Dead, For Now

Blogs that languish inconclusively have always annoyed me. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to this one, here’s one final post to wrap it up. 

The original idea, for a urban rooftop apiary, was very cool, but ultimately timing and logistics (like the detail of no rooftop access) conspired against it. Without that twist, the blog topic became a typical beekeeping blog, of which there are many. Then came the need to move the hive from its ground location. With no good options nearby, neither up high or on the ground, I decided to pull the plug on the concept. I moved the hive to a rural, pastoral setting in Gorham, Maine, where they are happy and thriving.

I may try this grand urban experiment again in spring 2013. If I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Thanks for reading and following and spreading the word. It’s been great fun.

Swarm!: We Take in Refugees

“Wanna have some fun?”

That’s a loaded question.

If you hear that question when you’re in your 20s, hanging out in a bar, and it’s asked by an attractive member of the opposite sex, your answer instinctively may be, “Yes.”

If hear that question when you’re a family man sitting in the family station wagon with Maine license plates outside of a squatter’s den in inner-city Baltimore and it’s asked by a heroin addict in your car who’s trying to score some smack, you should definitely say, “No.” [Long story. Just trust me on this one. It’s more terrifying than fun.]

If you hear that question when you’re in you’re asleep in your corporate cubicle, and it’s asked by your beekeeper friend, you should say, “Yes.” You can be guaranteed it’s going to be far more interesting than anything happening in the office.

“Wanna have some fun?” Phil had called me in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny, warm August day. He had just received a call from Eli, who had just received a call from a friend, who had found a swarm of honeybees hanging on the side of Marginal Way, a street couple of blocks from the Urban Farm. They definitely weren’t my bees, because they had just moved into roomy new digs. Swarms, contrary to what you’ve probably heard, are not bees in attack mode. A swarm is simply part of a bee colony that outgrew their old space and are looking for a new space in which to settle down. They are refugees.

I hopped in my car and went to meet Phil. He was easy to find. He was the guy on the side of the road surrounded by a cloud of bees, waiting to wrangle the football-size-plus clump of them into a box so he can give them a ride to his house.

The trick to capturing a swarm is give them a place to go. It’s not really a trick, because they don’t like being out in the open. They want to get into a safe, appropriately-sized, weather-proof spot as soon as possible. They leave their overcrowded home, fly to a tree branch or other spot, all hold on to each other for dear life, and send out scouts to look for places. If enough scouts say, “There’s a nice place over there,” then the all follow. All of this takes just a few hours. The new home might be a hollow tree, an attic, or any other empty space. In the city, good high trees are hard to find, as are hollow trees, because all of the sick and dying ones that would be hollow are cut down. These bees, left on their own, might have eventually found a empty ceiling or attic space in a warehouse of apartment building. More likely, they might have met a worse fate and been sprayed with pesticides by a panicky property owner or city worker.

Capturing a swarm is part public service of the beekeeper, because property owners usually don’t want the bees around, and part self-service, because the beekeeper gets a vigorous new colony, queen and all.

This particular hive had the mis-fortune of swarming late in the season, what Phil called a suicide swarm: Forced to leave due to overcrowding, but too late in the season to build up a strong hive to make it through the winter.

To give them a home, Phil placed his briefcase nuc under them. A briefcase nuc (as in “nucleus colony”) is a small-ish plastic box, with hive frames in it, that can be sealed up for transportation. Phil has captured hives from high in trees, but this one happened to land on a juniper bush, conveniently about a foot off the ground. Very convenient. He put the briefcase nuc under them, scented it with a little lemon oil, which mimics the bees natural swarming scent, and waited.

Blob-like, as if it’s a single amorphous organism, it slowly oozed (or, if you like, crawled) toward the small opening. We watched it flow, like a small river.

