2021 Four Million Bee Roadtrip, Part 1

I never told everyone the end of last year’s story, but I think I’m finally ready. It was one of the hardest days ever at The Honey Exchange and I’m not too proud to tell you it’s the only time I’ve cried at work. But bear with me; the story has a happy end.

Dawn in Kennebunk, ME

On the advice of our sage meteorologist friend, Margaret, we headed north from Kentucky. Spring of 2020 (in addition to all the other challenges of that year) featured unusually cold weather for the entire eastern half of the United States. It seems illogical to me, but the quickest way home from Clarkson, Kentucky to Portland, Maine is to head way up north to Buffalo, New York before heading east along the NY State Thruway. It was marginally warmer than the route along the Appalachians but still unseasonably chilly. We made good time. When we reached Maine a couple of hours before dawn the temperatures had fallen well below freezing and we stopped till the sun could warm things up a bit. When we arrived in Portland and began unloading the bees, we had a sense that something was not quite right, but we went home for a quick shower and coffee and hoped for the best.

When we returned at 10:00 the situation was stranger still. We had brought up 200 packages from Hardeman apiary and they looked fine. We had avoided rain on the drive, and so long as three pounds of bees stay dry, they can handle the cold. The 56 packages from Coy apiary just looked . . . wrong. Many were alive but moving slowly. They should have become more active in the warmth of the Honey Exchange, but they were listless and many seemed to be dying before our eyes. We called Jennifer Lund, Maine’s brilliant state apiarist. She quickly came over with a gentleman from Pesticide Control (whose name escapes me) and the three of us tried to understand what was happening. They tested everything they could think of. We checked their mite loads – below normal. Bees were sent for testing for a host of viruses and pesticides. All later came back normal. The bees from Coy apiary are well cared for and seemed otherwise healthy, except they were dying. We presumed they were not starving because there was feed right there – it was a different sort of feed from the usual sugar syrup, but it was plentiful. We had seen this green gel feed last year and the bees were fine. Now they were dying before our eyes and beekeepers were starting to call to tell us of the bees that were dying in their hives. It was devastating. After everyone had gone, I sat down and cried. Partly because I believed at the time that this catastrophe, not to mention the newly raging global pandemic, would soon end our fun little experiment called The Honey Exchange. First and foremost, however, we are beekeepers. Seeing hundreds of thousands of bees die on our watch is tragic, and heartbreaking.

cold gel feed and dying bees

Then something amazing happened.

Before I tell you what, I want to tell you two things:  First, we have always tried to run our business the way our parents taught us to run our lives – try to be a nice person; say please when you ask for something and say thank you when you get something. We think that’s a good way to behave and we have always believed it’s a good way to run a business. Way back in the day I took a few accounting courses and learned about this thing called “goodwill”, which is considered an Intangible Asset. Well, in 2020, that asset became entirely tangible.

The second thing you should know is that they people who run apiaries that count their number of hives in the thousands care about their bees every bit as lovingly as those of us who just keep a few hives in the back yard. When Richard Coy found out his bees were dying, he too was heartbroken. He is proud to tell people his bees from Mississippi are kept in Maine. After considerable investigation, it turns out that the gel feed they had supplied (which works very well for not dripping out of the feeder on a 1,100-mile journey like sugar syrup does) becomes inedible to the bees at temperatures below freezing. Not only is the carbohydrate inaccessible, but the water is bound up in the gel. The bees were dying of starvation and thirst. The only trouble was that nobody could have known this without driving north into unseasonable cold. As we teach our beginner students:  you will learn more through your failures than you will by succeeding. We also like to say – we didn’t fail; we found one more way that doesn’t work.

Within hours we had heard from our friends at Kelley Beekeeping (now a part of the Mann Lake family) that they and Mr. Coy would share the expense of replacing all 56 packages and would ship them out within a few days. What’s more, miraculously there were seven colonies that survived. We offered to pay for those seven but were told, “don’t worry about it.” We then had seven hives worth of healthy bees that we used throughout the season to help more than a dozen beekeepers solve problems they might not have been able to solve. When the beekeepers offered to pay for those solutions, we tried to explain the concept of “community assets” to them. Some understood. Others said, “Thanks” but we could hear the unspoken “(weirdo commie hippies)” that their tone implied.

A few other weird things happened last year. Because of the strangeness of our Global Pandemic Lives, a lot of people found themselves stuck at home, isolated from others, and with a bit of extra money in their wallets. Beekeeping has always been a somewhat “socially distant” pastime anyway. Nationwide, we are seeing a lot of new beekeepers. Many of our existing beekeepers had some extra time and money and started up a few new hives. Also, because so many people committed to buying local, we had our best holiday gift sales in a decade. Instead of being the year our shop came to an end, 2020 turned out to be our busiest year ever. 2021 has been better still. It is a sad and beautiful world.

Thank you.

