March 2012


Bees were really the beginning of Horse Drawn Farms changing from an equestrian hangout for teenagers to a production-centred landscape.     After reading one afternoon several years ago about the seriousness of bee losses, I made up my mind to help in the best way anyone can: to have  hives on my property.  Common to many new beekeepers, I’m sure, I only ever intended to have one or two.  Yep,  just one or two…that’d be enough.

Packages of bees. Each tube contains a queen and her 10 000 workers.

After some research, I thought the most logical way to proceed was to take a course offered by a local commercial outfit before buying myself two package of bees.  Armed with pen and paper, I took note of the procedures which the commercial beekeeper presented as standard:  which pesticides to apply to the frames in the spring to kill off the almost universal verroa mites; how during the summer it would be necessary to treat for various bee diseases such as nosema, how I could rob a great deal of honey provided I supplied food through the fall, and how it was vital to re-queen the hive annually to ensure a strong population of workers.   Conveniently, after the course was completed, the beekeeping shop on the same property offered everything a beginner could need.  I probably spent around $600 on the various bee boxes, lids, frames, foundations, and of course the panoply of chemicals with which to dress the whole operation.

I’d read that 3 pound packages would make excellent starter hives and excitedly installed my very first bees.    They prospered at first, and I delighted in the busy activity that surrounded my little boxes.  Dutifully following my notes from the course, I followed commercial standards and applied pesticides at the correct times and in the correct amounts after testing the hives positive for mites.   I took honey from the hives in the summer, and set feeders in for the early fall.  Bees were taking the syrup I prepared, and frequent refills were necessary.  But I noticed something was not quite right.  Each time I refilled the feeders, I saw  reduced numbers of bees on the frames.  I read up.  I checked the queens, and there they were, laying.  Brood of all ages was evident in both hives.  Yet the numbers continued to decline.   When it came time to cluster for the winter, I had little hope.  There were so few bees left in either hive, they couldn’t possibly generate the heat require to keep things alive.  On the first warm day in the very early spring, my fears were realised as both hives were dead.

There are few things more desolate than a dead bee hive.  Piles of bodies.  Empty comb.  Dessicated larvae and half-finished cells.  It was heartbreaking to a new beekeeper.  I was tempted to give up.  But either by lucky coincidence or the interference of bee-gods, shortly thereafter I was introduced to a friend of my mother’s who happened to be a lifelong beekeeper.  With forty hives on his place, he was a wealth of experience.  He listened quietly while I described my woes, shaking his head from time to time with a sad little smile.  “The one thing I’ve learned about bees,”  he finally said in his low-key way, “is that less is more.”    Less interference, he went on to explain, and more attention to the hive’s natural behaviours would do far more to protect the health of bees than any human-made chemical ever could.  “Allow the bees to work up a large, closed population, and you’ll have no trouble whatsoever,”  he said.

I took his wisdom to heart, and started again with two new packages.  No chemicals, no overharvesting, no manipulation whatsoever of queens.  By mid-May, those two hives were overflowing and I split to make five separate hives.  I did not add a new queen to the halves without them.   I quashed my desire to control what was going on, and allowed them to figure out that they were queenless all by themselves. New brood was in each one within a few weeks.  The bees knew what to do, each hive had bred and mated a queen all on its own!  I took honey from all the hives, but left a large supply to do its job: feeding bees throughout the winter.  And to my surprise, without any pesticides of any kind, the verroa counts were down in every hive.

This past  February, the less-is-more approach gave me its ultimate reward:  five hives successfully overwintered.    As the late spring days approach and a bonanza of bee activity is evident in my orchard, I’ll split my five to ten.  Yep, ten’s a good number.  After that I’ll keep a close watch….but mostly from my kitchen window.

