These past weeks, I have been trying to prepare my bees for winter. Colony collapse has become very real for me. I find in these waning Autumn days that beekeeping has lost the charm and childlike joy and wonder of my first love. At the end of the season, I am in the slog, fighting for their survival, hive by hive. Like any long term relationship, the honeymoon is over. Seems the more I know, the more painful it is when reality hits. Some days, I just want to return to the blissful ignorance of the wonder years.
Commiserating with one of my veteran beekeeper friends, she told me that she also is disheartened, weary and more disillusioned than usual at the end of this season. We are all acutely feeling the looming 40-50% die off rate. It’s just not enough to fight off the parasites and feed the hives facing starvation at the end of a bone dry late summer/fall—now we are facing disappearing queen bees. Hives going into the long, darkening cold of winter without a queen face low morale and sure death. You have to understand, a queen-less hive at the end of October is a nightmare for beekeepers and a devastating prospect. There are likely no drones around to mate with a freshly emerged virgin queen. I’ve already faced this with half my hives.
As if to remind myself how disillusioned I am, I hear myself on the phone with a friendly citizen the other day. He calls to inquire as to whether I could come and remove some bees from an old shed in his backyard. Exasperated, I grill him about whether those bees were chasing his children or stinging his dog? Were they coming into his house or bothering him? “Well, no”, he said hesitantly, “but they do buzz around sometime when we are on our back deck—they don’t sting or anything”. “Then can you just leave them alone for the winter?” I ask, frustration leaking out all over. I go on to tell him that there is a 50% chance they will die over the winter anyway from mites, hunger, queen death, chemicals, etc. etc.. With a sigh, I blurt out “We are losing the battle. Our bees are dying and it’s very hard to keep them alive these days.”
Though this man didn’t ask for it, I ranted on about the tedious science of extracting bees at any time—the diceyness of their survival when removed from their home. But this late in the season, if we’ve ripped apart their house and jammed them into a makeshift hive after they’ve carefully prepared for winter, they would surely die.
The man listened quietly, then said, almost apologetically, “Yes, let’s leave them alone for the winter and see what Spring brings”. Then, he kindly stated, “I know every bee is precious”. I caught myself mid flight —in my own free fall into despair—profusely thanking him for his care of the bees.
It seems that each time I am dangerously close to despair, one beautiful thing rises up, as though to remind me that death will never have the last word.
In this case, it was a perfect stranger’s conscientiousness and compassion.
Today, I could feel the pit of dread in my stomach as I opened up a hive that had built multitudes of queen cells—indicating their last ditch effort to replace a dead queen. I faced the dismal job of removing all those queen cells, and then the unpleasant job of combining the dwindling numbers of my bees with a friend’s hive that had a queen with even fewer workers and barely any honey stores.
So, imagine my surprise, as I opened up the hive and a fat new queen was running about amongst the dwindling bees. I watched her gorgeousness for a moment til she disappeared, and then I closed them up in hushed awe.
But the crowning glory was found in a hive that I had just re-queened a few days earlier. The queen was still in her cage where I had placed her, though the girls had diligently chewed through half of the sugar plug, in hopes of freeing her. I pulled out the plug and put her cage on the floor of the hive, peering in on this sacred moment when her highness emerges from behind the wire. Would her new community welcome her or shun her? Would they attack her or would she be cheered by eager comrades? The girls swarmed around the cage, but were respectful of the now open door, leaving an avenue for her to step out. Finally one or two entered the cage and in a moment of welcome, convinced their new queen to come out and join them. Suddenly there she was, skittering out into the expectant crowd of bees and disappearing from my view.
I felt like I had just witnessed a birth. Or a life redeemed. So small a moment, yet so profoundly life affirming.
One beautiful thing in a sea of despair.
Watch for it.