Why You Should Care About California’s Drought, Even If You Don’t Live In California

No one can overstate the incredible seriousness of California’s drought. There have been signs dotting the I-5 freeway, a freeway that traverses the central corridor of California, for a few years now blaming congress for California’s “dust bowl.”

The California drought is incredibly serious. California’s dust bowl isn’t the result of decisions made by congress but it is an issue that warrants political and community discussion. Water is scarce in California and it should make more than a few ears perk up.

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The Central Valley, which has the reputation of being California’s most “fertile” farmland is actually a desert that has been irrigated by delta water and aqueducts in order to force food to grow. It is a terribly inefficient use of water. For more than a century, we have cultivated the hottest and dryest part of California in order to feed California and the rest of the United States. For many, many years, this technique has been working.

This year may very well mark the year that growing food in the desert of the Central Valley is no longer an option. California is running out of water. And soon, the United States may be running out of food.

According to California’s government agriculture website, “California’s agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, US consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.” In other words, one out of two of every fresh fruit, nut, or vegetable that you put into your mouth came from California. Much of your favorite produce, like an artichoke or a basket of grapes, are grown primarily or solely in California. They’re delicious and they may soon be gone. If we can’t grow it, you can’t eat it.

As a resident Californian, I’m doing my part. If it’s yellow, I let it mellow. My household and I have cut our water usage by at least 40% this year and we were not big water users to begin with.  I was impressed to see that almost every Californian has let their lawn go brown. But, for many urban and suburban people, the loss of their lawn has also meant the loss of household gardens and the death of urban fruit trees.  Water is in short supply and California’s abundant food supply is shrinking in unthinkable ways.

Lake Oroville  (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Lake Oroville (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Unfortunately, for food production in the US, it’s not enough for Californians to simply stop flushing their toilets for number one. It’s not enough to stop watering lawns or take shorter showers. Nearly 80% of water usage in California goes towards growing food. Nearly 80% of water usage in California is agricultural. The dispersement of water usage in California needs a creative makeover.

But water conservation also needs the help of the people. We need the rest of the United States to get involved. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Stop buying bottled water, especially from Nestle. Bottled water comes from clean, natural resources, usually at the expense of the taxpayer and almost always at the expense of the greater good. Nestle has a water packaging plant on the Sacramento Delta River, one of the most important watering holes for California Agriculture. There have been protests staged at Nestle water plants but there are no signs of them discontinuing their water grab. If consumers stopped buying Nestle water, it could help.
  1. Advocate for farmers and big-ag to use more water-efficient mechanisms when watering crops. Be a champion for farmers and help them to use new technology. Help farmers access new technology by advocating for tax breaks and grants when farmers switch to water-saving mechanisms.
  1. Support small farmers and eat local. Eat what your local farmers grow. Avocados are amazing. I won’t lie to you. Avocados are one of California’s greatest and most delightful exports. But they are usually grown in large, industrial settings, like almonds and many other crops. And they aren’t grown in most of the rest of the United States. Small farms and farmers use less water than industrial farms and large-scale farmers. Many small farmers use their own wells and water and have technology in place to conserve. Talk to the farmers in your neighborhood and eat what they grow.

The California Drought is something that every American should be worried about and it is something that every American can do something about.  Please help us.

Good Dirt: Part 2

If someone had told me ten years ago that one day I would be thankful for a steaming pile of horse shit, I probably would have thought that the person was being very mean. Yet here I am today. I am totally thankful for the steaming pile of horse shit (and goat turds and alpaca poop and worm castings etc.) that is the smelly pile of healthy, organic dirt I had delivered to my driveway.

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Good dirt is amazing. It smells good in a weird, earthy-farmy way. It’s dank, dark and beautiful. It has the appearance of moisture and health, even when it’s dry. Good dirt is complex.

Bad dirt is easy. It’s easy to understand. Every gardener knows when they have bad dirt. The ground feels hard, and it’s hard to dig into. The dirt looks ugly, often clumpy. It’s usually light, dry and cracked. Sometimes it smells funny. Weeds thrive in bad dirt but vegetables and flowers are weak and wilted and never have much success.

