I’m not ready for spring. I’d like to pull winter’s covers up to my chin and rest a bit longer. I like snow and wind and evenings that start early because it’s dark before dinner time. I’m reluctant to emerge from the hermit-y time of year into the seasons of light and growth.
But it’s arriving. Too early it seems. Bright gray skies, buds already emerging on several trees, and mud everywhere. The pond’s ice cover is melting and the snow that made each step to the barn a crisp high step is now a slog.
Time to face a sad truth. It was foreshadowed last fall. For the first time ever, all of our beehives are silent. Every single colony dead. They made it through a hot dry summer and nearly survived a winter that pushed them to the limits with rapid cycles of freeze and thaw. To replace them we’re only ordering two nucs this time, starting small, because the cost is so steep. One hundred and forty dollars each this year. The beekeepers we’ve talked to are going through the same thing, weighing whether to continue or give up. Continued losses the last few years have made beekeeping a lose-lose prospect. Of course, the real loss is to the ecosystem around us.
My kids tell me that the bees I’ve called my friends are just insects, but I’ve always felt they are more. To honor their memory, I’m reprinting an article I wrote about our first attempt at beekeeping. It was published in Farming Magazine. It’s about an extraordinary moment of hope, thanks to “insects.”
The Queen’s Gift
It’s human nature to look for signs. Easy success appears to be a portent of even better things to come. Enough luck and we tend to think perhaps we’re meant to change direction. Give up. Run away.
My husband, Mark, and I have had plenty of practice warding off the naysayers who point out we are foolhardy to hang on to our small farm. A few years ago Mark’s neck was broken in a car accident which left him with chronic health problems. Then we lost our home business and were left with heavy debt. After that Mark was downsized from several jobs due to the floundering economy.
Although bills mount as we repair ancient tractors and pay vet bills, the farm itself keeps our spirits up. Tending the land with our four children bonds our family together in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Baling hay, stacking firewood, learning the art of
animal husbandry —these are living memories for us all. And the beauty of living close to nature provides spiritual depth beyond measure.
For us, optimism means ignoring bad luck. We extract happiness from the moment, all the while believing the next farm venture will turn our fortunes around. Our newest project has been beekeeping. Mark, and our 12-year-old, Sam, took beekeeping classes last winter. After each session they came home excited about the intricate world of these insects. Mark and the kids built hives together. I copied poems on the wooden boxes as a way of honoring these industrious creatures. We read everything we could
about the science, mythology and practical keeping of bees.
On the first warm day of spring we chose a place near wild blackberry bushes and clover-filled pastures to set the hives. We hauled them to this clearing under the wise gaze of our cows. I couldn’t help but imagine that our land would soon flow with milk
The project became expensive as costs for equipment and the price of bees exceeded our estimates. The week before the bees were due to arrive both our vehicles broke down. A dozen chickens were killed by a marauding dog. The bridge over our creek washed out in a storm. The omens weren’t good.
Finally the bees arrived. Actual boxes teeming with thousands of insects, along with the wooden queen chambers. Prepared as any novices could be, we walked out back carrying these humming packages over the creek, past chickens and cows, blessed by blue skies.
There’s a careful procedure to follow when ‘hiving’ bees. Each queen, along with a few insect attendants, is enclosed in a tiny queen chamber. This is sealed two ways.
Inside there’s an edible barrier called the candy plug and outside of that is a cork. The beekeeper pulls the cork, puts the chamber in the new hive, shakes the bees loose around the queen and puts the hive lid on. The bees gradually become acquainted with the queen’s pheromones and accept her as their own. In a few days’ time the attendants have eaten through the candy plug and the queen is loose in the hive but at home enough to stay.
There we were, ready at our lovingly constructed new beehives. We started on the first hive.
Mark followed the procedure—popping the cork plug on the queen chamber as planned. Without warning the queen flew out! The wooden chamber had no candy plug. Our queen was gone. Now we had several thousand bees for that hive and no queen.
All of our months of preparation, our sparse funds pulled together for this project only to have our very first hiving fail. Mark, Sam and I stood in silent disbelief.
Then we realized we could see the queen circling around us, a dot against the bright spring sun. I talked aloud to her, saying we needed her to stay near her new home.
Sam tried to gently trap her in some spare netting. It was no use. What’s the chance an insect will do what we want her to? Characteristically, Mark started working on the next hive, focusing on the positive.
Right then, unbelievably, the queen landed next to Mark’s hand.
And there she stayed, offering her presence like a gift. He reached out and covered her with his other hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I put the wooden chamber near his fingers and immediately the queen crawled into the tiny opening. He placed the chamber in the hive, then Sam put in the bees and closed the lid.
All of us felt goodness and mercy descend on us in that clearing. Surely a portent of things to come.
Later Mark asked several apiary experts about the likelihood of new beekeepers recapturing an escaped queen. They all said there was no chance at all. But we know better.
Hope is always within reach, even when you least expect it. On our farm we savor that sweetness every day