May showers bring June flowers

That’s how the saying would go if the poet had lived in Maine. Flowers here in April are few and far between, especially when the bergenia has an off year. (I think of bergenia as indestructible, but it was a poor performer in 2012.) By May, we have:

Isatis tinctoria, Dyer’s woad. The leaves produce a blue dye famous in olden times, until it was supplanted by indigo. The blossoms are always full of bees.


Papaver alpinum, alpine poppies. Short-lived but amazingly generous in self-seeding everywhere.

papaver a

Hesperis matronalis, Dame’s Rocket. Another generous volunteer year after year.

Hesperis m

Tree peony, unknown variety because I bought it at Marden’s, our local salvage chain. The box was labeled as a yellow flowering type and I imagine that’s why it ended up there for $5.00. This plant has been growing on an exposed hillside for 15 years and has 15 buds on it this spring. I hear the peonies in the Emperor’s garden had 100 each. . .can’t wait.

peony covered in beeeeezzz

I think the buds look like strawberry ice cream cones.

single scoop

Centaurea, cornflower. This particular plant has proven a little too generous with the re-seeding – and it’s difficult to weed out, so I can’t recommend it. On the other hand, the bees love it in the morning. I’m still going to try to limit it’s range next spring.


Bees in a Bag

Three weeks ago we hived two new packages of bees from BeeWeaver Apiaries. The weather here has been unseasonably cool and rainy – even for Downeast Maine – but the bees are thriving.

two hives

There were a few dozen bees left in the box after I installed them, so I bagged the delivery box and stored in our hoop house to give them a fighting chance to make it through the cold, rainy night. The next morning I set the box down near the hives and slit the front open. Bees spilled out almost immediately and it looked like they were headed to their new homes (that’s the black garbage bag to the right of the hives in this photo).

two hives and a bag

I admit it might have been asking for trouble to leave the bag sitting there until Saturday. I have a day job, OK? Cut a girl some slack. When I came to dispose of the bag and empty packages I found that bees had moved in and started building comb. The bag was FULL of bees, lots of traffic in and out, loud buzzing, the works. They weren’t happy with me for trying to pick up their new home so I didn’t get a good photo, but you can see a patch of lovely golden comb in the bag’s opening. I’d estimate the bag weighed 5 -7 lbs.

bag o bees

I put together a new hive box, waited till late afternoon when everyone was home, and installed them (bag and all) into the new location – making sure they were oriented the same way. We’ve had another few days of rain but today, in the bright sun, there is heavy traffic in and out of the hive. They are friendly and social and don’t seem to be testy at all – a good sign since I don’t know this colony. The neighborhood children who named the other hives “Avocado” and “MilknHoney” have named this one “Surprise!”.

new home

The 2012 dandelion crop is spectacular.

dandelion harvest

There was a bee on every flower. Plenty of bee fodder in the alpine bed too: heaths, heather, and rockcress.

alpines heath heather rockcress

Bees in boxes

Co-worker Carl meets the BeeWeaver bees that were delivered to the office at noon today. The UPS driver was funny; “You want these inside the office? Really?”. It was pouring rain out there so yes, he brought them into the conference room for everyone to admire.

bee box

The bees did very well in transit considering the long haul from Texas in the rain. I sprayed them lightly with sugar syrup and HoneyBHealthy and loaded them into the car for the trip to the island.

There was an hour’s respite from pouring rain and dropping temperatures at around three this afternoon. (I work for a very understanding organization that’s all about flexible time off for agricultural crisis so I was home for a day.) I’ve been cleaning equipment and stockpiling sugar syrup for a few days now so was all ready to load up the smoker and hives some bees.


Where I ran into my first problem: what to do when the boxes are fastened together for ease of shipping? I tried levering them apart, but there are 3 deeply sunk staples in each of those cross pieces. I finally just opened one box and a time and emptied them into the hive as I would normally. It worked out fine – I think the bees were happy to have a warm dark place to dive into to – but I don’t know as it was the most elegant solution. Are you supposed to use a saw?