I know bad dirt. The native red clay in my region is perfect for building cob homes. It’s terrible for growing vegetables. The native soil can be hard to nourish or replenish. The history of the Gold Rush in California didn’t exactly leave the land in a good condition.

I live in the Sierra Foothills, just a few miles from the historic Empire Mine. According to the California State Parks District, “between 1850 until its closure in 1956, the Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold and 367 miles (591km) of underground passages.” Basically, there is a vast network tunnels under my house and below our town that, if stretched end to end, would measure about the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (Or, if you are more familiar with Europen geography, the tunnels would stretch a little more than the distance from Paris, France to Frankfurt, Germany.) This fact sort of terrifies me.

Unfortunately, gold wasn’t the only thing that the Empire Mine produced. When the mine excavated all of those tunnels, sorted out the gold, and pulled out all of that dirt, it also pulled out arsenic, iron and mangenese. Subsequently, a lot of the land in the foothills is contaminated from the history of mining. Where arsenic isn’t detectable in the soil, iron and mangenese may be present and creating an environment inhospitable to gardening. For much of the people living in the Sierra, good dirt is hard to find.

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We have regularly done soil tests and, while we haven’t found any detectable contaminents, our PH isn’t great and our nitrogen levels are unbelievably low. I honestly can’t believe we had so many tomatoes last year.

Good Dirt: Part 1

The dirt in my backyard is hardened clay. It’s terrible. Not only can I not grow anything in it, I can hardly stick a shovel in the ground on a wet day. I’ve been trying to reform my soil for two years and nothing has helped. I finally gave up and ordered good dirt. Good dirt is like gold.

My dirt arrived today. It came in an F450 Dump Truck. I think I could smell the dirt before I heard the truck pull up to my house.

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I ordered the amount of dirt based on the measurements of my raised beds. They told me that 2.5 cubic yards should do it. Then they told me that the delivery fee goes down the more dirt that a customer orders. 2.5 cubic yards and 4.0 cubic yards costs nearly the same amount because the delivery fee gets reduced. I went with 4.0 cubic yards. I had no idea what 4.0 cubic yards of dirt would look like. I might have over done it.

I’m used to hauling things down to my garden. My friend Eldon delivered wood chips to my next door neighbor and we shared them. I had to walk up my steep driveway and down the street to pick up the chips and wagon them back to my garden. It me took nearly 30 trips and it was exhausting.

The dirt guy delivered the pile of dirt right next to my garden. I thought that filling my raised beds, hauling dirt from the side of my driveway into the garden, was going to be easy. It turns out that dirt can be a lot heavier than wood chips. I might have over committed.

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Even though the dirt is heavy, and hauling it isn’t any fun, I keep thinking about the rewards. The dirt I ordered is really good dirt.

I ordered exactly what the dirt store recommended. I told them, “I’m just growing vegetables.” (It’s an important clarification for Nevada County. For a small town area, we have an abundance of dirt stores. And it’s not because everyone is growing vegetables.) They understood my request and I took their recommendation.

The dirt they gave me is mulchy and feathery and dark. It smells like a combination of hot days on a farm and a good, long hike. I’m sure that there will be some city folk who can’t relate, but for us country folk, the smell of good dirt is absolute heaven.

I know that this is going to be a different world for me. I know that good dirt was necessary.

Raised Beds: Part 2

My mom is here visiting from Mexico for my birthday and for Easter. She asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I didn’t have to think long or hard about it.

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“Could we go to the hardware store and pick up some lumber?” I asked.

“You want lumber for your birthday?” She looked at me.

“I want raised garden beds.” I replied.

My mom is a really good mom. She has usually gone along with my off-the-wall ideas and has generally supported me in my crazy endeavors. She didn’t say a word or judge me. She just took me to the hardware store. It wasn’t until we parked the car at the hardware store that she asked me, “Do you even know how to make raised beds?”

I honestly had no idea how to make raised beds. I had seen the ones at the local high school and thought to myself, “How hard could it be?” I knew that the hardware store had a lumber yard and I knew that they would cut boards to the demensions I specified. (I have to give a shout out to B&C Hardware in Grass Valley, CA. Their customer service is stellar. I have taken on several home projects that would not have been completed or successful without them.)