So here we are in Kentucky again. Meghan and I have made a familiar journey. We stopped in Baltimore for supper again with our dear friends Carrie and Will. They are fully vaccinated and it was nice to see their smiles again. We also made a return visit to Burgers, Bombshells, Burgers and BBQ for their exquisite fried pickles and now we’re once again at the Hatfield Inn. I built new sides for the trailer – to better protect the bees from the rain and cold, and to accommodate 20% more bees – 320 packages this year. The weather looks a bit rainy for our return journey, but the temperatures are mild. Spring is on time this year, maybe even a bit early. With each year we learn a little more, but we still need a small bit of luck. Maybe my next entry will say simply, “everything went well and everyone is fine.” Let’s hope.

In the meantime, check out The Honey Exchange Presents, on YouTube. We’re going to try to shoot some video of the trip home to try to capture the breadth of an 1,100-mile trip in (we hope) less than 24 hours. If that doesn’t work out, there are other brief videos to entertain you while we all wait for this long crisis of solitude to come to an end. Be safe, be strong, look out for your neighbors, and please, get yourself vaccinated as soon as you can. Thank you.

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A Teaser

We’ve got some new toys to play with in the Bee-loud Glade and plans to capture a few visits to the beehives on video.

Our experimental first attempt was hooked up through Facebook live, as I dug into the store hive for the first time this spring. There’s a long intro that makes it look like you’re in for 24 minutes of watching a smoker (while I figured out my cords and plugs) and the video cuts out unceremoniously at the end (so we won’t be relying on unstable internet connections in the future.)

Throughout the beekeeping season we’ll be posting some videos on our YouTube Channel:  the Honey Exchange Presents. Click subscribe if you want to be informed when the next videos show up.

For now, enjoy about twenty minutes of Phil checking on a healthy hive of winter hardy Russian honeybees:


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2020 Three Million Bee Roadtrip, Part Two

Yesterday’s essay may have been a bit more serious than people have come to expect in the Bee-Loud Glade. Sorry, these feel like serious times. Tonight’s story is going to be unusually brief. As I’ve said, so much about this year’s trip is different. The most fundamental difference this year is, for the first time since the original Million Bee Roadtrip, I am not traveling alone. Because of the peculiar situation where the Honey Exchange is half-way between open and not open, Meghan was able to come along on the adventure this year. Tomorrow, as we drive with as few stops as possible over an 1,100 mile stretch of highway, Meghan and I will be celebrating our 28th wedding anniversary.

Every year I try to factor into the trip at least one unusual objective to keep an otherwise arduous journey from becoming mundane. We were chatting with our friend Will (who you may remember from the 2019 Roadtrip) and he mentioned a hankering for sea urchin* and told us of a place he’d discovered on the Portland waterfront where the quality and price are unsurpassed. He enlisted us to secure a big cooler full of flash-frozen uni and we agreed to bring it to Baltimore if he and Carrie promised to not come within six feet of us when we dropped it off. (We would like Will and Carrie to continue living a happy and healthy life together and we’re not taking any chances.)


The drive to Baltimore was unremarkable aside from the ease with which we motored across an uncrowded highway, even through New York City at mid day. After a quick chat and a trio of delicious sandwiches prepared by Will, enjoyed at a safe 6′ distance from one another, we carried on to Hagerstown in western Maryland and enjoyed a much-needed rest.

The next day we pressed on for another six hours of unremarkable driving till we reached our stopping point in Huntington, West Virginia. As it approached the dinner hour and I complained about my worry that Will’s sandwiches might be the last interesting and genuine food we might find on this trip, Meghan browsed the internet and found a nearby place called Bombshells, Burgers, and BBQ with an interestingly delicious sounding menu.

I didn’t have high expectations, to be honest, from this unusual three-part business (Cafe specializing in smoked meats, pistol range, and coffee shop) but the food was truly remarkable. If you happen to find yourself anywhere near this part of West Virginia, make it a point to visit this place. I don’t know that you could go wrong choosing from the menu but be sure to get an order of fried pickles. I’ve had lackluster fried pickles in my life. They can be soggy and characterless. These were delightfully crispy, tangy, with a perfect background of spice.

This morning we finished the last few hours of driving and spent some time at the Home Depot in Lexington, Kentucky getting some supplies to provide better protection against the cold and rain to the 3 Million Bees entrusted to our care.

The trailer sides were set up with a layer of window screen to keep out some of the rain while still allowing the bees plenty of ventilation, and a rain baffle on the rear of the trailer to deflect the spray from wet roads and passing trucks. It still looks like a challenging trip ahead of us but I think we have prepared for it as well as we can. Now it just comes down to how much time can we spend driving versus how much time do we have to wait out storms. Our remarkable beekeeper/meteorologist friend, Margaret, has sagely advised that we head north through Ohio to Erie, Pennsylvania before we start heading east across New York state. This looks like the best chance for us to avoid the heavy storms pounding the southeastern quadrant of the US.

Barring any unforeseen delays, we’ll arrive back in Portland some time Sunday and on Monday we’ll see how our plan for staging all the eager beekeepers in half-hour blocks for curbside pickup works out. Wish us luck. We need all we can get.

*(the recipe, which we’ll be trying as soon as we get home, is to toss the thawed urchin roe into a food processor and blend in a slow drizzle of olive oil till it reaches the consistency of a loose mayonnaise. This gets spread thickly over a nice piece of fresh haddock and roasted till the fish is flaky but still moist.)

