The Birds and the Bees

Lately the population at Acorn Lodge has swelled in number by an additional 30,005, or so — not by any accident of ‘the birds and the bees,’ but rather because we’re finally acting on our plans to keep chickens and honeybees here. Over the last year or two we’ve done the reading and obtained (and built) the requisite equipment: the proper tools will support our endeavors best, and our setting, home to all manner of predators who would relish a chicken dinner, added another layer of consideration to our preparations on that front. And then, a few months back, we eagerly placed our orders to reserve the breeds our research suggested would be the best fit for us (we wanted local bees; hens that are docile, and lay a mixture of egg colors, among other features). Careful ‘family planning’ is a cornerstone of well-managed domestic bliss, yes? Finally, with April and May cleared on the calendar so that we could be dedicated ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ for the newly adopted, we felt ready!

Well, the chicks arrived, more or less according to plan, via the US Mail. Shipped on a Monday for overnight delivery, I didn’t actually get the call to collect the peeping box until 6:38 a.m. Wednesday morning, but once the hatchlings were nestled into their brooder box, encouraged to drink water, and had discovered their feed they were happy to settle in and are growing so quickly I feel I can almost see it happening. We have five different breeds: a Dominique (Dolly), a Silver-Laced Wyandotte (Dottie), a Buff Orpington (Biddy), a Welsummer (Sadie), and an Easter Egger (Lollie). They are darling to watch and interact with (they will eat from my hand now, and Lollie will hop onto my outstretched palm to do so!) but the real story here is the chronicle of the bees’ arrivals.

The rocky knoll that sits on one side of our driveway appears to be a sweet spot for swarms — this is the third spring in a row that we’ve been graced by said. An enormous swarm, the size of two footballs, gathered on April 1 in the easy-to-reach-into young hawthorn tree that I planted on the knoll last spring, and with the help of some local beekeepers the swarm was easily contained in a temporary box. Thrilled to have secured local, feral bees for my hive, I called to cancel the package of bees I had ordered for pick-up later in the month. Early the next morning I transferred the swarm to the hive I had ready for them, and for seven sweet hours the colony appeared to be setting up housekeeping in their new quarters. But alas, they swarmed again (absconded) — leaving me as forlorn as a spurned lover, the joy of the previous day dashed to pieces by their abandonment of the hive. The following day, I reinstated my bee package order.

Several days later I spotted another swarm in the same area, but this swarm (the same bees?) was 30′ up in the towering fir trees, too difficult to try to capture. Then on April 13th, a third swarm gathered, this time back in the hawthorn tree. This swarm was more an average size and I decided to capture it myself, transferring the bees directly into my hive from the tree. I did not cancel my bee package order this time around — once burned, twice shy — but instead ordered another hive set-up in case I needed it. Two weeks on, the feral colony looks to be staying put and I’ve since picked up my package of bees, so I’ve now got two hives going: the bees have arrived, and how!

We didn’t plan to start beekeeping with two hives, but neither did we plan to start our lives as parents with two children — and we did. Our first pregnancy, many years ago, was greeted with the same kind of joy I felt on capturing that first swarm of bees: we were ready to have children, and rushed right out to buy a crib, thrilled to anticipate the baby’s arrival. But that first combination of our DNA was not a successful one, the miscarriage being just as devastating as having that swarm abscond. That baby was not meant to be, any more than that first swarm was meant to be ours. Then life unfolds, nature takes her course, bringing us first our twin sons and then our daughter, and honestly, I can’t imagine — wouldn’t want — any children other than those that are ours. I have no regrets for what might have been, only gratitude for what IS.

Here and now, with the tenure of the birds and the bees established at Acorn Lodge, the stewardship of coop and hives is my welcome responsibility, my opportunity to extend myself in the care and feeding of others, my privilege to observe and appreciate.

Make the most of what comes and the least of what goes.

The chicks enjoying their favorite treat of fresh chopped herbs from the garden

The Care and Feeding of Others

Today I pulled the final bit of pumpkin from last summer’s garden out of the freezer in order to bake up a batch of biscuits for our dogs, one of a couple of tasks I have set for myself this afternoon. I’ll also spend some time in the garden (starting the seeds for this year’s pumpkins in fact!) and continue with some reading on the subjects of chickens and bees (more on that soon). I can’t claim to be accomplishing anything of great importance these days as I putter about, but I am nonetheless deeply satisfied by day’s end — and that, I’ve decided, is accomplishment enough.

The thread that seems to run through my activities on a given day seems to be tied to my urge to nurture: the organizing principle behind my efforts is the value I place on the care and feeding of others. I feel it as a driving force, and one that I’ve recently come to acknowledge as THE motivation for rousting myself from my cosy bed each morning. By extension then, almost paradoxically, the care and feeding of others is, for me, a completely selfish act (perhaps my mother was right after all!): acting on my desire to nurture others is the very best way I have to nurture myself.

I’m happy to bake biscuits from scratch for the dogs, willing to spend the time it takes to water the garden by hand, delighted to tidy up and refresh the cottage ahead of the arrival of guests. I actually don’t mind even the routine maintenance tasks of house and garden — planning and executing meals, weeding and pruning, neatening and cleaning inside and out to ensure an easy comfort. Each of these activities affords me the blissful solitude I crave as a confirmed introvert and ensures the payoff of eventual company (which even an introvert needs from time to time!). Pets and garden, friends and family actually do me a favor by asking of my time and energy because there is no other way I’d rather be spending my days: the care and feeding of others is my true religion.

My darling daughter found this recipe online and I have no idea whom to credit — but our dogs will do anything for these biscuits!

Dog Biscuits
⅔ cup pumpkin purée, canned or fresh
2 large eggs
3 tbs. peanut butter (I use one with no added salt or sugar)
2½ cups whole wheat flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place all ingredients in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on medium for about a minute to obtain a stiff dough. Gather up half of the dough and roll out to ¼” thickness. You can either use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes or use a knife to cut squares or strips. Repeat with the other half of the dough, then gather the scraps together and reroll to cut more until all the dough is used. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes until browned and crisp. Let cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

“There are random moments — tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms — when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead. Think of the way you sometimes see a tiny shaft of sunlight burst through a gap between rocks, the way it then expands to illuminate a much large space — it’s like that. And it’s like quilting, a thread surfacing and then disappearing into the fabric of ordinary days. It’s not always visible, but it’s what holds everything together.”

— Elizabeth Berg