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.




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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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