One day a month or so ago I saw bees flying in and out of the hive. It was very early, some time in January, but it was a warm day. I was a little surprised but had enough else on my mind that I didn’t pay attention to it other than to pause a moment to watch them. There weren’t a great many, which made sense for the time of year. I wish now I’d watched longer, paid close attention to what they were doing, where they were going, if they were only bringing carcasses out of the hive or were flying for water or what. I may have been in the midst of the Raven crisis, or it might have been even earlier, in December. It struck me as only a little odd, and easily explained by climate change (or just weather). I failed to write it down.
Then it was cold again for awhile. And then it was warm again. Early last week the eerie absence of bees came over me like a chill when I suddenly realized it was warm enough for them to be out. We were just days away from crocus blooms, and I’d heard the occasional bee buzz by during the week before. I went to the hive with foreboding. Sure enough, dead silence. I unhooked the insulating panels and looked in the window. No bees.
In the doorway, a couple of dead bees. I pulled them out and more dead bees fell into the doorway. I scooped out three or four spoonfuls with a twig, until they stopped coming. I did what I always do with a shock: acknowledged it and moved on to something else, set it aside until I could pull together the wherewithal to face it. In this case that meant, in addition to emotional fortitude and another pair of hands, a big chunk of time free of other obligations and demands, uncluttered and scrubbed kitchen counters and sinks, and a collection of sieves and containers.
I anticipated a large honey haul, one silver lining in this bee tragedy. Another was a sense of relief. Maybe there are just those two, maybe I’ll come up with more as this loss unfolds. I’ve not been in right relationship with these bees since the beetastrophe at the end of their first summer here. I fucked it up. I learned a lot from that, and I’ve learned a lot more investigating this beenundrum.
So far the honey haul hasn’t materialized, and the relief has darkened with sorrow. The only comfort I can take is that in the fall, before I hooked on the insulating panels, I could see there were far fewer bees in the hive than there had been going into the preceding two winters. They must have swarmed sometime during the summer and I missed it. I wasn’t outside as much as usual. I was away five days in September. It could have happened any time.
All along in this adventure my primary reason for keeping the hive has been to provide habitat for bees, a garden for them to feed in and a home base for them to swarm from, intending that they would spread out from here, colonize the canyon, some of the hollow trees in the woods. In short, especially since the beetastrophe, I have regarded my hive as a conduit for the propagation of this superorganism rather than as a honey source for me. So if they swarmed at least once they’re on their way.
Deb and I opened the hive on Sunday afternoon. The lid was sticky with a big wad of propolis in one back corner, but there was nothing trapped within it to suggest an invader. The bars were tightly sealed together and to the hive frame with propolis as well, and a good comb had been started on the back of the false back. It took forever to get the back off and the first bar separated, and when I lifted it out it was solid honey, and I mean solid. It had all crystallized, like maple sugar candy only honey instead. It was delicious.
We worked apart the next three bars one at a time, a tedious sticky task, and the scene became macabre. Dead bees littered the floor, and clung scattered to the combs in various positions as though frozen, some emerging from the combs, some heads in; some with an arm raised or tongue out, wings open or closed. As we worked, a lone honeybee sipped from the exposed comb oblivious to us. This was heartening; at least there are some bees in the yard from somewhere.
Small and large blackish patches showed on the walls and the floor and we wondered if they were mold. As we pulled each bar we scooped dead bees off the floor. Those next three combs each had a lot of capped honey and a little bit of empty comb. Much of the capped comb looked greyer than I thought it should, and we wondered if that was mold, but when I sliced off the caps the honey inside looked clear and dark and perfect.
I decided the honey was clean and the caps look grey just because the honey is so dark and distilled; these back combs must be two years old. I didn’t open the hive last spring because I was dizzy, and never quite had the confidence or energy to tackle that task. I have only harvested honey twice, and the first time was the beetastrophe. The second time, with the bee doctor here, went well. We pulled three combs that were golden and full, but only about half the honey had been capped; the rest were cells that were half-full of half-formed honey, more like thick nectar. So I don’t really know what fully capped honey should look like especially if it’s been there awhile, or what range of colors is normal for healthy comb.
