So Many Crosses: The Cemeteries

We visited “the” American Cemetery. In truth, there are more than one World War II American Cemetery in France, but when people talk about the American Cemetery, they usually mean the Normandy American Cemetery, with its nearly 10,000 graves.

It’s a beautiful place, but we weren’t allowed to walk among the crosses so it felt a little cold. We couldn’t read the names so it was hard to connect to the loss of the individuals in a way that would make the vastness seem real. To me, it felt more like a monument than a memorial, which is unfortunate in view of the number of American lives lost at Normandy.

On the other hand, The Bayeaux War Cemetery, with its 4,144 British Commonwealth graves broke my heart because the families of the soldiers whose bodies had been identified were allowed a few lines on each stone.

The 338 who are unidentified read “Soldier of the 1939-1945 War, Known to God” or “Sailor of the 1939-1945 War, Known to God.”

In addition to the Commonwealth soldiers, there are over 500 other graves, most of them German.

The stone in the upper righthand corner made me cry. Read it, and you’ll understand.

Before we left Normandy the next morning, The Engineer and I visited the German Cemetery at Orglandes to try to better understand the full scope of the loss of human lives.

This graveyard was originally formed immediately after D-Day for American soldiers, with a field also set aside for German bodies. By the end of the war, over 7,000 Germans were interred, and the American bodies were starting to be exhumed to be sent home or to the new American Cemetery (mentioned above).

In 1954, the Germans were allowed to move soldiers’ bodies from village cemeteries and fields around France to the cemetery at Orglandes.

There are now over 10,000 interred on the grounds, many of them unidentified. According to Wikipedia, it’s the second smallest of six German War Cemeteries in Normandy

Every cross is two-sided, marking at least two burials, but as we ventured deeper, we saw more like the one below.

Front of marker (on left): Gustave Neitmann, 13 May 1910 – 24 July 1944, two unknown soldiers; Back of marker (on right): Four unknown soldiers, Six dead soldiers in one grave

So many dead, and so many of them unidentified, each leaving a mother, a wife, a child, a father, to forever wonder what happened to the one they loved.

So many crosses and so much loss.

Omaha and Gold Beaches with a Side Note on Richard E. Byrd, and Also a Shed

What happened at Omaha Beach on D-Day (also known as Operation Overlord) is a tale too big to relate here, and I couldn’t do it justice anyway. With a good overview on the Brittanica website and countless books, anything I could tell you would be superflous, so I will share what I noticed when we visited Omaha and Gold Beaches.

To see Omaha in person is to comprehend the distance soldiers had to cross (under heavy enemy fire) to reach the base of the hillock/dune they needed to climb to reach the bunkers they were meant to capture.

Those bunkers were full of German soldiers who, instead of being “softened” by pre-invasion shelling, had merely been put on high alert.

According to Ben, the beach is about 400 feet wide, which my mind translates to the length of one and a third high school football fields. The beach ends in a breakwall, behind which is a road, and an area of brush. These also had to be crossed before the soldier could attempt to clamber up the hill/dune, all the while being shot at by the German soldiers at more or less pointblank range.

This view from the road gives some indication of the distance from the sea to the bunkers.
In this photo, one can see a small part of the beach the soldiers had to cross.

The bunkers were — and are — all along the coast, designed by the Germans not to shoot at enemy ships, but to take out any invading troops on the beach.

They did their jobs well. Allied troops suffered about 10,000 casualties on the beaches, 2,000 of them on Omaha alone. Recent calculations put the number of deaths at just above 4,000.

View from behind a German gun (probably at Gold Beach)
How easy it must have been to pick off American or English soldiers as they appeared at the top of the hill!

Unsurprisingly, some soldiers who reached the protection of the breakwall were unwilling to go further, but as Colonol George Taylor told them, “There are only two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”

The soldiers attacked, and eventually, one by one, the German guns went silent.

Operation Overlord was a massive operation: The logistics of the invasion are almost beyond comprehension. Imagine planning to land 150,000 troops, 11,000 aircraft, 20,000 vehicles, 1,000 tanks, and nearly 7,000 sea vessels from multiple countries on about 50 miles of beach under heavy enemy fire in one day. Then, try to imagine doing so under a cloak of complete secrecy where few involved in the plan have any idea of its totality. (For a more complete overview of those numbers, go here and/or here.)

