The Second Installment in a group of three.
One bee feels like a hazard, like something you don’t want sniffing around in your potato salad or hovering just behind your backpack. It’s something that you keep a close eye on, or if not an eye, some kind of sixth sense wherein you know it’s around you and are cautious not to slap your arms down too quickly.
With one bee around at a time, with the fear of a single sting, it’s easy to anticipate the multiplication of that fear by as many bees as are present, thus making the idea of apiculture chilling. But the reality is more akin to skydiving: When you get high enough, it’s like you’re not even high up at all. Once you get past fifty or so bees, they stop becoming bees and start becoming flies, and while a cloud of flies is unpleasant, it’s not frightening.
This was the argument I tried to make to Jennifer, but she laughed outright.
Pivoting to how healthy our garden would be with ready pollination and the fresh
honey we would get in springtime also gained me little ground: She gestured to the half-built fence surrounding the half-planted and largely uncultivated garden. It’ll wind up like all your other unfinished projects, she said, and I don’t want a discontented swarm of bees in my backyard.
The compromise was that the beehive would be at the very edge of our property,
just before the forest and at the end of a long stretch of lawn that provided ample
buffer between her and the hive.
I ordered a teal langstroth hive from a local company, two large brood boxes, one large honey super, and stacked them at the edge of the trees, slatted the frames. Then I walked back up the muddy grass, somewhere in that light brown limbo between life and death, up the hill to our back door.
The First Colony
It was a sweaty day I first introduced the bees to the hive. I took the little block of wood that held the queen and dropped it in; the workers would chew through the food stopper and release her in a few days. Then I dropped in the workers, breathing heavily in the full suit, baggy and draped, fingers slipping through the heavy gloves. Despite the protection, I got stung twice on the hands and once on the back of the ear when one managed to slip under my veil and pin me down in a panic. I also learned that bees don’t react well to a beekeeper panicking.
When the bees were comfortably on top of the hive, I tried to close the lid, but found the workforce was in the way. I waited, but they wouldn’t crawl inside, and the sun was rising. Eventually when I was dehydrated, clothes sopping with sweat which pooled in my boots, and certainly very near to heatstroke, I gave up on waiting for the bees and just left the hive open for the next two days—not because they finally made their way into the hive interior, but because I became sufficiently emboldened to suit up and just force the hive lid back on. Only a few of the bees died in this effort, and I was only stung four times.
That spring, when the brood hatched, they were small, horribly malformed, and mostly dead. A quick Google search diagnosed chilled brood, likely as a result of me leaving the hive open. I netted no honey that year.
The Second Colony
I restarted the colony at the end of the summer. This time, I made sure the hive was well insulated, I made sure the top of the hive went on immediately, I made sure no bees got underneath my veil, and I was only stung twice. This hive was happy throughout the fall, humming with not necessarily excitement, but contentment. I checked in on it every so often, gave it some honey that I’d purchased at the store so that it could last the winter since it missed the nectar flows of the spring. The brood boxes were filled, and as the summer stretched into the mild California autumn, the bees steadily withdrew into the hive, preparing their home for the rainy season. They kicked out the drones, formed their cluster over the top frames to warm them.
I, too, prepared them for that season. I kept their stores of honey filled, I brushed off their deceased from the entrance to the hive, I kept them dry.
But it turned into a cold winter, a much-needed relief from the drought for my farming practices, but what turned out to be disastrous to my bees. The colony was dead by the spring, and opening the hive revealed it to be nearly glued solid with thick coatings of yellow substance, wax-like but softer, not wax.
The Third Colony
I didn’t wait long to restart it in frustration. I got a new queen, cleaned the wax out
of the hive, and introduced a new colony at the end of the summer.
It immediately took off—the entrance to the hive was consumed in a frantic flurry of activity, bees landing and taking off in a hurry, bees rolling atop each other. When I removed the lid and looked inside, bees frenetically pacing around the frames, rolling atop each other, fighting to hover in the narrow spaces between combs, and forming great circles to feed on the sugar water I’d placed just at the edge of the hive.
But this lasted only a few weeks, and then the hive was empty. I don’t know what happened, but bee bodies by the thousand made a halo in the grass around the hive by the time the air started to cool off for the year. I looked inside, and the queen was dead, the drones were dead, the workers were dead, and there was no food remaining in the feeder.
One of the rare moments of our relationship, Jennifer and I fought. She said no more to the hives (in less polite words than I repeat here), no more to the piles of dead bees on the back lawn, no more to the shoddy teal boxes dripping with that horrible yellow mess. I asked for one more colony. No. I said, one more colony, and I’ll build a hedge around the hive so it’s not an eyesore. Just one more of your unfinished projects. Maybe, but that one is easy and serves the first project. You can’t do this on your own. I asked for one more hive, and I’ll get help from someone who knows what they’re doing.
