My beehive was the first thing I ever really won. I never win anything, but at Bee School, an eight-week introduction to keeping bees offered by the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, I was asked to pick a name from a hat to see which student would win the basic elements of their first hive. Out of about 50 tickets, I chose my own name. This seemed like a fortuitous beginning to my endeavor, but I know now that if this was an omen, I interpreted it all wrong.
I decided to take up beekeeping the winter after I graduated from college. I was working retail and wondering why I went to art school, wishing I could do something concretely meaningful after so many years of listening to my fellow students blow smoke up places I don’t care to mention. I wanted to be a farmer, but all I had was student loan debt, my childhood bedroom and my parents’ backyard full of sand.
When I found out about Bee School, I pestered the course’s organizers until I was able to sign up. When class began I learned about equipment, the lifecycle of a bee, diseases, swarming, and topics of all sorts that would help me successfully grow my first hive. My teachers were experienced beekeepers who had developed techniques that were specifically suited to Cape Cod apiaries. I took copious notes, attended hive openings and demonstrations, and tried to soak up all the good beekeeping vibes and wisdom I could gather.
My soaring sense of accomplishment after installing my first package of 3 pounds of bees did not last long. The queen bee was nowhere to be found. No queen means no eggs, which means no new bees from whom I could rob precious honey. My attempt at introducing a new queen was unsuccessful, and the hive dwindled until it was too weak to fend off honey-pilfering robber bees.
I began my second year of beekeeping again optimistically, but things turned sour when our trusted source for packaged bees couldn’t deliver on the bees they’d promised us (bees don’t adhere to the wills of professional beekeepers either). I was able to salvage the season by securing a nucleus hive – a sort of miniature hive with five frames of bees and a laying queen. The late start and slow-growing hive never produced enough honey to harvest, but proved strong enough to survive the winter. Success! … Except that a few weeks after my initial inspection, I popped up the inner cover to find my workforce seemingly frozen in place.
March is not a good time for bees to die. Most replacement packaged bees in the Eastern U.S. are spoken for by this point, not to mention it’s pretty unfortunate for the bees themselves, who huddled in a cluster for months on end doing their best to survive a mild, but still hostile winter. This time, my coworker and her husband saved the day by securing a package for me from their supplier, thereby convincing me not to sell my beekeeping equipment on Craigslist in a rage of fury.
So a few weeks ago Pete and I took to the backyard and dumped and thumped another three pounds of bees into their new home. You won’t be surprised to know that it didn’t take long for things to go awry. Our new tenants didn’t take a liking to their assigned queen, who, I discovered a few days ago, is absent, or at least no longer alive. A few phone calls to Georgia and $40 later a new Italian queen is on her way to me via the United States Postal Service.
In the words of one of my treasured beekeeping mentors, sometimes bees “have not read the textbook and decide to go in another direction.” Alas. I must admire them for their industriousness and sheer refusal to conform to the unnatural whims of some idiot wearing a big white suit. My bees have broken my heart. They have broken the bank. They make me feel inadequate and often murderous (I have killed many thousands of them, after all). But I keep trying. I don’t know if it’s honey I desire, or just the satisfaction of knowing that I can keep something alive for once.
Despite my many ill-fated attempts, I am grateful for the things I’ve learned and for the possibilities that the future holds. My little blue hive is the first part of the homestead I hope to build with my companion — the handsome paint store manager who helped me pick a mis-tint with which to paint my hive, and asked me out when we met again almost a year later.