The Cape Honey Bee … Survival of the Fittest?


... waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain ...
… waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain …

Cape rain is like no other rain I know. In the wintertime great drops of water pour out of the sky. Day after day waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain, down Skeleton Gorge, down Nursery Ravine and down every other ravine they can find. Go out and you get very wet indeed. But what mattered most this past winter is that the land got wet. Slowly the devastated and burnt earth started to come alive again. Fine pale green shoots of grass appeared and then the rest …

the rest fixed
… and then there’s …
rest 2 fixed
… the rest …

 

There’s a phone call from the Cape to London. ‘I’ve been down to the houses and had a look at your hive. I’m afraid there’s nothing going on.’ It’s my brother John, and it’s September. In October we are back in Cape Town for a precious few days, and once there,  I don’t make the trip down to the healing veld on the tip of Africa. It’s a short visit, and back on the plane to London I say to myself ‘Well, this trip I really had no time.’ But if I am honest I did not want to go …

What’s the point? They’ve gone.

Then,  in December, we fly back to the Cape again. This time we land flat-bang into the hurly-burly of the pre-Christmas season. Christmas comes. With it arrives family from far and wide. All want to be together in this isolated place, where the antelope and the zebra roam, and the wild Atlantic Ocean runs roughshod onto the rocks. Christmas goes. Family and friends depart.

And still I do not go to my hive.

We’re all getting old now, my cousins and I. Time to dream, and time to do what you have always wanted to do. After the fire one of my cousins becomes passionately interested in bee-keeping. For some reason all my cousins have nick-names. This one’s Bulldog. Bulldog does a lot of research, and in the spring of the September sunshine he brings two ‘Best’ hives down. Not wanting to disturb our fragile eco-system in any way he simply spreads bee-lure on the inner frames and leaves them empty. ‘A leap of faith and some swarm looking for a home may just take occupation …’ he tells me.

The Best hives are near the skip, a far distance away from my hive. When I was a child there was no such thing as a skip. Behind each house we dug deep dirt-holes in the veld. All rubbish went into those holes, everything, and although there was no such thing as recycling, we had our own very special recycling team. The baboons. Into the dirt-holes they would go, happily tossing out tins, fish bones, bottles and paper – until they found the tasty bits of water melon skins, sweetie papers and anything else suited to a baboon palate.

... the skip ...
… a regular skip …

But now we have a regular skip, brought down by a commercial firm. It has two sturdy lids and a strong locking bolt so that no domestic debris can be strewn across the veld. Not much fun for our baboon recycling team, but at least they won’t need a dentist.

... I am worried about my cousins siting ...
… I am worried about my cousins siting …

Late one afternoon I walk over to the skip, carrying some rubbish. I am worried about my cousin’s siting of these new Best hives. In my opinion they are too close to the skip, and it is in the way of their natural ‘bee-line.’ When a new worker leaves the hive for the first time, he plots his position, rather like a GPS. From then on he will push his personal sat-nav button and come straight in from there. This skip is a clumsy great thing in the way.

I struggle to lift the lid of the skip. The wind is howling and the lid is heavy. I just manage to hurl the rubbish in. ‘The Cape Doctor is really here in force’ I think. The Cape Doctor is the local name for the prevailing summer wind … frequently gusting 60 – 70 knots. Locals say not only does the south-easter blow all the rubbish into the sea, it blows the germs in too.

I turn into the wind to look at cousin Bulldog’s hives. For the past ten days I’ve looked at them, but there is nothing there, no sign of life. Even if I bang on the lid. The two hives have their backs to the south-easter but they are very exposed. Even when the veld eventually grows up, these will still be on the flat grass, with no hope of protection. I watch the hive nearest the sea. ‘Perhaps he has put them here and not under the protection of new bush so that , if we have another fire, they won’t meet the same fate as mine’ I think.

Then, still leaning against the skip for protection, I see a bee career past me. It looks as if it is on a roller-coaster ride as it does a spectacular loop-de-loop and heads straight into the  hive on the sea side. ‘Crikey’ I think, ‘some-one’s moved in!’ Later my son Anton goes and sits on the grass and watches. Yes, they’re in.

And still I do not go to my own hive. I just can’t bear to.