Before we left for the hardware store, I had gone out into my garden and measured my existing beds. They were about 3 feet by 10 feet and I would need 2-inch by 2-inch pegs for the corners measuring the height of the boards. When I explained everything to the guys in the lumber yard, it felt like I was speaking Greek. I was sure they wouldn’t understand me. Boards come in certain sizes. So while I needed a certain size for myself, the lumber guys needed to figure out how to charge me and which size boards they were going to sell me and how each board should be cut. After about 5 minutes of notes and conversation, the guys and I were on the same page.

My mom and I left the hardware store with several flowers and with 10-foot long boards strappped precariously to the roof of her car. It’s a miracle we all made it home safely.

I know how to use a drill and have used a drill to assemble IKEA furniture. I had never really taken on actual lumber to build something. With IKEA furniture, the holes for the screws are usually pre-drilled so the only thing you need to use the drill for is screwing in screws. It requires a simple phillips head bit.

I just figured I could put a galvanized screw into a piece of wood and screw it in. I was wrong. I actually had to go to the shed and get out my partner’s box of drill bits. I had to drill a hole into the wood before a screw could go into it.

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I picked the drill bit measuring 9/64, not because that was the right drill bit exactly, but because that was the bit that looked like it would work. I thought to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen? I drill a hole that’s too big and I have to pick a different bit and drill a new one. Big deal.” The 9/64 bit was fine.

I am not exactly skilled but I am occasionally fearless, and that occasional fearlessness has served me far better than any sensibility I possess.

After about two hours of drilling and screwing and leveling dirt, I had myself two very nice looking raised beds. I liked them so much that I went back to the hardware store the next day and bought the materials to make three more. Now I have five raised beds in my garden.

The dirt is coming tomorrow.

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Raised Beds: Part 1

I have been adamantly opposed to raised beds. I wanted to be a steward of the earth. I wanted to make the soil better. I wanted to care for my plot of land and tend to it.

I’m not sure why I got it in my head that I was supposed to put up with my terrible, clay soil, and toil year after year to try and make my soil into something it’s not.

Last year we dug holes into our planting beds. We decided to plant vegetables and we filled the holes with organic compost, treating the plants that went into the holes as though they were in pots. They didn’t produce.

I have heard every anecdote about soil amendments and I have tried every remedy. I tried adding piles of moldy leaves and working them into the soil. I tried to add ground-up pine bark. (We have plenty of that stuff up here in the foothills.) I tried to add steer manure and horse poop and chicken poop. I added compost and coffee grounds and tiny ground-up pieces of oak. I have tried everything sensible. My partner and I have worked and re-worked our soil. We have made zero progress.

For the past few weeks, I have been walking by the local continuation high school and noticing the changes they have made in their “garden.”

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The “garden” at the local school used to be a south-facing dead lawn, full of risomal crab grass and a small field of over-grown weeds. A few weeks ago, the school started digging up parts of the lawn. It looked like a misguided science project. They totally killed the lawn. It looked like shit.

Then they put in raised beds. They put in raised beds on top of their shitty, dug-up, dead lawn. The kids at the high school made these weird 7×3 boarders with wood slabs about 10 inches high. The raised beds were improvised and derelict. They looked shoddy at best.

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Then they added dirt to the beds. And vegetable starts. And suddenly they looked better than anything that I have ever seen. I was completely and utterly jealous.

A Prayer for Green Tomatoes

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Now that fall’s upon us,

And hotter days have passed,

It’s time for me to pick you,

A summer just can’t last.

 

I’m sorry you’re not riper,

I’m sorry you’re still green,

I had wished you much more sunshine,

The shade was unforeseen.

 

The walnut tree grew bushy,

The cherry tree grew tall,

And suddenly your sunny bed,

Seemed dark and oh so small.

 

Still I pushed you through the summer,

With hope and fingers crossed,

But now the days are chilly,

And hope is all but lost.

 

So I pick you with my sorrow,

You’re compost, yes, I fear,

I wish for you more sunlight,

And better luck next year.

 

But wait! A silver lining!

There’s a chutney recipe?

Fear not my green tomatoes!

I’ve found your destiny!

