Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Brenda's Supremely Summery Gazpacho Soup

Ingredients for gazpacho include
whatever is seasonally available.
Some foods are so seasonally dependent that they seem to vanish from our consciousness when the weather turns. Gazpacho, more than any other meal, speaks so quintessentially of summer that it simply evaporates from memory when tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers go out of season. While some restaurants may serve it year-round, it’s hard to appreciate the full impact of cold soup on a wintry day, just as a hearty beef stew eaten under the blazing sun sounds downright painful.

Tomatillos grow in a papery husk.
Gazpacho demands fresh, vine-ripened ingredients - the kind you can only get from a garden, farmer’s market, or local produce section of a grocery store. It should be eaten cold on a hot, hot day. Traditional recipes are tomoato-based, but there are many modern versions that include watermelon, avocado, and even cauliflower. Tomatillos are a great addition, or even substitute, for tomatoes. They have firm flesh, more similar to an apple than a tomato, and they grow inside a papery husk. They'll result in a lovely, green-tinged soup.

Gather what you can from the garden or market, and turn this late-season heat wave into a worthy goodbye to summer.

Brenda's Supremely Summery Gazpacho Soup

Gazpacho fresh from the garden.

Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Servings: 6

4 large, ripe tomatoes, or 8 tomatillos
2 cloves garlic
1 medium cucumber
1 small onion
2 carrots
1 Anaheim pepper
1 red Bell pepper
1 ripe peach
1/4 cup fresh cilantro or basil
1/4 c. olive oil
3 T white wine vinegar or Balsamic vinegar
salt and fresh pepper to taste

For a smoother soup, blend ingredients in a Cuisinart or blender. For chunkier soup, dice all ingredients and mix well in a large bowl. Chill for at least one hour before serving.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Colony Collapse Disorder and Backyard Beekeeping

About a year ago, I went to the trouble of renaming my blog and website. The former Northern Virginia Gardener morphed into Bee Happy Garden: Gardening in Partnership With Nature. My intention was to broaden the scope of my blogging, as a reflection of my expanding interests and acknowledgement of the symbiotic relationships that permeate the living world. The more I learned to garden with native plants, the more I valued the native fauna they support. I realized my vegetable garden needs pollinators throughout the year in order to produce enough to eat. I was disturbed by the plight of the honeybee and thought I could make a difference for them, and they for me. At the very least, I LOVE honey and drink lots of tea! The learning curve was quite a bit greater than anticipated; I'm still learning, but I finally feel I can share my experiences as a first-year beekeeper.

My daughter inspecting a beehive. Fearless!

Backyard Beekeeping for New Bees

Beekeepers of Northern Virginia offers classes for new "beeks," and I enrolled in the 2014 winter session prior to getting my bees. The following spring, I acquired one "package" of bees, delivered from Georgia, and one "nuc," or small colony, raised locally.While incredibly informative and fascinating, the academic class instruction did little to prepare me for the sight of 10,000 bees, all busily buzzing in one tiny space. It was all I could do to lift of the lid, replace the sugar water that would help the colonies expand, and quickly cover them up again. Sadly, but not surprising, my first set of bees didn't survive winter. It was an expensive and exasperating loss. I spent the next 9 months reading, talking to other beekeepers, getting hands-on experience with a bee mentor, and attending 4-H Bee club meetings. That last bit was ostensibly for my daughter, but has proven to be my greatest resource.

First, I learned that package bees from southern parts of the country are more likely to be Africanized (read: aggressive stingers), and have only a 20% survival rate. Furthermore, locally raised queens have genetic traits that enable them to adapt to our climate and attendant pests. In spring 2015, I acquired two "nucs" - one with a locally reared Russian queen, and one with a Carniolan queen. Russian bees are said to have greater resistance to the Varroa mite, which is one of the major causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Carniolans are another strong breed, with abundant honey production and a gentle temperament. Using locally raised bees, from a beekeeper with a track record of over-wintering successful hives, offers some assurance that even a "new-bee" can keep a hive alive. (I've learned that beekeepers adopt a dialect utilizing the word "bee" as often as possible).
Bees that probably starved to death over the winter.

What is Colony Collapse Disorder and Why Does It Happen?

Until recently, researchers were uncertain why so many honeybee colonies were failing. We pretty much now know that the Varroa "destructor," known colloquially as VD, and use of neonicotinoid pesticides, are the major causes of CCD. Additionally, the majority of honeybees are now raised in captivity. They are not a native species, but are most commonly used for commercial agricultural pollination and honey production. Only recently have researchers begun to focus on the bizarre monoculture we've created for pollination of major U.S. crops. In fact, there are other bees, such as Osmia bees, that may effectively pollinate local crops. Who knows? Maybe we'll soon be raising native species, and the honeybee will succumb to suburban sprawl and Monsanto. NPR's Science Friday recently featured a story on this phenomenon. Nevertheless, backyard beekeeping is an increasingly popular hobby or vocation, with much added environmental benefit. It brings us outdoors, draws attention to the fragility of a somewhat maligned and misunderstood species, and demonstrates the power of individuals to make a greater difference. Isn't that enough to keep going?

