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


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

Pasture perfect


It took some time, as most good things do, but we finally expanded the goats’ pasture this spring by a large degree.

The three original goats came from what was essentially a dry lot—a spotlessly clean pen where they were fed a mixture of hays and other farmer-provided food year-round. They were healthy and gorgeous and knew nothing about eating the way goats were made to eat: browsing.

The pen we put them in when they arrived was fairly dry also because it was newly formed and nothing much was growing. We spread a bunch of meadow seed and, between that and nature, the pen grew a nice carpet of green stuff. The girls explored and gradually began to graze. When Willow was pregnant, she’d eat anything and became a champion nibbler of stinging nettle and burdock. Her sons followed her lead. Everyone else took note. Now they’re all champion grazers. But it’s still not browsing. Goats love woody, stemmy, leafy things that grow tall, above their heads.

Also, it’s always bothered me that they were penned. Caged. I know we can’t just let them roam the valley. They’ll get lost or hurt or eaten. It’s just not feasible. They have a really nice pen. A really nice barn. They have most everything a goat would want. Sure, they don’t have a tower, but you can’t have everything, right?

But now they have a pasture. Room to explore. Room to get lost in. Room to get away from each other if they wanted it.

I think it’s actually a bit intimidating for them in a way, and, let’s face it, a lot more work than just lounging around the barn, waiting for us to deliver the hay, but they’re out there, exploring, nibbling, stretching their necks to reach for a tantalizing leaf, just the way the goats are supposed to do. We can’t wait to see how this affects the milk and cheese.

For now, it’s just a pleasure to watch them wandering into the brush, tasting and savoring, and then napping in the tall grass. And when I go into the pasture with them, we’re still a herd together, exploring.

p.s. The addition of the new fence gave us a new little “pocket” of space between the existing pen and the new pasture. M did some mental figuring and bought some fence posts. We spent Saturday clearing out a new fence line, digging post holes, and stringing some polywire between the two fences. Now we have a new enclosed bee yard, surrounded by electric fencing. Will it be enough to dissuade a bear? We’ll find out soon. We bring the new bees home tomorrow.


New line



Altered view

New fence line

Brave Westie

New digs

First nibbles

Willow vs. honeysuckle

Bear proof?


Doris watches

Some nights, the bear

Two queendoms

Admit it. You’ve been wondering about the bees, haven’t you? (Please say you have. I like people who take an interest in bees.)

I haven’t talked about them much because, well, as we’ve said before, bees will break your heart. And they do. And they did.

Our little colony didn’t make it through the winter. It could have been the long stretches of seriously cold temperatures. Or it could have been that there weren’t enough of them (after the swarm and loss of the queen) to keep each other warm. Or it could have been a combination of both. But when I went out to check them on a warm day in late winter there was no tell-tale buzzing in the box. I lifted the lid.

Just bodies.

I felt a fresh sadness then even though we pretty much suspected they hadn’t survived. A sadness for their loss. A sadness for not being able to care for them well enough. A grey winter sadness on one of those hopelessly cheerless late winter days when the glisten of winter is gone and spring is still somewhere a few miles down the road, around another bend.

I trudged back to the house and broke the news to M.

He found us new bees. Carniolans from California, by way of New Hampshire. Two packages. Two queens.

We set up a second hive.

We crept closer to spring. There were some warning signs. Postings on the local town email list: bear sightings.

We’ve lived in this house for 21 years now and only just last fall saw our first bear. She (or he) looked like a young one; it ambled out of the valley and through our yard and was gone.


We’d thought about fencing the hives, but since we hadn’t had any bear trouble before and live close to the road, we hemmed and hawed about it. It would be another thing to do, to maintain, to deal with when checking the hives. Maybe later.

On April 26 we brought home the bees. We installed them in their hives. It went (nearly) like clockwork. We fairly congratulated ourselves on how well we’d done. We were getting the hang of this beekeeping thing. The bees were gentle. It felt nice to see them buzzing all around us as we filled their feeders with sugar water to keep them going until things began to bloom.

We tucked them in for the night, promising to visit in a week to refill the feeders and to check for eggs.

Two nights later, M let Gryfe out for a goodnight pee and the dog went nuts barking. M shone a flashlight in the direction of the hives and saw the disaster. We didn’t see what had happened, but we knew what had happened..

The damage

We went out then, in the dark, and collected who we could by flashlight. Hive pieces were all over the ground. Bees were confused and scattered. We had no idea if we’d saved the queens or not. We hurriedly reassembled what we could inside the brand new (electrified) goat pasture fence. The pasture fence was so new, we hadn’t even set the new fence charger up yet; we did that in the dark, too, with bees frantically buzzing all around us.

