In the bee’s midwinter

In the bee’s midwinter frosty winds made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

Snow was falling, snow on snow, snow on snow

In the bee’s midwinter not so long ago.

beesmidwinter2

Ok, so I changed a couple of words.

After a morning fussing with the tractor, he identified the problem as the ignition switch.  But he got the job done!

After a morning fussing with the tractor, he identified the problem as the ignition switch. But he got the job done!

Winter has hit hard with the New Year.  Six  inches of fresh snow blanket Maywood.  My car remains halfway down the driveway where I abandoned it last night for fear of sliding right into the house.  (I had already inched my way down the Wicked Curve on Miller Lane as another car tried to make its way up the Wicked Curve, neither of us able to back up.) As I click at the keyboard this morning in blinding snowlight, Maywood Man is outside trying to get the tractor to start so that he can begin plowing.

It is 11 degrees with 25 mph winds. The snow dazzles under cloudless blue skies.  Gusts of wind blow through snow-laden branches and send the powdery flakes whirling like smoke. It is stunningly beautiful from my indoor perspective near a cozy wood stove.   Homemade butternut squash awaits my frozen plowman when he comes in from clearing the road.

Judging from the dip in the snow on top, the hive is warm enough to melt it.  Icicles are on the outside of the hive.

Judging from the dip in the snow on top, the hive is warm enough to melt it. Icicles are on the outside of the hive.

I’m guessing the perspective inside the bee hives is less spectacular.  It is the bleak midwinter  for them.  Too cold to leave the hive, they huddle in a  ball to maintain the hive temperature.  They eat the honey they stored last summer.  They also have grease patties that Mr. Beekeeper/Plowman made for them, a combination of sugar and Crisco.  If they have sufficient numbers, they can keep the hive warm enough to move around to the honey.  If not, they eat what is nearby and hopefully don’t starve before the weather warms up.

At Winter Solstice, bees were busy, but  still had plenty of grease patties.

At Winter Solstice, bees were busy, but still had plenty of grease patties.

Two weeks ago, on a balmy almost 70 degree day, we took a peek in the hives to assess their strength and to offer more grease patties.  The hives were all active with plenty of bees coming and going.  Although the bees have no plants to pollinate in winter, they use the warm winter days for cleansing flights.  Yes, the ladies must keep the hive clean!   Some bees were nibbling at the grease patties,  but they had still had plenty from the last gift– good sign, I think, that they had plenty else to eat.

A week later, Mr. Beekeeper took another quick peek.  Hive B was low in numbers.  So now he has reason to worry.  Should he have removed the grease patties and replaced them with easier to digest fondant?  Is there enough air circulation to keep moisture from building up and freezing into tiny stalactites in the hives?  Should he sweep the snow from around the hives?  Or leave it to act as a blanket?  If he could put tiny little blankets on each of his bees, I think he would do it.

A couple of dead  bees at the entrance to Hive C.

A couple of dead bees at the entrance to Hive C.

Last winter we lost all four hives before Christmas.  It hadn’t even gotten really cold yet, but their numbers were too low to keep themselves warm.  This year, the hives are wrapped for solar heat in tar paper and they have plenty to eat.  They just need to stay warm.  Weather like today’s does not make it easy.  As my son-in-law commented, we went to bed in Maryland but woke up in Siberia.

Ah, but that’s the thing about Maryland.  The weather is always changing.  If the bees can get through this week’s projected snow, rain, ice, and minus two degrees, by next Friday it is supposed to reach 40.

Minus two?

Hang in there, little bees!  We’ve passed the Winter Solstice.  The days are getting longer.CIMG8068

First frost and fingers crossed: winterizing the hive

Sunlight sparkling on the bees...a bee-utiful sight.

Sunlight sparkling on the bees…a bee-utiful sight.

The temperature has dipped low enough to zap the basil, which I did not snatch in time.  So much for making pesto.  A  more pressing issue is getting the bees ready for winter.  Saturday was a delightful day with crisp sunny weather and crunchy leaves underfoot, but it was still warm enough for the bees to be out and about.  Mr. Beekeeper had three tasks in mind:

  • put sugar patties in each hive for food and for mite control
  • put bottom boards on the hives to reduce drafts
  • insulate the hives with tar paper to keep the bees from getting too cold

We have had a 50% success rate in getting bees through the winter.  One year they were too cold and would not leave the warmth of their cluster to eat honey elsewhere in the hive and so they starved to death.  Last year, they were unable to maintain critical mass to stay warm, due most likely to a mite infestation.