What’s incredible is not that so many things went wrong, but that the plan ultimately succeeded despite the cost in lives.

That success comes down to one thing: the sheer bravery of the troops on the beaches and those who dropped behind enemy lines.

There was also some good old British ingenuity involved, learned the hard way at Dieppe in 1942. Realizing the Germans nearly insurmountable defenses were centered around the ports of France, the Brits came up with a way around those defenses.

They would bring ports with them.

These manmade harbors were called — for reasons known only to the Brits — “mulberries,” and there were two of them, made in England, and fully functional twelve days after the invasion. The one built for the use of American troops near Omaha Beach was destroyed in a storm, but you can still see the remains of the one used by the Brits by Arromanches (Gold Beach).

Also on Gold Beach (Ver-sur-Mer), we came across this sign.

Byrd is my maiden name (hence the name of this blog), and when I saw it on this sign, I had to find out why it was there. It’s possible — perhaps even likely — Richard Evelyn Byrd, aviator, explorer and naval officer, and I share a common ancestor, but what was he doing in France?

As it happens, he was crash-landing an airplane during a flight that began as an effort to win the Orteig Prize, a prize that had already been won by Charles Lindbergh.

Seventeen years later, the beach at Ver-sur-Mer became Gold Beach.

Bomb crater — the land all around the beaches is like this, showing how destructive even non-nuclear shells can be.

To end this post on a lighter note, I’m sharing the photo below, which I think qualifies as travel magic because it’s so unexpected.

It brightened my day to see that someone had turned a gun bunker into what appears to be a shed, complete with concrete steps to the roof, a bit like beating swords into plowshare to paraphrase the Bible verse.

On that positive note, I’ll close this post. A bientot!

Magic and Mayhem — Angoville-au-Plain

Angoville-au-Plain is a tiny, a quiet village clustered around an ancient church. And inside this church, the stains on the pews tell a story of compassion and bravery; a broken floor tile may tell of a miracle.

For this village, like so many others in France, was the center of a fierce, multi-day battle in June 1944. And this old church, like so many churches in history, became a place of sanctuary — for wounded soldiers, both Allied and German.

It was here that two medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, set up an aid station. The medics treated the wounded, then searched the fields for more, bringing those they found back to the church to be cared for, regardless of their allegiance.

And when the Americans retreated, Wright and Moore stayed behind, unwilling to leave the hurt and dying.

A German officer arrived, asked if they would tend his men, and they agreed. The medics also cared for a local child who had been wounded.

The battle raged on, the wounded kept coming, and the village changed hands multiple times. At some point, two Germans came down from the tower and surrendered. No one had known they were there.

A mortar hit the building, shattering a floor tile, but didn’t explode, and no one was killed, although there were more than seventy patients in the church. A miracle? You decide.

Finally, on 8 June, the Americans claimed the village, and the German troops retreated for good.

The events of that night are remembered still, kept alive by the fifty-some people who still reside in Angoville-au-Plain, their efforts funded solely by donations and postcard sales.

The memories are in the bloodstained pews and the shattered tile.

The compassion and care shown by Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore is reflected in the stained glass windows, built to replace those shattered during the battle.

Several websites that tell the story of Angoville-au-Plain in slightly more detail. Atlas Obscura has a small article. Those in Normandy Then and Now and Rockdale Newton Citizen are a little longer, but still a quick read.

The history of Angoville-au-Plain and its church is indeed a moving one, and it touched my heart. But what I keep coming back to, what I want to emphasize is how many places there are in France like Angoville-au-Plain, especially near Normandy and in southwest France (where we went later).

We’d be driving along, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s another little memorial. I wonder what happened there.” Every town, every village, has some kind of monument to the men they lost in World War I, the war they called “The Great War,” the one everyone believed had ended war forever. Some of the lists of names are astoundingly long for the size of the community.

Sadly, most of these towns and villages also have little additions to those memorials dedicated to the men lost in World War II, in battles that happened just twenty-some years later.

I think we Americans find it hard to comprehend what it’s like for a country to be invaded and occupied, especially when it has happened repeatedly. Seeing these reminders of the great suffering caused by such events is eye-opening. At least it has been for me.

