Sunday, April 8, 2012

Trials and tribulations: Breaking the law homestead style

Grrrr... Have you ever wanted to make your neighbor disappear? That's exactly how I feel right now - not like mafia style, more like bewitched style. Today was a challenging day at the homestead. It started when my elderly neighbor called yesterday on my way home from errands (including the hardware store) to let me know she was having her grandson over on Easter and they wanted to do an Easter egg hunt and could I please put a tarp over my bees for the afternoon. My neighbor hardly ever uses the back portion of her back yard and at some point my bees decided they liked that flight path better than the one they initially had where they went straight up from the hive box. If she wants kids easter egg hunting it would be fairly nerve wracking to have so many bees flying overhead. I totally understand that. Hmmm... I responded. I will have to figure out how to do that. "What? Your mom said you could just screen them off". I wonder when they had that conversation and I wonder how my Mom knew that. When I mentioned it to my Mom - "Hey Mom, how am I supposed to screen those bees?" she had no idea what I was talking about nor does she recall ever having that conversation with neighborlady. Just like I thought.
So I went to my handy dandy super resourceful backward beekeeping list and emailed them where I was instructed to get window screen and good duct tape and wait until night when the bees were back in the hive to screen off the opening. Okay - back to the hardware store! Got the supplies, waited til night. Way more challenging than I thought. I put the tape on the top and bottom of the screen at least as wide a strip as the hive is wide. I didn't think about the bees getting agitated by this and crawling out the sides but they sure did. So I was scrambling with my heavy clumsy bee gloves to peel off more duct tape and seal those edges (of course the tape was on the table several feet away and the bees were crawling out right now right in front of me. sigh. Okay - gonna lose a few bees.
So I taped the sides up and then had the bright idea to tear off a bunch of tape strips with the gloves off and moved them over to the hive where I overloaded every surface of screen/hive body intersection with several layers of heavy black duct tape and pressed it down to seal it. It was bomb proof! (or seemed that way). Took a lot longer than expected but I felt pleased with myself and went to bed.

Got up to check this morning. More bees outside the screen than I remembered getting loose last night but then it was dark and maybe I just didn't see them. Went to check around noon. Crap! Lots more bees. There has to be some breach of the duct tape but I don't see it anywhere. Ugggg... I thought she said they would be finished with the egg hunt by 3. It wasn't so bad at this point. I didn't see any activity. Perhaps they went to church early and are already done. If so, I'm safe. Relief!
Not so. At 2:30 the hive box is covered in bees trying to find their way back in to the hive. It looks wild and crazy and fairly scary to anyone without a full bee suit on. I also notice her sons car in the driveway. They must be starting around 3. Crap! At this point there is no way to appease the bees except to remove the screen but I don't want to do that because I told her I would screen them and I don't know if they'll be even more mad if I open the entrance. Or more calm because they can do their normal thing? I have no clue. I opt to race to OSH (3rd hardware store run!) to get some bamboo screen and hopefully make an obstruction that gets them to change their flight path so they don't zoom through her upper back yard. I suit up again and grab some zip ties to connect screen to fence (also comic with thick bee gloves on and considering I can't reach over to connect except on the edges and the screen is flopping over and the bees are buzzing all around me). I get it connected and go back inside. I know it's not good.

Later in the afternoon I call to her over the fence to apologize. She is not pleased. I try to explain that I did screen them and I was really careful about putting multiple layers of tape but they figured out a way to get out and that the screening probably made the whole bee scare even worse but she's not really listening. She reminds me that the neighbor two houses down got stung twice this summer. I heard the same story this summer from him. Without trying to avoid responsibility I want to mention that many people do not know a hornet from wasp from a bee. They see flying insect that stings and that's that. I don't know this man and don't know if he's familiar with how bees are different from other similar insects. Also the behavior doesn't sound like bees. I am able to get very close to my hives and work them and they are pretty docile. Bees sting to protect their hive or their lives. They are unlikely to sting unprovoked and away from their hive. According to him he was doing nothing and they just came and stung him. Twice. Since a single bee can't sting twice I'm already thinking this sounds like some other creature. Or maybe there is a feral hive closer to his house and they were defending that. It's possible they were my bees but not likely. But neighborlady mentions it. In fact it is getting even more clear that from now on if anyone in my neighborhood ever gets stung everyone is absolutely clear it's from my bees. I try to explain that my bees are not the only bees in the area - in fact, if there were no bees before I came no one would get fruit! There are a lot of fruit trees in my neighborhood and I'm sure there are a lot of bees in my neighborhood as well since long before I ever moved in. I've also read that bees do not typically pollinate close to home. I don't know how accurate that is and I don't really know how to tell my bees apart from others or if it would even matter. From now on if anyone is unhappy with bees they are my bees.