CIMG7933

Crisco and sugar. Bees eat the sugar. Crisco masks their scent so mites have trouble finding them.

CIMG7980

The wax paper helps keep the patties on the frames instead of falling in them.

The mason jar is the sugar water feeder.  Giving them sugar did not make them lazy...they were busy little bees but get to store their honey for winter.

The mason jar is the sugar water feeder. Giving them sugar did not make them lazy…they were busy little bees but get to store their honey for winter.

This year we replaced all four hives.  Due to a lengthy winter in Georgia, the bees did not arrive in Maryland until the first day of summer.  They missed the abundant spring blooming season, so Beekeeper Man has been feeding them sugar water all season long.  He also started them off with sugar patties.  Sugar patties are a simple mixture of Crisco and sugar.  The bees eat the sugar but, in the process, get Crisco on them.  This supposedly masks their scent so the mites can’t find them.  As we head into winter, the sugar patties are a better way to feed than glass jars of sugar water which would freeze.

Sliding the plywood in sure beats lifting the entire hive.

Sliding the plywood in sure beats lifting the entire hive.

To help the bees stay warm, Mr. Beekeeper slides a bottom board onto the bottom of the hive which is just open screen.  This minimizes cold air rushing in.  Bee Man also wraps tar paper (the kind used for roofing) around the hive and on the top lid.  We’ve had bees survive without the tar paper and we’ve lost them from pests with the tar paper.  If nothing else, it keeps a certain beekeeper’s worry level low.  He will still fret over his “girls” all winter, but at least I won’t be hearing him moan every time it snows, “I should have wrapped the hives.”

The black tar paper will help with solar heat in the cold winter.

The black tar paper will help with solar heat in the cold winter.

A primary but unlisted task when opening the hives is always to assess how the bees are doing and to enjoy them.

Opening one hive broke open some burr comb that was attached to the lid.  And it gave me a chance to peek at the bees on some honey.

Burr comb...the bees don't always keep their honeycombs in the frames.

Burr comb…the bees don’t always keep their honeycombs in the frames.

CIMG7960

Assassin bugGoing in the hive also means checking for pests.  One was found outside of a hive–an assassin bug.  Assassin bugs are considered a beneficial bug in the garden and they don’t thrive in numbers to make them a danger to the hive, but this hapless bee sure did not benefit from the bug at her doorstep.  The assassin bug inserts a paralyzing enzyme into the victim and then sucks the “juice” out of it.  The assassin bug normally hangs around flowering plants where nectar loving insects hang out.  With the first frost killing off the flowers but warm weather keeping the bugs alive, this guy was running out of places to hang out.

A more nefarious pest was found in the third hive–small hive beetles.  But that will require some research and another post.

Small hive beetles can ruin a colony.  We'll have to get on this.  Stay tuned.

Small hive beetles can ruin a colony. We’ll have to get on this. Stay tuned.

BSI: Bee Scene Investigator

(Note and disclaimer:  The following post might actually contain factual information relevant to beekeepers.)

The bee scene to be investigated

The bee scene to be investigated

All the bees are dead and I want to know why.  I want to autopsy the bees.  Technically, since they are not human  beings, I want to dissect the bees.  But Mr. Beekeeper husband is feeling really sad about these bees.  He feels like he failed to take care of his girls.  We, therefore, are treating his loss with all due respect.  Autopsies are in order.

I  personally can’t wait to dissect…I mean, autopsy…the bees.  It takes me back to the dissection unit of my 10th grade biology class.  I had really squeamish lab partners, so I ended up pretty good at dissecting by the end of the unit.   By the time we got to the pithed frog I felt like I was doing surgery.  It was cool, even though the frog died.

John doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm.  While I set up my equipment, he gets out the build-your-own-volcano kit that Harper got for Christmas.  And he and Harper later go feed a pinkie mouse to the snake.  That apparently is more interestsing than cutting open honeybees.   Nevertheless, John brings a frame containing dead bees up from the basement.