To experience even such a minimal exposure to wounds left by this kind of trauma cannot help but broaden one’s perspective. That, to my mind, is the real magic of travel.

Magic and Mayhem — Off to Normandy

It’s 5:00 am, and my brain and body have suddenly remembered it’s 11:00 am in France, waking to remind me why we were ended up outside Gare du Nord where I took the picture of the Metro sign. It’s no use to try to fall back to sleep; I will write my next installment instead.

We ended up in Gare du Nord to try to find a French sim card for my phone so we would would be able to call, text, and use data, particularly the GPS (“SatNav” in England and Europe). Gare du Nord is quite a busy station with lots of stores, so we figured it would be easier, and after wallking around (something we do much of when on a trip), we found a store called “The Phone Store.” Eureka!

Not really. It turned out they sell phones, but not sim cards. They gave us directions to another place, which we didn’t find, and eventually we gave up and went back to the hotel, where I used the WiFi to look up where we might be more successful.

All signs pointed to Relay. This was encouraging until The Engineer pointed out I’d nipped into one that evening and straight back out having not seen any sim cards. However, the information I found pointed out the stores kept the cards behind the counter, and I’d not gone up to the counter because there was a long line.

We resolved to try again in the morning.

Now, my unrestful brain is prodding me to say something about the French vaccine pass, which we expected to have to get. We never did because — with the exception of one restaurant — they accepted our vaccination cards everwhere. And by the time the restaurant refused us entry, the mandate was being lifted the next morning.

But, back to our trip to Normandy. Because the hotel’s breakfast had been so lavish the day before, we made sure we were up to enjoy it before leaving for Gare du Nord. The cheeses! The meats! The yogurt! The latte machine! Even the not-very-warm roast potatoes, sausages, omelettes and potato casseroles were tasty.

Also, they had a little device where you could boil your own eggs, which meant we could hard boil a few for our trip, to take along with some fruit for a light lunch on the train. So clever (both the device and us, or so we thought)!

The Engineer put in a couple of eggs while we enjoyed our breakfast, allowing plenty of time to make sure they were completely cooked. Then, we packed up and headed to the train station, where we eventually managed to get a sim card.

The data never worked very well, probably because we were mostly in rural areas, but we re-discovered something we’d learned on our previous trip. If you put the destination in your map app before leaving WiFi, the app will continue to give you direction to where you’re going even when you no longer have access to WiFi, either until you reach your destination or until you make a completely wrong turn. If you do make a wrong turn, the map will continue to show you where you’re at, and you can usually find your way to the destination.

It can’t look up a new destination until you have data or WiFi, but seems to use satellites to let you know where you are.

But perhaps you already know this?

During our previous trip, we’d also discovered how wonderful trains are in France (link goes to first installment of posts about that trip) and resolved to make use of them again this time.

Initially, we planned to travel all the way from Paris to Carentan, where we’d be picked up by our tour, then return to Carentan on Sunday to take a train to Bordeaux on Sunday after our tour. Only there was no train to Bordeaux on Sunday from Carentan. Carentan is a fairly small town, so it seems travel by train there is limited.

No problem, we thought. We’d just rent a car on Sunday and drive to Bordeaux.

Nope. The car rental agency in Carentan was closed on Sunday.

And Saturday.

And when we tried to rent a car for Friday, the website kept glitching to change the rental date to Saturday … when the agency isn’t open. We considered putting in Thursday, but worried because we weren’t sure it would come up properly.

While this certainly doesn’t qualify as travel mayhem, it’s a fact to remember when traveling. Although people may be similar the world over, the customs are not.

Thus, one should not be surprised if one is unable to rent a car or take a train from a small town in France on a Sunday. It’s their country, they run it, we are visitors traveling to explore new places and customs.

These customs may include different ideas about when businesses should be open.

In the end, we decided to take the train to Caen, which we knew somewhat from our previous trip, rent a car on Thursday, and drive the rest of the way to “The Manor,” where we’d be staying as part of the tour in a hamlet near Picauville.

According to Ben, our guide, a group of houses isn’t a village unless it has a church. The group of houses where the Manor is located doesn’t, therefore it qualifies only as a hamlet.

