Posts Tagged ‘bees’

Angry Bees

After a wonderful month spent with family and friends in our hometown for the month of seemingly non-stop Jewish holidays (Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabba, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah – – it’s a lot of praying, and lots and lots of eating), we took down our sukka and its decorations as soon as Shabbat was over, put everything away, did 3 loads of laundry and drove back up to Maine at 4:40 a.m. Sunday morning.  Fortunately we arrived several hours before sunset, because there was plenty to see besides the changing autumn leaf color.

The trees on our street in Maine

The trees on our street in Maine

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Now this is one of those “only in Maine” stories:  About a week before we left Maine at the end of August, I got an estimate to pave part of our driveway.  Unfortunately, this was one of the wettest summers on record.  Not only did it rain 25 days out of 30 in June, it also rained most of July, and it wasn’t just a sprinkle, either.   We’re talking driving, pounding, torrential rain of practically biblical proportions.  The result is that our poor, steep gravel driveway, already old and tired from numerous assaults from several winters of snowplow scrapes, began eroding to the point that the bottom was almost completely washed out.  Without a good running start from down the street, a two-wheel-drive car could not make it up the driveway in its current condition.  I called numerous excavation companies asking them for about 4 dump-truck loads of new gravel for the driveway, but everyone else with a dirt driveway was in the same boat and the contractors were swamped.  No one could even give me a date when they could start the repair.  Meanwhile, it kept raining and the driveway kept eroding and no solution was in sight.

I knew we couldn’t afford to pave the entire length of our driveway (about 500+’) but even the steepest part at the bottom, about 75′, would be better than nothing.  Pine Tree Paving came from a few towns away to give us an estimate.  It wasn’t cheap, but it seemed fair considering he’d have to bring several dump trucks worth of gravel to put a new base layer at the bottom, then the asphalt, then a roller – – lots of heavy equipment and hard labor.  But the only time he could do the work was when we would be back in our home town.

“No problem,” he said, “I will do it while you’re gone, and that way, you won’t be inconvenienced when we come, you’ll be out of our way, and you’ll be able to use the driveway right away when you get back.”  With that he tipped the brim of his baseball cap in my direction and took off in his pickup truck.

I didn’t really expect the driveway to be done, but sure enough, as we came up our street, there it was – – smooth and nicely paved blacktop!  He hadn’t even taken so much as a deposit from me, nor was there a bill in my mailbox.  I had signed no contract, nor received anything in writing.  My word was my word, and his was his, and that was that. Integrity!  (or as we Jews say, “ehrlichkeit!”)  I’ll be writing him a check today.   And that’s rural Maine.

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Meanwhile we saw that Billy, our sometimes handyman, had been busy with the log splitter.  We had discussed his chainsawing a bunch of fallen trees into logs and then splitting them into usable pieces of firewood, and sure enough, an enormous pile about 12′ high awaited us.

This pile is 12' high and growing . . . .

This pile is 12′ high and growing . . . .

(As did several scattered logs all around the property which he hadn’t gotten around to splitting yet.)

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It looks like my husband and I will be getting quite the strength training/cardio workout this week as we start shlepping and stacking the split logs into the woodshed.  It’s about 20,000 lbs.!  (Billy has been keeping track of his hours, and we know him to be honest, but so far no money has exchanged hands.)

I was quite delighted to see that the sunflowers I planted on the slope above the orchard and beehives were now in full bloom.  I knew they would be great pollinators for the bees since there aren’t many other blossoms around this late in the season.

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What I didn’t expect, however, were the tens of thousands of angry bees that greeted us when we drove up the driveway and tried to get out of our car!

Until this moment, our bees had never been hostile.  Other than foraging for nectar deep in the woods and nearby fields, they congregated only around their hives.  Never had they ventured close to the house before!   Not only were they close, the bees were dive-bombing everywhere and everything, including our car, the windows, and the front door, and their usual pleasant buzzing was more like an angry roar.  The only way I could unpack our car was to wear long sleeves, gloves, and a mosquito-net hat.  I felt like I was an actor in the middle of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous horror flick “The Birds,” only this was “The Bees.”  Miraculously, we didn’t get stung.

I called Bee Man to ask if he knew why the bees were so unhappy.  He mentioned that he had been by last week to feed them and wrap the hives in insulating tar paper for overwintering, and that sometimes they get unsettled for a day or so, but that by now calm should have been restored.