New Beeginnings

Having fostered 2 hives through spring well enough to split them into 4 strong colonies, I finally feel confident enough to share my experiences. I'm still a neophyte, but this is what I know: raising honeybees is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiments in my little laboratory of a backyard, and I am thoroughly hooked. I've also learned that I have a moderate reaction to bee stings, which involves isolated, but hugely swollen, blistering redness at the site of the sting. I wear the full hazmat get-up, so you won't be seeing any photos of me with a bee beard! Hard work made it all worthwhile when we harvested 2 gallons of honey in early July, which subsequently won a blue-ribbon at the 4-H fair. Now, on to fall management and hopefully, winter survival.

Backyard beekeepers are unlike commercial beekeepers in many ways. We attach sentimental value to our bees, name our queens, and sometimes love them to death by not treating them according to the latest research standards. Since we now know that Varroa is a major cause of CCD, we must decide how to address this. Varroa is ubiquitous in honeybee colonies, and beekeepers must routinely test for infestation levels. Many backyard beekeepers are reluctant to use chemical controls: it doesn't feel organic, it feels bad for the environment, and it's guaranteed to kill some bees. There are ways to address Varroa without chemical controls, but the latest research shows that non-chemical interventions alone have little effect on winter survival. I know of several experienced and admirable beekeepers who overwinter bees without chemical intervention; sadly, I believe they are highly skilled, few and far between.

Until now, I've used the Dowda method to control for Varroa, relying heavily on research by Randy Oliver. This entails sifting powdered sugar on the frames once or twice per week. It is labor intensive and may damage open brood (bees in development). Furthermore, the Honey Bee Health Coalition recently published results that show no effect on winter survival rates over four years when using this method. What does work? An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy that includes a combination of chemical and non-chemical interventions. "Chemical" often sounds like a bad word to organic gardeners and beekeepers alike; however the latest research is pretty convincing in favor of keeping bees alive. In fact, Certified Naturally Grown apiary standards allow for use of some chemical controls, on a limited basis, in support of honeybee health.

Highly recommended is the practice of "reverse splitting" a strong colony in order to break the Varroa life-cycle. This means locating the queen and placing her in a new colony with open brood. The original colony will then begin to rear its own new queen, who will be hopefully have hygienic traits approaching Varroa resistance. This method was presented by Dr. Buddy Marterre at a BANV meeting and literally blew my mind. If only I could do this thing, I'd be one step closer to avoiding chemicals! Splitting and queen-rearing are intermediate, if not advanced, beekeeping practices. I was unsuccessful in my first attempt to locate the old queen and rear a new one in a new hive. I therefore employed Michael Bush's straight split method. Splitting helps avoid swarming, which bees will naturally attempt when the colony grows too large for its container. Splitting is good, all around.

There are many hive management tasks needed for colony survival. What every beginning beekeeper needs to keep in mind is that they will need to monitor the level of Varroa mites in their colonies and take action to address a high level of infestation. There are several ways to determine Varroa level. First, I used the stickyboard method, which involves spraying a cardboard panel with cooking oil and placing it beneath a screened bottom board for 24 hrs to 36 hours.
Preparing a sticky board for mite counts.

An average daily count is then calculated. This method has recently been somewhat discounted, in that it doesn't account for hygienic bee behavior in naturally grooming off mites. Mites may also be carried away by ants, and some mites will just craw back up into the hive. A more accurate method may be attained by scooping 1/2 cup of bees into a screened pint jar, sprinkling them with powdered sugar, and then attempting to shake the mites through a screen into a pan of water. My efforts in this area resulted dusty bees that obscured the mites and bees that were shaken to death. In my opinion, though it is a painful sight, the most accurate method of calculating mite infestation is the alcohol wash. This again involves scooping 300 bees (about 1/2 cup) into a screened pint jar, and then pouring alcohol over them. When the alcohol is strained out, the bees will be dead, but the mite count will be accurate. 300 bees out of 30,000 is a small sacrifice when you're looking at total colony loss due to denial or failure to treat for mites in a timely fashion.

My total mite count was 2.7% in the Russian colony and 3.2% for the Carniolans. According to the Honey Bee Health Coalition's newest publication, this is in the caution zone. I will treat the colonies with formic acid. Some will be lost, but more are likely to survive the winter. It's a hard hobby, but one that has me totally hooked. Stay tuned!

