Bee Hunting in the Ozarks

The time is rapidly approaching when our friend Jasper will come around, inviting us to come along with him on another Bee Tree Hunt. (for photos of a bee hunt, click here) This is an ideal time for a bee hunt, or “coursing bees”, as it is called around here.  This is a skill that was once common among the subsistence farmers who inhabited this area in the past.  It is an art that is quickly disappearing, so we are fortunate to have Jasper teach us the tricks of the trade.  This is our friend Jasper:

Jasper on a bee tree hunt

Jasper is an incredible man.  At 82 years young, he can scramble up and down these hills and hollers all day long coursing bees, and even being three decades his junior, I can barely keep up with him.  Jasper also gathers black walnuts from our ranch, as well as surrounding farms, and is consistantly the regions leading supplier to the Hammons Walnut Company, who sets up collection stations throughout the Ozarks every fall.  During summer, Jasper will spend about 6 weeks gathering blueberries from a large local farm, which he gladly shares with all his family and friends.  But these are stories for a later day, which I will most probably babble about come this summer.

Meanwhile, I want to share a couple of bee photographs that Retta took last spring.

Bee gathering pollen

Another bee doing its thing

Sometimes I wish that we humans were endowed with 10X zoom, macro-enabled eyes – wouldn’t that be something?

Purple Martin Scouts Have Arrived

Retta reports that the purple martin scouts have arrived in our area.  She has now spotted them and heard their calls twice in the past two weeks.  The scouts are here a little earlier than I had expected them, but now that they are here I had better get their housing in order.  Every fall, after the martins have left for their wintering grounds, I cover the nest rooms with plugs to keep out the “pest” birds.  When the scouts return, in advance of the main contingent of martins, I open the houses back up again.

Purple Martin 24 Unit Condo

Two seasons ago, Retta found an injured martin writhing around on the ground beneath the martin house.  She immediately removed the bird from harms way, and discovered that the martin had a broken leg.  Retta managed to fashion a cast for the bird’s leg out of masking tape.  But feeding the bird became a cause for concern.

Martins are exclusively aerial feeders, performing astounding maneuvers in the sky as they dart back and forth, swooping down upon their airborne prey.  Because of their feeding habits, it is not easy to replicate their diet.  Retta proved equal to the task, however.  With aquarium fish net in hand, she would go about the task of tracking down and catching all manner of insectivoria – including moths off the screen doors.

Purple Martin Food

It was quite amazing, really, to watch her feed this bird live insects with a tweezers, and even more surprising how much it took to satisfy the bird’s hunger.

Retta nurses this martin back to health

The martin was a female, so we naturally began to call her Mary Martin.  Eventually, the bird became healthy, and one day, while Retta was giving her some fresh air, she simply took off.  Fretful at first, we soon realized that she was going about her business in a normal manner, and was raising her own family.  She would fly close to Retta whenever she passed.  We think this was a sign of thanks from her to Retta.  We are very hopeful to see her back again this year.

To Free, or Not to Free (range your chickens, that is)

When we first moved to our place, we soon discovered the joy of cohabiting with ticks.  Buy guineas, we were told by our friendly neighbors, as they do a great job of controlling the tick population naturally, without resorting to pesticide treatments.  So we bought a couple of dozen pearl and lavender guinea keets (chicks).

Guinea Keets

Among the keets, however, there were also two buff lace polish chicks that had been packed, by mistake, along with the keets.

Hey, these aren't guinea keets!

As it turned out, the chicks were a male and a female, so before long, nature took its course, and we were in possession of fertile eggs.  Retta, being the nurturer that she is, decided to buy an inexpensive incubator for these eggs, and whadayaknow, a few weeks later we were chicken ranchers.

Chicken farming at its best

The young chicks soon grew into chickens, who roamed the grounds all around the house and barn areas, pecking and scratching for seed and bugs here and there.  During the daytime, the chickens were free to roam as they pleased, and at night they always settled down in their coop, where we would lock them up for safe keeping until the following morning.

Polish chickens foraging

Life was good, indeed.

