Free Bees, Courtesy of Migratory Beekeepers

Catch a swarm without even trying.

The cherry trees are blooming in the Wenatchee area and that means the bees are back.

Every year, thousands of beehives are shipped to the area and placed around orchards to pollinate the flowers. Apricots are first — although there aren’t many apricot orchards in the area. Then comes cherries and then apple and pears. The season has just started and it should go on for at least a month.

My friend Tina and her husband Bill have a cherry orchard in Malaga, not far from where I live. Although they usually keep one or two of their own bee hives, that’s not enough to pollinate their entire orchard. So they rented about 30 hives, which were delivered the other night, likely right from California. (Migratory beekeepers move bees at night when they’re all inside their hives.)

The other day, Tina excitedly texted me that the bees were swarming. Turns out that they’d found her empty bee hives — her bees had not survived the winter — and a swarm had moved into one of them.

If you’re wondering what all this means, you might want to read a post I wrote back in 2013, “Bees: Capturing My First Swarm.” It explains why bees swarm and what’s usually involved in capturing a swarm. But Tina didn’t have to do any of the work. The bees just moved into an empty hive on their own.

I told her she should put other empty hives out to see what else she could catch and she said she did. Then I asked if I could put one or two of mine out. After all, if more than one colony was swarming, it would be great to catch as many of them as we could. Great for the bees, since they’d get a new home easily. Great for us because we’d get free bees. And it didn’t affect the migratory beekeeper since the bees were going to swarm anyway. If we didn’t catch them in our beehives, they’d end up somewhere else.

Keep in mind that buying bees usually costs about $100 to $150 per colony, depending on how many you get and how you buy them. And where you buy them from, of course. Since it’s common to lose 50% of your colonies over the winter here, a lot of folks spend a lot of money buying new bees. I replaced 6 colonies one year and swore it would be the last year bought bees. Now I make new colonies through splits and try to catch a few swarms every summer.

So yesterday I cobbled together two complete hives with ten frames each. Each hive has a mix of frames from a failed colony — three of my eight colonies died or disappeared over the winter — and frames from extracted honey. There’s lots of room for a queen to lay eggs and lots of room for incoming bees to store honey and pollen. And even a little honey to get them all started.

It’s kind of like finding a roomy apartment, fully furnished with just the kind of furniture you like, and a fridge with food in it.

I put one hive near the one Tina had already caught and another right near where half the rented bees were set up. And then I left.

Today, I dropped off some spare equipment to help Tina set up a few more hives. Not complete setups, but hive boxes (also known as supers) and tops. She’ll still need bottoms and frames.

Free Swarm
In less than 24 hours, bees had moved into my empty bee hive.

This afternoon, Tina texted me: “Look what you got!” And she sent a photo of the hive I’d placed near hers with bees all over the front of it.

It looked as if a swarm was moving in.

I texted back, asking if I could pick it up on Friday morning so they’d have enough time to settle in. She agreed. Then I suggested that she put a box where I had that one when I moved it. Maybe she’d catch another one.

Robber Bees?
There aren’t enough bees around this hive box to assume a swarm has moved in. When I pick up the other one, I’ll take a peek inside this one.

She sent me a photo of my other hive, too. There was some activity around the front, but not much. Robber bees, perhaps, or maybe some bees just checking it out. Maybe she’ll send another photo tomorrow.

My beekeeping season has been off to a slow start. It only recently stayed in the 40s at night and we still have cool, rainy days. I checked the hives when I got home from my winter trip, just to see how many survivors I had and to seal up the dead hives so the other bees wouldn’t be tempted to rob. When I bring the new bees home, I’ll spend some time opening up my hives, shuffling frames, and seeing if I can spot the queens. I’ll do hive splits on my healthiest hives — I know that two are going like gangbusters — and put the splits on my little bee trailer. But rather than put four occupied hives on it before taking it up to Wenatchee Heights, I think I’ll try leaving one of them empty, just to see if I can attract any other migrants looking to settle down in the Wenatchee area.

An Insider’s Look at Helicopter Spray Operations

Fascinating work with a lot of very specialized equipment.

