Autumn Beekeeping

Life gets in the way. Isn’t that a song line? Between traveling, which includes pre-travel frenzy and finding my rhythm again post-travel, I haven’t been able to spend too much time in the hives lately. Not to mention that this organizing part of my brain keeps the writing side of my brain hostage.

So, yes, life gets in the way, but life also goes on. (Sorry for the clichés.) Bees are sturdy critters. Unlike most livestock, they don’t need to be tended to daily. Especially now that the cold mornings are here.

Aside from refilling sugar water supplies, it has been almost two weeks since my beekeeping buddy and I ventured into the hives. That day, Tim coaxed a frame from the top box of my hive, sticky propolis threads trailing. “What do you see?” Ugh, he was testing me again. Like any good teacher, asking questions instead of making statements. He tilted it so the sun caught the beads of nectar in a thousand reflections. I looked long, not quite sure what he was asking. A few capped brood cells winked up at me from the center of the frame. “Lots of nectar. That’s good, right?” Good because it’s October. If this had been June, it would have meant a failing queen. “Right, the workers are starting to shut the queen down.”

We were fully dressed in bee suits, veils and gloves; the smoker was fired up to calm extra-vigilant guards. Bees are more protective this time of year. This abundance of nectar in the top frames, mostly from goldenrod, asters and supplemental sugar water, was a good sign. As fast as the last brood cells hatch, workers fill them with nectar. This forces the queen down in to the deeper, warmer parts of the hive. We removed empty frames and consolidated full ones to take each hive down to 3 boxes. Too many boxes and the hive is like a big drafty house; the cold seeps in and they have to go too far to find honey stores.

It’s about this time of year that my worry gene kicks into high gear. Do my honeybees have enough stores to get them through the winter? Have I done enough to keep the mite level low? What if a mouse makes its home in there? There have been bear sightings not far from here; should I invest in an electric fence?

Worry, of course, gets me nowhere. A quick peek into the hives this afternoon tells me they’re alive and well. Lifting the inner cover would send waves of cool air into the depths so I only top off the sugar water up above and slip an entrance reducer in place down below to discourage mice who happen to like the warmth of the hive as much as bees do on chilly nights.

There’s not much out there in the way of flowers anymore so workers keep busy inside making honey. Beating their wings over 200 times a second, they fan the cells, taking the water content of the nectar down to 18%. They add enzymes and other compounds to keep it from spoiling, then cap it with a coat of wax. This will be their food for the winter. The queen stops laying, in tune with her own instincts as much as she is guided by the workers’ activities. The last generation of eggs hatched will be non-foraging workers that will maintain the hive and protect the queen through the cold months. Cold, lifeless drones lie at the entrance most mornings, evicted by the workers, their job done for the season. Hefting the hive from the bottom, it should be about 100 pounds. My shoulders feel the weight.

Fall is closing in, winter on its heels. These mornings I fold chilled fingers up into the sleeves of my jacket. The sound and scent of brown flavors the air, its earthy essence crackling in the leaves pushed along the road by the wind. Hay fields take on an amber tone and there are longer intervals between bird calls. The frogs have long grown silent, replaced by crickets and katydids, their beat steadily measuring the earth’s elliptical orbit. Even these have grown quiet. The sun sends the memory of all its summer sunsets into the maples reflecting yellows, reds and oranges so vibrant they crack my senses open. All this against an unblemished blue sky. I have to look into the pockets of shade tempering the brilliance, for counterbalance.

It’s the end of the active season for bees and beekeepers. But endings are also beginnings. A new cycle begins silently inside the hive. The queen is protected and fed, waiting for cues to start laying again. This period of dormancy before the frenzy of spring activity is vital – bees need the rest in their cycle as much as anyone. My beekeeping chores shift too, taking me inside to the cluster of supplies in a corner of the basement. There’s equipment that needs cleaning and organizing, containers of raw beeswax to render into blocks of pure gold, candles and lip balms to make, jars of honey to label. Beekeeping has its cycles too – like the bees, I’m ready to come inside.


The Dilemma of Domestication

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines domestication as the process of reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms . . . to meet specific requirements or whims. [These animals and plants] are adapted to the conditions of continuous care and solicitude [that] people maintain for them. ( Basically, living things in the natural world were brought into the fold of human everyday living to enhance survival by offering protection and reliable food sources.

I also believe that there’s some innate desire to bring what’s out there, in here, closer to the practicalities of everyday life because instinctively we’re aware that nature has a way of balancing us. We’re wooed by shampoos with natural botanicals or laundry products that are free of chemical dyes, and everything from breads to dairy products that are labeled all-natural with no additives or preservatives.

This softening of the edges between outside and in is more pronounced in some and is expressed in other ways too. In our house, there are little collections of the natural world gleaned from walks near and far on windowsills and bookshelves, filling elegant glass containers and the odd plastic cracker sleeve alike. The windows are usually open, even if just a crack in winter (if I can get away with it). The cat adorns my pillow by night and the piano by day; the dog has his spot on the couch. Spiders nest freely in the upper reaches of the cathedral ceiling, not because I can’t reach them but because I like them there looking down at me. They also find little habitats within my plant collection. About the only living thing I won’t allow inside are ants . . . and the occasional tick I find crawling up my leg from a walk through the woods.

To invite the essence of the natural world into our lives means that unwanted pests hitch a ride on the animals we domesticate – bacteria, viruses, mites, fleas, ticks . . . the Pandora’s box of vermin. So we need to take responsibility for those creatures we domesticate. The spiders are on their own but my dog is protected against fleas, ticks and heartworm on a regular basis. He gets his vaccinations. My cat, also vaccinated, is not allowed outdoors to share parasites with the chipmunks, or play hide and seek with the coyotes that watch from the woods.

