2019 Three Million Bee Roadtrip, Part Two

Morning in Barboursville, West Virginia

Years ago my friend and stand-up guru, Tim, said (regarding his students’ performances), “the ones who make me the most nervous are the ones who aren’t nervous.”  I have shared this wisdom with countless beekeepers, especially new beekeepers getting ready to install a new package of bees.  Our brains are hard-wired at birth to be afraid of yellow and black things that fly around our face; if you’re not a little trepidatious about a big box of bees you’re probably not doing it right.

I confess I’ve been struggling with a rough patch of writer’s block trying to find something to say about this year’s trip.  I tried re-reading some of the old posts here and found a lot of it is just me dealing with my worries.  This year feels different.

Part of it can be explained by my wonderful experience with the wizards at Baylight Homeopathy.  After a bit of a “health scare” last fall, I went there to see if they had anything to offer for (without delving into too much detail) “chronic tummyache” and high blood pressure.  I was given a homeopathic remedy that has helped a great deal with my body’s response to anxiety.  I find now I am able to look more directly at stressful situations without so much mental noise.  This trip is challenging, but I’ve done it for seven years in a row and I know what to expect now.  This morning I did see an 18-wheeler tipped off my side of the road but facing entirely the wrong way.  I saw the tracks on the center grass where it had clearly missed a curve and careened clear off the other side of the road.  Made a mental note to definitely not fall asleep at the wheel.

Part of it is the weather forecast.  For the past few years we’ve had challenging rain.  It appears (knock on wood) we might get a break from that.  As always, we worry about the bees getting too hot but it looks like temperatures are going to be pleasantly moderate for the trip home.  I worry about the bees getting too cold but the answer to that is to just keep an eye on the bees’ thermometer and, if necessary, I can stop and let them warm up.  I’m cautiously optimistic.  (This is not my natural state.)

A drive of 1,100 miles each direction is mentally and physically challenging unto itself.  So far (and I hesitate to risk jinxing it) everything has gone smoothly.  I arrived at the Hatfield Inn in Leitchfield, KY early this afternoon.  Check in time is 3:00 and I arrived a bit before that so I took the time to set up the trailer for tomorrow.

Ben’s Truck and the Trailer without sides

Trailer with sides in place

Once that was squared away I went into the lobby to check in and realized it was only 2:30.  I had once again forgotten about crossing into the central time zone a few miles east of here.  I thought I might have to kill some more time or get some hassle from the front desk staff.  (I should mention that I’ve never mentioned the Hatfield Inn before because up till now the staff has been almost comically unfriendly.  Almost.  But I noticed a sign “under new management” and it shows.  I was actually greeted with a smile (for the first time) and KIND WORDS!  Then I was handed the key to the John Hatfield Suite. It’s a lovely room.

(I did immediately visit the bathroom and, whilst sitting on the thinking throne, encountered an enormous spider.  I don’t know what kind of spider, only that it was not an innocent-looking New England spider.  I was going to snap a photo but the thing was heading straight for my foot and I thought it best to end the encounter on my terms.)

I’d made good time and had over-shot the spots I’d thought to visit on the Bourbon trail.  Once I had taken care of everything here I looked at the map and realized a visit to any of the distilleries would mean almost two more hours in the car and I didn’t have the strength.

I went into town to get some groceries for the roadtrip home.

Downtown Leitchfield

The grocery store

My friend Lawrence had asked me to look for a local whiskey he hoped I’d be able to bring home.  Leitchfield has two liquor stores.  The one at the near end of the block had never heard of it.  The store at the far end of the block had it in stock.

 

With all of my chores finished, I found myself a little early supper, did a little writing, and now I’m thinking about getting to bed early and maybe facing the long journey home well rested for the first time ever.  Wish me luck.

 

 

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2019 Three Million Bee Roadtrip, Part One

If, as I’ve mentioned before, the term “blog” is onomatopoetic, this one is in the dry heaves stage.  I blame Tim Ferrell.  In the late winter I attended Tim’s 7-week stand-up comedy workshop that culminated with each of the 12 members of the class performing our 8 minute sets in front of an audience of about 125 people.  (Here’s a little snippet from my set:)

The craft of stand-up is very much the opposite of blogging.  Loyal readers will know the words In the Bee-Loud Glade tend to meander and wander from point to point.  Stand-up is all about editing.  I can hear Tim’s voice in my head:  “skip all that long-winded exposition and get to the funny part quicker.”

Today I don’t even have a funny part.

