Rapid Change in an Ambivalent Season

The return of bees to the early crocuses thrilled and salved my soul.

The return of bees to the early crocuses thrilled and salved my soul.

The first few days after the crocuses opened there were no bees. When I was outside and I paused the noise in my head for a moment and just listened, the silence was eerie. I felt so sad. The naturalizing irises and daffodils began to open, and they were empty. It’s all starting for you, I’ve done everything I can to make it good for you, so please come! I thought to the bees I knew were somewhere near. I saw plenty of flies, even some small fucking grasshoppers. On Valentine’s Day! It was too weird.

Chris called that morning. I was just heading out to hand-water some things. “Already?!” she said, aghast. “Your damn onions!” I said. “They dried out over winter in that hoop house.”

In truth it wasn’t just the onions. The whole spring bed, the border on the south side of the house with the early bulbs and groundcovers (the crocuses, naturalizing irises and tulips, the thymes, veronicas, mat penstemons, mat daisies) was desperate for snowmelt. My approach to this bed in particular is “Prolong snowmelt.” This year I began prolonging snowmelt in earnest the second week in February. In previous years I haven’t had to water until late March or April, rarely as late as May. For all the fun of the balmy weather we needed snow badly.

We talked as I watered, and the conversation quickly turned to the bees. She said, “I thought you might tell me about your ambivalence.” I knew it was going to come to this, I’ve just been putting it off. What are my deeper, more complex feelings about the loss, the death of the beehive? What are and were my responsibilities? How did I succeed and fail? What did I learn? Shall I choose to feel guilt?

Chris talked about really learning to let go, and being amazed every day at how much she thinks she knows and then finding out how little she really knows. I think it was her way of encouraging me not to feel guilty, and it helps, but I still have this fundamental feeling that it was my fault the hive died because I didn’t know enough; going into this project, I acted in confident ignorance rather than in a “beginner’s mind” spirit of learning. I’m still unpacking my feelings. Meanwhile, as we talked, I saw a bee in a crocus!

“Gotta go!” I said, hung up the phone, and ran for the camera. For a few hours I was ecstatic.

IMG_5651 IMG_5571

The Bee Doctor told me two years ago that these bees chose me, and the reason was mine to figure out. All along my intention was for the hive to act as an incubator, to grow enough bees for them to swarm out into the forest and the canyon, year after year, to populate the wild. The experiment was to try to establish a hospitable habitat for wild bees, not for me to get honey. I hoped they would manage themselves appropriately with minimal intervention from me.

I forgot the beekeepers’ wisdom, “When in doubt, wait it out,” and I made a mistake at the end of their first summer. Their hive was pristine before I opened it that time. I flooded it with honey and dead bees, I stole their larvae accidentally, and they were righteously angry. I can’t help but wonder if I derailed their success in that one stupid move. They had been calm until then; after, they were defensive. I went in the following spring with the Bee Doctor, and he told me they were more ancient, more wild, than any other hive he’d seen around here. When we opened the hive he mentioned that some of their behavior was more like Africanized bees. “Don’t wig out,” he said, clarifying that it was just an example of their wildness, not that they were Africanized. But in that moment, they were cast in a more primal light for me. It’s the honeybee not the bear, but it’s still a wild and dangerous organism.

Perhaps I subconsciously arranged their demise with my reluctance to try again, to persevere with this hive. Last fall I did have, in the most private inarticulate place in me, the thought that maybe they would get honey-locked this spring and leave. I could start over with more mild-mannered bees. When I saw how few bees were in the dead hive, I hoped it was because they had swarmed. But then, a few days after pulling the last combs from the hive, I found this:

It pains me to share this picture.

It pains me to share this picture. In front of the hive, behind the insulating straw bale, a mass of bee carcasses. Maybe they didn’t swarm. Maybe they were busy all summer and fall hauling out mite-killed bees, and that’s why there were fewer bees going into winter. Maybe there just weren’t enough healthy bees for the hive to survive.

How did the mites get into the hive, anyway? Where did they come from? Unfortunately, as one local beekeeper said, “The mites win all too often.” From what I’ve read, these mites arrived in this country in 1987, and spread rapidly through the wild honeybee hives. Originally parasites on another species of bee, Apis cerana, the mites jumped species, and Apis mellifera has not been able to cope well with them. In combination with neonicotinoid pesticides and possibly other environmental factors, the varroa mites are wiping out honeybees everywhere. I’ve read that they can travel from one hive to another on the bodies of drones, which are apparently allowed to enter any hive. In a sense, the mites are like a sexually transmitted epidemic. Once inside a hive they reproduce inside brood cells, raising a whole family in the time it takes a larval bee to mature, and compromising that bee’s health.

