Vegetable Seed Starting Calendar for Zone 4-5 VT

greenhouse bustingMany people have asked for our vegetable seed starting calendar so here it is just in time to get the soil and flats dusted off.  If you’re looking to determine how much of each vegetable to grow (desired yield and row feet) please refer to our previous post Oh My is that 850 lbs of Veggies.  Also a very helpful production table can be seen here:

NCSU veggie production table

This is a simple table showing when we plant, and how many, sorted by seeding date.  The quantities were based on our old veggie garden at the farm which was about 16 rows, 4′ wide and 40′ long, 2560 square feet of growing, not including pathways.  Our new garden will be about 520 square feet in raised beds close to the house for small crops we pick often and then another production garden 40′ x 50′ in the field that will hold the corn, squash, dry beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, paste tomatoes, and anything else that doesn’t fit.

vegetable seed starting calendar zone 4b VT seed starting calendar zone 4b VT


The varieties we’ve listed are some of our favorites, but I try new ones every year, mostly form High Mowing Organic Seeds, (HMS) which is located in Wolcott, VT right down the road from where Tim grew up, and Johnny’s Seeds, located in Maine near where I grew up – of course we are probably biased but these are two of the best sources in the country for seeds that have been trialed to work well on organic homesteads and small farms.  We select varieties based on flavor, but more importantly disease resistance.  Two of the new varieties we are excited to try from Johnny’s are:


Caribou Russet Potato

Caribou Russet Potato


Caribou Russet Potato Tubers

New! New russet for the northern states.

A new release from the University of Maine that is excellent for baking and mashing. Moderate yields of very attractive, oval to oblong, russeted tubers that store well. Variety was bred for and performs best in cool climates, so should only be grown in the northern tier (New England and states that border Canada). Moderately resistant to common scab and verticillium wilt; resistant to golden nematode race Ro1.


Omero Red Cabbage

Omero Red Cabbage


Omero(F1) Cabbage Seed

New! Mid-season red with good flavor. The avg. 3-lb heads are a vibrant bright red and are round to slightly oval. Good, slightly sweet, and peppery flavor. Suitable for planting at close spacing to produce mini heads. More attractive than Super Red 80, which it replaces.

Two from High Mowing are:

  1. Chiba Soybean

    Chiba Soybean

    Organic Non-GMO Chiba Green Soybean – OPEN-POLLINATED Super early edamame with delicious, very large green seeds. Consistently 5-7 days earlier than Midori Giant, yet still blew away the competition for flavor. Compact, upright plants make harvesting easy and produce predominantly 3-seeded pods with attractive deep green color. Widely adapted throughout North America. Great for small gardens! Early · Compact habit (Glycine max) Days to maturity: 75-80 days

  2. Yellowfin Zucchini

    Yellowfin Zucchini

    Organic Non-GMO Yellowfin F1 Yellow Zucchini – HYBRID The first organic yellow zucchini with PM resistance! Uniform, cylindrical fruits with pure gold color and buttery flavor simply glow at market. Compact, nearly spineless plants have an open habit for ease of harvest. Strong resistance to powdery mildew and intermediate resistance to CMV for a reliable harvest even in challenging field conditions.


There are so many great vegetable gardening books out there, including those from our local food gardening writer Charlie Nardozzi.  Charlie’s most recent book is called Foodscaping and looks at creative ways of incorporating vegetables and fruits into our everyday landscapes.





#landluv 100 – Sharing our Love, One Photo at a Time


Shelburne VT Goldenrod Meadow

Our meadow in September in Shelburne VT

Here’s our off-season beat the blues survival plan – we’re posting 100 photos, one every few days for the next 6 months, tagged #landluv, that represent things we love about Landscape, Agriculture and Natural Design.  Each photo could be a favorite plant or combination of plants, a particularly enticing space, a technique that saves time or benefits the greater ecosystem.  It could be a simple detail that makes a design special, or puts a smile on our faces.  The images come from a variety of places but aren’t professional photos (taken by yours truly with a sadly outdated iPhone) – they could be part of a Linden project, or from another designer that we admire, or captured during a stroll through the wild.  In each case we will explain in one sentence why we think the subject deserves a little love.  Short and Sweet.