Kathy Harp, BSI

Kathy Harp, BSI

Although the bright flourescent light in the basement is better for microscope work than the warm cozy sleep-inducing glow in the log-framed kitchen, it’s cold in the basement.  So, once again, the kitchen becomes the staging area.  I gather my supplies:

microscope (We need 20x-50x.   The one we have says 1x-2x but John swears it’s 100-200 because he researched the model number when he bought it–at work–from General Electric.)

cork (Plenty of those at our house!  We have a whole jar of wine bottle corks saved for what?  My sister-in-law uses hers to anchor pillar candles in sconces.  I am using mine to anchor honeybees with pins.)

pins (Jos A Bank still pins men’s dress shirts, so I have a bunch of pins.  It’s not like I ever use them for sewing.)

razor blade (No, I do not take apart a safety razor.  John actually has blades in his shop.)

The Beekeeper's Bible (Richard Jones)

The Beekeeper’s Bible (Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeny-Lynch)

Now it is time to actually dissect the bee.  Umm…what am I supposed to do exactly?  It was Richard Jones & Sharon Sweeney-Lynch’s The Beekeeper’s Bible (Stewart, Tabori & Chang,  2011) that put this idea in my head in the first place.  It tells me to pin the bee onto the cork at an angle for better viewing and then cut off the bee’s head and thoracic collar.  This requires a little more research because The Beekeeper’s Bible does not provide me with critical information, like how the heck one finds the thoracic collar of a bee.

Dave Cushman’s instructions provide some clarity.                                        (http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/acarine_diagnosis.html)

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees.  The flashlight is particularly effective.

This technique can also be used for interrogating the bees. The flashlight is particularly effective.

Oh, the cork is cut at an angle.  The bee is pinned to the cork.  The cut is made between the first and second sets of legs.  The thoracic collar, which is to be pealed off with tweezers, is nicely highlighted in red.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect--the guillotine.

This is where French teaching and beekeeping intersect–the guillotine.

Minor problem.  The thoracic collars of my bees are not highlighted in red.  And, second minor problem, the tweezers are not official dissecting forceps and are a little clumsy to work with.  So, even if I think I know where the thoracic collar is, trying to remove it to get a better look at trachea pretty much rips the bee apart.  Not that I have any lack of bees to experiment with.  I decide, for the sake of my own sanity, to forego the removal of the thoracic collar and just see what I can see.

And just what am I supposed to see?  I  have no idea.  Dave Cushman has some great pictures, but they are black and white illustrations.   I end up at youtube.  Jamie Ellis’ video is very helpful. http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/afbee/resources/Trachaelmites.shtml

I really have no idea what I'm showing you here.

I really have no idea what I’m showing you here.

Here I actually see video images of what healthy bee insides look like.  Our bees don’t look anything Dr. Ellis’ bees.  I’m thinking maybe our bees have been dead just a little too long.  Either the autopsies are strongly conclusive of mite destruction or they are completely inconclusive of anything.  I lean toward the latter.

Do stale bee bodies mean the end of our investigation?  Not at all.  The presentation of bees in the hive tells us something.  The bees are not as clumped together as we would have expected.  That could be symptomatic of erratic behavior induced  by tracheal mites.  More importantly, we think back to the behaviors of the hives since last spring.

Hive D never did get off to a good start.  It never thrived and was the first hive to die in the fall.  John had thought that it was a problem with weak queens and so he requeened some of the hives.  He didn’t realize that the weakness of the hive in the spring could also have been due to tracheal mites.   Requeening was not a bad idea.  However, according to Dr. Ellis’ report, it would have been more successful with queens who were resistant to tracheal mites.  This supports our current thinking of buying Minnesota Hygienics in the spring.

Do these wings look weird to you?

Do these wings look weird to you?

There is one really obvious symptom of tracheal mites that we have observed but were clueless as to its significance:  bees walking around the beeyard.  More specifically, bees with odd wings walking around the beeyard.  Bees don’t walk places.  They fly.  Walking bees, particularly if they walk up a blade of grass and are unable to take off in flight, are not normal.  We found this phenomenon fascinating.  In hindsight, those are the bees I should have been dissecting.  Those were the bees afflicted with tracheal mites.  Instead, we watched doomed bees wander around on the ground while we sipped chardonnay and beer, oblivious to the knowledge that the doomed bees’ sisters were infected as well.

Oh, how callous we were!  Oh, how expensive a lesson we learned.   We’re like detectives who went out for a drink with the prime suspect and let him get away. And now there are bee bodies everywhere.  Really.  John dropped a few coming and going to the basement.  He thinks he picked them all up, but he didn’t.  The evidence speaks for itself.

