Tending The Pitch

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In previous posts I have pointed my lens to this area, but from another angle and with limited scope. In the photo above, in the distant upper right you san see a small light object which is the top of the bee colony. With this view you can make out where the curvy berms lead and if you squint you can see the long quadrangle. A few months prior to our departure to live in Croatia in August, 2006 I decided that this stretch of relatively flat land would make a good football pitch for our boys and their friends. It was a mess of bramble and brush at the time so I cleared it and removed the big rocks and let it be. We would be gone for one year, and when we came back I would finish the pitch.

Plans change. We did not return to live in Costa Rica for another dozen years. This week, as we move to Plan B I took a snapshot of how that pitch looks right now. I am one quarter of the way through removing all the grasses that invaded the land while we were away. Under their blanket is all the rich soil that earthworms produce when left alone for awhile. That pitch, which now has 30 banana and plantain trees, and hundreds of bean plants as well as beets, will next get watermelon where the land is already cleared. These all will help the soil, and prepare the shade needed, in advance of coffee planting next year.

Planting Coffee, Plan B

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VTriunfoFIf you have been following these pages for at least a few months, you know that we kept the coffee beans from our last harvest to use as seeds for replanting land that was coffee farm for most of the last century. For better or worse, the photo above is not the result of those coffee beans. It is normal for seeds like our to germinate in 6-8 weeks. As of today we have precisely zero germination. Plan A, complete. Not a failure, just a lesson in the vagaries of agriculture. Plan B has been growing on me since creating the new labels for our coffee. Specifically one of the single estates that we offer, which is produced at Villa Triunfo in the Western Valley of Costa Rica. These specifications, which I received last year during our cupping sessions, were my guide to rewriting the text for the label on the back of the bag:

VTBackThis farm is unique in that it has Starmaya and Marsellesa cultivars which were both developed as a joint venture between ECOM and CIRAD (agricultural development in France). This lot of coffee displays how when Marsellesa, a Sarchimor type varietal is properly cared for, harvested and processed it can rival some of the most desirable varietals in the region. This coffee was produced in the Red Honey method which leaves some residual mucilage on the seed prior to drying. After drying, the parchment coffee appears red in color resulting in the “Red Honey” distinction. With this process, a bit of the coffee fruit flavors make their way into the cup as well.

Today, I will put in motion Plan B, one part of which is the acquisition and planting of seedlings from these hybrid beans (those in the photo at the top) that our friends at Villa Triunfo have been having great success with.

Organikos, Coffee & Community

Walking yesterday’s theme further down a country road: since late March Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a constant topic of interest. Initially my thoughts were with the family farms supplying our fruits and vegetables. We spent the month of April and much of May looking closely at how we might support them. Concerned that the social distancing and lockdown measures that were sure to come would close the farmers’ markets, putting unbearable pressure on those families and their farms we thought a limited time, limited purpose CSA would help these farmers. It was a good idea, but it was not for us to do. The municipalities, farmer cooperatives and other organizers of the farmers’ markets in Costa Rica proved creative and resilient. So far, so good.

Now, as we prepare to launch our coffee roasting and delivery service in the USA, I see Organikos offering a community the opportunity to support coffee farmers in Costa Rica. Last year, prior to opening, we had projected that in 2020 Organikos would sell 7,000 pounds of coffee in the two Authentica shops. Those two shops were designed to serve the travelers who have been arriving and departing by the millions for the last two decades. We entered into supply contracts based on those projections, and invested in the infrastructure to make it happen. We were on track, through mid-March, to meet the projections. Needless to say, now that will not happen as planned.

We may yet get to 7,000 pounds of coffee sold in 2020. With 4+ months to go, with the website ready to go live and the roaster fired up we will see how quickly we can build a community to support this particular form of agriculture.