It’s tiny; I’d guess no more than 50 people living there now, and I’m sure there wasn’t many more on 6 June 1944, but it was nonetheless highly contested ground, which we shall explore later.

On the train, we settled in to enjoy the trip. Eventually deciding it was time for lunch, we got out our eggs and fruit, along with some snacks I’d brought from home. (Travel can be unpredictable, so I always carry snacks.)

I carefully cracked open my egg … and discovered it was basically raw. Not runny. Raw. Apparently, though our idea was clever, the egg boiler wasn’t, at least as not as clever as it originally appeared. Or maybe the hotel employees just hadn’t kept it full enough or hot enough.

No matter. It’s hardly travel mayhem; perhaps we should call it “Travel Mischief?”

About three hours after leaving Paris, we arrived at Caen, picking up our car at an agency near the train station. It was a turquoise Citroen C3, which we ended up christening C3PO for its habit of beeping at us whenever The Engineer strayed near the center line or a car came too close (a frequent occurrence in France).

Amazingly, it looked like we would be arriving too early, so we stopped off at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. I’d heard the story of John Steele (probably from a movie), a paratrooper who had the misfortune to land on the Sainte-Mere church roof.

I wanted to have a look at the church.

Steele survived by playing dead and was eventually taken prisoner, but managed to escape and survive the war, dying in 1969.

There is a dummy paratrooper hung on the church to commemorate the event. According to Ben, the parachute is the wrong color as white chutes were only used for backup, and it’s hung on the wrong side to make it more visible.

Other than that, it’s completely accurate. 🙂

Front view of Sainte-Mere church with paratrooper dummy visible on the right side.
Wrong side of the church, wrong parachute, but otherwise accurate

Sainte-Mere was the first town to be liberated in Normandy, though The Engineer, C3PO, and I later blundered through Ranville, a village that has the distinction of being the first village to be liberated.

That day, however, a quick look at the time showed we would now be only fifteen minutes early, and we set off for Picauville and The Manor, which we found without incident thanks to Ben’s excellent directions.

As we venture further into Normandy, I must preface these blog posts by admitting how hopeless I am about the details of history. I remember past events instead as stories about people. As a result, Ben’s method of touring, which focused on individuals, suited me, as well as The Engineer, not a fan of museums.

Thus, although Ben certainly gave dates and places, I will share the stories I remember. If you are interested in more details, there are inumerable books and websites that can provide them. Ben’s tours involved driving around, stopping at what seemed to be a random landmark, getting out of the car, and showing us pictures of what it looked like in 1944 and explaining what happened to people there.

First, The Manor: As I mentioned, it is near the (very) small village of Picauville, and is a cluster of old buildings, several of which belong to Ben and his wife Hannah.

Ben has lived in France for about thirty years, and it wasn’t until after he bought his property that he discovered it was directly across from one of the paratrooper drop zones. Also, he learned a C-47 crashed in the field near his house, killing the paratroopers onboard.

As he came to know his neighbors, some of them elderly and alive during D-Day, Ben, who is an avid history buff, began to learn the story of what happened around Picauville and their hamlet that day.

Tower of The Manor, with some of Ben’s WWII memorabilia

One of the stories Ben told was that of Lucien and his little brother Albert, who were children living in a house nearby during D-Day (also referred to as Operation Overlord).

On the day before the invasion, Lucien had been pushing Albert on a swing when Albert fell off and hit his head. Probably concussed, he later began to vomit, and as they sheltered from the planes, his parents began to fear for his life.

A village girl ran out and grabbed a passing Amerian medic. Because she had no English, she dragged him to where the sick boy lay, hoping the man could help.

The paratrooper gave Lucien’s parents some tablets from his pack and gestured that the child should take them. Albert took the pills, and his sickness passed. The medic promised to return the next day.

Ben’s theory is the tablets were the 1944 equivalent of Dramamine, given to Allied troops to prevent motion sickness on the way over, and that Albert’s illness might have passed anyway.

Albert’s family believed differently, and I tend to agree with them. A small child unable to keep anything down can quickly become dehydrated and possibly die, so it may be that the paratrooper really did save Albert.

Lucien was so driven by his debt of gratitude that he felt he had to commemorate the paratroopers in some way.