We were covered in sweat and sugar water. It was dismal.

Still, we went to bed hopeful. There were a lot of bees left. Maybe we’d saved the queens. Maybe they weren’t all too confused.

The next morning we went right to the bedroom window to be sure the bear hadn’t broken through the fence. All was fine. We saw bees coming and going from the hive.

I put on my bee suit a day later, lit up the smoker, opened the hives and refilled their syrup.


They were active. They were striped and beautiful. They were coming and going, beginning to forage in their new valley. And things looked good, promising.

But they were in free fall. We suspected it, and then we knew it. Fewer and fewer bees emerged. We checked the hives earlier this week. Mostly bodies, with a few slow, confused bees wandering around the frames. The queens were either lost or killed or too stressed to lay eggs.

Now the hives are sitting there, safe behind the fence and the only thing we can do is clean them out, find new bees, and start again.

Because this family needs bees. This little farm needs bees. This valley needs bees. This world needs bees.

We need bears, too. Just not on the bee side of the fence.

Let the mystery bees be

White smoke

We don’t know what we’re doing.

We try. We read books, scan websites, talk to beekeepers, use our intuition. We follow all the instructions and still this beekeeping thing remains a beautiful mystery.

Remember in the summer when we introduced Elspeth II? We checked and checked for weeks and there were no eggs. Other beekeeping pals told us to be patient; it can take weeks. At last, at last! We peeked in that hive and saw eggs and capped brood, and wiped our netted brows with relief. There was still time for the colony to build itself up and store enough honey to survive the winter.

On a routine check later, we worried again: no eggs.

A later check: no eggs, no capped brood, lots of honey.

Was the queen dead? Sick? Gone?

As weeks passed, we grew reluctant to open the hive, imagining the dismal state of things that we’d find: the eggless chambers, the dwindling population, the bodies.

Finally, this past weekend we decided it was time to check, just to be sure.

We lifted the cover and there were a few bees, but the hive was awfully quiet. We looked at the top level (the “super” where we had hoped the bees would collect honey for us to gather at some point) and it was empty of comb.

Quiet hive.

But as we dug deeper into the hive, a level or two down, what did we find? Bees, glorious bees, packing the frame with pollen, nectar, and honey, and…glory bee… baby bees!

We didn’t spot the queen. We don’t even know who laid the eggs, Elspeth II or maybe a new queen they raised on their own? We didn’t ask questions. We closed up the hive and walked back to the house quietly smiling.

We don’t know what we’re doing. Thank goodness the bees do.


Honey light

Cross your fingers or feelers, as applicable

Queen cage

Her Highness

Hive check on Sunday: no eggs, no larvae, all the capped brood (i.e., gestating baby bees) had hatched out.

It’s been three weeks, more or less, since we’ve seen an egg.

The colony is in free fall. The existing bees can only live so long. They’ll work with bee dedication to collect pollen and nectar and make honey, but without a laying queen the colony is doomed.

M called our local bee mentor; he said, “Find a queen as soon as you can.” But he said all the queens he had were spoken for. Then he called back. He’d found an unaccounted for queen, bred, marked with a green dot, and ready to go.

Down we sped to his house, the sky blackening behind us. By the time we had the queen (in her wooden cage, along with half a dozen attendants) in our hands, the rain was coming down as if the sky’s taps had been opened all the way.

Home through the storm, listening to music on the car stereo (do bees hear music? I know they sense the vibrations, but what do they make of it?).

It was too stormy that night to consider opening the hive, so Elspeth II and her entourage spent the night in our kitchen. They had a block of candy on one end of the cage to snack on. We put a small drop of water on the screen covering the cage for them to sip.

Yesterday we opened the hive and placed the closed cage on top of the frames, to see what the bees would do. If they flocked to cage (drawn by the queen’s pheromones) and were docile, then they would likely accept her. If they had managed to raise their own queen, lurking somewhere in the hive and not laying (unbred, unable?), then they would attack and kill the new queen.

The bees seemed accepting. They weren’t clinging to the cage or trying to sting her. We uncorked the candy end of the cage, made a little hole in the candy, then pressed the cage between two thickly-combed frames.

We closed the hive.

And we shall see what we shall see in three days’ time.

What to expect when you’re least expecting


You know how things are going along just fine and you think, “Hey, I’ve got a handle on this life”?

Inevitably, that’s about twelve hours before you’re reminded that life is a black box, where things appear smooth and calm and comprehensible from the outside, but, oh, what is inside that box, brewing and stewing?

The oven broke. The Internet connection stopped working. The car’s brakes started making a funny sound.