One hiccup: Phil need a couple of more frames for the nuc, and the closest place to get them was out of my hive at the Urban Farm. I drove over, but it was closed and locked up tight. I had been told that there is a way through the back door of the taxi garage next door, but I hadn’t ever seen it. I peeked in the garage. No one was around and I didn’t I see a back door. Luckily, a few minutes later a old taxi driver named Bruce pulled up and asked me if I needed help. I told him what I was trying to do and his eyes lit up. He launched into a story about partying with a friend back in in the 1970’s and finding a massive bee hive in a old metal drum, which he and his buddy, for fun, smoked out then harvested 75 pounds of honey. Ever since then, he said he eats honey every day. Bruce showed me toward the back of the garage and into a side room, to the back door. I quickly took the top off the hive, removed the frames, shook off the bees, and closed it back up.

I dashed back to meet Phil. Most of the bees were already in the nuc. A woman from a business across the street joined, driven to curious distraction trying to figure out what we were watching. She kept her distance, but got a quick lesson from Phil about honeybees, probably one she’ll never forget.

Phil moved the nuc back to The Honey Exchange for a few days while we got the parts to expand my hive. We put another box on top of my hive, with a sheet of newspaper underneath. This paper gives the two merging colonies time, as they chew through it, to get used to each other’s smell and accept them as their own. Otherwise the newcomers will be attacked as invaders. With the hive box and frames in place, we brought over the nuc, found and captured the queen to use in another hive, and presto, I had a hive that instantly doubled in size, in really good shape for the coming cool weather.

A Visit from Irene: Bees vs Tropical Storm

Hurricane Irene blasted up the East Coast and weakened, but she was still a tropical storm and carrying a ton of rain. She was heading right for us, threatening to dump 6 – 8 inches of rain. I wasn’t too worried about the Urban Farm hive, thinking that it would be sheltered from the 50 mile an hour winds by the building and thick vegetation that surrounded it, and that it’s 2 foot legs would keep it above any water.

Then Eli called to tell me that Farmer Dave was worried about the hive. Dave had noticed it swaying in the increasing winds. The problem was not the legs, but the scrounged plywood platform that it stood upon. It was too springy. Hives start out top-heavy, with one box weighing 20 – 30 pounds or so, up on 2 foot legs, then as more boxes stacked on top, and those higher boxes are even heavier, filled with dense honey. My novice beekeeping studies, which were basically nil, hadn’t dwelled on the importance of a level, solid foundation. Crap.

When I finally connected with Farmer Dave, he told me that he had taken it upon himself to take the hive apart, take the legs off the stand, and rest it all on a stack of wood about 6 inches tall. That kept it from tipping over, but Dave was concerned that it was now vulnerable to flooding.


1891 location of the Urban Farm Fermentory

The farm is located on land that was filled in long ago along the shore of Back Cove. The neighborhood is mostly asphalt, and the land the farm is on is a hard packed railroad bed. None of this is conducive to draining tropical storm rains, particularly at the time of high tide, when drainage would slow even more (fortunately little to no storm surge was forecast with Irene). Eight inches of standing water would reach the bottom of the hive as it now stood, and could drown them.

I headed over the farm and took a look at what Dave had done. It really was much more secure. Thank god he had done that. As for the flooding, I wasn’t too worried. The flooding would have to be extreme, and hell, if that happened, the plywood platform might just float the entire colony to safety like a giant lifeboat. In any case, the danger was decreasing. Irene was trending toward the west, toward Vermont.

We ended up with a few inches of rain and some strong winds, but we’ve received much worse from “regular” storms. The hive was fine. But it was a good disaster drill for me. I decided that I had to rest the hive on more solid footings. After that, it would be all set. Just a happy little hive building up through the remaining warms days, then hunkering down for the winter. Such as small colony would be the perfect way to ease into beekeeping. My skills could grow along with them.

But soon, my hive would instantly double in size. I had to get serious.

Russian Nuc Launched: The hive is installed

In preparation for moving day, I had to assemble all of the hive components, as soon as I figured out what they were. From hanging out with Phil as he worked his hives, I had a pretty good idea of what I needed. I wanted a Langstroth hive, which is the traditional box hives seem on farms all over the world. There are other, less common types of hives, such as the top bar hive, which is typically used in warmer climates. But the Langstroth boxes are readily available and allow for easy maintenance and manipulation of the colony, especially when it comes to collecting honey.