Follow the #landluv 100 (subscribe to the Blog, Twitter @lindenlandscape and through Twubs, or Facebook) and learn something new, be inspired, or just dream a little dream.

Dreaming of a VT Gentleman’s Farm? Now’s your Chance

two girls on a porch swing with lilacsIt still seems surreal to me, the fact that we are leaving the place we’ve called home for the last 15 years, the place we’ve toiled over, the place we’ve raised our babies, the place we’ve loved.  But the new house in Shelburne is almost done so we are putting our farm in Addison on the market today.  Yes, the new house is an exciting adventure, where we will be closer to 90% of our clients, have access to fabulous schools and lots of other enriching experiences, but I’m still sad about leaving the farm.  When we settled here, and during the years of renovations and improvements, we said we would never leave.   I’m telling myself the move is a lesson in flexibility, fluidity, adaptability, and resilience – and that the new owners of the farm will love the place we’ve created, make it their own, and its deep history will continue to evolve.

outside - southWe have built a website www.EverestFarmVT that describes the farm and has a ton of photos.  The property sleeps 20 with all the outbuildings (5-bdrm farmhouse, summer cottage, studio and guesthouse) and would be perfect as a farmstay B&B, or as an elegant summer home with a year-round farmer/caretaker living in the guesthouse.  We renamed it Everest Farm since it was the Everest family who built it in the late 1700s and occupied it for four generations.  A new Linden Farm will be built on our 15 acres in Shelburne.   So if you’re in the market to buy a lovely property on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, or know somebody who is looking, let us know.   Everybody is welcome to enjoy a taste of the Good Life in the gallery below.

Raising “Mongrel” Bees without Chemo

bees on front of hive with snow

The bees first flight of the year

Hooray, they made it, they made it!  We can’t help but do a little dance at the end of winter when the bees emerge.  The hive on the right is the stronger of the two it seems, but I won’t know until it warms up a bit more and we can open them up.  The left hive has a bit of brown goo from their cleansing flights, which makes me worry a bit about Nosema, a microscopic organism that destroys the lining of the bee’s gut.  It’s mainly a concern during the winter months when the bees have been confined for long periods of time and can’t get rid of the indigestible matter that builds up in their digestive systems.  The conventional treatment is to use the chemotherapy antibiotic treatment fumagillin.  Wait, what ?!?  No thanks.  Luckily, in Vermont it hasn’t been too much of a problem and we keep following the advice of our local Organic beekeeping guru, Ross Conrad, who believes that if we continue to raise the overall immunity of the hive by ensuring proper nutrition, ventilation, and avoiding heavy fall feeding of syrup we will raise strong healthy bees that can avoid most diseases like Nosema.  Ross says:


“The more genetic diversity that exisits in your hives, the better… Raising “mongrels” rather than “thoroughbreds” gives a greater depth of genetic diversity that will give the bees an edge when dealing with unexpected challenges”.


raising queen bees man in bee suit

Picking up a new Queen from Lemon Fair Honeyworks

We also increase the vitality of the hive by re-queening package bees with local mite-resistant, super hygienic queens, that we buy from Andrew Munkres, Lemonfair Honeyworks in Cornwall, VT.

We are very lucky to have a world class queen breeder here in the Champlain Valley – Kirk Webster of Champlain Valley Bees and Queens, as well as his long-term apprentices (including Andrew Munkres).  Kirk holds two open house field days: April 25, and July 25, 2015; rain or shine–9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, at his apiary located at 1437 South Street, New Haven, VT.

queen bee cell in box

Queen cell ready to be inserted into one of our hives

I’m very encouraged by the enthusiasm of so many people that want to keep bees and the patience of our mentors.  I was just talking with a friend who is a teacher and her class is taking on beekeeping under the mentorship of Ross Conrad.  Go bees (and students), go!