Likewise, I take care of my honeybees, even if they’re not invited inside. I provide them with a home, food when necessary, and an added layer of protection against winter winds. I monitor for mites and other pests, treating both mechanically and chemically. Just like I treat my dog. I won’t get into the pros and cons of various chemical treatments. Some beekeepers use chemicals, some don’t. And I understand this – why pump a creature of nature full of chemicals? Everyone has their favorite side of the fence. There are as many ways to protect against honeybee pests as there are flea and tick products for dogs.

Mites, nosema and American foulbrood are the most notorious honeybee pests. Any of these infestations can stress a colony, weaken the bees’ immune systems and decrease honey production – honey they’ll need in winter. Mites also vector some pretty nasty viruses. American foulbrood is deadly, and contagious. The only course is to burn your bees and equipment, a huge loss. If there is one pest to treat for prophylactically, this is it.

Why can’t we just let the bees be? For the same reason many of us don’t allow our dogs to roam the woods unprotected from ticks and why dairy cattle need to be vaccinated and dewormed. It’s about quality of life. My lab mix can expect to live a healthy life of about 12 – 14 years. The average lifespan of a wild coyote is only 6 – 8 years. A housecat can live to 17 or 18; a bobcat lives only 7 years. The average natural lifespan for a domesticated cow is 25 years; a deer only lives a measly 4.5 years on average. Many of these animals in the wild succumb to illness brought on by other living creatures that take up residence in or on them. Deer in the woods live unprotected from ticks, deerflies, and the diseases they carry. They’re hunted by predators that carry their own load of pests. The image of Bambi with his shiny healthy coat and bright eyes is an exaggeration. Animals in the wild don’t have it easy.

If we’re going to domesticate animals for our pleasure and use, we owe it to them to care for them properly. The ultimate health and well-being of our domesticated pets and livestock (yes, bees are considered livestock) depends on it. It’s in the definition of domestication – continuous care and solicitude. How you do it is up to you. But please do it.


Pass It On

If you’re new to all this, you might be starting to pick up on some of the vocabulary of beekeeping. Maybe you can envision a frame now, and a super; you might have figured out that bees not only bring nectar to the hive but pollen also; and you sort of know what propolis is. Words like smoker and frame that you understand in everyday context have new meanings.

So vocabulary is important. A vocabulary list is just a complex process or story taken apart and put in alphabetical order. While it helps us to understand the terms, the words make the most sense when we weave them into the context of the bigger picture. Nature has its own ideas of order, despite our efforts to classify and pigeonhole. Everything – the weather, flora and fauna, stones and water – is intertwined in the dance of nature, choreographed in real time. The natural world is a hodgepodge of organic beings and fundamental elements woven together in an intricate story, beginnings and endings circling each other. Lining them up anteater to zebra would be like putting the words of the Star Spangled Banner in alphabetical order. There is history behind those verses that connects humans, just as food webs and the water cycle connect all of nature.

That’s where a teacher comes in, someone who throws the words in the air so students can watch them whirl like maple samaras and settle into the forest floor; words for anatomy intermingling with words for nutrition and protection and other beings, and coexistence with those other beings.

New beekeepers need a mentor. Someone older (at least to beekeeping) and wiser when it comes to bees, methods of beekeeping, and timing. Because on one hand, beekeeping is easy. After all, if you offer bees a hive, they will move in and do what bees do naturally. But these new homeowners also need key things at key times from their caretakers. Like children do. You can’t leave a child generally untethered and expect a valedictorian to walk across the stage at 18 years old; likewise, you can’t install a colony of bees in April, go about your business, and expect 30 pounds of honey in September.

When I first started beekeeping, it felt like I’d become a worried new mom, responsible for thousands of little lives. Did they have enough to eat? Were they warm enough? Too hot? Were they safe from robber bees and skunks? Should I give them a night light, check on them at 2 am? I guess the term ‘raising bees’ is an appropriate one. It’s like raising children. I had millions of questions. Luckily, I also had Tim, my mentor.

A beekeeper for more than 25 years, Tim was there when I installed my first hive on a chilly April morning 6 ½ years ago and he still willingly checks on the status of my colonies whenever I ask. We tweak equipment, find the queen, high five at the sight of a full honey super and support each other through mite infestations. He taught me to never, ever give up even when my colonies became totally unbalanced and queenless, teetering on self destruction. He taught me patience, taming the need to hover, my big human face staring at my bees through the inner cover. If they could talk, they’d be grumbling, “leave us alone, we can do this,” just like any independent-minded kid. Just enough hands on and just enough hands-off is a fine line to walk.

Because in reality, honeybees can’t do it alone. They have become, if not domesticated, then at least necessarily managed. More often and with greater intensity, bees are exposed to the activities of human living. The bottom line is that if we want to eat, we need pollinators. And if we want to keep pollinators alive and instrumental in pollinating our crops, we need to mitigate the negative effects of human behavior with some positive or protective measures.

New beekeepers can’t do it alone either. If you’re considering keeping bees, make sure you have a mentor, whether it’s in the form of an internet forum, a book, or a real human. I vote for real humans; the others are supplemental. And then, as a real human with real beekeeping experience, you can pass it on when the time comes. There’s a fledgling beekeeping group at Connecticut College that needs a mentor and I’m stepping up. Of course, the biology teacher in me loves this, nerd that I am, and big fan of young adults in general. Like Tim, I will coax out the answers to their millions of questions by asking my own. I’ll be right there with them when they go into the hives, interpreting what we see. I’ll help them learn that elusive menagerie of skills called patience, trust, and resilience. Their bees will be ok, through storms and swarms and summer droughts. And if a colony dies, they’ll learn to begin again. Just as nature does.