Death of a Beekeeper
By: Dianne Robbins
At fifty years old, I find myself retired… again for a second time. What will I do this time? We, my significant other and I, just moved to a 15-acre ranch in the middle of the desert southwest – a wonderful, beautiful, and sometimes harsh environment with seemingly endless possibilities. It doesn’t take me long to come up with many ideas, but the one I like best… bees. More specifically… honeybees!
Bees have always been fascinating creatures to me. Despite their small size, they seem to be feared by many – the swarming kind, the Africanized kind, the stinging kind. And they are loved by many. “Save the bees” is a campaign I think we’re all most familiar with these days. After all, without the honeybees, a lot of the foods we eat – fruits and nuts and veggies – would not be on our tables in such plentiful supply today. Bees are very industrious and live and work together in harmonious colonies. And their ultimate result… my favorite… honey – lots of sweet, sweet honey!
So now the research begins. I read books on bees. Google bees. Watch endless quantities of YouTube videos on bees. Want to be entertained? YouTube has all different kinds of beekeepers with endless techniques and ideas on how to raise and care for bees. You can smoke them (no, not in a pipe) or not. You can wear your bee suit… or not. When installing bees into a new hive, you can bang them into it or use a brush and sweep them in for a more gentle approach. Get the picture?
Then there’s the decision on which type of honeybee to work with – the Carniolan honeybee, the Italian honeybee, the dark European/German, Cape, African, Egyptian. Enough already! I cannot wait to start, and so I settle on the Italian honeybee. It seems to be the best choice for our desert environment and, after all, it is a “gentle” bee. So online I go to purchase my first package of honeybees. Yes, you can do that!
Delivery day. Seeing the UPS driver walk up my driveway with my package of bees is like watching your baby (rather, babies) come home for the first time. As the driver gingerly passes my package to me, he apologizes for having to put them in a Mylar bag. “They were trying to escape,” he says, “and we didn’t know what else to do.” “No problem,” I say as he passes the package to me. “Ouch!” There is my first bee sting.
As the days pass, hive inspections every couple of days are the norm – looking at worker bee cells, drone bee cells, the Queen, mites, no mites. By the way, I did purchase a marked Queen, one with a green dot. The dot makes for easy identification to this newbie. Locating the Queen isn’t without its controversy either. Commercial beekeepers consider it a decrease in efficiency to try to locate the Queen Bee upon each inspection whereas hobbyists encourage it. I, myself, enjoy locating the Queen. It makes hive inspections more challenging and purposeful – checking to make sure your hive is productive, not only in pollen collection, honey making, and hive building, but in egg production as well.
So many things to watch; so many things to learn. These creatures work fast and furious and reproduce quickly. It isn’t long before my one two-story hive turns into two four-story hives. Progress!
The fall honey harvest. I am so excited about my new found love – my honeybees. They are doing so well through their first few seasons, and I am so proud of them. They survive the brutal heat of our desert summer, they grow in population, and I am seeing plenty of honey in the combs. Success! Now time for my first honey harvest. Wow! This is great, I think. Now we get to enjoy the fruit of my labor. Silly me. “My” labor. The fruits of “their” labor. And away I go… “robbing” their honey. Suddenly, my kind and gentle honeybees aren’t behaving so kind and gentle on this day. No problem. This is to be expected. Honeybees will protect and defend the fruits of their labor. After all, winter is coming, and honey is what they need to survive.
My first year did not produce that much honey. I have only two hives and have to make sure I leave enough behind for my honeybees to survive until spring. I am able to extract just enough honey to enjoy though… and even share for a bit. It is delicious!
Then comes winter. Falls and winters do not require frequent inspections like springs and summers do. So what a perfect time for a vacation, and away I go. There really is no cause for concern during this period. The hard work from seasons past is complete and only an occasional eye is all that is required. The next step: planning for the next season, my second season, and plan I do.
Splitting my hives is the next course of action. This is going to be a great way to grow my honeybee population cost-effectively and increase honey production. It will give me first-hand experience for what occurs during the process of developing additional hives. My first split is a failure; the honeybees die. It is too early in the spring to be doing this just yet. RIP, my honeybees. So I wait a few more weeks, and try it again. Second time, success! Woo-hoo!
Now we’re rockin’! My honeybees are moving full-steam ahead – working and foraging and egg-laying and growing and honey-making. And I’m back to inspecting and hunting for Queen Bees and building up the stories of each hive to four-story buildings and … Ouch! Sting! And inspecting… Ouch! … Sting again! And inspecting …. and… Ouch! … inspecting … Wait! Something’s going on here! Inspecting the hives is supposed to help the honeybees stay calm and get used to me working with them, but something’s changing. With each inspection I notice the honeybees becoming more and more agitated… aggressive… and it feels more and more like they’re getting ready to swarm… and attack! Surely they’re not getting ready to attack me, are they?
A final inspection. Okay. Suit up. Gloves on. Smoker lit. Lid off. Frame one of bees… check. No Queen. Frame two… check. Three, four, five, six, seven… With each frame of honeycomb and bees I pull out to inspect, the bees are becoming more and more agitated… more and more aggressive. I have quite a few flying around my head and darting my beekeeper’s hat. As I placed the eighth and final frame of honeycomb with honeybees back into the hive… … … Woosh! All of a sudden… without warning… over ten thousand bees instantly and simultaneously fly up into my face, cloaking my beekeeper’s hat. I start to panic. Wait. I have a bee underneath my hat… then two… then ten… RUN!!!!!!
As I run… I have bees stinging my head… my face… I rip off that beekeeper’s hat – the one that’s kept me hidden from the danger of the stinging honeybees for one whole year and the beginning of a second. It’s no longer my safety mechanism. The bees are communicating back and forth to one another exactly where that hole is and more and more are getting through. It doesn’t take long.
Running across the yard, I lead a swarm of bees from behind. I just keep running and running and running until I no longer see bees buzzing about my head. I stop. Exhausted, I stand stunned in the middle of our desert landscape… What happened? Why? Am I okay? I check myself. Blood dripping down my face – not from bees, but from the hive tool I held in my hand while I beat myself about the head and face to end the painful torture of the bees. I catch my breath, and head back to the house. Bees are no longer buzzing around me, and so now I can go clean myself up… assess the damage.
Fortunately the cut on my face from the hive tool is not serious. It heals within a few weeks. And the effects of bee stings about my head disappear within days. What next? Sadly… I make a phone call to a beekeeper to clean up the mess I got myself into. Off go the bees. All that remains are unoccupied hives. Death to this beekeeper.
So what happened? I am not really sure. As I speak with a beekeeper friend of mine, he suspects that somehow an Africanized bee or two invaded my hives and gradually took over, making the hives become more and more aggressive. He encourages me to start again, but I no longer have the courage to take on such an endeavor. The sound of even a single buzzing bee brings back the horror from days past. From now on, I will appreciate the bees only as they cross my path… and hopefully they’ll stay awhile and pollinate my garden. But… they must find somewhere else to make their honey.
The one surviving English cottage that I once provide as the honeybees’ home has been retired to the middle of our desert ranch … now home to lazy lounging lizards. It’s been quite an adventure, my honeybees… quite a learning adventure. Thank you! I learned a ton!
P.S.: Did you know that ants are related to honeybees? No, don’t worry. I’m not about to start an ant farm.