Rather, in the still of the evening, when the wind has died down somewhat, I walk across to my cousins’ house to see my god-daughter, Glen. We sit on the verandah and catch up. I love this god-daughter and I seldom see her. She lives in Johannesburg and has some friends with her. ‘We’re from Jozies,’ they say. I tell them about the new occupants in Bulldog’s hive, and then about the utter tragedy of my swarm. I tell them about nine months ago. About the blackened nucleus of brood that I found, about the burnt and stunned wingless bees I saw, about the few precious drops of honey, and finally about the survivors. Then I tell them about the robbers I saw a week later …

‘Robbers? What do you mean robbers?’ asks Glen. ‘Well, if a swarm is weak, other nearby bees will take advantage and rob them.’ I explain. ‘Unbelievable!’ says one friend from Jozies, ‘Do you think that is what happened? How can you be sure that they were robbers? How can you even tell the difference between a robber bee and an ordinary bee?’ Now Johannesburg is a city with one of the world’s highest crime rates, so I should not have been surprised at the answer. ‘Easy!’ said another Jozies resident, ‘They wear balaclava’s and carry a revolver between their wings. They fly in and clean your house out.’

‘Nonsense!’ said the Cape contingent, ‘These are Cape robbers. They just move in and “borrow” the booze.’ ‘Well, call it what you may,’ I laughed, ‘my Cape robbers did a pretty good job, and now there is nothing. In fact I have not even been back to the hive, I just cannot bear to stand there and imagine all that suffering for nothing.’

With that my god-daughter Glen gets up and walks across to my chair. ‘Yes you can.’ she said, ‘You see where the sun is now? Just above the horizon? Well before it sinks into the sea, you will come back and tell us what you have found in your hive.’

In the final glow of the evening I walk through the veld. All around me is a soft carpet of green. In amongst the bare white sand tufts of vlei grass have appeared, and exquisite little veld flowers. Like sentries high above them stand the blackened branches of the giant protea and leucodendrum bushes. They’re full of charcoal, and spiky. I pass them cautiously, pushing a path through to my hive. I stand to one side, watching the entrance, and thinking about that terrible fire months ago. What actually went on in that burnt old hive, I wonder? And what did happen to that tiny nucleus of bees and molten honey that I, perhaps foolishly, tried to save? The hive is still tied down against the wind and the wild animals, and the little orange plastic bowl that I filled with water still lies stuck in the blackened sand.

For me evening time is a quiet time, a sombre time, a time for reflexion. Homecoming time. And that is exactly what I saw. Suddenly one, two, three beautiful bees – for all the world a working team, appeared out of nowhere, their little legs laden with pollen. They settled comfortably on the entrance that I had reduced for them months before. Then they stepped inside.

settled comfortably
… their little legs laden with pollen …

A new swarm? Hardy descendants of the old swarm? Survivors of fire, of robbers, of black ants and of baboons?

Walking back towards the warm light of my god-daughter’s house I could not help but feel that they are indeed the survivors … for surely only the tough pull through on this unforgiving tip, at the very edge of the African continent.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 24 – Hedging your bets …

It’s early morning. The time that I like best. The house is fast asleep and all is quiet. Our house guests will wake late – all our visitors do as they settle into this lovely stone house at the bottom of the Tuscan valley. They can be the movers and shakers of the world, these friends of ours, but when they take their luggage out of the car, and walk through the old wooden gate they simply stop and stare. Then I watch … I see the beauty of the valley, with its vineyards, its olive groves and the dense forest below slowly wrap its arms around them and hold them there. A deep and soporific peace envelops them and from then on they don’t move much.

I get out of bed, open the curtains and look at the hill opposite. Normally long rows of vines run upwards from the stream below, following the curve of the hill until they reach the line where the forest begins. But this year, just at the beginning of summer, machines arrived and pulled out the vines. Then they pulled out the trellis and laid them neatly to one side, and then they left.

Now the ground will lie fallow ...
Now the ground will lie fallow …

Here in the heart of Chianti, it seems commonplace to renew vineyards on a regular basis. Now the ground will lie fallow and they’ll be back at the beginning of next summer to plant the new vines. This summer we’ve had good rains and everything is green, almost lush. The huge old Cyprus tree next to my window is alive with small birds chattering away at the break of day.