The first two days of this year’s journey have been pleasantly uneventful, moderately tedious, and entirely humorless.  Well, humorless aside from dinner with Will and Carrie Watman.  Will and Carrie wandered into the Honey Exchange years ago and quickly became dear friends.  Last year they moved to Baltimore and Meghan and I miss them terribly.  When I realized Baltimore could easily be added to the bee roadtrip, I invited myself to supper.  Supper with the Watmans is never dull.  As usual, they arrayed a beautiful spread of meats, cheeses, bread, and salads and we passed a quick three hours deep in conversation.  If I had all the time in the world I’d write a whole essay about altruism and the sharing economy, which is their passion.  [Since I don’t have the time, check out Will’s free book Canned Salmon (if you hadn’t noticed, anything that shows up in yellow here is a link you can click).]

Speaking of altruism (and I can see Tim rolling his eyes at that terrible segue), I should mention another stroke of luck.  I had mentioned to Ben at the Maine Mead Works how I hadn’t quite figured out how to tow a trailerload of bees this year.  He volunteered he had a spare Toyota pickup and agreed to let us borrow it for this year’s trip.  Once again, I’m riding in style in a borrowed truck.  Thanks Ben!

So day one began with my usual Cookie Jar donut and made it to Baltimore in time for supper.  Day two brought me to Barboursville, West Virginia and a motel room with an air conditioner that roars to life every 30 minutes or so with a sound like a steamroller and blasts an arctic wind directly on the bed.  I’m going to try to get some sleep and tomorrow I’ll be back in bourbon and racehorse country and maybe I’ll find something to write about.

Postscript:

A few people have noticed I never wrote the end to last year’s story.  It is brief.  The trip went without any difficulties aside from a pesky storm cloud that was on the same track as the road I traveled.  I had to repeatedly pull over and wait for the heavy rain to pass over, then I would catch up to the rain again and repeat the process.  Other than the trip taking about 8 hours longer than I’d hoped it was uneventful.  All 256 packages of bees arrived safely in Maine and went off to populate hives from Massachusetts to Vinalhaven, ME.

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It’s Swarm Season in Portland, Maine

Very soon I’m hoping to write a bit about swarming honeybees and how it all relates to managing beehives for mites but it’s been a little nutty around here lately with swarms and busy beekeepers.

While you wait for the upcoming essay (essays?), please enjoy this video of me catching a swarm outside of the entrance to Maine Medical Center.

 

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2018 Three Million Bee Roadtrip, Part Two

“[The battlefield at Gettysburg holds] a sacred reverence to a past that will halt time. It’s a privilege to stand on the same ground where solidarity of common life was more important than the risk of that very life itself.” –C. Bee

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

This past winter was so tedious and miserable I actually starting running out of TV shows to binge-watch on Netflix. One night I queued up the Ken Burns Civil War documentary out of sheer boredom. I hadn’t watched it when everyone else did, primarily because everyone else did. I’m a bit reactionary that way. I found the episodes captivating and they dredged up faded memories of history learned years ago in Mr. Gresk’s 7th grade class and since mostly forgotten.  I also realized why so many of the place names along my annual bee journey seemed vaguely familiar: Fredericksburg and Appomattox, Virginia; Shepherdstown and Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; Barboursville and Paducah, Kentucky; and of course, Gettysburg. I was also reminded why, when my friend George showed me around Bull Run Winery and mentioned the battles at Manassas, he responded to my blank stare with the kindness of a southern gentleman but a slight look in his eye like he thought maybe he was talking to a complete moron.

The drive from Portland, Maine to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is a long one but possible in one day if you press on without stopping much. I was hoping a morning of quiet contemplation there might help me wrap my mind around it all. It seems to me a lot of present day political affairs have happened along the same fault lines as the war between the states. I pulled in to the parking lot at the Gettysburg museum shortly after it opened at 9:00 and found it was already filling up with cars and tour buses. The museum wasn’t going to provide much quiet contemplation so I opted for the driving tour in Bill’s comfortable pickup. (I’d left the trailer behind for the morning.)

In my youth we took many family driving vacations in the summer, often heading eastward from Chicago to visit relatives in New Jersey and on Cape Cod. I know at some point we visited revolutionary memorials at Lexington and Concord and I guessed Gettysburg might be much the same. There is the vaguest memory from my childhood of my parents taking us to some civil war monument and getting so much grief from their disinterested children it was never attempted again. (I also remember the melodramatic eye-rolls my sisters, brothers, and I would give every time the station wagon pulled over to a roadside historical marker. As an adult I stop at every marker I can, partly from grown-up intellectual curiosity, partly from guilt, and partly to show my own kids that my sainted parents were right all along.)

