Learning the language of bees

Savannah Morning News, Sunday, March 7, 2015

Bees are not like people. They don’t need elbowroom. They don’t “need their space.” They prefer to crowd right up on top of one another. With too much empty room they have trouble defending the hive. They understand the power of numbers.

That’s about all I know for sure after Saturday’s daylong session in the FUNdamentals in beekeeping. That and the beauty of Oatland Island Wildlife Center, which hosted the conference for the Coastal Empire Beekeeper’s Association. People, if you haven’t visited this 100-acre environmental treasure right smack in our midst, do so. Now. It’s a treasure and there it sits, off Islands Expressway on the way to Tybee. The main building, a large and impressive two-story, white-columned structure, opened in 1927 as a retirement home for the Brotherhood of Railroad Conductors. Then it became a lab for the Center for Disease Control. For the past couple decades the Savannah-Chatham County has owned and operated it.

If you go March 25, you can visit with author Tony Cope, a former Savannahian and Oatland Island’s first director. Cope, who jumped the pond to live in County Cork, Ireland, will be there with his new book, “Stealing Stones.”

But today let’s get down. Let’s channel Ram Das. Let’s “bee” here now.

There’s a high learning curve to this bee business. It’s a new language. While our children might fly the coop, bees swarm the hive. That means they leave for greener pastures, either because they’re unhappy or no one came by to take the honey (“I’ll show you!”), or it was time to reproduce and conditions were too crowded for the queen mother. See, unlike the plebian, or common folk, the queen is a little picky. She’s one who does need her space so she can lay her eggs in the tiny six-sided, as in hexagon, cells. Swarm – as in, “they’ll swarm on you” – can be a verb and a noun. Swarming always involves the queen. There’s lots of talk of the queen in beekeeping. Her worker bees are females. Males are the drones.

Bees are visual creatures. If they are out foraging for food and there are a bunch of bee boxes in the compound, they might get confused when they return home. They may not know which queen they are working for. That’s why you draw an X on the box. Or a circle. Or parallel lines. Bees know their shapes.

Oh, here’s something else, too. The boxes are called nuks, pronounced like nukes. It stands for a nucleus colony, kind of like the nuclear unit, but in bee-land it’s always the queen who sits in the middle. She’s the boss. But if she’s aggressive? If she’s ornery and not doing her job? Get rid of her. Extract her. Stomp on her. Squeeze the life out of her. Then replace her. You don’t want to do all that work – and it is work, we were told, to raise bees – and take a chance on passing along bad-queen-genes.

Newbies such as myself had so many questions for the experts (starting with who gets to be the queen; I never really understood that), it was hard to know where to begin. Who knew that bees were not indigenous to this country and that before bees the flies and other winged creatures did the pollination? Not me.

It’s quite an egalitarian set-up, this world of bees. All female bees, no matter what family you are born into, are eligible for the job of queen.  It’s the worker bees that get together to designate or crown she-who-shall-be-queen. This happens at day four of a young female’s life. After that, Madame gets fed the royal jelly, which comes from the glands on the heads of the young workers. Yummers. Then she’s turned loose to become a sex machine. For the rest of her life – from four to six years – she will be laying 2,500 eggs a day. Unlike chickens, queens do not go menopausal. It’s not an option.

Flash! Queens can wear colors. When you get your bees, she-who-will-be-queen will be sporting a blue dot on her thorax. Last year it was green. Next year it will be white. I guess some fashion maven decides the color.

No one talked too much about bee stings (except to extol the virtue of bee venom). These beekeepers were way too advanced to think about that (but I did). They did say, more than once, if you get five beekeepers in a room you’ll get give different opinions. One thing they agree on is this:  “Never forget that as a beekeeper you are weird.”


Seeing “old Florida” and geo-caching

Sun., Savannah Morning News column

March 1, 2013

Once again, it’s the little things that make a weekend escape out of town worth the bother because there are moments when it really does seem like a lot of hassle finding someone to walk the dogs, straightening up a bit because someone is coming into the house to walk the dogs, getting together snacks for the road, remembering to charge your Sonicare, leaving just the right amount of lights on and getting your oil changed, all the while politely thanking the jiving technician for trying to tell you your battery is low and your tires are looking worn and driving this way is dangerous, and you really should do something about it, right now, at the dealership, even though you want to say to the double-talking salesman, “Really? I should do this here where it’s twice as expensive?”

But then you are on I-95, locked into cruise control, holding steady in your lane, facing south – in this case, heading for a book festival on Amelia Island, Florida’s northernmost barrier island (just south of Cumberland), where if you get a hankering for “old Florida” you can visit Fort Clinch State Park, a 1,427-acre wilderness park of massive dunes, salt marshes and bobcats. It’s billed as “the real Florida.” It’s easy to see why. The vegetation is thick and gnarly and it’s stunning. Except for the paved road this must have been what it was like when the Spanish, the English, the Native Americans, the Confederate soldiers and the Yankees all hunkered down either in the dunes or the rice fields.

If you can get past the cutesy factor of nearby Fernandina Beach, Florida’s northernmost city, there’s plenty of old Florida to see plus a nifty little restaurant on the inexpensive side called Timoti’s that offers a meaty local white fish called sheepshead. And if you time it right – which I did not – you can visit the American Beach Museum, commemorating one of the few residential beaches African-Americans could visit in the 1930’s and well into the 60’s. MaVynee Betsch spearheaded plans for the museum. She was known the “Beach Lady” or the woman with the 7-foot-length of hair. She was the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the very successful Afro American Life Insurance Co. in Jacksonville, Fla., and sister of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the first African American female president of Spelman College.

In less than two hours away from home, you wonder why you don’t do this more often. Even if you are staying in a generic, nondescript motel whose anonymity and secrecy lost its thrill for you decades ago (but there is that single remote control for the television; no confusion there). Even if you have forgotten that thanks to Smartphones there are no more secret hideaways; everyone can track you.

All of this happened the same week someone visiting from Brunswick clued me into Geocaching, a GPS-related scavenger detective game. Am I the only person on the planet who hasn’t heard of this hide-and-seek game played with apps on your phone where you hide a box with “treasures” inside which you take and then replace? Using the phone-as-Geiger counter, we tracked down said box under a random boxwood tree alongside an Enmark station on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

“Are you looking for something?” a man sitting in a car asked.

“It’s kind of hard to describe,” I answered as though I was not the only one to be in the proverbial dark. “But we’re OK. Nothing important.”

When we opened the box we found seven or eight folded pieces of paper, each containing a handwritten poem for Valentine’s Day. I chose a poem by Robert Burns. My friend Lynn left a key chain from some bank in Berryville, Ark. Then we replaced the box and went on our merry way.

All very peculiar. As it happens, at the book festival in Amelia Island, I set up next to a woman selling her book of poetry. To attract people to her display, this woman, Stephanie Andrews, put out a bowl of poems written on folded pieces of paper since “National Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day” is coming up. This is a “trick” authors well versed in marketing use to attract potential customers. That and good eye contact. Most people offer chocolate (very effective).

The first poem I chose was by Robert Burns. Two Burns’ poems in one week.

I would have preferred chocolate.