The honey bees are all over the black locust blooms

Years ago, we decided to let our farm fields grow up to create more habitat diversity for wildlife. This process, called succession, is the natural replacement of plant or animal species in an area over time. In the last six years, our fields have been transformed from overgrown pastureland by the growth of shrubs and young trees, dominated by autumn olive, red cedar, tulip poplar, and black locust.

Black locust is native to the Southern Appalachians, and grows best in bright sunlight and prefers dry limestone soil. It spreads (prodigiously) by underground shoots or suckers, which contribute to its weedy character. The flowers, which open in May (in southwest Virginia) for only 7 to 10 days, appear as large, intensely fragrant white clusters. The locust blossoms are at their peak right now, pulling in the honey bees that return time and time again throughout the day to capitalize on this abundant food source.

Black locust trees in bloom next to our bee hives

Our honey bees are taking full advantage of this window of opportunity. The abundance of black locust makes it a major source of nectar for our bees, producing a light-colored honey with a floral, fruity, delicate flavor. Black locust-sourced honey remains liquid and does not crystallize easily due to its high fructose content.

We’re about to finish up the last jar of last year’s honey. Can’t wait until Bill harvests this spring’s honey!

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renewal

Today was an amazing day at Autumn Song. While eating breakfast, we noticed a recently-fledged Carolina wren staring at us through the French doors from his unsteady perch on the porch railing. For several minutes we watched each other through the glass until the little guy got bored and flew off, rather clumsily, into a nearby tree. When I checked a few minutes later, he was gone, so evidently, he was getting the navigation thing.

Then in the afternoon, one of Bill’s bee hives swarmed. The swarm, which contained thousands of bees, attached itself to a tree near the bee yard in a huge, ominous-looking mass. Swarming is a natural occurrence for bees: when there is no more room in the brood chamber for the queen to lay any more eggs, the hive divides. The queen and about half the bees leave the hive in a swarm (the old hive “grows” a new queen). The swarm generally amasses in a place close to the hive and sends out scouts to find a new home and lead the swarm to the new spot.

Honey bee swarm near the bee yard

During this phase, the bees are fairly docile and can easily be collected and put into a new hive. With the swarm still attached, Bill cut off the limb and with a gentle tap, the bees fell into a rubber tub.

Collecting the swarm in a tub

He then carried the tub back to the bee yard and emptied the bees into a new hive he had prepared.

Emptying the swarm into the new hive

The two boxes pictured above are the brood chamber and will hold the eggs, pollen, and honey. Bill will then add additional boxes (called “supers”), which will hold more honey to be shared by the bees, and, of course, us!

Later that evening, while taking the dogs for a walk, we noticed that the door of the bluebird house in the front field had come unhinged and was hanging. Walking over to take a closer look, we saw two birds, no more than a few days old, huddled inside. (The white blob at the bottom is the downy feathers on the second’s bird head – a horrible picture, I know, but I was reaching up at an awkward angle!)

To our surprise (and dismay), they were not bluebirds at all, but European starlings! Starlings are not native and aggressively compete with bluebirds and other native cavity-nesters, often evicting them from nesting sites. Despite our mixed feelings about starlings, we could not let the babies freeze to death or be eaten by predators. Competition is a natural part of nature; letting the starlings die would not alter that fact, so with mom watching anxiously, we reattached the door. No sooner had we left than the mother flew in to check on her brood.

During this season of renewal, we count ourselves lucky to witness nature’s miracles unfolding all around us.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. — John Muir