Search This Blog

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Lilac Reprise…

Last August the small town of Pateros, Washington, fell victim to the Carlton Complex wildfire and was nearly destroyed by the holocaust. Last weekend we attended a family function upriver and stayed two nights in Pateros. The first night we ordered pizza at the Sweet River Bakery, a small, but bustling gathering place for the locals and tourists passing through.

Adjacent to the winding little sidewalk leading to the bakery’s backdoor stood a lone stalk of blooming lilac that spoke to me as a symbol of a small town’s resiliency, a hardscrabble, tough little community, dusting itself off after adversity, rising to bloom again. In that hardy little stalk presenting but two or three leaves and a half dozen blossoming clusters, I saw the tenacity of life, the never ending triumph of faith and hope,  the courage not only to survive, but prevail….lilac survivor

(photo credit: Marika Finkel)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Return to the Scene of the Swarm…

two and half pounds, maybeThe onset of bee season this year has been a puzzling one. Because of the mild winter and early spring, colonies that wintered over are bursting at the seams and swarms are issuing in the month of April, much earlier than usual. Last week at The Beez Neez Apiary Supply I spent two days helping distribute five hundred packages of bees, the first of two shipments of spring bees at the bee supply. Among those coming in to pick up their packages, there was much talk about strong colonies and early swarms.

Last week I posted about one of those early swarms and my disappointment at having the cluster vanish before I had a chance to capture it (“I Did See a Swarm, Didn’t I?” 4/9/2015 )…a honey producing colony lost to the season. There one minute; gone the next, flown on down the road to somewhere beyond my grasp. So imagine my surprise when a week later nurseryman Gary pulled into my driveway to deliver news that one of his crew had discovered another swarm. “Hop in,” Gary said, “I’ll show you where it is.” Déjà vu. This recent swarm dangled in the very same cherry tree, clustered on the exact same branches as its predecessor. I knew immediately the swarm was not the one I lost. This cluster was smaller—by a pound and a half, I’d judge—yet worth the taking. This time around, after assessing the swarm’s location, I decided not to waste time gathering up equipment as before and instead use my bee sock to capture the swarm.

Bee sock? Yes, you didn’t misread. Years ago I came by a nylon mailbag the U.S. Postal Service used to collect air mail. The mesh bag is like a big sock, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy during swarm season. bee pouch Many swarms configure themselves in the shape of a lumberjack’s beard: broader at the top, pointy at the bottom. Those that dangle from a solitary branch and a few side twigs are prime candidates for sock retrieval if there’s minimum ladder work involved (helpful if both hands are free). The mouth of the sock is eighteen inches plus, the sock deep enough for the largest swarm. I gently work the tube up the length of the cluster, enclosing the hundreds of bees neatly within, then close off the neck of the pouch by gripping it around the branch, trapping the entire cluster. A pair of hand clippers, one snip, and there I am with my bagful of bees in hand ready to transport my bounty to the backyard where an empty hive awaits. (In October, several years ago I cut an established colony out of a section of wrapped raspberry canes, brought them home in the sock where they stayed undercover in the woodshed until a break in the weather allowed me to hive them.)

April 20

So sock in hand (and one on each foot), I returned to the swarm, snipped off as many obstacle twigs as I could, slipped the bag up and over the beard of bees. Because the dwarf ornamental cherry was pruned in the classic umbrella style, I tried to do a minimum amount of damage with my snipping. The main branch, nearly an inch in diameter, I decided to spare, so instead of lopping it above the swarm, I closed my fist around it, and gave the branch a hearty shake, plummeting the bees to the toe of the bag. I quickly slid the bag from the branch, tied off the mouth and with the bag of bees humming away (not all that contentedly, shaken as they were) in my grasp, I headed home to transfer them to an empty, awaiting hive.

