Preface to the Conclusion:
Few things the world will make you miss being in Maine more than Jersey Turnpike traffic on Memorial Day weekend. Signs on the road warning of “delays past Exit 4” were terrifying in number, distance in advance, and in the fact that I had a hard time conceiving of how traffic could possibly be worse than it was already. I thought of the line from The Perfect Storm when the boat is warned, “You’re headed right for the middle of the monster!” I got off at Exit 4 because I needed to find a grocery store anyway.
Listening to iTunes on shuffle in the car can make for odd coincidences. As I pulled into the sprawling mall parking lot in a particularly sprawling part of New Jersey, Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II” came on the radio. And red shopping carts were moving around the lot of their own accord, like they were being pushed around by ghost shoppers. In a surreal scene with a superior soundtrack I tried to shoot a quick video on my phone but had to stop and jump out when I saw a cart careening toward the side of my car.
I don’t doubt the possibility of the supernatural, especially in New Jersey, but the natural explanation for the self-propelled carts was a howling wind. The sky for my journey so far has been brilliantly bright and blue but the wind whipping the car from side to side reminded me of my last trip. All through the Mid-Atlantic States the locust trees are exploding with white blossoms and from time to time the wind would swirl them into a snowstorm of petals. At one point the snow was combined with a showering of helicopter seeds from the red maples that hit the hood like a plague of locusts.
I’m taking a circuitous route to West Virginia once again and I’ll explain why in a moment but I should tell you the end of my last story before starting this next one . . .
Conclusion: Cold Torpor Makes My Blood Run Cold
In rain-drenched, deserted Fairmont, West Virginia I had finally stopped. In retrospect, I should have stopped much earlier. At a gas station I looked at the packages of bees in the trailer and could not guess how many colonies I had lost to the cold and wet. I feared the worst. Many packages toward the rear of the trailer had the entire population lying motionless on the bottom. (These “swarms” normally hang in a bunch from the top of the package.) The best I could do was cover them up and let all 150 warm one another while I slept the night.
The next day I set my alarm for sunup and got myself moving slowly, took a shower, and had a cup of coffee while I waited for the air to warm above 40°. I also looked up the nearest store where I could find a thin sheet of plywood. My intention was to make a roof over the back end of the trailer in the event of further rain. I drove a few miles to the address of a Lowe’s, following my GPS, and found nothing. I turned; I circled; I returned; and eventually I noticed a fence perched high on a hill above me and followed it as it wound down toward a lower parking lot. I followed a hillside road unsullied by any manner of signage and eventually found the lonely Lowe’s. I loaded a sheet of plywood and brought it around to the panel cutter. A young man in a blue vest came over to inform me the panel cutter wasn’t working. I wanted to ask, “and is there no one and nothing in this hardware store that might be able to fix it?” Instead I politely asked, “Is there anything else we could cut it with?” He replied, “We might have a hand saw.” I was imagining perhaps something from the power saw section of the store but I left without quarrel. I was rapidly falling out of love with West Virginia.
It turned out I would not see any more rain for the remainder of the trip. In fact, once I left Lowe’s the skies got clearer and the temperature rose slightly with each passing hour. After seven hours of deep sleep the night before I was able to drive straight on. There are no photographs of the day because I didn’t stop for any. I had packed a few sandwiches and I ate at the wheel. I stopped only for gas and bathroom breaks. At the first break the temperature had reached the low 70°s and I saw, miraculously, at least some of the bees were moving around in every package I could see. We had taken a beating but it wasn’t a catastrophe.
I need to learn a bit more about cold torpor but I’m having a hard time finding good answers. What we do know is this – a honeybee’s muscles will go torpid (stop working) if they fall below 45°F. Many novice beekeepers have told the story of collecting “dead” bees on top of the snow in winter and bringing them inside for examination only to find the bees begin flying in the warm house. The question for which I can’t find an answer is: How long can a bee survive in cold torpor? Also, bees drown. A honeybee doesn’t have lungs. Air moves in and out of the exoskeleton through spiracles and is transmitted to and from the cells through tracheae (tubes). So our bees got wet and they got cold. Some died. What remains a mystery to me is why the majority did not.
In the end, we readily admit these were the worst packages we have delivered in four years. Some of them were great and we tried to provide the best ones to those beekeepers who needed a strong population to build out new foundation. For beekeepers putting a package into a drawn comb hive a slightly depleted population is not a terrible setback. We set aside the worst packages and put those into small nucleus colonies and are nursing them back to strength. About 10% of the colonies had dead queens and we added the live worker bees from those to the hives we are nursing and we replaced queens for the beekeepers who discovered their queen dead when they hived the package.
In short, at The Honey Exchange we do our best but we don’t promise to be perfect. We do promise to be honest. And honestly, we are dealing with livestock and the whims of nature. Some years are less fun.
Which brings me back to New Jersey . . .
For those of you who are just learning, there are two main ways to populate a new hive with bees: Package bees (which we have discussed aplenty) and nucleus colonies, or “nucs.” I am on the road to West Virginia to load the trailer with 36 Russian nucs.
Day One of Roadtrip #2 is not a great story. Again, there are no photographs to share because the trip was a non-stop slog of relentless driving. The first half was quick and pleasant enough as I listened to music and yet another Bill Bryson book on CD. Then I hit the Jersey turnpike and holiday traffic pretty much through to Washington, DC. As for why I was going along this route, you’ll have to tune in for my next episode. It’s late now and I’ve got a big day tomorrow.