Evidence

Evidence

Honey Harvest 2012

Maywood Honey 2012

If there’s anything more satisfying to a beekeeper than seeing buckets of harvested honey, it is seeing that golden sweetness in jars.  It’s a little bit  arrogant on our part to take pride in a good harvest since the bees make the honey, but there’s enough work on the part of the beekeeper to justify it.  Thousands of cranks of the honey-spinner and sixty-seven jars of honey later, we can rightly call it our harvest.  And it’s a yummy one too.

Last weekend, we spent a calm morning in the bee yard.  Our goal was three-fold.  First, to collect four honey boxes.  Second, to do so without making the bees really angry at us.  And third, to get the honey back to the house without bringing along a horde of buzzing companions.  That third goal was not insignificant!

Off to the bee-yard

Very few bees in this honey box because of an effective bee-escape

John’s pre-harvest preparations were overall pretty helpful.  The bee escapes that he put on the hives significantly reduced the number of bees in the honey boxes of Hives A and B.  Hive C still had a honey box full of bees.  John wonders if perhaps the bee escape got blocked with burr comb.  And Hive D’s honey box was empty but they had not been doing anything up there anyway.

Setting the fume board on a hive

To clear out the honey box on Hive C and to clear away the cloud of Hive A bees who were looking for a fight, John used the fume board.  The fume board is a hive lid that you squirt with a nasty smelling liquid.  The bees can’t stand the smell and dive deep into the hive.  Humans aren’t too crazy about the smell either, which explains why the bottle was shipped in a bazillion layers of plastic wrap.  After a few minutes of fume board, the honey box is nicely empty of bees and John can easily remove the honey boxes and load them onto the tractor cart for transport to the house.  The fume boards get stored in the cabin where we don’t have to smell them.

Taking the honey to the houseWith the hives closed back up and the honey boxes covered with plastic to keep bees off, John brings the honey to the house.  We take the honey inside immediately and, after a quick beer (hey, it was hot in those beesuits!), begin spinning the honey.  Honey is dripping off the boxes and we want to get it  contained  before the ants find out that there is a party in the mudroom.  The mudroom, by the way, is so clean you could almost lick the honey off the floor.  (Almost being the operative word here.)  Amazingly, considering the thousands and thousands of bees down at the hives, only four (that’s right, 4) bees make it into the house.  They are unceremoniously but apologetically squashed.  (For all you theology nerds, that means that we were sorry to kill them but we gave a good defense on why we had to–namely, self-defense.)

Removing the cap

At the sink, John cuts the caps off the frames of honey.  The wax is put in a colander to drain into a pot.  I’ll deal with the wax later.  The frames, now oozing honey, are placed into the honey spinner.  The spinner is a big low-tech centrifuge made out of what looks like a plastic trash can.  It works with good ol’ fashioned elbow grease.  Round and round I spin the handle while inside the tank the honey spins out of the comb and drips to the bottom of the tank.  Let’s just say that it is a good upper arm work-out.  There are lovely stainless steel electric models that one could buy for hundreds of dollars, but until the spinning sets me up for another joint replacement or we get a lot more hives, the manual model will suffice.

Spinning the honey out of the combs

From spinner down into the bucket

One of our favorite moments in the harvest is when the honey starts pouring from the spinner into the storage bucket below.  The deep golden sweetness oozes from the spininer, passes through a filter, and fills up the bucket.  This year we had to buy a second bucket.  All told, we collected about six gallons of honey.

Buckets of honey waiting for jars.

After a few days, the air bubbles settle out of the honey, my arms recover, and my order of jars arrives. Now it is time to jar the honey. An evening is spent filling the jars, writing “Maywood Honey 2012” on sixty-seven self-adhesive labels, slapping them on the jars, and wiping the stickiness away.  Stickiness, by the way, is everywhere–the jars, the counters, the floor all have a slight film of honey.  And bits of propolis, which is what bees use instead of duct tape.  Propolis on a counter can’t be wiped; it has to be scraped off.  And then you have to figure out how to scrape it off the scraper.

Finally, it is all done.  The harvest is in.   The kitchen island gleems with jars of golden-brown honey.  A celebratory bowl of maple walnut ice cream drizzled with our own honey is my reward.

