Tuesday, January 21, 2014

keeping, sustainably

I am back in school.  Every Wednesday night for the next five weeks I am attending a Sophomore Beekeeping class at the Honey Exchange.

Last year, around this time, I attended a Beginning Beekeeping class there with the same teacher, Geoff.  And a lot has happened since then in my small beeyard.  And this winter's class is intended for those of us with one year of beekeeping under our...veils...to teach us about what comes next, with a focus on small backyard beekeeping that is sustainable.

This class is helping me focus on the coming spring and summer and is just what I need during the polar vortex that was visiting...

then went away for a full on foggy thaw, warm air meeting up with cold snow...

and then the return of the dreaded polar vortex.

We had, this past week or so, what is called the January thaw.

I had a note about it in my bee school binder from last year:
Put the candy board in the hive during the January thaw.  
Well, there it is.  I wrote that back when I had no idea what this meant.  I also really had no idea, despite my fascination with them, what to do with the information about how to prevent a swarm (I then had one), how to mark a queen (that's what mentors are for), and when told that I would need to make a sugar syrup solution of 2:1, I never wrote down whether this was two parts sugar to one part water or vice versa.  As I look back at my notes from last year's course, I am reminded to be patient with some of the homework issues, mistakes made copying information, or even not writing down information that Nicholas makes for his own homework.

But during the thaw last week, we had several sunny days that were warm, and on alternating days, I saw bees out from each of our two hives.  I remembered that I was supposed to be waiting for one of these warm January thaw days to quickly undo the strap, lift the outer cover off, and deftly slide in a candy board, should I determine that my bees might be low on honey reserves.

So one afternoon last week, when the kids were at school, I headed out there mid day, when I thought it would be warmest and therefore least likely to chill the bees.  It was very quiet down there, as it has been all winter long.  I had thrown my veil on, tucking the bottom edge of it into the collar of my parka.  At first, I was going to go barehanded, but I decided last minute to throw on some dish gloves I have been using for this bee tending of late since my pricey propolis encrusted leather beekeeping gloves began attracting the angry attention of guard bees every time I approached the hive.  But, I did not, I admit, go through the process again of removing my parka and putting the gloves on under the parka so the wrists were sealed.

I undid the straps, opened the inner cover and remembered, by seeing it lying there, the insulation board I had put in the hives as well.  I pulled that off and came upon a large and buzzing and completely lively cluster of bees, between the inner cover and the insulating board, likely high in the hive to enjoy the warmth there from the sun and taking their turns walking down the groove in the insulating board to the upper entrance, so they could take their cleansing flights on this warm and sunny day.

I was so pleased to see them so plentiful and active.  And then I realized I was in a bit of trouble here. I had on a veil.  I had on gloves that were gapping open at my wrists where the close fitting gloves met my velcro parka cuffs.  And I had no tools, no smoker, not even a bee brush.  I was going to need to get that cluster of bees down into the hive in order to remove the inner cover and replace it with the one that I had with candy board poured into it.
Every time you go to inspect your hive, make sure you have your veil, your hive tool, and your smoker.  If you don't have one of these things, turn around and go home.
I thought about it for a minute.  Given what I read about Amanda Soule's disastrous bee experience, you would think I would have thought this through better.  I considered closing it up and trying again later, properly prepared, thought about the chimney cleaners coming at any moment, and how the weather was supposed to turn bad again the next day with snow, and decided to plow forward.

What ensued was a perfect lesson in what not to do, and how to behave like a truly inexperienced beekeeper.  I attempted to guide the bees down and into the hive.  They would not go.  I lifted in the inner cover and tried to thump them down into the hive.  They took to the air and began buzzing around me.  In a last ditched effort, attempting to remain calm, I took my gloved hand and brushed the hundreds of bees that remained on the inner cover off and into the top hive box.

That's when I simultaneously watched three bees slip into the space between my glove and my parka cuff.  And noticed that one of the bees buzzing in my face?  Was not separated from my face by the veil.  It was inside the veil.  I looked down at my parka.  Yup.  Covered in bees.  Like the Queen of the Sun cover image.

Okay, not really.  But it felt like it there for a moment.

I stepped out of the beeyard and away from the hive and stood still, having watched Bonnie doing this a few times when barearmed, barefooted, and barehanded, she attracted the attention of my hives' guard bees.  I watched her last summer from behind my full upper body veil, long armed gloves tucked in at the wrists, long pants tucked into rain boots and shirt tucked into pants.  I squinted at her out through the mesh of my veil.  But now, parka-ed and inadequately tucked in in several vital regions, I thought the farther away from the hives I got, the more likely the bees would kindly fly back and warm themselves.  Nope.

They seemed to be snuggling in.  Almost as though they were attracted to my warmth.  Then  I decided I needed to deal with the bee in my bonnet, so to speak.  I did not want to kill her, so I started to remove my veil, flicked off a few bees I noticed milling about my wrists and got half way out of the veil when I realized all the bees buzzing about me were now landing on my exposed head.  I smooshed the bee in the veil between my fingers and as I did, I remembered that bees are attracted venom, more likely to sting where they detect bee venom.  Bee venom along with other bee materials were now on my gloves.

I started walking fast toward the house.  Think Pig Pen from peanuts, a swirl of buzzing angry winter bees in a halo around me.

