Monday, January 23, 2017

Post Mortem

It was 80 degrees and humid that morning in August when I stepped into the unflattering and oversized white bee suit and zipped it up to my neck. The netted hood, I wore over a baseball cap so that the cap's brim would keep the netting even further from my face. It attached by zipper to the body of the suit. Full coverage. This hive had a reputation for being aggressive. They say an aggressive hive is the result of an aggressive queen. I could understand the possibility of that. 

                                     Isn't the behavior of the brood                       
                              always in direct correlation to the queen?
                        Another sobering reminder for me how important
                                       the role of motherhood is.

With bees, I read that the only cure for an aggressive hive is to find the queen, destroy it, and introduce a new, hopefully even-tempered queen. Otherwise, the hive will always be aggressive and somewhat dangerous.  I had tried to look for the queen amongst the drones, worker and nurse bees. I had researched how to find her, how to encourage the nurse bees to raise a new queen. But I was an amateur. I couldn't find the queen. Admittedly, I hadn't spent too much time trying. It's hard to spend an extended amount of time studying an aggressive hive.

All this I pondered, as I filled the smoker with some wound up green baling twine retrieved from the barn, threw in a fire starter and, with the help of Joe who would stand a safe distance away, my hive tool, a bucket and strainer for honey, plodded down the field towards the white painted hive bodies resting on pallets...
That day, I would find the hive pleasingly more docile than previously. I collected a good almost gallon of sweet wildflower honey, not counting the 6 or so full frames of honey I left for the bees to overwinter on, and was sweat drenched and achingly exhausted by the time we finished an hour later. Collecting honey is serious work.

Over the next several months I kept a casual eye on the bees. Distracted with the daily preoccupations of raising a bunch of children, (along with a gaggle of goats, and a coopful of chickens), admittedly, I was happy that at least one thing in my care was semi self sufficient and left them mostly alone. I'd glance their way when out in the goat pasture (their hive abutting the north side of the field fencing), and each time noticed them happily buzzing around, the guard bees always at attention at the hive opening. They were good. In the fall we added an extra super for more space for their increasing numbers. Eight extra frames for them to make honey and grow new bees on. All was going well.

It was two days ago that I was on a walk by myself. It had been a hard, long day and I quickly exited the house to walk our property trail and regain some sanity as soon as Joe had arrived home and before the last light of day gave way to night. It was a still, cool evening, but not too cold. I was reveling in the pleasant quietness of the nature around me and I decided to take a detour cutting across the bottom field to check on the bees on my way back up towards home. In the winter, one must be cautious not to stress the bees by checking them too often. They go into a semi conscious, semi hibernative state and flock together to keep warm, only leaving the hive on occasion and on mild days to take "cleansing flights" (aka, to poop). One way to check them without opening the hive box is to knock on the side of the box and if you hear a buzzing response, usually all is well. Or, at least they're alive. The weather was relatively mild, but I didn't have my protective suit on and light was fading, and I knew the children would be looking for dinner, so rather than lifting off the cover, I decided to do the knock test.

I knocked.
I knocked again.
Again, harder.

I knew without even lifting the cover off  the hive. The bees had died. Thousands of them. I had been thinking this was how it would be and I don't even know how I knew. Maybe because it really would be too good to be true for my bees to survive two winters in a row with so little intervention from me. Maybe because it seems that nothing we try on this farm has worked out even nearly as seamlessly as we'd planned. Needless to say, I was left feeling guilty, and a little devastated, and a little the failure.

Upon inspection, The hive was filled with honey. So starvation was not the reason. They appeared to have died all at once. Or at least within mere days of each other. And recently. After performing the best post-mortem I could being so green with this and all,  I deduced that I really know too little about bees to properly assign a cause-of-death, which made me feel even worse.

Mites? Dunno. 
Dysentary? Could be.
Moisture in the hive? Maybe- I did discover some large water droplets in the hive. I do know that moisture is deadlier than cold to them. How did that get there? In a hive properly installed and with ventilation, moisture shouldn't be an issue.

Either way, the bees are no longer.

Yesterday I did the work of taking the hive up from the field and processing the honey. Today, the honey is still draining from the comb into a large pot on my dining room table. It was cold, and so straining is slow. It's light yellow and the stickiness still clings to everything Charlotte and Isaac touched as they were helping me.  It looks enough to fill three half gallon jars. Impressive. Enough to keep us in honey until the days are warm and long again.  Enough wax for dozens of salves. I inspected the hives once more, hoping to find something that would clue me in as to their demise. I didn't.

But I did find that queen.
And she was extraordinary.
If she'd been aggressive, I couldn't tell.

I don't know if there will be more bees here in the near future. Right now, I'm feeling inadequate in my bee-keeping skills, enough to dissuade me from pursuing it further until I can really devote some time to the craft. I should join a beekeepers club, find a mentor, learn more, do this properly. I'm not sure what I'll do. Time is so scarce right now. It's amazing to have fresh, raw honey, but that can be found and purchased easily enough from another local beekeeper.

If this is my last experience keeping bees, I'm thankful for the memories made and the stories I still have to tell. There are some good ones.

Perhaps another time.

Or perhaps you'll be hearing about new hives come some spring.