Hive Mind: the silence of my bees

It’s an April morning of sunshine and showers. We’re next to the apiary, doing a Meet the Beekeepers event. In a quiet moment I wander over to lean on the apiary wall and watch the hives; the activity is always mesmerising. Two hives are flying well but mine isn’t. OK… it’s at a slightly different angle from the others so maybe the hive hasn’t warmed enough in the sun yet. I watch bees belonging to the other hives land to drink water from a puddle, looking like they pump it up like tiny airborne tankers. I return to the event.

A few hours later I look over again — still no activity. I tell my fellow beekeeper Edmund, put up tape to keep the visitors back from the wall (our bees are calm but it’s not worth putting them in an awkward position when they’re just being bees), light my smoker, suit up, grab my hive tool and head to the hive.

I know the visitors are watching me, with Edmund explaining what I’m doing; I try to forget the eyes on my back and focus on being with the bees. It’s like a form of mindfulness: when you’re dealing with thousands of potentially stinging insects you have absolutely no choice but to be in the moment. I knock on the side of my hive. You should hear a sudden and indignant buzz, like a shiver, indicating the bees’ presence. Nothing. My heart beat quickens, I want to tear the hive apart but my experience kicks in and gently, respectfully, I take the hive apart, laying the pieces beside me. I lift out a brood frame, holding it up to my eyeline as I’ve been taught.

I’ve lost them.

There’s a small cluster of bees, still and silent on the frames, the very antithesis of a busy, thriving hive. I quietly put them back and reassemble the hive, knowing there’s nothing I can do and feeling the eyes on my back. Edmund is probably already aware of a problem, no beekeeper looks at one frame and closes a hive unless there’s an issue. All I can do now for them, as I’ve always tried to do, is my best.

Doing the best I can for them

I ask Edmund to go through the hive. He’s a Seasonal Bee Inspector, one of the people charged with helping to keep our bees healthy. If the cause of the loss is a pest or disease we need to know quickly to protect the other hives in the apiary as well as colonies in the surrounding area. Luckily (a strange word when you’ve just lost your bees) he identifies the cause: queen failure, something he’s seeing a lot of this year. It’s not disease, she’s less than a year old and didn’t mate properly probably due to bad weather preventing her from flying to a drone congregation area. She couldn’t lay fertilised worker eggs so the colony dwindled; the best insulation for bees is more bees so the Beast from the East finally did for them. The weather affects bees and beekeeping on so many levels; I’ll write about at some point. The bees in Pete’s and Edmund’s hives suffer a similar fate so we’re facing an apiary with no bees.

A few days later Pete and Edmund remove my hive and Pete brings home the frames of dead bees for burning; I would have helped but was unwell. A week later we burn the frames, the tiny bodies are consumed by the raging flames fed by melting beeswax.

Goodbye bees

I’m sad to lose them. But I’m not grief stricken as I thought I’d be — I’m reflective. They’ve been great bees, lovely gentle temperament which is important to me, more important than honey production. I only take honey the hive can spare; the glorious bounty of last year is a distant bittersweet memory.

They’ve taught me so much. They nearly starved in my first year as the weather changed and I didn’t understand how much food they needed per week. Luckily I’m registered on BeeBase and the National Bee Unit (NBU) sent an email saying inspectors had been seeing starvation so I checked my bees, spotted it in time and fed them. Thank you NBU.

They’ve taught me to handle gently and respectfully, not wear perfume (they don’t like it and get uppity), to work with their instincts and the rhythms of the colony and never against them. Trying to “control” them is like teaching a pig to sing: ultimately you’ll fail and annoy the pig.

They’ve tolerated me when I haven’t quite got things right. They’ve taught me to trust them — go easy on what you “should” be doing and do what they need you to do. They’ve given me a deeper appreciation of the weather, the changing seasons and what plants flower when.

I have this strange, half-formed notion that a person only truly dies when the ripples of their life have faded away; because I remember Nan she’s sort of still here as her words and actions live on. Maybe then the bees lives on in what they taught me as I talk about them and use my experience with them to teach others.

My beautiful bees, immortalised to teach others. My photo, all rights reserved.

What to do next

Do I continue to be a beekeeper? While I’ve got more experience now I know I would struggle to look after feisty bees; it’s better for both species to be honest about your capabilities. The nature of the site means we need calm bees and it’s no fun for a beekeeper to look after grumpy bees. I also want bees that are used to the Welsh weather: no point in having bees that won’t fly as soon as it drizzles and eat through their stores quickly, running a bigger risk of starvation.

I think I do: I’m privileged to be part of their world. I decide to contact some colleagues in the beekeeping association, hoping they have a colony looking for a new home. There’s the chance of a fresh start.

What the bees taught me this time

  • Everything for bees depends on the one thing the beekeeper cannot influence: the weather.
  • All you can do is your best.
  • Despite doing your best sometimes it’s just not enough.
  • When it isn’t enough often it’s not your fault.
My favourite ever queen used to head this colony. My photo, all rights reserved.

Cover photo: Wow_Pho/Pixabay, CC0.


4 thoughts on “Hive Mind: the silence of my bees

Add yours

  1. I was exactly in your situation, with a mentor, the customary tap on the hive!! I’ve gathered strength learnt lots from what happened, and started again! From
    Silence to Buzz once more. Lessons in life. Love your blog, it speaks from the heart.


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