Update: 9/10/2015

After all that, I decided not to treat the bees with formic acid, after all. I spoke to the class instructor, as well as the source of one of my queens. Both noted that they employ higher thresholds for mites and are loathe to introduce treatments unless absolutely necessary. They reminded me that beekeeping is sometimes more art than science, especially for hobbyists. Though I am normally a strict believer in scientific method, my counts are in the caution area, not the danger zone.  Our spat of 90-plus degree weather was also a deterrent. Formic kills too many bees at that temperature. At the same time, if one waits too long to treat into later summer and fall, the hive doesn't have time to recoup lost brood. So, I procrastinated, in the name of art and sentiment. My hives look strong and healthy. I'll keep my fingers crossed and see what's buzzing come spring. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Eat Your Beans

A garden allowed to grow at its own pace.
After a brief hiatus, I've returned to my garden, and to my blog. The garden is a jungle, and the blog, well, it needs a little more attention than the garden - finally! Plants are notorious for beating the odds. Part of my love for gardening comes from my admiration for plants' tenacity - their dogged resolution to push towards the sun, their ability to snap back from drought, and their persistent and creative reproductive capacity. So what does this have to do with a pot of beans?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Take the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

Press Release

National Pollinator Garden Network Launches Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

WASHINGTON, DC (June 3, 2015) In an unprecedented collaboration, dozens of conservation and gardening organizations joined together today to form the National Pollinator Garden Network and launch a new nationwide campaign the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Designed to accelerate growing efforts across America, the Network is launching the Challenge in support of President Barack Obama’s call to action to reverse the decline of pollinating insects, such as honey bees and native bees, as well as monarch butterflies. Representatives of the Network joined First Lady Michelle Obama today at the White House garden, which includes a section dedicated to support pollinators, to formally launch the Challenge.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Kohlrabi Apple Slaw

Kohlrabi shows up at markets in spring. Take advantage of
it before it temperatures heat up.
Farmers markets opened in Fairfax County last week, and there are already so many delicious, local veggies just waiting to be plucked. I'm always looking for new and interesting things to try, and it seems the local vendors are keen to introduce new products. We live in a culturally diverse area, and the vendors themselves often represent far-reaching cultures and countries.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Plant Asparagus for Many Happy Returns

Nothing says spring quite like asparagus. Growing your own spears takes a little upfront effort, but the rewards are manifold. Asparagus is considered a "valuable" crop, meaning it's pretty expensive to buy it at the market. It's a hardy perennial, so once established, it returns each year.
First sign of spring.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Visit Shenandoah River State Park

Virginia is for lovers, and with good reason: we have an enormously diverse landscape of people and places, and there's never a lack of adventure around the bend. Without getting too risque, I'll just say that there's nothing more enervating than spending a beautiful weekend in one of our fabulous parks, with those you love. 
Along the River Trail
in Shenandoah State Park.

Most of us Virginians are familiar with Shenandoah National Park; after all, it covers just under 200,000 acres and receives over 1.2 million visitors each year. I could wax poetic about Shenandoah, Oh Shenandoah, I hear you calling.... but today I'm all about the Andy R. Guest Shenandoah River State Park. Perhaps you've passed it on the way to Skyline Drive - it's just off rt. 340, between Luray and Front Royal. Situated on the south fork of the Shenandoah River, the pristine park is host to dry, rocky biomes, as well as vernal pools. These seasonal bogs appear in early spring, when there's abundant rainfall, allowing sensitive species of frogs and salamanders to begin and complete their life cycles. Higher up on the winding trails, shale barrens are host to unusual species of native wildflowers not found in many other areas of the state. 
The Bluebell Trail in full bloom.

The interconnected trail system makes it easy to adjust hiking times, according to energy and ability. The Bluebell Trail and River Trail were the highlight of our weekend. Our timing was just right to catch the flowing swath of pink, purple, and blue hugging the riverbank. A sunset hike along the river gave voice to a chorus of frogs we'd apparently overlooked in the course of staring at all that beauty during daylight hours. And the stars, have you seen them lately? Because stars just aren't the same in the suburbs...

A nest box welcomes a couple of tree swallows.
The campground is the cleanest, most accessible I've ever seen. Eleven tent sites are situated along the southeast side of the park, many of which have views of the river. The level, gravel, well-defined spaces were a welcome site for a out tent. The parking lot is separated from the tent sites, and large wagons are provided for hauling equipment. There are also a few rustic cabins and an RV site. 
Can't beat camp food - S'More's!

We didn't take advantage of any of the ranger programs, nor did we fish or kayak, but I have a feeling there will be many more trips to Shenandoah River State Park in my family's future. I hope to see you there!