Almost everyone was in their new home by four o’clock. Now it’s 39 degrees F with a possible low of 25 and wind chill to 16 so I’ve tacked a skirt of insulation around  the hives to cut down on the air circulation around the screened bottom board. I checked on them a few minutes ago and can still hear the cluster loud and clear inside the hive, with very few bees lingering outdoors. The top feeders are full of sugar syrup and they’re as protected as I can make them.

active hives

And there will be peach tree blossoms to find tomorrow.

red haven peach


Bees tomorrow!

Our new boxes of bees arrive tomorrow, UPS overnight from Bee Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, TX. We had originally paid for shipping via the US postal service, but BW is disappointed with the 4-5 day delivery time this year and upgraded us to UPS – which is newly certified to handle live animals. I hope my regular UPS gal likes bugs. She can bench press 250 and I’d hate to piss her off.

I think we’re ready for the new colonies. The hives, named Avocado and MilknHoney, are all set up. . .

bee hives

I have 2 gallons of sugar syrup laced with Honey B Healthy, my bee suit, a spray bottle of syrup for spraying on the boxes, the smoker is full of fuel, and the garden is full of heather and rock cress in bloom. My coworkers can’t wait to “meet the bees”, and I can’t wait for company in the garden. You can’t imagine what fascinating garden companions they are until you have a hive of your own.

bee food

Has anyone seen my hive tool? It’s here somewhere. . .



First garden update of 2012

The thermometer in the woodbin – under cover and without any influence from the spring sunshine – read 54 today. The Eagle Aboriculture crew dropped off three yards of bio-soil at the head of the driveway yesterday in the cold March rain, but it was warm and full of insect life this morning. I picked out red worms, pill bugs, and one large black beetle as big as my thumb in the first few shovel-loads.

D as in dirt

The raised beds directly in front of the house were planted with tomatoes last year. Then Hurricane Irene rolled through mid-season and soon every garden on the island had Fusarium wilt and the plants turned black and died. I won’t be able to plant tomatoes there for a few years so today I put in Giant Winter spinach, Green Meat radishes, and salad greens. The garlic I planted last fall is sprouting and will come up between the seedlings as the weather warms. Had to go rooting around in the boat shed to find the hoses to water everything in and then find the Agribon floating row cover.

Soon, radishes

The heather is in full bloom and full of tiny native pollinators, but sadly, not my honeybees. Mice attacked one hive, and when I dislodged them they evidently invaded the other boxes as well. No old colonies this year but I have two new ones on the way from Bee Weaver in Navasota, TX this spring. I’ll buy some metal hive entrance guards too.


Sorrel is my first real harvest in any year, maybe just two weeks away if this mild weather holds.


The alpine poppies are coming right along too. They bloom early, perhaps the first pollen for the new bees in late April. I remember buying these from Thompson and Morgan. The catalog described them as “rare but hardy, shy and difficult to grow”. A decade later they have seeded themselves in every stony nook and cranny of the yard – I have to regularly coax them out of the driveway and the cheery orange blooms are under foot in every path. Hardy they may be, but not so rare around here.

alpine poppies



This winter has been an odd season in Maine. Every storm that might have brought an insulating blanket of snow has made rain instead, an endless mud season. We’ve had cold nights lately but yesterday it was warm enough to check and feed the bees. It was a little breezier than I’d like, but sunny days with temps in the low forties are rare enough when I’m off from work that I felt I had to take advantage.

This year I’m feeding granulated sugar mixed 1:1 with organic (no GMOs) corn syrup. It’s much easier than cooking just the granulated sugar down to candy, and I’ve read research that indicates some added value in the composition of corn syrup, particularly for spring feeding. This being a discussion involving beekeepers there is, of course, a dissenting opinion or several. I’ve decided to try out this new mixture as long as I have a source for the non-GMO corn syrup and a small number of hives. This would be an expensive way to feed a larger operation.

I brought my equipment down to the hives at 1:00 pm yesterday. The hives were still in the sun  – not much shadow with no leaves on the trees – at the temp was 42 F. I went to the first hive and took apart the telescoping cover and the layer of newspaper insulation, popped the inner lid and dozens of bees boiled out at me like water from behind a dam. I was so shocked that I dropped the full baggie of syrup onto the frames and pulled the inner cover back down while I backed up and tried to brush bees off my ungloved hands. I was wearing my suit and veil, fortunately, but I never work with gloves unless I know in advance that a colony has been hostile. “Pistachio” has always been a very social, forgiving colony but with a large population near the end of their food stores they were defensive and easily aroused.

I found my hive tool and used it to brush 8 stingers off my right hand on my way back to the house to regroup. The old adage is true –  try to brush the barb away from your skin because squeezing it releases more venom. Guard bees followed me for about 50′, trying to get past my veil and generally harassing my retreat. Now that’s a vigorous winter colony!

I gave them half an hour to settle down and then suited up (with gloves) and returned to the bee yard to put the telescoping cover back on Pistachio and check a few more hives. There were no bees out – it’s possible that they had already found their food. I popped the cover on the next hive, Vanilla, and the insulating layer of newsprint had been chewed on – a bad sign. I lifted the inner cover and sure enough, a field mouse was looking back at me from between the frames. Cute in other circumstances, mice make a mess of the hive innards. Bees can usually defend against rodent invasions but Vanilla had been a rather quirky colony from the start and I wasn’t all that surprised to lose them.  I took apart the upper sections to chase the mice out over night and will take the rest of it apart this afternoon to start the long process of making the boxes habitable for a new colony in a month or so.

This morning I’m paying the price for being stung. It’s not as painful as stings I’ve had to the scalp although the swelling limits my  mobility a bit. In five years of beekeeping this is only the second time I’ve had multiple stings over a small area, but it does happen. Lessons learned. . .

ow ow ow


Bees, headed for a Fall

I was still traveling (unexpectedly) on Saturday and missed that warm, sunny window of opportunity to put the bees to bed for the winter, but that’s what happens to Beekeepers with Day Jobs. I’m not at all sure I could make a living wage by keeping bees, so it all evens out but still – it was so hard to spend Saturday looking out at the warm autumn landscape from an Amtrak car  en route to Portland.

Sunday was cooler and blowing a steady 15 – 20 mph out of the NW, but we managed.  I took the Styrofoam feeder boxes off the top of the hives and put a layer of newspaper right on top of the frames.  The newsprint does a great job of soaking up and holding moisture from condensation in the hive.  I keep a top entrance going all winter (until the bees close it themselves with wax and propolis) so the paper is retracted just a bit under the hole to allow easy access to the comb.  The bees will chew some of this paper away and  I’ll replace it with a big piece of hard candy on some warm day during the February thaw.

Then the top board goes on and the insulated hive wrap is taped up around it, followed by more newspaper. I smoke the hives and wear a full suit for this chore because the bees don’t like change in general and the sound of duct tape ripping off the roll in particular.

An active colony will have built comb all the way up to the feeder over the course of the summer. These were empty of sugar syrup, but drain them if you have to and tip them upside down so the bees can rescue any honey from the scrap comb.

Fortunately temps were in the 60’s on Sunday and the field bees were still bringing in bright orange pollen from some hidden stand of asters. Tonight it’s raining hard and 45, but I think the hives are set for their long sleep until I check on them during the spring thaw.




Monhegan wild gardens

Yesterday we made an impulse trip to Monhegan Island. The forecast for Sunday called for calm and bright so we packed water, apples and granola bars, windbreakers and extra camera batteries, a watercolor pad each and made reservations for the ferry.

The Monhegan Boat Line has made three trips a day from the island to Port Clyde and back again (weather permitting) since 1914. It’s a small, sturdy boat with a stalwart captain who will slow down to allow the birdwatchers to get a good look at the bald eagles roosting along the shore and a rotating crew of very hardy high school girls wearing MBL sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Maine shag haircut. You couldn’t be in better hands. Especially Sunday, when the slightly rolling seas flashed with sunlight and the temperatures stayed in the balmy 60’s.

