Monthly Archives: April 2012

a wild swarm appears

Our starter hive has a new neighbor! Two evenings ago, I discovered a colony of wild honeybees on our back lot high in a hollow tree.  While walking my path through the woods, I became aware of an unusual yet familiar hum above and to my right.  It resembled the sound of a power line step-down transformer.  I had not heard this particular sound in a Virginia forest for decades.

A cavity in an oak trunk was found suitable, for some interesting new tenants.  

More honeybees?  I am amazed at the timing. Consider the synchronicity of these bees’ appearance. . . within days, and practically within yards of our newly established hive. We have lived on this property for nearly three decades, and never to my knowledge has a wild colony taken up residence here. And now, in the very season I establish a colony, a second quickly appears as if by some resonant effect.  I love the novelty of it, the apparent coincidence – which may mask a deeper connection than we know in the natural world.

Closeup of the wild colony, feverish with activity, making my starter hive look lame

Almost certainly, local beekeeper lost a swarm, and they ended up here.  Their presence becomes both gratifying and worrisome, however.  I have no idea how large that internal cavity really is.  One might suspect, however, that later this season or early next year, the newly established wild colony will run out of space and need to divide.  This offers an opportunity for me, if I can be on hand to notice and benefit – to acquire the swarm and relocate it to a hive of my own. A little vigilance is in order.

Meanwhile, the wild colony is very active, and I worry about robber bees infiltrating my new colony.   I restricted my hive’s entrance yesterday with a piece of plywood, giving our own bees, who are still struggling to establish and multiply, a better chance to defend themselves from interlopers.

Homemade entrance reducer allows easier defense of the starter hive.

Meanwhile, hurry up, new brood!  We need those reinforcements. Let this hive multiply.  My hive cannot hold a candle to the level of activity currently surrounding that tree.

In related news, new supplies arrived from Dadant yesterday, including a second hive body, which I will assemble and paint in short order.  The additional section should go above our starter body within a few days, allowing room for expansion as the new brood begins to hatch.  Then, our fledgling hive can get serious.  The Spring flow is on!


catching a country buzz

Hope springs eternal.  I am happy to report that a new colony of honeybees is now establishing its niche in a local ecosystem of northern Albemarle county.  Worker bees arrive and depart the hive constantly, the launching board suddenly transformed from vacant runway to busy terminal.  Today I am a beekeeper.

Last Tuesday (4/17) the long-awaited moment (‘Bee’-Day) arrived.  We were finally ready.  The new hive body was assembled and painted.  We had placed it on blocks on our back lot where the sun could awaken it on summer mornings. The sugar syrup had been mixed.  Under a brilliant blue April sky, two intrepid souls – a volunteer recruited for the trip and myself – made the drive down US-29 to Chatham.  I was thrilled to finally pick up my package of honey bees, completing a process initiated months ago.

Upon surrendering my receipt to the gentleman at the Dadant bay door, he presented me with a screened box that literally vibrated with movement and sound. One pound of bees translates roughly to 3,000 winged insects.  In that moment, I held three pounds of apis mellifera*, between my hands.  They emitted a continuous, whispering buzz that thrummed into my fingertips with a muted energy.  I held hope.  Possibly, I held a small piece of our ecological survival in my hands. And hidden in the middle of that living mass was a newly mated queen, riding separately in her own chamber.

Three pounds of Italian honey bees restless, searching (with human assistance) for home.

Placing that box carefully in the seat of the car, we drove home with royalty – the august company of one Italian queen and nine thousand of her devoted subjects. We nervously cracked obligatory jokes about accidents, envisioning a splintered box and the sudden release of some very disoriented honeybees.  We were therefore respectful of our cargo, reaching constantly to steady the box on tight ramps. Despite that precaution, it did tip over once, but I can report an uneventful trip nevertheless.

Installation became a matter of following a rehearsed and well-scripted procedure. The queen cage would be removed from the screened box and suspended between two of the frames. One end of the queen cage would then be uncorked, exposing a special candy which the workers would eat through to release their queen. Lastly, the mass of bees could either be poured directly from the box into the open hive, or the entire box temporarily placed inside.

Preparations before the install - bee veil, water, gloves, hive tool, and waiting hive.