“If they don’t settle down, I’m going to have to come out and kill them,” he said resignedly.  Each hive is worth about $400 in materials, supplies, bees and honey, so I didn’t want him to face that kind of loss; but I also knew that we couldn’t live with angry bees on a daily basis.

The very next morning Bee Man’s truck made its way up my (partially paved!) driveway.

“I called another guy who knows just about everything there is to know about bees,” Bee Man said, “and he told me I had done something wrong.  You see, I only fed one of the hives, not all of them.  Apparently bees sense when there is a new food source, and if they are not fed equally, they go to war and start robbing from the neighboring hive.  At that point all the bees become very agitated and angry and sort of go berserk.  So the plan for today is that I am taking away all the feed I added so none of the hives have anything extra.  Then when they settle down, I will come back in a few weeks and feed all of the hives equally.  That should do the trick.”

And it did.  By the afternoon, the bees had indeed settled down.  Peace reigned.  The bees are happy.

And so are we humans, back in rural Maine.

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To Every Thing, There Is a Higher Purpose

The last days of August were a flurry of activity as we prepared to leave Maine.  We would be returning to our home town for the month of Jewish holidays:  Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

I realized it was a week of “last chances” – – places to fish and swim; because upon our return in October it would be too cold to take a dip in the lake and fishing season would be over until ice fishing season began on January 1st (something I haven’t yet attempted).

I knew I wouldn’t have much luck fishing at Horseshoe Pond, but my rod and reel anyhow served only as an excuse to paddle my kayak around this beautiful place.  As its name indicates, it is shaped like the letter “U;” I paddled from one end to the other and back again.  I was the only one on the lake, alone in my thoughts on a warm and glorious day.

Horseshoe Pond

Horseshoe Pond (click to enlarge)  My house (not visible)  is just behind the middle hill in background.

I went for a walk with my dog near my house.  The foliage in the woods was so thick; yet despite the warm temperatures the air felt different, truly like the end of summer.  I noticed the sugar maples were just starting to turn, a few giving coy previews of the glories soon to come.

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Soon we passed the old West Stoneham one-room schoolhouse.  It was established in 1860 during Stoneham’s heyday, when the land was settled by farmers and loggers.  Shortly thereafter the population dwindled, victims of poor soil for farming; industrialization in the cities that offered better paying jobs; and the Spanish flu, which decimated entire families in this region.  Even though it was always small – – in 1880 the population was 475 souls – –  it’s hard to imagine our town as once bustling (the 2010 census indicated there are 237 residents, with a density of 7 residents per square mile). Yet in the late 1800s there were five such one-room schoolhouses spread throughout Stoneham.  Today the West Stoneham schoolhouse has been modernized somewhat and is used as someone’s summer cottage.

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The (former) West Stoneham one-room schoolhouse, ca. 1860

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Click to enlarge and see a closeup of W. Stoneham schoolhouse’s commemorative sign

On Friday morning, I decided to go fishing one last time at Virginia Lake.

While I was threading the worm onto the hook, I thought about how we humans tend to think of worms and bugs as the earth’s lowliest creatures.  Yet where would fish and birds (ergo us humans) be without them?  Although they may be an annoyance to humans, worms and insects clearly have a crucial purpose in life as part of the food chain and we would be lost without them.

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(It did not take long before the fish began biting. I caught seven: one was a yellow perch which is not a good eating fish; 2 were too small to keep; but four white perch were just the right size for our upcoming Shabbat dinner and lunch.)

While swatting mosquitoes back at home, the “bugs are beneficial” concept was further driven home by the arrival of the Bee Man.  He was there to harvest this year’s honey crop.  As noted in this article in the Portland Press Herald, this year’s honey crop was one of Maine’s all-time worst.  The Bee Man told me that he averages 1400 lbs of honey per year from his dozens of hives in bee yards spread over a 20 mile radius.  Last year he harvested 1700 lbs.  But this year, he will be lucky to get a meager 500 lbs.  The reason was mostly weather related:  bees prefer hot, sunny days, and 25 days out of 30 in June were rainy, with July and August not faring much better.  The bees were “thin,” he said, and not only could he not harvest whatever little amount of honey they had produced, he would have to add sugar cakes to the hives to feed them supplementally, lest they starve over the winter.