And so he built this wall, which is now an official memorial and can never be destroyed, even if his family property passes out of family hands.

Sadly, for many years, Lucien was unable to learn the name of the medic, who they knew had perished during the battle for the hamlet and so never returned.

Later, Ben shared the story of the wall with Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of General Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during D-Day), when she visited the area with students.

Susan, did a bit more research and was, according to Ben, about 99% sure she and her students had found the right man. Since she was visiting France again later that year (2016), Ben arranged for her to reveal share the information then.

He said Lucien was concerned that it might be a long name because the only stones in the wall left uncarved were on the small side.

Ben was worried about that 1% possibility it might not be the right man, but when Susan showed Lucien and Albert the picture of Frank Mackey, they immediately recognized him, and Lucien was able to complete his wall at last.

Click here to watch a YouTube video of the moment.

Later, that day, we stopped at a nondescript bridge near the “Memorial des Parachutistes — La Fiere.” We’d driven over it the day before, not realizing it was one of the two bridges integral to the invasion.

On D-Day, it was absolutely imperative the Allied paratroopers take and hold two bridges near Sainte-Mere until 4:00 pm. The bridges were over the Merderet River, and the paratroopers would be relieved by the forces moving inward from the beaches. These bridges were the only way troops could move heavy equipment in the area, where fields turn into lakes during the cold months, a characteristic the Germans had exacerbated by keeping nearby locks closed.

The task of holding the bridge proved even more daunting than expected.

The one we parked by was just a tiny bridge in an out of the way place, not much to look at, but 254 allied troops were killed and 525 wounded during the three-day battle for the site.

A contemporary account of the incident said a man could have walked from the church to the bridge over the bodies of soldiers without touching the ground.

Here is a picture of that church, taken near the bridge, which was to the left of the where I stood.

The paratroopers held that bridge until 8 June, when they were finally relieved by other troops.

These paratroopers, with little in their favor, had one stroke of luck, when German General Wilhelm Falley was killed in a firefight with American paratroopers near his headquarters at the Chateau de Bernaville. According to Ben, Falley was in a vehicle on his way to a bus he’d parked behind the chateau as a backup headquarters since he expected enemy troops to look for him in the Chateau.

According to Ben, if he’d gone to the Chateau, instead of being so cautious, he might have survived. Ben also told us the paratroopers didn’t even know who they’d killed; they were just trying to meet up with the rest of their troop and left the general lying in the road.

We went to that spot, an unremarkable place in a small road behind a Chateau in France. There are many such sites in the country — completely unexceptional except for the appalling loss of human life required to take them back from Hitler’s troops and liberate Europe from his clutches.

As we explored these places, none of us could avoid noticing horrifying parallels to the current situation in the Ukraine. One can’t help but wonder if, in a decade or two, our children and grandchildren will be walking around the Ukrainian countryside gazing at similar sites.

Utah Beach was next, and Ben explained that the troops landing there had an easier time than those at Omaha because they landed in slightly the wrong place, where the German troops had already been shelled. This happened more or less accidentally because of the way the air bombings were carried out.

“Easier” doesn’t mean easy, however; according to Wikipedia, some 197 men were killed, but that was much fewer than Omaha, as we shall learn later.

By this time, the morning drizzle had cleared, allowing us to explore in bright sunshine.

German fortification on Utah Beach

I must end here since I have to get ready for work, but I’ll continue with Day 1 of Normandy in the next post. Au revoir until then!

Travel Magic … and Travel Mayhem

We got home last night from two weeks in France, and our trip confirmed my longheld belief that there’s no travel magic without at least a small portion of mayhem. An addendum may be added which states said mayhem generally occurs at the end of the trip, just as travelers are beginning to believe they’ve escaped it.

Still, it was a wonderful trip, and sharing both the magic and the mayhem will take several blog posts.

We arrived in Charles De Gaulle (CDG) airport at the startlingly early hour of 5:30 am after an surprisingly short flight of under six hours from New York City’s JFK Airport. Of course, we first had to fly to JFK from Cleveland, but even so, the journey was quicker than other times we’ve flown across the Atlantic.