Experienced farm folk know that the act of raising animals great and small inevitably brings with it a close connection with death.  After all, in many cases, the livestock we grow is destined to become our food, killed for that purpose.  Academically, I understood and accepted this as I entered upon this new lifestyle, but it did not stop my hands from shaking when I culled my first rabbit from our breeding stock.  After watching a few videos on Youtube to learn the techniques of killing and butchering, I realised there was no substitute for the real thing.   As a thirty-something suburbanite, the reality of removing life was quite different from that of a farm kid with a lifetime of exposure to the act of killing.  Decades of only ever nurturing and protecting pet animals that lived and played in my childhood home, and later in my own apartments and houses, was turned upside down.  Here was an animal in my arms, just the size of our pet cat, similarly vital and breathing and beautiful,  neither aged nor ill, and I wanted to take its life, break its neck, remove that miracle of electrical impulse, synapse and chemistry.  The opposition of these two poles was difficult for me to overcome as I stood over  the rabbit.  But I did kill it, and many more in the year following, becoming with each subsequent kill more and more comfortable with this self-endowed power as Giver of Life or Death.

The coming of  Horse Drawn Farms’  very first lambs was  a delight, and in my newness as a shepherd, I could not help but choose a favourite.  The only black lamb, with a small white patch or two across her back and the daughter of my best ewe, was an obvious candidate.  I carried her around in her first week, making friends, removing her fear and being gratified when she came to nibble at the tops of my boots or barely batted an eyelash as I approached her curled-up form tucked into a corner of the pen. By now,  my life-or-death power was in full swing.  This one will stay, I decided, and become one of my breeding flock. As I stroked her velvety wool, still coiled in little twists over her body, I envisioned her all grown up and perhaps having black lambs of her own–and all for me.   Yes, I had made my mind up about her, I thought, giving her warm little head a sniff.  The wonderful no-smell of baby lamb was a perfume.

And then she was dead.  I found her the next morning, hung.  She had strangled herself upon a hay net left, by me, hanging too low in the lamb pen.  I stared, aghast.  Hundreds of twists in the nylon of the net and the bare patch of flooring underneath swept free of straw told the story of a lengthy struggle.   Perhaps it was hours, spinning, gasping, kicking; plunging as the life was slowly squeezed out of her.  This was the power I had begun to feel smug about– she had died a horrible, prolonged death through my carelessness.

After loosing the stiff little body and laying it aside just outside the pen, I opened the door for turnout as usual.  Four ewes and their lambs charged out, but Emily only stood over her dead child, sniffing it carefully, chuckling her humming mother-call, puzzled as to why it wasn’t ready to go.  I left her for quite a while, to see if the pull of the flock would bring her along, but nothing would induce her to walk more than three or four steps.  In the end, I had to carry the lamb out to the paddock for her, and laid it in state where she could watch its still form as she ate.   In the afternoon, I finally removed it.

Writing this now in my office two days later, I can still hear her loud and obviously worried calls outside, reverberating into a stillness from which comes no answer.  I cherish the luxury I have of seeing the sheep run out each morning, the young ones joyously leaping and bounding in their exuberance at the freedom, the wonder of their new lives.   But I am weighed now, perhaps as all farmers should be, by the sense  of responsibility I have.  As a farmer producing animals, I am the cause of their life.   It falls to me, then, to remain vigilant, to ensure that their lives are the most comfortable, the most natural lives possible, and that their end, no matter when it comes, is the best possible death.

When you’re a suburban farmer and you’ve never had lambs before, it might be tempting to build your temporary lamb pen within steps of your house.  You’ll want to keep an eye on your new arrivals, no doubt, and be able to get there fast, should the need arise.   But make no mistake:  there  are cons to having  sheep  just outside the back door.   Many, noisy cons.   Retrospectively, in fact, having five pregnant ewes back in the converted garage at the end of the driveway wasn’t bad at all.  Although their  hungry yells penetrated the solid wood doors every morning when they finally heard my footsteps crunching on the gravel, I knew that with the touch of the latch, the noise would switch off and five woolly, fecund balloons would come catapulting  out in a headlong rush towards their paddock, and breakfast.  But lambing time changed all that.