Farming & Influence

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Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Ellen Barry, somehow, has not shown up in our pages before today. Strange, because she was based in India during our years there. Her audio adaptation of a dream-like experience, The Jungle Prince of Delhi, ranks with the best serialized podcasts out there. After her time in India she became New England Bureau Chief of the New York Times, a transition I will presume to understand: India can be so transformative and so profound an experience that landing back in familiar territory is a great next step. And today she shows up on my screen with a topic so different from that, and so related to my recent interests and activities that I finally must add her work to our recommendations:

In a Wistful Age, Farmers Find a New Angle: Chore TV

It’s hard for small farmers to earn a living selling their products. Enter the “farmer-influencer,” who can earn more by streaming farm life, in all its comforting monotony, to a growing online audience.

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Hilary Swift for The New York Times

PEACHAM, Vt. — The sweet smell of hay rose off the earth on a recent evening, as Morgan Gold strode across his farmyard in heavy boots. He crossed the paddock, scanning for new eggs, water levels, infected peck wounds, rips in the fence line.

But mainly — let’s be honest — he was looking for content.

Though Mr. Gold sells poultry and eggs from his duck farm in Vermont’s northeast corner, most of what he produces as a farmer is, well, entertainment.

Mr. Gold, who is short and stocky, with the good-natured ease of a standup comedian, does his chores while carrying a digital camera in one hand and murmuring into a microphone.

Then, twice a week, like clockwork, he posts a short video on YouTube about his exploits as a neophyte farmer, often highlighting failures or pratfalls. Keeping a close eye on analytics, he has boosted his YouTube audiences high enough to provide a steady advertising revenue of around $2,500 to $4,000 a month, about eight times what he earns from selling farm products. Continue reading

Mysterious Eels

BookOfEelsThis book (click the image to the left to go to the publisher) has become an unexpected bestseller. The other times we have posted on the topic of eels, a couple of them were artistic in nature and the other were scientific in nature. I would not have predicted that a whole book on the topic was something I would want to read, let alone that a very sizable audience would develop. I would expect that if there were to be more than four posts mentioning eels in the nine years we have been posting, we might have covered the topic of aquatic agriculture. But, no.

BookOfEelsNPRWhen I listened to a conversation (click the image to the right to go to the podcast) with the author of The Book of Eels it reminded me that I had already read a review of the book by Brooke Jarvis a few months earlier. And that we should post more on eels The illustration adorning the review was fun. The opening paragraphs were compelling:

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The mysterious creature has attracted avid detectives since ancient times. Illustration by Jason Holley

In the spring of 1876, a young man of nineteen arrived in the seaside city of Trieste and set about a curious task. Every morning, as the fishermen brought in their catch, he went to meet them at the port, where he bought eels by the dozens and then the hundreds. He carried them home, to a dissection table in a corner of his room, and—from eight until noon, when he broke for lunch, and then again from one until six, when he quit for the day and went to ogle the women of Trieste on the street—he diligently slashed away, in search of gonads. Continue reading

Aficionados-R-Us

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When you talk with aficionados, it usually doesn’t take long for the conversation to veer away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. Photograph from Alamy

Ruby Tandoh, a food writer and the author of “Eat Up!,” has written an essay that fits perfectly on our platform. It happens to focus on the culture of cheese, which has not featured much here because for the first six years we were in India and since then we have been back in Costa Rica, and there is not much of a culture of cheese in either of those locations. But aficionado should be a category with which to tag most of our posts, whether the topic is coffee, authentic artisan handicrafts, sustainable travel, etc. So thanks to Ruby for emphasizing the aficionados in her essay (I will save for another day the surprise of feta cheese, which a farmer in Costa Rica is now making at Greek quality level):

How a Cheese Goes Extinct

The late Mary Holbrook, a white-haired maestro in the British cheesemaking world, was known for her soft cheeses and her sharp temper. Once a week, she made the trip from Sleight Farm, her home in the southwest of England, to London to check on her wares as they ripened in the maturation rooms of an upscale cheese shop. Holbrook’s apprentices, hardened to her singular style of mentorship, knew to brace themselves for reprimands when she returned. Occasionally, though, Holbrook would come back with bags of treats—yogurt, mangoes, sweets—which she spilled across the kitchen table of her cold mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse on the crest of a hill, and they knew that the cheese must be tasting good, and that Mary’s little world was in order. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Brunca