My friend Sean runs a helicopter spraying operation. (You might know about this kind of work by another name: crop dusting.) The business is highly regulated not only by the FAA to ensure that operators and pilots have the skills and knowledge to do the work safely from an aviation perspective, but also by state and local agencies concerned with the safety of the chemicals being sprayed. It also requires a ton of very costly specialized equipment, from spray rigs that are semi-permanently installed on the helicopter to navigation equipment that helps the pilot ensure chemicals are spread evenly over crops to mixing and loading equipment to get the chemicals into the helicopter’s spray tanks.

Sean's Helicopter with Spray Gear
Sean’s helicopter with spray gear. He was running rinse water through the system on the ground here.

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t go into this business. Although I’d love to fly spray jobs, I have absolutely no desire to invest in the required equipment, start selling spray services to potential clients, or deal with the government agencies that need to get involved for each job. Or have employees again.

Sean is just getting his business off the ground (no pun intended) after over a year of spending money on equipment and jumping through hoops with the FAA. While I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, he’s certainly motivated to complete contracts and collect revenue. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of work a pilot can do cost effectively without help. He needs at least one person on the ground to mix and load chemicals, refuel the helicopter, and keep the landing zone secure.

Sean was having trouble finding someone to do the job. It’s not because he isn’t paying — I think he’s paying pretty good. Trouble is, a lot of folks either (1) don’t want a job that doesn’t guarantee a certain number of hours a week or (2) don’t like physical labor. Because the job depends on when there’s a contract to fulfill and what the weather is like when the job needs doing, hours are irregular. And it is tough physical work.

Spray Gal
Here I am in my coveralls, hamming it up for a selfie between loads.

I know because I stepped up to the plate to help him with his first two big jobs. I thought I’d spend a bit of time talking about this work from the loader’s point of view.

The Job

The pilot’s responsibilities are to spread the loaded chemicals over the crops to be sprayed using the tools in and on the helicopter. I can’t speak much about that because I haven’t flown a spraying mission. I can tell you that in a light helicopter like the R44, the pilot is doing a lot of very short runs — sometimes only a few minutes — and is often spending more time getting to and from the spray area than actually applying the spray. For that reason, the landing/loading area needs to be as close to the crops as possible — usually somewhere on the same property. The pilot is taking off near max gross weight for most flights and landing relatively light. And there are a lot of take offs and set downs. As I told Sean the other day, doing spray runs is a lot like doing hop rides at fairs and airport events — you just don’t need to talk to your passengers.

The loader’s responsibilities — well, that’s something I can address since I’ve been wearing that hat for the past two weeks.

When the pilot is warming up the aircraft for the first flight of the day, the loader is mixing the first batch of chemicals. Sean’s current setup includes a mix trailer that holds 1600 gallons of fresh water, a Honda pump, a mix vat, and a dry mix box. With the pump running, I turn valves to add 50 gallons of water to the vat, which is constantly mixing. Then I add about 4-6 capfuls of an anti-foam agent (which is not HazMat) to the vat, followed by a specific amount of chemical provided in 32-ounce bottles.

Mix trailer
Sean’s mix trailer onsite at an orchard near Woodland, CA. This is the “business end.” The mix vat is on the left.

Luna Sensation
This is how the chemical we’re using is shipped: in 32-ounce bottles.

The chemical we’ve been using is a “broad spectrum fungicide for control of plant diseases” made by Bayer (yes, the aspirin people). It is highly regulated and must be kept under lock and key when not in use. It looks a lot like Milk of Magnesia, which was a constipation remedy my grandmother gave us when I was growing up. It doesn’t smell as good, though. (And I’m certainly not going to taste it.) If you’re not familiar with that, think of an off-white Pepto Bismol. We’re spraying this stuff on almond trees and there’s a definite deadline to getting it done.