Note: bees swarm when the hive becomes overpopulated: there’s no space for the queen to do her business—keep those eggs a’coming. Swarming allows the bees to perpetuate the species, a good thing (we humans need all the bees we can get, domesticated or native) evolutionarily speaking. At this point, however, the word “honeybee” warrants consideration on the part of the beekeeper: does a keeper of bees keep them because  “honey” is his goal, or is his endeavor directed at raising “bees?” If honey is the object, swarm prevention—keeping a strong field force of workers at the onset of honey flow—is of paramount importance. If he desires more bees, the less than diligent “bee-haver” allows them to swarm and then chases his bees about the countryside hoping to retrieve them.

My little sock full of bees? The fact there was a larger swarm the week before told me my smaller cluster was a secondary swarm, or “afterswarm,” a fact I confirmed the day after I shook the contents of my bee sock into a five frame “nuc” box (a “nucleus colony”). (Just the right size to house a swarm less than three pounds.) 5 frame nucI removed a bee-laden frame and almost immediately spotted a small, unmated queen shuffling about among her “staff.” Whereas “primary” swarms leave the hive with the mated Queen Regent, afterswarms issue from the parent colony with one or more “virgin” queens (there may be twenty or more queen cells in a swarm-ready colony). Two or three days of decent weather to allow a mating flight and that stocky little virgin will become, as my friend Jim Tunnell puts it, “an egg-laying slave” for the rest of her life.

Swarms in April, an uncommon occurrence here in our cool, swarm on the loosemaritime climate, but as I was hiving my two new packages of bees, a swarm swirled in from somewhere and quickly appropriated one of my “catcher hives.” Most likely a primary swarm, too, as it covered seven of the ten frames when settled. Suddenly my little two colony apiary of a week ago had burgeoned to six—and May, the month of swarms, is yet to come.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dare not Assume

white lilacsSpring--

March and April are just numbered squares

on a calendar,

And I have seen forsythia

Hiss and smolder beneath sodden snow.

Yet the lavender delays.


Assume not too much--

The crocus does not baffle frost,

And beneath its fur, the willow shivers.

Yet the fragrance is stayed.Bury your nose


Dare not assume the date--

The swallow cluster on frigid steel wires

Is bluster.

And sunflowers and buttercups

Sycophants of the sunny South only.

Yet the purple pendants pause.


Then one warm day

Again the patent is again unleashed upon the breeze

And calls the gardener to his furrow.

Unassuming, the lilac blooms.table of fragrance


Breathe in the lilac. Let its delicate fragrance mark your memory, etch spring upon it. Pick a bouquet for someone special. Pluck a sprig of spring for yourself.  Take heed: they’ll not bloom again for another long year.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ms. Genealogy…

Gladys is Gladyson the injured reserve list  these days. Meanwhile The Ripple has been searching high and low for a new front end to lift her spirits-- expeditiously of late after hearing her grumble (not knowing I was within earshot), “I should have been born a unicycle.”  To date, a new front tire has been purchased and hopefully a replacement tube will soon follow.

Meanwhile, Gladys, the Ol’ Gal, has not been twiddling her spokes, but like so many others has been caught up in the resurgent craze to seek out one’s ancestry. She’s been preoccupied with discovering her roots, researching her ancestry, looking for “kissin’ kin,” delving into her velocipedic past.

This preoccupation with one’s family tree, however, is not without peril: instead of a Joan of Arc or Mother Theresa perched on the  lower limbs of the ancestral tree, one might instead find a “Bloody Mary,” or an Elizabeth Borden glowering away…no humanitarian Ghandi or Mandela but a Jack the Ripper. I’m reminded of the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Family Tree” ,where a ruddy-faced, carrot-topped, well-scrubbed little darling perches tippy-top the family tree while a scrofulous looking blackguard of a pirate crouches below on the first branch.

Although the details of her birth are sketchy, Gladys does know this about her past: the nuts and bolts of her came together at the Columbia Bicycle Factory in Westfield, Massachusetts, sometime in 1976 (yes, my gal Gladys is a bicentennial baby). The lady belongs to the Tourist 3 line of models, a fact that’s tattooed in bold on her chain guard and like her other Tourist 3 siblings, Gladys has the luxury of rolling along, as she chooses, in one of three speeds.

