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.



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Million Bees Roadtrip 2016, Conclusion

IMAG2224For those of you who have been following my travels and want to know the ending:  I have nothing to report but luck and success.

If you are looking for a lively travelogue I won’t provide it tonight.  I will recommend you check out Michael Palin’s “Full Circle”.  It was a BBC series [check it out on YouTube] but I listened to the audio of the book, narrated by Palin himself [available from the Portland Public Library].  It is the sort of astounding quality travel writing that makes me feel like a rank amateur by comparison.  I recommend it will my full enthusiasm.

I arrived at Kelley Beekeeping right at 7:30 (Central time, as I now know) and once again I was quickly loaded up and sent on my way by the incomparable Mike (who I’ve mentioned before) and set off on the slightly less mountainous Ohio/Pennsylvania route.  (I was trying out a load with about 30% more bees and the mountain route through West Virginia made me nervous.  In the end my dutiful little CRV performed like a champ and I’ll worry less next year.)

The threatening weather forecast resulted in only a small portion of the trip dampened with a misty rain (which is actually ideal for the bees as it allows them to stay hydrated and cool), two brief moments of fairly heavy rain (when I pulled over worrisomely but the rain subsided before I was done checking e-mails and Friendbook), and about 50% sun and clear skies.

[And I want to call out a special thanks to my wonderful friend, Margaret, beekeeper and meteorologist extraordinaire, who helped me keep a close eye on the turbulent weather that was swirling over the entire eastern US.]


“Do you watch Game of Thrones? Me neither. Try our new Waffle Cone!”

I took only two photos on the journey and the second of them was the comic highlight of the day at Starbucks where I awarded the Silver Medal in the 2016 Non-Sequitur Olympics.  [Why silver, you ask?  Because my daughter Caity* always takes the gold.  Every year.  She’s like the East Germans in the 80’s.]

Really, the only thing that kept my blood pressure from returning to normal/resting was the malfunctioning of my thermometer.  Those of you who have followed this story since original Million Bees Roadtrip know the importance of my thermometer [those of you who don’t may click this link for the explanation]  I knew from the intermittent readings I’d get from the thermometer and from sticking my hand into spaces between packages when I stopped for gas that the trailer was filled with warmth and humidity.  The new roof on the load was trapping some of that warmth but the mild day and perfect travel conditions (not only with weather but with traffic and road construction) allowed me to keep moving forward and providing fresh, cool air to the packages.



So in the end I arrived safely back at the Honey Exchange 25 hours after leaving Kentucky (including a few one-hour naps in Pennsylvania and Connecticut) and we unloaded 192 active and vigorous-looking packages with Russian hybrid queens.  100% survival on a 1,000-mile journey means we have done our best for these bees and the beekeepers who will take them home tomorrow.  For tonight I’m going to climb into my cozy bed and finally get a restful night’s sleep. IMAG2225


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Part Three: It’s Like Smokey and the Bandit, but with Bees and Liquor

DSC_0910I was treated to the most beautiful day imaginable and I spent it exploring some of the byways of Kentucky’s bourbon country.  After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast I set out for Buffalo Trace Distillery, a place rich with history.  Whiskey has been distilled along this bend of the Kentucky river since shortly after the United States became the United States.  It is lovely to behold and lovelier to smell.  You can sense its intoxicating aroma from a quarter mile away.IMAG2211

It turns out I was not the only one to have the idea to visit Buffalo Trace.  Apparently the Kentucky Derby is tomorrow and many people make a weekend of it in this part of the state.  The place was absolutely filled with visitors.  A crowd like this one can have the potential to be obnoxious but everyone seemed to be in a splendid and generous mood.  I can’t remember ever being in as big a group of people who were all this courteous and friendly.  I took the one hour tour and learned a lot about the history of the area and about the making of bourbon.  I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight so I am not going to take the time to recount it all here.  IMAG2215

After that I set off on another difficult and pointless quest.  A friend of mine back in Portland is a huge bourbon fan.  He has an extensive collection and I went to see if I could find some rarities on his wish list.  I was also in search of a particular bottle of rye for myself (as I’m more of a rye whiskey man).  Here was my takeaway:  the demand for boutique bourbon is so immense right now that the producers are sending much of it away to other markets, much of it overseas.  There are still a few gems to be found here but it was not as easy as I had anticipated.  I found one oddity for my friend (and struck out entirely for myself) but he had another much more simple request:  there is a brand of “regular old bourbon” he loves that is not available in Maine.  I saw it on the bottom shelf of every liquor store I visited.  After I had visited three liquor stores, and driven past scores of others (all with drive-thru windows – something very foreign to a guy from Maine) I decided it was time to head toward my hotel, set up my trailer for tomorrow, then pick up a few bottles of bourbon when I was out getting some food for supper and for the roadtrip.