Raising Hardy Pastured Pigs in VT

Tamworth Berkshire piglets

George and Walter, two of our pastured piglets

In the beginning of June we buy 2-3 weaned piglets that are about eight weeks old from a few local breeders in Addison County, including Alethea Bahnck who owns a farm in Bridport.  She started a bit of an heirloom pastured-pig revolution here (her talks at the NOFA-VT conferences are always well attended), and we’re all fortunate to have access to the offspring of her efforts.  Her pigs are a Tamworth-Bershire cross, both of which are an old British breed.  She also tries to match her method of raising them as close to their social habits in the wild as possible, such as letting the sows farrow singly in the woods, and grouping the teenager piglets into wandering herds.  It’s a world away from the intensive pig farms where 5,000 animals never leave a concrete floor, and we are grateful.

Tamworths are red-haired, and adapted to cold climates and are very good at foraging on pasture and in woods.  Tamworths have very distinct personalities; they are intelligent and playful and enjoy the company of their human counterparts. They also have a reputation for producing the best bacon, but their lean meat makes the entire pig ideal for taste and health reasons as well.  If you’re considering raising them be aware that they also love to wander.  Despite solid fencing, I have spend more than one evening tromping up the hedgerow with a flash light to find the waywards, and even once had to stop traffic to herd 200-pounders back home that were on a neighborhood acorn tasting tour.

Some piglets show more of their Bershire traits

Our piglets last year showing more Bershire

Berkshires are black-haired, and are prized for the high quality of their meat.  Berkshire pork has recently earned the reputation as the next Kobe beef, enjoyed in the best restaurants for the same reasons the House of Windsor adopted it as their swine of choice over 300 years ago.  Berkshire pork is fatter and darker than the pork you buy in the store, and it remains rich and juicy when cooked.

The cross of the Tamworth and Berkshire breeds creates a perfect pasture-pig for Vermont – piglets are hardy, resourceful and size up by late November.  Sometimes the piglets look more like Tamworths (like George and Walter) and sometimes they look more like Bershires (like Jelly Bean and Licorice in the photo above).

The real challenge with pastured pigs is that they like to root up pasture, like all of it, which can be an advantage if you’re trying to till an area, but a disadvantage if your sheep want to keep grazing the clover.  So we don’t put them on the permanent pasture with the sheep.  Instead they get their own pasture, and once they tear up a whole section we rake it out and re-seed it with a hog pasture mix and some Mammoth Red Mangels from Johnny’s Seeds.  They also get a local natural grain, and they get windfall apples from the orchard.  Their favorite thing of course is the left-over croissant dough and veggie scraps from The Vergennes Laundry bakery – we supply them with eggs and get all their amazing compost.  Lucky piggies indeed.

Once they reach 200 pounds around six months of age, and our root cellar is cold enough to be used for chilling, we humanely slaughter the pigs here on-farm, and then we butcher and process the meat here as well.  See a related blog post “The Art of Pork” about how we process sausage, bacon and hams.  We’re always happy to share our experiences with others, so let us know if you have questions or you’d like to visit the farm.

Find a Shrubbery, then maybe a Golden-winged Warbler

golden winged warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

I can’t help it, every time I hear the term “Shrubland Birds”, I think of the quote from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail – “First you must find… another shrubbery!”  Jokes aside, shrubland really is important.  It’s essential habitat for hundreds of species in Vermont including a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), the Golden-winged Warbler.

Shrubland habitat in the Champlain Valley

Shrubland Habitat in the Champlain Valley

Shrubland is early successional forest, which consists of thickets of shrubs and woody cover, interspersed with grassy and herbaceous openings.   A mixture of short and tall shrubs, with scattered trees and herbaceous openings is ideal.  This habitat can often be found on old fields or lightly grazed pastures on farms in the Champlain Valley.  Right down the road from our new Shelburne property is Geprags Park, which is currently being managed to promote early successional shrubland habitat.  The town of Hinesburg, in partnership with Audubon VT and UVM, have put together a great birding trail which I look forward to walking this spring.

American Woodcock

American Woodcock

Shrubland birds other than the Golden-winged warbler are also in danger – specifically the American Woodcock, the black-billed cuckoo, whip-poor-will, the chestnut-sided warbler, mourning warbler, common yellowthroat, Canada warbler, Eastern towhee, and indigo bunting (Hunter et al. 2001).  Populations of American Woodcock have declined about 2% a year for the past thirty-eight years (Kelley and Rau 2006).  In Vermont, the American woodcock was placed in the highest priority conservation status.  Hopefully conservation of shrublands will help rebuild the population of American Woodcocks so more of us can witness their air dance, or mating ritual in April – I’ve heard it’s quite a show.