I again stood outside the door of the house and started to remove things.  The veil, not well tucked, held out from the back of my neck by my parka's hood.  My gloves.  My parka.  And I then realized that these thing removed, there was still a lot of movement around me and on me.  I started taking the bees off my arms.  And from my hair, pinching gently a few crawling on the back of my neck.  Thinking I was now free, I ran inside as guard bees began to buzz directly toward me.  I slammed the door.  And realized I could still hear buzzing.  From my hair.  I ran back outside and tipped my head upside down and shook my hair hard.  More angry bees took to the air.  I ran back inside.  Still a quiet buzz, from a lonely bee that was lodged deep in the hair at the nape of my neck.  I took it out and watched it fly off.  Inside the house.  I am imagining a feral colony of bees developing in the beehive oven of the fireplace.  Awesome.

And you know?  I did not get stung.  Not once.

That night, adrenalin still high from that experience and chagrinned by my foibles, I headed to my County Bee Club's monthly meeting.  I sat in the back row.  And listened to the experienced beekeepers there answer some questions and give a bit of advice.

One person there said:
Wait until it is 30 degrees out.  So it is warm enough that you won't chill them to death, but not warm enough that they are flying.  And that's when you can do a quick inspection or put in a candy board.

This same person told the story of how she had unknowingly transported three of her honeybees to the grocery store recently.  The bees had hitchhiked on her car and in the parking lot she had tucked them into her shirt pocket to keep them warm while she was shopping.  I looked at my fingers, thought of the dearly departed bee in my veil earlier in the day, and put my hands in my pockets.

And so, it is clear that I still have a lot to learn.  I am being the best student I can be here despite my advanced age.  I take my glasses for long distances so I can see the eggs in the photos projected on the smart board.  I ask questions of Geoff, my teacher for two winters now.  And from the back row, I nod vehemently when he tells us to wear our veil at all times, even when doing quick inspections in the winter.

Before I ran out the door to class last night, Nicholas caught me in the kitchen and asserted, Wait!  I just have a quick math question.  I am trying to solve for x.  The equation is x/2=9.  I know the answer is 18, but I can't figure out how to solve for x.

Show me your work I said, looking at his sheet.  

It looked a little bit like this:

x / 2 *2 = 9 * 2

In my rush, I could not help him to wrap his mind around the idea that divided by 2 and multiplied by 2 cancel each other out, and then just the x would remain on the left side of the equation.  He kept multiplying 2 times 2.  I was in a rush.  He was tired.  In the end, I gave his frustrated face a kiss, told him to go find his father and ask him, and said if you haven't figured it out when I get home, I will try again.  

I arrived late for class, even though the few extra minutes I spent in the kitchen with Nicholas did not result in him being able to solve for x when division was an operation in the equation.

As I walked in, I heard Geoff say, 
You want two hives in your beeyard.  And a half.  And a half.  
This is some funny math.  I am pretty sure the answer is 3, though my math confidence was a bit shaken by my hurried moments in the kitchen with Nicholas.  Three hives.  You want three hives.  But no.  That's not it.  And division was the operation this evening as well.

For sustainable beekeeping, the focus of this course, what you want is not necessarily to keep the bees you have, but to maintain the same number of hives across the years, in general.  And to do this requires being prepared for loss.  For the loss of a hive or two to mites or other sicknesses.  Or to starvation or cold in the winter.  Or to queen issues.  Or most likely in my case, user error.  But if we are doing our job correctly, we are ready when this happens, we have a potential colony in the works.  We have prevented swarming and also gained backup by creating nucleus colonies, or small colonies of bees with their own mated queen that can be used to replace a dead out.

Or we have taken swarm cells and raised a new virgin queen in a queen castle.

Or what Jonathan keeps referring to as a princess palace, which makes us both giggle as we picture this instead:

You may be wondering about the other half.  Well, it turns out we have that one covered.  It is a swarm catcher.

Getting back to numbers, I am going to need to purchase nucleus colony boxes and a princess palace from Phil.  Dish out some money for my sustainable beekeeping efforts.  It will all come out in the wash, I know, since I will hopefully not need to purchase package bees or nucs again.

But this acceptance of my constant foolishness.  Of all of my mistakes.  And most importantly of my acceptance of loss.  That I am tending and not keeping.

* * *

I was reminded of this idea this week, as we celebrated Julia's tenth birthday.  Ten years.  A decade with us, this big little girl has been.

Julia is trying to keep up with the math concepts that Nicholas is working on for homework.  She doesn't like it when she does not understand something that someone else can do.  She asked me to explain negative integers to her the other day, and then this morning, looking at the thermometer which read negative zero she said, Oh!  It's zero.  But worse.

I look at her across the table, the 10-shaped candles facing backwards for me.  Does that make it negative 10?  10, but worse?

Big and yet still that same toddler girl with the crazy spiky hair and personality to match.

Determined and quiet. Enthusiastic and easily drained. Unpredictable yet predictably kind.

I feel a tinge of sadness that she has left her single digits behind.

But I think I need to work on acceptance of the loss of having her as a little girl, and be at the ready for, prepared for, what comes next.  Because that?  That will be good, too.  Because no matter what the numbers, no matter what operations you work through, no matter all my mistakes and blunders, she will still be her.

Math can be funny.

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