Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cotton Snow


Coming home from the beekeeping meeting last night, I glanced out the door at the patio and saw drifts of cotton snow. The cottonwoods are releasing seed, as they do every year. Great clumps of the frothy seeds waft by our third floor windows all day. Yesterday, the cat spent hours watching them float by. At first, she spasmodically jerked her head around to see them, the way she does when she is watching birds flock to the feeders. Soon, she seemed convinced that the ghostythings were not birds, and seemed to enjoy just watching.

Lots of things aren't what they first seem. On Saturday, I went to the beeyard. Many things looked wrong, but most notably, one stack of unused equipment had toppled over beneath the tarp. Also, there was absolutely no activity at all at the mouth of the hives. It was chilly and windy, and threatened rain, but there should also have been bees milling about on the bottom board. There should have been some over achievers out foraging, trying to get in a couple of trips before the rain came. But it was still and silent.

I avoided facing what might be happening in the hives by focusing on the overturned boxes. It didn't appear that anything had destroyed comb - perhaps it had just happened within the last day or so. I collected them on a platform in a different location, less tippy, but also not calculated to shade the hives from the afternoon sun. I knew on some level what I would find when I opened the hive, and was responding that way.

Opening the first hive, the one that had been strongest, was appalling. Nothing at the inner cover. Nothing in the next three boxes - the supers I had placed on the hive a month ago, counting on a normal late Spring, as well as a deep box that had been reversed with the box below a month ago to encourage expansion of the brood nest upwards. In the final deep, there was a small cluster of bees with no queen. It appeared that the bees had swarmed. Bees swarm to to leave a bad lodging, and the bees swarm to divide when they are too populous for the space. In the latter instance, the bees will raise another queen to take about half of them to the new location.

This hive seemed to have no queen, but at that point, I was too bereft by the loss to notice that neither were there queen cells that would indicate a healthy divide.

The other hives were different. And the same. Both of those hives had no activity at the mouth, and neither had any activity at the inner cover, nor until I reached the bottom box. There I found a gravid queen, decent laying patterns, but only a few hundred bees. The colonies were not sustainable. I absorbed this quickly. From the first hive, I gathered the few remaining bees and tapped them into one of the other hives. I pulled the frames of honey I had given the first hive to bring home to harvest. I pulled another frame to bring home to examine to try to determine what had happened. At the time, I noted the eggs laid by the queen (perfectly positioned in the bottom center of the cells) adjacent to eggs laid by workers (multiple eggs laid on the sides of cells, tipping at odds angles and at the edges of the bottom surface). Both are visible in the photo at right.

When I left the beeyard, I went down to the farmhouse, and was inconsolable even though Melissa is a great cheer-up person. I felt heartbroken. I said as bad as I felt, I imagined how awful it must have been for her to lose all the lambs she did this Spring. She mentioned that they next door neighbors - city people who don't know about these things - heavily sprayed their yard during the dandelion bloom. There. That explained when there were no mature foragers at my 2 hives that hadn't swarmed. I wasn't happy about it, but I felt I had a plausible explanation.

Needing to be alone, I got in my car and started home. I needed a distraction from my troubles and stopped at the MOA. That temple of din and dross. It worked well - the cacophony of sounds and disorienting visual chaos obliterated my funk. I wasn't cheered, but neither was I despondent. Going home, I could at least enjoy an evening out at the movies.

Last night, though... What I am about to write is shameful and difficult. It is like admitting to an STD, leprosy and plague. After the beekeepers meeting, I collared Jim to have him look at the frame I brought back. He told me what I didn't want to know. Not only had I lost my bees, but the hive appears to be infected with American Foul Brood, a highly infectious easily spread disease that at one point was every bit as catastrophic to beekeepers as colony collapse disorder. AFB renders your equipment unusable - now I must take at the frames that are infected and dispose of them by burning - it is the only thing that will kill the disease. There is a fire pit on the farm, and I anticipate a brilliant, if not cheerful, bonfire. I'll lose at least $100 of equipment in the blaze. But to do otherwise would be foolish. First, if any other bees come to rob out those hives, they could be infected as well. Second, I can't use those frames again because the next colony would end up dead as well.

So $300 of bees is gone, I stand to lose another $100 of equipment, I had to call my mentor and tell him that the equipment I gave him three weeks ago is likely infected, and my beeyard is a deadzone.

My pattern of grief is to go deep, immerse myself, look around and see what's what. Then to surface and look back on where I've been, learn from it. Then look around for the good that's come out if it.

I am looking around for the good of it this morning. Good things - (1) a bonfire - I love big fires; (2) I know what's wrong and can address it; (3) I can rescue the bees that are left by housing them in an observation hive and if they prosper, I can try to grow them up into a colony that will over winter (unrealistic); (4) I learned about not only the new form of nosema that was the subject of the excellent talk at the beekeepers' meeting, but also about AFB, first-hand; (5) I felt the strength and support of my beekeeper friends, who are so generous and kind; (6) I can keep a hive of clean frames set up on the farm as a swarm trap, and maybe be surprised by a windfall swarm.

Grieving over dead bees may seem silly to non-beekeepers. I admit, I feel affection for them. But my emotions stem more from the belief that because I have taken these otherwise wild creatures, hived them, and managed them for my own eventual benefit at honey harvest time - because I have done all that, I am responsible for keeping them safe and well. I feel I have let them down, and it causes me to grieve for them and regret my part in what has happened. It would have been easier to blame the neighbors' ill-timed spraying of their dandelions (after the blooms please, so you don't kill pollinators) and there may be some fault there as well. But the choice to use borrowed equipment I was not wholly confident of - that was my mistake. And the bees suffered for it.

Sometimes snow isn't snow, sometimes what you fear turns out even worse, and sometimes there is grace in failure. Being awake enough to take it all in is the hard part.

1 comment:

pbird said...

I am so sorry for your loss Kathy. What an awful sight. When I read your story I felt compelled to go check on my bees too. It's a good thing I did because you're not going to believe this...they had just swarmed up to the apple tree. I quick called my beeman came to help gather them up. They are in 2 boxes now. Once we determine if they have a queen or not we'll figure out what to do.