Sadly, neighborlady mentions that her son was very angry. He used to play in that backyard when he was 5 and now there are bees flying overhead (more than ever now because they are so agitated because I screened the entrance!) He makes a point of mentioning to her that he's surprised it's even legal to have bees in the city. This is the point where I start to feel doomed.
Let me insert something I just stumbled across on facebook:
‎"Peace isn't an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth; it's an experience that's expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened."
sigh. so this is my challenge. I adore my bees. I love what they stand for, that they are so gentle and graceful and allow me and my bumbling beginner beekeeping ways to be tolerated. The honey they make is magical to me. It is complex and golden and deliciously sweet. I love to share it with people (neighbors included) and I love to share what I know about bees with people. I talk about the bee dance language and quantum physics (read this! ), about colony collapse disorder, about the critical role bees play in food production, about different types of bees (honeybees being European imports), about the hype around Africanized bees(yes, they can be more aggressive but not absolutely so and European bees can also kill you if they are in a mood). I LOVE bees and beekeeping and inspiring others to explore that world. The municipal code on Los Angeles (archaic, bizarre, and seemingly random - has a lot more details about issues related to monkeys, circuses, and horse shoes than domestic urban livestock) states that you can have bees as long as they are 300 ft from any dwelling other than your own. 300ft! I'm not totally clear but that seems bigger than most lots in LA. Shoot. On the backwards beekeepers list there are periodic emails about folks who have been busted because neighbors didn't like that they had hives. I really don't want to be another one of those.
I felt really bad about making such a mess of trying to secure the bees but neighborlady didn't notice that. To her, she was not able to use her yard and I completely understand that is upsetting. I really did jump through a bunch of hoops to try and figure out how to make it work and, as this was my first attempt, I failed! Big time. I really hope this doesn't end up with the city ag inspector leaving me a little note. Makes me even more eager to work on getting the code changed to allow for small scale beekeeping. I wish there was a better understanding of how to live in harmony with all of nature and especially, in this case, with honeybees. They are magical and wondrous creatures. How to convey that to the uninitiated? and even more so to those who would rather watch tv than look at the stars or who think that dirt is "dirty" instead of cool or who think their food comes from the grocery store?
I guess that's my real question and I know the answer is the revolution/evolution starts from within. I suspect if I was less self-righteous about my urban homesteading path (and less defensive about feeling like everyone thinks my food forested landscape is a mess) I'd be more friendly. If I was more friendly I'd probably feel happier and would be more nice in general. That's probably my biggest urban homesteading challenge. The techniques I can google and read about. It's the communication strategies to spread the word (preach is sister!) in an inviting, inspiring way that make me stumble. Always more to learn...

Happy Easter Bunnies!

Today I dedicate my long overdue post to my four beloved bunny rabbits. I sincerely hope that none of you or anyone you know got inspired by the Easter holiday to pick up a cute baby bunny from the petstore or the guy on the corner.

Rabbits make very challenging pets and have a nasty habit of dying and getting eaten by predators. If you are the predator and you intend to raise rabbits for meat more power to you. I fancy the idea of such things but am way too fond of my pets (and after you spend a couple thousand at the vet for surgery for a rabbits broken leg it's highly unlikely that bunny will ever end up on your dinner plate).

