Shocking Blue

Monday, July 14, 2014



I know what many of you are thinking. "Hey, when did somebody do a remake of that Bananarama song?" But, for some strange and odd duck reason, I'm a fan of showing my true age. Which is old. Because this is the best version of "Venus," and it was released while many members of Bananarama were still in ponytail stage.

Venus Table Grapes-Bird Back 40
Yes -- Bananarama ripped "Venus" off from Shocking Blue -- not the other way around. And the version of this song -- plus the name of the Dutch band -- has been bouncing around in my head ever since the start of the Venus Table Grape harvest some two weeks ago.

Why? Why would you ask that? OK -- I'll answer. Besides the obvious (the table grape in question is named Venus, duh), Venus grapes are a shocking blue-purple in color. Perhaps now you'll understand? Oh -- that and I can eat Venus Table Grapes until the cows come home and still not come close to finishing what is still hanging on the Venus vine. Plus -- the thieving mockingbirds and robins who raid the vine with Exlax-like regularity can eat their fill and still not come close to finishing off the stash.

Venus on the Vine-Bird Back 40
If the next question is, "why not just give them away," my response is this: I have been. I've been unloading enough Venus table grapes for neighbors to suddenly slam the door shut and lock it when they see me coming. While they are fans of the Venus -- there is something called "too much of a good thing." Two pounds of Venus grapes make for a nice gift. Four pounds wears out the welcome, if you get my drift.

Is Venus the best tasting table grape I've ever had? No -- that honor still goes to Fantasy grape. That is another shocking blue-purple grape that is still ripening on the vine and will be ready for harvest at some point next month. In fact, that's when most California table grapes start to ripen: August. That's what makes Venus so very special. Venus ripens in late June, stores on the vine very well (doesn't spoil) and produces a harvest so ridiculously large and bountiful that you'll be munching on Venus for at least two to three weeks (or longer).

Venus Grapes: Here, There, Everywhere
I suppose if I leave on the vine any longer I'll be munching on Venus raisins.

By that time even the thieving and marauding birds will have tired of it. No wonder they seem to be casting a longing glance at the Flavor Finale pluot tree. Because man, nor bird, does not live by Venus grape alone.

Another interesting fact about the Venus is it's one of the rare California table grape varieties that wasn't born nor bred in California. Nope -- the Venus hails from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. It's prized by wine growers. It also makes a great grape jelly. It's not the sweetest grape in the world -- and it features a slip skin trait. In other words, there's no crunch when you bite into it.

Venus Vine-Bird Back 40
Try as you might, you probably won't find the Venus in your local grocery store. Nor do I think you'll run across it at your local farmer's market. While I'm not sure as to why the Venus didn't catch on as a marketable table grape (most grapes are coming in from Mexico at the moment), my feeling is the slip-skin trait of this variety probably didn't do it any favors. In other words, I don't believe it would ship to well without spoiling.

No matter -- because there is one place where the Venus has earned its rightful home as a reliable and hardy fruit producer: the Bird Back 40.

Mariska Veres-1970
POSTSCRIPT: Unfortunately, while researching for this blog posting I would come to learn that the lead singer of Shocking Blue, Mariska Veres, died from cancer in December, 2006 at the young age of 59. Although Veres was regarded as a sex-symbol during her years with Shocking Blue, she reportedly told the members of the band when she joined that relationships were out. Reflecting on her early fame, Veres told the Belgian magazine Flair: "I was just a painted doll, nobody could ever reach me. Nowadays, I am more open to people."

Unlike sex symbols and rock stars from her era, Veres didn't smoke, didn't do drugs and didn't drink. In fact, her drink of choice, up until the day she died, was tea.

And for you younger folks who have since joined us -- here's the version of "Venus" that you remember best:

Fear the Beard!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beard of Honeybees (A Swarm)
Sometimes -- even vegetable garden bloggers can hit mental subject roadblocks. It happens to the best of us. And, in my case, it happens to the worst of us. I knew I wanted to write about bees. But you just can't put pen to paper without having some sort of interesting subject matter in mind.

As it turns out -- the bees did all the work for me -- clearing that mental roadblock with one swift buzz.

While I had intended to write about the return of the bright pink Hello Kitty themed hive box -- I needed more than that. I wrote about Hello Kitty years ago. It's old news. Yeah -- I keep bees in a box painted bright pink with a Hello Kitty character stenciled on the side. What's so weird about that? Doesn't everybody do that?

The Return of the Hello Kitty Hive Box
As it turns out -- the honeybees I keep in two brightly painted hive boxes (pink and yellow) did all the hard work for me. They did what bees naturally do. The queen inside one of those colonies did such a fantastic job at laying eggs that the colony grew far too large for the multiple boxes I had assembled. And when a colony grows too large for the space it occupies: it swarms. That swarm is pictured above, right. And, yes, that's a closeup on my part. Bees that swarm rarely sting, and the swarm came from one of the most gentle colonies I've ever had the pleasure of keeping.