Until the predators came!  Hawks, coyotes, fox, raccoon, feral cats, stray dogs, owls …. they all came at one time or another.  Before long, the flock was reduced in size dramatically.  Until finally, we were left with two – a rooster and a hen.

Free-Ranging Polish Chickens

But now, sadly, we are left with only the hen, as some predator managed to kill the one remaining rooster we had this last weekend.  It’s kind of sad, watching her – her demeanor in the coop leads one to believe she is truly mourning the loss of her companion.

And so it goes.

As we contemplate ordering some more chicks from a hatchery, we also muse on whether it is more humane to have the chickens live a longer life in captivity, or to allow them the opportunity to free-range during the day, knowing full well that they are destined to be picked off, one-by-one, by the predators that abound here.

From Fire to Freezing in the Blink of an Eye

Thursday we were experiencing 68 degree weather with strong southerly winds, as we fretted about a fire that was burning on our land.  Yesterday, however, the temperature dropped to single digits and we received about 6 inches of snow.  Just as I was beginning to think old man winter had passed us by!  It makes watching the Olympics seem a lot more relevant when there is snow on the ground and a fire in the fireplace.

New snow covers the ground

We have been seeing lots of deer this winter, but the new snow makes them easy to spot.   They know exactly when the feeders are due to dispense corn.

Deer enjoy the corn in winter


Reflections on the Recent Fire

We recently experienced the fourth fire that encroached upon our property in the last four years.  Now I have no objection to the use of fire as a tool for forest management. In fact, the Arkansas Forestry Commission (AFC) has been slated to conduct a prescribed burn on the very mountain area that just burned.  We had planned to burn about 40 acres this spring, and another 40 acres annually thereafter.  The Forestry Commission aircraft that was sent aloft during this fire estimated about 50 acres had been consumed, so the fire incident shouldn’t have bothered me, should it?  Well, it bothered me quite a bit.

The reason I am bothered is that there is a big difference between a controlled burn, and a deliberately set wild fire.  The prescribed burn that I arranged with the AFC was originally mapped out with my local AFC forester back in February 2005.  It was supposed to be done sometime in the spring of 2005, but because of our dry conditions, it was postponed until this spring.  When the AFC does a controlled burn, they begin by bulldozing a fire break around the intended burn area.  Men and equipment are then placed in strategic areas to monitor and contain the burn to the specified area.  The burn will only be conducted when humidity, moisture, wind and other factors are conducive to create a controlled fire.

So what has been happening to cause so many fires to encroach upon my land?  Is it just bad luck, or is someone out to get us?  Is there an arsonist running around?  Yes – and not just one, but many “mini-arsonists”.  These are not arsonists in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. these people are not running around setting fires for the twisted pleasure of seeing flames and destruction.  These are people who deliberately set fires for a purpose, which might be to clear land of brush, improve forest and wildlife habitat, or control tick and other pest populations.  In other words, for the same reasons that I want to conduct controlled burns on my property.  So what makes me different than the arsonists?  I am utilizing the services of the AFC.  As I mentioned previously, they perform prescribed burns in a carefully controlled manner, when prevailing conditions are suitable for a safe burn.  Men and equipment are at the ready should conditions change, and they are well coordinated with all the other area fire agencies.

But this comes at a price to the landowner.  The AFC charges $18.00 per acre ($250 minimum) to conduct a burn.  I have not checked with private companies, but I suspect that the AFC is the cheapest way to have a controlled burn conducted in a responsible manner.  But if you do not wish to pay for the cost of doing this properly, what are you to do?  The answer seems to be to set a deliberate wildfire (meaning an uncontrolled fire) on the land you want burned off.  Now, these people are inconsiderate, but they are not stupid!  They wait until the wind blows in a direction that guarantees that their structures will not be in the path of the flames, and they set their fire.  But because neighbors report any unusual smoke to the authorities quickly, and because the authorities respond to these fires quickly, if the “arsonist” wants to successfully burn all his land, he must choose a day with strong driving winds, which will ensure that his land will all burn off before the local fire department can quell the blaze.

