When I opened my hives for their spring inspection, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My bees were dead.
I trembled as I analyzed each comb for a sign of what went wrong. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t open the hive for a midwinter inspection, not wanting to let precious heat escape. Instead, I had been visiting the hives every day to observe bee traffic through the hive entrance. There was always at least a little activity. Bees went in, bees went out, but they weren’t my bees. I was aware that sometimes bees can go in to take honey from a hive that has died, and I tried to look for that. I had never actually seen it before, but I had read descriptions of what that would look like. Everything looked okay to my untrained eye, and I thought all was well. I told people, excitedly, that my hives survived the difficult winter. I posted about it on social media. I allowed myself to relax.
There was plenty of honey still in the hive, and they hadn’t even touched the sugar candy I made for them. They didn’t starve. I broke apart some of the combs to check for signs of varroa mites, but I didn’t find evidence of that either. So many feelings rushed through me when I found the comb where it happened. Grief, frustration, anger, shame, and guilt. There they were, still in cluster formation, likely frozen. It probably happened during the December cold snap, when record wind chills of negative 40 degrees blasted through the region. The thing I hoped for above all other hopes this year was for the survival of my bees. I focused my energy on them. I inspected the hives regularly, and I helped them as much as I could. I loved them. I tried to protect them from all the dangers the world holds for them, and to give them every advantage. I had done my best to protect the hive from cold, and to prepare them for the winter. It wasn’t enough.
I sealed the hives back up and went inside my house to melt into a puddle on my living room floor by the couch where my husband sat. He asked me what was wrong, so I told him. My husband isn’t a farmer, but he does play a couple of important roles in this project. One role is that he encourages me to keep going. So when I told him that I “killed my bees” and that I didn’t “deserve” to keep bees anymore, he stepped up to the plate. “Laura, you didn’t kill the bees. They died. Sometimes bees die in the winter. You will learn from this and protect your hives better next time.”
He’s right about the learning, at least.
I adopted two new bee colonies three weeks ago. I re-assessed everything about my hives and made all the improvements I could think to make. I moved them from the part-sun woodland edge location where they had been, out into the middle of the field in the bright sunshine where it might be a little warmer. I oriented both hives to face South, which is optimal. Now that both hives faced the same direction, I painted them with different colors and designs so that bees would have no trouble finding their particular entrance. I made some other refurbishments to the hive boxes. I’m working on planting a special garden around the new hive location so the bees can always be surrounded by their most favorite plants. They received a significant head start thanks to the beautiful combs and nutritious honey that last year’s bees created. I’m designing a new and improved winter protection system for the hives. So far, they are doing great. They’re storing honey, raising babies, and reorganizing the hives to make the space their own. I visit them every day to observe their comings and goings, as I did with my former bees. My eyes are sharper now, and I know more of what to look for. I still have more to learn.
The sad truth is that about 40% of honeybee colonies die every winter. That number has risen sharply over the past few decades, and it continues to rise. It’s hard to be a bee in this world. It’s hard to be a beekeeper. It’s getting harder.
Bees need human partners in their fight for survival. That partnership could take the form of skilled beekeepers caring for them directly, gardeners growing organic flowers for them, homeowners who don’t spray toxins on their lawns, and advocates fighting for better land stewardship and honeybee rights. We need all of it.
Honeybees are non-native in the United States, but we need them here now. Since honeybees have such an important relationship with the human world and our human agriculture, people are aware of them in a way that we are not aware of our native pollinators. People will mobilize to save the honeybees in a way that they simply don’t mobilize to save the bumblebees or the sweat bees or the mason bees, but many of the same issues affecting honeybees affect native pollinators as well. We need more flowers in the world, and less chemicals on our lawns (and gardens, and farm fields). We need clean air, clean water, and less greenhouse gasses. We need to preserve our forests, and plant more of them. Many people don’t realize how important trees are to pollinators, but maples provide some of the first pollen of the year, and a single flowering tree can produce much more nectar than a ground-level patch of flowers. Some of the best native trees to plant for bee benefits include Redbud, American Basswood, Red Maple, and Serviceberry.
I hope this is the last time I will ever lose a hive, but the statistics say it probably won’t be. I’m doing all I can do to become a better beekeeper every day, and I hope this time it will be enough. For now, the state of the hives is strong. Long live the queens!
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