Sunday evening I cut and sliced and tried to chop two of the combs into pieces to strain through a screen colander into a stainless steel bowl. Much of it was crystallized or so thick it just wouldn’t drip from the comb. The next day I tried the the third comb in a stainless colander with bigger holes, and it still drained sluggishly. I put both bowls in the sunroom, and warming the comb helped it drain better. Still, for all the pounds of honey in those combs precious little fell through to the bowls.
As we proceeded pulling bars the next afternoon, the honey caps continued to look grey, and most of the empty comb darker and darker brown the farther forward we got. That made sense; this was the original brood comb, yet parts of these combs were also full of honey.
Another couple of bees flew in from somewhere to scavenge with us. We found more black stains on walls and floor, more dead bees on the combs, and more and more on the floor. In the front corner where they clustered there was a mound just behind the door. I slid all the full bars toward the back and we scooped out the dead bees, then I put fresh bars in the front of the hive and we closed it back up temporarily.
The rest of the honey salvage operation will have to wait until I process the three combs we pulled Monday, and I’m still puzzling over the best way to do that. Will it all be as thick as the first three combs? Should I try to cut off all the caps or just mash the comb? And where in hell did I put my honey-straining kit that I spent good money on and saw when I was cleaning out the storage unit last fall but can’t for the life of me find right now when I need it?
Deb doesn’t like the look of the capped comb, which is funny because I’m usually the germaphobe and I feel oddly secure about this honey. She doesn’t want me to put any more of it in my mouth until I’ve ascertained whether it’s safe, i.e., exactly what happened in the hive, and is the honeycomb moldy or otherwise tainted?
I’ve looked online and found a few videos of dead hives, all of which look similar to mine: Bees frozen in place, comb of all colors, capped honey from gold to grey, masses of dead bees on the floor. Some of the narrators concluded that their hives froze; another sent his bees off to a lab and confirmed varroa mite infestation. One showed how to look for tiny white specks of mite poop in the cells. Nobody mentioned the various comb and honey colors.
So I pulled out the microscope, and shook some of the dead bees out of the jar I’d collected them in onto a piece of freezer paper. Sure enough, mites. Lots of them. Maybe it was mites alone that killed the bees, weakening them or infecting them with a virus. Maybe the extra warm winter combined with the insulation caused a ventilation failure and mold contributed to the die-off. Maybe they did freeze, one bitter cold day in January following their first foraging. Maybe all these challenges stemmed from the mess I made of their hive that first terrible time I opened it. Probably some combination of the above wiped them out.
I’ll continue to investigate and inquire. Meanwhile, the house is redolent with honey. I need to clean up the kitchen and jar the honey I’ve already collected. I need to decide whether to try to salvage the rest of it, or simply cut the combs off the bars and fling them willy-nilly over the cliff for spring bears to find and feast on. I need to steam clean the hive at the car wash. I need to look up how to make mead. I need to take a nap.
“Will you get more bees?” the friends ask. I don’t know. Not this spring, unless they move in on their own. “How do you feel about this?” they ask.
The bees gave me three summers of ecstasy photographing them, and three years of living intimately with them. I learned a whole lot. They inspired me to buy close-up binoculars and an excellent macro lens, opening a grand new universe of tiny creatures in the garden that I had never seen before. They enhanced and expanded my world view. I feel exceedingly grateful. If they did swarm, those bees know where the garden is and will be back. I feel hopeful. The silence in the garden makes me ache like the absence of a dead pet. I feel sad, but not guilty.
I did not have great success with mammals initially either. The hamster died when I was six or seven, the rabbit a couple of years later, both probably from neglect. It took decades to learn the patience and the language required for each species, each individual dog or cat that followed those first ill-fated pets. Animal care is a steep learning curve, and mistakes can be costly. Now I’ve got the mammal thing down. I’ll try again with bees eventually, and I’ll be a better bee guardian for all I’ve learned during these first few steps into the realm.