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2020 Three Million Bee Roadtrip, Part One

“Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees


Being a geezer has its benefits. For instance, I can wear literally whatever I want with no concern for your opinion about it. Black socks and Birkenstocks? Hey, as long as it’s good for my tired feet, say what you want. But you youngsters should know that one does not achieve full geezerhood without experiencing some big trauma:  the death of a family member; a stay in the hospital; a friend battling cancer. I’m no expert but I’ve learned a little bit about trauma.

We are living in unprecedented times. I write this now as the world battles a global pandemic. We hear every day about Big Trauma – millions lost their jobs, people are sick, people have died. Most of us expect this disease to affect us or someone we love before life starts to improve, so most of us are staying at home, going out only when it’s essential, and taking precautions when we do go out.

At the same time, literally every person I know has experienced what I’m calling Little Traumas. The simplest one is that kids used to go to school. Then one day, all of a sudden, kids didn’t go to school any more. Nobody had a plan in place for that. A young woman we know had put her heart and soul into the high school band. Hours of practicing and drilling, then one day – no band performances, no competitions. How many chances does someone have to go to their senior prom? Many of our daughters’ peers were excited for graduation this spring. Nope, you’ll get the diploma in the mail. Meghan sings with the Portland Community Chorus and for some of the choir members the weekly rehearsals were one of the main ways they stayed in touch with their community. We were all looking forward to the spring concert. One day, it simply went away. Imagine working your whole life till one day you make it big on Broadway. Then they just. . . close Broadway. I think of all the people I love for whom weekly Church (or temple, or mosque) services are enormously important and now they’re not supposed to go to do that, and at a time when it seems more important than ever.

What’s your little trauma?

You need to address your Little Trauma. Just because it seems to pale by comparison to someone else’s Big Trauma matters not one bit. And we mustn’t be dismissive of someone else’s Little Trauma. It’s their cross to bear. It doesn’t matter if you know someone with a heavier cross.

Being a geezer means I’ve lived through several regional shared traumas. I lived in California for the big earthquake in ’89. In Chicago we lived through a deadly heat wave. I’ve seen blizzards and ice storms cripple an area for days or weeks. Every time I’ve seen the emergence of the better angels of our nature – people helping their neighbors, looking out for one another.

We have seen shared national traumas. A few of those came close but I can’t think of an example aside from the present crisis of a shared global trauma. People are frightened. People are helping. People are looking out for one another. Everyone’s life has been changed.

You would be within your rights at this point to ask what all of this possibly has to do with the 3 Million Bee Roadtrip. So much of it is different. We drove the direct route south through New York City without worrying about traffic. At rest stops we wear masks. I wear nitrile gloves to pump gas. We are staying at a hotel in West Virginia that is usually sold out completely but this year there are six or seven cars in the parking lot. The country is eerily quiet.

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 11.17.41 PMAlthough beekeeping supply is considered essential, the Honey Exchange is not open as usual. We are still handling orders through the phone and have developed methods for accepting payments and handling orders with little or no direct human contact. We have heard several people assume we wouldn’t be delivering package bees this year. We have heard from even more people that their bees are one of the few things they have to look forward to this spring. Beekeeping for most people is a pretty socially distant pastime already. For some of us, our beehives and the changing seasons are what is keeping us grounded – an oasis amid the madness. We weren’t sure what to expect of this particular beekeeping season but we pre-sold all the package bees earlier than we ever have before.

I have tried to stop worrying about the unknown future. It’s all too much. Since this is our ninth bee roadtrip, we know what we have to worry about. In some years we worry about heat, most years we get worried about being stuck in traffic, we always worry about rain. This year’s worries are unseasonable cold (1,100 miles of it) and unusually widespread rain. But we have a plan and we’re hoping for the best.

With that in mind, let’s talk about bees for a moment. Last year we showed a video of package bees being installed using the old Thump and Dump method which is usually the best and most efficient ways of installing a new colony. In cold, wet weather we sometimes use the indirect release method and this looks like it might be one of those years.

queen cage on a frame of combThe first step is to remove the queen cage from the package and attach it to a frame. In an old hive with comb on the frames it is simple to smoosh the cage into the comb, being sure to install it with the candy plug pointing upward and the screen pointed outward so the worker bees can smell the queen and chew through the candy to release her. (This should take 3-5 days.) In a new hive with just foundation on the frames, hang the queen cage with a rubber band. (I use a rubber band even with comb on the frame, for extra security.)

The frame with the queen goes into the lower box and the inner cover (with an oval hole in the center) goes atop the lower box. An empty box (a deep box, or two medium boxes) goes above that and the package of bees, with the syrup can removed, is installed so the opening of the package lines up with the oval hole in the inner cover. Indirect package installationThe telescoping cover goes on top to protect it all from the weather and the package is left in the hive over night. By morning the bees should have crawled down into the lower box to cluster around the queen and the empty package can be removed and a syrup feeder put into its place to feed the bees while they get accustomed to their new home.

Stay strong, everyone. Find a way to stay grounded. Look out for one another. And above all, send out your love.



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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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