A Beekeeper’s Lament

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watercolour by Erin Lobb

There is no better harbinger of spring than seeing my backyard bees launching out of the hive in search of pollen. In an enterprise involving both hobbyists and industrial beekeepers, and one that typically reports 40 percent losses over winter, these first stirrings from the hive are a seasonal marvel. Yet most everything bees do seems miraculous. One bee has to collect nectar from approximately two million flowers to make a pound of honey. This is why it’s a good thing to have 50,000 of them buzzing around in the middle of summer. Bees are the only insect that makes food for people to eat.

And there is the dancing. If the nectar is more than 100 meters from the hive, the returning worker does the waggle dance. This gives the other workers the direction and distance (flying time) to the food source. First she dances in a straight line, rapidly wagging her tail. Then she turns and walks around a half circle, and dances back along the same straight line. Then she turns in the other direction and walks around the other half of the circle, and returns once more to her straight line. As she does this, she wags her tail. The number of times the dance is repeated per minute tells how far the food is from the hive. A fast dance means the food is close to the hive. A slow dance means it is further away.

Still, ill health rules the day. If it’s not the varroa mite sucking blood from a bee’s backside, it’s the neonicotinoids on the plants. And if not the neonicotinoids, then American Foulbrood has a sure hand in a hive’s demise. Rising sea levels and record-setting annual temperatures may well be the measure of our imperiled natural world, but for the real barometer of environmental health, look no further than the backyard bee hive. Surely, we can survive without bees, but not without serious consequences for our fruit and vegetable shelves at the grocery store.

I started keeping bees seven years ago in Virginia, as part of an outdoor education program at a school where I worked as the Head Librarian / School Garden Director. Our school garden plot was less than 100 yards away from three hives. When I saw the Science Department poking around the hives in their white jumpsuits and bonnets, my first thought was, “Why would anybody do that?” They looked like a hazmat training crew, testing for toxic materials in the ground. Better to be turning the soil and the compost pile, or planting seeds, I thought.

I’m still asking myself the same question. Every time I venture out for a monthly check on one of my three hives, I realize the absurdity of my undertaking. Yes, the resurgence of interest in backyard beekeeping is promising, but when you think about it, people have no business rousing a beehive, nudging the frames around for another peek at the queen, and maybe even less of a right to steal frames of honey. There’s a reason why bees sting!

watercolour by Erin Lobb

Ever since I forgot to zip up my bonnet last fall, providing an opening for a pair of bees to buzz around my head, while I flailed my arms in a mad attempt to tear the jacket off before the inevitable sting, I have left them alone, let them “bee,” as the saying goes among the club. If having your eyes swollen shut—they got me twice on the nose—for nearly three days is not enough to convince you that you’re an imposter upon Mother Nature, nothing will.

Last September, one of my beekeeper friends told me that he had lost one hive to yellow jacket bees, those wily insects with the mean sting that nest in the ground when they’re not hovering over your lemonade drink on the patio. I made a note to check my own hive. A week later, I was carrying the compost bucket past one of my hives, and I noticed one yellow jacket making her way in through the hive’s bottom board. This particular hive had a total of four boxes, two deep ones for the queen to lay her eggs, ideally at the rate of 1500 per day, and two medium boxes, sometimes called supers, where the bees store most of their honey supply. I removed the lid and peered into the uppermost box. No bees. And so it stood until I lifted the bottom box off its base. Not a single bee anywhere in sight, not even a pile of dead bees on the baseboard to provide some clue as to what went down.

Oddly enough, this hive was thriving last time I’d checked. They literally disappeared within one month. If it were May, a swarm might explain their disappearance, but when a honeybee hive swarms, they are considerate enough to leave an intact colony behind in order for the bees to rebuild. Even the dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder phenomenon didn’t explain this situation, as collapse also leaves at least a part of the hive intact, but not usually enough for the hive to regain its original vigor. Could there be a Colony Disappearing Disorder?

watercolour by Erin Lobb

My favorite beekeeper’s tool is the comb cutter. I froze the 16 frames from this hive to ensure against any dormant pathogens—the wax moth will lay waste to unguarded frames—and then cut out four dozen or so perfect square combs and nestled them into clear plastic containers (the same kind you see on the grocery shelf at Honest Weight). I’ve shared these cutouts with friends, neighbors, and colleagues. I’ve even sold a few. Each time I put a spoon into a new comb and eat the honey, I’m overwhelmed with joy. If you believe in the many health benefits of bee products, then eating comb honey is the best way to go—raw and unfiltered.

Yet, when I realize what it took for the bees to return home with their nectar and pollen from late April through September, I’m also saddened. I don’t work during the summer, and very often the mark of a good summer day is sitting in the back yard at a safe distance from the hive, watching the bees flying to and fro or do the waggle dance on the landing board. From the upstairs windows in our home, I can see them tracing straight to the sky by the hundreds. A beekeeper can justify taking honey from the hive for a few good reasons. We are the backyard hobbyists, doing the caretaking, tending to the bees as best we know how, while sometimes serving as their voice for the public at large. Most of us already know that we have to leave the colony with enough honey stores to get through the winter. But there was something about eating these combs that just felt wrong. An entire colony in my backyard disappeared, and I will never know why.

Why do I keep bees? I think it’s for the same reason I practice the guitar against any realistic notion of ever playing like Carlos Santana. “Black Magic Woman” resurrects all the yesterdays in the same way as the waggle dance summons memories of growing up in the Midwest. Beekeepers are a hardened lot, no question. But “hope springs eternal,” as the saying goes, and I would just as soon place my hopes in a fruitful, local landscape of bee-friendly black locust trees, wildflowers, silver maples, and goldenrod, over parking lots and cul-de-sacs.

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Thomas Washington is Head Librarian at the Albany Academy for Girls. He has been a Co-op member since relocating to Albany from Washington, DC in 2015.