I’m grateful for every little thing about this day, starting with I woke up alive, and relatively pain free. From there, anything else is gravy. I didn’t do much today. I didn’t even think or feel much. I’m on staycation. But I paid attention to the phoebes, the jays, the magpies; to weather, lightning, potential rain; to nutrition, mine and others. I paid attention to the moment as consistently as I could, and remembered quite often to breathe, or rather, to notice my breath, each inhalation, each exhalation, the exact conditions of the body at the time. I’m grateful for each breath that allowed me to read some things, to watch some TV: I’m grateful for things to read and TV to watch, and various individuals who make those entertainments possible. I’m grateful for these five or six senses that let me make sense of, or at least interpret, the world outside this body-mind.
Those mom and pop phoebes are indomitable, like Mother Nature herself; constant, though not as sure as the sunrise. Anything could happen to any one of them on any day: a peregrine falcon, for example. But in general, they’re pretty safe here. They put up with me coming and going underneath them, and I suspect en evolutionary advantage to those phoebes who nested near humans: their risk pays off in having fewer (more cautious) predators.
In no time at all, they are climbing out of the nest, stretching their wings. Where is the fifth one? I’ve been watching the houseplants below the nest, no one has fallen out. I can’t really see them from the patio table, my outside office, without binoculars or the zoom lens, so sometimes I take pictures and only know what I’m looking at later.
I’m just grateful they’ve made it this far. Grateful that I have the opportunity to live in such close proximity, grateful they trust me, grateful to first hear their first wing stretches fluttering, and later witness ‘first flight,’ the first time both feet left a firm surface and this baby bird experienced the sensation of flight.
There seems to be a jay nest just north of the birch tree, possibly in an old abandoned magpie nest. It was here I think I heard the screeching from yesterday, before imagining the worst case scenario for a titmouse chick. I flustered a lot of them this evening just before I came in from the pending, blowing storm. Nothing has happened so far except some lighting and thunder, but overnight we got 3 one-hundredths of an inch of rain. I’m grateful for every milliliter of it.
It was interesting to observe: lying in bed around midnight hearing the first drops coming down on the metal roof, and then a steady thrum. Watching my mind attach with relief to the sound of rain, and immediately begin to constrict with the assumption that it wouldn’t amount to much, that it would end all too soon. The rain intensified, and for a moment I almost believed it would last, but then, over the course of a few minutes, the volume dwindled, and then shut off. Oh well. At least I have phoebes.
Though I know I won’t have them forever, I treasure them while they’re here: a healthy approach to every joyful thing in every day. So many things I’ve been grateful for during this one precious day that will never come again, including the opportunity to teach a mindfulness class to two dear friends, a delicious lunch, a hot shower, access to stream a film about the Dalai Lama, and the recommendation to watch Ballerina Boys, a fascinating documentary about an all-male ballet troupe that’s been showcasing a scintillating blend of classical ballet and drag comedy for 45 years. Literally every moment, every breath, is an opportunity to be grateful for something.
I’m grateful for this high-low thermometer. I’ve been keeping track of the temperatures with it for 21 years. Twenty to thirty degrees between high and low any given day is pretty normal, winter or summer. One of these days I’m going to sit down and transcribe all the data from the past two ten-year garden journals, in which temperatures and general weather conditions are recorded. I’m grateful I started keeping track all those years ago. There have been some changes in the weather patterns, and I look forward to charting them.
I’m grateful that the crocus leaf tips emerged undaunted from beneath the last big snow, which snow brought much-needed moisture to the mountains as well, raising the current snowpack to 87% of normal: not nearly enough to combat the drought, and less moisture than normal is expected through spring, but better than it’s been for most of the winter. We’re staring down the barrel of another desperate drought year. But for the moment, the high country is buried in snow, and the low country down here at 6800′ is warming into mud season. I’m grateful even for mud season, which makes a mess of everything but signals the coming of spring! Spring is in the air, despite uncommonly cold nights, and we’re up to about an extra hour of daylight since deep winter. I’m grateful for these little natural gifts, snow, mud, light, and a balmy hour or two on sunny days.
Dramatic weather on the national news: record heat in the Northeast. Katie reports it was 91 in New Hampshire, Julie said 86 in New Brunswick. This afternoon I sawed a large limb off the wild plum, once the snow had dropped off it. Last night late, when I let the dogs out for midnight whiz, I was staggered by the weight of snow on all the trees and shrubs in the yard. With all their spring leaves on, their fading blossoms and baby fruits, they’ve so much more surface to hold the snow.
A twelve-foot tall New Mexico foresteria outside the front door, flattened by snow. Behind it, that white mound between two junipers is the Amur Maple, easily a fifteen-foot tall sapling, limbs bent to the ground.
This was an especially dense wet snow. Limbs were down all over town.
I’ve felt particularly useless all day. Some national and some extremely local politics have drained me. I woke up anxious, felt like a fish out of water all day. My head is full of spaghetti. I am uncharacteristically dark; or perhaps I am cyclically dark. I gather this is the kind of matrix that causes spring’s swelling suicide rates. Winter has gone and things remain the same; snow returns with vigor. This too will change.
The wild plum tree, broken under melting snow. Below, the same tree forty days ago…
The massive pink honeysuckle, its fragrant blooms just opened days ago and covered in bees, bent this morning under a thick blanket.
The flowers were resilient. Irises so recently in bloom I’ve haven’t begun to photograph them, bowed but not broken, standing nearly straight by afternoon, after everything melted. Before it started snowing again.
Everything all gorgeous last weekend when I started planting annuals in pots, bringing out herbs and dahlias, potting up tomatoes, sprouting peppers.
Tonight I find surprising relief in watching the Weather Channel. Powerful storms rage across the central plains. Twelve tornadoes so far today, again. The winds this spring and last have been planetary. The atmosphere whips itself into a frenzy. We see only a small segment of the world’s weather on our television, maybe it’s different in other countries. We only see, for the most part, the weather over the continental US.
I might have been driving across the continental US this very day. If so, I’d have been glued to the Weather Channel, on TV if I could get it, or on my laptop, if I could get internet wherever I was hunkered down for the night, at whatever state park or back road hotel. Many’s the night I’ve fallen asleep to the weather, having memorized my place on the map, what county I was in so I’d know the name if I heard it under a tornado watch or warning, knowing the nearest towns in each direction, my exact location on the weather map as it flashed on the screen so I could track the radar at night.
There was a thrilling sense of aliveness on those treks across the country; knowing how near I was camped to a train track, so I would know if I heard a freight-train that it might actually be a train and not a tornado; knowing whether I was above or below a nearby dam, in case it blew; taking my chances having weighed all factors I could conceive of, always having an exit plan. I let myself escape the frustrations of today, my own harsh judgments, in the shiver of excitement watching weather. Feet of snow in the Rockies. Trailer park flattened in Kansas, tornado vortex signature in Missouri, spectacular lightning in Oklahoma. I might have been any one of those places today, but I’m not.
I inhale deeply, and exhale, my first relaxed breath of the day: I could have been there, driving my dogs and camper across the country to be with my dear auntie next week for her ninetieth birthday. I had planned to be on the way. But I decided a couple of months ago not to go, and I could not be more grateful. I did something right today, anyway: I stayed home.
Claret cup cactus in the woods are full of buds from all the rain.
This morning I planted five morning glory seedlings under the old cat ladder, a rickety wooden ladder to nowhere that makes a perfect trellis for morning glories. I had them there a few years ago and we hoped they’d reseed but they didn’t. Then I planted three nasturtium seedlings that were crying to escape the confines of their plastic tray. We’d had an hour of broken sun, and in this unusually rainy, cool May it felt great to get a few of these starts in the ground, even though it’s not a biodynamic flower day until tomorrow. I just couldn’t wait. Five flats of tender seedlings, flowers and fruits, sat on the metal patio table catching what rays they could.
The dark sky gathering in the south moved quickly toward us and I felt the first drops of rain. Good, I thought, a rain will do them good. As long as it doesn’t hail. No sooner had the thought escaped my lips than I heard ping! on the table. Ping! ping! I scrambled to prop the screen door open and dashed in and out bringing the trays to safety. Darnit. We’re definitely going to have a short growing season this year, at least on this end of it.
At least there’s plenty of water. So much water the fields are emerald green even before the irrigation’s turned on, luminous green below dark storm skies with just a shaft of sunlight streaming through. So much water weeds and bad grasses grow to seed faster than I can find enough dry hours to mow them. So much water the news stations warn of fungus marring lawns. So much water the irises have grown fifty percent taller than ever before, holding close their burgeoning buds day after day, sucking in all the moisture they may; surely they will burst open today!