The trip takes about an hour. We were delayed for a few minutes docking to allow a man to ferry a cow in a rowboat across the inlet from Manana, the tiny island next to Monhegan. As we left they were ferrying goats who seemed much more unhappy about leaving their summer pasture, or maybe about being in a rowboat – it was hard to tell.

We hiked from 11:30 – 3 with a break for lunch. Monhegan is renowned for its rocky headlands and breathtaking cliffs; Black Head, White Head, and Green Point, but my lasting impression on a hot September mid-day trek was the vast amount of plant and animal life. Asters, several varieties of goldenrod, feverfew, and late roses were all in full bloom. The bayberry bushes and ash and apple trees were heavy with fruit and wasps, there were kinglets and cedar waxwings gorging on seeds and berries and making a ruckus.  We saw three varieties of butterflies  and in every warm hollow filled with flowers there were dozens of Italian honey bees. I didn’t see any hives in passing through the village, but perhaps there’s someone out there? It seems improbable that a colony would survive a Monhegan winter in the wild, but who knows – it will be worth investigating when we make the trip this spring.

It’s summer and. . .

the traffic is terrible. U turns in traffic, K turns downtown on one-way streets, and I think I saw an “M” turn (hint – it involved a boat trailer) down at the town dock on Saturday. On the up side, the Boy is home on holiday and brought the Girl with him and we are having a wonderful time.

Tonight we had La Piana squash ravioli with “everything” pesto. I picked handfuls of oregano, summer savory, Genovese basil, parsley, and a few carrot tops, processed them with garlic, sea salt, and olive oil and served topped with grated Parm. The tiny ravioli cook up soft and flavorful, and each box makes a huge amount. Fantastic.

I’ve also made brown butter rice crispie bars and blueberry boy bait from Smitten Kitchen, blueberry muffins, green curry, poverty cake, buttermilk waffles, and bog juice. I just can’t seem to help making all the family favorites, and I can’t regret it, either.

So I was out in the garden, watching the green hive (Pistachio) buzzing madly at their front entrance, no doubt screaming about the fantastic patch of goldenrod down the road at Triple Chick Farm. The buzzing seemed to be coming from two places at once, though, and I turned around to see a swarm of bees approaching from the swamp. They circled the big spruce tree a few times and then coalesced on a branch about 45′ above the hives. They stayed the night and were gone by 9 a.m. the next morning. Our current hives, Vanilla and Pistachio, seem unaffected by the visitors. The football shaped swarm is in the middle of this photo, right above our electrical wires.

Second plantings are in for kale, cabbage, broccoli, green beans (hedging my bets on a late frost), basil, lettuce, radishes, carrots, parsnips, and beet greens. We’ve had a respectable amount of rain for a Maine August and the garden is lush and productive at the moment.

While our son is here on break we tried out Eden, the new (or rather, resurrected) vegetarian restaurant in town. “Plant-based cuisine” for the win!  I had a bento box of grilled baby bok choi, spring rolls, maple roasted tofu, steamed soy beans – it was fantastic. Bonus points for being right next door to Mount Desert Ice Cream (Fearless Flavor!), where we had incredible cones: blackstrap banana, chocolate wasabi, and pralines and cream. We found out too late from another local that the shop will combine two flavors, so we’re headed back there this weekend for a “Cherie Special”: pralines and cream with salt caramel.

This seems to be the perfect year for corn. Now if the 7′ tall Silver Queen can withstand whatever we get from Hurricane Irene, there will be another post about dinner.


A combination of very high temperatures this afternoon and a mature colony  may inspire “bearding”. The bees are out in front of the entrance, cooling themselves off and ventilating the hive. They aren’t swarming, although the density and agitation certainly look like it.

I removed the wooden spacer at the back of the hive and, with better air circulation, they went back to business as usual.