Wednesday, June 5, 2013

bee people

These pictures and many more were taken by Jonathan.  Here is a link to see all of them, if you wish.

Several months ago, upon finishing my Beekeeping 101 class at the Honey Exchange , I was encouraged to attend the Cumberland County Beekeepers monthly meetings and while there to sign up for their mentorship program.

I am used to this whole supervision model, given my training as a child psychologist.  I have spent many an hour on the other side of a one way mirror with a kind and knowledgeable expert on the other side, unseen but watching and calling me on a wall phone when therapy sessions start to unravel.

So the idea of a bee mentor was very comforting to me.  Someone to call in when I am worried about a hive or say, I lose the queen in the grass.

Several weeks ago, after a few emails back and forth, I received a call.  That my assigned mentor, Bonnie, was going into her hives that day.  Would I like to come and join her?  Indeed I did.

I ran about the house to collect my gear, changed out of my skirt...because that is really not a good idea, no matter how experienced you are, and headed out to have a quiet hour with Bonnie and her two surviving hives of five after the hard winter.  It was amazing on a number of levels. When I arrived she was firing up the smoker.  Her husband was tending to their flock of chickens, and he explained to me that one of his ladies, for the first time in years, seemed to be wanting to try to lay and egg, and so he was giving her some extra time in the coop that day.  I knew immediately that I liked these folks.

The next hour was my first hour being amongst the bees.  I put on my veil and gloves for the first time ever, and walked toward her hives.  Without much ado, she started opening them and looking through them, assessing them for signs of health, trouble, potential swarming, or needing to be given more space to build out.  Bonnie did most of the hive manipulation, while I stood and asked lots of questions and marveled at what was happening.  We found the queens in both of her hives, got rid of several practice cups, as she calls them, for queens for future swarming, marveled at just how artistic her bees could be with some of their wavy ripply honeycomb shapes, and spoke quietly while she worked her hives in short sleeves, no gloves, and without using her smoker once.  She told of how one of the hives was a swarm she had caught in her yard.  She knew this swarm was not from her hives and she had no idea where they had come from.  And that this swarm was the stronger of her two surviving hives.  I tried to take pictures with my iphone, and discovered quickly that gloves and a swipe at an iphone do not mix.  Removing my gloves and feeling brave, I then felt quite cool when I started taking beeswax from her hive tool and placing it in her collecting bowl.  Bare handed!

I left that morning and rushed off to pick up the kids from school on time, feeling like I had had a morning that was going to be difficult to explain just how momentous it felt to the kids when I saw them.  I jumped quickly back into the nonbeekeeping world that I occupy on a daily basis, stashing my veil and gloves in the back of my Subaru before I ran down the street toward school.  I told the kids and Jonathan a bit about my morning, but really it was hard to explain, and I quickly moved on to getting them lunch, getting them to their lessons, and tending them in all the ways a day in our life requires.

Our bees were so delayed that it started to feel like it might not happen.

And then it did.

This weekend we received notice that Phil, master beekeeper and owner of the store in which I had taken my class and from whom we were purchasing our bees, was headed south.

It is a funny world to me, this return to traditional skills of making, tending, and creating on your own...being blogged about, facebooked, and tweeted around the world.  I find this somehow entirely contradictory and so right in many ways.  Phil's family is one that inspires me, with their tender mix of quiet humor and intelligence.

I don't know.  I am not sure that it is a wise choice to bring a totally new thang into your life, and into the lives of your children, in the the last week of school.  With the chaos of end of year recitals and plays and tournaments and teacher gift making and trying to get the garden in and emotional exhaustion for all of us, this time period was already quite full.

Because in the last week of school?  We seem to be coming undone.  We are teary, snarky, overreactive, and raw here. Elliott currently is obsessed with an internal pants versus shorts debate that I do not understand except to know that they all must be fuzzy and elastic waisted.  Julia seems to alternate between being absolutely hilarious and sharp witted and getting lost in her own closet, and Nicholas...well he is on the emotional rollercoaster ride that is an almost middle schooler.  And hence, so am I.

So, don't all the parenting books say...oh right...there aren't really any for after young childhood...that you should greet the chaos and volatility and uncertainty of transitions with...the introduction of 20,000, give or take 10,000, honeybees?  I mean, we have already aged out of the parenting books, but I think they would tell me that this is not a wise idea.

And, as in all things parenthood, there are times when it is empowering to go it alone.  To do something yourself and then, if it works, pat yourself on the back for making it happen.  And then there are times, when a lovely and enthusiastic bee mentor, who names her chickens too, is offering to help.  To come be with you while you thump and dump your six pounds of honeybees into your hive boxes, when you know that it would be better to accept help.

This was one of those times.

And so, when my mentor offered to come and help me on package day?  I considered it, thought about what my kids are like when they get home from school and how my house looks like a rabid groundhog took up residence and therefore we have retreated to the attic...

And said Yes.  Thank you.  I would like that.

And the day began.  I dropped the kids at school, tired from a late night getting my wax foundation into my hive's frames.  I spent the morning trying to organize myself, making piles here and there, in strategic places so they would be right where I needed them later in the day.  I read how to hive your packages in all four of my beekeeping books.  I practiced with my smoker.  I made sugar syrup.