Here’s where some math comes in. The guy who wrote up the specs for our client’s orchard wants 6.5 ounces of the stuff applied per acre. The helicopter can take 50 gallons of chemical mix at a time. That 50 gallons covers 2.5 acres. So how much do I need to put into the vat for each 50 gallon load? 6.5 x 2.5 = 16.25. Round that down to the nearest whole number for 16. This is an easy mix because the chemical comes in 32 ounce bottles and there are measuring tick marks on the bottle at 8, 16, and 24 ounces. That makes it easy to add half a bottle and get it right. But if it didn’t work out so smoothly, we could use a big measuring cup Sean has to get the right amount.

So I add the chemical and the mixer mixes it up. If I’ve finished the bottle, I need to rinse it, which I do by dipping it in the mixer and then swishing it around a few times before dumping it into the mix. Then I put the empty bottle away in a box; even the empties are accounted for at the end of a job.

As you might imagine, I’m wearing protective gear: rubber gloves and coveralls. This particular chemical isn’t very nasty and I’m not likely to breathe it so I don’t need to wear a respirator or anything like that. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be helping out.)

All this tank filling and mixing takes me less than 2 minutes.

Stopwatch
I timed one of our cycles. Lap 1 was skids down to skids up: my loading work. Lap 2 was skids up to skids down: Sean’s flight. Less than 4 minutes for a cycle.

When Sean is ready for chemical, I turn the valves on the trailer’s mix system to direct mixed chemical into a thick long hose with a specialized fitting at the end. I bring the fitting over to the helicopter, drop down to my knees (which is why I also wear knee pads), and mate the hose fitting to a fitting on the helicopter’s tank. I then turn a valve on the hose fitting to get the mix flowing into the helicopter. I watch the mix vat the whole time and turn the valve off when it gets near the bottom so I don’t run it dry. Then I get back up and use a pull cord on a pump on the same side of the helicopter to start up his pumping system. When that’s running, I give Sean a thumbs up and head back to the trailer, gently resting the hose fitting on the hose along the way.

I timed this once and it took just over a minute, but that’s because it took two tries to get the helicopter’s pump going.

Sean lifts off immediately — often while I’m still walking away — and I get back to work mixing the next batch. When I’m done with that, I wait until Sean returns. It’s usually less than 4 minutes. Then I’m turning valves on the trailer quickly, sometimes before he even touches down. My goal is to minimize load time so he can take off again quickly.

Landing
Here’s Sean coming in for a landing beside the trailer. And yes, his approach route for a while was under a set of wires. (The rest of the time, he was departing under them.)

I usually leave the pump on the whole time I’m in the loading area, although if Sean’s work area is more than a minute or two from the landing zone, I sometimes shut it off. I wear ear plugs or earbuds so I can listen to music while I work. I keep a radio in my pocket so I can hear Sean if he calls for something or warn him if there’s a problem with the landing zone.

Beyond Mixing/Loading

Every six or seven runs, Sean needs fuel. He often radios ahead, but if he doesn’t or if I don’t hear the radio, I can tell he needs fuel because he throttles down to idle RPM (65%) after landing or makes a hand signal. In that case, I’ll fill the chemical first and return the hose to its resting position, then turn on the fuel pump on his truck, and walk the hose over to the passenger side of the helicopter. Sean said fueling is usually done by walking around the back, but no one can pay me enough money to walk between a helicopter’s exhaust pipe and tail rotor while it’s running. So I walk around the front, dragging the hose under the spray gear to get into position. Then I pump fuel until he gives me a signal to stop. It seems to me that he’s half filling the main tank each time — that’s about 14 gallons less whatever he already has in there.

When I’m done, I cap the tank, carefully walk the hose around the front of the helicopter to the truck, and then go back to start that pesky helicopter pump. Thumbs up and he takes off. I usually remember to turn the fuel pump off. Then I mix another batch of chemical so I’m ready when he returns.

Occasionally his pump or mine needs fuel. He uses helicopter fuel — it’s just 100LL AvGas — for both pumps. He keeps a jug of it at the mix trailer. I do the fueling.