As I stood talking to Bee Man, I was busy swatting the bugs, and I pointed out that his bee suit was covered with gnats and mosquitoes.  “It’s about time!” he said with a smile.  “I’m telling you . . . something is going on.  Yours is the first place I’ve been to today that’s even had bugs!”  I frowned but Bee Man smiled.

“Usually when I empty the hives, I see a lot of ants.  This year I didn’t see any!  And if there aren’t ants, then there are earwigs.  But no earwigs this year, either.  Yep, definitely something is going on, and it’s not good.”  Translation:  pesticides have been introduced to some farms in Bee Man’s area.  True, there are fewer bugs, but the hives are in danger of colony collapse.  For Bee Man, bugs are a measuring stick for the health of his bees . . . and ourselves.

The lowly insect  – – something so small and seemingly insignificant (not to mention annoying) – –  is in fact not inconsequential at all.  Everything, and I do mean everything that was created by G-d has purpose and meaning and is part of a Greater Plan, even if our small minds cannot grasp it.

Seen in this light, even a gnat can inspire us with awe.

It is said there is no such thing as an atheist farmer, because despite his best efforts, he is at the mercy of the forces of Nature, and he recognizes that ultimately his success is up to G-d.  May the New Year reignite our sense of awe and wonder and appreciation of all the good that has been bestowed upon us, and instill us with clarity to recognize Truth.

A Lot Can Happen in a Month

Immediately upon completion of the 30-day mourning period for my brother-in-law (shloshim), we returned to Maine from our home town, driving 10.5 hours through the night.  We arrived at 7 a.m. on July 4th.

The first thing I noticed was the holes in the driveway.  In June, a snapping turtle had been busy sloooowly coming up the driveway each day at dusk for about a week to dig a hole, lay some eggs which resemble ping-pong balls, cover up the hole, and sloooowly make her way back to the bog at the bottom of the driveway.  Now, in July, the eggs must have hatched in the past 2 days, for the shells were still leathery.  The baby turtles had torn their eggs open under the ground, and literally clawed their way to freedom digging through the packed gravel on the driveway, making their instinctual pilgrimage to the bog below.  It’s quite a miraculous journey, as many local creatures such as raccoons, fishers, herons, hawks, crows and snakes prey upon the babies, or manage to dig their way underground to steal and eat the eggs from the nest before they hatch.  Once grown, though, the snapping turtle has only man for a predator (you’ve probably heard of Turtle Soup, a real delicacy in China).  When threatened the snapping turtle’s bite is powerful and could amputate someone’s fingers.

Leathery remnants of hatched snapping turtle eggs.

Leathery remnants of hatched snapping turtle eggs.

Another weird thing was the bees:  I saw that the Bee Man had added some new hives, a sign that the numbers of bees are increasing and honey production is in full swing.  Indeed, the scent of honey was heavy in the air (and smelled heavenly).  The morning of our arrival all looked well, but by the end of the afternoon, shortly before dusk, the bees  appeared to be resting in a swarm on the outside of the hive – – tens of thousands of them!  I looked up this phenomenon on the Internet, and found that this is called “bearding.”

Bearding is a form of hive air-conditioning; the bees depart the immediate brood nest area in order to help keep it at the desired temperature (too many busy bee bodies = too many BTUs). When you see all the bees outside the hive an hour before sundown, you’ll also notice the following morning (early a.m.), most if not all, have gone back inside the hive because the outside air temperature (and thus the hive temp) has dropped – again, just a way they regulate the brood nest temperature.

"Bearding:"  When the temperature inside the hive gets too hot to handle, bees cool of by hanging out around the outside of the hive at the end of a long day.

“Bearding:” When the temperature inside the hive gets too hot to handle, bees cool of by hanging out around the outside of the hive at the end of a long day. (Click to enlarge to see tens of thousands of resting bees “bearding.”)