It seems my hotel is in a dry county.  I circumnavigated the entire town.  No liquor stores.  So I put a search into the google.  A few places showed up, 45 minutes away.  I really didn’t want to go back the entire distance I had traveled this afternoon.  One place did come up in the search that was only 20 minutes away.  The sun was setting and the evening was mild and delightful so I thought I’d continue a lovely drive.   I followed the instructions coming through my phone until the voice said, “You have reached your destination.”  I was surrounded by empty fields for as far as the eye could see.IMAG2217

I headed back toward the little town of Leitchfield and found yet another delicious meal at a local Mexican restaurant.  (I might not have repeated that after last night but Leitchfield is not a town rich with choices and the Chinese Buffet didn’t sound appealing.)

DSC_0912DSC_0913The weather prediction for tomorrow has me fretting yet again.  It should not be as bad as last year (think happy thoughts about that) but I’m definitely going to encounter some rain.  I’m better prepared, with new and improved sides and a roof for the trailer.  And I am going to be much quicker to stop and cover up when the rain comes hard.  So far the prediction is for rain that should come and go.  It may be slow going but I don’t think it will be a disaster.  Wish me luck.


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Million Bees Roadtrip 2016, Part Two: Drive. Write. Sleep. Repeat

horsesToday’s drive wore me down. Meghan had convinced me to add an extra day to the Million Bees Roadtrip this year to try to give the trip some semblance of the “vacation” I always joke that it is. So I divided the downward leg into three days instead of two and have added some excursions and diversions. Tomorrow I don’t have any driving to do and I’m going to give Bourbon country the attention it deserves; that should be fun. Today had a mere five hours of driving but it felt endless. I spent a lot of today fretting about Saturday’s 24-hour drive.

The time behind the wheel yesterday and today was fraught with contradiction and it left me feeling unmoored and rudderless. The weather is making me anxious. It’s been very rainy and I keep being reminded of last year’s difficulties. The light through the low clouds and drizzle amplifies the greens of the landscape. Pennsylvania was electric. The breathtaking mountains of West Virginia are more vibrant than ever but navigating tortuous roads in the rain is wearisome. Through long stretches of each day the direction of the sun was barely discernible; it cast no shadows. In know intellectually I am travelling vaguely west-southwest but the sky provides no sense of bearing. The light also gives no indication of the time of day so the road is giving me an unsettling, hypnotic sensation of being removed from time and direction. At some point in Pennsylvania I pulled off the highway to buy a few snacks and soft drinks for the road. I found a mall with a Wegman’s grocery and found myself with a dizzying sense of having been there before. I knew I had never stopped in this part of the state and it wasn’t déjà vu I was feeling. It was a sense of sameness. It’s one of the curses of trying to go long distances efficiently. I don’t have time to browse so I keep finding myself in malls that feel exactly the same. I’ve written before about this sort of commerce being an invasive species. I feel about Home Depot the way some people feel about Japanese Knotweed. Still, you have to admire the two things for their similar ability to out compete the things around them. They are what they are because they keep winning. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prevent the invasives from destroying your garden.

As the owner of a small local business my need for simplicity and reliability are often in conflict with my better instincts. I am an unapologetic coffee snob and I know I can get a dependable latte at Starbucks. Yesterday I wrote about looking for a Starbucks and coming across a wonderful local coffee shop. I had the same good fortune the day before when I stopped for a tank of gas in Westford, Massachusetts and came upon the most wonderful smelling business I have ever had the pleasure of entering. The Stem and Bean is part coffee shop, part flower shop. It is entirely heaven. If you are ever anywhere near Westford, just go there. Even if you need neither coffee nor flowers, go there. Take my word for this.

stem and bean

I’m going to stop complaining and get some sleep. I’m just tired and there are silver linings in the clouds. Both yesterday and today the day ended with a lifting of the gloom and I was treated to clear skies and a beautiful sunset in both Virginia and Kentucky. I lucked out once again when I found a Mexican restaurant in Lawrenceburg and had the best Carnitas I’ve had since leaving Chicago. (If you find yourself in this part of KY, stop in at La Isla. It’s delicious.)

And I’ll leave you with this thought: Whenever possible, buy what you can from an independent local business. You’ll still find plenty of reasons to end up at Starbucks, or Wegmans, or Home Depot. But believe me, your dollars mean a lot more to a hard working small businessperson with a family to support than they do to some anonymous shareholder.

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Million Bees Roadtrip 2016, Part One: A Sweet Natural Eye to the New Hip Moon*

“. . . We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset . . .” –Allen Ginsburg, Sunflower Sutra

I woke up with nothing to say.   It was a dreary morning in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and I was tired. I’d driven a long time through New York and New Jersey (which I will explain in a moment) and I’d had a fitful night’s sleep in a motel room where the raindrops from the air conditioning unit above mine drummed down in an unpredictable syncopated staccato on the metal outside the window beside my bed. I’m supposed to be resting but I’m weary.