Keeping the landing zone secure is pretty easy. On our last job, we were in a nice concrete loading area for a hay operation. Trucks did come and go, but in most cases, they saw Sean landing or sitting in the landing zone and waited until he was safely on the ground or had departed. Twice I tried to signal trucks to stop when I saw him coming in but they didn’t — both times they didn’t see the signal until it was too late and Sean aborted the landing. In our current landing zone, which is a dirt patch at the edge of the orchard, there’s a truck that comes and goes to haul out dead trees cut into firewood; the driver of that rig seems to pay attention and stops when I signal him.

Getting Physical

The job is extremely physical. All day long I’m walking around the trailer, truck, and helicopter; climbing up and down on the trailer’s mix station and truck bed; and hauling heavy hoses, fuel jugs, and cartons of chemical. And dropping to my knees (and then getting up) when I load the helicopter. And don’t even get me started with the pull cord on the helicopter’s pump, which I apparently pull too hard half the time.

I move at a quick pace, but I don’t run. Running is dangerous. Too easy to trip on a hose or a skid. Too many very hard things to crack your skull on if you fall. Anyone who runs while doing this job is an idiot.

But it can’t be too physical, right? After all, I’m a 55-year-old woman and I’m not in the best of shape. And I’m doing it all — although I’m exhausted at the end of the day.

Hours and Break Time

The job is weather dependent. We can’t work if it’s raining or likely to rain. We can’t work when the wind is more than 7 or 8 knots. We didn’t work Sunday because it was raining on and off all day and very windy.

But when we can work, we start early. We’re typically at the landing zone about an hour before dawn. Usually, Sean gets there first since he has more to do to get ready. He fills his truck’s fuel transfer tank with 100LL from the local airport. That can take 20-30 minutes. Then he comes back to the landing zone and, if the water tank is less than half full, he hooks it up to his truck and drags it to his water source and fills it. That’s another 20-30 minutes. Then he brings it back to the landing zone and positions it based on the wind direction, slipping 4×4 pieces of wood under the trucks rear wheels to bring the front end of the trailer up.

By that time it’s nearly dawn and I’ve arrived. I prep my work station by setting out chemical and anti-foam bottles in the trays on one side of the trailer and boxes for the empty bottles on the other. I suit up in the coveralls and get my knee pads on. While he’s preflighting the helicopter, I’m mixing the first batch of chemicals so I can load as soon as he starts up.

We work pretty much nonstop until we’re out of water. More math: If the trailer’s tank holds 1600 gallons and we’re using 50 gallons per load, we can do roughly 32 loads (1600 ÷ 50) before we’re completely out of water. That’s two 8-bottle cases of chemical. It’s also 80 acres. If you figure an average of 6 minutes per spray run/loading cycle, that’s about 3-1/4 hours.

When we’re out of water, I get my break because Sean has to fetch fuel and water using his truck. There’s nothing too difficult about doing any of it, but since I can really use a break after working that hard for that long, I won’t volunteer to do it. Instead, I strip off my protective gear, wash my hands (if I can), and take Penny for a walk. (She waits in the truck while I’m working.) Or sometimes I run out and get a bite to eat. Or eat a snack I’ve brought with me. That break lasts about an hour. Then it’s back to work all over again for another 3+ hours.

At the end of the day, we run three rinse cycles through all the equipment. I “mix” batches with just water. The first one usually includes some anti-foam stuff because the foam really gets out of hand if I don’t. The second two are straight water. I purposely overfill the mix tank on the third run to make sure the water gets all the way up the sides. Each load gets pumped into the helicopter and sprayed out to clean the spray rig.

Container
The most difficult thing I did on Saturday was to get this container open so I could lock up two cases of chemical.

Then we wind up the hoses, secure the helicopter — or bring it back to base if Sean is near his hangar — lock up any unused chemicals and empty bottles, and call it a night. By that time, it is night; we often do the rinse cycles in the dark. I bring a lantern so I can see.

It’s long day. A very long day. I’ll start at 6 and finish by 7 with two hour-long breaks in the middle of the day. That’s 11 hours of active work.

On Saturday, we worked for most of the day. Yesterday was Sunday and we would have worked all day if the weather was right. There are no “weekends” in this line of work.

So yeah: this job wouldn’t be very attractive to someone who prefers to sit on his ass all day.