Let me tell you a little about why rabbits are lousy pets. Rabbits, in fact, are surrendered to shelters in percentages far above their relative abundance as pets. You must know what you are getting in to before you take one of these adorable furry nose twitching cute little critters home with you! They can die of heart attacks if frightened by predators (not a good idea to leave them in the backyard in a hutch that doesn't have bomb proof protection). Hawks will take them from above if you let them run free. They can burrow out of fences unless you put the fence several feet underground around their enclosure. They chew electrical cords (causing great damage to the bunny as well as to your electronics) and furniture - actually anything they can including clothes, bedding, papers, cardboard, books, shoes, sometimes fingers. They are infrequently perfectly litter box trained (one of the four of mine is impeccable. The other three not so much) - their poops are little hard balls of compressed straw, not a big deal to pick up but if you are at all fecalphobic this will be a problem for you. They are prey animals and will rarely be affectionate with you, a predator. If they are picked up incorrectly (as children will often do) they can break their backs and be permanently paralyzed. They have a very sensitive digestion that, when disturbed, can cause stasis (no gut movement) and cause a very painful death within days. As prey animals they don't let you know when they are sick so by the time you notice it's often too late. Rabbit vets are few and expensive. Now why would anyone have an animal like that as a pet?

I got initiated into the world of rabbits when a custodian at school was desperate to get rid of the three he acquired (one was on purpose, another was to keep the first one company and the third just showed up). They were small when initially purchased and then grew to be 3-4 pound rabbits that poop and pee their weight in nitrogen rich (and stinky) stuff daily. and he lived in an apartment. yuck. They all three lived in a small cage that meant they didn't even get to run around. I assumed I'd put them in a hutch in the backyard and happily harvest the fertilizer they made as an amendment to my garden soil. and then I stumbled upon the House Rabbit Society. This site totally changed my opinion about what to do with rabbits. I learned that they can be litter box trained, that when left alone they go crazy since they are social animals who hang out in groups, that even though they will not be affectionate like a cat or a dog they still bond with their caretakers and have delightful personalities and behaviors. I learned what a binky is (a little dance whereby they lift up their hind end and wiggle to express unbridled joy), I learned that they make little noises to indicate pleasure and pain, and that there is a very passionate group of people out there who are incredibly dedicated to raising awareness of rabbits as companion animals.

I have come to really love my little bunns. My garden flourishes because of what they contribute. My weeds are often treats for them. Their behaviors and personalities are super duper heart meltingly cute. It took a while to learn how to feed them properly (Carrots are crack! Not often and not much!). I now buy bales of grass mix hay and keep it in a rubbermaid bench on my patio as it's MUCH cheaper to buy in bulk. I stopped buying them organic greens from Whole Foods (was I crazy???) and now feed them greens that I weed out of my garden. They mostly eat hay and Oxbow Timothy hay bunny pellets (don't feed rabbits those junk food mixes with dried fruits and veggies). I've got the routine down in how I feed and water and clean their zones. I've figured out that as much as I might wish for them all to live together and get along that it's better to come home and not find blood and tattered ears and bite wounds on them (the two brothers need to be separated from each other and the brothers separated from the two original rabbits).
I think we are all pretty healthy and happy and used to each other. If you want to ask me any specifics I'm happy to share more. I regret to say that I did lose one of my babies last year. I noticed she wasn't her usual rambunctious (shoe eating, furniture destroying, escape artist) self and by then she was frothing and obviously in pain (it can happen FAST). I took her to the vet immediately who discovered that she was aspirating food but we couldn't figure out what was causing the problem. It might be that the initial damage was enough and by then she had too much food in her respiratory system to deal with it. The vet took her home to observe overnight and called me that evening to say that she was in such a state that she gave her the shot to put her out of her misery. The vet and I did a post-mortem dissection to try and figure out what happened but found nothing that suggested a cause. Sigh... We buried her in the back yard and I plant bunny greens on top of her. Seems fitting. Nature designed rabbits to reproduce quickly and to be eaten by all kinds of creatures. They weren't really designed to live long lives. It's something to know if you decide to love a bunny. If you do decide to adopt a rabbit PLEASE get your bunny spayed or neutered even if they are single bunnies as this will double their life span and also avoid a lot of unpleasant behaviors. If you get more than one rabbit this is essential.
Anyway, I hope your Easter day is full of green growing things and happy mammals. Mine is!