The experience of the Gettysburg National Military Park is almost too enormous to put into words. First of all the place is unbelievably vast. It’s nothing like quaint Bunker Hill in Boston but sprawls over nearly ten square miles. It is also breathtakingly picturesque and not especially near much else besides rolling Pennsylvania farmland. Since living in Maine I have come to learn how many soldiers from my adopted state fought in the conflict and how critical their participation was. After an “exhausting” drive along well-paved roads at 65 miles per hour, I tried to fathom a soldier traveling here before cars and the interstate highway system. I also tried to imagine over 150,000 soldiers engaged in battle here and attempted to comprehend how a third of them died on the battlefield and many more died of injury and the illnesses that followed.

After a morning surrounded by natural beauty and the ghosts of unfathomable tragedy, I set off to see my dear friend Bee who is currently living in Hinton, West Virginia, about five hours’ drive in the direction I have been heading. My mind raced with questions. Bee, aside from being a remarkable master beekeeper, a talented writer, and among the kindest people I have ever met, is an expert on the Civil War. She politely refers to the conflict as the War Between the States. Her people are from Tennessee and they are more apt to use the term “War of Northern Aggression.” In fact a distant relative of hers, General Barnard Elliott Bee, was famous for providing Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson his nickname. (That same day, at the battle of Bull Run, Gen. Bee was wounded in the stomach by an artillery shell and died the following day.)

Bee and I first met years ago at a beekeeping conference as Meghan and I were preparing to open the Honey Exchange. She lived in Georgia at that time but soon after moved to Maine and became a cherished member of our community there. For the time being, she is living in West Virginia working with an organization called the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective which is part of the Appalachian Headwaters organization whose mission is to “work to reclaim and restore forests, streams, and communities in central Appalachia.”

The road to Hinton climbs and dips and winds through mountains above the banks of the New river, which is currently swollen and roaring. Bee described how just beyond the lovely line of trees at the top of the mountain the earth is clear-cut and scarred from strip mining. The economic promise from coal mining is a mere shadow of what it once was and the Headwaters organization is helping people to find new opportunities and trying to repair the environmental damage to the landscape and waterways. Bee is there to teach people how to keep (and eventually sell) beehives and harvest honey. Other people are working to plant trees and other plants to restore economically viable forest and provide bee forage. In the storehouse she also pointed out a huge stack of beehive parts manufactured by a separate organization that helps people rebuild lives during recovery from opioid and other addictions.

I met Bee in town, where she has an apartment (complete with her own observation hive where honeybees can fly out through a second story window) and she drove me out to “the camp”. The centerpiece of this county’s arm of the collective is what my kids would call a “sleepover camp” where the families of miners used to enjoy summer holidays.  It consists of about a dozen or so big white-painted cabins, communal buildings, a gymnasium that now serves as the warehouse for hive parts, and a new large honey house for extracting and bottling.

Much like my morning in Gettysburg, I was entirely unprepared for the scope and scale of the thing. I’d imagined perhaps a project with hives numbering in the hundreds at most. This year they are managing 1,100 hives with a staff fewer than ten and a host of newly trained beekeepers throughout the county. I could not help but be reminded of a phrase Bee had written in an e-mail to me when I was planning my trip this year: “the solidarity of common life.”

We had driven out to the camp chatting, catching up and discussing this project that has Bee energized and animated. She showed me around and I listened slack-jawed with amazement. As we drove back to town I peppered her with questions about Gettysburg and the war and tried to get some shading from someone who didn’t learn the history of that era in a Yankee classroom like the one I had with Mr. Gresk. I had miles left to travel and our time was much too short. We said goodbye and I drove off watching a cool drizzle add sheen to the blooming dogwood trees and pondering expansive thoughts in solitude.

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2018 – Three Million Bee Roadtrip, Part One

Epilogue/Prologue:

I personally abhor the term “blog.” It’s often too onomatopoetic when it describes the regurgitation of the inner workings of someone’s mind and the spewing forth of the minutiae of an author’s life. I forget who once said about a writer, “Just because you think something doesn’t make it interesting.” But I have something personal to share tonight because I believe it’s relevant.

Loyal readers have noticed (and a few have mentioned) I never wrote the conclusion to last year’s roadtrip. The short excuse is I was very busy at the Honey Exchange as spring rolled into the summer of 2017. In truth, looking back now I believe I was battling a mild depression in the first half of that year. I also felt like I didn’t have much to say because the journey ended without any noteworthy incident. We lost one package of bees to a leaky syrup feeder. Other than that, 195 packages found good homes with the happy beekeepers of the northeast. There was a moment, however, when that conclusion was far from certain.