Silence is golden.

The wonder of free stuff on Craigslist got the lambing pen off the drawing board and into action.  Winter wind storms can be brutal here on the west coast, and a great many Costco tarpaulin car shelters love to go tumbling through the suburbs, up streets and down alleys, until they rest in little piles against the local telecommunications compound.  Others simply get flattened when the occasional heavy snowfall turns to rain, and their owners aren’t inclined to leap out of bed at 3am to brush off the 40000 pounds of snow mush.  After such weather extremities, Craigslist comes alive with offers of tangled metallic wrecks, and the messes often end up at Horse Drawn Farms.  Many an animal shelter here has been constructed  fitting undamaged portions together, with good success.   The lamb pen was more elaborate in that it required a full floor, (delicate young lambs must be protected from moisture),  but Craigslist provides all needs.  Ten sturdy pallets were procured, as were some discarded plywood sheets once used for forming concrete.  At last, with the overhead tarp securely fastened and a deep bed of clean straw, all was ready.

A week later, when the  pen was occupied by its first mother, Daisy, with her twin ram lambs, I began to notice how she watched the back entrance to the house.  It would happen in the morning, just after putting on my boots and hat and gathering the dog and cats for their dawn egress.  With impeccable timing, as the door opened a crack, Daisy would unleash a bellow that could raise the dead.  And would repeat it,  constantly, until her breakfast was  served.  Since this involved a walk to hay shed to retrieve the goods, a considerable three or four minutes could pass. And all the while her volume increased, utterly drowning out not only the pleasant cheeps of the morning songbirds, but the nearby traffic,  Tintin the rooster, and even the din of the still-pregnant prisoners of the sheep garage.   I had been used to stopping at the chickens first– a simple tip of ration into their feeder took only seconds–  but no longer.  Daisy’s gratification was now the priority.

Then Spotty Legs had her twins, and the ante was upped.  Either hungrier than Daisy or just with sharper vision, her peculiarly deep rumble preceded the door opening, for she saw me well in advance through the picture window, reaching for my jacket.  Cowering under two ewes giving full voice only steps from the door, I started trotting to the hay shed, rather than my usual sleepy stroll. When Lucy, known for her persistence in shouting even when her mouth is stuffed full,  joined the group with her single lamb, I began to leave the hay ration next to the stairs instead, ready to pop it straight into the pen.  The cacophony was added to daily by high-pitched little baas, ever increasing in number and confidence.  I tried skulking into the back room.  But it was no good keeping the curtains closed, because sharp-eyed Spotty saw the movement of my silhouette and let loose.  Then Emily had her twin lambs and moved in.   The smartest ewe of the bunch, she learned by association and began to bawl when she heard my alarm clock ringing upstairs.  And Charlotte, last of the ewes to join the congregation with her twins, simply didn’t want to miss out on any potential activity and baaed at random, sometimes at 3am.

A moment of quiet. It won't last.

 

I was beginning to feel hunted.  Both ewes and lambs now shouted at every sight of me, their hapless caregiver.  Oh, the morning hay kept them quiet for a few minutes.  But I could no longer move through the yard, at any time, without being bombarded by baas.  The appearance of the muck cart set them off.  Me leading a horse set them off.  Heading out in the truck for supplies set them off.  Me slinking away to hide behind the horse stall walls with my hands over my ears only seemed to spur them on.   In the morning, I  worried, and watched the windows of the neighbours, lest a shotgun should appear.  By the afternoon, I was considering the shotgun myself.

Luckily however, time marches on, and the lambs are now old enough to spend all day turned out in a paddock with their mothers.  This morning was their first time out, and the relief in the home yard is palpable.  Tintin, the birds and the traffic have the place to themselves, and I have plans already hatching for next year…to build that lamb pen as far away as possible.