Last year on one of those very early spring days of cold shade and clear sunlight, the open space near the front steps to the cabin was filled with a low rumble. It was so loud that I checked the approach to the nearby airport for the gigantic FedEx freight plane preparing to land. I scanned the small yard next to the cabin. The juniper-fragrance of the five-year-old Black Currant bush on the north side of the house filled the warm air. The bush was so full of buzzing bumble bees, disturbing and brushing the leaves, that the oils were released. Beneath the leaves the stems were populated with racemes of retiring bell-shaped flowers, tinged with a light purple promise. Hanging from almost every small flower was a fat, fuzzy bumblebee – beautiful gold-orange-brown-black grizzly bearish pollinators.
Tonight, on this freezing, Wyoming, February evening rich burgundy frozen juice is thawing in a bowl on the kitchen counter. Just a little organic cane sugar will bring out the deep black currant flavors – a little juniper, a lot of dark berry, mildly acidic, like citrus. The final liquid is used as a concentrate to make almost a gallon of juice to drink. After the best and fullest ripe currants had been harvested, the rest were left on the branches to dry on the bush. The dried berries are now kept in Mason jars with pale green burlap secured over the top. These, along with dried wild rose hips, are steeped with the Sri Lankan white tea in a vintage porcelain tea pot for seven to ten minutes: the vapor of the garden in the middle of winter.
The timing of the bumblebees of last spring was perfect. These were the first large pollinators to appear, climbing out of their hibernation seemingly all of a sudden, in one day, and covering the early flowering currant. That will not be true every year.
In the practice of permaculture, we follow the patterns of nature. Nature does not behave in isolated cycles or a single path of progress. Time and space overlap, work with and through each other. When an installation is designed it often includes layers of product: early spring-flowering fruit , mid-summer richness, early fall wine fruit. Late fall includes harvesting the wild rose hips and grapes. Any fruit left on the shrubs or trees or vines decorates the bare branches through winter, often feeding birds and mice until snow covers it all.
As we seek balance in our practice, we need to seek a balanced view of the elements of our landscape. The majority of the currants grown at The Farm were actually pollinated by small flies: all of the red, pink and champagne currants. Observing is the first and foremost permaculture practice. No bees worked on those shrubs. This year the little flies also worked on the grape vines. Honey bees worked on the crabapples and mason and carpenter bees on the wild roses. Some years the buffaloberry shrubs glow with tiny, iridescent wasps on every hidden, yellow flower.
The activity of human beings has disrupted the organized chaos of diversity with monoculture and manicured lawns Some behavior attempts to mitigate the consequences of homo sapiens who are not so wise.
This year, for the first time, a North American bumblebee has been listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as “Endangered”. The Rusty Patched Bumblebee was very common in 31 Eastern and Midwestern states prior to research done in 2000. That research found the bumblebee in only 13 states and part of Ontario Canada. As usual the research also found that the most likely cause was loss of habitat.
Inhabitat magazine reported that Japanese scientists and engineers have developed a small drone that can be programmed to “grab and deposit pollen” in flowers. (February 2017). It goes without saying that isolating one behavior of any element in the landscape does not in any way replace the entire impact of that element. The beating of the wings of a pollinator may have an entirely different impact on the landscape than the whirling of the rotors on a drone.
But the role of any one element in the landscape never carries the field.
Research done by Roger Morse and Nicholas Calderone of Cornell University – done with very rigorous treatment – concluded that approximately $15 billion of the estimated $394 billion in agricultural production is enhanced by bee activity (“Value of Honey Bees As Pollinators”, 2000). In truth, the majority of human-consumed food product is pollinated by wind or self-pollination, or will develop even without the act of pollination. The largest type of food consumed – grains including but not limited to corn, wheat, rice, rye, barley – are wind pollinated.
Nonetheless we are the landscape. The majority of human behavior in the landscape is “take”. Any time a project can incorporate hand craft, nature craft and science it meets the permaculture Rule of Three. This year take a little time to hit the second hand stores or your stacks of unused clay pots in the shed. The Craft Project for 2017 is about pollinators, starting with bumblebee nests.
Bumblebee Nesting Sites
Step One: Timing and Siting
Use the primary method of permaculture – Observation – to identify plants in your landscape where the bumbles appear in the early spring. There are two times that nesting is important. In the spring when the over-wintering queens come out, and in fall when the queens of that year fly out to find protected places to spend the winter. They seek out abandoned rodent holes, or piles of mulch. The clay pot nesting site provides that place. Make sure that you place these out of high-traffic areas as the bees will defend their nesting sites by stinging intruders.
Step Two: Materials.
🐝 Clay pot- second hand and thrift stores are great places to find these.
🐝 Wire or plastic mesh
🐝 Abandoned mouse nests – These can be found in hay stacks, or places where there is scattered or remnant hay or straw. They will be light, small pieces of material including grasses, feathers, string. Do not use material if it is significantly soiled. Handle the material with gloves to avoid exposure to hanta or other virus or bacteria.
The old Homelite chainsaw case as home to last year’s mice.
Step Three: Construction
🐝 Use a drill bit the same size as your tubing so it will fit snuggly.
🐝 Cut or drill holes on one side of the tubing to allow any water that gets into the tube to drain out .
🐝 Fit the tubing tightly into the drilled hole.
🐝 File a groove in the pot bottom edge (when upside down) to let water trapped in the recessed area out.
🐝 Dig a hole that will cover approximately 2/3 of the pot.
🐝 Place one piece of curved mesh in the bottom of the hole to keep the nesting material off of the damp soil.
🐝 Place the nesting material on top of the mesh.
🐝 Place the clay pot, upside down, into the hole, with the tubing extending above ground but close to the surface, to resemble a rodent den entry.
🐝 Pack earth tightly around the pot and tubing.
🐝 The drain hole – formerly on the “bottom” of the pot – is now exposed. Place the second piece of mesh with grass or small leaf pieces under it, over the drain hole. This will allow for some air flow for the nesting area.
🐝 Place a curved piece of broken or cut smaller pot in an arch over the mesh to hold it in place.
🐝 Place plants favored by the bumble bees near the nesting
The ice remains beneath the surface of the earth. But materials are ready to go. There are several excellent videos on YouTube on bumblebee nests. Use this time to look up the various bumble bee types in your region. Very soon cuttings from the Black Currant will be taken, and in less than five years customers and clients will be able to enjoy the dark richness – and the pollinator’s song.