‘Time for a swim.’ I say to myself. I walk down the steep terracotta stairs, across the hallway and out onto the breakfast terrace. The light is extra-ordinary – a soft translucent glow seems to be spreading itself softly through the branches of the trees … under and over it goes, winding its way through the lavender and wisteria, on through the olives and out past the rose climbing over the wrought iron gate.

I stand at the edge of the pool, just drinking all this in. Down below I hear our neighbour, old Enzio, letting his chickens out. Better get in before the house wakes … I put on my goggles and go straight in. ‘Twenty lengths, that’s the minimum …’ I tell myself as my body hits the cool of the water.

My goggles are old and I cannot see anything outside of the water, but with my head under the water they’re OK. I strike out .. ten laps, eleven laps, twelve … I’m at the deep end and about to turn. Suddenly there is an awful scratching on my right arm. Something is trying to claw its way up it. I try to shake it off, but I’m too ungainly in the water. It moves further up my arm, and then there’s a loud hiss in my ear.

My first thought is a viper – in our part of Chianti it is the only snake that is pretty deadly, and we have had one in the garden before. I can’t see through my ancient goggles but I manage to shake it loose and strike out for the shallow end. It takes a lot to frighten me, a tough South African background sorted that out, but right now I am simply terrified. As I swim I am yelling loudly, simply shattering the calm of the morning. ‘Help! help!’ I call, ‘Help! Something’s in the pool and it’s following me!’ But no-one comes. I seem to take forever to reach the shallow end, where I risk looking behind me.

... swimming bravely after the only raft it can see ...
… swimming bravely after the only raft it can see …

And there, swimming bravely after the only raft it can see, which is me, is a tiny hedgehog. Its dark little eyes are wide with terror as its little paws strike out bravely towards it’s perceived salvation. But this saviour has lost all sense of humanity. ‘Help! Help!’ I yell again ‘It’s a hedgehog and it’s after me.’

By this time I have managed to wake the house, well some of it. Liam comes, my nephew comes. ‘Oh my word!’ they cry. How did the little thing get into the pool? It must have been in most of the night, and it looks so frightened. ‘No, no!’ I yell, ‘You don’t understand. It’s me that is frightened. It jumped on me. It ran up my arm. It hissed in my ear. Oh oh oh.’

They look at me in astonishment. What’s happened to the tough South African, the brave wife, the plucky aunt they know? Who is this jabbering wreck?

‘There, there,’ they say, ‘you get out slowly and we’ll fetch a net for the poor little thing.’ ‘What will you do with it?’ I ask. ‘Please take it far, far away where it can’t see me and I can’t see it.’ ‘Calm down aunt,’ says my nephew, ‘it is perfectly harmless, and is more frightened than you.’ ‘Go and make her some tea,’ says Liam, ‘and I will take it far down into the wild olive grove.’

And that I thought was that.

The next morning I deliberated long and hard before deciding to swim. ‘Better just do it.’ I finally decided. Once again the house was quiet, and once again the early morning magic down at the pool made me glad that I was up. I checked the skimmers carefully – for when the little thing had fallen in during previous night the pool motor would have been off. He had probably spent the night balanced on a skimmer. My turbulence in the water must have flushed him out. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be!’ I thought and dived in.

... this shower ... is tucked away on an old stone wall ...
… this shower … is tucked away on an old stone wall …

I had a wonderful swim, then headed for our outside shower. When our guests first arrive, I show them this shower. It is tucked away on an old stone wall and it is completely private. As we stand there I say, ‘The water is the same borehole water that is in the house, the pressure is wonderful and I cannot imagine standing looking at a tiled wall when you can look down on this incredible view. In fact I do not think that I have showered in the house once since we arrived.’

Then I watch their reaction. They look at me dubiously, and I can see what is running through their minds. ‘She’s crazy, and we would never do that.’ That lasts for about two days, and after that, they give it a little try. Then the warmth of the shower, the sunshine on their tired city bodies and the sheer magic of the surroundings does its work. They are hooked.

After my shower, and feeling a million dollars, I walked around the garden, just taking in the little things … hundreds of brown furry bees were busy on the lavender and a lean hungry wild cat was stealthily licking water from the fountain. With the house still asleep I moved towards my bee and butterfly garden. ‘I’ll sit on the swing seat for a while, perhaps fetch a coffee?’ I thought.

