October 18, 2008

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here yet that somehow I’ve turned into the Reluctant Beekeeper. As in, there are almost 700 hives, the beekeeper quit, and someone has to help figure this mess out. Prior to a few months ago, I think I knew that there were hives. And that bees lived in the hives. And that bees sting, and that I don’t like getting stung. So who knew that this addition to my already overloaded life was about to crop up? For weeks now I’ve been reading very thick books from the UC Davis library, trying to glean the most essential information for the task at hand. Or should I say, trying to figure out what the task at hand is, and do something about it. Bees are a lot like computers. There is a strange vocabulary that accompanies the pursuit, known formally as "apiary". Beekeeping articles talk about "supers" and "nucs" and "queen excluders" and "frames" in the same way computer geeks lovingly discuss "RAM" and "optical disks". And like computers, half the battle is sorting out all the arcane words so that all the articles can make some sense.

Today was spent in the beautiful Capay valley, where we seem to have a lot of hives. A sunny fall day, in the mid-70’s with only the job of counting and marking hives. I think most beekeepers don’t obsess about this kind of recordkeeping, but if I have to do the job, I’m gonna get out my notebook and keep records if I darn well feel like it. That way I can reflect on how wonderful #192 looks or what a horrid mess the wax moths made of #505.

I am finding that bees are really quite amazing. Once the lid is pried open, it’s like watching a machine at work. Hundreds of them, going about their tasks, never resting, always organized. I know from my learning that theirs is a world of chemistry and pheromones, with every single action and behavior driven by things undetactable by humans. It’s a lot like the BORG on Star Trek. So far, since I started doing this, I have not been stung once. Of course I wear about every piece of protective equipment on the market, because I don’t really WANT to get stung. But it’s true what I’ve read, that if you’re deliberate, gentle, and not feeling uptight, there really isn’t much of a problem. I find more than anything that it’s possible to stare at the critters for quite some time, just sort of mesmerized by all the activity.

But the best part of today was the sign leading into one bee location: "If you’re going to cross this pasture, you need to be able to run it in 9.9 seconds, because our bull can do it in 10 seconds flat." And people think bees are the problem…..(there was no bull in there…yet. But before 3 more weeks, I think we’re moving those hives away……)

October 2, 2008

Today was my first day operating a tree shaker for about six hours. Previous to this, I have only personally harvested almonds using the method of 100 years ago–thwacking the tree branches with long poles so that ants, dust, leaves, and almonds came raining down. It’s a filthy job and not really much fun, but it’s the only means by which to harvest the nuts non-mechanically.

So with no little sense of personal amusement I sat in the $100,000, air-conditioned enclosed machine listening to the classical music station while working away. Nice, huh? Well, sort of. If you’ve never see one of these things, they look like something out of Mad Max with a claw coming out of the side. The trees to be shaken are always the ones on the right. There are foot pedals for forward/reverse and RPM. There is a joystick for extending/retracting the rubber-padded claw, closing claw/shaking tree, and further the joystick can change the angle at which the claw can grab the tree trunk or a tree branch. For anyone remotely used to tractor operations, it’s not too difficult. Except, that any mistake can seriously damage the health of the tree…the trees are worth a lot of $$, and it’s not an easy job at all to make no mistakes whatsoever at. Any little error in manipulating the claw or positioning the machine can cause the tree bark to be damaged, which in almonds is an immediate problem for disease entry. So one has to pay very careful attention, all the time. What starts out seeming to be a comfy job morphs into little torments as neck and shoulder and knees and ankles and wrists and fingers stiffen under the repetitive movements. Sure, you’re supposed to get out and stretch often. But the rows and rows of trees leave one to think "just one more tree" before I take a break. Which becomes, "just one more row" before I take a break. And so on. But compared to the work involved not using a machine, I think I’ll stick with the fancy toy. There’s something to be said for pressing the button that shakes the tree. An incredible rain of dusty, nutty mess rains down all around the cab, but none of it gets inside. Moths and spiders and all sorts of little biology lessons roll down the glass windows. Maybe I’ll get to do that job again sometime. Sure beats weeding……

It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. And since I want to spend the day looking at beehives, it surely will rain. Unless I first take the time to cover my firewood and outdoor equipment early in the day–then we won’t get a drop. We shall see…..