But it’s not just birds that need shrubland – there are over 200 vertebrate species that rely on it including the Eastern cottontail, and the bobcat (in search of rabbits as prey), and bear in search of plants and berries.  There are also rare snake species that use shrublands for cover such as the Eastern racer, rat snake, and green snake.  Pollinators use shrublands for food, breeding and resting stops along their migration routes.

So why are all these species in trouble?  Shrubland isn’t very popular.  It often gets labelled as “wild overgrowth” and is symbolic of farms in decline, (as in, “oh they’ve really let that one go”.)  But where one person might see neglect, another person might see a home, and with the knowing comes caring.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for conservation-minded landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on their private agricultural and forest land.  The federal program is funded through the Farm Bill by NRCS, which is part of the USDA.  The VT NRCS wrote a WHIP Plan in 2007 which outlines conservation goals and strategies for enhancing Aquatic and Riparian habitats, Wetland habitats, Grassland and Old Fields, and Forest Habitats.

Specifically WHIP has incentives for protecting shrubland birds, and Agencies are joined in these efforts by many other Regional and State groups including the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, VT Audubon (Champlain Valley Bird Initiative), and the VT Land Trust.

If you want to learn more about how to manage your shrublands as habitat, funding is available for southwestern Chittenden County, western Addison County and northwestern Rutland County.  The annual deadline is at the end of January, so you have plenty of time to do a bit of research to see if the program is right for you, and then apply.  Contact Heather at the Colchester, VT USDA Service Center for more information.

Heather Wetzstein
Phone: 802-951-6796 ext. 223

No-Till, Covercrops and the Plan to Save Lake Champlain

Hairy Vetch, Crimson Clover and rye cover crop

Hairy Vetch, Crimson Clover and rye cover crop

I have high hopes for cover crops and no-till farming methods, both to save water quality in Lake Champlain, as well as to prevent the erosion of precious soils and to increase the carbon sink capacity of farmland across the country.

As Tom Philpot explains in his September 2013 article One Weird Trick to Fix Farms Forever in Mother Jones, our soil is a limited resource, and we should be concerned with its preservation. According to University of Washington soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil under natural conditions. Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel reckons that “90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.”   And then there’s climate change.  Under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as what the USDA has deemed a “modest carbon sink”—sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.  However, if all US farms adopted the use of cover crops and no-till planting methods their fields could absorb 25x more carbon – equivalent to taking nearly 10 percent of the US car fleet off the road.

Sediment Plume into Lake Champlain

Sediment Plume into Lake Champlain

Soil loss and carbon aside, our biggest motivator to use No-Till Drill cover crops is to protect water quality.  Since EPA disapproved the Vermont 2002 Lake Champlain Phosphorus TMDL on January 24, 2011 there has been quite a bit of activity on the subject of cover crops, culminating in the recent No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium hosted by UVM Extension – Champlain Valley Crops, Soil and Pasture Team, VT Agency of Agriculture and the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

There are many advantages us using no-till drills to plant both cover crops and main crops.  They allow farmers to get on a field later in the season (up to October 15th), and put in a crop of winter rye.  Winter rye grows fast, holds onto nutrients, and in the spring it can add nutrients to the field.  The roots help minimize soil loss from erosion and protect soil structure and health. The crop also conserves soil moisture, limits surface water runoff and requires fewer field operations.

UVM Extension No-Till Drill

UVM Extension No-Till Drill

In 2012, UVM Extension provided the use of no-till drills to 49 farmers who used them to plant 1,672 acres. Farmers no-till planted 560 acres of pasture on 19 farms, 802 acres of hayland on 20 farms and 310 acres of winter grain cover crops on 13 farms.  I can’t wait to hear what some of the initiatives are for the farms in our end of the watershed – I truly hope they can embrace the new practice soon and reduce the annual spring flow of sediment into the Otter Creek.  I love the fact that the Agency is getting behind the initiative and provides financial assistance to farmers for cover cropping and no-till, but there’s still work to do.  The majority of farms around us have been uncovered bare soil all winter – not a lick of winter rye cover crop in sight, and the Roundup Ready Corn planted in spring means that the soil is bare between corn rows all year long.  Our Clayplain soils are so fine that they are easily suspended and carried into surface water, where their Phosphorous content contributes to algae blooms.

