How are my bees doing (part 1)

I know you meant to ask me, “how are the bees?” So I’ll tell you:

It’s been such a cool rainy summer. May was cold and overcast, June was dismal, July more hopeful but it’s rainy today, cooler and alternating drizzle with downpour. Is this the summer of ’09? Aye, that it is.

My beehive was thriving, strong, HUGE at the end of March. It sat in the sunny corner of the my yard and the bees began bringing in skunk cabbage and forsythia pollen in the last days of February. What a beekeeper! I told myself, what a queen! The start of my second year look even more promising than my first.

I was among the very few to get honey in fall of ’08 and I got quite a harvest. My bees had a perfect spot and a variety of flowers to chose from, what with the abundance of backyard gardens, window boxes, weed lots and flower gardens in the center of the city of Beverly. I learned so much and seemed to be doing everything right but hubris reared it’s ugly head as I have learned in my second year that the bees are the ones who make or break a good year and they are working for their lives, not for my stroked ego as a big-headed novice beekeeper.

Spring of 2009 started beautifully, early and so full of promise. The beehive was active, very active during the sunny hours of March. They flew fast and purposefully and were bringing in plenty of pollen. I was still feeding them sugar water because they were continuing to take it at a rather alarming rate which gave me a bit of concern. Of more concern was the number of bees that were flying in and out of the hive in the late winter/early spring. This hive was huge. Of my greatest concern was the defensiveness of the bees when I approached the hive. They were flying out at me, pinging me, buzzing me with a high-pitched angry buzz that I never heard last year. My scottie Artie, who comfortably sauntered up to the landing board to get a whiff of the fruity-heady honey scent last summer was promptly stung when he took his first sniff of the new year. That was it for Artie but I knew I had work to do.

I began studying swarms, bee defensiveness and worst of all, angry queens. I would have to dismantle the hive to find out what was going on. Either the hive was way too big for the current living situation and would soon half and find a new place to take up residence or there was something like a skunk pestering the hive which was driving them crazy and making them super defensive, or worst of all, the queen turned mean and she sets the temprament for the rest of the hive.

During the lazy days of summer and cooler days of fall in 2008, I was able to approach the hive from the side, lift off the outer cover and assess the inner workings without a veil, smoke or gloves. This was a relaxed, busy, comfortable hive. On March 16th, just after cool sunrise, I carefully lifted the outer cover to see how they were doing  and the workers erupted from the landing board and from beneath the cover. They were out for blood and took no prisoners. I was stung three times which was lucky and Artie got if once or twice although he stayed about 10 feet away. This was a thoroughly pissed-off hive. And it was ENORMOUS.

Now let’s add an element that I hadn’t given much thought: I live in a city. I have close neighbors. I’m fortunate that my hive was tucked in a far corner of a good-sized yard hidden by a tall fence on 2 sides and a bush on the third when it’s in bloom. Only one neighbor was aware of my beehive, the ones who live on the other side of where it’s positioned. It was my goal to make sure NONE of my neighbors knew of a beehive. A well-managed hive can thrive anonymously in the city for years. Unfortunately my talkative 10 year-old son couldn’t wait to tell our new neighbors we have a beehive.

At first they seemed fine with the idea of a beehive. I gave a mini lesson about the difference among honey bees, wasps and hornets and promised beautiful flowers and flowering trees and finished with the “save the bees” cause. They were receptive, they marveled at how beautiful their crabapple tree blooms were, how healthy and productive their tomatoes and squashes were that summer. Actually it was Mr. Neighbor so I assumed Mrs. Neighbor was on the same page. And actually, she was NOT.

Shortly after I realized I had a problem with an aggressive hive in March, Mrs. Neighbor approached me in a rather un-neighborly tone to say that she was not happy we had bees, that there were bee allergies in her family and she did not want to find out that her kids are allergic to them. She said she knows bees love clover and their yard was full of clover so she made sure her husband mowed it down frequently. It was so uncomfortable. I felt awful! I realized this woman, whom I never saw outside much last summer may have felt trapped in her home because of my bees. It was the equivalent for me to living next to untrained, unmanaged pit bulls.

So now I was certain my hive would swarm directly to the Neighbors house, either right in the eaves (which were open) or hang from the shutters outside their children’s bedrooms. All my pride and glory of being one of the most successful first-year beekeepers vanished. I was harboring a danger in my back yard and they would be able to see the battle I was about to rage with this enormous and angry hive to make things right. I was planning to split the hive and began inquiring to various people and places to move it. I felt heartbroken because I love beekeeping so much and the joy of coming home from work on a warm late summer afternoon to watch the bees flying about while the gorgeous aroma of warm local honey wafts about is beyond description.

Then the cold spring moved in during the 2nd week of April. The bees kind of withdrew, became more reclusive. I was still providing sugar water but they were taking less, although it appeared there were less bees coming and going. There was still a queen because they were bringing in pollen. They were defensive but not aggressive. And it was cold and rainy for days and days.

to be continued….

About EF Sweetman

writing, reading, pretty much everything noir
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