On this, the cusp of our second year of beekeeping, when we had hoped that we'd thrilled, wowed, dazzled and persuaded even the most reluctant beekeeper-wannabe into committing multiple hivedom, we have a confession to make: We have killed a lot of the bees we tried to manage the first year.
The first hive failure was, really and truly, not our fault. It was badly inseminated by some boy bees.
The second hive failure is the sad thing. We looked in on it a few days past Christmas, when it was 55 degrees outside and the hordes in there were all toasty and loud and buzzing, kind of behaving like people on a cruise.
Then we looked again in mid-February, and their little bodies were piled like cordwood at the bottom of the hive, clustered dead in their place around the queen or lying randomly elsewhere.
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It was a horror show of insect proportions.
We had seen enough CSI episodes to know that we had to get out the tweezers and toothpicks to know what went wrong. We tried, sort of. We called experts and Googled more pictures of dead bees than we care to discuss. Our vast knowledge of such things led us to suspect it was, variously, varroa mites, Nosema, starvation, somebody else's pesticide habit, agribusiness monoculture, environmental destruction on a global scale, hive humidity or our stupidity.
We're kind of betting it was the latter.
We are chastened. Managing insects is not easy. Especially if you don't see them every day as you do your dog, who tends to have a dry nose and mopey face if he's not feeling well.
The bees, so much less readable, so much less gas passing.
In any case, we will start fresh with two new queens. We are sadder but wiser, and emptily comforted by the knowledge that, in nature, about one-third of all hives die each year.
Now, because the learning curve is incredibly steep and the words in the bee books makes sense to us now, here are the five things we learned in our first year that we thought we'd pass along. And know this: We had a wonderful time, if you don't count the 60,000 funerals we had to attend.
1. We would all be better off if we thought like a colony. In a honeybee colony, when one part is threatened, everybody reacts. If one part gets sick or destroyed, the colony heals itself.
And it changes to survive the seasons, making sure everybody eats, everybody is warm, everybody has a job. (Even the one- or two-day-old bee has to clean the cell it was born in and help keep the brood warm.) Something about everyone taking responsibility for ourselves and others seems nice, globally speaking.
2. You can safely give away some of your honey, but remember you need to keep some in reserve, because times can get hard. A lot of people don't realize it, but bees are not making honey to make us happy. They are making food for their winter. They produce heat by digesting the honey.
It explains why they fight to the death to protect the hive. Which also is an admirable quality.
3. Huddle. They do this to keep the entire colony warm in winter — about 90 degrees — and within reach of honey. They can even rear a brood in this temperature in the winter. But huddling is a good idea even when not rearing the brood, but just watching TV with them, we think.
4. Smell the roses. And nuzzle the lavender. Touch the tulip tree and dip into the sourwood. Pollinate the apple tree. Snuggle the white clover. Wiggle your toes in the blackberry. Taste the wild cherry. Be one with your vegetable garden. Not bad ideas for anybody.
5. Let other people take care of you, but hope that they have the sense to have paid attention in parenting class. You're in luck this time. For the eighth year running, the Bluegrass Beekeeping Association is hosting a school March 12 for all levels of Central Kentucky beekeepers. The school is one of six held each year throughout the state. Last year, more than 1,100 Kentuckians took advantage.
There will be classes for beginners and on competing in honey shows, processing honey, pollen trapping, making candles, removing trees from structures, raising city bees, and more.
See you there.