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.

About inthebeeloudglade

An unlikely beekeeper who runs The Honey Exchange, a hive and honey store in Portland, Maine.
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