One more hive.
“Well the first one was obvious,” said Marco. He was in his fifties, lived a few miles up the road. I’d seen him around, but I’d never really spoken to him until last year when he saw me buying a new smoker for the hive. He had been keeping bees for years, formerly professionally, now as a hobby as he drew closer to retiring.
“And the second?”
“That was dysentery.”
“Like what the settlers got?”
“No. When a bee eats honey there’s stuff they can’t digest, so they need to leave the hive to void it. When it gets too cold they can’t fly, and so too many of those days in a row, maybe 20, 30, enough of them are forced to void in the hive that it kills the colony within weeks.”
“So it was just a crapshoot then? A fluke of the weather?” We were out in the half-dead garden, looking down the hill at the remains of the hive.
“No. You take the honey out and give them sugar water instead—they can digest all of it and don’t have to void hardly anything.”
“And the last hive?”
“It sounds like it was robbed by another colony. Inside the hive, it shouldn’t be wild and lawless—they just crawl gently and slowly over each other. If you see too much buzzing, any wrestling, then it’s a robbing problem. You make a smaller entrance to the hive and give them a chance to fight the other colony off, or they’ll lose all their honey and starve to death.” He turned to me. He was just shorter than I was, and where I had smooth, pale features back then, he was already beginning to tan and leather beyond his years. “And you never feed them outside the hive. Put the damn thing under the lid.”
Marco took me down the hill to the hive, took the lid off and threw it on the ground. Trash, he said. He took the honey super, struggling to lift it, and dumped it on the ground. It’s too big—trash. Get two smaller ones and stack them so you can actually lift the damn thing. Then he pointed at the base of the hive: It’s on the ground! Never leave a hive on the ground. Lift it up on cinder blocks.
“Jennifer would hate the cinderblocks,” I said. “She already thinks the thing is an eyesore.”
“So make a stand for it then, whatever,” said Marco. “Just don’t leave it on the ground like that.”
He asked me to show him what I used for smoker fuel, and I showed him the little commercial bricks. Trash! He threw them at the wall. Make your own, I’ll show you how. Make your own hive. Make your own stand. Plant a hedge. Fix your damn dead garden. Make a path so your boots don’t get all muddy and you don’t erode your soil (this one was somehow related to the hive by the way he said it, but I couldn’t see how).
My ego was hurt. “I don’t know if I have time for all this.”
Marco shrugged like I’d just suggested the simplest problem in the world for which there already existed infinite solutions. “Just follow through. Don’t be careless.”
Marco took me walking in the woods. He pointed out which pine needles made the best smoke, which wood made the best hives. He showed me exactly how dry wood should be before it got too dusty for the bees. When we left the forest with armfuls of smoker fuel and minus marking tapes for the trees I’d need to use for the hive, we went into the workshop. In his usual language, he chastised me for keeping a messy shop, pointed at tool after tool and shouted Trash! in his typical fashion.
He dragged me back outside and showed me where the hedge needed to go to make it most accessible to the bees and still make it appealing as a feature of the yard. He showed me where the garden needed to be moved to make the hedge look natural. He told me what I needed to plant, where, and when.
Then he shoved me into his truck and drove me to the store.
“Marco, I can pay for this myself.”
He took my wallet and tossed it on the floor. Trash! I laughed. We loaded the seedling hedges into his truck.
The Fourth Colony
A week later, Marco and I had felled a beautiful, gnarled canyon oak and built a new hive out of it, which I painted a soft baby blue instead of the harsh teal of the other hive. Two large brood boxes, two thinner honey supers. Inside the outer cover was a dish of sugar water, and inside the brood box was a queen slowly chewing her way through the sugar that timed her release into the hive. We introduced the workers the next morning when the air was still cool enough that all they really wanted to do was tumble down into the warmth between the frames.
When we closed the hive, we walked down the little dirt path Marco and I made in preparation for the slate, out of the slow and sparse wall of hedge seedlings, out of the budding garden surrounding it, back up the path towards the house.
“How does it look?” I asked Marco.
“You can’t judge a thing by how it begins, only how it ends,” he said without looking at me.
“You’re not passing judgment on the result, but on the care and dedication of the one who made it.”
On the porch, we could see the hive sitting stoically in the concentric rings of grass, hedge, garden, grass. Eventually, the hive would be hidden, and all you would see is the multitude of happy bees hanging in a thin mist as they moved around the pinks and the yellows and the whites and the greens. Pollinating, living, breathing. It was just beginning, and I knew Marco was right, but I still found pride.