Without much ceremony, we acquired a beehive. We ordered the hive back in the fall, fearing it would be impossible to find one come springtime. There are lots of options when bee shopping but the other choices (nucs, bag-o-bees, taming a bee tree hive, etc) required too much skill. So we paid the extra money and picked up a thriving hive through Bee Weaver Apiaries. Despite our grand plans to be well-trained beekeepers prior to bringing one home, we hadn’t even attended a class before we picked it up. In fact, Jer paid extra for priority shipping on some hive tools and bee suits three days before the hive arrived. It’s been that kind of spring around here where the time gets away and suddenly the best laid plans are never executed.
Bee pick-up was scheduled at Austin’s favorite urban farmstead, Boggy Creek Farm, and we drove up in Buster the busted farm truck, backed him in, and they tossed a little blue hive in the bed. Although the truck hardly moved with the weight of them, something imperceptible shifted. I heard a faint buzz beyond the truck window and I quickly reached down and rolled it up as one friendly bee whizzed by on his way to work. We shared a wary, wordless exchange and looked in the rear view mirror. Yet again, we were starting from the beginning with an under-researched endeavor. “So,” Jer said slowly, “that’s it?” in his now often used “oh crap” tone of voice. “That’s it!” I attempted to enthusiastically pat his knee. If I could learn goats, Jer could learn bees. We got this, I thought confidently before frantically swatting at my neck where paranoia made me believe bees were crawling down my shirt. So, as is usual for us, not the most impressive start.
That was last weekend. That was how we started with bees. Luckily, we had the wherewithal to enroll in a beekeeping class for the following weekend and already picked a location for the bee yard. The area was ready and waiting for the hive when we got home. Aside from setting it gently onto its resting spot, we did little with them this week, hoping to build bravery and knowledge through the class. I’ve read one book and skimmed others, and Jeremy managed to speed read a bee book this week, order more of the essential equipment, and we both attended class on Saturday with questions. During the introductions it was evident that we were the only fools who purchased a hive prior to taking a class, and I noticed our instructor’s eyes widen slightly when he learned we were “keeping” bees already. It seems irresponsible, probably, the way we generally approach our farm acquisitions (and, hell, even the farm), but since we both succumb to procrastination I’ve learned that jumping in can sometimes force your hand a little. For better or worse.
After an overview of the hive structure, hive pests and predators, and the basics of beekeeping, we were each handed a suit and encouraged to meet the bees. We felt fairly bulletproof in the heavy canvas suits although the hive swarmed and buzzed around us once the lid was removed. The sensation of standing amidst a few thousand bees is unsettling regardless of the armor you’re wearing. Our instructor, Mark Gretchen of Gretchen Bee Ranch, calmly and casually began inspecting frames, talking us through what we saw, urging us to identify drones vs. worker bees vs. the queen. Suddenly, pure fascination drowned the oppressive buzz from the curious bees keeping guard over the hive. For the first time, I started to understand how it is that one might be consumed by beekeeping and by bees themselves; truly the most industrious and clever little insects (aside from, say, ants). Obviously our fascination began with the bee tree when the size and production level of that wild hive was exposed inside the hollow tree. But seeing domestic bees work neatly and carefully inside their man-made box, understanding their wordless but efficient communication, their vital contribution to – well – everything and knowing that at the end of it all you get to extract the honey. It’s more then I could take. Yesterday, I was truly in the midst of bee heaven.
Armed with resources, some (gorgeous) handmade beeswax candles, and that intangible ignition of bravery, we came home and donned our suits. Jeremy fired up the smoker, and we finally tromped down to our own little hive, terrified they had swarmed and left sometime during their week of neglect. After carefully prying off the lid, we finally met our new charges – 10,000 of the busiest creatures we now care for. The bee yard is down near the vegetable garden in our front acreage, tucked back under a cove of trees. I was shocked to realize that a bee highway now extends straight from the hive out to the front pasture where wildflowers are in full bloom. Not only was their path to and from the hive straight, direct, and clear; I literally heard the zoom and flutter of wings as they whizzed past my face. It’s essential to check on the health of a hive, yes, but yesterday I realized how much work they do. Don’t be a bother to your bees, I learned. Their job is more important then mine, in many ways.
This week was tragic, heartbreaking, and devastating for many, whether viewed from a distance or experienced first-hand. Watching Jer lift the frames covered in thousands of bees forming perfect wax hexagons, creating honey, capping combs, feeding the brood – a choreography so ancient it’s written about in the oldest texts – was, to be honest, life affirming. None of us can completely silence the noise of our realities, whatever it may be, but growing and tending and being rooted in these natural rituals is a solid reminder that we’re just a small part of an intricate system that basically got it right the first time. Without much intervention from us, the world keeps turning, photosynthesis happens, the bees pollinate the plants and turn pollen into honey. Like everything we’ve planted here at the farm, they’ve already started re-teaching me some basic principles that get forgotten along the way. Don’t be a bother to the bees and all the natural systems.
Or to each other.