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.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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 that the risk of that very life itself.” –Cindy 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 being there 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 Cindy 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. Cindy, 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.)

Cindy 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. Cindy 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. Cindy 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 Cindy 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 Cindy 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 Cindy 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Million Bees Roadtrip, 2017

tractor on a rockI’ve been accused of a lot of things in my day. This week was the first time I was accused of being “in it for the money.”

I should have taken my own advice: Don’t read too deep down the comments section on threads open to the public or you’ll end up mad. But this didn’t make me mad; it made me laugh. And it made me think of advice I gave to my kids when they were deciding on a college education: People are always telling you to chase your passion; Chase the money so you can pay for your passion. (They thought I was kidding.)

gloomy PAAll these thoughts were rolling around in my head as the car and the empty trailer rolled along as the road rose and fell, endlessly, along the Appalachian range. The weather, at the outset, mirrored my mood. Low, gloomy skies and miserable rain followed me out of Maine, into Massachusetts and Connecticut. It brightened a bit through New York and Pennsylvania and I could see the late-dragging April I’d left behind changing more solidly to spring and blooming dandelions in the mid-Atlantic. I spent the night near Harrisburg, PA and awoke to a bright sunny morning full of promise.

Loyal followers of this annual pilgrimage will remember I consider a good donut to be the most essential roadtrip food. I’d intended to start the trip with a donut from Black Cat Coffee, across from the Honey Exchange. I’d gotten them before but I’d forgotten they had begun making their own fresh-baked treats a while back. A gorgeous piece of coconut pastry served as an able substitute. But near where I stayed in Pennsylvania was a place called Duck Donuts. I stopped in on a whim and was struck dumb. Small plain donuts, hot from the fryer, to which you could add a glaze (I chose maple) and a sprinkle (I chose crumbled bacon). It was revelatory. I was in heaven. Sadly, it was about the only notable thing that would happen that day.

As I pushed on through the rest of Pennsylvania, a snippet of western Maryland, and into West Virginia, the gloom returned to the skies and to my mood. As West Virginia wore on, heavy rain returned. And I grew increasingly anxious. By the time I reached Kentucky, the sun came out and it was full summer. The dandelions had already gone to puff-balls and the black locust trees, honeysuckle, and clover were already in bloom. The temperature approached 90° but none of that calmed my nerves.20170428_131957

Work, for the first few months of this year, has been somewhat exhausting. Whether I would be filled with cheer if all that work had made me rich as Croesus, we will never know. I’d decided not to build in any social engagements into this year’s trip and thought it would be a good idea to have some long stretches of automotive solitude and try to stay well rested for the journey. As a result I don’t really have much to write about. I’d traveled these roads before and some of the novelty has worn off. I’d chosen the mountain route but the low skies didn’t give me much of a view. And the weather was making me nervous about the trailer load of bees I would load up in a couple of days.

Relentless rain is my enemy. I learned from the debacle of 2015 when it rains hard I need to stop. Another worry for a trailer loaded with two million bees is excessive heat. The forecast for Saturday calls for humid summer heat and passing thunderstorms, so I have to stay flexible. I can stop and throw a tarp over the trailer when storms pass through, and I have a removable roof I can add. If the temperature approaches 90° though, it’s best if the top is open and I keep moving to circulate air so the bees don’t overheat.

For company this year I am listening to a book called “The Goldfinch”. It is a beautifully winding tale, told in rich, descriptive prose – the perfect kind of fiction in which to lose oneself on a long drive through the mountains. The book’s central character and narrator, at least up to the point I have reached in the story, is filled with a deep melancholy and followed by a streak of terrible luck. Perhaps it was just my immersion in the narrative that had me feeling unmoored, and sorry for myself. I had planned to push on to Lexington, Kentucky, find a place to stay for the night, then explore that town the next day. By the time I started looking for a hotel room the town was sold out. Some sort of big horse racing event and a big convention are in town. So I pressed on to Elizabethtown (another hour of weary driving). I arrived, feeling terribly low, and went straight to bed.

But the next day I awoke, having completed the downward half of my journey, with nothing to do but relax, enjoy the day, and make my final preparations for the return. I had posted a few photos on Facebook and I found solace in the fact that a group of people were following along with my travels and seemed to be cheering me on.

And I saw the comment, on an unrelated post, about The Honey Exchange being “in it for the money.” It helped me remember what matters.