Preparing for the honey harvest

I want that honey!

Today was  an exciting day as we got the hives ready for harvest.

Today’s tasks:  to put bee escapes on the honey  boxes and  put entrance reducers on the front entrance to the hives.  The goals:

The beekeepers, with junior bee-guy just observing today

(1) to get the bees to exit the honey box without getting back in, and

(2) to try to prevent robbing by minimizing the size of the hive opening.

We were also able to look in the honey boxes and assess how much honey we will collect.  As an added perk, we collected some burr comb and had our first taste of this season’s honey.  The plan is to harvest this coming Saturday.  I can justifiably say “we” now because I have my own beesuit and can do more than just watch, even though today I mostly just watched.  Our junior beekeeper did not suit up today, as he had already changed to go play with friends.  He stood in my usual observer’s spot and picked the bark off his walking stick.

John and I recently read a good beekeeping book, Confessions of a Bad Beekeeper, by Bill Turnbill.  In it, Bill shares many things he learned from mistakes, such as not closing up every little flap on his beesuit and, as a result, getting stung by a bee inside his veil.  I thought of him as I very carefully zipped my suit closed.  I thought of him again as John and I assessed “what we learned today.”

We learned:

  • Burr comb

    When you prep the hive for harvest, go prepared to deal with burr comb.  We had nothing with us to put it in.  John didn’t want to plop it on the ground because the scent of all that honey might instigate robbing.  Plus, we wanted to taste the honey.  So, I had to run back up to the house to get a container with lid.  Meanwhile the hive was open with the scent of honey wafting around the bee yard.

  • He’s smokin’! But he forgot to bring the entrance reducers.

    Also, if you plan to put entrance reducers on, you should actually bring them with you.  This time John ran back to the house while I stood in the bee yard with a plastic container full of beeswax and live bees.  As bees made their way to the top, I would shoo them off and away.  Many, though, were trapped in layers of dripping wax.  I could almost hear them calling to their comrades: ” I’m trapped!  Help!  Get the jaws of life and get me out of here!”  Others, alas, were doomed, drowned at the  bottom of the container in a puddle of honey.  I was so fascinated watching them that I didn’t even take pictures.

  • Nailing the bee escapes in place

    It would be a good idea to have extra honey  box lids with the bee escapes already attached.  John thought the bee escapes would just fit over the exit but they had to be nailed tight.  It was awkward trying to hammer a tiny nail with a hive tool while wearing gloves, so John took off  a glove to hold the nail while banging on the honey box with his hive tool.  I can’t think of a better way to get someone angry with me than banging on their house before stealing their stuff.  He did not get stung, though.

    Bees entering and exiting the honey box.

With the bee escape in place, bees can exit the honey box but must re-enter the hive through the front entrance. This should make it easier for us to take the honey–there won’t be so many bees in the honey box.

  • We learned that Hive D is lazy.  Even with the addition of a honey box to get them moving, the honey box was quite clean.
  • The orange stuff is propolis.

    Hive A makes the most propolis.  Propolis is like bee caulk.  They use it to seal the hive.  They did a fine job filling their honey box, after a slow start which necessitated requeening the hive.

  • Hive C did a great job filling their honey.  They are a new hive, like Hive D,  but they are producing better.
  • One of many full frames

    Hive B, going gangbusters since the first sign of spring, has filled the better part of two honey boxes.  Way to go, Hive B.

  • So, on a positive note, we learned that we have four honey boxes pretty much full of honey.  Woo hoo!  This looks to be our biggest harvest yet.
  • Straining the burr comb for a pre-harvest snack. Yes, the dead bees are in there. That’s why we’re straining it!

    The honey is a beautiful golden color with hints of tulip poplar and other florals.  Not as strong in flavor as our wonderfully pungent first harvest, it has more presence than our last harvest, which was light and delicate.

    Preview of this year’s honey!

Saturday, weather permitting, is harvest day.  It’s time to order more jars.

Adding more honey boxes…how sweet it is!

Bees on a single frame

Eying a near-empty honey jar in our kitchen the other day, someone asked, “Do you still do honey?”  Good question, since we did not harvest any last year.  A rough winter in 2011 did in all of our bees, and a harsh summer did off two of the four replacement hives we bought.