We have mentioned this region previously, showing where our organic coffee comes from. Brunca is, from my experience, the region most people would neglect to name if quizzed on listing all of Costa Rica’s coffee-growing zones. And while no one would claim it is racing to lead the pack in awareness, it is the region with the oldest certified organic coffee estate in the hemisphere, and if only for that reason, I think its future is bright:

BruncaCoffeeThe beverage’s taste ranges from the very soft, coming from the low and middle areas, to the sweet and complex citrus flavor of the higher areas of Pérez Zeledón and Coto Brus. Light aromas stand out, with fragrances similar to orange flowers and coffee jasmine.

Brunca is a region located in the south of Costa Rica and comprises the Coto Brus, Buenos Aires and Pérez Zeledón cantons. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Tres Rios

Tomorrow I will highlight a video showing one final region classified by the Costa Rica Coffee Institute. Yesterday I linked to a video of one of the lesser known regions; today, the smallest but historically most prestigious region:

TresRiosCoffeeIts green color has characteristic blue shades. A full-bodied beverage which guarantees, among other features, a pleasant long-lasting aftertaste. A fine and balanced acidity mixed with sweet notes.

Tres Ríos is located a few kilometers east of the capital of Costa Rica, San José.  Its origin dates back to 1820, with the expansion of the coffee area from the Central Valley to other provinces, which grew strongly during the 1840s and until the middle of the century. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Turrialba

From the Central Valley, go due east. You will cross into Cartago province and go through one of the most verdant agricultural zones in the country. If you are lucky to have a sunny day, the variations on green will dazzle you. Irazu volcano will be on your left, due north. When you have driven for about two hours you will arrive in Turrialba:

TurrialbaCoffeeIn this beautiful valley, the early ripening of coffee, extended by multiple flowerings resulting from constant rains, provides special conditions for the bean, which is characterized by its large size. Turrialba coffee is cherished because it supplies both the national and international markets early. The cup is characterized by a mild acidity, light body, and a delicate and soft aroma. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Central Valley

Organikos, the enterprise and its first regenerative agriculture project, is located in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Also, one of the two Authentica shops is located on a Central Valley coffee hacienda, so we have multiple reasons to favor this region over others. But, no. It is just one more important part of the mix that makes up this country’s remarkably diverse coffee terrain:

CentralValleyCoffeeIn general, Central Valley beans produce well-balanced cups, with flavors such as chocolate and fruits and aromas including honey , among others. Its intensity varies depending on the altitude where the crop is established and may be medium to strong.

The Central Valley is composed of the provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. It is the most highly populated region of Costa Rica, where the capital, San José, is located. Here, coffee plantations were first established and were then taken to the other seven coffee growing regions. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: West Valley

When we talk of shade-grown coffee terrain, the Western Valley of Costa Rica has the classic look that would come to mind for many, as per the video above. The Costa Rica Coffee Institute describes the coffee from this region, which recently has been the “hot stuff” among coffee specialists, in this way:

WestValleyCoffeeFlavors range from traditional and beloved chocolate notes to a more complex selection, where good tasters can find citrus-like flavors such as orange, in addition to peach, honey and vanilla, among others. This is all in line with good fruit harvesting and processing practices.

Inhabitants of San Ramón, Palmares, Naranjo, Grecia, Atenas, Valverde Vega and Alfaro Ruiz in the province of Alajuela, in the Western Valley, enjoy a pleasant climate throughout the year, with well-defined dry and rainy seasons. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Guanacaste

The Costa Rica Coffee Institute, we believe, is a very important factor in the success of the country’s coffee sector, with the Tarrazu region leveraging the Institute’s resources more effectively than most. This, in turn, has played a role in Tarrazu’s exceptional success with its own regional cooperatives. Good growing conditions, of course, are the most important factor. But why else do some regions do so much better than other regions? What explains our neglect of the Orosi region during the first year of Organikos operations?