Clover as a cover crop

Clover as a cover crop

I found a great introductory blog post about written by Kirsten Workman who works for UVM Extension as an Agronomy Outreach Professional for the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team.  She works with farmers to implement practices to improve crop production and protect water quality.  She has a great list of things you can do on your farm to protect water quality.   I think many of her suggestions can be applied to gardens as well, especially cover cropping.  A great source for cover crop seed for vegetable gardeners, homesteads, and small farms is Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  Many clovers make great semi-permanent cover crops between rows of long-term crops like strawberries and grapes.  Check it out, and plant some green manure this spring!



How to be a Bobolink’s BFF

When I take that first walk up the field in May and hear the song of the Bobolinks, that’s when I know summer is truly on its way, in all its joyous glory.  Their bright yellow cap matches the color of the dandelions and their bubbling song brings everything alive.  They’re fun to watch too – their aerial acrobatics during mating are well-known to birders and farmers.  They are a romantic bird – they play a starring role in many childhood memories full of bucolic, pastoral landscapes, made sweeter with increased rarity.  They are a symbol of our Vermont values – we care about both the working landscape and wildlife. Their presence is an indicator of a healthy habitat, so when we hear that they are in big trouble, many of us sit up and listen.

In the last 40 years the Bobolink population in the northeast has declined by 75 percent according to the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas.  Even in ideal conditions they have their work cut out for them.  As migratory songbirds they travel 12,000 miles each year (sometimes travelling up to 1,000 miles in a single day), heading to South America for the winter and returning to the field they were born to nest in the summer.  For many Bobolinks that place is large hay fields in Vermont, which cover 360,000 acres of the State.  The Bobolink decline is due in part to the fact that hayfields are harvested 2-3 times a summer and 2-3 weeks earlier then they were 70 years ago (frequent harvesting is done to ensure that the highest amount of nutrients remains in the hay), as well as a shift from timothy and clover hay crops to alfalfa and corn, and the use of larger mowing and raking equipment.  Mowing not only destroys nesting sites but exposes fledglings to predation with mortality near 100 percent.

Bobolink nest in a Vermont meadow

Bobolink nest in a Vermont meadow

It’s really a problem of timing.  Bobolinks arrive in VT in mid-May, build nests on the ground with a combination of course grasses, twigs and fine grasses and then lay 3-7 eggs.  Their nesting cycle is 42 days long but remain in their nesting region for approximately 9 weeks before again migrating southward.    If a Bobolink arrives on May 1st, count forward 42 days and it’s June 11th, prime time for the first cut of hay, and since the hay cycle averages 35 days in VT, there will be a repeat mowing in mid-July.  When farmers take repeated hay crops from a field, bobolinks in that field fledge zero young.  But simply delaying the mowing until after mid-July doesn’t really work either – farmers can’t afford to lose half their forage, and the second cutting of hay has less nutritional value.

So What’s the Solution?

An incentive program through NRCS (part of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) called EQIP Grassland Bird Management practice was very successful until funding ran out.  This practice paid landowners up to $135 per acre for 3 years for performing an early hay cutting (before May 31) and waiting 65 days before the next cut.  Qualifying fields had to be high quality habitat for grassland birds (rectangular or square in shape, at least 20 acres in size, and have less than 10% reed canary grass).  About 1,300 Vermont acres were enrolled in the program, until the government dropped the incentive to $86 an acre in 2012.

“Sometimes it takes a village”

Enter The Bobolink Project, an independent economic incentive program.  It’s a collaborative effort of University of Vermont (UVM) Extension, UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and the University of Connecticut (UConn).  The program offers a way for Vermonters to support farms interested in managing their lands for wildlife by raising money through voluntary contributions to provide a financial incentive for farmers to delay mowing their hayfields until after the bobolink-nesting season is over.  Last year the project raised over $31,000 to protect bird nesting habitat on 200 acres of Vermont hayfields.  Most contributions ranged from $10 to $100 with several pledges well above $100 and one household pledging $2,500.  100 percent of the money collected in Vermont went directly to Vermont farmers dispersed through a reverse auction system.