(Digression:  The ESL teacher in me ponders the meanings of did in and did off.  Why not just say killed?  Just goes to show that you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but not the classroom out of the teacher.)

Four honey boxes so far

Anyway, this summer looks much more promising for a honey harvest!  Hive A survived the winter but is now busier than ever after accepting a new queen.  We just put a honey box on her.  Hive B has been going gangbusters.  A second honey box was put on B recently and John expects to add a third in a week or so.  New Hive C just got a honey box and new Hive D is still getting established.  So, all told, as of the beginning of June, we have four honey boxes on.  We can’t wait to taste it.

Here’s a little photo essay of the addition of two of the honey boxes.  Do click on the pictures to view the bees larger.

Opening the hive

First, John opens the hive by removing the hive lid and, under it, the lid to the top box.  Today he does not smoke the bees.  Smoking them causes them to respond to a hive emergency and they eat a lot of honey.  They don’t need to eat all that honey because there is not a true hive emergency.  Why waste good honey?  John will smoke them when he really is a threat–when he opens the hive to steal their honey.

Lid off the hive

Today’s task is just to put honey boxes on two hives, but John pulls out a frame for me to photograph since I’ve never been all suited up and able to get close-ups of the bees before.

Bees emerging from the top of the hive box

Bees on the top of hive frames

John moves carefully and is gentle with the bees.  They buzz around unconcerned, so his decision not to smoke them was a good one.  (If they had attacked me, I would  be writing a very different blog entry right now.)

Bees inside the hive

Bees under the queen excluder. Honey box goes on top of this.

Before putting the next hive box on top, John first places a queen excluder on the top of the existing boxes.  This enables all the bees to enter and exit the honey box except for the queen.  With the queen excluded, she can not lay eggs in the honey box.  The honey can then be exclusively for us humans.

On top of the queen excluder goes the honey box lid and then to top it all off, the lid to the hive itself.  The bees remained unperturbed throughout.

Honey box goes on over the queen excluder

The lid goes on over the frames and then the hive is closed up with the top cover.

Another great day in the bee yard!

The bee yard

The Scent of Maywood: This Week It’s Wild Roses

Which will dominate the honey flavor this year, tulip poplar or wild rose?

A fragrance cannot be posted in a blog.  Picture and video can provide sight and sound, but to really experience Maywood in spring, you have to smell it.  On a walk down to the field to inspect the blueberries, the sweet smell of grass perfumes the air.  Not the smell of a fresh mowed lawn, this is the smell of  grasses and wildflowers growing in a wild crazy community.  Above it all, the tulip poplars bloom, adding their own subtle note to the air.  Venturing down to the bee-yard, the fruity-floral scent of wild rose dominates.  Small wonder.  Wild rose just plain dominates.

Wild rose, aka multiflora rose, originated in Japan and was introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800’s as rootstock for cultivating roses.  In the 1930’s it began to be planted to aid against soil erosion.  Through the 1960’s it was planted along highways as a beautiful natural barrier.  And that is how the wild rose made its way to Maywood–as a planting along I-83.  Officially designated an invasive plant, it certainly thrives on our property.  The span from the bee-yard to the highway is thick barrier of wild roses.  Wild roses are also establishing themselves everywhere else that isn’t mowed.  The edges of the yard are a favorite settling place, but they are not averse to popping up in the middle of the herbs, the day lilies or anywhere else I don’t want them. Wild rose trivia:  the average plant can produce 1 million seeds a year, dispersed by birds who eat the rose hips.  The seeds can last twenty years in the soil.  Oh my.

(Note to blog followers:  the fugitive who instigated our recent midnight manhunt did not enter by way of the roses.  If he had, dogs would not have been needed.  He would have been sufficiently tangled amidst thorns.)

A wild rose barrier from the bees to the highway.

Wild roses may  be invasive but there are so many other invasive things growing around here that they are not high on my list of things to tackle.  Unlike, say, poison ivy, they look and smell pretty and don’t give one a rash.  And the bees love them.

Busy little bee working the wild roses

While we inhale the sweet aroma of wild roses blooming in the clear morning light, pollen-laden bees flit from blossom to blossom.  We can almost taste the honey they will be making.  In the background cars whoosh on the highway but we can’t see them.  They are hidden by a screen of rosa multiflora.