But I’m getting a great workout. I know I am because every single muscle in my body was screaming at me this morning when I got out of bed. No pain, no gain, right?

Right?

Why I’m Doing It

Although Sean is paying me for this work and the pay isn’t bad, I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for two reasons:

  • Sean is a friend and he really needs to get this business off the ground. Without a helper, he’d have to mix and load by himself. He’d likely only get a fraction of the acreage done each day. The first orchard I helped him with was 1,000 acres and he did have another part time helper. This one is about 500 acres and there is no other helper. It would take him well over a week to do it by himself. Together, we’ll knock it off in less than 4 days.
  • I have a natural curiosity about how things work. The best way to learn about something is hands on. I know a lot more about the spray business now than I did two weeks ago and that’s a real motivator for me.

We’re down in Turlock, CA for this job. It’s 100 miles from Sean’s base near Woodland, which is also where I’m camped out for the next few weeks. Although I wanted very much to bring my camper down here with me and live in the orchard, Sean needed me to tow the mix trailer while he towed his helicopter.

Spray Gear
Here we are on Friday morning, just before dawn, ready to head down to Turlock with the mix trailer behind my truck and helicopter trailer behind Sean’s.

I’m very glad I let him have his way. We’re staying in very comfortable rooms at what’s probably the nicest Best Western I’ve ever stayed in. After months of mostly living in my camper, I admit that it’s nice to have a good, long, hot shower every day. So that’s a bonus.

And isn’t that what life is all about? Doing different things? Seeing different things? Experiencing different things?

That’s what it’s all about for me.

But I admit that I do hope Sean finds a new helper for his next job. I’m not staying in California much longer and I’m ready to hang up my spray loader cap.

Helicopter Rides at Quincy

I do helicopter rides at a Quincy, WA event — and stop for a milkshake on the way home.

The first call came a few months ago. Could I do helicopter rides at the Farmer-Consumer Awareness Day in Quincy, WA?

I don’t usually do rides at Quincy. Trouble is, there’s no landing zone downtown or near any event and the airport is in the middle of nowhere. Rides events rely, in part, on the excitement generated by seeing the helicopter come and go with happy passengers on board. Stick me out in the middle of nowhere and no one will see that.

I relayed this information to the caller, Krysta. I told her that it probably wouldn’t be worth my while.

She asked me how many people I needed to fly to make it worthwhile.

I pulled a reasonable number out of the air: 20. That’s 20 passengers at $40/person with no fewer than 2 people on board for each flight.

She said she’d try to presell tickets.

Then we hung up. I honestly didn’t expect to hear from her again.

She called about a month later. She’d pre-sold 20 seats. I put the event on my calendar. Later in the month, I drove down to Quincy to check out the landing zone she suggested: a parking lot near one of the schools south of town. It was the same distance from town as the airport was, but at least stuff might be going on nearby. And it was a lot more pleasant. I agreed.

A few days before the event, I arranged to have my friend’s daughter, Alix, work as my ground crew. Alix is a PhD candidate for entomology — a bug girl. She’d helped me on another event the previous year, so she knew the drill. I didn’t expect there to be much of a crowd and with most flights prepaid, she wouldn’t have to deal with too many money transactions. One experienced person would be enough.

I met her at Wenatchee Airport at 9:30 AM on Saturday morning and we flew down to Quincy. I circled the landing zone once and set down. They’d prepped the landing zone with cones and caution tape and I managed to knock over all the ones in front of me and a handful of the ones behind me. Oops.

I’d brought along a sign, a chair for Alix, and a few cones. That was it. There wasn’t much shade, but it was a relatively cool day that stayed in the mid 70s with a light breeze. Perfect flying weather.

I was an hour early on purpose. I was hoping to pick up a few early rides. I’d posted the event on Facebook and had even gotten a few calls. Sure enough, I did a number of “walk up” rides before the ones on Krysta’s list started showing up.