I won’t say JFK is a horrible airport, but I will never understand why their traffic flow is set up so passengers who already cleared security at their departing airport and are at JFK to connect with another flight have to pass through an unsecure area and then clear security again to reach their gate. Also, their signage is sometimes less than helpful, viewable only after you’ve walked past it, realized you aren’t where you’re trying to get to, and turned around to start all over.

However, the flight was uneventful, and reaching CDG, we followed the crowd to Immigration, where our agent waved away both our vaccine cards and the form the French government website said we needed to fill out and print. She looked at our passports, and we were quickly cleared to pick up our baggage and find our hotel.

We staggered blearily — shouldering backpacks and dragging luggage that had seemed to gain weight en route — through several terminals, up and down stairs and escalators, looking for the free airport train that terminates a few hundred feet from our hotel (as opposed to paying eight euros per person for a shuttle).

It turned out we needed to follow the train signs. 🙂

Laugh if you like, but at CDG you can board a variety of trains — from TGV to RER to the little airport one — so this was not as obvious as you might think.

Also, as we were in France, the signs were in French, an obstacle, though not an insurmountable one despite neither of us being fluent in speaking the language. I’d been doing lessons with Mango through our library, The Engineer had taken a few classes in school, we had a phrase book and had downloaded Google languages on my phone — what more do you need? Not much, actually.

Now, I don’t agree with those who say, “Everyone in Europe speaks English.” They don’t. Not everyone. And even if they did, if you choose to travel to a country where another language is spoken, you should have the courtesy to make at least a small effort to learn some basic phrases.

In my experience (in Germany, France, The Netherlands and Portugal), I’ve found many people (especially in the travel industry and bigger cities) do speak English (and often other languages as well!), but still appreciate when you try to at least greet them, and say “please” and “thank you” in their country’s language. And if you encounter someone who speaks only their native tongue, it’s amazing how much you can communicate when you have a travel dictionary or language app and aren’t afraid to look stupid.

To me, it seems both incredible and incredibly rude that people will go to another country and expect the people who live there to speak English when the so-called travelers not made the slightest effort to learn the language of the country they are visiting. Why, I wonder, do such people ever leave home?

That said, I’ll get off my soapbox so we can head back to Paris where our hotel not only let us check in at 7:00 am, they also let us enjoy their free breakfast buffet before retiring to our room for a nap. Since we’d not slept on the plane, I’m grateful to Holiday Inn Express CDG Airport for providing this bit of travel magic.

A few hours later, refreshed by our sleep, we set out to have a look at Notre Dame, a place we’d wanted to see in 2019, but missed due to getting stuck in Paris rush hour traffic.

Like most large airports, CDG is not actually in the city of Paris, so we had to take the RER , about a 45-minute ride. The RER goes practically everywhere you’d want to go in and around Paris. The map looks a little complicated, but there are sites that can help you figure out where you are going like Rome2Rio. Also, if you plan to travel anywhere in Europe by train, I highly recommend The Man in Seat 61, which I found to be an invaluable guide.

Below is a closeup of part of our journey the following day, when we needed to get to Gare Saint-Lazare to catch the train to Caen.

I realized later we might as well have had “Tourist” stamped on our foreheads because every time we rode the RER, we were the only passengers looking around at the other passengers and (when we were above ground) the scenery.

Notre Dame means “Our Lady,” and there are many churches that go by that name in France, even in Paris, but when most people (especially us tourists) speak of “Notre Dame,” we mean the one near the Saint Michel stop on the blue (B) line in Paris.

It’s on the right in this picture, taken from a bridge across the Seine.

We’d wanted to see it in 2019 because a few months before our visit, a fire burned a large part of the roof and spire.

There were signs all along one side of the cathedral explaining the restoration work and talking about the wide range of experts, including master glassmakers, needed for such an effort. The information about restorative process was fascinating, and I especially liked the tidbit below.

Despite being behind a wall and the front looking like a car park, we could see it’s a glorious building.

Our visit to Notre Dame complete, we retired to an inviting cafe for dinner and a glass (or two) of wine.

Night was falling when we made our way back to RER, entering the underground via a different route marked by this great old-fashioned sign. We must have walked a little way to the cafe because that’s the outside of Gare du Nord behind the sign. (“Gare” is “station” in English, and “Nord” is “north,” so the station name is literally “North Station” or “Station of the North.”)