My next decision was size, in two dimensions. Langstroth boxes come in 8 or 10 frame widths (a frame being the honey-comb-holding wood frame that hangs down into the box), and depths of shallow, medium or deep. These sizes are largely a matter of preference. Eli had used 10 frame components and Phil liked 8s. Since I was used to 8s, having seen Phil and our friend Paul Jacobs use them, I decided to go with 8s as well. Plus hive boxes are very heavy when filled with honey, and with a plan to move them to the roof on the calendar for next year, I thought it would be best to lean towards the smaller and lighter end of things as much as I could.

I talked to Phil and made a shopping checklist. His business, The Honey Exchange, supplied me with many of the parts, but since he hadn’t opened his store yet or received all his inventory, I needed to make a run down to Bee Pride, in Lebanon, Maine, for the rest. When I finally found Bee Pride (the turn is easy to miss), I met Peggy Pride, who runs the business with her husband Brian in a converted barn on their big, old farm. Peggy was super nice and helpful and as I shopped my son Ethan pulled up a chair to their huge observation hive and watched the bees behind glass like a huge tv screen.

My other choice was the strain (or “breed” or “race”) of honeybee. There are many kinds, but the most common ones are Italian, Carniolan (from Slovenia and southeastern Europe) and Russian honeybees. What about North American breeds? There aren’t any. Yes, honeybees are yet another invasive species, having come over with European settlers in the 1600s. The three strains we have today are aptly named. The Italian and Carniolans are Mediterranean in the their attitude in that they are more laid back and don’t mind too much when people start poking around in their hives. The Russians, on the other hand, are feisty and tough. They handle Northern winters like their human counterparts handled the siege of Leningrad, they are hardly bothered by parasites and illnesses, and are more vigilant in the defense of their hive.

As a testament to the toughness of the Russian stock, all of Phil’s several hives survived the winter of 2010-2011 with the bottoms of their hives wide open to the elements, only screen bottom boards in place. That sold me. I figured that an inner city honeybee colony is going to have to be tough. I can’t bothered with any pansy bees that are going to need constant fussing over with food and medicine. No sir, my bees are going to be guerilla troops in a harsh urban environment.

Finally I was all ready to go. My site was cleared, my new hive parts were all painted, and Phil had a Russian nuc ready for me. That’s nuc, as in nucleus, as in nucleus colony. A nuc is simply a small, functioning hive. In one box you get everything you need: a queen laying eggs, brood in various stages of development and a little stored honey and pollen. Bees can live quite happily in those confined quarters for a while, although they will eventually get overcrowded and want to they’ll want to take off in a swarm to find a bigger home.

I waited for a day of clear weather when Eli would be at the farm, and gave Phil the heads up the night before. Phil went out to the nuc in his backyard and stapled a screen over the opening to the nuc so everyone was trapped inside, making a nice, neat box o’ bees. The next morning I picked it up, put in in my car and drove to the Fermentory.

I put them on their stand. Behind the screen, they were attempting to chew through the metal screen, which is creepy and aggressive looking, so I thought they might rush out of their confinement and take out their anger on me. But when I took off the screen, they slowly creeped out and took off to orient themselves to their new home.

Within a day, they were very busy coming and going. The knotweed was in bloom, the weather hot and sunny and dry, and the bees happy. All of this had taken longer than I thought it would. It was now mid-August and time was running short for the colony to build up their population and get ready for winter.

One more potential disruption was bearing down. An out of town guest named Irene was going to blow through town.

Into The Wild

With the roof idea on hold until Spring 2012, at which point the roofing job will be finished and weather will be better for a hive move, Eli suggested a spot on the ground, behind the farm’s second greenhouse (which, by the way, holds a 700 gallon aquaponic system for farming tilapia and growing herbs). The land back there was not cleared and was not behind the space rented by the Urban Farm Fermentory but instead it was behind ABC Taxi’s space, so Eli first got permission from the landlord and gave me a tour.

The space was an impenetrable knotweed jungle. Not simply knotweed growing up out of flat ground, but also in and out and up and around piles of junk. This space was next to the old loading dock and garage door belonging to the taxi garage, littered with a car gas tank, buckets, and car parts.

