Bees battle more than just pesticides

When news of the struggle bees are up against worldwide with neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse reached us down here in Namibia, we were grateful that the bees around us seemed healthy, happy and populous.  Here on our farm we had 15 swarms living in boxes with an extra one always strategically placed for a house-hunting swarm to pass by.  But this year our bees had their own struggle and, sadly, lost.

We should’ve known – last year was just too good.  Although Namibia was sick with drought, our bees scrounged up food from somewhere and produced a miraculous 150 kilograms of honey.  It was ridiculous, but we were delighted, nonetheless.

This year, we prayed for rain, dreading the thought of another dry year and what it would do to the farm.  Luckily, the rain came – over double what fell last year.  That rain awakened all the bugs which had stuck it out underground, waiting for humid conditions to return.  And the skies went black.

Well, not really, but the bee boxes did.  Big, black beetles called chafers, began swarming, bullying their way into any hole they could fit their fat butts through, to get to the juicy bee larvae inside.  We tried our best to plug any holes, leaving only enough room for the bees to pass, but the beetles bulldozed through anyway.  We’d try to bat them out of the air and squish the prowlers on the outside of the box, but that often ended in getting stung by a pissed-off bee.  During subsequent box inspections, we’d find 50+ beetles lumbering around.  And no honey.  The bees were spending more time fighting them off then collecting food.

The beetles...

The beetles…

...ready for squishing

…ready for squishing.

Later in the season, the death’s head moths came, so called because of the skull image on their back.  Clearly, an unfun bug.  They are big as far as moths go, but fairly flat, and so can squeeze through narrower holes that the beetles wouldn’t fit through.  Sometimes they did us a favor and got stuck in one of them and died, effectively plugging that hole against future invaders.  But when duty called to smush them manually, they made an awful, alien screeching sound – a new sound effect for my nightmares.

The jerks, next to my pocketknife for comparison.

The jerks, next to my pocketknife for comparison.

As if that weren’t enough for our bees to battle, then the wax moths showed up.  These are much smaller, about the size of a blueberry, but white and dull.  They lay their eggs in the box which hatch into equally bland worms.  The worms, however, grow big and plump, eating and pooping their way through the beeswax.  It is not uncommon to find a box deserted by the swarm, yet full of worms, their poop, and their cocoons.  On our last inspection, that’s exactly what happened.

Inside a bee box, showing the frames upon which they build their combs, covered in cocoons and tiny worm poops

Inside a bee box, showing the frames upon which they build their combs, covered in cocoons and tiny worm poops…

...and the butterballs themselves, whom I take great pleasure in feeding to the chickens.

…and the butterballs themselves, whom I take great pleasure in feeding to the chickens.

Box after box was silent and empty.  We had checked on them only a few weeks before, and they were still strong, but the parasite triumvirate was too much.  From 15, we are now down to 5.

Even from the surviving boxes, beetles, moths, and worms were hauled out and stomped.  Though, with cooler weather upon us, they seem to be slowing down – hopefully, the worst is over.  The swarms that are left now have a few weeks to stock up for winter.  If they do manage a bit of honey, it will be well earned and they’ll get to keep it.  Our dwindling supplies will have to hold until spring.

As with many things, we can now only wait and see if the bugs exhausted their forces this year and if whatever comes next season is a load that the bees can handle.  Otherwise, we’ll need a serious consultation in pest control; pesticides clearly not an option.  Any advice from fellow bee folk out there is most welcome.

Sweepings from just one room of the three-room bee house - beetles, moths, and the bees who gave their lives to fight them.

Sweepings from just one room of the three-room bee house – beetles, moths, and the bees who gave their lives to fight them.

The unexpected harvests

Jay always says “Namibia is full of surprises”.  While it’s true, they tend not to be surprises one would appreciate (like this).  Now and then, though, this country comes through with something pretty cool.

It started with the oranges; a significant happening for us because last year we got to eat exactly zero oranges, thanks to one of Namibia’s plagues that it periodically inflicts upon people.  Some sort of citrus fruit fly stung each and every fruit on our ten trees, causing them to rot from the inside out before they ripened.  So this year fly traps were constructed out of old two liter soda bottles collected from the dump.  These were then filled with cow poop, spoiled milk, moldy meat, and other smelly things and hung amongst the baby fruits.  I never found many bugs inside them but there were lots of maggots.  Don’t know whose maggots, but certainly it was better to have them in there than anywhere out here.  And it seemed to have worked.  Though a few fruits are still lost, many more hang on the branches awaiting our stomachs.  We eat armfuls everyday which I plan to continue until we, or something else, have consumed them all.

Then there’s the honey, which is a small chunk of miracle.  The drought this year didn’t do great things for our bees’ pollen supply.  Every time we checked on them the combs were nearly empty.  As a result, we’ve been safeguarding our last bucket of honey, expecting no more until November when things begin to bloom again.  The bees, however, have defied the lack of rain and suddenly found a mysterious yet plentiful source of food and filled their boxes up anyway.  Leaving a bit behind for their winter reserves, we’ve harvested over 100kg from our 13 swarms.  Everything in the kitchen- the floor, the counters, the stove, all the silverware, the refrigerator, the dog- was covered in honey for about a week, but it was worth it.  And only one sting in the entire operation, on my foot, when I stepped on a little guy roaming the floor for spillages.