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Inappropriate Vegetables

This is the time of year when all gardeners commit the same crime: we get busy and walk away from our gardens. I mean, come on. It’s summer, right? We did all that weeding in the spring and all that seeding and all that planting. We’ve been keeping an eye out all season. We have collected tomatoes and cucumbers and basil. We have brought in zucchini and eggplant on a regular basis. Some of us may have even made pickles or tomato sauce. It’s time for a break, right?

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Every time I leave my garden for any length of time, I come back to inappropriate vegetables. Every gardener knows what I’m talking about. It’s as if the vegetables have a sense of humor. Most of us find our inappropriate vegetables in the zucchini section of the garden. We leave for a few days and come back to a zucchini that is so huge it makes the kindest of women blush and the toughest of men turn their heads.

Here is what I found today. (The pencil is to show proportion.):

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But the carrots get in on it too:

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 I have seen a number of inappropriate vegetables that bring a number of things to mind. But the truth is that, even though there are many vegetables in this world that are, (ahem), misshapen, they are still edible. And there are lots of people who go hungry. So even if some of your vegetables might be a little inappropriate, please remember that your local churches, soup kitchens, food banks and pantries are still happy to take them.  (Even if you are hesitant to eat them.)

City Mice

There are few things more beautiful than an organic farm in the first few days of summer. My nieces are visiting from the Bay Area and I had the privilege to take them to Mountain Bounty Farm this morning. They are 12- and 13-years-old and got up early today to volunteer their time with the Gold Country Gleaners.

We got to Mountain Bounty Farm at 7:45am, just when the cool air had all but worn off. There were butterflies touching their noses to yellow flowers and bees bowing to bolted broccoli. It was breath-taking.

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My nieces are definitely “city mice” but they are not totally ignorant about country ways and where their food comes from. My nieces have spent enough time with us in the country, and have spent many days on local farms while visiting us here in Nevada County. They like the country and they love to visit farms. Today was no exception.

The girls and I spent the morning picking vegetables with, Clif Mackinlay, another Gleaners volunteer. The owner of Mountain Bounty Farm, John Tecklin, and his skilled farm managers, are great at preparing the fields for succession planting so that the farm’s CSA and market customers always have the best of the best and a wide variety of veggies, lettuce and herbs. The fields were filled with a variety of greenery.

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I laughed when the 12-year-old, Mariana, said today, “Auntie, this plant smells like pickles.” She was standing next to a wispy-leafed plant with big, yellow sprigs of flowers. She thought for a moment and asked, “Is this dill?”

It sure was. “Yep!” I said. “Nice plant identification!”

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Mountain Bounty Farm is in full swing right now but many of the cruciferous vegetables out at the farm are in their last days. For Mountain Bounty and their customers, they have had their fill of vegetables like cabbage and bok choy; they are now moving onto other varieties that are more in season.

Vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy grow better in the late winter and early spring up here in the Sierra Foothills. With summer upon us, things like and cabbage and bok choy are starting to bolt. The CSA and market customers have delightfully gotten the cream of the crop (quite literally) but there were still some very nice cabbages and lots of bok choy left in the field. That’s where gleaning comes in.

The concept of gleaning dates back to before the Christian bible was written. In other parts of the world, gleaning has been a staple of consistent community service for centuries. In Nevada County, our most organized efforts have taken place in the past few years. Last year, we really took off. Last year alone, we donated more than five tons of food to local organizations. The Gold Country Gleaners have been called out to orchards, homesteads, farms and gardens to help with gathering and donating food.

I’m not sure how effective my nieces and I were in the field at Mountain Bounty today. I cut heads of cabbage away from the roots with my knife and tossed them to the girls who ran the cabbages back to boxes up the hill. I think we probably looked more like we were running a P.E. drill than like we were farming.

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Pulling the bok choy and helping Clif with things like fennel and lettuce proved even more of a mess. As we tried to separate the plants from their strong roots, we found ourselves covered in dirt and often times holding leaves and stalks, rather than a whole bunch. Still, we worked hard and eventually came up with nearly twenty boxes of veggies to take to our local food pantries.

Clif Mackinlay had a much easier time than the three of us. He is a skilled harvester and is much more patient than a couple of teenaged-girls and their auntie. I watched him as he carefully harvested lettuce and a green, leafy vegetable related to bok choy. He had large stalks of fennel and several boxes filled with neatly picked greens.