After the New Jersey Barbecue Adventure I had pushed on until my eyes were drooping in the Pennsylvania night and I pulled off the highway to find a bed in Bethlehem. The air was raw and damp and the night sky was low with fog. This particular Pennsylvania off ramp dumps into ridiculous road construction smack dab in front of the appallingly tacky Sands Casino. And the Sands stands smack dab in front of the decrepit old steel stacks of a recently deceased industrial behemoth. It’s as if an anger-issues Invisible Hand of the Market punched a hole in the sheetrock and somebody hung a Thomas Kinkade print on the wall in front of it. It’s a simple solution but I’m not sure it’s the best solution.

I found a bed and woke up Wednesday morning in a gray mood. I set out in search of a cup of coffee in a town that has, quite simply, seen better times. And I drove around thinking of Ginsburg’s “gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery” and I saw two people in matching red shirts planting plants in a barrel by a stoplight. As I thought, “Starbucks must have seen a sign that said ‘Abandon Hope’ and refused to enter here” I saw another few people in those self-same red t-shirts and they were planting plants at the base of a bike rack. I sort of noticed some red flags and red balloons as I searched for a cup of goddamned coffee to start my day.

I finally found a double-long parking space (because I’m dragging around this stupid 10-foot trailer) within reasonable distance of a place called Deja Brew and I ran in for a latte. As I drove back toward the highway I realized there were dozens, maybe scores, maybe more people who had dedicated a dreary, drizzly Wednesday morning to planting flowers around this once-beautiful town. The shirts, flags, and balloons bore the logo of Wells Fargo Bank. I presume they sponsored an event but I can’t seem to find any information on the internet. Perhaps the project is not just for publicity. But, good people of Bethlehem, when all those flowers start blooming you know which bank to thank.

IMAG2199I’d set off on this year’s (two) Million Bees Roadtrip on Tuesday around the middle of the day. Loyal readers will recall last year’s fiasco with The Curse of the Chocolate Donut and this year I decided to try my luck with an entirely different donut from an entirely different donut shop: The sweet potato-ginger donut from The Holy Donut served as a delicious lunchtime entrée and I pressed on toward Brooklyn.

Phil’s Philosophies of Life, #48: Give yourself a difficult and pointless quest from time to time:

IMAG2204On the Big Map it makes sense – Bill Fletcher is the brother of a dear friend of mine. He runs an amazing barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn. My brother-from-another-mother Anthony lives in Short Hills. Only the Holland Tunnel and a few miles of highway separate the two. So it makes perfect sense to leave Maine at lunchtime, pick up a big bag of barbecue in Brooklyn, and then shuttle it out to Short Hills for a delicious supper, right? Forget for a moment the rush-hour traffic and the ten-foot trailer behind my car and the plan is perfectly logical.

Few people have been my friend longer than Anthony. (I won’t bore you with details but suffice to say without Anthony The Honey Exchange would not exist.) His mother, Clara, is my “work mother”. She taught me (at the age of 20) how to be a dedicated boss and a kind, caring person at the same time. Her return to work not long after brain surgery gave me a new definition of “work ethic.” So when Anthony told me Clara would be joining us on my brief pass through the mid-Atlantic I thought, “this barbecue better rise to the occasion.” Fletcher did not disappoint. I enjoyed a wonderful but fleeting evening with Anthony, his beautiful wife, and a couple of their friends. The only disappointment was that I arrived so late I only had the chance to meet two of their four children and the meeting was all too brief. And I was too late getting to sleep in Bethlehem.

Wednesday’s drive was a fog removed from time; I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow but my goal was to arrive in time for an evening meal in western Virginia with a friend I had not seen since I graduated from college a very, very long time ago. Twenty-seven years is a lot of catching up to do over a single supper but a few precious gems of our conversation are relevant to the story I want to tell: Ellen’s field is environmental cleanup.

In the course of our chat I mentioned to Ellen how at least ¾ of our beekeeping students in every class are women and she jokingly said, “we’re taking over.” I agreed, and wished them well because things haven’t really gone so perfectly while the men have been in charge. I thought of Ginsburg’s “blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery” and how Ellen and a few other remarkable people had dedicated their careers to cleaning up after the mistakes and carelessness of commerce and military might. And I recalled the red Wells Fargo shirts on people who had dedicated a dreary Wednesday morning to putting plants in the ground of a town that needs reminding that we’re all golden sunflowers inside.

I think the world is healing. It’s healing in baby steps but it’s going in the right direction. And the sun came out in Virginia and I’m feeling good about this trip again.  Tomorrow is a brighter day.

[*a special thanks to Allen Ginsburg, who gave me no permission to steal his words, but I honestly don’t think he’d mind.  The complete poem is not entirely suitable for audiences of all ages but it is worth looking up if your are an adult who is unfamiliar with the work.]

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