Harvesting Honey

In the world of beekeeping, late July and early August is harvest season. Spring and summertime means hard work for honeybees, just as it does for farmers. Bees depend on pollen for a food source, and they won’t leave the hive once the temperature drops below 40 degrees. That means they have to produce like crazy all summer long to make sure the hive has enough food to survive the winter.

So the bees process some of their pollen to make the nectar they eat, and for some of it they create little wax caps so they can save it for later. Over time, this capped nectar loses some of its moisture. And that’s when it becomes sweet, thick, golden honey.

They depend on that honey as a source of food throughout the winter, so you would think it would harm them when we harvest it. But the bees produce a huge amount of extra. Even a modest hive will produce 30 pounds of honey or more. The bees don’t set a certain quantity and then stop when they reach it. They just push forward, full speed ahead, until the last flower has died and they can push no more. Beekeepers can calculate how much honey their hive will need to survive the winter and harvest the excess with that in mind. Even if the worst does happen, and they notice that the bees are running low on their stores, they can feed sugar water to the hive to help supplement the honey.

To harvest honey, the bees must first be encouraged to leave the super, which is the section of the hive where their extra food supply is stored. Different methods can be used to get the bees to migrate to different parts of the hive. Bees have a powerful sense of smell, so the easiest way to get them to leave is to fill the super with a scent they don’t like, like smoke or almond extract. Then the frames are inspected to pick the best candidates for harvest. For the bees’ sake, the friendliest way to get to the honey is just to remove the caps. If only the caps are removed, the bees won’t have to rebuild the whole honeycomb structure when they get their frames back. Lastly, the frames have to be spun at a high speed to get the honey to run out, and as soon as it’s run through a simple mesh filter, it’s ready to sell, just the way it is.

Beekeeping has been going on for a very long time. We have images of humans collecting honey from as long as 10,000 years ago. It’s not hard to believe, though. Can you imagine what a discovery it was to stumble upon rich, sweet, liquid gold? Anyone would put up with a few stings to get their hands on that.

The Flood Comes In

Spring always comes rolling in with buckets of rain to dump, but this year it hasn’t slowed down for summer. It’s relentless, coming down three or four days a week. It has ruined plans, raining straight through the peak of wedding season. Raining out all the Whitaker concerts and most of the Tuesday night Tower Grove Farmers’ Markets. Raining every time you hang something outside to dry. We’ve hardly had to even water our gardens.

And the flooding, of course, is the real worry. The river hasn’t crested this high since the infamous 1993 flood, when it hit 49.58 feet. That was a once-in-every-hundred-years flood like no one alive today had ever seen before. It’s become part of our local history, coming up at family get-togethers and popping up in commemorative TV spots.

Now, just 26 years later, the river creeps close to that record again. It now stands at 45.4 feet. Again, basements are flooded. Businesses are shut down. Property destroyed. We look at the rain differently these days. It’s more than just a bad-mood maker; now it makes us uneasy. We know that the water is rising.

There’s more rain coming later this week, but the river is predicted to stop rising now. Even so, this flood has been a warning. For years, climate scientists have foretold an increase in flood-bearing weather like this. It’s tempting to hope that it’s just another anomaly, but in all likelihood it is the beginning of a pattern. We have not been kind to our home. The earth warms, the storms whip up, the rivers rise. We are reminded at once of the destructive power of nature, and of our own power to destroy it.

The Last Gift of Christmas

A Christmas tree has adorned the White House practically every year in American history. As far as we know, there have been just four years that the White House didn’t have a tree, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for three out of the four. They say that the nature-loving president saw deforestation happening in the name of the tradition and refused to get behind it.

These days our Christmas trees come from farms, not from wild forests. From time to time, somebody who’s thinking along the same lines as T.R. will say that they like to reuse an artificial tree  instead of cutting down and killing live trees year after year. But all things considered, nowadays a live Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly than an artificial one by a long shot. An artificial tree is usually used for about 10 years. Once it’s discarded, its plastic branches will shine unscathed in a landfill for a hundreds of years to come. Your live tree will decompose naturally, and it’s doing good for the earth long before you’re cutting it down. Trees take 7-10 years to grow to marketable size, and they spend their lives putting out oxygen into our atmosphere and soaking up carbon through the soil that surrounds them. They improve the landscape for wildlife, too–your Christmas tree might’ve been home to birds who spent their summer at the farm. The demand for live Christmas trees increases the number of trees planted. Every year in the United States, 100 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted and 40 million are cut in winter. 

It’s hard work to grow marketable trees successfully. Farmers spend a lot of time carefully trimming the trees to get that ideal cone shape. In spring and summer, common pests like wasps and worms have to be removed. On a pesticide-free farm, this means picking off bugs and fungi by hand. The changing climate is making farmers’ job even harder. Dry conditions are bad for tree growth because evergreens need a lot of water to thrive, and some farms’ crops have suffered. Pea Ridge Forest, located in Hermann, Missouri, is a popular destination for St. Louis families who want to choose and cut their tree on-site at a farm. At Pea Ridge, the dry summers and mild winters of recent years have made it increasingly difficult to grow successful crops of Christmas trees. This year, the farm bolstered their own crop with trees shipped from Michigan and the Carolinas.

In colder climates like those, it’s much easier to grow fir trees. Growing firs here in Missouri takes lots of extra water, sometimes even the installation of irrigation systems. It’s much easier to grow pine trees here, so the Scotch pine in particular is a popular choice for Missouri farmers and their customers. Pine trees are the most resistant to warmth and dryness, which also means they’ll hold their needles the longest after they’re cut. Our homes are way too hot and dry for an evergreen’s liking, so it’s good to take this into consideration when you’re thinking about what kind of tree you want and how long you want to have it displayed. Firs will hold their needles second-longest after the pines, and the spruces come in last.

Inevitably every year comes the twinge of sadness when you must take down the Christmas decorations, and the tree along with them. Most of our decorations are packed away safely for the next year. It’s only our live Christmas trees to which we must say a permanent goodbye. But while the ornaments and ceramic Santa Claus sleep packed away and useless til next winter, the Christmas tree makes itself useful in a new way. It can be turned to mulch for next year’s garden. It can be burned as firewood. If you want to provide winter shelter for birds and rabbits, you can lay it down in your backyard and leave the strings of popcorn for them to eat. You can also donate your tree to be recycled by one of the city parks. 

Even if you don’t make practical use of your tree, the last Christmas gift you give each year is to return a real tree to the earth from which you cut it. No matter where the tree ends up, it will rot away and give back to the earth the gift of the nutrients it borrowed while it was living. And this period of decomposing and giving back will last long past its fleeting moment of glory in your bright front window.

Holiday Guests

Each year, those plants that are too loved to be lost to winter are tenderly collected from the backyard or balcony and brought indoors. They congregate in our window sills or among the mugs left out on the kitchen table, and on cold, grey days we welcome their company. Come December we invite a couple of holiday guests to our growing indoor winter garden.

The bright red poinsettia is one of these visitors, and it’s a strange one to have received this honor. In the United States, the poinsettia is so closely associated with Christmas and wintertime that its own natural habitat seems to us like a mismatch. Poinsettias come from Mexico and need to be treated like the tropical plants they are. They prefer a hot, wet environment, so they should be kept away from drafty windows and misted regularly. It’s a lot of trouble to make the bracts turn red like that, and that task is usually left to the experts. But anyone who’s got patience and a willingness to fail can have a crack at getting this year’s plants to redden again next Christmas.

It’s a complicated process: After the season’s over, the leaves will fall. When that happens, cut the stems down to just a few inches high and keep the plant pretty dry and out of the sun. In early May, freshen up the compost and put the plant in a new pot. After repotting, water thoroughly and regularly whenever the soil starts to feel dry. When new shoots appear, choose the four or five strongest and remove the rest so they don’t have to compete for space. Now the poinsettias will grow, but they’ll only turn red again if you carefully manipulate the light. The last week of September is game time. The plant must be kept in complete darkness for 14 hours each day. To make that happen, you have to cover the poinsettia with a dark plastic bag from early evening til morning every day for eight weeks. Then treat it like normal again. If all goes well, your poinsettias will be red again in time for Christmas.

Since the early 1900s, one family has dominated the poinsettia industry by mastering the plant’s complicated cultivation. The Ecke family developed a way to grow a bushier, more attractive plant and kept their technique top secret for for decades. In the 1980s, a graduate student named  John Dole cracked the code and published his findings. They finally had some competition after that, but to this day they rule the poinsettia industry. The Eckes are also responsible for the popularization of the poinsettia as a Christmas plant in the United States. They began referring to it as “the Christmas flower” and went to great lengths to send them to popular magazines and television shows to be featured during the holidays. Paul Ecke Jr. was so determined to have the plants featured in women’s magazines that when they told him that their holiday photoshoots took place months ahead of time, Ecke Jr. specially cultivated a new group of poinsettias that would bloom out-of-season in summertime.

If you’re one of the people that brings these living decorations into your home each year, you don’t have to be bothered by the absurdly early Christmas displays pushing into your peripherals from the moment Halloween is over. The live poinsettias will only blush red for this brief season, so when they start to pop up in the grocery store, and the fir trees are riding around town on the roofs of the family cars, those who take them in know that Christmastime has truly arrived.

Osage Oranges

Festive gourds appeared prematurely in grocery stores weeks ago, but the trees in the park catch up in their own time and decorate the grass with their own bulbous ornaments. Now comes the pop and splat of acorns, walnuts, and persimmons hitting the ground, and among them you might come across a cluster of those bright green, softball-sized brain-balls: the Osage oranges.

This tree and its oddball fruit are named for the Osage nation, a Native American tribe that sought out the tree for its wood. The wood of the Osage orange tree is perfect for making bows because it is especially flexible and sturdy. The bows made from this wood were so superior that trading records from the time say that an Osage-wood bow was worth a horse and a blanket. Today, its wood is still commonly chosen for tool handles or outdoor construction because it’s unusually resistant to rot and pests. On top of that, it will burn longer and hotter than any other North American wood. And the list goes on: a glue substitute can be made from the fruit, yellow dye can be extracted from its wood, and its thorny branches have made it popular even in areas it isn’t native to, where farmers will plant thick rows of it as a sort of natural barbed wire fence. It’s even been rumored to repel spiders (though that’s been debunked as probably nothing more than legend.)

Still, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Osage orange tree is the child it brings out in us all. People who, for decades, have felt too old to bring a ball along to the park, find themselves confronted by irresistible scores of lime green softballs falling from the sky and strewn across the grass. You can’t help but want to pick them up and chuck them up to high heaven. A walk through Tower Grove Park is testament that you’re not alone in that either. You’ll find the osage balls tossed, kicked, and carried far from their trees, placed balanced on fence posts, and left on the baseball field. Pick one up and toss it with your friend, or up and down in the air to yourself, or kick it along the sidewalk on your evening run when you greet one that’s rolled into the Forest Park running path. Juggle them if you can, and get your fill. They’ll only hang around until they’ve all been rolled, kicked, and thrown elsewhere.

The Ginkgo Tree

50458318_1197927653704274_8575911579613134848_nOn autumn-evening walks down city sidewalks, look down and soon enough you’ll see the fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree. They’re always laid flat out on the ground like they were placed there for you to notice. If you hold one in your palm, you’ll feel how soft and smooth it is. You’ll see all its fibers reaching up and out from the stem towards the edges of the leaf like the rays of a green sunrise. It feels delicate. The truth is, the ginkgo tree is far from frail. Its history is a tale of steadfast survival.

The ginkgo gets its name from “Ginkgoaceae,” a plant family from back in the Mesozoic Era. The Mesozoic Era ended with what’s called the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, but the on-the-nose name for this event is “The Great Dying.” They don’t know exactly what caused the devastation. Some think volcanic eruption, others say a mammoth asteroid. What they do know is that the oxygen levels all over the Earth—in the soil, the oceans, the air—were horribly low, and the oceans were exceptionally acidic. That was the recipe that wiped out three-quarters of the plants and animals on Earth. Every other species in the Ginkgoaceae family was squashed. Only the ginkgo tree we know now hung on through the sick soil and the acid-oceans to be called a living fossil today.

We weren’t around to witness the grit of the ginkgo tree then, but in the 20th century we tested it ourselves. In Hiroshima, Japan, six ginkgo trees within a mile of the 1945 atom bomb explosion survived. In an instant, the bomb turned a bright and living city into a charred, colorless landscape, peppered in the following weeks by black rain, kicked-up ash, and poisonous air. Nearly every living thing at that proximity was killed at the time of the blast, and many of the people who survived the impact were later killed by radiation.

The ginkgoes survived the blast. They survived the pummel of poison that followed. Like everything else, they’d been burnt and broken. No one suspected they were anything but dead. Then, like a tiny breath, green leaves sprung from the scorched branches.

Those six trees are still alive today. The trees’ survival was cherished as a miracle, and the trees were consciously protected during rebuilding efforts. One of the ginkgoes was growing next to a temple that was destroyed by the blast. Instead of cutting the tree down when the temple was rebuilt, a double staircase was designed to encircle the ginkgo at the temple’s entrance, honoring it as an example of the persistence of life. A hole was made in the floor of a new factory for one ginkgo; a hole was cut in the roof of a temple to allow another of the surviving ginkgoes to grow as it wanted without impediment. These trees brought hope in a time of devastation, and in return the Japanese have treasured them ever since. Each of the surviving trees is now marked with a plaque.

With any luck, those six ginkgoes will be around for a long time—it is not uncommon for ginkgoes to live to be over 1,000 years old. It is the ginkgoes’ extreme hardiness that makes them so good at surviving the city. They can handle terrible air and soil conditions. That’s why you always see them planted in those little 2×2 dirt patches along the sidewalk.

Have you ever gone to the zoo and looked in wonder at a gnarled, dusty reptile and thought to yourself how ancient it looks? They look to us like dinosaurs, like aliens from another time. Look on the ginkgo tree with those eyes, too. Any day now those fan-shaped leaves will turn butter-yellow and pave the sidewalks gold as the yellow brick road. As those leaves fall and flutter down like yellow swallowtails, remember that the pretty ginkgo is no fragile beauty, but a revered ancient survivor.