We agreed that my nieces and I would go to the San Juan Ridge Family Resource Center to drop off some produce and then to the Interfaith Food Ministry in Grass Valley. Clif would go to the Salvation Army, Hospitality House, and then to the Nevada County Food bank.

Altogether, the Gold Country Gleaners donated about 50 boxes of food and several work-hours to help feed the hungry in Nevada County today. We served several non-profits and made sure that our food pantries were stocked.

 My nieces were happy to help and they had a great time. I’m glad that we all had a nice day out on the farm.

Dumpster Diving

I complain a lot about money. There just doesn’t ever seem to be enough of it. Right now, we need new tires for the car. We have to buy special food for the cats to prevent bladder infection. We are hosting our nieces this week and want to spoil them. The list goes on. I’m sure you have you own list.

There have been a lot of close calls for us this past year. Our 2013 holiday season was slim pickins. There were a few bills this year that we had to pay late. But, all things considered, we do okay.

I saw a man today in my community, in Grass Valley, picking out food from the garbage. He was older, with short hair and bifocal glasses. He hadn’t shaved in a few days but his clothes looked clean and he had a hopeful smile on his face. He was rummaging through some yellowish broccoli placed in bags outside of the Interfaith Food Ministry, on its way to the dumpster. I was making a food delivery, a large donation of organic vegetables. The man passed me on his way back to his car. I handed him some carrots and beets.

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The Interfaith Food Ministry (IFM) is a United Way partner organization and just one of a handful of different food pantries in Nevada County. I’m not sure why the man decided to go through the garbage instead of waiting in line. Mondays are a distribution day for the IFM. Maybe he had already used their services and wasn’t yet eligible for another dispersion.

IFM is operated by volunteers and provides food to those in need. They are working to be able to give clients food on a weekly basis but, right now, they only have the resources to provide food every-other-week. Their website indicates that, “Everyone needs a little help now and then. IFM distributes nutritious food to individuals and families who are struggling to make ends meet. We are open at our 440 Henderson Street, GV, location every [Monday, Wednesday and Friday] from 10 am – 1 pm. Each individual or family may receive community donated food one time every two weeks regardless of immigration status.”

The Gold Country Gleaners, an organization that I volunteer with, brings food to the Interfaith Food Ministry every Monday morning during the summer, and as often as possible in the off-season months. Our volunteers pick up organic vegetables from Mountain Bounty Farm and deliver it to several locations, including the IFM. When I got to their doors this morning, at about 9:50am, ten minutes before the doors opened for distribution, there was a line that stretched the entire length of the building and spilled out into the parking lot. There had to be at least 100 people waiting. That’s when I saw the man go through the garbage.

Last year, in an interview for a local newsletter, I said, “No one in Nevada County should have to go hungry. We are a place of kindness and abundance with many, many opportunities to grow and harvest food. With community support and helping hands, all of the food grown in Nevada County could be harvested. All of the food could be eaten. Everyone in our community should be fed.”

Shortly after delivering vegetables this morning, on my drive home, I saw my neighbors in their garden working to pull weeds amongst chard and kale. From the street I could see their tall tomato vines and a few pepper plants. I’m a gardener myself and have been startled to see ripening tomatoes and peppers already this season.

In the heat of summer and with a thriving garden, it is easy to forget that there are people very much in need in our community. Even with the incredible efforts of our food pantries and our non-profit organizations who spend countless volunteer hours to try and help those in need, we still have people in our community who need help.

I complain about money and wish that I had more of it. I’m very cautious about what I buy. We count our pennies every moment in my household. Still, I have never been without shelter and I have never been without food. I have never had too look in the garbage for my next meal.

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 I do a lot of volunteer work in my community. But I know that there are still so many people in need. The next time you are in the grocery store, please drop something off in the many collection bins at the front of the store. Even if it is just one extra thing. A little bit can go a long way.

 

 

 

 

Magic Bees

Beekeeping isn’t what it used to be. If you ask any old-timer in the beekeeping business, he or she will tell you that, in the past ten years, beekeeping has become much, much harder. It used to be fairly easy. Not too long ago, a beekeeper could throw bees into a hive in March, add an extra box (called a super) in May or June, and walk away until August when it was time to harvest the honey. That’s just not the case anymore.