Gladys had hoped to trace her ancestry all the way back to the invention of the wheel, so finding her lineage halted abruptly in the modern era understandably came as a disappointment, a disappointment, however, somewhat tempered by her discovery in the Westfield factory archives of this photograph of a distant cousin.a big boy trike

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I Did See a Swarm…Didn’t I?

A swarm in AugustJust before noon yesterday one of the men from the nursery next door pulled into the driveway. “Just the man I want to see,” he said as he stepped out of his truck. “There’s a swarm of bees hanging in a tree over at Bob’s place.” Little more than the first week of April, I thought, quite early in the spring for a swarm to issue. “A swarm of bees?” I asked. “Are you sure?” Yes, he’d seen it and was certain the cluster was not a wasp nest. “Bob thought it was wasps and he was about to spray ‘em.” Glad Bob got a second opinion, I told him.

Folks’ ignorance about honeybees and their hymenoptera cousins (solitary bees, bumblebees, wasps, hornets) has long been a pet peeve of mine: I’ve frequently crusaded for honeybees in The Ripple and face-to-face. If it has wings and invades the airspace around one’s head—especially the face—the winged varmint is most certainly a “bee.” And to have a nurseryman mistake a healthy cluster of honeybees for a wasp nest…well, it’s beyond my understanding…. In my opinion, extreme though it may be, anyone who applies pesticide to honeybees should be charged with a capital offense.

The nurseryman—Gary, his name, by the way—led me to the swarm. Sure enough, honeybees they were,  a nice cluster, too,  four to five pounds, by my estimate (sixteen to twenty thousand hard working little ladies). They had clustered in a dwarf ornamental cherry tree, the kind that blossoms come spring into a pink umbrella. April 8, I thought, I can’t remember a swarm that early, and they most likely may have issued the day before.

I have been keeping bees since I was fourteen and have hived countless swarms, but I can’t recall a swarm this early in April (4/8). With our mild winter and milder spring Mother Nature seems to have rushed the season. That swarm was a living testament to an early spring.

When a beekeeper learns of a swarm, he first considers the logistics of hiving it: where does it hang, height, obstructions, accessibility, and proceeds from there. I’ve hived swarms from apple boxes, sides of buildings, fence posts, chimneys, trees, shrubs, and raspberry canes. These days if retrieving a swarm requires a ladder, count me out. Been there, done that, as they say. If the swarm settles higher than a stepladder, call some other beekeeper.

Gary’s swarm? A piece of cake: five feet high at the top of the cluster. I upended an empty stock trough under the swarm. One hive body atop that would neatly position the capture box at the nether tip of the swarm. Clip away a few branches, give a good shake, and I’ve captured myself a new colony for the summer’s honey flow. Gary and I returned to my driveway where I said thanks, good-bye, and gathered together my swarm collecting paraphernalia.

A half hour later—no more—I returned to the site. Bob’s house was there; the cherry tree was there; the branches to be pruned away were there. Everything was there but the swarm. Where it had hung pendulous with promise, only branches dangled down. I stared in disbelief…five pounds of bees gone, evaporated into thin air, and me with a new home begging for a lodger in the bed of the pickup

Those of us who keep bees are familiar with the old adage: “A swarm in May is worth a ton of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; a swarm in July is NOT WORTH A FLY.”  Perhaps it’s best that that early April swarm left for parts unknown. I’ve tried to think up a bee-appropriate rhyme for April but so far have come up empty.Healthy swarm

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Buddy, You Can Spare the Change…

Valley N.E.The world is in a state of constant flux.


We have lived on our spare acre for forty years. Some years ago a property behind us changed hands, a property that had changed hands twice before that. The new owner immediately set about fencing the boundaries of his property. Fences have their places, I guess—especially if one has critters that tend to wander. In this case, however, the “stock” was nursery stock—no invasive species that I know of—not likely to stray to greener pastures, feast on my sweet corn. Three years ago I noticed an orange jacketed fellow clambering over the new fence. Turned out it was a surveyor employed by the new landowner to rectify errors in original surveys, establish new property lines. A couple months later I answered a knock at the door, opened it to the new proprietor of the property west, requesting compensation for what he termed was now “his property.” Things have a way of working themselves out, and the point of this incident is to address the subject of change, the fact that there is no stasis; everywhere around us change is afoot, grinding away at our fragile sense of well-being…another shoe just waiting to drop.

