Although I don’t like to admit it, I spend many winter nights worrying about what’s going on inside those boxes. Saturday night was typical. For some reason, I awoke at 2:30 a.m. absolutely convinced that my two most populous colonies had starved to death. No matter how many times I retraced my winter preparations, I was sure they were dead. I got up and paced through the house, flipping on the outside lights as if that might help.
My husband assigns my nocturnal behavior to “high anxiety,” but I’ve heard of plenty of other beekeepers who have the same problem: worry, sleepless nights, and self-doubt. When you’re new to beekeeping, anxiety comes from not knowing what to do or not understanding bee behavior. After more experience, anxiety comes from realizing how many things can go wrong. In my case, I remember the mistakes I’ve made in the past and fear repeating them.
On Saturday night, I kept envisioning the colony I killed several years ago. That summer had been especially dry and very little honey was produced. Although I harvested exactly none, I was forced to feed my bees throughout the winter. I was feeding on a calendar schedule, checking every ten days and adding feed as necessary.
But I wasn’t paying attention. As spring approached, the populations were rising and that largest colony was bursting at the seams. Amazed at their growth, I was already making plans for splits. But then the inevitable happened: ten days between feedings was suddenly too long. By the time I stopped by to feed that colony, it was gone. Dead bees filled the space between every frame, covered the bottom board, and lay thick on the top bars. Every last morsel of food was gone. I thought I would be sick. How can any one beekeeper be so stupid?
Although that was several years ago, I think about it often. I had all the knowledge necessary to prevent the death of that colony but I let it happen anyway. What was wrong with me?
Thinking of bees
So I suppose those dead bees were in the back of my mind on Saturday night, the first snowy day of the season. But still, as a natural-born worrier, I can get hung up on just about anything: mites, moisture, mice, or moths. There is almost nothing I haven’t done wrong somewhere along the line, and those mistakes live in my memory, always ready to haunt me.
I think the treasure trove of personal errors is the one thing that most separates new beekeepers from experienced ones. In one of may favorite posts of all time, I was so much smarter then, I write about how second- and third-year beekeepers know everything, but after that, it’s all downhill.
In truth, you know less and less with each passing season. The more you learn the less you know. Or, put another way, the more you learn the more you realize the intricacies, the exceptions, the dilemmas, and the trade-offs. You learn there are no easy answers, no black and white. Those who know it all, know nothing. Those who know nothing are wisest of all.
I was amused to get an email this past week from an obvious newbee. He was frustrated. He wanted to know why my opinion contradicted that of his mentor. He asked me to justify what I’d written. He said he wanted facts, not opinion, and he didn’t want to hear the words “it depends” ever again.
I felt bad for him, but I can’t help him. If he sticks with beekeeping, which I kinda doubt, I can imagine him in ten years, beginning every sentence he utters with those same equivocal words.
Checking on my bees
Anyway, early Sunday morning, wearing pajamas, boots, and a headlamp, I went out in the cold and dark to count the dead. When I lifted the lid of the first hive, the warm and moist air that rolled over me felt like a locker room. About fifty pairs of antennae rose like rabbit ears from between the frames, followed by fifty pairs of eyes. They looked at me in disbelief. “Like, really?” they seemed to be saying. Their tray of feed was untouched.
The second hive was no different, so all that worry was for naught. But that’s beekeeping. The way I see it, I squeaked through one more day with all my colonies intact. But tomorrow? That’s a whole different story.
Honey Bee Suite