While we were away, it had rained 10 of the last 15 days, and the first two weeks of June were scarcely drier.  Our house was practically unrecognizable upon our return, due to the heavy foliage.  The lilac bushes and blueberry shrubs I had planted with such care, along with 80 sunflower plants, had been swallowed up and overwhelmed by weeds, brush, grass, thorny raspberry and poison oak.  The trunks of the apple trees were similarly covered.  In the Maine woods, in the battle of Man vs. Nature, nature ultimately always wins.  (Or as a Mainuh once bemoaned the state’s poor economy, “The only thing Maine knows how to do right is grow trees and lobstah.”)  Weed-whacking was the order of the day (not the most ideal way to spend a holiday day off), and it was made worse by a searing heat wave that included lots of humidity.

Once the orchard was trimmed, I could see that the garlic had really grown tall.  The type of garlic I planted is not like the kind you get at the supermarket.  In order to survive the Maine winter (garlic is usually planted in the Fall), a special type of garlic, called hard-necked garlic, is used.  Although its strands cannot be braided due to the stiffness of the greens, it is very potent and delicious.  Towards the end of the growing season, each planted clove forms a curly “scape” with its own little seed bulb.  It is recommended that one cut the scapes off so the garlic bulb under the ground will not divert its nutrients towards the scape, and the bulbs will reach their maximum potential in size.  But the scape cuttings can be used to garnish a salad or sautéed or steamed, and are quite delicious in their own right.

The curly, bulbed end of a hard-necked garlic plant is called a "scape."

The curly, bulbed end of a hard-necked garlic plant is called a “scape.”

My husband was completely exhausted after doing the weed-whacking, and had lost probably 5 lbs. in sweat (eeyew).  We jumped in the car and drove to the lake, which was completely devoid of other people, and dove in the cool, clean, refreshing water.  We had a great swim!  From there we returned home, had a light dinner, and decided to go see fireworks.

Fourth of July celebrations are taken very seriously and enthusiastically in rural Maine.  In especially small towns, two or three towns will combine their celebrations and have  several events during the day, including a parade (which most of the residents participate in, so there are few spectators), a 5k charity race, a pot-luck picnic lunch or dinner, with proceeds also going to charity, and of course, fireworks.

Ebenezers Pub in Lovell, Maine is world-famous, which is something of a surprise since it’s basically in the middle of nowhere about 6 miles down the road from our house.  Ebenezer’s is  known for their impressive inventory of beers, with 1000+ beers available at any one time and at least 35 varieties on tap.  Once we took some guests there, and the claim that they are world-famous was met with rolling eyes and guffaws.  But sure enough, a couple of patrons sitting at the bar had motorcycled there all the way from Virginia on a beer pilgrimage, and another couple had come especially from Belgium!  It’s low-key and friendly and despite the many boutique beer offerings, there is not a trace of snobbery or sleaze.  Ebenezers adjoins Kezar Lake Country Club, whose golf course is open to the public, and it’s a perfect venue for watching the fireworks provided by the Lovell Volunteer Fire Department on a hot night, sitting on the grass, glass of (exotic) beer in hand.  (Check out the pub’s website, they have a great list of things to do in the area should you ever decide to come visit us!)

What made it really special, however, was the crowd of 150 people of all ages.  When the fireworks began, the entire audience spontaneously started singing a whole medley of patriotic songs, including the Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and This Land is Your Land.  It was really quite touching, not to mention patriotic.  I guess the patriotism is not that surprising, since most of the residents here are direct descendants of the original patriots, colonists, and founding fathers who created the United States of America.   This is their heritage at the source and by golly, they certainly do embrace and celebrate it.

Today, Sunday, is the last day before the 9 days leading to the Tisha B’Av fast day and prayers, which commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  During these upcoming nine days there are several restrictions.  No swimming or boating.  No laundering.  No eating meat.  So naturally, in between scrambling to get all my laundry done, I made kayaking, fishing and swimming a priority, since I cannot partake of these activities after today.  I did manage to catch several fish:  2 small yellow perch (not known as good eating fish so I threw them back), a brown  trout which was too small to keep and also was returned to the water, and finally, a nice-sized white perch, which, when sauteed with the garlic scapes mentioned above and some freshly-snipped parsley that is also from my garden, made a tasty and healthy lunch.

2 o'clock:  just-caught white perch sauteed with freshly picked parsley and garlic scapes from my garden.

2 o’clock: just-caught white perch sauteed with freshly picked parsley and garlic scapes from my garden.