Choosing the latter course, we removed half the frames and placed the screened box in the hive.  With the box cover removed, the colony immediately began to emerge.  Bees in this circumstance are quite calm; as yet, they have no home to protect.  Lastly, we placed a container of syrup containing sugar and water in a 1:1 ratio in the hive entrance. The syrup becomes an essential supplement to hive nutrition until reliable sources of pollen and nectar can be located by scouts.

The colony emerges to explore their new digs. Queen cage tacked into place two frames over.

Having been released, the queen will crawl slowly about the foundation, fed and groomed by a consort of workers.  She bides her time, her pheromal presence asserting a powerful orienting principle in the hive. She waits for cell construction to have been completed and the point where she can begin laying her eggs. And after some three weeks, new workers will begin to emerge from those cells, adding to the strength and vitality of this incredible organism.

Meanwhile, the industry of these small creatures energizes the imagination. Sources of nectar are being discovered and their location communicated to the hive. The nectar is being gathered, processed, converted to honey in some cases, but more importantly at this stage, to wax.  For inside the hive, an engineering marvel is being constructed from raw materials, six sided pillars growing outward as the workers produce, chew and deposit wax in a characteristic hexagonal shape.

Promising activity levels four days later

The honeybee is essential to our ecological balance. Fully 80% of our flowering crops depend upon it. At the same time, colonies have declined at alarming rates over the past several decades. Wild colonies are now quite rare.  But beekeeping associations are taking proactive measures, several states are reporting upswings in populations, and maybe. . .  just maybe, things are looking better.

And so, having installed our little colony of honeybees, and having provided the optimum conditions, we stand watch, hopeful for nature to work its magic. And for all you old hippie classmates waiting to throw that pun: yep, we definitely caught a buzz. . . country style.


*(Apis mellifera is the scientific name for the Western or European honeybee.)

my April Platform Challenge

The ‘in’ thing to do these days if you are a writer is participate in challenges. These are typically month-long tasks designed to stretch you beyond your comfort zone and get your  creative juices flying. Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month, occurs in November and challenges one write a 50,000 word novel from scratch in one month. NaPoWriMo occurs in April and asks thirty poems in thirty days. The 50/90 Challenge is a monster marathon for songwriters, asking for a finished song every two days for nearly three months.

This month I have been participating in the “April Platform Challenge.” Robert Lee Brewer is a senior content editor for the Writer’s Digest community, a poet, and author of a blog for writers and social media.  Whimsically named My Name is Not Bob, his blog title has the unintended effect that I think of him almost exclusively that way.

Bob, er. . . Robert’s April Platform Challenge is a set of daily tasks designed for bloggers to strengthen their online presence.  In this digital era, when traditional publishing loses ground daily, writers (or any creative artist) must shoulder a variety of tasks to get noticed: networking, accounting, promotion, negotiating, not to mention the actual creative writing part, which has to be worked in somewhere. On top of this, most put eight or ten hours a day into earning a real living. One must eat.

A far cry from yellow pads and no.2 pencils

This challenge has been tame by most standards, which gives hope that I may be able to complete it.  So far, we have been asked to create Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts; make specific types of postings and tweets; establish and nurture a wide network of contacts; and be more accountable in our goals and self-definitions.

Probably the most fun aspect of challenges is meeting new folks, all of whom share at least one critical interest – in this case, writing and blogging. They become your crew: a built-in support group, cheering section and peer review panel. The weekend I worked on my Twitter account, it rocketed from a meager three followers to seventy three in one day.

I have not hit Dunbar’s Number yet, however.  Dunbar’s Number is a theoretical limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Beyond that limit, non-core relationships become little more than shallow images kept around for their ‘score’ value – about as useful as saying ‘I read that book’ after you held it in your hands for two minutes in a bookstore.  Regardless, I have never had the dubious, if heady pleasure of seeing that magnitude of number on any of my accounts.  This is not the same as having a fan-base, of course.  For that, you want the numbers to go bananas.

Bloggers interested in the April Platform Challenge should check out Robert’s site. We are now one-third through, but the tasks are not hard and can be doubled up if necessary.

