Since we left New York, Kevin and I have undertaken more new projects than two fifty-year-olds have any business attempting. And it is with surprise and gratification that we have seen most of them go well. We’ve raised chickens, turkeys, and ducks. We’ve designed and built coops, pens, and a hoophouse. We’ve grown a whole crop of beautiful oysters.
But the bees are defeating us.
How is it that I can’t manage to provide a hospitable home for an insect that, left to its own devices, lives comfortably in a hollow tree?
Our beekeeping began last spring. Over the previous winter, we attended Bee School, the beginner’s course offered by the Barnstable County Beekeepers’ Association, and it prepared us to order our equipment and know what to do with it when it came.
We got two standard-issue Langstroth hives, and packages of bees to put in them. All went well through summer and fall. There was no extra honey to harvest, but that’s often the case in the first year. We went into the fall cautiously optimistic.
In February we still had bees, but by April they were all dead. What happened? Hard to know for sure. Our best guess is that they broke cluster with a spell of warm weather, and then froze to death when it got cold again. I never would have expected that insects could make me sad, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I grieved for my bees.
Kevin and I talked about getting new packages this spring, but we decided against it. We didn’t know what had gone wrong with the others, and it seemed too much like that adage about doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Luckily, I was on the receiving end of some extreme apian generosity, and a local beekeeper who removes hives from houses gave me not one, but two hives that came out of someone’s eaves.
It was late in the season by the time I got them. The first one came in mid-August, and the second not until a month later. I knew that the chances of successful overwintering were slim for colonies that had such a limited time to establish themselves before the cold set in. But the bees were homeless, and I had homes and a score to settle, so I took them and did my best.
I was lucky in that I wasn’t flying blind. My friend Claire, who is an experienced and accomplished beekeeper, stopped by regularly to help me assess the hives and solve the problems.
And there were problems. The first queen wasn’t laying, so we replaced her with one of the queens Claire reared. There wasn’t enough brood, so she brought over a full frame. The second hive just wasn’t going to get big enough to reach critical mass, so we killed that queen and combined the two hives.
That was about a month ago, and it was with some satisfaction that I added frames of bees and stores from the second hive to the first. I had one deep that was chock-full of bees, brood, and honey. I had a local queen. I laid pieces of fondant over the tops of the frames, and left the hive to its business.
I opened it over the weekend, and it was almost empty. The queen was there, the stores were there, but there was only a handful of workers. I almost wept.
Claire came over this afternoon to take a look, but she can’t tell what happened. Nobody can. There are some dead bees on the bottom board, but not nearly enough to explain the population decrease; the bees seem to have simply left. Best guess is that there was rampant varroa in the second hive, and when we added the frames to the first hives the bees absconded. But that’s just a guess.
When you open a hive and all is not well, there are just so many things to feel bad about. You feel bad for the bees, who must be confused and unhappy (to the extent that an insect can be). You feel bad because you’ve been an inadequate steward – what didn’t you do? You feel bad because honeybees are in trouble, and you’ve let down the side. It is heartbreaking.
I was almost ready to throw in the towel on beekeeping, but Claire has been so encouraging and helpful that she’s made me want to stick with it. I know our hive won’t make it through the winter, but I’ll try again in the spring