The next morning, we were inside Gare du Nord as we set off for Caen, but that’s a tale for another post.

Score for Day 1: One act of travel magic, minimal mayhem.

Stay tuned for the second installment of Magic and Mayhem featuring Normandy!

Beekeeping Can Be a Pain in the A**

Today was a warm(ish), sunny day with temperatures in the 50s, and bees from all three hives were out foraging. We had to tread carefully when we got near because so many were on the ground near the hives.

I can only surmise they were searching for pollen and nectar, which is as yet unavailable so early in spring.

We were out there because we finally had both the weather and the time to treat them with oxalic acid. As you can see below, when we blocked the entrances so the vapor would stay in the hive, they began landing on any available surface including my hand as I held the vaporizer wand.

This wouldn’t normally concern me, but the cuff on my beekeeping jacket is no longer taut. As I tried to keep it closed, the plastic gloves I wear to protect my skin from oxalic acid gapped open, and I worried one of the girls would get caught inside, resulting in a sting for me and death for the bee.

In the end, it wasn’t my arm or hand that got stung. It was my bum.

Of course, it was my own fault for wearing tight cords instead of my usual loose khakis. One of the girls got caught and reacted in self-defense.

As stings go, it isn’t a bad one, a small welt that’s since gone down, but I definitely felt it!

Early Spring Beekeeping Jobs

Here in Ohio, the weather has been … well, let’s just call it varied. In the last two weeks, we’ve had a major snow preceded by an ice storm followed by another small snow and ice storm, then a few warm days (in the 50s) followed by some cold days (back into the 20s), and now we’re heading into a warmish trend.

At least, I think that’s the order it happened.

We’ve been waiting for it to be above freezing to treat our three hives with oxalic acid to kill any residual mites. (And there are always mites if you live in the U.S. Any beekeeper who says differently is either lying or ignorant.)

By treating them before brood rearing kicks off in a big way, we can at least try to give the hives a strong start to the season. Oxalic acid doesn’t kill mites in capped cells, which is where they flourish. This early in the season, the queen may be laying, but she’s generally just getting started, which makes OA perfect for the job.

Also, we wanted to assess the hives by peeking inside. Specifically, we wanted to know how many bees there were (both dead and alive), if they still have food, if they are eating the sugar patties we gave them in the fall, and if there is any evidence of diarrhea.

Here’s a photo of what they looked like in the big snow we had a few weeks ago, the remnants of which, we finally cleared from the deck today. I’ve renamed them (again!), mostly because I can no longer remember which was which. They are from left to right, Western Star, Middle Child, and Eastern Girls.

We began by cleaning out the dead bees from Eastern Girls. There were a lot! Here is a picture of just the ones from in the foam box without the ones The Engineer scraped out the hive entrance (which almost doubled the number).

Seeing so many, or indeed any, dead bees is always disheartening, but we are learning to accept bee loss as part of beekeeping. Bees die every day just as humans do. It’s part of the cycle of life.

With smoke at the ready and expecting some unhappy bees pinging our veils, we popped the inner cover. To our surprise, the bees (and they were still plentiful, despite the many corpses of their dead sisters) mostly ignored us as we went about our business.

Fresh food, a small piece of pollen patty, and some Super DFM was their reward for being so mellow.

The two remaining hives were equally calm and received the same treatment. In truth, even if they’d been cranky, they’d have received the same treatment. 🙂

The only differences were Middle Child had consumed more of their fall sugar patties and had almost no dead bees in sight. Western Star fell somewhere in the middle. They’d eaten more of the patties than Eastern Girls, but less than Middle Child, and had more dead bees than Middle Child, but fewer than Eastern Girls.

Tomorrow morning, we will treat all three hives so they’re ready to face spring brood rearing, and the pollen and nectar flow.

In conclusion, we are feeling cautiously optimistic about the health of our hives.

Still, March is the hardest month for bees in our area. Brood rearing will soon be in full flow, and if the nectar and pollen are behind schedule, the girls are left with more mouths than they can feed.

As usual, we’ll have to wait and see.

To end on a completely random note, I’ve been doing a lot of crocheting of scrap happy afghans because my friend Lynne gave me a bunch of yarn scraps. Here are two. I know the color combinations are a little odd, but I like them. I hope their eventual owners will too.