I’ve been a licensed driver for thirty-two years now. In that time, I have owned seven vehicles with a total of fourteen bumpers. I have never put a bumper sticker on any of them.
What is it about bumper stickers? There have been political candidates I’ve supported enthusiastically, there have been causes I’ve believed to be important, and there have even been slogans I thought were pretty clever, but I’ve never wanted to put a sticker on my car.
It’s not because I have a practical objection, like residual glue on the paint, or traffic accidents caused by slow readers. I think I just divide the world into two kinds of people – the bumper sticker kind, and the no bumper sticker kind – and I’m the latter.
As stupid an idea as this is, it’s deeply enough entrenched that, when I think something on a bumper sticker is smart or funny or insightful, it feels like an illicit pleasure. It’s like eating the Doritos with the orange dust on them. I love those, but I know I’m supposed to be a better person.
Still, there are some excellent bumper stickers out there in the world. “Dyslexics of the world, untie!” “Support a lawyer. Become a doctor.” “Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.”
It was probably back in the 80s that I first saw “Mean people suck.” And, while it’s not particularly clever or funny, I thought it was a pithy expression of a fundamental human truth. Mean people do definitely suck.
Niceness sounds like such an insipid virtue. Nice is how we describe someone when we can’t say he’s smart or interesting or funny. But if I had to rank virtues in order of importance, I do believe nice would be number two, right after honorable.
It’s because of nice that I have new bees.
Those of you who visit here regularly know that Kevin and I lost both of our hives over the winter. We thought they were going to make it when we saw them flying during a warm spell in February, but by April they were dead.
Losing a bee hive is remarkably demoralizing. When you open it up and find a pile of dead on the bottom board, there’s not just sorrow at the death of so many living creatures, compounded by the fact that it’s probably your own fault. There’s also the sense that you’ve let down your side. With bees in such big trouble, I think every backyard beekeeper feels like he’s part of a bigger effort to keep the species vibrant and robust.
I cleaned out the hives and froze any frames that showed signs of small hive beetle, which we’d had trouble with. I stored them, some with capped honey, in plastic boxes in the basement, against the day we’d have new bees.
We opted against buying a new colony this year, partly because of the expense, and partly because doing the same thing we did last year felt like an effort doomed to fail. Lots of our beekeeping neighbors are having trouble keeping colonies shipped from Georgia and Florida alive through the winter. And if people with more skill and experience are struggling, what hope is there for us?
I had volunteered my services to a couple of the local beekeepers who remove bees from places they’re not supposed to be (like the walls of houses), both because I thought I’d learn a lot about bees and because I might, at some point, be able to take one of the colonies home.
The nice began when one of those local beekeepers, Andy Morris, took me up on it. He was scheduled to remove a hive from a soffit on a house on the water in Cotuit, and told me I was welcome to the bees if I’d give him a hand. At the last minute, though, Andy couldn’t do the job, and he passed it on to another beekeeper, Brian O’Donnell.
Brian O’Donnell didn’t know me from Adam, but he called me to say that he’d be happy to have me along, and that I was welcome to the bees. A total stranger, willing to show me how to remove a hive and let me keep the colony.
Brian knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be terribly useful. He had his son, Colin, a skilled carpenter, to provide the real assistance. All I could do was plug things in, hand tools up the ladders, and tie back the bushes that kept getting in the way. And that’s what I did, while Brian and Colin showed me exactly how you go about finding and removing a bee hive.
And then there was Charles, who owned the house. It’s a beautiful house, on the top of a hill overlooking Cotuit Bay. It was built 150 years ago (there’s an ‘1863’ on the chimney), and Charles had it renovated, top to bottom, when he bought it. Yet he didn’t wince when Colin took an oscillating saw to the tongue-in-groove beadboard on the underside of the soffit. He never said, “Be careful with my house.” He was sorry, he said, to have to displace the bees. “Could I just install some glass and keep it as an observation hive?” he asked. He was nice. He was very nice.
Brian and Colin opened up the soffit, and there was the hive.
It was small, with only about five pieces of comb attached to the wall. I handed Brian his Bee Vac (a Shop Vac modified to suction up the bees gently enough that most of them survive the trauma), and he vacuumed up all the bees he could see. One by one, he took out the pieces of comb, sucked up any bees, and handed the comb down to me.
I had rigged a few hive frames with a kind of net of fishing line so I could put comb in them, and I arranged the pieces in two of them. Rubber bands held the comb in place so I could put them vertically in the hive.
On the first day, Brian left a piece of comb in the hive so foraging bees would have a place to come back to as they straggled back. The next day, he’d go back for the rest of the hive, take out the last piece of comb, and close up the hole.
Brian came over to our house, and helped me figure out how to configure the hive for the new bees – how many frames, how much honey, how much drawn-out comb. Once I’d put it together, he took the canister out of his Bee Vac and dumped the bees right in. I gave them a bucket of sugar syrup, so they’d have something to get started with while they found new sources of pollen and nectar, and we closed up the hive.
On the second day on the job, I was all but useless. Brian vacuumed the remaining bees, applied a clear lacquer where the hive had been, and filled the hole with insulation. Colin put the soffit back, and touched up the seams and nicks. Charles told Colin how good his work looked, and wished me luck with the bees. I untied the bushes, basking in the good will.
When Brian added the stragglers to my hive, he pulled out a couple of frames to see if he could spot the queen. If we hadn’t gotten her, or she had died in the process, I’d have to requeen in short order. But he found her on the second frame he checked.
Our new hive is small, and the queen will have to start laying on all cylinders if she’s going to build up a population big enough to get through the winter. We’ll give her at least a week, undisturbed, to get acclimated, and Kevin and I will check on her progress once she’s had a chance to settle in. Claire and Paul Desilets, from the Barnstable County Beekeepers’ Association, are, as always, making themselves available to answer questions and help us manage the hive.
I’m surprised at how happy it makes me to see bees flying again. The hive is close to the driveway, and I stop and watch every time I go by in the car. I’m willing them to be happy, to find food, to survive. I’m pulling for them.
It feels squishy and undisciplined to be so taken with niceness. As good a case as I think can be made for it, nice still sounds insipid. But there’s nothing edgy, nothing sophisticated, nothing intellectual in my appreciation for all the people who helped us get new bees, and continue to help us manage them. It’s warm and it’s fuzzy, and there’s no way around it.
So, if you see a beat-up green pick-up with a “Mean People Suck” bumper sticker on it, wave, will you?