We have also neglected Guanacaste coffee region, but this seems more obviously based on its geography. If you have been to Costa Rica, as a statistical fact it is very likely you spent some of your time in the northwest of the country. Most visitors spend at least part of their vacation in this zone due to the exceptional beauty of the Pacific coast, especially as contrasted to the arid conditions just inland. It does not sound like coffee country. Read the Institute’s own description, where the bold section might throw off anyone, but the nuances that follow help understand why a closer look makes sense:

GuanacasteCoffeeHigh temperatures and a dry climate result in a bean that is long and soft when roasting. The drink is soft, full-bodied and lightly acid, with well-defined salty and bitter notes.

The Guanacaste region is characterized by the exploitation of coffee crops in small areas, distributed in the provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Alajuela (Sarapiquí and San Carlos). Coffee plantations are located between mountainous areas with the cool temperatures of the Central Volcanic and Guanacaste mountain ranges. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Orosi

One year ago, when we had completed all the cupping sessions, farm visits and decision-making about the 12 coffees we would start with, a couple regions were left out of our mix. One of them was Orosi, and there was no good reason other than our shelf space considerations. We will resume our search and find a coffee to represent Orosi in our offering soon.

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Tarrazu

Costa Rica has a remarkably diverse landscape for such a small country. And that diversity translates into an excellent variety of high quality coffees, each unique according to the region of origin, and the particular farms within those regions. We have chosen twelve coffees from the regions that international tasting competitions have consistently prized the most, including four single estate coffees that stand out for their quality. Continue reading

Curvy Berms, Seedlings & Fertile Earth

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Curvy berm

What looks like an elongated haystack curving downslope in this photo we call a berm. No hay there, just a mix of cut grass covering branches, logs, and such. The purpose of a berm, diagonally traversing this hill, is explained better by others. When we prune trees and bushes, cut grass, and find old logs on the land their biomass help build this berm. Recently we trimmed all our vetiver grass, a soil retention ally that grows waist-high in rows throughout our hills. We cut it back twice a year, and added it to the  top of the curvy berm.

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Poro seedlings

To the left of that berm are re-plantings of a type of palm that we had growing on the property already, which birds love for the orange fruit it provides and for nesting. Those 20 palms join the 30 banana and plantain trees on the flat area below, and the dozen or so citrus trees recently planted. The shade-providing and nitrogen-fixing tree called poro will be planted during the next waning moon cycle.

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Poro trees, parents of the seedlings, with vetiver grass downslope

We have collected hundreds of seedlings from the poro trees originally planted when this land was part of a coffee farm.

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This rainbow reminded me to document the work on the land where the bees are, and where the coffee will be. For now, just a quick note. On the lower left of the photo above you can see where I have been using a pickax to loosen soil, dark and rich and teeming with earthworms, for planting in between the rows of bananas. I last cleared this space before we moved to Croatia in 2006. The grasses and vines that occupied this space for the intervening years until recent months, now our enemy for growing plants we favor, have performed an amazing ecosystem service. The earthworms and smell of the soil tell me that.

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End of day, sunset time, back on the terrace of our home, an unexpected spectacle. In the photo below, which is looking due east, the sun is coming from the west, hitting Irazu volcano and lighting it up in such a way that it almost looks like golden lava is flowing down its cone. I’ll take that view, with thanks to whatever caused it.

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Sunset-illuminated Irazu volcano in the distance

Wasp Surprises

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Nearly a month ago Cara Giaimo surprised me with a primer on bee vomit, and today she has done it again with an appreciation of wasps, whose ranking on the favored insect list is somewhere more tolerated than mosquitoes and less creepy than cockroaches. The bees we provided a new home for are doing well, and while their honey is something we look forward to, pollination is our primary motivator. I have been watching wasps build a home in the tree closest to our home–see it in the upper center of the tree in the photo above–and wondering whether to leave them in peace. Maybe so, for reasons outlined here:

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Paul Hobson/Nature Picture Library/Alamy

There Are Wasps in the Yard. You’d Better Get to Know Them.

They buzz. They hover. Sometimes they sting. But how much do you really know about these insects that can menace our summers?

