When I came home from the hospital in early November, the first thing I did after put my bags down was to run outside to see my bees. Mazel dashed out ahead of me and barked at the two neighbor cats lurking around my bird feeders. It was a sunny afternoon, and I planned to spend some time sitting near the hive squashing yellow jackets. But when I reached the hive, I stopped cold. Not a bee was in sight. As my eyes slowly registered the alarming emptiness of the scene, a yellow jacket landed by the hive door and casually walked right in. Not a single bee guarded the entrance. Not a single bee flew out, or flew in. I caught movement on the left side of the hive entrance and watched, heart sinking, as a thick line of ants scurried in and out of the hive…
With a growing knot in my stomach, I fumbled with the latch that covers a small plexiglas window on the side of the hive box. Inside was the confirmation of my worst fear. The hive was empty.
No doubt you have all read about the terrible state of affairs in the world of the honey bee. Bees are dying by the millions. Hives are being deserted by the tens or hundreds of thousands.
Now, this tragedy had come stalking my own blessed family of bees.
I began the summer knowing next to nothing about these bees who came to live with me. Late autumn finds me knowing just enough to be both hopeful and worried. I know that autumn is a critical time for honeybees, as the flowers dwindle and the bees reduce their numbers so that they can close down the hive for the winter and dwell in a kind of torpor until the flowers return come spring. If they are lucky, they will have made enough honey to last them until the nectar flows begin. If they are lucky, bears, skunks, and woodpeckers will leave the hive alone.
If they are lucky, their colony will not have been invaded by hive beetles, varroa mites, trachea mites, wax moths, or wasps. If they are lucky, the nectar and pollen they have stored—and the beeswax they have crafted from their own bodies—will not be laden with immune-destroying pesticides and fungicides. If they are lucky, they will not find themselves stricken with any number of viral or bacterial illnesses that are deadly to immune-weakened bees.
My sweet girls were not so lucky. In early autumn, I noticed the numbers of bees within the hive suddenly dropping. I found evidence of the deadly varroa mite on several of the dead bees I found each morning at the hive entrance. Worker bees remove the dead and leave them at the hive entrance, or carry them away and drop them far off from the hive. Some of the dead bees had deformed wings—another fatal virus that can strike a hive riddled with varroa mite.
I knew my girls were in crisis, just like every honeybee alive today is in crisis. I had reason to hope my bees could overcome their many challenges. Some hives do. Mine did not. I entered the hospital knowing that my bees might not be there when I returned. Sadly, I was right.
I chased away the yellow jackets, swept away the line of ants, and firmly sealed off the entrance to the hive with small wooden dowel. Because there was no viewing window in the upper hive box, which is traditionally where the bees put their honey, I had no idea what my bee colony had created over the summer. Had they collected much honey? Had they been able to put up combs full of pollen for winter food stores? To know that, I would have to take the hive apart, and I was in no frame of mind to do that on that sad afternoon.
I called to Mazel, and headed back into the house.
Days passed, and I waited for the time to be right for me to dismantle the hive boxes. I was waiting on a particular feeling of perhaps curiosity or simple determination or resolve. I was waiting for some feelings other than grief and avoidance, which came up for me every time I looked up the hill toward the empty hive.
About a week or two after I found the hive empty, there came a day when the sun returned from its long absence. The breezes that late morning were crisp and welcoming. On the new dandelion flowers dotting the grass, honeybees danced. They were not my bees, but it was a joy to see them, nonetheless. I grabbed up a clean plastic bucket and a small handful of tools, and headed off toward the hive.
It took me awhile to pry the two hive boxes apart. The honey bees create a special glue called propolis that they make to seal up any cracks or air leaks in their hive. It is sticky and hard and amber-brown, and the smell of it is simply heavenly: resiny, flowery, woodsy, wonderful. And holds tight like you can’t believe. It took a small pry bar and some splintered wood before I got the two square hive bodies apart.
When I looked inside, my heart ached at the sight of the last of my bees—a small handful of them clustered together dead on the screened floor of the hive. I collected their paper-light bodies gently and placed them in a cup. I wanted to save them so that I could first look them over closely with a magnifying lens to see if I could possibly determine some clues to their final undoing. Then, I wanted to find a special place to bury them.
Once the bees were carried inside the house, I returned to the hive boxes. For the next hour or more, I sat on the grass with the two hive boxes at my knees, turned up on their ends. What the bees had created with glue, wax, and honey was a wonder to behold. I don’t believe any archeologist ever made a find that awed them more than my discovery of mysterious catacombs my bees had called home for a few brief months.
The wax combs ranged from near-white to coffee brown. Some were the width of a pencil, and some as thick as my wrist. The shapes of the combs undulated throughout the hive box, wrapping back and over on themselves, weaving into tunnels and small valleys. They looked alive, almost serpentine. Or like smooth, rippling muscles. If I had to use one word to describe the sense I got gazing into the interior of the hive, it would be “sensuous.”
Only a few short weeks ago, those combs had been covered thickly in humming bees—bees speaking to each other through the vibrations sent across the wax combs. Back then, the undulation would have been real, not just intimated by the remaining form.
While I looked and peered and squinted and marveled, bees came to join me. The smell of the honey, thick and heavy in many of the upper combs, had attracted other pollinators who would appreciate extra food at such a perilous time of year. I set some of the broken combs beside me and watched a bumblebee the size of a hummingbird land clumsily and dip his tongue deep into a cell of amber honey. Other bees gathered and sang their own particular tone, harmonizing together like Gregorian chanters.
Into my somber mood, they injected a memory: My bees had come from swarm that had only recently moved into an abandoned hive in the eave of a local church. A healthy hive swarms every year, billowing out in a thick cloud with their queen in tow to begin another hive. The remaining bees with their new queen build up their numbers over the summer, and in this way, a hive can live on over decades, perhaps even centuries, in the same colony, while their kin go forth—if they are lucky—into perpetuity. In this way, the heart of the hive lives on in a new place each year, and in each year after that. Some of the bees buzzing at my side could have been relatives of my own bees.
Late in the afternoon, I cut the combs from the wooden bars that had suspended them in the hive. I placed each comb in a plastic bag and put them all into my freezer. I will save all these food stores for future bees if they have a need for extra food come some hard winter. Because, of course, I will have bees again come spring. There will be a swarm that needs a home, or perhaps two or maybe even three.
If my bees taught me anything, they taught me that life goes on. They taught me that hard work is never for nothing. Their bounty will sustain other bees—perhaps even their own kin. I still don’t know much about bees, but I know far more than I did last spring, thanks to my generous girls. I am sad about what happened, and disappointed, but not discouraged. The heart of my bees still beats strong in my small yard. What they taught me, and what they left behind, remains. Hives will flourish here under the small shed roof I built for them, I am certain of it. I will loose some bees again, I’m pretty certain of that, too. It is a given in beekeeping these days. I buried the bees in a small fern garden by our garden gate. For a grave marker, I placed a coffee-colored, empty honey comb that has endured rain, frost, and snow. Its hexagonal cells remain sharp and precise and mysterious. How can a tiny insect create such a thing?
Mystery and wonder enter our lives through many doors. For me, this past summer, they entered through the tiny wooden door of a bee hive.