200 acres is a far cry from the 360,000 acres of fields in the State, yet Dr. Stephen Swallow, UConn agricultural and resource economics professor and project leader, is hopeful, and so am I.  The program is still relatively new and we have all seen examples of small donations coming together to make big differences – we just need to spread the word and express our love for both the working landscape and wildlife in Vermont.

For more information about the Bobolink Project, visit the web site or contact Stephen Swallow at 860-486-1917 or 401-864-8579 or by e-mail at

Bobolink Project Facebook Page

Across the Fence show on Bobolink Project

EcoLandscape Principles get Real – A Concept Plan in 10 Steps

Shelburne VT

Walking the new Shelburne Property

We are waist-deep in the design of our new Shelburne, VT property and we’ve been thinking about how we can share our design process with others. We would like to demonstrate how we move from Principles of Ecological Landscaping and Sustainable Agriculture to the actual application, and how a similar design process could be applied to other properties.  The model could help others visualize what Ecological Landscape Design means in the context of their daily lives, and then be tailored to help achieve site specific goals.

The design process starts with drafting a concept plan.  First we look at the existing property on Google Earth or Bing Maps.  Here’s what our property looks like now:

15 acre property in Shelburne VT

15 acre property before applying concepts

Here’s what it looks like after I draw in the landscape concept “bubbles”:

Ecological Landscape Concept Plan for 15-acre Shelburne VT Property

Ecological Landscape Concept Plan for 15-acre Shelburne VT Property

Each bubble is numbered and encompasses an area that represents an individual biotope (habitat), or human use such as agriculture or housing.  I will list here what our goals are for each area.  (Many of this year’s blog posts will focus on these 10 different goals, our strategies for accomplishing them in the Champlain Valley and how we can incorporate them into properties of all sizes in the Northeast US).

Here they are:

1) Protect Rare and Uncommon Species

2) Connect Habitat Blocks with Corridors

3) Protect Water with Buffers

4) Keep Forest Areas Forested

5) Preserve High Quality Agricultural Lands while Protecting Grassland Habitat

6) Site New Structures for Least Disturbance (houses, barns, driveways)

7) Allow Old Fields to Succeed into Shrubland

8) Create Pollinator Meadows

9) Plan the Landscape of the Home Zone to be Beautiful and Functional

10) Create a Habitat Trail

Moving forward I will draw two additional sample concept plans for smaller typical residential parcels in the Champlain Valley – a 2-acre parcel and a 1/2-acre parcel. I’ve selected the smaller two parcels at random, but one thing all three parcels have in common is that they are all in Shelburne, VT and have open space that was probably once farmland and is currently being mowed.  Here’s what they look like:

2 acre parcel before concept plan

2 acre parcel

1/2-Acre Parcel in Shelburne VT

Randomly selected 1/2-Acre Parcel in Shelburne VT

Once I complete the sample plans I will use all three in presentations both to individual clients but also to different groups (Rotary, garden clubs, conferences, schools, etc.) to illustrate how we can achieve typical aesthetic landscape goals while providing ecosystem services (water quality protection, habitat for wildlife, carbon footprint reduction, etc.).  Let me know if you are interested in hearing the presentation and I’ll add you to the list.  Time to get back to the drawing board!



Heartbreak and Hope – When you Lose a Beehive

The dead hive opened

The dead hive opened

On a walk past the bee yard the other day I paused to put my ear to the hive, something I do regularly throughout the winter.  I discovered that only one of our two hives was making its normal faint buzzing sound.  It was a warm (45 degree) sunny day so I opened the silent hive and found it full of dead bees, many of them near the top but also many with their noses deep in the comb, a sign of starvation.

two bee hives in snow

our hives under snow

I felt terrible – I thought I had left them enough honey for the winter, but maybe not?  On closer inspection I found a few frames of capped honey not far from the cluster of bees.  The upper entrance showed evidence of cleansing flights and there were quite a few dead bees outside on the ground in the snow – had they been sick or was it just too cold?  Each hive had an insulated winter cover with plenty of air flow to keep them dry.