The flights left the landing zone and headed northeast toward downtown Quincy. After crossing route 28, I turned west, heading toward the river. I’d break out over the cliff at Crescent Bar, fly down river a tiny bit, and then turn back to the east. Then I’d approach the landing zone from the southwest and land. Each ride took about 8-10 minutes with great views of Quincy, the surrounding farmland — mostly orchards and row crops — and the Columbia River gorge at Crescent Bar.

Crescent Bar from the Air
Crescent Bar from the air.

Krysta had wanted to make sure the tour was a farm-related, so I often told passengers about what we were flying over, including the Extenday ground covers used to reflect light back up to the bottom of apples (for even coloring), apple pickers working in one of the orchards, and the types of crops beneath us. Everyone seemed pretty happy with their ride. And Alix did a great job as my ground crew person.

About half the rides had 2 people on board and the other half had 3. The way the rides are priced, I lose money with 1 passenger, make some money with 2 passengers, and make good money with 3 passengers. So I’m not complaining.

I Periscoped one ride and did a Facebook Live session with another. In case you’re unfamiliar with these, it makes it possible to do a live broadcast on the Internet. Viewers can comment and ask questions. Unfortunately, although I can read the questions, I can’t respond because I don’t have direct audio in. Viewers simply can’t hear me over the sound of the engine. But later feedback on Twitter and Facebook showed that the broadcasts were well-received even if there weren’t more than a few dozen viewers.

Helicopter Rides at Quincy
Alix took this photo of Krysta and her companions. I photobombed (just like I used to do when I flew at the Grand Canyon).

The only drawback was my fuel situation. I was hoping to get all the rides done without needing to refuel, but with just 2 or 3 flights left, I absolutely had to get gas. So a group of three got a chance to go back to the airport with me for refueling for the same price as a much shorter ride. I went to Wenatchee, which was 2 nautical miles farther than Ephrata, mostly because I knew I could do a quicker turn there. When I got back, Alix had three more flights waiting for me, including Krysta and two companions, who I comped to thank her for her work.

On every single flight, I flew over the White Trail Produce farm stand on the corner of Route 28 and White Trail Road. They sell local produce and the usual collection of farmstand stuff that tourists buy. But they also sell ice cream and make the best fresh fruit shakes. The whole time I was flying, I was thinking about a peach shake and wondering how I could get one on my way home. There wasn’t anyplace to land in the small parking lot, but I figured I could land on the dead end road nearby. But I certainly wouldn’t want to park there for more than a few minutes.

So as Alix and I loaded up the helicopter after the last flight, I asked her if she wanted a shake. Of course she did. I asked her if she’d mind jumping out to get it if I ordered ahead. She was game. So I called White Trail Produce and asked if I could land there to get shakes. To my surprise, they said yes. And they had fresh peaches. So I ordered two shakes and said we’d be there in five minutes.

Alex with Shake
Cropped from the Periscope video: Alix returning with the shakes.

I set up Periscope to record the flight. (I stream video from my iPad, which is mounted near my feet. When it is sent to Periscope.tv, the video is downgraded, so quality isn’t very good. I didn’t have any of my GoPros set up for these flights.) We took off and I beelined it to White Trail. I circled the area once and found a spot not far away from White Trail’s unplanted (this year) garden patch. A truck towing an outhouse drove down the road and I came in behind him. I sent up a ton of dust when I landed alongside the road, but I don’t think it reached the farm stand. Alix jumped out and ran in while I waited with the engine running. A few minutes later, she was back with both shakes. Once she was strapped in and I’d had a good long sip of my shake, I took off.

Alix with Shake
Alix with her shake on the way home.

She said the folks at White Trail were really excited to have me land. I’d love to do helicopter rides there once in a while. I guess I should look into landing zone options.

I treated Alix to one of my low-level rides over the Columbia on the way back, then climbed up before reaching the wires that stretch across the river at Lower Moses Coulee and headed into the airport. A while later, I was back home and the helicopter was tucked into its space.

It was only 3 PM.

It had been a good day with great flying weather and a bunch of really nice passengers. Not terribly busy, but certainly busy enough to make it worthwhile. I look forward to doing it again next year.

But the best part? That peach shake. Wow.