It’s time to really let go. I know today how much I don’t know about bees and how to keep them. If I’m going to continue to try to help save them, I’ve got to do it with Beginner’s Mind, and a lot more courage and skill. I hope that more good than bad has come out of my first foray into bee guardianing. Either way, I need to forgive myself my assumptions and mistakes with them and move on. Forgiving and moving on have never been easy for me, but I’m learning, and not just with the bees.

Honey candy, dense crystallized honey and comb.

Honey candy, dense crystallized honey and comb.

The last honeycombs from the salvage operation, three on the right from the middle of the hive and four on the left from the front.

The last honeycombs from the salvage operation, three on the right from the middle of the hive and four on the left from the front. There’s not much honey in the front combs, I may do something else with them.

Honey in various stages of salvage.

Various stages in the honey salvage.

Experimenting with the best way to get the honey out of the combs.

Experimenting with the best way to get the honey out of the combs.

I’ve got one loaded comb left to process. The honey is so thick it’s taking a long time to drip out of the combs. After slicing the caps off sections of comb and letting them drip, then flipping them over and letting the other side drip, I squish them and let them drip again. Not very efficient, but I get to lick my fingers a lot.

Meanwhile, outside I’ve been cutting back and raking paths and pruning shrubs and trees. This is the best place to be on any day in any season in the garden: I can look out with pleasure at what I’ve accomplished thus far, and simply sit with the joy of it, a dog rolling at my feet, far more done than undone at this point in the season, the whole garden vista ahead of schedule.

A bitter wind blew in a few days ago, ahead of the snowstorm that started yesterday morning. Evening grosbeaks peck in a frenzy at the sunflower feeder. The patio rug blows up with a thump against the table. I scramble to batten down the hatches. This constantly shifting spring weather heightens minute to minute uncertainty: A cold shadow falls over the yard with a bleak wind, the mood becomes more urgent; the sun blows free of the clouds and optimism surges. There is this apocalyptic deep fear: what will happen next? The clouds exacerbate that, the sun relieves it; being thirsty exacerbates it, a drink of water relieves it.

Just yesterday morning when this snowstorm was starting.

Just yesterday morning when this snowstorm was starting.

Twenty-four hours later we have eight inches of snow. All the little flowers and shoots are buried, and getting a deep drink. More snow is expected later this week. What do we call the spell of spring that lasted almost a month and brought so many species out of their winter sleep? If the warm weather that follows the first cold spell in fall is called Indian Summer, what is the name of the first warm spell that precedes actual Spring?

I never thought I’d be grateful to live in Colorado because of the mild winter! Though we loved this balmy break in our short winter, everyone is celebrating the return of the snow. We think about “percent of normal” snowpack in the mountains, and what it means for our water this summer. Skiers are ecstatic with feet of new snow in the high country. Down here at 6800′ we welcome the moisture in fields, yards, gardens that were already drying out. The almost non-winter this year is as eerie as the absence of the bees. So with deep relief, after a brief frenzy of garden cleanup, I settle back into winter pace. When the snow melts again the garden will be well ahead of itself, and maybe the grasshoppers will have frozen.

Free at last, thank Dog, I'm free at last!

Free at last, thank Dog, I’m free at last!

And once she was off the leash, Stellar just had to make her play.

And once she was off the leash, Stellar just had to make her play.

Big goofball heeling for no reason.

Big goofball heeling for no reason.

A dark-eyed junco fluffs in the desert willow outside my office window.

A dark-eyed junco fluffs in the desert willow outside my office window.

A young buck mule deer passes in front of the lion gate after digging and browsing around under the snow in the garden.

A young buck mule deer passes in front of the lion gate after digging under snow and browsing in the garden.

3 thoughts on “Rapid Change in an Ambivalent Season

  1. Great blog. You make me think about nature differently. I’m really sad about your bees. I’m reading a book by a Ky bee keeper. She dusts her bees with sugar to keep mites away. Ever hear of this?

    Sent on the new Sprint Network

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