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Archive for January, 2010

So I hope you will entertain the idea that Michael and Kelle’s bees in the Greenlake neighborhood of Seattle were calling me.  It is not so far-fetched an idea as it might seem.  Somewhere in my library of bee-books there are stories of medieval practices in the event of the death of a beekeeper.  Some European cultures felt the bees had to be notified of the death of their keeper, and the new one had to ask the bees to take kindly to him, otherwise they would be aggressive or grow weak and die.  Another story I remember is the hive had to be moved just an inch or two in the event of a beekeeper’s death so the bees would be made aware of the shift coming to their lives.  But perhaps the best advice that illustrates the connection between a beekeeper and his or her charges is the frequent reporting to bees of major events like war or marriages, as well as anything that may be on the mind of the beekeeper.  I like this last bit of advice.  I don’t talk to my bees, but I don’t keep any secrets from them either.

This one particular hive residing at Michael and Kelle’s has beautiful bees in them: incredibly gentle, industrious, and prolific.  They are so industrious and prolific,  that by mid-June of last year they were working on drawing the comb and storing honey in their third box, after only two months of residency.  They also decided to swarm.  After quite an adventure and with Kelle’s help, we caught them and put them in a new hive.  I gave them a few frames of honey and one of pollen from their old hive, and set them on their way to building their new home.

I could have fed them sugar syrup to provide the many necessary calories it takes to build out a new hive, but it wasn’t even summer yet and I assumed with the honey I gave them they would be alright.  By mid-September they had drawn out a second hive body, but about 40% of the honey was uncapped, which I feared might ferment in our wet winters.  Additionally, it was clear that their behavior had shifted and they were remaining closer to the center of the colony with the young brood for the winter.  I assumed the uncapped honey was going to remain that way.  So I knew going into this winter that starvation was a threat for them.

The past couple nights before going to bed I had a worried feeling in my gut, and in my mind I kept seeing bees searching around an empty hive for food as my thoughts made their transition to the stuff of dreams.  Finally today I could bear it no longer and headed over to feed them.

Michael and I made sugar-water, and since we heated it on the stove I wanted to give it time to cool before giving it to them.  It was taking a while so I suggested we have tea and go outside.  We sat in the tea house catching up on news looking out upon the hives in the rain.  Gradually the rain subsided and the sky lightened up enough to cast diffuse rays of sunlight upon the hives, and the first few bees emerged.  Our conversation turned to deeper questions of life as one hive awoke sending dozens of foragers out looking for spring, and the other, the one I was worried about, gradually did the same on a much smaller scale.

In the top box of the weaker hive, there were bees milling about, but no evidence of honey in surplus.  I didn’t pull out any frames, as it was a little too cold, especially for such a weakened colony, but if there was any honey in there, it was scant.  I placed the inner-cover over the frames, then the feeder tray, then the jars of sugar syrup, a hive body around that and then the lid, leaving them with many wishes for a tolerable winter and early flowers, as well as many thanks for the privilege and pleasure of watching them over tea.

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Beginnings

Mr. and Mrs. Colfax were my first two teachers.  She ran a nursery school out of their old farm house in what had become suburban Pompton Lakes, NJ.  When I first arrived there, I looked around the large room of tables and kids, fumbled through the alphabet song, and proceeded to cry.  I cried and cried and cried, until Mrs. Colfax took me by the hand and walked me through the swinging door back into her home.  Mr. Colfax was smoking his pipe and reading the paper at the kitchen table.

“So, you’re not ready to go to school yet?”  I shook my head and then cried a whole lot more.

For the next three days of school, I was taken back to their kitchen and sat with Mr. Colfax while he smoked and read, and every once in a while when my sobbing subsided, he would ask, “Are you ready to join the other kids now?”  To which I shook my head and cried a whole lot more.

But on the third day, just after snack time, he asked me if I was ready, and as the tears didn’t well up inside of me, I nodded.  He took my hand and walked me out into the world.

On one field trip, we went and visited a local beekeeper.  It was an airy, light-overcast day in early spring that promised of warmer days.  He assuaged all our fears, opened up a hive, and invited us closer to look inside, pulling out the frames and showing us honey, brood and pollen.  All of our bare little faces were relaxed and wide-eyed, enchanted by beauty and mystery.

I always give thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Colfax for the supremely human way they let me transition to a larger world, and I don’t think it’s ironic they introduced me to bees as well.

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