are very few things blooming here. These bright yellow flowers were one of the only blooming plants available. So on every bright day when the sun warmed things up enough to encourage the bees to get out, they came right to this and one other late patch of rapeseed.

And not only bees showed up! There were other wild pollinators thriving and making the most of the last nectar. I took the time to do a little research, and was able to identify four species of bumblebee, drone flies (they look like bees but are actually flies), mason bees, yellow jacket hornets, and several types of wasp… all highly beneficial insects essential to pollination. I was surprised to learn that many of these native pollinators are even more effective than honey bees in the pollination game. By planting lots of flowers, by letting things go to seed and letting patches of the garden go wild, we will help these beneficial insects do their job. Later I will post on specific plants to grow for the benefit of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and all the other pollinators.

Will I Die if I Eat This?

1999 vintage jam1999 vintage jam bottle copy

I found a bottle of berry preserves on the shelf of my cold room–dating from 1999! Probably the first batch I made here at Turtle Hill. The seal was still well intact, and I had a french pastry crying out for something dark and intense, so I popped the lid. Looks good, smells good, tastes…great! I’ll let you know if it kills me!