From the swing seat I looked around the garden. I like what I call ‘rooms’ in a garden. When the surrounding hedge grows up I am hoping that you will have to push your way in here, and nobody will be able to find you. The hedge is pittosporum tobira, chosen for its sweet smelling flowers that attract bees. An empty hive stands under a rosemary bush in expectation, but no luck so far.

‘Another few years and this hedge will have matured,’ I thought. Some weeks before, when the porcupine set about devouring our irises, Liam had put a trap under it. He checked it every morning but nothing seemed in the least bit interested in it.

Or not?

... curled up fast asleep ... Nothing would budge him.
… curled up fast asleep … Nothing would budge him.

This time the trap seemed to have a dark shadow toward the back. I moved closer, and pulled the trap out from under the hedge. There, curled up fast asleep was a little hedgehog. Nothing would budge him. We had to tip him out.

 

Now I am sure that there are dozens of tiny hedgehogs all over our valley, but I am absolutely convinced that this particular little fellow was the swimmer of the night before. He seemed utterly exhausted.

After all, wouldn’t you be after two all-night sessions in a row? First, a night in the pool, and second, a very long trip indeed, all the way back up the hill, just to get home?

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 12 – Stone Cold Swimming

"the poppies ... are just showing off"
“the poppies … are just showing off”

We’ve arrived early – 10.45 Pisa- and we decide to take a shortcut through Mercatale … see if it’s quicker. The rain pelts down all the way – too much for the windscreen, but still, in the short time we have been away, Spring has really arrived. The trees are losing their lattice effect; the leaves have popped out in the vineyards, and the poppies? Well they are just showing off.

Past the little wayside shrine of the Madonnina we turn left into our white chalk road. Below the newly pruned olives is a riot of delicate white flowers, something like parsley. The old English couple’s house on the hill still needs the stone wall repaired. Long, bare roots of an olive tree trail down through the sand and fallen rocks.

We drive over the rough bridge under which our stream tumbles, and squeeze down past old Cosimo’s front door. Manuela’s washing lies limp in the damp air. We’re home!

Not bothering to offload, we walk through the gates and into the garden, dying to see if there is any improvement on the desert waste of terrain that we left behind. The huge chestnut tree is simply ablaze with pink and white flowers and every bee in Tuscany must be here. There’s a steady hum like the sound of an inboard motor of a well-kept boat. On the west terrace the roses are starting, the tiny ceanothus is a riot of blue, and Reiner has finished the fence.

"there's a steady hum ..."
“there’s a steady hum …”

We stand on the terrace, looking down towards the pool and the lower olives. Great tracks of stony brown earth have been moved to begin levelling for a lawn. Huge coils of red piping stand nearby, ready to be laid as conduits for water, electricity and gas. After the last near-confrontation with our neighbour Marciano, we’ve decided to direct the rain water from our roof through our land, over our road and into our fledgling olive grove. Although everything is a mess Liam and I feel as if things are moving forward, and we walk down off the terrace to have a look at the new boundary fencing.

The main thing is that it is up! It’s a neat fence, running from the wrought iron railings of the car park, right along our southern boundary, turning a corner at the road and running back up north to meet the huge boulders just below the pool.

So Marciano has kept to his word and allowed the fence to proceed. The fence is built on land that we have paid for, and which we think we own … and land in fact that Marciano also thought was ours, but now disputes. We both know that some day we will have to sort out this surveyor’s nightmare, but not now … we’ll let the dust settle and build up good neighbourliness with Marciano and co.

We move across to the edge of the pool. The water is a light turquoise and exactly as we had planned, the grey mosaic giving it a silvery shimmer. I love this pool, perched high on the curve of the hill, with the land falling away below it, and the vineyards rising up on the hill beyond. ‘I’ll swim a lot this time,’ I think as I gaze down into the deep end.

"I love this pool ..."
“I love this pool …”

Right then I can hardly believe my eyes, for deep below through the clear water are two huge ugly rocks, sitting on the floor. Next to them lies something that looks rather like an old dishcloth. My heart sinks. Who has been rolling rocks into our beautiful pool? Vandals? There are no vandals here. There’s nobody down this quiet cul-de-sac into our valley. Old Cosimo’s grandchildren? No – wild young things that they are they would never do this. And those two rocks are too big for them to lift.