By being away from Maine during the crucial month of June, I missed the prime planting time for a summer or fall garden.  So my packets of many varieties of kale seeds and beets and cucumbers will sadly have to wait until next year to be planted.  Because frost appears as early as September in Maine, the growing season is very short, and if you do not seize the day to plant in a timely manner, you simply lose out until next year.

It is good to be back!  And this will be a busy summer:  awaiting the birth of a new grandchild in Chicago, and entertaining eleven of my grandchildren at the same time in mid-August here at our house in Maine.  Stay tuned!

What Sunshine Brings

After two weeks of cloudy skies, we woke up to bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies.  Although the forecast said it would be 45 F over Shabbos, we were surprised with 61 degrees!

I set up a chair outside to soak up the day’s warmth and when not reading, I enjoyed listening to the quiet and looking out into the woods.  My dog sat about a foot away from my chair, when suddenly a little black field mouse scampered between us.  My dog lifted his head in surprise, but looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “Nah, not worth it.” And so the mouse lived to see another day.

The warmth meant that cluster flies’ larvae hatched.  Cluster flies look exactly like common houseflies, and as far as I can tell they do not bite.  What makes them odd is how slowly they fly around, almost clumsy in slo-mo and masochistically easy to swat when they come into the house to annoy us.

In the midst of my lazing around I suddenly heard very loud buzzing.  I thought it was the cluster flies, but upon closer investigation I realized that the strong sunshine had warmed up the beehives and for the first time all winter, the bees had exited their hives and were foraging.  Unfortunately for them, there is simply nothing for them to forage – – there is no pollen nor flowers as yet, and they were angry, tired and weak.  One that flew near me plopped to the ground, wobbled a bit like a disoriented, drunken clown, and after a few tries managed to get airborne again.  There is still honey and some supplementary sugar paste in the hives which served to nourish them over the winter, so for those strong enough to find their way back to the hives, they would survive their premature exit.  I cannot help but wonder about all those who were not so lucky.

I walked quite a bit this Shabbos, trying to make the most of the glorious day.  The snow is thin, especially along the well-used snowmobile trails, and I suspect tomorrow will be the snowmobilers’  last day till next winter.  While out and about a fellow on a snowmobile stopped to talk to me.  I couldn’t really see who I was talking to, since he was wearing dark goggles and had on a full helmet.

“Was there enough snow on the trails?” I asked.

The man answered me and I really had to strain to understand his thick Maine accent, but I still missed much of whatever he had to say.  Suddenly I realized he wasn’t talking about snowmobiling at all, but maple syrup.  And then he said, “By the way, my name is Buck.” He pulled off his helmet and I realized it was the fellow I met at the local library this past Tuesday.  In a conversation I’d eavesdropped upon, he mentioned that his “trees were running well” which means that the syrup was flowing from his tapped sugar maple trees.  I stepped forward and asked him if he had any maple syrup to sell and he said I was welcome to come by later in the week when the syrup-making was further along, He’d tapped 72 trees so there should be plenty of sap this year, he said, and the warmer days and cold nights of the past week were ideal for a high yield.

Now here is a funny thing about rural Mainers:  they are suspicious of people “from away.”  Mainers are very friendly (you cannot walk anywhere down a country road without a passing car’s driver raising his hand to say hello), and some are downright chatty.  Ask advice about any topic and they are happy to give it, but never to take it.  Anyone worth his salt has been living here for generations, and they’re perfectly happy with life as it is and they don’t want to hear about how people “from away” do things or how things could be better.  To them, a person “from away” represents change, and perhaps altering the culture and values they cherish.  So when you meet a rural Mainer, they will be perfectly polite, and may talk your arm off for 30 minutes – – but they will never introduce themselves, and never tell you their name.  They might tell you their name if you ask (and then it would be only a first name), but it is considered rather uncouth to ask.  When I met Buck for the first time at the library and asked about his syrup, he told me on which rural road he was located, but no street number (even though there are 5 houses on that road), and he certainly didn’t offer his name.  Had I gone looking for him, I would have had to look for a small shed with a chimney (a sugar shack), or knock on doors asking for “the guy who makes syrup.”

So when he said, “my name is Buck,”  it wasn’t just an introduction.  He was not saying “you are one of us now” – – that will never be – – but he was saying, “I guess you’re here to stay, so  . . . welcome.”

And that was no small thing, here in rural Maine.