In the 2003 romantic comedy, Love Actually, there’s a scene where Juliet (Keira Knightley) visits her husband’s best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln), to borrow a video tape of her wedding. Although everyone believes Mark doesn’t like Juliet, the video reveals otherwise. In the awkward scene that follows, Mark admits, “It’s a self-preservation thing.” He uses a façade of dislike and antipathy to keep himself from going to pieces.
That phrase, “self-preservation,” resonated with me because it’s something I recognize in myself. Like most humans, I have ways of dealing with stressful situations that help me stay sane. Mostly. But sometimes they collapse for no apparent reason.
How self-preservation relates to bees
Yesterday I went walking in the wet winter woods with my husband. Rich kept hollering from behind me, “Slow down! Where are you going in such a hurry?”
But I couldn’t slow down. Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, I had suddenly decided my bees were starving to death. I had to get home immediately and check on every hive and feed them. I’d nurse them with eye droppers, if necessary. For the moment, I was oblivious to everything else around me.
Where this idea came from and why it surfaced at that moment, I have no clue. Clearly it was a breach of the self-preservation thing I do with my winter colonies.
Winter bee anxiety
Nearly every beekeeper I know has some degree of winter angst. During the warm months, you see your bees each day, you open the hives as often as you like, you feel the pulse of the colony. But in the winter, you are forced to step back and wait. You begin fearing the worst, and unless you hold the bad thoughts in check, they will make you crazy. They will keep you up at night. They will have you fearing the worst.
My self-preservation checklist is the thing that keeps me sane, the thing that prevents me from going to pieces. It’s the reason I can (usually) appear aloof toward my bees even when the truth is quite different.
Write a self-preservation checklist
The checklist is a compilation of wintering techniques that work for me. During the many years in which I was able to overwinter all my colonies, I developed a protocol to use as my roadmap. Once I’ve checked everything on the list—mite treatments on time, good queens, plenty of honey, candy boards, pollen substitutes, moisture quilts, upper entrances—I should be able to relax. After all, the rest is up to the bees.
But once I start second-guessing myself, I’m toast. If I think too much and let my mind wander into the bleak abyss, I can imagine all kinds of Apis-related disasters.
Other worriers are out there
I know for a fact I’m not alone in this predicament. Just last week I was answering questions—one right behind the other—from a new beekeeper. No, scratch that. He hadn’t even started yet, but he was awash in winter anxiety. What about bears? What about nosema? What about cold temperatures? What about queen failure? What about dysentery? What about wind? What about AFB? What about? What about?
It seemed silly to me at the time, silly until I got this lightning bolt notion that my bees were starving to death. It didn’t matter I’d done my best winter prep. It didn’t matter I had checked and fortified their stores a few days prior. I couldn’t talk myself out of it until I actually lifted the lids.
The moral of the self-preservation story
In today’s world of endless threats to bee colonies, we can’t always blame ourselves for winter failures. We have to recognize that it’s possible to do everything right and still have colony losses, that it’s impossible to guard against every last threat. Anyone can have a windstorm, flood, bear invasion, vandal attack, wildfire, earthquake, or queen loss where there is no realistic prevention. Any colony can pick up nosema or foulbrood without your knowledge.
As beekeepers, all we can do is our best. We need to prepare for the most likely problems and accept the rest. Beekeeping should be fun, something that is hard to remember when your self-preservation software is on the fritz. So relax and take a deep breath. Spring is on its way. I think. Unless…
Honey Bee Suite