By the way, today’s task was to make a blog post, and at the end issue some kind of call to action. Fair enough.  If you are a blogger, you’ve just been invited.  Otherwise, does “have a nice day”  count? Hey Robert: Check me off!

Next month, the pedal hits the metal, when I gear up for Storyaday.

A single Cheerio
     on the flat, gray walk
in the burning cold
     with crumpled snow.

a spring bear visit

Cleaning up after a bear last night, we found cat food tins, styro-foam hamburger trays, greasy paper towels and tea bags strewn across the driveway.   Nothing new, really, except that it had always happened to the neighbors, and not us.  I should look next door to see if our visitor was an equal opportunity forager.  Too bad we lost the best anti-squirrel bird feeder we’d ever found. Flattened! One would not want to be under that paw.

RIP a good bird feeder - NOT bear proof.

my dad’s garden

Returning from my week in the Chilean desert, I was struck by the vibrant green which now colors Albemarle County.  Each year, April kisses Virginia with an unmatched pallet of color: pinks, reds, yellows, and whites.  Dogwood and azalea blossoms layer over a virginal green that saturates the eyes with its vibrancy.  The effect is visceral, redemptive of our wintered souls.

Dogwood blossoms in Virgina

It’s time to prepare the raised beds behind our house for seed. But because the sun must overlook tall oaks on either side of our spread, the direct radiation these beds receive is relatively small – about six hours. Consequently, we tend toward vegetables that do well without long exposure to sunlight: kale, kohlrabi, spinach, garlic, and perhaps mint.

In working the soil, I fondly recall the garden my father planted year after year on Piney River.  Dad gardened old-school.  He planted long, wide rows you could wheel a wagon down.  His garden soil was loamy chocolate, a perfect storm of silt, rotted manure and clay.  It yielded an aroma as complex in its way as a  pot of vegetable soup left simmering on a back burner.

Each Spring, dad would ask a local farmer to come with his moldboard plow and turn over the land.  I loved to watch the plow cut the soil, to see the dirt curl over into thick ribbons of taffy. A day or so later the farmer would return with a disk set, and after a few passes I could plunge my eight-year-old arms into that tilth to the elbows.

Fascinated, I wormed my small hands deeper and deeper into the soil until they suddenly encountered the cold: a mysterious region where the spring sun hadn’t penetrated.  This always came as a shock to me.  I wanted to imagine the earth as a warm-blooded creature. But instead, there lurked a corpse-like chill beneath the surface. My boyish imagination got the best of me in those times, and I withdrew my arms quickly, lest some awakened thing grab them from below.

Dad’s garden lay in a fork between a small creek on one side and the Piney River on the other.  We constantly pursued the minnows in the little creek that gurgled through our yard.  They darted up and down the rill like elusive brown shadows. The water was clean and cold, originating from a hillside spring several hundred yards behind the house.  But it ran through a cow field before passing our house, and so we kids were told not to drink from it.

Across the one-lane road, the Piney River, old man of Woodson valley, rippled and sighed its way past our house as it had done for thousands of years. The river was a given in our childhood, a mostly benign entity that suffered our visitations with fishing poles, our barefooted rock-hopping, our wildlife safaris.  Overturning a river jack often yielded the sight of grey-brown crawfish, which comically jerked backwards into the disturbed silt.

Piney River along Woodson Rd

Every couple of years, dad burned off the entire garden lot before plowing it.  This was a wondrous event.  The tall dry reeds and underbrush caught fire quickly.  The whole triangle of land became a raging inferno, and we stalked around the edges with rakes to control escaping flames.  The roiling orange tongues licked higher than a house, and you could hear their explosive crackle for a hundred yards.  Dad left me in charge of keeping the flames contained on the side where I stood, and I remember how big and responsible I felt at those times.  The heat was so magnificently intense it scorched my face, and I would turn away.

The working of a garden restores and connects us in ways we do not fully understand.  Central Virginia is perhaps the most beautiful place that exists in the Spring.  To put your fingers into the ground against this backdrop, to grab a handful of soil with enough clay that it packs to a ball, yet enough sand and silt that it crumbles easily, brings reassurance and blessing to the soul.  The life cycle is repeating again, and we are part of it.