First swarm

How Bees Changed a Beekeeper

This week I sat on my front deck and watched my bees swarm.

I walked out amid the cloud (they’re normally very peaceable, but especially so during a swarm) and followed them to a wild cherry tree partway up our west ridge, where the departing swarm was clustering, waiting for everyone to arrive so they could make their way to a newly chosen home together.

Today the hive swarmed again, casting a smaller group this time, sending it along with an extra queen to populate some protected spot in or near our little holler.

It’s exciting to see this happen, to be in the midst of it. Although that wasn’t always true for me.

Second swarm
Second swarm

Once upon a time I would have been devastated at the loss of part (or all) of a colony. Beekeepers are supposed to control their colonies, make splits ahead of swarms, retrieve any swarms that slip through, and generally multiply their holdings. Once upon a time I would have seen a swarm as a failure on my part.

I’ve changed.

These days I’m less a beekeeper than a bee housing provider. Or maybe just a friendly neighbor who gracefully accepts a few jars of honey every year from the creatures I live with, if they gift it to me.

I no longer have multiple hives with 50+ pound boxes—sometimes as high as my head—that I have to carefully lift, control, and replace over and over again every few weeks. Without crushing any bees!

The Bee Yard
Our old bee yard when it was full of hives

That was the trickiest and most difficult task I faced in the years that I was growing my apiary, and some days I failed so badly that I had to leave the hives open and go down the mountain and get Lance to come up and move bee supers for me. My last year doing it left me discouraged and frequently in tears. Even without the mounting problems our honey bees face, Parkinson’s disease made the tasks of beekeeping increasingly formidable, and I thought I might have to give it up entirely.

So I was thrilled to discover that my neighbor up the road was building horizontal hives; he offered to take my old hives in trade for a new one that promised to be much easier for me to manage. So I packed my woodenware and carried it up to him, and waited, without bees, for one long winter.

The next spring, he drove my new horizontal hive up the mountain, unloaded it, and helped me fill it with bees from his farm.

And everything changed, including me.

Pip sunning in the old bee yard
Pip sunning in the old bee yard

For a number of years I had 10 hives, with 10 different bee dramas playing out every year. We dealt with pests, predators, nectar dearths, splits, swarms, pesticides, hard winters, feeding, die-offs, requeening. The honey harvest was an immense amount of work, but puzzling out what problems the bees were facing and what I should be doing to be helpful (and getting the timing right) was a massive challenge.

I had—and still have—a community of beekeepers whose knowledge and experience can be drawn upon, but the joke goes that if you ask any 10 beekeepers a question, you’ll get twenty or more answers.

And that’s not even a joke because it’s actually true; I’ve answered the same beekeeping question from newer beekeepers three or four different ways myself. Because while beekeeping is a science, it’s also an art, and these days it’s additionally a roll of the dice, as the problems and losses our pollinators face have exponentially increased in the past decade.

First swarm
New horizontal hive as the colony begins to swarm

I have come to believe that the bees know what they’re doing better than I do.

They are part of a daunting, often scary and sometimes hopeful story, and they will make their way along its paths just like the rest of us. Like the whole earth is doing.

I’m grateful our paths are intersecting, glad to have the company of bees.

I walk on the mountain and ask them questions, listen to their songs, enjoy their dances, appreciate their math, and delight in their work. The most wonderful smell in the world is a bee hive full of honey in August. It blows in our open windows at night and brings with it a promise of sweet dreams and a winter of gifts. It’s the smell of hope.

So I’m very happy to have even one hive. It means I still get to have a colony of bees as neighbors, and they are such good neighbors.

But I no longer work the hive like I used to, trying my best to control colony growth or maximize honey production. If I get a jar or three of honey for the winter, I’m thrilled. But I no longer fret about it.

Jars from one of our honey harvests
Jars from one of our honey harvests

I also no longer try to prevent swarms, or catch them to grow my colonies. Swarming is the bees’ natural growth strategy, and it also creates a lull in the brood cycle, which coincidentally creates a helpful break in hive pest proliferation. So I no longer research, purchase, and apply treatments to my hives in the late fall, either.

But I enjoy my bees every single day.

Honey bee drinking at the seep
Honey bee drinking at the seep

I count them as they drink from the seeps and creeks, or maybe they count me. I walk carefully through the fringed phacelia so as not to disturb them at work, and when I forage, I pass over plants they are working on. They share well.

I bid goodbye to them when I leave the mountain, greet them and join their songs when I return. I tell them, as tradition teaches, when someone has died. I breathe their honeyful scents, taste and appreciate their golden gifts, and in winter, when the snow is deep, I peel off my mittens and lay my hands reverently against the hive to take in their humming promises.

And it is more than enough.

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