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Uwe Grün/Alamy

Wasps get a bad rap. And sometimes, they deserve it. Bumblebees don’t swarm your barbecue the moment you pour the lemonade. Butterflies won’t nest by the hundreds in your rafters, then sting you for the crime of walking by.

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Mark Lehigh/Alamy

But they’re not all “murder hornets,” and there’s another side to these so-called pests. Wasps have a place in the whirl of summer life. They raise families, stage complex battle royals and make paper with their own spit. Some even help us by hunting caterpillars and other crop-munching bugs.

They’re also your neighbors. As you’re mowing, gardening or dining al fresco this summer, you’ll probably meet some of them. Here’s how to appreciate — and not tick off — these creatures we share the season with.

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A German yellowjacket with a chunk of salmon to bring back to the nest. Ernest Cooper/Alamy

Uninvited guests have arrived at your picnic. They’re striped and kind of stocky, with black dots on their faces. They’re German yellowjackets, and they will not leave you alone. Continue reading

Swifts Here & There

Knight-Swifts

Watching a flock of swifts power and zoom all over the sky in Cornwall, I realized that the feeling of being trapped by the coronavirus is not just about wanting to be somewhere else—it is about wanting to escape this time entirely. Photograph from Alamy

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Costa Rican Swift. Chaetura fumosa. Smallest swift in most of range. All dark gray with contrasting pale rump and paler throat, both of which can be difficult to see in many viewing conditions. A good look at the rump is necessary for a firm visual identification, otherwise Vaux’s Swift can look very similar. However, in some parts of its range (the Osa Peninsula, for example) this is the only small Chaetura swift. Makes twittering calls similar to many other swifts. Usually found in flocks over forests and more open areas.

I am not even the second birdiest member of our family. I enjoy birding events and join the fun from time to time. Apart from such events I do not travel specifically for birds, even the one to the right.  We see it on occasion and it is a particular pleasure. Not as thrillingly colorful as a scarlet macaw, nor as resplendent as a quetzal, but it is part of a famed family of birds. The essay below explains why. In Costa Rica the airports will be opening up again on August 1. Until then, and still for the foreseeable future, tourism is primarily locals going on weekend outings. Birding is usually thought of as a motivator for foreigners visiting Costa Rica–especially those from the UK–but now is an activity appreciated by more locals than usual. Sam Knight‘s perspective from the UK, where tourism is also primarily local currently, can be especially well appreciated from our vantage point in Costa Rica:

Letter from the U.K.

Swifts and the Fantasy of Escape

On July 17th, I drove out of London for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The last time I had seen a field or sensed a broad horizon was four months earlier, when we escaped the city in the early days of the coronavirus, feeling faintly ridiculous, to celebrate my daughter’s third birthday with an Easter-egg hunt on a quiet country lane. Last week, I was taking my daughters to stay with their grandparents for a few days, in the town of Helston, in Cornwall. It’s about three hundred miles from London—no great shakes by U.S. standards but about as far as you can drive in England without crossing into Scotland or falling into the sea. We left at 5:30 a.m., heading west, and arrived in Helston in the early afternoon. It’s hard to describe the effect of movement after being confined in a dense urban neighborhood for so long. The monotonous walks to the shitty park. I felt like I was being unpeeled. As we stood in my mother-in-law’s garden, in the bright July sun, a party of swifts, tipping from right to left, their long wings like blades, came over our heads and spiralled higher and higher into the sky, screaming. Continue reading

Wordists & Their Discontents

One of the earliest series of posts on this platform, wordsmithing was a way for us to say something about words we like, words we avoid, and important words almost lost to history. A fun, useful, if shortlived series. On August 12, 2011 we started the Bird of the Day series, where photos tell colorful stories with no words other than species name and photo location. Yesterday’s BOTD marks the 3,251st entry in that series, whereas the wordsmithing ended after the 26th entry. Parsimony of words combined with excellent photography wins the series longevity contest. But I find I still care enough about words to post on the topic. I cringed when I heard this news below, but was glad to read more about the decision to include a nonsensical word creation in the dictionary (I am 100% with the teacher who will still mark it as incorrect):

Regardless Of What You Think, ‘Irregardless’ Is A Word

Merriam-Webster raised the hackles of stodgy grammarians last week when it affirmed the lexical veracity of “irregardless.”

