We return to the apiary to celebrate a generous honey harvest this summer, and unlike many summers, the bounty came without a penalty of swelling and itching justice administered by angry guardians.
Keeping bees is not easy, and that includes keeping them alive, keeping them safe from bears, mites, weevils and diseases, and in some years just keeping them in the home you choose for them. Entomologists are still not sure what causes Colony Collapse Disorder, but the best educated guess points to a variety of factors.
Like several of our friends and neighbors who keep bees, we’ve had more lean years than good ones recently. In the spring of 2021, our bee yard was unoccupied. It was a lonesome sight, and a sad spectacle for anyone who enjoys the mysteries of our fuzzy, hard working friends.
Let me tell you about our bee yard. It was designed by bears. There is nothing sadder than a hive that has been disassembled by a bear, the wreckage surrounded by a small cloud of bereaved and bewildered bees. Contrary to popular belief, honey is not the biggest attraction for a bear. They eat the bees and the larvae; the honey is just a bonus.
We’ve lost several hives to bears over the years, but in spite of the loss, the mess, and the expense, it’s hard to stay mad at our ursine companions. They were here first. We moved into their neighborhood at the edge of the great Nantahala Wilderness, where they struggle with loss of habitat that accompanies the spread of mountaintop Macmansions. They do perform a valuable service by digging up and eating every yellow jacket nest on the property.
Bears don’t like electricity. Some pressure treated posts in concrete, some welded wire, and a strategic placement of electric fence has convinced the bears to look elsewhere for food. Good fences do make good neighbors.
Back to our lonely apiary, last year I was down to two hives. One succumbed to a cold snap, having failed to produce enough bees to keep warm. Bees cling together for warmth in the winter, keeping the queen safely in the center of the mass, and they rotate from the outside in to give everyone a chance to survive the cold.
The other unoccupied hive had seen it’s residents depart en masse the previous fall. There were no dead bees, no signs of disease or infestation. They had simply disappeared, leaving behind a generous store of honey and pollen. They didn’t even leave a note.
It was a warm day in March when I inspected the empty hives, and I sat a moment to reflect and to grieve. You get attached to your bees. Each hive has a personality, and a cumulative intelligence that can be surprising. They recognize individuals, and while they will tolerate someone they know and trust, they can terrorize a stranger.
I thought back to my grandfather’s bees, long ago when hives would last for years without any of the treatments and interventions modern science has come up with to keep bees alive and healthy. It occurred to me that there was one thing my grandfather did that I hadn’t tried. He used to pray over his bees. Before I left the apiary I had a quick conversation with the Almighty and requested that the next time I kept bees, he would have a hand in keeping them.
I left the bee yard thinking I might take a year off from beekeeping. The price of package bees, like so many other things, was almost double what it had been, though that price had been rising long before the current climate of inflation and opportunism. A farm is never short on chores and projects, so I soon forgot about bees and beekeeping.
In April I was cutting weeds by the garden when I noticed a honeybee collecting pollen from a dandelion. The nearest hives were over two miles away, so I thought, “You’ve come a long way for such a little bit of food.” The thought of bees turned my gaze toward the hives and there, to my great surprise, I saw a swarm descending and collecting on the empty boxes. I ran to the hives and watched the new residents entering. Not one, but TWO swarms had moved in.
From that moment on, we called them “God’s bees.” It rarely, and for most people never happens that a swarm of bees will voluntarily choose to occupy an empty hive. My dad kept bees for 40 years and always had a “bait” hive in the hopes that a swarm would choose to occupy that instead of a tree branch 80 feet high and out of reach. It never happened.
God’s bees came in the biggest swarm I’ve ever seen. They went to work immediately, and the hive was soon heavy from their labors. When winter came, they were well prepared with plenty of bees to stay warm and a large supply of pollen and honey.
This week we took the first honey we’ve had in several years, and God’s bees are working hard to replace that surplus. They know who took their honey as well, and while they weren’t angry or threatening when I removed it, I can tell they are concerned about it. It’s been several days since the harvest, and they keep following me around the farm to ask me about the honey. One met me at the shop door this morning and buzzed around my head. “Is the honey safe?” In the garden, “We know you took it. Are you going to bring it back?” Yesterday coming out of the pool, “About that honey…”