The Secret Life of Beekeepers (Boston Phoenix)
You probably don't measure bees in terms of pounds. You probably don't measure bees at all. But last May, when I decided to become a beekeeper, I acquired three pounds of bees. My colony came in a package, stapled in a wire cage, with ten thousand or so bees making up the fuzzy, teeming ball inside. I drove away from the bee farm with it in the back seat of my car.
I wish I could say that my first motivation in beekeeping was to bolster dwindling bee populations and enhance pollination, but I think it was greed. Last Thanksgiving, my husband Tim and I noticed a box in a back corner of a family friend's backyard. It was a hive. Our friend said upkeep was easy, and once underway, the hive could produce 30 to 60 pounds of honey annually. We left that day with a copy of First Lessons in Beekeepingand visions of cascading amber goo. All that remained between the bounty and us was our ability to stick our hands into a mass of bees.
I bought my bees over the Internet, in my pajamas. One friend said it seemed like the sort of thing Wile E. Coyote would do. Another, a horror-film fanatic, told me that bees themed his worst nightmares. My sister just said, "Gross."
Over the next few months, postcards arrived from the bee farm alerting me that inclement weather had delayed bee readiness. It wasn't until the third and final card that I realized my bees weren't "delivery" as I thought: they were pick-up. In upstate New York.
Could I drive bees four hours home? Would they even survive the journey? The farm assured me that with windows down and stops minimal, the bees would be just fine. I booked a hotel room.
When the time arrived, we drove to Greenwich, NY. That night we ate a ton of barbecue and drank Scotch. The hotel turned out to be a creepy B&B filled with lacy dolls that were probably haunted. I thought to myself, "This is my last night not in possession of ten thousand bees." It occurred to me that I hadn't had time to check with a doctor to see if I was allergic, like I'd meant to.
At the bee farm the next morning, stacks of bee packages sat outside a red barn, and a man at a picnic table collected their owner's signatures as they arrived. Bees floated everywhere in a dreamlike languor. I remembered to stay calm and move slowly. Occasionally, a bee would land on my head and ricochet in another direction. Somehow, this was okay.
"Did you choose the sting-free kind?" asked the bee farmer while I signed for my package. I'm glad I laughed. On the table, a stray bee puttered around at the corner of my contract. Its body was sleek, striped and tapered: prettier than I expected, more delicate than the dopey bumblebee.
The warehouse was closing, and I stood in the parking lot holding the cage at arm's length like a ticking bomb while the nonplussed staff closed up the barn. A quiet hum emanated from the cluster. It was less the beating of wings as it was thousands of their felted bodies turning over on one another. Faintly, I could smell their sweet, floral musk. At their center, a new queen waited to be released.
We sped past every rest stop and arrived home with our colony intact. They were to live in Tim's mother's Braintree backyard, where our family friend could advise us. We'd invited friends to watch our bee installation, and they did so from a safe distance. I think we were all afraid the bees were going to explode out of the box like those zooming cartoon swarms, but that's the opposite of how honeybees behave. The bees were lethargic in the cool weather, and as we poured them into their new home, they plopped out like gobs of molasses. We smacked the box to shake out lazy stragglers.
Besides, as I would learn, these bees were specifically bred to be docile. They will land on you and perch like a canary and then take off — it's a pretty non-threatening relationship once you get over the initial shock of being that close with a bee. They just want to work.
Soon, our bees were titans of their industry. They built divinely mathematical, hexagonal wax cells in which they stored nectar and fed twirls of larvae. Ecstatically, we discovered bulging, capped honey weighing down the frames, which glowed when we held it to light. Our brilliant bees cooled the hive entrance with their wings and battled invader yellow jackets. I noticed dozens of them poring over nearby flowers. The rosebush next to the hive looked positively oversexed.
I knew things were working, but I didn't know much else. I turned to Mike Graney, a local beekeeper I'd met the previous winter when I was first researching bees. I peppered him with nervous questions.
When I spotted the dreaded varroa destructor, a common bee mite, I frantically queried my new guru. "Are mites a certain mark for death or have you been able to control them?" I wrote him while agonizing over treatment options. One strategy might result in bee diarrhea — that's a thing! — others poisoned the honey. A hive crammed with inedible honey sounded like some Dadaist joke: ceci n'est pas une hive. Graney urged me to keep cool and allow my colony their most important work: growing strong. Weeks passed, and my bees remained unfazed.
When most people are approached by a bee, the common reaction is to flail like a windmill. When we enter the hive for inspections and maintenance, we resist this instinct. We breathe deeply, and move slowly and deliberately: hive time is meditative. We've been stung. Tim caught his first one after we crushed a bee during inspection. Its sister snapped into a vigilante rage and stung him in the face. I made it all the way to October, when I noticed my glove was vibrating: bees tired of my inspection were stinging with total-body vigor. They tore into milky shreds as I brushed them away.
I read an article that began, "What doesn't kill bees?" For all the talk of Colony Collapse Disorder, a nationwide phenomenon of vanishing colonies, I have approached my own hive as if mine were immune. But just as I can hardly live my life wondering when I'll end up under a truck, I can't wait poised for hive failure. This summer, my bees made enough honey to feed themselves through the winter. If we make it through, and I hope we do, then we can share.
This originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix, October 19, 2011.