The word’s definition, when reading it, would seem to be: without without regard.

“Irregardless is included in our dictionary because it has been in widespread and near-constant use since 1795,” the dictionary’s staff wrote in a “Words of the Week” roundup on Friday. “We do not make the English language, we merely record it.”

Merriam-Webster defines irregardless as “nonstandard” but meaning the same as “regardless.” “Many people find irregardless to be a nonsensical word, as the ir– prefix usually functions to indicates negation; however, in this case it appears to function as an intensifier,” the dictionary writes. Continue reading

Backyard Birding & Organikos

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Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Thanks to the folks at Short Wave for this brief tutorial on backyard birding, featuring a scientist from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For those fortunate enough to be able to use some of their time in recent months for this purpose, the tutorial may resonate. A total novice like me finds it useful so I recommend it to others.

SETarrazuLabelI especially appreciated the advice of paying attention to the coffee that you purchase, because it can have significant impact on migratory birds. The new series of Organikos labels are almost ready for print-testing. One of the final decisions made in the last month was to let the label on the bag focus on the coffee and keep the bird-habitat mission messaging on the website and in places like this. A key part of that message is that the particular coffee offered matters most. We believe that if we start with the highest quality green beans, apply the perfect level of heat, and deliver them at the fairest price we will get what we need to plant more trees. So, the Tarrazu single estate is the second label I will share here. Along with the Hacienda la Amistad single estate organic, this is some of the most spectacular coffee grown in Costa Rica. And for every bag sold, the difference between what we pay to get this to you, and what you pay to Organikos, goes to bird habitat regeneration.

Bee Surprises

HiveOur bee obsession on this platform has many explanations, but my personal motivation for following the science of bees goes back to a summer in the late 1970s when I worked for a beekeeper. I cleared brush and vines from the forest edge to make way for more bee-friendly plantings. I worked within sight of a dozen active bee colonies in boxes where I could see buzzing swarms constantly. I learned to be calm around them from the man who tended them. He used a poncho, a mask, and a smoker when opening the boxes to remove honey, but other times walked among them with no protective gear. To my surprise the resins from Toxicodendron radicans–poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac–did more harm to me than the bees I worked around. In fact, I was never stung by those bees. Not once.

Which explains why when we finally had the chance to start our own bee colony I was all in. Above is a bee box, with found objects inside, above and below it. The bees inside had nested at the top of our house so we had a beekeeper extract them. He gave them this new home in a location where we have been clearing brush to make way for coffee planting. The old table had been in the chicken coop and the mysterious disk was on the roadside headed for recycling. One month later now, very happy bees.

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Above is a small sampling of the vines and brush I have been clearing from the land near that hive. History may not repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. As it happens, on my arm I have some of the same toxins from vines like those 40 years ago. The clearing work started in March and is nearing completion to make way for several hundred shade trees and several thousand coffee plants.

Bananas

One section of this clearing has already received twenty banana plants, based on the practice of our friends at Hacienda la Amistad. These make excellent companions to the coffee and are pollinated by bats, so provide another kind of ecological service too complex to discuss in a post primarily about bee surprises.

So, with all that in mind I was very happy to come across the story below by Cara Giaimo. Her work first appeared in our pages last October, then again a few months ago–both times related to birds. Somehow I missed this short article on bees from earlier this year, and I thank her for it now for making me laugh when there is not enough other news to laugh about:

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Frank Bienewald/imageBROKER, via Alamy

Bumblebee Vomit: Scientists Are No Longer Ignoring It

Regurgitation is an important consideration when it comes to the process of pollination.

The bumblebee is a discerning nectar shopper. When choosing which flowers to gather the sticky substance from, it might consider a plant’s distance, the shape of the petals and how sugar-rich the nectar is. Continue reading