That leaves our new neighbours, Marciano’s family. Is this part of an Italian culture that we do not understand? Having chatted long and earnestly over espressos in the kitchen – about the positioning of the fence – they seemed happy for us to go ahead. Was that mere surface politeness? Are these two great rocks at the bottom of our pool a stalemate … well you go ahead, put the fence up, and we’ll make life difficult for you?

My heart sinks, for we have bought into this tight community knowing that the four families that live under one large Tuscan roof must get on. Dejectedly we turn away and trudge back to the car to unpack.

Lunch is fresh asparagus bought at the market as we passed through Greve. There’s a knock at the door and it is Reiner. He’s come down on his scooter to show us the progress he has made in the garden while we were away. ‘I have a little problem’ he says, ‘and it’s all because of the Kosovan.

Our local Italians are wary of foreign labour. Mostly it’s the Albanians … they’re bottom of the list and are happily and conveniently blamed for anything that goes amiss in the village. ‘Lock your doors at night,’ I was told, ‘For although you live down an isolated valley the “Albani” could come through the woods while you are asleep.’

Kosovans are next on the list. In the little piazza in our nearby village these poor chaps hang around hoping for a day’s casual work. Mostly they don’t seem to get it, but Reiner had found one, a tall strong young man, willing to dig all day. His name was Agron, and he was here the day we left. Silent, watching us while he worked.

‘Well,’ Reiner said, ‘Agron was digging below the pool and he chopped right through the outlet pipe. Water simply cascaded out and rushed down the road into old Enzio’s olives. Agron went on digging. Eventually I heard a terrific noise … old Enzio was singing a cantata. I was on the west terrace, and by the time I got there it looked to me as if half your pool was about to disappear into Enzio’s orto –vegetable patch. And that bloody Kosovan just carried on digging. I didn’t know what to do, so I stripped off my clothes, just to my underpants. This, in front of old Enzio’s horrified eyes … he even stopped his cantata for a minute.

Then, taking a big rock with me I dived into the pool and tried to block the outlet. Then another rock came in with me and I tried to push my vest between them. Now I have fixed the pipe. How can that Kosovan stand there and watch your pool disappear down the valley? Maybe next time I’ll find an “Albani”. I am very sorry.’

Imagine Reiner’s surprise when we both started laughing. ‘We’re so glad you’ve put the rocks in our pool.’ we say. Reiner’s face says it all … now these foreigners really are strange.

Later Elena drives past on her way back from her florist in Mercatale. She and Marciano stop to say hello and ‘benvenuto’ – welcome back. We chat about the unseasonable rain, and they tell us how old Enzio has come and painted the trunk of our tree on the terrace blue. He is trying to stop the centre rot and the ants crawling up. ‘That is so kind of him,’ we say, ‘thank you.’

"Old Enzio has ... painted the trunk blue ..."
“Old Enzio has … painted the trunk blue …”

‘It’s a pleasure,’ Marciano replies ‘my father-in-law cannot see a plant die. He will get yours to live.’

All is right again at our beloved Fontana … for after all, we are living “in commune.”

 

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The Bravery of the Cape Bee – Part 2

Another trip to these incredible small, brave survivors clinging to life after the devastating Cape Town bushfires of 2015 …

If you sail into the City of Cape Town, dominating the landscape will be the majesty of Table Mountain.  But behind the famous ‘Table Top’ the scenery is equally spectacular. Here the mountain ranges in folds down towards the south, crossing deep ravines and skirting above the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In winter these ravines turn into spectacular waterfalls, rushing and tumbling headfirst towards the sea. In summer the mountain does not lose its greenness, but all is quiet and still under the heat of the African sun.

I was sitting on the terrace of the Vineyard Hotel having breakfast with my cousin Suzanne when she looked up at the mountain. “Funny,” she said, “looking at this spectacular sight it is hard to believe that, just a little further along this mountain range, it all is charred and blackened.” Last week’s ravaging fires were still uppermost in our minds.