So the net result of all of this is that the landowner who chooses to burn in this manner will select the weather conditions that will suit his objectives – low humidity, dry ground, and strong sustained winds.  All the ingredients that make for a nightmare scenario for his neighbors who might happen to be in the “line of fire”.  In a fire incident we had 2 years ago on the north portion of our property, a fire was re-ignited four separate times.  Each time the AFC crew put out the blaze, the “arsonist” would restart it.  The rangers ended up hiding out after extinguishing the fire the third time.  They actually saw the forth relighting of the fire occurring, but could not catch the perpetrator.  And although they felt certain of who this was, without definite proof, they were prevented from taking any action aside from a verbal warning to the party involved.

It is unfortunate that this is occurring – hopefully these practices will abate in the future, but until then, the best strategy will be for me to keep a very well maintained “fire defensible zone” around all of my structures.  And get angry each time it happens!

Brrrrrrrr……..OOOPS!……I Mean, Aaaaah

This morning I had to call Fed-ex to arrange for a package pickup.  The friendly woman on the other end of the line, after taking my shipping information, inquired as to the weather in my neck of the woods.  Glancing at the remote display for the outdoor thermometer, I saw that it was 23 degrees out there.  So I said “it’s quite cold over here, how about for you?”  To which she responded – “it’s MINUS 52 DEGREES, well, that’s the wind-chill factor, it’s really only MINUS 32 on the thermometer!”

I asked if we could start this conversation all over again.  “Sure” she said, and again asked how the weather was in my neck of the woods, to which I quickly replied – “it’s quite warm over here, thank you!”

I guess things are always relative.

P.S. – Her office is located in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Just Another Day in the Ozarks…..Not!

The day started normal enough.  It was a very windy morning.  I had to take the trash out to the storage bin.  I noticed that there were some old potatoes that needed tossing, so I decided to find a spot away from the house to set them out for the critters that always seem to be in the area.  As I was doing this, I noticed an old dead tree that had just been knocked over from the wind.  Of course, the tree landed on a barbed wire fence in the horse pasture, bringing it down too, which meant that my morning chore was to be sawing up a dead tree, and re-stringing some barbed wire.  Otherwise my horses would be in my neighbor’s pasture, and his cattle would eventually find their way into mine.  No big deal – I did my work, and a couple of hours later headed back to the house.  Here’s what I saw:

The valley begins to fill with smoke

Smoke – and with the strong wind blowing it directly towards the house and barn areas.  I jumped into the utility vehicle and headed in the general direction of the smoke, and determined that it was coming from an area we call “the mountain”.  Climbing half way up the mountain, I eventually came across smoke blowing across this pasture:

Smoke appears half way up the mountain

I then tried to take one of our fire lanes up to the top of the mountain, but was blocked by a large oak tree which had been destroyed by lightning not long ago.  The tree just exploded about half way up the trunk, and a good portion blocked the lane.

Lightning destroyed this tree

Working my way towards the top along another trail, I came upon this scene, which was not a very pleasant experience:

Fire burning the brush

I had brought a shovel and rake along with me, in case I could do something to help contain the blaze, but that was futile.  Just me, and the blaze had already consumed a large area.  I returned to the house and called 911, who dispatched the local volunteer department.  Meanwhile, our weather alert radio began wailing.  It seems the National Weather Service had just issued a tornado watch for our area – great, as if fire weren’t enough. 

The fire department response was pretty quick, given the nature of a rural volunteer firefighting force.  Because of the nature of the terrain involved, they summoned the Arkansas Forestry Commission, who sent a bulldozer and personnel to construct a containment ring around the blaze.

Forestry Commission bulldozer at work

While this was going on, the local firemen stood guard near the house and outbuildings with equipment ready, should the fire manage to jump the fire lines and approach the house.

Local firefighters stand guard

By the time the fire was extinguished (by rain, incidentally), approximately 50 acres had burned and now looks like this:

Aftermath of fire

Eventually the rains came and doused the fire, and thankfully, we did not experience any tornadoes in our immediate area.

The complete set of photos that I took can be found in our photo galley, which can be found by CLICKING HERE