Well, here we are a solid week into Spring. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that the melt is on, we have at least had a handful of days above freezing. Which has given me a chance to sneak out to my bees for the first check of the year. I haven’t lifted their covers off since October – five long months ago. And unlike most winters, I’ve barely even been out to put my ear against the hives for a telltale, hopeful listen.
Which means that I was especially wound up on my drive over to the bee yard. I was fairly confident that I left both hives with enough of honey for their winter food supply. But I’m also painfully aware at what a remarkably harsh winter its been. Even if a hive has enough honey, if it is too cold for too long, individual bees won’t be able to break away from their big cluster to access it.
I also knew that one of the hives – the reinging Queen Ella-Bella – went into the winter with a slightly smaller population than is ideal. True, fewer bees means less mouths to feed, but the hive also needs critical mass to maintain a cozy interior hive temperature of roughly 80º F. The bees achieve this by banding together in a big clump and literally shivering their flight muscles all winter long. No rest for the weary, I tell you.
Since it was my first formal visit to the hives, I decided I had better bring gifts. I’d been away five months after all – it just didn’t seem right to show up empty handed. I didn’t know if the hives had survived or not, but I wasn’t in the mood to take chances. I reasoned that if they were still living, they are most likely starting to run low on honey. So I mixed up a fondant like ”candy board” for each hive. Which is basically a cooked sticky mixture of sugar, water, and vinegar.
I also mashed together a pollen substitute. If things were going according to plan in the hives, the queens started laying new eggs back in February. But developing larvae need pollen in their diet. And if my phenology records are to be trusted, it will be mid to late April before the maple trees are budding and even longer until the dandelions are blooming. And this particular “Spring” doesn’t seem to want to play along. Things could get ugly.
I got to the bee yard and awkwardly hobbled over snow drifts, clutching my my sugar cakes and pollen patties for fear they fall and disappear into the abyss. Ordinarily I start my hive check with the most easterly hive, but since I was nervous and wanted a confidence boost, I decided to look in on the stronger of the two hives first. I pried the lid off Hallie Frances’s hive and to my sheer delight, a handful of bee friends – albeit slightly stunned – buzzed up to greet me. My heart literally leapt. I resisted the urge to pull out an entire frame for a better look. Because even though it was technically above freezing, it was also snowing. I plunked down their sugar and pollen treats, ushered a few strays back into the hive, and sealed them back up.
I sank deep down into a snow bank and sighed with relief. Hallie’s hive looked amazing. Her large population of bees will almost certainly need to be split into another hive later this spring. That’s the best any beekeeper can hope for. Even if EB’s hive hadn’t made it, I knew I would still have two hives of bees to keep company with this summer. I wrestled myself free and held my breath as I proceeded on to the second hive. I popped the lid and found another bunch of buzzing bees. The clump was much smaller, but Ella’s girls were hanging on!
I drove home with a grin on my face, bursting to share my good news with someone. I e-mailed my beekeeping friend (and source of both of these hives) Kris with the late winter bee report. I knew she’d understand. And she did. She replied back saying that my news was like getting an overseas letter from someone dear and feeling so relieved that everyone is still okay. Which really struck me. Because in this day and age, waiting for an overseas letter doesn’t really happen anymore, does it?
Kris’s comment reminded me that we live in a society that is increasing losing its ability to wait, its capacity to simply not know. And for the umpteenth time since I started keeping bees, I understood that the bees were teaching me something I should pay attention to. They were showing me of the value of uncertainty. That not only is it okay to wait and wonder, it’s often immensely more rewarding to do so. Of course, it can also be more heart wrenching, but either way, I’d argue the waiting – if we let it – takes us to a deeper, more meaningful place within ourselves. The practice of not knowing keeps us hopeful and raw and real.
And you know what else? I’m learning that it’s okay to live with a little anxiety. Healthy even. Every bit of the the type A-ness in me wants to squelch it out, but my itty-bitty bee brain tells me to let it rest. To hover around it, invite it in, and let it breathe a bit. Because sometimes, living with a little unease is the best way to learn about who we are and why. And the more we understand and respect that, the better we can be for one another.
(The photos in this post show Hallie Frances’s hive just starting out in May 2013 (bottom), in October 2013 after a summer’s worth of work (top), and March 2014 on the tail end of a long, cold winter.)