The back forty

Here at Maywood, there’s the back yard and then there’s what’s beyond the back yard.  That is John’s territory–down the hill and into the woods.  It is not visible from the house.  This is very important.  If I can’t see it, then I can’t yell about what it looks like.  Periodically I get invited back to see projects in progress.  This often involves hiking through vines and low-hanging branches while avoiding tree roots and other tangly things.  Every once in while paths get mown, but usually a walking-stick is recommended (new hip or not).

Beehive Lane in the fall, heading up to the house

The best worn path is the trail to the beehives.  It’s unofficially known as Beehive Lane.  Sunday’s  trek had us observing Japanese maple saplings springing up along the  trail.  We always check to see if the maples saplings are the cut-leaf variety, since there are a couple of very old cut-leaf maples at the Maywood house.  Little holly trees abound too.  Over the tree roots and down the hill toward the highway, we wend our way to the bees.  Two hives are active, one much more so than the other.  The bees report back to the hive like planes coming in for a landing.  The smaller hive is like a regional airport.  Bees fly in and enter one at a time in evenly spaced entries.  Imagine a little bee airport controller calling them in.  The other hive is like JFK Airport in New York–bees are coming back quicker than they can  get in.  They don’t circle for a landing, though, they all just bunch up at the entrance like a bunch of travelers trying to get the best seat on a Southwest flight.  The good news for us is that they all have bags to check, which will result in honey for us.

Another path is the Sawmill Lane.  That takes you to John’s sawmill and cut trees and boards and sawdust.  This is also where he butchers his deer.  It’s really best that we not see this area.  When he first got his sawmill, he set it up in the middle of the  backyard.  That went over like a lead balloon, so he moved back into the woods where he can play without my complaining.  Lately, John has been milling a large black cherry tree that is destined to become a fold-up bar for Chris and Julie.  Yes, he is actually working on their wedding present and may even have it finished before their infant daughter gets married.  At any rate, it smells like fresh cut black cherry wood down there and it is taking on the appearance of a large outdoor shop.

Sunday’s  trek–good thing I had my walking stick–took us way down the back forty to the site of the actual tree that is the source of the current project.  I suppose one could get lost, but “down” takes you to the highway and “up” takes you to the house.  Still, I did appreciate seeing the big holly tree as we made our way back up.  The holly tree stands at the “corner” of Sawmill Lane and HollyTree Lane which leads to Beehive Lane.  We took a left onto HollyTree and merged into Beehive Lane which took us back up to the house.  Well, that’s what was in my brain, anyway.  You might have just seen woods.

Convalescence, The Invalid Wife, and Emerging Bees

The bees know that the red maples are budding

I’m convalescing these days.  Convalescence is a great word, although we hardly use it anymore.  It conjures up images of sickly people bundled up in thick blankets and wheeled outside for a bit of sun.  Or rich sickly people doing the same thing on deck chairs of a cruise ship circa 1923.  To my stressed-out co-workers it means I’m taking the winter off.   To John it means I’m his invalid wife, with the emphasis on the second syllable.  In – val – id.

Convalescence is a great concept and it’s something we need in a world that tells us to go full speed ahead until we crash, and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.  In our society, if you are not in critical condition, you are expected to be high functioning.  There’s nothing in the middle.  You can’t just do nothing.  There’s got to be a pill or something to keep you efficient.

The problem with convalescing is that convalescents don’t look sick.  They look like they’re lying around doing nothing.  Taking naps and reading books, what a life.  It’s surprisingly hard to properly convalesce in a “do it all now” world.

Ah, but convalescing isn’t about doing nothing.  To my doctor, it means regaining my strength.  The body is working incredibly hard on the inside to recover from an ordeal.  That’s why the doctor can say, “Don’t even think about going back to work before six weeks.”  I love doctor’s orders.  Someone else is the boss telling me to stop.

The hydrangeas are more than just sticks

The end of February is a lot like the end of a convalescence.  Spring is tantalizingly close.  Yet everything still looks so brown.  The woods are full of brown sticks–big tree trunks, tiny sapling twigs, and creeping vines.  Everything is brown, but there is so much going on that we don’t see.

We see twigs but the bees see "yummy"

Using both a cane and a walking stick, I hobble behind John down to the beehives.  The two hives are active (hooray!) and bees are returning to the hives with pollen.  Pollen?  In February?  Everything looks dormant to us, but the bees know that the red maples are starting to bud.  A closer look reveals the beginnings of buds on the hydrangeas and the lilacs, too.  It will be months before they flower, but they are beginning to wake up now.