I tried not to get teary, but instead stomped around the bee yard in frustration.  Like any new parent I was plagued with doubt  and guilt – what did I do wrong?  Plenty, I’m sure, but how do I make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again?

Our adventure with bees began three years ago at the Burlington screening of the award-winning documentary film “Queen of the Sun: What Bees are Telling Us”.  I then took Ross Conrad’s Organic Beekeeping course and passed the exam given by the Vermont Beekeeper’s Association.

Our two hives did fairly well the first year, but to be safe we didn’t extract any honey.  They came through the winter very strong, so strong that I missed preventing one of the hives from swarming, leaving it mostly empty with a Queen cell.  I’m afraid I did something to interrupt the acceptance of the new queen or she didn’t return from her mating flight, because after 6 weeks there were no new eggs.

The two hives after splitting and new Queen

The two hives after splitting and new Queen

So I split the strong hive and introduced a new Russian Queen.  I made notes on which boxes had nectar, eggs, and capped brood.  Throughout the rest of summer they seemed very strong, I added supers as they needed them, and then we extracted honey in early September.

extracting honey

extracting honey

We took 3.5 gallons total from the two hives, leaving a full shallow on each, and an empty shallow for the bees to fill during the goldenrod flow.  In October one of the two hives seemed weaker and hadn’t filled their second super, so I did a mite count using my IPM board and they both had a fairly heavy infestation, so I fed the hive, adding BeeHealthy, and treated them both for mites with ApiVar.  There was no evidence of Nosema or Foulbrood.   We did have some pretty cold weather this winter, but I’m questioning how much honey I left them, and plan to leave them more next year.

Bee inspection in September

Bee inspection in September

So what’s my plan for my dead hive?  First I’m going to clean it out and do some more investigating.  Here’s my plan – Take out the frames one by one and brush off the dead bees and vacuum out the ones still in cells.  Scrape of any bridge or burr comb and propolis from the frames and inspect the comb to see if any frames need replacing.  Do the same with the hive bodies, cleaning off the frame rests etc. where the propolis really gets in the way.  Then I’ll work my way down to the bottom board getting everything cleaned up.  It might be a while before the new bee package arrives so I’ll store the empty hive in the barn (where it’s still freezing) in a plastic bag until it warms up outside and then air it out in the greenhouse so it doesn’t mildew.

installing new bees

installing new bees with Gabbie

I have to decide soon if I’m going to order a new package of bees with a new Russian Queen or try to raise a new queen from the overwintered hive, and split it in June.  The advantage of splitting an overwintered hive is that hopefully some of the genetic material of the bees that survived can be passed to the new hive, breeding tougher, more resistant bees.  This is the approach of both Ross Conrad and Kirk Webster, a well-known Vermont honeybee queen breeder, who didn’t use chemicals at all when tracheal mites were first discovered in the state in the late 1980s. He lost 95 percent of his bees the first year, but by breeding the survivors, now has a resistant stock.  I would love one of his queens but there’s a two-year wait-list.  Knowing how busy we are in spring, I’ll probably start with a fresh box of bees in early May.

zombie bee

zombie bee

Losing hives is fairly common now (30% is the average) – honey bee colonies are overrun with difficulties (Colony Collapse Disorder, Nosema, and now Zombie bees.  Our wild bees are almost extinct (the national Academy of Science reported a 96% decline in the four abundant species), and it’s now being shown that wild and domesticated bees are passing diseases to each other.

To make matters worse the U.S. market is being flooded with cheap honey from China (laundered through other Asian countries – see this article on Honey laundering) and this honey is often contaminated with banned antibiotics and diluted with corn syrup, yuck.  The flood of cheap foreign honey is reducing demand for local honey = fewer hives = fewer pollinators = less local food.

So, yes if we want to keep eating healthy food we need to become advocates for healthy bees and local raw honey.  Let’s all cross our fingers, and say a prayer for a warm spring full of blossoms and healthy bees.