Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love Potion

Love Potion

I have two new hives of bees, one Italian, one Russian. Teachers often recommend having two, so you can compare them, learn more over one season by so doing, and if one hive’s in trouble, use frames from the stronger hive to bail out the weaker.

I’m examining the hives more or less every week as they get established, and I couldn’t help noticing that the Russians are building up really fast. They’ve almost filled one hive body and happily moved into the new one I added last week, and started laying in honey.

In contrast, the Italians didn’t have any capped brood. I couldn’t even see newly laid eggs, evidence that the queen is doing her job. There was uncured honey--cells of uncapped honey that had yet to be evaporated to the correct density to cap and store. There were also lots of bees, but that was sort of it.

Luckily we have a local bee expert, Denny, who agreed to come by with an extra queen and see what was happening in my hive. There is nothing, in my opinion, as useful as looking at your own frames with someone who can tell you what you’re seeing: the queen, excellent; laying workers, terrible.

It was the latter we saw today, in the Italian hive, with no evidence of the former. When I first emailed Denny with my suspicions, he told me to take a frame of open brood from the Russian hive, brush off the bees, and put the naked frame into the Italian hive. The brood would give off a pheromone that would retard the development of laying workers.

Laying workers are, Denny announced, the worst thing that can happen to a hive. Besides, maybe, bears and RAID. When the queen isn’t laying, or has died, workers begin laying unfertilized eggs. Those eggs hatch into drones, boy bees whose only enthusiasms in life are eating and mating with the virgin queen. Since virgin queens are in relatively short supply, that means eating, not putting up honey, or producing more girl bees who do all the work--and that spells death for the hive.

People have been extrapolating from their knowledge of bees for centuries, anthropomorphizing like crazy, using the hive as a metaphor to kiss up to whatever monarchs or political systems happen to be in power. So I will resist belaboring the obvious feminist parallels that may suggest themselves, and leave those to my gentle readers.

Anyway, you do not want laying workers. And once they start, you can’t just introduce some fragrant uncapped brood in the hopes that the workers will desist. Nor can you introduce a new queen, because these laying workers are not going to revert. They’ll kill her, no matter how good she smells.

Denny, bless him, had an idea. It seems that laying workers do not fly very well. We could take the Italian hive off into a field, shake off the bees. The laying workers would not be able to fly back to the hive’s original location (where we’ve helpfully left some empty frames); the regular field bees will beat us back there.

We tried it. I, of course, was suited up. Denny wore a short sleeved shirt, no gloves or veil. He took out a frame, gave its edge a smart smack on the ground, and a thousand shocked and possibly quite angry bees fell onto the grass. I couldn’t help recalling the repeated advice I’d heard just last week at a Bee-a-thon at UMass, about moving slowly and gently, lest you rile the bees and turn your hive into a permanently aggressive sting-fest. I asked him if these bees would ever be calm again. He assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, so I started whacking frames, and brushing off the stragglers with the bee brush. We carried the frames back to the hive and reinserted them, along with a frame of open brood (carefully crushed off) from the Russian hive.

He worried about introducing his queen into this roaring hive. A queenless hive really does roar. He thought he’d bring her back home, do some research, then be back in touch with the next steps. But when he went to his truck, he discovered the queen’s attendants had escaped. He picked them off the side of his truck one by one, (again, fearlessly) put them back in the box holding the queen cage. Then he had another idea.

He took the queen cage in its little box, with its few recaptured attendants, over to the bee dumps, where plenty of bees were flying around. They flew to her like she was a new soft serve stand. When Denny ran his finger over the cage, the bees didn’t cling aggressively to the cage, but climbed up over his finger and down to see her again. This was a very good sign-- they seemed curious, even fascinated. possibly (we hope) falling in love, rather than plotting her demise.

So we introduced the queen cage into the Italian hive, suspending it next to the frame of open brood, the cork stopper still firmly guarding the candy plug the bees will eventually eat through to free the queen.

I go back on July 4th to pry out the cork and allow her by then besotted subjects to get to her. Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Coming Back to Dodge

When I was growing up in Brattleboro, in early ‘60s, it was very much like other rust belt mill towns-- staid, careful, a little suspicious of anything new. It was made up mostly of people of northern European extraction. There were four churches downtown: Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Congregational. A few blocks north were the Unitarians and the Episcopalians. Bratt was pretty white, and very buttoned down. If you didn’t get your spaghetti from a can, you were just odd.

Somehow, a few brave newcomers fell in love with the countryside, moved in, and managed to take their neighbors’ world views with an amused grain of salt. The Laines, gifted French chefs, started a lovely little French restaurant out on Putney Road call “Le Chanticlair”. I was about eight, and was once brought out to dinner there by my parents, who enjoyed a long and delicious meal. I tried to stay busy, but finally went outside and wept in frustration and boredom, quite sure that we’d never leave, ever.

The restaurant lasted maybe five years. It was too far ahead of local New England Boiled Dinner taste. Finally the Laines returned to Paris. But maybe their spirit lived on somehow, when the next ambitious restaurant came in, it didn’t meet so much resistance.

Some credit for crowbarring open local minds is due to The Experiment in International Living, founded in 1932 up on Black Mountain Road. It started out as an exchange program, in which students travel to foreign countries and stay with families for three weeks. The cultural and linguistic immersion is invaluable to broadening horizons, and in return the area welcomed more than a few visitors in homestays as well. There was also the influx of cultured tourists coming up for Marlboro Music, the chamber music festival started in 1951 at Marlboro College, bringing artists like Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals.

By the mid 1960’s things had begun to change. My junior high art class was taught by one of the best teachers I’ve had in my life, Hugh Corbin, an African American who not only listened to FM radio, scandalous enough to us teeny boppers, but unimaginably, ate raw eggs. His art history classes got me through high school and college courses that were considerably less inspiring. He taught sculpture, allowed a toothy employee from my father’s bookstore to stage a “happening”, (which, honestly, I don’t remember at all, beyond some vague discomfort and resistance on the part of the squirming student body). But Mr. Corbin’s example stayed with me, backward though I probably was: if he could do what he did here, I could attempt a few things wherever I was.

Then I went away to high school and college. When I came back, it was only to pass through. It wasn’t until the end of college and into my adult life (and the temptation to put adult in quotes is almost overwhelming) that I noticed my hometown had become much cooler than I was. I couldn’t come home and regard my roots with the sort of condescending pity one finds in coming of age memoirs--the desks in one’s old school are so tiny, the once immense distances but a block, etc.

Brattleboro was now home to the Free Raoul Wallenberg Committee, well regarded writing groups, scads of massage therapists, even an Indian restaurant!

It continues: we have at least five yoga studios, three books stores, two record stores...well, I’m bragging. At a recent Gallery walk, on a beautiful evening in May, Main street was closed off to traffic. There were singers, belly dancers, circus performers, and from Circus Arts, based in Brattleboro. We had dinner at an authentic Mayan restaurant, Three Stones. It was scrumptious.

Yes, there is crime, and there are drugs. But they are everywhere. At least Bratt has drugs and bookstores; most small towns are not so lucky.

Someday I’ll understand how the diverse population of Brattleboro can work together so well. I don’t dare announce everyone works toward a shared vision. It may be something as basic as working toward visions that are more or less complementary.

I’m just trying to become as cool as my once very un-hip home town.