Are the daffodils doomed?

In the front of the house, daffodils are peeking up.  How many people have moaned about the early appearance of the daffodils?  Don’t the daffodils know that it is not yet time?  Don’t they know that showing up early means  they will get zapped by a hard cold snow and be pathetic little nothings when spring arrives?  The daffodils remind me to properly convalesce, to take it slow and emerge strong.

For the many of you out there who are francophile word nerds, the word convalescence comes to us (mais oui!) via late 15th century French, which morphed it from Latin.

  • con–from the intensive Latin prefix cum meaning “with, together, thoroughly”
  • valescere– (to begin to grow strong) from valere (to be strong) which is related to valiant and valor

So what I’m doing by convalescing is becoming thoroughly strong.  And maybe courageous,too, because heading back to school is going to be scary and my Joint Journey Handbook says my strength should be at 80% by twelve weeks out.  What?  Eighty percent?  For a high-achieving, A-student type person, 80% does not mean “thoroughly strong.”  It means I will still be convalescing, even while I return to work. However, it does justify the handicap parking tag I applied for.  Dang, this is going to take awhile.

Now, as for being invalid…

Hôtel des Invalides

Both invalid and invalid have the same Latin roots.  And both the noun invalid (meaning “a sick person) and the adjective invalid (meaning “of no legal force”) came sneaking into English by way of French.  And quel surprise! The noun originally referred to the old and disabled soldiers at the Hôtel des Invalides, the military hospital in Paris where Napoleon’s body now rests (but is not convalescing) I assume that the soldiers all had valid disabilities, otherwise they would be invalid invalids.

John knows that I am neither a sickly person nor his not valid wife.  He’s just trying to help my convalescence along by getting a strong reaction out of me.  I’m thinking a sunny chair on a cruise ship might work better.

Troubling Bee-havior

Hive #1

We’re having a rough year with the bees.  First off, we lost all four hives over the winter.  Then, after ordering replacements, three of the queens did not take and John had to order three new queens.  Things were off to a slow start this spring.

Last week we went on vacation.    Before we left, John checked on his bees.  Hive #1 was doing fine.  Hive #2 was thriving and had a honey box  on it.  Hives #3 and #4 were on the weak side.  Upon returning, John checked the hives.  Hive #1 was doing well.  Hive #2 continued to thrive.  Hive #4 was doing fine. But Hive #3 was completely empty.  Completely empty.  Cleaned out and ready for new tenants empty.  Might as well put a sign out front, “Hive for rent.”

Hive #2

Where did they go?

Two theories.  One theory is that they swarmed.  If they swarmed at the beginning of our vacation, they are long gone.  The problem with this theory is that the hive was new and not particularly strong.  We were not expecting much, if any, honey from them.  They didn’t even have a honey box on the hive.  So why would they swarm?  They were still in growth mode.  And why is the hive completely cleaned out?  Bees gorge on the honey when they leave; however, a swarm is to add a new colony.  Half the old one should be left in the hive to raise a new queen.

Theory #2 is that the hive was robbed.  If they were weak and other bees wanted their honey, the stronger bees would attack.  They would battle to the death and the conquering bees would take the honey as booty.  Evidence of a bee-battle would be dead bee carcasses.  However, if this happened at the beginning of vacation, ants and other scavenging critters could have cleaned up the mess by now.

We went down to the hives for a closer inspection, taking five year old Junior Beekeeper with us.  He wanted to put on his full bee suit in the ninety-plus degree heat, but we told him it wasn’t necessary–there wouldn’t be any bees.  (Ok, the other three hives have bees, but we weren’t planning to open them.)

We first inspected the exterior of the hive.  The “front porch” entrance was clean, as John had noticed earlier.  We checked on the ground for dead bees.  Surely ants couldn’t have carried off every single bee carcass, could they?  We found nothing.  John opened the hive and pulled frames out one by one.  Frames were empty of honey.  Some wax moths were wandering in there, which John squished with his knife, but otherwise, the hive was ready for new occupants.

Hive #3--nobody home

Alas, we’re down a hive.  And only one of the remaining hives has a honey box  on it.  So, all you honey eaters who fell in love with our honey the last two years and are waiting for this year’s harvest…umm…better lick that last jar clean.