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Bees are struggling. Between disease, pesticides and mites, entire honey bee colonies are dying en masse. Much of the bio diversity that bees desire for food, and need for a balanced diet, has either been covered in Round Up, or is gone, after pollution and over-use of the land have left fields barren.

Bees rely on a revolving door of forage for their food. They will travel 2-3 miles from their hives to find the nectar and pollen that they want. Here in the Sierra Foothills, bees usually start with the manzanita, then move onto the stone fruit blossoms and wildflowers, then the blackberries and so on through the summer until the star thistle in the fall. With the increase of radical weather, many of the flowers that bees used to rely on for sustenance have become scarce or have started blooming at the wrong time. This year, the stone fruit trees flowered February after a heat spell. The wildflowers started coming up in March. Then it snowed in April.

Today, if you pass a yard of beehives along a country road, you are likely to see upside-down mason jars on top of the hives. Beekeepers who wish to keep their bees alive have started to feed them sugar water as a supplement for when the usual nectar flow has dried up.

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I lost my last two hives at the end of 2012. After several weeks of very cold weather, and some snow, we had a few mild days. When the thermometer hit 74 on December 27th, all the bees left the hive to look for food and “use the bathroom”. (Bees won’t go in their hive.) Since nothing was blooming and there was nothing to eat, the bees starved and the colony became weak and died. If I had been a better beekeeper, I would have put pollen patties in the hives to give the bees something to help them though the winter. Some lessons are harder than others.

We didn’t buy more bees because we knew that we would be relocating. I didn’t want to start a new yard and have to move it. I didn’t really clean out the frames or bother to remove the wax. Sometimes wax moths will come into a hive and lay eggs, creating an infestation. We get enough days of freezing that, as long as the equipment is kept outside, it’s not really a problem. I kept my eye on the equipment.

We moved in July of last year and I piled up the beekeeping equipment next to the shed when we moved in. It stayed there until last week, when I finally started to clean up all stuff we had piled up next to the shed: tomato cages, bee boxes, gopher wire, irrigation equipment, planting pots etc.

Last week, I went through all of my beekeeping equipment. I checked the frames for moths and mold. Everything looked good. There was even a little honey left. I moved the bee boxes against the fence under the fig tree and set up a hive just to see how it would look. I wasn’t really sure about the location but it was a good temporary home for the boxes until I could find a permanent place to put them and get ready for bees next year.

I have made a significant effort to plant bee-friendly flowers in my garden this year. I have been planting native flowers along with some culinary plants that bees enjoy. I wanted to be prepared for when the bees get here. I want my garden to be healthy for the pollinators.

Yesterday was the third day of a heat spell. During this time of year, if beekeepers don’t regularly check on their beehives, and add extra boxes to make more room, the bees will hatch a new queen and the hive will split into two—the new queen will stay behind with half the colony and the established queen will travel with the other half of the colony to find a new home. When the queen and half the colony leave, this is called a swarm, an image popularized by Winnie the Pooh as a cloud of traveling bees.

Yesterday afternoon, my orange cat was outside on the porch and started to meow like crazy. He is usually pretty vocal but this was something different. When I opened the door, he darted to the edge of the porch and sat upright, staring off towards the fence. I checked his food and water and both were full.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked him.

And then I heard it. The faint, low hum of buzzing.

I looked towards the place that my cat was staring, over at my stack of bee boxes. My jaw dropped. There were bees everywhere, but mostly, they were covering my bee boxes. A wall of them. A swarm of them. They were clamoring to move in.

I called my friend Janet Brisson of Country Rubes Farm, a well-known beekeeper and supplier of bee equipment. I explained the situation and asked her what I should do. She asked me if it looked like they were walking into the boxes. I told her that they were, they were slowly filing into the frames inside the boxes. She told me to do nothing; The bees were moving in.

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 I spent all of yesterday afternoon watching a swarm of bees inhabit my bee equipment. They didn’t go into the hive that I had set up. They, instead, went into the left over boxes I had leaned against the fence. This morning, I got up before dawn, put on my bee suit, and moved the boxes of bees to the neatly stacked hive that is now buzzing under the fig tree.

I feel like the luckiest beekeeper in the world. I have spent all morning watching my magic bees buzz in and out of their new home.