Yet it held promise. It was easy to access, clean up would be pretty easy, because I could simply throw the junk further on into the jungle, and most importantly, it was available. Phil was juggling honeybee queens and nucleus colonies and was eager to resettle one into my still-non-existent hive.

I find areas like this very cool. Here we are, in a spot where tens of thousands of people pass by every day. Within a few hundred yards there are businesses, houses and apartments, busy city streets and Interstate 295. Yet this spot has been virtually untouched by people in years. Well, sure, they’ve obviously stopped by now and then to dump some trash, but they haven’t stayed, and in a situation like this the incredibly resiliency of nature shines through. Plants continue to grow and the junk often provides shelter and captures water for little creatures like bugs, mice and birds. They in turn attract bigger critters, like the red fox Eli told me about, which has a den just on the other side of the chain link fence bordering the farm.*

I started my clear cut. Fortunately, knotweed is not difficult to beat back. It breaks easily, so stomping it down, pulling it up and snapping it in half makes an opening pretty quickly. With the vegetation gone, I found all kinds of stuff. There was a big section of carpet, another thick vinyl covering of some sort, a large plywood platform, trash bags containing who-knows-what, a cracked kiddie pool, pallets, plastic pails and a large pile of rotting vegetation maybe from the clearing of the rest of the farm. I shoveled and pitchforked, picked up and tossed, and lifted and tipped everything further on into the knotweed. It swallowed it all without a trace, like a leafy sea. The only mishap was when I tossed a full 5 gallon pail. I assumed it was full of rainwater, but when the stench of gasoline hit me I realized it must have been gas siphoned from the taxi guys. Oops. No smoking for a while.

When carving out a space in knotweed, the trick is trying to limit its inevitable comeback. Knotweed is the honey badger of invasive plants. It’s indestructible. It spreads by rhizomes plus any tiny piece of the plant can take root. The only practical way to stop it is to lay down an impenetrable layer. I needed to make a knotweed-free space for the hive itself, for the bees to fly in and out and to allow me to work the hive. I decided to use what I had on hand as ground cover. I laid down the carpet, the other vinyl covering thing, and the plywood platform, as well as flat wood scraps, plastic, and anything else on hand. The plywood platform fit very nicely in between the old railroad tracks. Ultimately I cleared a space about 20′ by 10′.

If I only owned a hive, I’d be all set. I needed to go shopping.

*To get a great perspective on nature under our noses, I highly recommend Suburban Safari by science writer and all-around cool chick Hannah Holmes. It’s a fun, eye-opening read.

Grow Up

Urban farms are cramped. It comes with the territory, literally. The philosophy of urban farming is that society should maximize the usage of what’s nearby before we go sprawling off and cutting down remote forests to grow food. We’ve got plenty of space; we just don’t use it because it’s smaller, a little harder to access, and unsightly. The idea that your food comes from the rolling green hills of a family farm is a little more appealing than thinking it comes from some decrepit no-man’s land in the middle of a noisy city. But the reality is that the fruit and veggies that we all buy each week are most likely grown on huge corporate monoculture farms thousands of miles away, watered with scarce potable water, doused with herbicides and pesticides, pollinated by migrant honeybees trucked in seasonally, picked unripened and brought to you on trucks and ships spewing diesel fumes. In fact, sadly, half of the food grown in the world rots before it makes to the dinner table. Even more is thrown out after it spoils at home. So when the alternative to that nastiness is a nice guy, a few miles away, growing fresh, organic food in rich, loamy soil, then the pretty, storybook idea of a farm becomes much less important.

An urban farm is also much more intellectually and creatively interesting, and it can economically make sense, too, since property is cheap, materials can be found for free and fuel and transportation costs are almost eliminated. Eli and his business partner Dave Homa have managed to get maximum productivity out of a minimum amount of space.