Two Sundays ago, we did our regular beehive check and noticed that the second box of frames was quite heavy. Honey! We were delighted. The bees were quite busy and we saw lots of capped brood cells (baby bees on the way), lots of cells filled with pollen and nectar, and lots of comb filled with honey. But we didn’t see that many larvae, and we didn’t see a single egg.

And we noticed several peanut shaped “queen cells” on the frames, filled with very large larvae. Those queen cells are where the bees are attempting to raise a new queen, either because the current queen is ill or otherwise not doing her job, or because she has died or flown the coop, er, hive.


On the outside, all looked well. Bees were happily flying in and out of the hive. On the inside, the colony was in emergency mode.

We chose not to panic, trusting that the bees knew what they were doing, put the lid back on and checked again last week. Still no eggs, but the queen cells were now empty. We felt a bit more panicky.

A quick call to our local bee mentor, Troy, confirmed that there was a problem, but not to panic; it’s happened to him, and seems to be happening to many hives this year because the nectar is so abundant and the hives are being quickly filled with honey. The queen sees this as the hive becoming crowded, so she takes off with her groupies in search of a new home, leaving the rest of the colony to raise a new queen.

Those empty queen cells mean that that our clever little bees are doing what they need to do. It’s likely that one or more queens have been born, and now it’s up to the queens and colony to sort out who will be THE queen and to make sure she mates with area drones from another hive.

Meanwhile, Hudson the cat stopped eating. This is a bad sign. Hudson will eat anything: all the available cat food, waffles left to cool on the counter, whatever you’ve left on your unguarded dinner plate, the dog’s food.

He was a bit quieter than usual, but otherwise seemed himself. After two days of this, we took him to the vet. She said he looked “depressed.” She wanted to do blood tests. So we did, and learned that, inside that black box of a cat, we were looking at severe kidney disease.

He’s home again, and we have a new routine that involves prescription drugs, prescription foods, and subcutaneous fluids. On the outside, he seems happy and is eating everything in sight. In time, we’ll do blood tests again and see if the inside agrees with the outside.

I baked blueberry muffins today…the car’s brakes are fine…the internet connection is on again.*

On Sunday, we’ll take the top off the hive, and inspect each frame, crossing our gloved fingers that we’ll see some eggs.

Nothing is as it seems. Life without mystery is a bore. Even so, I’m placing an order for an August free of mystery and anxiety, straightforward and comprehensible, as smooth as the glassy surface of the early morning river. Never mind what’s swimming below.

*Well, except for the three hours it was out, which happened just minutes after I typed that sentence. Ha, ha, ha, very funny universe.

52 Photos ~ Busy street

Busy street

Girls of summer

Last week: school.
This week: summer vacation.

Last week: homework.
This week: parties and movies.

Last week: rise before 6.
This week: sleep until the cats insist I rise.

Last week: assigned reading.
This week: thick by-chance novels.

Last week: schedules.
This week: what day is it?

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Not that some of us don’t still have to work (ahem), but the pace of the day has suddenly slowed. The dog and cats are napping in the sun. The goats are, too.

The previously green blueberries are starting to show a shadow of blue.

The air, momentarily, is still.

Only the bees are busy. And even they are sleeping in late.

These photos and post are in response to this week’s theme for the 52 Photos Project. You can see a gallery of everyone’s photos for this week’s theme here. To see a list of all my blog posts for this project, go here.

Friday hive mind

In singles and in pairs

It wasn’t that long ago when I bet you were saying to yourself, “When is she going to stop with all the Antarctica posts already?”

And there was a time where this blog talked endlessly about house projects. And then bread. And then goats.

And now I subject you to endless photos and updates about bees, bees, BEES!

The thing is… I can’t get the little striped miracles out of my thoughts.

You know how once you start thinking about something you see it everywhere? That’s what’s happening with me and the bees.

And then I go into the yard and I see them going about their day. I see one right now, outside the window, visiting the blueberry bushes (Elliot is so pleased!).

Everything’s coming up bees.

Half and half

I could write a post every day about all the interesting things I’m learning about bees, but I’ll spare you that and offer you here instead a selection of the past couple weeks’ bee revelations….

Finally, this week I read the The Bees, which is a novel about a hive (I know…), from the perspective of one little “sanitation worker” bee named Flora 717. And at the very end of that book, I learned of the traditional English custom of “telling the bees” — keeping the bees informed of significant household changes in the lives of their keepers (births, deaths, arrivals, departures).

I simply can’t stop thinking about that. Or wondering how much more there is to learn. This is going to take some time.

Meanwhile, I woke with a touch of a sore throat this morning, so I put an extra dollop of honey in my tea and thought of bees.

The hive is in full sun right now, before this afternoon’s storms arrive, so everyone’s awake and working. I should go out now, not to tell them a thing, but see what they have to tell me.