Home & Garden

They got bees and got busy

April 10, Day 1: It's 10 p.m., and our bees are sleeping. If they aren't, and for some reason you know this because you are a beekeeper, don't call us. We are doing the best we can.

We spent $20 on bee school and $144 on bees, $469 on equipment and we're not telling you how much on books and doodads and groovy T-shirts that announce our organic bee brotherhood to the planet.

So, really, if they are not sleeping because bees don't sleep or something, we don't want to know. We have crammed so much information into our heads in the past few months about bees that we can identify something really icky like American foulbrood at 50 paces, and that seems like enough for now.

For the record, we know why and how they dance, which is just so wonderfully awe-inspiring and wacky that it makes you religious and disco-delirious at the same time. We know they can smell fear because they've smelled it on us. And we know they can die without so much as sneezing first. And we so desperately, desperately want them to live.

6 p.m. April 12: We've technically had the bees for only 50 hours. In that time:

■ We've dropped one queen accidently and had to rescue her with barbecue tongs.

■ Angela got stung 10 times and swelled up like a Johnsonville brat.

■ The bees are almost all still there, except the ones the dogs ate.

■ They look like what the books say are healthy starter hives.

The books also say that now we can just let them be bees, and they will do what they're supposed to.

That is, they will wake up early, pick up pollen, wander over to other blooms and indiscriminately pollinate, then come back in the evening and make honey in that miracle way that they do. The queen, meanwhile, is (for May and June) shooting out baby bees at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 a day, with a few helper bees nattering around her if only to help with the car seats. All we have to do is leave them alone.

Fat chance.

4 p.m. April 14: They are "orienting" apparently. That, or all 25,000 of the girls are annoyed with the bright yellow color we painted the top floor of the hive, because they are out and about, giving Amy's family's three farm dogs hell.

We've settled on calling them "the girls" because mostly they are. Male bees do not defend the hive. They do not clean it. They do not gather food. All they do is fertilize the queen. And they are put on the street come winter.

The rest is the womenfolk's doing. All the work. All the stinging. So, yes, henceforth, it is "the girls."

And, so you know, we decided to go into beekeeping because the girls are in a bit of trouble. Since late 2006, once-thriving honeybee colonies have been collapsing all over the world. Whole hives have just flown off and disappeared, leaving little hint as to why.

Scientists and beekeepers are working hard to figure out why. It's hugely important — every year, the honeybee pollinates $15 billion in American crops, including apples, avocados and almonds. And one-third of all worldwide agricultural production depends to some extent on bee pollination (although only about 6 percent of food production would cease without them, because less than 10 percent of the 100 most productive crop species depend entirely on bees).

And we like honey. And we like the morality: You know, the idea that the girls are so intent on helping one another survive today and tomorrow and into the future. And that they will not attack unless they are protecting their home. And that they will share their sweetness gladly (well, you kind of steal it) if you leave them enough to get by.

In fact, they are such good and beneficial neighbors that New York City is now allowing them on rooftop gardens. (And if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.)

Oh, and one more thing: Angela and I happened upon a bee seminar at the University of Kentucky in March and heard Tammy Horn of Eastern Kentucky University's Environment Research Institute speak. Horn is the author of Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (University Press of Kentucky, $27.50) She's largely responsible for the recent passage of the Pollinator Bill through the Kentucky legislature. That bill makes the honeybee the official state insect and encourages coal companies to plant a three-season perennial blooms on its mountain-top removal recovery sites.

This is terrific news on its own, but we also liked it when Horn explained that NASA was doing bee- mapping research and we could, if we had hives, weigh our hives weekly and send our forage data to NASA (http://honeybeenet.gsfc.nasa.gov).

We had always secretly wanted to be astronauts, and this sounded like our last best chance.

7 a.m. April 15: This is very bad. Not a single bee is anywhere to be found. Not at the sugar-syrup drip that's there until they start foraging. Not when I take off the outer cover and take a gander. I'm not dressed for a full-bore look-see, so all I can do is panic. I message Angela with the tentative terrible news. She is aghast. "Both hives? Is that possible? Like they texted each other they were escaping tonight?"

I call state apiarist Phil Craig and explain our problem. He gives me a 20-minute explanation of "absconding," a phenomenon in which newly installed bees, not happy with their new environs, do indeed just pack up and go. He says that, if this is what has happened, it is not our fault. He advises another look.

I call my husband and ask him to go look. He counts 25 bees at the entrance of one hive and 30 at the other. The buzzing from within and without sounds good and loud from where he's standing. Our bees must be teenagers who like to sleep late.

April 24: It's 8 a.m. The bees don't seem to care if I gawk. They don't even seem to care if the cats and dogs come out on the lawn. The girls are an Italian variety and calmer than some bees you could buy. Which is not to say beekeeping is easy.

The list of bad things that can happen to them in the next 20 minutes includes varroa and tracheal mites, foulbrood and chalkbrood, Nosema, wax moth, beetles and skunks.

We will be on the lookout for all of those. We also are looking out for a little honey. Most of that, we're told, will be made by July 4.

And this first year, there should be scant honey because the girls got started so late and have so much to do.

Which means, we think, that the going price for our golden stuff, given everything we've spent, should be about $42.50 an ounce.

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