It began with insomnia. I’ve been trying to recall if I had a big coffee too late in the afternoon on the Friday before I was scheduled to pick up the bees. Till very recently I could drink coffee right up until bedtime and still fall asleep just fine. Then I turned 50 and like someone flipped a switch, that ended. Many people have experienced the sort of sleeplessness where you look at the clock and think, “Okay, if I fall asleep now I can get seven hours of sleep.” Staring at the clock an hour later, it’s six hours, then five, then . . . But I absolutely knew I needed to get some sleep because I had a challenging drive ahead of me. At some point in the wee hours of the morning my insomnia transformed into a full and terrifying panic attack. I had never experienced one before and I hope to never again. For those of you who have never been through such an ordeal – it is both physically real and entirely irrational. In the throes of it you genuinely feel like you can’t possibly get through it. Then you do.

To make it seem even more distant and surreal, during the 24-hour drive that followed my few fevered hours of sleep I felt more alert than on any of my previous trips. The human body is both a deeply flawed and an awe-inspiring machine. I drove, stopping only for gas and toilet breaks, till I reached Connecticut and snatched a few hours of deep and reinvigorating sleep, then arrived in Portland about 9:00 Sunday morning, cheerful and alert.

This is perhaps more confessional that you have come to expect of the Bee-Loud Glade. I bring it up because I believe we can all benefit from more frank conversations about mental health. If I can reach one person who is feeling terrified and alone, it’s worth writing. You’ll get through this. And you don’t need to feel alone. There are people everywhere who want to help. That’s the real thing I want to write about tonight.

Altruism

I try to avoid too much anthropomorphizing of honeybees; it’s easy enough to find that elsewhere. When I have a chance to teach school kids I always make an exception when it comes to the subject of altruism. I love teaching that word to kids and explaining the idea of having greater concern for the welfare of others than for the welfare of oneself. For bees in a colony, this is innate. We human animals, burdened with free will, must choose altruism. As I say to the kids, if everyone is looking out for everybody else you don’t need to worry about yourself because everybody else already is, right?

Looking back on my old essays I realize the story of the Million Bee Roadtrip is usually told as a solitary journey because I drive alone. I may have failed to mention a bunch of people behind the scenes who make success possible.

Today it rained pretty much the whole way from Maine to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I arrived here with tired eyes and a single photograph. “Super Duty” doesn’t begin to describe the sweet truck I am driving this year. After last year’s trip I mentioned to a group of friends that I was towing right at the limits of my own car’s ability and my friend Bill said casually, “You should use my truck.” After I fretted for months about towing bees, I checked back with Bill to see if he was serious. He was. So I’m tall in the saddle in one of the nicest vehicles I’ve had the opportunity to drive and this year we’re bringing up 256 packages, almost three million bees, all thanks to the immeasurable kindness of Bill.

So before I close I want to say a word of thanks to some of the people who have helped us along the way. (This list is in no way complete so if I forget somebody – it’s late – please know it is not for lack of gratitude.)

In the first year of the trip Jim was my co-pilot. He kept me safe and sane and I’m pretty sure I repaid him by being miserable company for four days straight.

For the first two years, Josh graciously lent us his trailer. Only the demand for more bees drove us to buy a larger trailer of our own.

Dave Smith who is Sparky’s Honey and Maple, and later Chris Rogers from Backwoods Bee Farm, gave me invaluable advice on how to get a whole lot of bees back safely to Maine.

Erin Forbes (Overland Apiaries) has given the Honey Exchange much. On my first solo drive though, Erin phoned me late in the night just to keep me company. She told me, “I have a very real feeling this is going to go well for you.” It made me feel much calmer. And she was entirely correct. I never said thanks for that.

Thalassa came into the shop last year and said she’d love to just come and help on package pickup day. She did, her help was beyond measure, and she didn’t ask for anything in return. She’ll be back this year and then she’ll be joining the Honey Exchange team officially for a day a week starting this summer.

Margaret Curtis is an expert meteorologist and a wonderful friend. She has always offered insight into the weather I’ll encounter on the trip and last year she went above and beyond and enlisted the help of some other members of the National Weather Service to help me cover a 1,100 mile diagonal across the eastern third of the US. Without their advice I would have almost certainly have driven into terrible thunderstorms.

Lastly, while I take my annual “vacation” things keep humming at Command and Control. Thao Kieu is a big part of that; she’s become a valued member of the Honey Exchange family. And finally I must mention my beautiful and brilliant wife Meghan. She’s home alone tonight, quietly celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary. She’s the other half of my soul and she makes all of this possible and everything worthwhile.

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