This is how new colonies are born or created in the wild. Normally, bees swarm in the spring or early summer. While it's not uncommon for colonies to swarm in the summer, it is rare. In most cases the queen stopped laying eggs weeks ago. I just hope she gets started up again to rebuild colony strength. Because, the unfortunate thing about swarms is this: about half the colony vanishes in the space of a day or two.

Second Hive Box with Bees "Bearding" in Front
That equals into a dramatic loss in honey production -- if you're keeping honeybees for such a thing.

I literally had to start over this year. The colony I'd nursed for the better part of two years, gifted to me by another beekeeper who got out of the business, up and vanished on me last winter. I didn't see much activity out of that hive in December after freezing weather set in. That got me worried. When spring finally rolled around and the weather warmed, a hive check revealed the worst of news. The colony was long gone.

I'll be honest, I missed them. A yard without an active box of pollinators around is an empty yard. It's a quiet yard. Once you've kept bees for a year or two, you're hooked. It's tough to live without them. One would think a beekeeper would get tired of excited bees whizzing to and fro and thonking into the back of one's head. Not so. They are like children. And when children leave, it gets quiet. Too quiet.

Hive Boxes-Face to Face-Shaded by Wisteria
I would come to discover that last year was a particularly nasty year for beekeepers -- and not just hobbyists like myself. When I discovered that one of the most experienced members of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA) reported the loss of 100 colonies, I suddenly didn't feel so bad about losing my single, solitary hive. Honeybee loss hits everyone equally -- from the very experienced to the novice bonehead like myself.

I could have taken several actions to acquire new colonies. I could have purchased a package of bees plus a queen -- but I'm not a fan of that approach. There's no guarantee that the queen you're purchasing is a strong one, and the process of introducing a new queen to a colony is tricky. If you don't know what you're doing (SEE: BILL BIRD), the queen can get killed during the introduction process.

Swarm in a Nearby Pluot Tree
The second approach, which is the cheapest one I might add, is waiting for an established, wild colony to swarm. Colonies that swarm in the spring often come from strong hives that feature strong queens, which means there's a good chance that the swarm will contain a nice young, strong queen as well. The problem with this approach is waiting for the phone to ring. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. You've also got to be prepared for a swarm call 24/7. Since I work full-time, bee hunting availability is at a premium.

The third option, which I chose this spring after getting a very nice offer from a very nice SABA member, is called a "Nuc Transfer." This involves the transfer of a queen, several frames of bees and several frames of honey to an existing hive box. The attractive offer came from SABA Treasurer Kate Morton, after I'd moaned about the loss of my colony the previous winter.

Honeybees "Bearding" in Front of Hive Box
"You want bees," she asked? "I have bees." When she quoted me a price so ridiculously low, I couldn't shout "SOLD" fast enough. I probably shouldn't be telling her this. She'll probably try to sell me another colony or three.

Sure enough -- her assurances of strong hives and strong queens were not empty promises. The swarm pictures included in this blog posting are proof of that. What initially started as three frames of bees in a small box -- something we call a "honey super" -- turned into three boxes stacked on top of one another overnight. Both queens were laying eggs at record rates. While I thought there was a chance one or both colonies might swarm, I also believed the addition of a true hive box at the bottom would prevent it.

Hah! Fat chance! Another boneheaded beekeeping move on my part. Add another one to a very long list.

Honeybee Collecting Siam Queen Basil Pollen
While I'd like to tell you that I kept and hived that swarm for myself, I'm not the best liar in the country. First and foremost, I've already tested the patience of nearby neighbors more than enough. Two colonies are fine. A third would be a little much. And while the City of Sacramento does encourage hobbyist beekeeping efforts, they also want beekeepers to limit the number of hives to just two. Two is exactly what I have. Adding a third, no matter how badly I wanted them, wouldn't have been the best of ideas.

Besides -- there's a popular poem regarding swarms that take place during the month of July. I didn't invent this. I'm not sure who did. But to beekeepers across the country -- and the world for that matter -- it's almost like a passage from the bible:

“A Swarm in May is worth a load of hay
A Swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A Swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.”

Fear The Beard!
Why are swarms that take place in May or June more desirable than those in July? It has to do with pollen production, and the ability of a colony to gather enough pollen to produce enough honey stores for the winter months. In many areas of the country, pollen production begins to dry up in July. The harder pollen is to find -- the harder it is for the bees to make honey. And if a colony can't produce honey -- it's doomed. It will not survive the winter.

But that didn't stop a beekeeper from Loomis from making the trip down to our North Natomas farm to take a chance on this swarm. Like many beekeepers, this particular gentleman had retired from the rat race that is full-time work to take on the full-time hobby of beekeeping. My swarm, which sprang from Kate's bees, are now his colony.

Best of luck to the little buggers. I will miss them.

POSTSCRIPT:

If you're thinking the hobbyist beekeeper route might be the life for you -- I cannot stress the importance of belonging to a member organization like the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association. Here you will find the meetings and helpful people who are essential to getting started. And they will more than welcome you to the club as there's always room for more. Please feel free to drop by the SABA booth at the upcoming State Fair! You just might run into the wife that is Venus and her kook of a husband. Sample free honey! See honeybees in a glass enclosed demonstration hive! The SABA booth is always a top draw for kids and parents alike.