Bears unwelcome

10 of these

Do all towns have email lists these days? I suppose so. Our town’s list announces church suppers and firewood for sale; requests proposals for mowing the town green; advertises sporting equipment, cars, pianos, and livestock for sale or barter; and invites us to school plays, concerts, farmers markets. Around elections, they bustle with political opinions. And at the hinge of each season, they announce signs of change.

Children returning to school. Geese leaving town. First snowflakes and dicey roads. First robin sighted.

A couple weeks ago, a message on our town email list warned that a bear had been seen on a nearby deck, checking out the empty bird feeders. It’s a bit early for bears to wake up, but the mild winter and the quick snow melt have us on high alert. Bears waking up right now are looking for food, and nothing’s growing yet.

We’ve nothing at all against bears. They belong on the land more than we do. But we don’t really want them to eat our bees, especially since we’ve managed to somehow keep them alive through the winter.*

Every morning since that email posting, we woke up nervously, stopping to peer out the bedroom window even while still half asleep to make sure the hives were still standing.

Once bitten, twice shy.

Of course, we now have the hives protected by electric fence, but last year’s bear knows there were bees here last year and may come sniffing.

So we decided to add one more level of protection by building an “unwelcome mat,” which is essentially a bed of nails. You place the mat on the approach to the hives and hope that any bear who steps on it will be unpleasantly surprised and turn right around (the nails protrude enough to feel uncomfortable, but not enough to permanently hurt the bear).

We built two mats to extend along the length of the eastern side of the bee yard fencing, which we figure is the direction the bear is most likely to come from (the north and south fences are more protected because of the goat pasture and pen, and the west side is protected by the extra gate, our presence, and the road).

When I say “we” I mean that M pounded all those nails (two nails, every two inches, on 10 boards, 12 feet long). He’s the one who set up the clever jig on the deck railing. But I did help him assemble the mats and I used a power tool without harming myself or the mats, so there’s that.

We still check the hives from the bedroom window every morning, but with a little less anxiety. They’ve got their fondant, their fence, and their unwelcome mat. I think we’ve done all we can, and now we just need to wait for spring to bloom.

* Let’s face it: they kept themselves alive through the winter. The only thing we did was not get in their way.

Prepping the railing

The jig


Two mats


On beeing

Their winter door

So, Sunday was moderate and sunny, snow still in patches and piles on the lawn, but the sharp of winter was noticeably dulled and there was no more delaying the obvious: it was time to see if the bees had survived the winter.

We suited up and entered the bee yard and saw no obvious signs of life, but, as with so many of the very best secrets, sometimes the obvious is the noisy camouflage of the quietly wonderful.

I rapped twice on the south hive and put an ear to the hive’s side: gentle humming and then a single scout flew out to see who was disturbing her afternoon nap.

I did the same on the north hive: gentle humming and then one loud buzz practically next to my ear.

We lifted the outer covers for each hive just to confirm with our eyes what our ears knew without disturbing or chilling them. When we lifted the covers, we saw the plexiglass covered hole in each inner cover packed full of lively bees. We quickly put the covers on, and did our own little waggle dance right there in front of the hives and the confused goats.

Huzzah! Life!

Then we scampered back to the house to report the news to H and to study up on what happens next.

The next is what we did today, the warmest day by far of 2016. We returned to the hives for a more in-depth examination. The bees tolerated us so very well, placidly going about their business. In each hive we saw a good-sized, healthy colony. They had eaten much of their honey, but there is still plenty  left to see them through the next month until spring begins to blossom in our part of the world.

Even better, we saw eggs, larvae, and capped brood in each. Two busy queens (still, as always) hidden from us, doing their work in the late winter darkness.

Yesterday, in anticipation of finding little or no honey, I cooked up a batch of “bee candy” (also known as fondant): a sugar syrup cooked to soft ball stage, then whipped into a moldable, rollable dough that we can place in the hive, just on top of the frames. They appear to have enough honey stores to see them through, but we gave the fondant to them just in case. They seemed appreciative of a new menu option.

The goats watched while they chewed their cuds. Ephraim’s never seen us in our bee get ups; he seemed unfazed. By the end, Wellesley, Darcy (looking pregnant, I really do believe), and Ephraim were lying in the yard like goat loaves, baking in the warmth of an early March day.

The hives are all closed up again. We’ve still another month to go until we can remove the insulation and really welcome spring. In between, there’s the threat of bears, and swarming. Nothing is certain, but it sure is wonderful when your heart is happily surprised by things not going wrong every now and again.

Now my hair is smokey and my hands smell like goats. Spring, with your baby bees and baby goats, I can hear you calling gently and calmly. The ice is clearing.




Snack time

March flight


The Sunday buzz


Every visit to the hive is a bit like opening a gift that I’m a little wary of. Not because I’m afraid of the bees, but because I’m afraid for them. After last year’s disappointments, we’re just never sure what we’re going to see.

Each time, we approach the hive with quiet excitement tinged with a dab of worry: what if they’ve swarmed? What if we see no eggs? What if they’re all just… gone?

We smoke the entrance, happy to see commuters coming and going. The incoming foragers weighed down with bright orange luggage is a good sign.

And then we lift the hive lid optimistically…

And there they are, nearly oblivious to us, making a great buzz, tending their community, raising their young, filling their cupboards with precious orange and yellow pollen, and putting up the white-capped honey for winter.

Because today is August, full, hot and droopy with summer, but they know what the ragweed bloom tells them, what the sun’s angle tells them, what the night-time crickets tell them.

Still right now in this heat, sweat dripping off our brows, gloves, camera and all sticky with propolis, the thick buzzing all around us, summer is not going anywhere, not for the moment.


Hours later, I’m writing this. A Sunday night and the dark is coming on. A wise friend recently said that August is the Sunday night of summer. It’s okay. There’s still a little bit of time to stash away some honey. And the earlier dusk? Well, then, we’ll just have to go out and watch the stars until we get sleepy.


Honey and brood

Pollen sacs filled

Winter stores

Getting them on record