Strangely, the last harvest came at the same time as the other two, and though it was more of my own doing, it contributed greatly to my bewilderment.  For a while now I’ve been trying to wrangle mycelium, the parent organism of fungus, into growing oyster mushrooms for me.  I took a class at the University of Namibia back in November and have been bumbling through the process ever since with very little success.  Until this week, we’ve reaped a total of 5 mushrooms from my efforts.  Somehow, my temperature, humidity, water, nutrients, light, oxygen, hairdo, or facial expression just wasn’t right.  Eventually, the mushrooms got tired of waiting for me to figure it out and just went ahead and grew without me.  Normally, I would need to open the bag of mycelium and the surge of light, water and air would stimulate the oysters to sprout.  Mine, however, sprouted inside the closed bag which I didn’t know was possible.  When I finally caught up and got them opened and watered, they provided Jay and I with three scrumptious meals with more still on the way.

It’s been a crazy week with not a small amount of work, but well rewarded.  And delicious.  It seems Namibia either took pity on us after the past few months she put us through and thought we deserved it, or she’s busy plaguing someone else at the moment and will be back with us at her earliest convenience.

More than it seems

A bit of home maintenance the other day made me realize that I may not be giving Namibia as much credit as it deserves.  Sure, it likes to make life difficult by not raining or sabotaging attempts to grow food, but maybe it’s all just an effort to make us humans a little more resourceful.

See, I’m trying to grow mushrooms – a possibly futile venture to grow something in this country that is not meat. The old building I’m using as the growing room was exactly that, old.  It had a few holes between the cement walls and the tin roofing which were allowing my crucial humidity to be sucked out into the black hole of water that is Namibia.  But rather than using plaster to plug them up, I decided to go natural and brought in some termite dirt.

Indigenous folks around here have long used it to build houses, and still do today.  Mixed with water, the dirt from termite mounds turns into a paste.  Sometimes, cow patties are added for stability and then they pack this stuff around a wooden frame.

The walls of old house on the farm, not used for 14 years, still has some termite dirt standing strong.

So I packed it, sans cow patties, into the holes in my mushroom house.  It was free, took about ten minutes, and seems to be holding the moisture in.

Amidst the packing, I became rather impressed with the termite dirt and what a wonderful job it was doing.  My curiosity about what made it sticky prompted a bit of research.  Surprisingly, the information was not readily available and required digging, but the extra effort was worth it, uncovering much more than what I was seeking.

It seems mound-building termites, such as our local Macrotermes genus, have an “adhesive secretion” which binds the dirt together, allowing them to build their impressive mounds, some reaching more than 3 meters (over 9 feet) high.  It is this secretion which makes the paste, allowing us to build houses or plug holes in walls.

What’s more, this termite dirt, compared to surrounding soil, is loaded with nitrogen, an essential element for plants to grow.  Farmers throughout Africa have figured this out and use termite dirt for fertilizer or simply grow their crops on the mounds.  It can boost production by as much as 5 times that of average harvests.

The dirt is high in other nutrients as well, including calcium, and pregnant women in rural areas have been known to consume this dirt, a process called geophagy, helping with milk production and bone formation of their child.  It is a common practice for undernourished children as well.  So not only do people consume the termites and the mushrooms they grow, but they eat the mound itself.

For me, that is the essence of Namibia; one species providing food, shelter, and medicine.  It’s not really an abundance kind of place, you just need to know where to look.

So it seems I have a lot of learning to do.  But still, I think a little rain wouldn’t hurt….

Saturday afternoon poo spitting

Jay introduced this sport to me this weekend.  Really, it’s a sport.  There is a world championship in South Africa every year.  You can even find it on wikipedia listed under the categories “feces” and “sport in africa”. 

In Afrikaans, they call it “Bokdrol Spoeg”, basically “antelope pellet spit”.  It seems you can use any type of antelope poo, the professionals use kudu.  We went for eland.

Eland are the largest antelope around here, they are about the size of a horse but look more like a cow.  Despite their enormity, they excrete relatively small pellets that weigh nearly nothing. 

When in Rome?

So, Jay walks up with two bokdrols in his hand and challenges me to a Spoeg.  Winner gets to commence the traditional post-Spoeg imbibition.  I get to choose my drol and whether I want to go first or second.  I choose first, I don’t want to be intimidated by Jay’s probable lengthy shot.  As I prepare to stick the poo in my mouth, a red flag goes up in my head. 

“This is a trick.  They say this is a game they play just to get stupid foreigners to put shit in their mouth and then they laugh at them”, I thought.

So I make Jay go first and, no, it’s not a trick, this is actually what they do for fun.  They get really drunk and spit poo and then drink some more.  I suppose that’s the best way to do it.  Unfortunately, we were not really drunk.

Jay leans his head back, takes a running jump, and launches his pellet about 3 meters, or almost 10 feet.  I, hesitantly, put mine in my mouth, am horrified, try to mimic his motions, but quickly and spastically spit, just to get it out.  It flies about a meter, a pathetic 3 feet in front of me, and plops on the ground. 

Wikipedia says the record is 15.56 meters.  That’s like a school bus and a half.  Do people sit around and practice?  Jay says the trick is to moisten the pellet slightly in your mouth first.  With moisture comes momentum.  I’ll try to remember that if I am ever in a life-and-death poo-spitting situation.  I can’t imagine why else I would do this again.

                      Yep.