And then I went to pick up Elliott at lunch time.

He and I continued the preparations.  He helped me fill the feeders.  He and I carried load after load of necessities down to the bee yard.

We were not prepared for the wasp and its own comb that had begun to take up residence in the empty hive box left outside during the week, waiting for the packages to arrive.  I was moving so frantically by that time, that I took a picture, and then swatted at the wasp bare handed, sending it into flight, grabbed my hive tool and removed the nest from the box...with Elliott standing right next to me.

It would not have been good to begin this afternoon with Elliott recovering from a wasp sting.  Luckily, the spirit of the bees was with me.

We met Jonathan and the bigger kids at the store and went in to begin our adventure.  Phil, despite his sleep deprivation due to all night driving to get our bees to Maine safely during a heat wave, was friendly, informative, and wonderful with the children.  I bought a bottle of mead from him, just to quietly tell him I appreciated his care of my six pounds of buzz for the past few days.

His wife, Meghan, broke through some of our anxiety and tension by telling us of her misadventures with the bee vacuum she had been using to collect rogue/hitchhiking bees.   She had accidentally blown out instead of in when she first turned it on...creating a bee bazooka. Again, I love these people.  Only this crowd can use the term bee bazooka and make it sound scary and cool.

Despite everyone's enthusiasm, when it came time to get the packages in the car I found that no one was willing to take the car ride home with me.  I think they imagined a far more exciting ride, trapped with the vents blowing bee waves around their exposed skin, belted in and unable to escape.  I rode alone.  And listened to the quiet hum from the back.

But despite their obvious unease, the kids were in this with me, greeting me in the driveway, wanting to be close by, following me, running about to get into their own beekeeping clothes, resulting in strange and close fitting wardrobe choices, socks raised in full glory.

The kids kept the bees company on the porch while I fired up the smoker, only singeing my arm hairs ever so slightly while I glanced at my watch to consider when my mentor was going to arrive.  Meanwhile, I could hear Julia slamming cabinets in the kitchen, looking for what I had sent her in for:  some protein.  To fend off the tone she was taking with Elliott.

And then Bonnie arrived.  And all the chaos and franticness and worry?  It got a bit better.  She was here to help.  It was a bit for me like the moment when the hospital had so unceremoniously kicked us out, and sent us home with our first newborn...with no manual...and a harrowing, nail biting, anxiously silent car ride home later, we pulled into our driveway.  The door to the kitchen popped open and out spilled my parents.  I have truly never been more relieved to see them.  These people had raised two children without forgetting to feed them and without losing them.  We both breathed a huge sigh of relief.  

I am quite sure that Bonnie did not know what she was getting herself into.  But she quietly moved into our space, negotiated our afterschool grump / energy / enthusiasm, and tended us into beekeepers.

With a sense of when to step back and let this be our family's moment and when to stand strong and tell me that despite what my four books told me this was what we were going to do, she guided us through the afternoon.

Nicholas stood quietly next to me, helping, watching, and learning for almost the entire time.  Running for tools when I realized for example, that despite my planning, I had no tool to detach the two package boxes from each other.  He was a calm presence beside me, substituting nicely for Jonathan, who was otherwise occupied with the camera.  

And then a bee got inside his veil.  He quietly walked away, took off his veil, and took a break.

Elliott made her a card.  On the inside, it read Thank you for helping my mommy to take care of our bees.  This boy.  He moves about on a level that makes connections and sees relationships and knows the right thing to say at the right moment.

Then on her way out Bonnie walked under the shade of Sylvia, our very big 250 year old tree.  And stopped.  And said: Wow.  This tree is amazing.  Can I take a picture to show my husband?

We stood together in silence for a bit, watching Nicholas, who had climbed and was sitting up high in Sylvia's branches.  This silence was completely comfortable.

As she drove away, I noticed the back of her car.  She is rockin', this mentor of mine.

After she had left, Jonathan took the kids inside to feed them dinner.  I went down and was worrying about my wimpy thump.  It had created a cloud of bees swirling about the bee yard instead of resulting in the famed dump that I had watched on all the youtube videos.  

And then I saw Bonnie drive back into our driveway.  

Smiling, she walked toward me.  No apologies.  Just I was just thinking that I was not sure we had left the first queen's cage in a position that will allow the attendants to feed her.  Let's go back in and check on her.  

And so we did.  I smiled to myself, thinking about my own double checking tendency.  After putting mail in a postal box, reopening the door to make sure the mail has slid down and out of view.  Or turning around one more time before locking the door on my way out to make sure I turned off the oven.  I don't know why. But it makes me feel better.

But she is a double checker too.  A bare handed hive tool toting queen checker.  

My queen was ok.  But we both felt better knowing for sure.  It really is all about the queen.

When I went into the kitchen after she had left,  Jonathan was throwing what we call a quick and dirty dinner on the table, the calzone dough I had hurriedly prepared earlier in the day sitting abandoned and deflated on the counter.  

Elliott named your queens, he said, mid waffle flip.

Yup, says Elliott.  The one on the left is Hon.  And the one on the right?  Is Knee.

Julia ran toward me and gave me a hug.  We have our bees!  she said.  But Mommy? You have bees on your pants.  No panic, no fear at all.  Just one bee person helping another.

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