Every year, about this time, the three heritage apple trees in my backyard burst into blossom. Some years they whimper into spring with just a few buds but this year there is an abundance of blossoms. With this many blossoms and good weather during the summer, we should have a bonanza of apples in the fall.
Many years ago these trees were surrounded by forest and struggled to produce apples. We freed them from their confinement by cutting down the surrounding trees. We also pruned them. I was told by a Yankee farmer that apple trees should be pruned so that you can, “Throw a cat through the middle.” While we never sent our cat flying through the tree, I assumed that meant most of the branches should be trimmed. Rather than shock these old trees after they were rescued from the forest by cutting lots of branches in one year, we trimmed just a bit every winter. Winter is the best time to prune because the tree’s energy retreats to their roots in cold weather. Our oldest apple tree was rumored to have been planted in in the 1920’s by Sarah Whitehouse, former owner of Miles Smith Farm when she stuck her apple wood riding crop into the ground. Whether that’s true or not, with its gnarly bark and curving branches this great dame of a tree produces the sweetest apples of all.
When the apple blossoms arrive so do the bees. I’ll sit for hours under the trees that hum with buzzing and watch bumble bees and honey bees bounce from blossom to blossom. The clumsy bumble bees are my favorite. This morning Fred, our cat, brought a cold, sluggish bumble bee into the house. The bee climbed on a piece of paper I offered but would not let go. I finally dropped the paper with its bee passenger out the window. I hope this bee recovers and finds some relief in my apple trees.
Bees don’t bother the livestock and work hard, not only to produce honey but to also create food through pollination. With all the buds and bee activity I’m hoping for an overflow of apples, just like in 2015. In 2015 we had so many apples at one remote pasture I walked through the pasture knocking apples from the branches. I harvested barrels of dropped apples and the cattle ate most of the rest. It’s a good thing that, unlike horses, cattle will typically stop eating before they get sick. At the end of the year, there were lots of rotting apples on the ground waiting for the deer to clean them up.
Without bees to pollinate we wouldn’t have vegetables and we certainly wouldn’t have apples. Bees have declined in the last two decades due to habitat loss and degradation, along with the use of pathogens and pesticides. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated the rusty-patched bumblebee an endangered species — the first such designation for a bumblebee and for a bee species in the continental U.S. Senior Attorney Rebecca Riley from NRDC said, “Bumble bees are dying off, vanishing from our farms, gardens, and parks, where they were once found in great numbers.”
Last year we tried to keep bees but our two hives didn’t make it through the winter. This year we’re trying again with two more hives. Bees are great partners on the farm and are great entertainers as they flit from blossom to blossom. For each fruit tree you see in blossom this year think not only how beautiful the tree is but also see it as a grocery store for bees. These little busy bees need food and without them to pollinate fruit trees and gardens we would starve. If you have a garden, plant some flowers just for hungry bees and if you are really ambitious, start a hive in your yard.
That’s the buzz from the farm this week.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, in Loudon, NH, where she sells locally raised beef, pork, lamb, eggs and other products in the on-farm solar powered store and at farmers markets, restaurants and retail stores in NH. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.