A Beekeepers Musings

unnamed2By Marcia Lee

The end of an era is over.  The beehive that started it all did not survive the summer.  This hive barely made it through the winter, revived itself, and then swarmed twice.  This led to two ‘new hives,’ but the bees did not leave a queen for the bees that were left behind.  So many lessons from the bees for these times.  I made so many small and large decisions throughout the time, many of them probably not the best.  But here we are.

Yesterday one of the beehives in our backyard was robbed by other bees, wasps, and insects.  When we went to look today, we found that the hive had been decimated.  There was no more honey in the cells and the bodies of dead bees littered the floor of the hive.  The hive was going to die one way or another, because, without a queen, a hive cannot survive.  The honey went to other bees and wasps and it will help them to survive another winter.  However, if I had pulled the honey, could the bees have died a softer death?

Three days ago, I noticed bees and wasps that are double the size of honey bees trying to get into the hive.  The honeybees would throw their whole bodies at the bees and wasps in order to knock them away from the door of their hive.  They would fight them to the death to defend their hive.  We closed up some of the openings in the front so that the honeybees had less openings to defend.  Why did the queen choose to leave?  When a queen leaves, there are two ways to main ways for humans to save a hive.  You either get a queen from another hive or get frame with new eggs from another hive for the bees who are left to start a queen.  A queen is started by the worker bees feeding the egg royal jelly.  She’s not ‘born’ ‘the queen,’ it is what the community decides to feed her that changes her fate.  There can only be one queen in a hive.  And all of the bees that come after are her descendants.

A couple of weeks I looked in the hive.  They did not start a new queen.  There were a few brood cells, but they were all drones.  Drones are males.  Their only role is the mate.  They do not contribute to gathering honey, taking care of the young, guarding the hive, or anything else.  All of the other honeybees are female.  With only drone cells, this meant that not only did the hive had no queen, but that some of the worker honeybees were laying eggs because there was no queen.  At this point, it was too late to add in another queen because the worker honeybees were laying eggs and they would not let a new queen survive.  They had a couple of bars that were full of capped honey.  I was going to harvest at that time because I knew that the hive was going to die and it would have given us honey for the year.  However, I didn’t want to take the honey just yet so that the bees would have food for whatever time they have left and so that they would not feel afraid of not having food in their old age.  I wonder if bees have feelings?

unnamedA month or so ago, the hive swarmed again.  This meant that the queen in the hive left with a bunch of workers to find a new home.  We don’t know why they left.  Was it because they didn’t like the house?  Was it because they wanted to go on an adventure?  We don’t know why they left, but we know that they left.  This queen and the workers did not fly far from home.  So, we caught the bees and gave them to our friend Erin.  When they left, we waited to see if the honeybee workers would start a new queen cell.  When they didn’t start a new queen cell, we tried to transport one day eggs into the hive so that the bees would have one day eggs to start a new queen.  Maybe we should have bought a queen at this point.  That is what we did last year and the hive made it through the winter.  But how much do we intervene as humans into the lives of the bees and how much do we let them decide?

Two months or so ago, the hive swarmed for the first time.  They went next door.  We caught them and put them into a hive that was a few feet away from the original hive.  They did quite well and began building lots of comb right away.  The queen for this hive is the first queen.  She is the one who laid the eggs that survived the winter.  I think they left because I didn’t give them enough space.

At the end of winter, I was afraid to open the hive.  I assumed that they had all died over winter because the hive was so tiny in the fall, I was not sure it would survive.  en opened the hive and found that they lived!  Erin came over and we went through the hive.  We found an inch of blue frozen and modly bees on the bottom of the hive.  The bees who lived were so few that they did not have the capacity to clear out the bees who had died over winter.  The bees that had died had frozen and defrosted over winter and became a layer of blue mold.  We cleared out the dead bees and the hive took on new life.  It grew really quickly and was quite happy.

Last year, we started beekeeping again.  I first started as a beekeeping apprentice over 15 years ago when I first moved to Detroit.  I learned from Brother Rick of the Capuchin Franciscans; the friar who started Earthworks Urban Farm.  He was a friar for at least 2 decades.  Then, he left the friars after the person he had married at 20 or 21 came back into his life 30 years later and remarried her because he said that was his first commitment.  He said that we must always follow Love; this is the first call and commitment.

How do I know if the path I choose in a moment is the best?  Who chooses who dies and who lives?  Who knows if the bees will survive the winter.

But we try and try and try again.

Because what is life but a commitment to Love.

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