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” A break in the main line from the Fruitland Mesa water treatment plant left us all conserving what we had in our cisterns over the weekend. No laundry, no dishes, no showers, no flushing, until we knew how long it would last. Just enough to drink and serve the animals, water plants that needed it most, and wash hands. It was ironic to wake up Sunday morning to emergency water measures, because Saturday I met the first California water refugees to arrive in our valley.
I work some days in town at the Church of Art. A family came in to look around. The young man struck up a conversation. The parents were visiting. “We just moved here,” he said. “We bought a farm outside of town. We left California because there’s no more water. We decided to move further up the watershed.”
In the harsh clarity of his statement the future flashed before my eyes. Further up the watershed. More people will be coming here from California, not this time because of land prices or urban sprawl or a back to the land movement, or even to grow legal pot, but because California’s running out of water. They’ll move further up the watershed. These young farmers have moved about as far up the Colorado River watershed as they can and still have any growing season for their carrots, beets, hops.
The first of these water refugees arrived innocuously enough, and seem like good people to add to our side on the fight against fracking that rumbles like a threatening undercurrent through all we do these days. As we talked about his plans for an organic farm, I made sure to mention our two conservation watchdog groups, Citizens for a Healthy Community and The Conservation Center. “You must be sure to join them,” I told him, “they’re our best defense of the watershed.”
For what good is moving further up the watershed if the source gets poisoned by hydraulic fracturing or wastewater injection? Among numerous deleterious consequences of “alternative” petroleum extraction methods such as fracking, watershed contamination ranks among the most alarming. There is no doubt it is happening, and there is no doubt the industry pulls out all the stops to deny it is happening in a shameful and intense propaganda campaign.
The California water refugees brought to mind the thousands of refugees from Africa and Myanmar struggling and dying on the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas, adrift on tons of water they can’t drink. A spectrum of refugees began to take shape in my mind. I didn’t have much time to ponder or pray over that dreadful crisis because more visitors arrived, this time a couple from the Front Range, who plan to retire to their land in this valley in a few years. Another sort of refugee, on the milder end of the spectrum. She’d lost her beehive this year also, and we commiserated about our feelings of guilt and inadequacy. “But,” I reassured her rather grimly, “it’s not your fault. Nationwide, 42% of beehives died this year. The bee crisis is worse than anyone thought.”
Then I said, because it was on my mind, and I think the two issues are connected at a fundamental level, and because they’re planning to move here to enjoy a quality of life that they see here now, “I hope you’re joining the fight against fracking.”
“Oh,” she said, and looked away. “If you want it to be like this when you get here,” I added. Her husband came from the gift shop and they moved silently toward the exit. “Thanks for stopping by,” I said. “Please come again.”
The first crocuses opened this morning, bereft of bees.
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.
We used the hive tool to scrape propolis and separate the false back and the first bar.
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.
Clean empty comb on the back side of the false back. Hmmm.
The first bar of honey was SO heavy, and even the comb had been crystallized. Eating a mouthful yielded only a tiny bit of wax.
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.
A robber bee from somewhere else drinks from exposed comb as we work.
We see dead bees on the floor after we’ve removed the first two bars.
Three bars full, heading for the kitchen to see what we can salvage.
Slicing off the caps reveals clear dark honey inside the cells.
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.
Moving toward the front two bars at a time the dead bees on the floor become thicker.
Frozen in time.
Dark old comb near the nest holds more dead bees, and what are those weird nipple-like things in the caps on the top right?
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.
Now that I’ve seen the mites through the microscope I can see them in this image. Naked eye not so well, especially in the first flush of discovery. But now I know what to look for.
Same thing here: mites everywhere in and around the pile that dropped in front of the door.
Once I dumped some of the dead bees onto white paper and looked under the microscope it was easy to discern the varroa mites.
Zoom. Two mites. Nasty creatures.
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.
I don’t know enough to say what I’m seeing here. Some of these cells may have held bee larvae. The white speck top center might be mite feces. The glistening blobs inside the cells could be calcified honey. The bee doctor identified some cells as such when he opened the hive two years ago, and he was perplexed by the phenomenon.
In the center cell in this image there are a couple of white things that look like the discarded skins of the last stage of mite metamorphosis.
Just another cool picture of the comb.
A poor dead bee like so many just hanging out where it expired. It strikes me as odd: Did they all die at once, instantaneously? Why are some frozen in mid-stride and others fallen to the bottom? Complex and full of mystery.
“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.