Change. I think of my grandfather, Iron Mike, an immigrant to the Land of the Free from Czechoslovakia. I have an old black and white photo of Grandpa Mike and Grandma Mary seated side by side high up on a freight wagon, Grandpa at the head of a team of horses hauling freight somewhere in the vicinity of Chitina, Alaska . My grandfather was born in the Old Country in 1883. He passed in 1972 at the age of 89 in Seattle, thousands of miles from his native land.

Change. I think of Grandpa Mike’s lifespan and the milestone events he lived to see: humans walking on the moon, manned flight, both propeller and jet, diesel freight trains (in his life beyond Alaska Mike was a railroad man but in the heyday of the steam locomotive), radio, television (the Friday night fights and  pro wrestling, two of Grandpa’s favorites), the internal combustion engine…and two great World Wars.

While Darwin was a proponent of change and made it his life’s work, I’m certain there must have been some changes in his lifetime that irked and grated on him. Change… too conveniently it’s written off as “Progress,” a verbal sleight-of-hand that gives carte blanche to changing the status quo. Set in one’s ways and change are arch enemies, foes, glare at each other from opposite corners of the ring. Golden spring

Change. It throws up fences against our daily lives, our routines, forces us to seek detours, seething all the while; it’s the little things that whittle away at our peace, abrade our sense of well-being. I think of the small community I moved to forty-five years ago and how change (masquerading as progress) has blighted the community. Every day, it seems, there’s another street torn up, another hole in the ground, one more “Proposed Land Use” action sign on a bare lot, one more stoplight and one more extra car in front of you. If it’s not a new stoplight that’s put your life on hiatus, you’re stopped at a railroad crossing waiting for one hundred plus graffitied railcars to creep by. Change/progress…and the entire traffic flow gridlocks. As things now stand, I figure one has a three hour window of time to run errands in the metropolis proper before things get really crazy. I can state for a fact it takes an extra fifteen minutes just to get outta town these days.

Change. Maybe it’s creeping old age that makes change so abrasive (as if the aging process isn’t change enough), the fact these diversions, these roadblocks, these thorns in the side intrude on one’s daily routine, force detours, create snares and pitfalls of readjustment. A health care provider retires or moves, your doctor or dentist, and the next thing you know, some strange person is poking and prodding you, new fingers up close and personal with your anatomy. New neighbors move in, interpersonal relationships of necessity shift again….

Yes, change is in the wind. And it’s an ill breeze that blows. Just today I learned our sage city council and chamber of commerce in conjunction with a project to address storm water issues have also decided to address parking in the “business section” of town: the two blocks between Blakely and Ferry Streets. The new arrangement would revert to parallel parking on the south side of the two streets (as in the olden days in Monroe) and will cost the city 1.1 million dollars (now there’s a chunk of “change”). On the north side of the Blakely/Ferry blocks diagonal parking would remain the same. Sidewalks on the north side would be expanded five feet, increasing the width to fifteen feet. According to our progressively-minded city government the extra space could be used for restaurant outdoor dining ( in our climate?) and outdoor space for merchants to display their wares. (The Ripple can’t wait for The Lovers Boutique to air their skimpy lingerie on the new, expansive sidewalk). City leaders hope the new two block “promenade”will encourage Monroe visitors to stay longer. “We need more money coming into downtown,” the Chamber of Commerce director said…this from a city government that two years ago directed commerce north of Main Street by selling its bond-strapped property to Walmart. Change will begin April 20 with the entire metamorphosis slated for completion sometime this August. Gird your loins for four months of Fair Days Parade in downtown Monroe.Them's purty

And speaking of change, our city government is mulling over  changing the duration of parking time in its soon to be reduced parking spaces. You heard it first here: The Ripple predicts parking meters, those mushrooms of revenue, are destined to sprout along Main Street. Change. You’ll soon need it. Better save yours….