The outdoor farm space at UFF is an amazing example of making the most of what you’ve got. Eli and Farmer Dave dug up, stomped down and covered up a jungle of the crazily invasive Japanese knotweed (known around here as bamboo). They landscaped with wood chips and flagstones, mounted pallets to walls to use as trellises, salvaged wood cable spools as tables, made plastic sand boxes into water gardens, and built two poly tarp greenhouses. What little free space they have is stacked with salvaged wood, metal and plastic stuff they might find useful one day. It’s a beautiful, isolated space, surrounded on the three sides by tall and dense stands of knotweed just beyond a chain link fence. This farm, maxed out as it is, had no room for a beehive. Not at ground level, anyway. But the building, a long, low one story structure, has a very nice flat roof. We went up to scope it out.

A couple of problems with roof idea became evident pretty quickly. One was that we’d have to build some sort of stairway, ladder and/or small crane rig to get hive parts up and down. Bringing up empty hive boxes would not be to much of a problem, but getting them down when they are full of honey, weighing 50 pounds or more, would be much more difficult, although not impossible with a little engineering and ingenuity. (In typical creative fashion, Eli has a 20 foot section of iron fire escape he wants to haul across town to the farm to solve that problem.) The second problem was a deal breaker. The condition of the roof was bad. This is an old building and the part we envisioned to hold the hives, an overhang over the original loading dock, was in terrible shape, full of holes and moss. In fact, a roofing job had just begun at the far end of the building and working toward UFF’s section. The roofer (wearing the blue shirt in the pic; Eli’s on the left; the landlord in the foreground) was not thrilled with the idea of pounding nails next to a hive, and Eli and I weren’t thrilled with the prospect of moving a thriving hive to another location in the middle of summer.

Time for Plan B.


Somebody’s Gotta Do It

My friend Phil Gaven proposed a simple idea: Establish and maintain a beehive in an ugly, polluted industrial part of the city on an inhospitable asphalt roof, steaming hot in summer, wind-blasted and frozen in the winter, with no easy way up or down. He assured me that my lack of beekeeping experience would not be a problem.

How could I turn that down? I agreed to do it.

Phil explained that the hive would be located at the Urban Farm Fermentory, on Anderson Street in the Bayside section of Portland. It’s in an old warehouse, one of several garage door storefronts, sharing the long, low building with a bike repair shop, a snowboard maker, a boat builder, a taxi company and others.

The name “Urban Farm Fermentory” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, nor does it cover everything that goes on there. The UFF is part farm, with herbs and veggies growing in raised beds on top of disused railroads tracks out back, and part fementory (an invented word, apparently) where they ferment hard cider and mead. But when the founder and owner, Eli Cayer, opened his doors, the UFF became a more a laboratory for almost any local food or beverage that can be grown or made there. Someone showed up who wanted to grow mushrooms, so Eli gave him a closet. Someone else wanted to brew kombucha, so he got floor space for a big stainless steel vat. The latest venture is breeding and farming tilapia in 300 hundred gallon tanks, whose waste water nourishes more herbs, which filters the water before it dumps back into the tanks. They also hold classes if you want to do any of this stuff yourself. For people from the process-oriented corporate world like me, it can take a while to get your head around all that goes on and the communal nature of it all. But now as I’ve seen it in action, I suppose it’s really not far off from the model of hi-tech business incubators that governments and companies fund, where people of similar interests work alongside each other and cross-pollinate ideas. The only difference is that in the case of the UFF, the cross-pollination is not just a metaphor.

Eli and Phil crossed paths through their mutual interest in honeybees. Eli, who makes excellent honey infused with herbs, had kept bees in the past but was too busy to maintain hives at the farm, so he offered the task to Phil. Phil, in addition to keeping several hives, was busy starting his new business, The Honey Exchange, which offers honey from far and away, beekeeping supplies and other retail goodies, so he couldn’t take on the job. That’s when Phil tossed the idea to me.

I’m not entirely sure why I accepted. I had actually turned down a hive in my own backyard when Phil offered one to me. While I find the little creatures fascinating, having one of my own seemed like it would be another chore, another thing for me to have to do on the weekends. But this “urban guerrilla beekeeping” as Phil called it, had enough wackiness to it to make it appealing. And the opportunity to be a small part of the wild UFF world sealed the deal.

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