My husband peeked under the lid of our remaining hive yesterday and found that it too, had died. It was struggling, so we weren’t surprised. We were hoping this one would pull through and we could grow some good strong queens from it this spring. The day after we discovered that our three others were gone was really a sad day. It’s not like I sobbed the day away, or anything, but I was definitely bummed the entire day. I’ve mentioned before that we also raise chickens and we have butchered many over the years, but the loss of the bees was by far more upsetting than any of those chicken deaths have been. And it’s not the money. Certainly, it will cost us more money to get started again this spring and when a friend said, “is it even worth it?” I realized that we never even considered not starting again in the spring! These little creatures are totally a part of who we are now.
I was explaining these thoughts to my husband at dinner and he said he felt the same way, so for those of you who think I’m completely crazy to be so obsessed with the raising of honeybees, here are a few things I love about them…
Endangered Species: And How I’m Saving the World
Ok, I’m not sure if bees are technically considered endangered species (but an interesting article about the topic can be found here), but raising them makes me feel like those people who are raising pandas at the zoo. When a bee dies it feels like a set-back in the world of honeybee population. There are not enough bees: fact. So raising bees feels more like a social movement than just a hobby. This is why it is so devastating when they die. It’s sad because I love them and it’s sad because it costs us money, but it’s really sad because bees are so desperately needed in this world. It’s sad because we’ve put so much time into them. It’s sad because we so carefully manage them and we so closely study them. It feels like we know them. Each hive does actually have a different personality and, when they are gone, it does feel like a loss. A hive is made up of tens of thousands of bees, so the impact is really quite striking. When you find a dead hive, there are literally, tens of thousands of dead bees. It’s just sad. That’s really all I can say.
Therapy: Working Bees is Just Plain Soothing
I remember a gentleman at our very first bee school saying that he likes to just go out and sit with his bees. He said he found it to be very calming. At the time I thought he was a crazy bee man, but I now understand why he would enjoy such an activity. When you go out to check the hive, take honey, etc it is referred to as “working the hive.” When you do this, you move slowly and deliberately in order to prevent upsetting the bees and also to prevent squishing them as you move the hive components around. Sure you’ll use a little smoke, but moving slowly is just as effective, really. This slow movement makes for a calming experience.
In addition, when you first start working the hives, you’ll have a mind over matter situation. If you wear a bee suit you know, in your mind, that you can’t get stung, but your adrenaline rises anyway as dozens of bees buzz around you. I enjoy this now, but when we first started I had to really force myself to stay calm and work slowly. It’s normal to feel some twinges of panic in the beginning or worry that a tickle in your jacket is a stray bee, but you force yourself to just breathe and stay calm. When you are finished working, you also walk away slowly and make sure you don’t have any bees attached. So, in effect, you’ve just had quite the meditative half hour or so and you really do leave the experience in a very zen state. I swear it’s true!
Amazement: Bees are Fascinating
So far, to me, the most amazing thing about raising bees is the things you see when you are working them. It’s like a real life game of I Spy (however, if you’ve ever poured over these books with a young person, you might not think this sounds like fun. at. all.) Finding the queen is a challenge, studying the comb and determining where there’s brood is a learning experience.
(This is a picture of our first queen. She’s dead center. She has a longer body than the rest and is mostly brown)
Once, my husband and I were looking at a comb and we actually watched a bee being “born” so to speak. We saw her little feet wiggling out of the cell she had grown in and as we stood there watching, she slowly emerged, stretched her wings for a few minutes, then flew up into the air. It was the coolest thing! Here was this tiny piece of nature that happens thousands of times a day all around us, and we actually got to see it. Wikipedia has captured this moment as well, but trust me, it’s definitely cooler in person:
Likewise, I find it very adorable to watch the workers come back to the hive with their pollen sacs full of bright yellow pollen. It looks like they are carrying little saddlebags on their back legs. As you have the hive open, you can watch them fly in and go right to work.
Another cool bee tidbit is that they kind of have “rush hour” at the hive. When the sun is first up and shining onto the hive, you’ll see a steady stream of bees exiting the hive. In fact, if you stand in this flight path, a bee will most certainly fly into your forehead (trust me, it will happen). Around dinner time, most of the workers are returning home from the hive and you’ll see a bottle up at the hive entrance sometimes. It’s like being on the freeway at 5:00. There will be many in the air, circling around, waiting for a clear place to land and a little jam up like this:
Visitation: When Bees Visit You
Our hives are in the back corner of our backyard. We have not noticed any increase in bee traffic (unless you are standing right in their flight path), but are definitely more aware now of what we are swatting at when we sit outside or have a BBQ. When things buzz around our heads we are always saying, “Is that one of ours?” before anyone starts swatting. Likewise, I’ve fished many struggling honeybees out of my son’s pool. My four-year-old even asks about different bugs he finds and always wants to know if it’s “one of our bees.” It’s given me a new appreciation for the pests that buzz around at picnics and it has made me less likely to swat or spray.
A story to end on….
The day we brought home our first nuc, we opened the back of the pickup truck and stared at this unassuming white box. We were having a “well, we’re in it now” kind of conversation when we saw little antennas poking through one of the air holds on the side. We watched and as the minutes ticked by antennas became little legs, then a head and eventually one bee worked itself out of the box. She flew up and around our heads and we joked, “Oh no, we lost one!” and my husband hoisted the box and carried it into the backyard. I followed behind and quickly realized that we had a third in tow. That little honeybee was flying about 2-3 feet above and behind my husband’s head, just kind of crisscrossing the air as he walked. When we reached the spot where we were going to set up the hive, he set the box down and that little bee landed right on top of it and waited. When we opened the lid, others flew out and they all melded together into one buzzing group in the air above us while we transferred the contents of the box into the hive. That moment was pretty cool and that was the probably the moment I fell in love.