“Yes,” I replied, “we have all heard the experts telling us how every fifteen years or so we need these veld fires – that the protea bushes need the heat for the seeds to regenerate, that the indigenous bulbs will soon spring up and that in eighteen months or so the entire mountain will look like a garden. But what about the ‘urban fringe’ – those people who lost their houses, and what about the little things – the tortoises, the snakes, the small insects, and so on?”

“What about your bees?” Suzanne asked. So I told her.

I told her how the previous week, the day after the fire, I had found a small nucleus of melted brood frames and dead bees. How I had lifted the congealed mess up and examined it closely, feeling utterly devastated for my once healthy, busy hive. Then, how I had almost unbelievably seen one whole and traumatised bee climb through the charred brood and into the sunlight. My only thought was that these tiny creatures had fought a long and brave battle against the heat – fanning their queen and protecting their last bit of honey around her. Then a few drops of honey dropped onto the sand and I was convinced. Where there was one bee there must be others. So I took a giant leap and re-hived the congealed mess, put the hive stand in tins of oil for the black ants, tied it down for the baboons and put a heavy rock on the top for the raging south-easter. Then I had to leave.

“Trouble is,” I said to Suzanne, “I am running out of time to get back there. I leave for London in a few days and I would give anything to have just one look, and to see what is happening.”

“I’m free until 4 this afternoon!” said Suzanne “Let’s go!”. I have always liked this cousin. It would take well over two hours to get there and back. I looked at her, put my car keys on the table, and said “You’re on.”

The drive down took us over mountains, through valleys and along the sea Most of area was charred and blackened, simply ravaged by the worst veld fire imaginable. We were silent as we drove, each immersed in thoughts of the suffering that it had brought with it. Community spirit in the Cape has been high. Someone I know even took his prized rugby tickets for an important game to the local fire station. There he offered them to the brave firemen who had fought day and night for seven days. Sadly, one of our most experienced helicopter pilots tragically lost his life when his helicopter malfunctioned and plunged earthwards while water-bombing the blaze.

“And here I am worrying about a bee.” I thought. It did seem out of proportion, but by this time we had arrived. It was a simply stunning day … one of these days that are few and far between … for on this battered tip of Africa winds can range from a 60 knot off-shore southeaster to a 60 knot on-shore northwester.  As we walked through the charred and desolate veld the still calm was almost eerie: the peace of today, and the raging crackle and power of last week, contrasting starkly in our minds.

Within sight of the hive we stopped short, not believing what we saw. There was huge activity around the hive. We walked closer – buzzy bees were everywhere, all around the hive. “Better kit up.” I said, and we walked back to the house. Kitted up in our bee suits we went closer.

Huge activity – bees coming and going through both entrances. What an incredible change from the last visit!

“I don’t like it.” I said to Suzanne, “These bees are too many, and too active”. I sat down to watch them, but could see no pollen on their legs – not that there was much around in the veld anyway. “I fear that these are other bees, ones that have found the hive’s honey and have come to rob.” I said. “Oh dear!” said Suzanne, “Well let’s go for a walk on the beach before we head back.”

“You go,” I said, “I’ll stay here a little longer”.

I settled back on my haunches and watched the movement in and out of the hive, trying to work out some sort of pattern. It was then that I noticed a bit of fighting.  Or did I? This particular brood box has two openings and a solid centre. I took my bee tool and slid it across the one opening and watched. Yes, more intense fighting was happening on the only entrance available … I thought, but was it just optimism on my part?

In one of my beekeeping books I remember reading that if you have robbers and a weakened swarm you need to close up half the entrance to give the bees a chance to concentrate their defence. Rather like an army that cannot fight effectively on two fronts.

I walked back to my store room. Once again I took a leap of faith – for was this my ever optimistic nature willing there to be bees in my hive ready to start again, or were these just wild robber bees trying to find feed as best they could?  I do not know, but once again it seemed worth a try. I found a piece of wood and two panel-pin nails and a hammer.

I walked back through the desolate veld and hammered half the entrance closed. “There you are bees” I said, “I have done the best that I can. If you are inside there, may the Cape winter be mild to you, may the winter bulbs spring up and feed you, and may your queen, new or old, be fertile and produce lots of tiny furry bees for the spring.”

???????????????????????????????
Robber barricade securely in place.

“See you in September.” I whispered.

 

(Missed part 1?  Read it here …)

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