January’s redemption.

For those of us who like to spend as much time outside as possible, and as much time growing things as possible, January is a tough month. Even when it’s warm, as it so often is in Southern California, my garden still looks like a barren wasteland. Winter crop seedlings struggle through cold nights and short days, even in the cold-frames. All my favorite hiking spots are devoid of life, and it’s sometimes hard to find the beauty in so much brown. And there isn’t even any baseball, for goodness sakes. It’s a truly depressing time of year.

But there is one bright spot in January, around the middle of the month, when strawberry season begins, and the farm stand just down the road from us starts selling half-flats from the Oxnard fields for just 14 bucks. By April they’re down to 11, but 14 is fine with me, for this little ray of light in an otherwise gloomy month.

With our first half-flat of the year I made my first-ever crepes. All my life I’ve been told by various folks that crepes are SO hard to make, and they take a special pan and a special spatula and special skilz and blah blah blah all that is complete nonsense. I followed this recipe from Alton Brown, and used my little non-stick pan with the wobbly handle that I got from Ikea for like $5, and my same old workhorse of a plastic spatula that I’ve had for the last 8 years or so, and everything was easy-peasy. So, if you’re like me, and everyone you know has been yammering on about how hard crepes are, and you’ve never tried making them because of that, just do it. OK, if you don’t know how to turn your stove on, and you’re not sure what a spatula is, maybe start with bisquick pancakes or something. The rest of you, you got this.

I rolled my easy-peasy crepes around plain sliced strawberries, drizzled honey over the top, and dusted them with powdered sugar, and had the most delicious breakfast on a random Tuesday.

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I also made this wonderful roasted strawberry balsamic sherbet. It’s truly a sherbet, turning out a bit icier than the custard style ice cream I usually prefer to make, but with a buttermilk and sour cream base it’s a treat if you’re a fan of tart frozen yogurt. I wonder though, if it can be made a bit smoother and more creamy. Can you even make a custard base with buttermilk? This one might need a little more experimentation.

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I feel like I should also be presenting a strawberry trio, and maybe I eventually will or maybe I won’t, but for now I’ve been letting my art take me whichever way the wind blows. I’ll see how that all ends up at the end of January and maybe get back to the trios in February. Or maybe not.

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Pesticides saved my bees.

I’ve been keeping bees for a little over 3 years now, and every winter I’ve lost my colonies to varroa mites. These little pests are so insidious their official name is varroa destructor and that’s exactly what they do. Some bee scientists theorize that most reported cases of colony collapse disorder are actually cases of colonies overwhelmed by varroa mites. They’re a relatively recent immigrant to the US, having been introduced in the 80’s, and ever since beekeepers and bee scientiests have been struggling to find ways to eradicate them. It’s absolutely crazy that all the current media frenzy about colony collapse disorder and bee extinction almost never mentions varroa, even though any beekeeper will tell you it’s THE most pressing and concerning issue in beekeeping right now.

I’ve been trying to manage my bees without chemicals since the start. There’s a few integrated pest management techniques for varroa, the most common of which is dusting the bees with powdered sugar, and using screened bottom boards and sticky traps. The sugar makes the bees slippery, and it makes them clean themselves, so the mites get knocked off and fall through the screened board to the sticky traps. So I dusted, and I used the screened bottom boards and sticky traps, and I watched my hives crash from the heavy mite loads every winter. This winter I wised up and put in the chemicals. Those chemicals are actually pesticides, engineered to target the mites and not the bees as much as possible. I started with Apistan, but on the advice of a local beekeeper switched to Apivar, a newer pesticide that the mites haven’t become resistant to yet.

Before I put in the Apivar, I was watching my hives collapse again. Every morning I woke up to piles of dead bees at the hive entrances. My mite tests were showing an infestation at 6 times the level at which the Big Ag beekeepers recommend you start chemical treatment. My bees were clearly dying. Again. And now, as we go into January, they’re thriving. I’ve never seen such healthy hives this time of year. Granted, the weather has been amazingly warm, so the rest of winter could still be a struggle. For now, I’m celebrating getting this far.

Capped honey in January is a glorious sight, even though I know that it’s mostly the sugar syrup I’ve been feeding them (in drought conditions, flowers don’t produce the nectar bees need to make honey).
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Still raising brood, in perfect concentric pattern, and there’s still enough bees to keep the brood at the required 95 degrees all through the night. The queen is in this photo, top right, marked with a red dot.
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I wised up to a proper feeding regimen too, now working in gallons rather than cups. They get the sugar syrup out of the bag through two slits I made on top with a razor. The crumbly stuff on the right is a pollen patty from a couple weeks ago that they’re still working on. The white plastic things are the Apivar strips.
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There are some beekeepers who say that bees can take care of themselves just fine in the wild, so we shouldn’t do anything to them when we keep them in our backyards. To that I say we already did something to them by sticking them in a box in our backyards and making their well-being our responsibility, not to mention occasionally taking all their food. It’s an unnatural way for this non-native species to live, so they’re going to need a little help. And besides, varroa is wiping out wild populations too, so the argument that wild bees take care of themselves just fine is a bit of a straw man.

There are other beekeepers who promote capturing the supposedly tougher, more varroa-resistant wild swarms and sticking those in our backyard boxes. Tougher, sure, and they’re also likely Africanized. I like to enjoy a cup of coffee in my backyard without being stung to death, and I’m pretty sure I’d get in trouble with the neighbors if my tough bees killed their dogs. We don’t even have to go that far. Even if the wild swarm is not blood-thirsty, they are more likely to sting, and very unpleasant to tend, especially in a suburban situation. I’ve tended Africanized colonies on rural land and their response to my opening the hive was terrifying even in my full bee suit with my smoker going full blast. I’ve heard the same story over and over about amateur beekeepers being chased into their houses by their wild-caught swarms. They started out so docile for the first few days, they always say, and some old grizzled beekeeper patiently explains to them that all bees act like this when they’re first re-homed. I think the jury is out on whether wild bees are mite resistant, but I don’t think they have any place in anyone’s backyard or bee yard.

My sweet little Italian and Carniolan bees couldn’t care less about having humans or pets around, they’ve never chased me anywhere, and when I open up their hives to tend them they hardly even buzz me. In the last 3 years I’ve been stung just 2 times by my bees even though I open their hives weekly. I think they’re breeds worth saving, and pesticides are going to help us do it.

A trio of persimmons.

The best thing about December on the Hill is persimmon season. I barely wait until they’re ripe before I start putting them in almost everything I make, including on top of pizza (try this one folks: linguica, carmelized onion and fennel, goat cheese, and firm chopped fuyu persimmons), in stir fries, in salads, and of course in sweet baked goods and jams.

Aesthetically speaking, they’re my favorite fruit. I love having huge bowls of persimmons on my kitchen counter. They have the perfect combination of beautiful, smooth, red-orange flesh and striking, sensuously curled black and khaki leaves (actually part of the flower). They usually come off the tree with a little bit of their twig attached and sometimes a leaf or two. The concentric circles around the stem are a gorgeous grey, with shots of persimmon pink in them. They are truly perfectly designed. And they keep forever, so they suit my pokey painting methods just fine.

Here’s my trio of persimmons, pastel left, oil right, watercolor above.
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Up next, maybe a dumpling squash trio eventually. It will keep forever and let me be as pokey as I want. For now, I’m taking a break from trios to explore some other subjects.

Previously, in the trio series: A trio of mandarins.