Believe me, I’m not doing this for the money. I’m not saying I do it for free; selling 200 packages of bees in one day certainly helps us pay some bills at the store. But that’s not what makes me anxious. After all, we have insurance. (Yes, you can buy insurance on two million bees.) If the whole thing were a complete catastrophe it wouldn’t bankrupt us. But we stress about it because we care. I know we have a list of nearly 100 people who are counting on me – people who are eagerly awaiting their new colony of honeybees to start a hive for spring. And I’m first and foremost a beekeeper. Letting bees die on my watch is simply not something I want to happen.

duck mascot

This little guy is going to keep an eye on things.

Heaven Hill

Heaven Hill distillery – if you’re in this part of the world I highly recommend a visit.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Swarm Wrangling on campus

UNE Swarm hangingWe got a call at the Honey Exchange from the University of New England’s Portland campus, just up the street from the store. A big swarm of honeybees had alighted on a tree beside the parking lot. It seems to have made a lot of people nervous. When I arrived I was greeted by John, the Facilities Manager. He asked if there was anything he could do to help and I asked if he might have a ladder. My stepladder was across town at the warehouse. He said a ladder was harder to find than a lift and he offered me use of that most excellent of tools. It seemed like a godsend – I’d zip up, get it done, and be on my way in no time.

A lift on loan

Well, I’m going to let you in on a secret veteran swarm wranglers know: We tell everybody that bees in swarms don’t want to sting. This is only mostly true. the bees in a swarm are entirely dispassionate about the innocent bystanders and people who wander by. But the guy standing under the swarm when those bees hit him in a freefall? Yeah, that guy gets stung a few times. My policy when wrangling a swarm in a public place is always to “gear down.” I try to wear a veil and not much else beyond the clothes I was already wearing. When a group of worried onlookers sees me working in short sleeves I think it helps them worry less; if I were to gear up in the whole HAZMAT suit it might send the message there is something they should worry about. If a half a dozen stings on each arm is the price of others’ peace of mind, it’s a gift I will give.

And life is all about learning. Today I learned a lift is not really the ideal thing for this particular swarm situation. Safety regulations require the user of the lift be equipped with a full and very serious harness. The harness clips to the lift itself with a clamp that requires two hands to remove. You couldn’t hurt yourself falling out of this lift even if you really, really tried. In addition, the lift had sturdy aluminum rails to keep you safely on your feet. The rails, in the end, made it feel a bit like I was strapped into an airborne shark cage; only bees can get through the bars of a shark cage. Plan A was to knock the bees off the branch (as it was too thick, old, and lovely to cut) and into a bucket attached to a long metal stick. In the business this is called the old Bucket on a Stick Trick. The trouble is I had to bang the bucket against the branch then lower the bucket full of bees down to the brief on the ground. While being stung by bees. I cannot recommend this method of swarm capture.

After that things got comical. We rooted around the tool box in my car. John and I tried throwing a rope with a roll of duct tape tied to the end for weight. The idea was to get the rope over the branch then pull it sharply to shake the swarm off the branch to the brief and surrounding sheet below. The duct tape didn’t really have enough weight so we tried tying the crescent wrench to the rope as well as the duct tape. That didn’t work any better but it did make the whole routine of tossing and pulling the rope then running to avoid a crescent wrench careening through the air just slightly more hilarious.

I finally concluded I had to haul back to the Honey Exchange, pick up the too-large-for-my-car extension ladder and drive back with it hanging out of the back of my CRV. While I was at the shop I also grabbed a frame of old brood comb. I detached the long metal stick from the bucket and reattached it to the frame. It was time for the old Brood Comb on a Stick Trick.

Brood comb on a stick trick

That worked well. After letting the bees march onto the comb and coat it three times (shaking them into the brief each time) I did a single bang of the bucket on a stick and put it down by the brief. The ladder gave me a better angle and safer distance from the ensuing mayhem.

Finally, after Meghan had finished closing up the store and came to assist we decided to attach a couple of lengths of rope together then attach that to a full water bottle. It’s heavier but easier to throw. Then with two ends of the rope in hand we could give the branch a mighty shake.  [**Meghan has a good video of this but I haven’t figured out how to get it on this page.  Check back in a day or two if you’ve read this bit**]  The swarm fell off the branch and onto the sheet with a slap. After the bees had settled a bit I looked on the ground and found the queen. I put her in a cage and put the cage into the brief. After a while all the bees marched into the brief and we bundled them up in the sheet, put them in the car, then went home for a well-deserved gin and tonic.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment