Beekeeping is an ancient art, full of tradition and wisdom passed down and down and down. For thousands of years, humans have worked with bees to earn a claim to the sweet honey the bees produce. But despite all the advancements in scientific research, we still don’t know much of anything about the bees. To keep them requires an ability to simultaneously take charge and let go, to research everything and admit to knowing nothing, to humbly accept that there is little you can do but much you must do to help the bees work their magic. Mostly, it’s both an art and a science, that requires a combination of information and intuition, hard work and humility. I barely know the first thing about bees, and it’s my fourth year in. But one thing I did know, was that when my sweet dad died, I had to tell the bees.
“It fell to me to tell the bees, though I had wanted another duty”
(Telling the Bees, by Deborah Digges)
Tradition holds that you should tell the bees everything. I talk to my bees all the time, although I daresay it’s as much for my own benefit as it is for theirs. I can vouch that the bees know me, know my mood and are impacted by my energy on any given day. Like any animal, they are sensitive and reactionary and they KNOW. Our sweet dumb dog Murphy knows that Russ is almost home, a solid three minutes before his car pulls into the parking lot at any time of day or night. Perhaps he’s not so dumb after all. Animals know more than we ever give them credit for. And bees are extra special and extra sensitive. So, in medieval times, it was common to tell the bees of any important news in the family. Most importantly, bees were to be informed when someone died. It was thought that they would leave if their keeper died, and all the hives would be lost. So it was a family member’s job to go tell the bees, to share the sad news, in hopes that the bees, in their grief, would remain. It was a solemn obligation, a sacred duty – to tell the bees. And then the family would choose another person to carry on the keeper’s tasks and life would continue to have the sweetness afforded to it by the honeybees. One old English tune soothed the mourning bees with the lyrics "The master's dead, but don't you go; Your mistress will be a good mistress to you." And so I, as their mistress, told the bees that the master was gone. I told all of them, in their various bee yards, and they seem to have agreed to stay. And now we move into a new season, together.
It’s been a strange spring for us. In the midst of our sorrow, we’ve found tremendous comfort and joy in the company of those who have surrounded us and sustained us. We are blessed in so many ways. And I am grateful that we lost our Dad just as winter came to an end. I’m told that those who grieve do much better when they suffer their loss in the springtime, as opposed to the autumn. It would have been a long, cold, dark winter ahead for us, had Dad succumbed in the fall. Instead, each day is brighter and with spring comes light and life and newness and beauty and fresh starts and all things optimistic. Things are so good at Bishop Family Bees right now and I am eager to let you know how things are moving forward.
First of all, the bees survived. This was the first year that our bees survived the winter. Twenty out of twenty hives survived and Dad was thrilled. He didn’t get to see another honey season, but he did get to celebrate our success before he left. Their survival was the fruit of our autumn and winter efforts to keep those bees safe and warm and well-fed through the winter. The bees not only survived – they thrived. My mentor tells me that they will all need to be split to prevent swarming. Swarming is the natural way that the hives reproduce. If the hive is large and strong, the queen will leave the hive, along with at least half of her colony, to take up residence somewhere else. And the remaining bees will make themselves a new queen with the eggs her majesty has left behind. And so the cycle continues. It’s natural, but it’s not good news for a beekeeper when a hive swarms. It’s a setback in terms of honey production and it’s not great for public relations when townsfolk encounter swarms. So, we will plan to split our hives (an artificial swarm of sorts), but will then have more bees than we know what to do with. Luckily for me, and not so luckily for him, my mentor suffered terrible losses this winter and is in the market for as many bees as he can get. So, he will purchase my excess bees and that will cover the costs of equipment I need to bring our twenty hives to a nice even thirty. And so a season of loss also becomes a season of growth.
Many of you know that we started with one hive, then two hives, on our second-floor porch here in Paris. It seemed logical at the time, but it was really just a hassle to deal with a lot of bees in that small space. The commute to the hives was short, and we enjoyed peering out at our “bee-rometer” to see what the bees were up to in any given weather. But it was a tricky scenario, particularly since they weren’t exactly legally situated. I have spent at least a year thinking about how I was going to get those bees down off the porch before I got busted for having bees up on the porch. Who was going to help me make this happen? A bucket truck? A firefighter? Some sort of pulley system or ramp from the roof to the ground? It has confounded me for far too long.
Well, my baby brother Jamie came to visit from BC on Easter weekend. He needed to come home and be sad with us. I needed to put him to work. It was win-win. And then there’s my dad’s best friend Tom. He is just as sad as the rest of us, having lost his best friend and his Saturday fishing buddy. You may remember that Tom came and worked with the bees last summer and fall, when Dad was weak and his friend was willing. Tom has a beautiful energy and a level head and is an ideal beekeeper. Dad may be gone, but I still have Tom and I won’t let him go easily! So, Jamie and Tom and I made it happen. We moved the porch bees late in the evening on Good Friday. We had to wait for them to all come home and settle in the hive (some missed the bus, so to speak, and were hovering sadly around the porch the next day). I sealed them up tight, we lashed them together, and the guys hauled them off the porch, through our bedroom, along the hall, down the stairs and out the front door to the truck below. Two hives, each with 30,000 or so bees and weighing at least one hundred pounds, were safely carried through the house and driven to their new home in the country. In all my planning, I had never imagined it going so smoothly. In my head, those hives tumbled and bees filled our home. I lost a lot of sleep imagining that scenario! But, it went perfectly and I am so grateful for those two guys who don’t know a lot about bees but have a whole lot of common sense and courage. They just got the job done. Wow.
And while we are missing our lovely porch hives, I am happy to report that the bees are settling into their new surroundings, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Grand River. Some lovely folks had contacted me earlier this spring, asking if I’d be willing to put some bees on their property. They were looking for a project and I was looking for some help and it’s a match made in heaven. Paul and Sandy have cleared and leveled some land along the river and we plan to add some hives from another site, as well as new splits, to bring this new bee yard to ten hives. Sandy has already spent an afternoon out with the bees and me, and she is a natural! She's got a good eye and a steady hand, and most importantly - she doesn't freak out!
And so we are doing okay here without Bob. Of course, being busy helps. There are so many plans to be made and so much work to be done, that there is little time for feeling sorry for myself. I feel overwhelmed a good deal of the time, but it will all get sorted out. So many people in the community have offered help, and many have suggested that they would like to come and work with the bees from time to time. I’ve ordered several new bee suits and bee jackets, in all sizes, so that folks can come and learn from the bees. Let me know when you want to come and spend an afternoon with the bees! I love the idea of having community involvement in this endeavour. It makes it all the more sweet for me. The bees, having agreed to stay, will learn to love some new people. And life goes on for all of us.
“Place a beehive on my grave
And let the honey soak through.
When I'm dead and gone,
That's what I want from you.
The streets of heaven are gold and sunny,
But I'll stick with my plot and a pot of honey.
Place a beehive on my grave
And let the honey soak through.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees