A Bee Redux and thoughts on Picking Up Where We Left Off

Mike was on the fence about getting back into beekeeping this spring. I was hoping we would, but after last year, I didn’t want to press it. Bees are fun to watch and to talk about and I love it when he picks up hobbies where I reap rewards and am required to do almost no work. But after the Great Bee Debacle of 2021 I was leaving the decision up to him.

For those who don’t want to go back and read through part one of this bee story, here’s a recap: Inspired by Colin’s foray into beekeeping the year before, Mike built a backyard bee Taj Mahal and brought home a package of bees for it. Our queen decided the digs weren’t for her and took off, flying in big, lazy spirals into the clear, spring sky while we watched her go.

After that, Mike rushed and brought on a second queen to be introduced to the hive. With luck she’d be welcomed and start producing more hive members, keeping the colony going. At first it seemed to work and for a time, we reveled in the notion that we were officially successful beekeepers. Then it seemed like the hive was thinning out, but it was hard to be sure. Fifteen thousand bees didn’t look a lot different than ten thousand bees to our untrained eyes when we opened things up, and maybe a big bunch of them were just out on a pollen run?

Eventually, though, it was clear we were looking at fewer and fewer bees every week. In the end all we had left was Her Royal Majesty the Second and a couple of stragglers, and us with no actual idea what happened.

While unsuccessful, our short bee experience did teach us a few things. One was that bees can make friends. Instead of availing themselves of the water source we’d set up, our bees congregated in a little line on the edge of the neighbors’ bird bath each morning with a buzzy greeting. We hadn’t counted on them outing our covert beekeeping efforts, but thankfully the neighbors were delighted instead of alarmed.

By the time they came by to ask about this year’s bee effort, Mike had all but decided that our backyard bee Taj would go unoccupied. But it didn’t take too much effort to change his mind.

This year we’re making a few changes. First, we brought home nuks instead of a package of bees (nuk is pronounced more like ukulele than knuckles, by the way). A nuk is like a mini hive with frames ready to transfer into the new hive, and a queen already entrenched in the colony. And we bought two nuks instead of one, having learned that setting up a lone hive is a rookie move. With two, we’re told, you can tell more readily if one has a problem and make adjustments.

What those adjustments might be, I can’t tell you, but it will be helpful to compare the two along the way to see if there’s any thinning early on.

I decided naming the hives was my job. Mike wasn’t crazy about my suggestions at first. He said he worried about handicapping our bees with a label, like they’re kids destined to be bullied on a playground if we chose poorly. I reminded him that he’d widely introduced our first child, in utero, as Cletus the Fetus and I’ve never collected on that debt. I have a long memory and he has a weird sense of humor, which is, my friends, the story of how this marriage works.

It’s also the story of how our bees are now known as Hives Atreides and Harkonnen.

Hive Harkonnen lived up to its name almost as soon as it arrived. They’re resilient and productive, and also kind of crabby. They’d started building new honeycomb in their nuk before they ever got to their permanent hive. Mike’s already been stung twice, and Norman at least once. Since stinging is a death sentence to a bee, I guess that means our Harkonnen bees are serious about being left alone.

Hive Atreides bees, on the other hand, are mellow. They mostly ignore me when I hang out in the morning, observing them quietly while I drink my coffee. I dig that, but I also worry. Our last bees were nice, and they floundered and eventually failed, breaking my poor bee mommy heart.

One thing I’ve discovered that comes with naming your bees is a more of a bond than I remember last time. Unfortunately, this probably means more heartbreak if things don’t work out again, the likelihood of which is anyone’s guess. All we can do is set them up with what they need: a little filtered shade, a fresh water source, and an occasional treatment for mites, and then let nature take its course.

This last weekend we left the bees alone for a bit as we traveled to a conference to re-launch another endeavor that carries with it the risk of heartbreak. After a two-year hiatus, we’re once again preparing students to go abroad on exchange. Just as we’ve been doing for years, we vetted applications, selected candidates, and have been training and preparing a group of courageous young people ever since, hoping we don’t at some point have to tell them the program has been cancelled again due to the pandemic. At this point I know each student by name and personality. I know who is studying his language diligently and who will be slow to turn in her paperwork. I can sense who will make friends easily and who will be better prepared to deal with homesickness.

We know most of them will thrive, but some will struggle. Some of their success or failure will be a direct result of their actions or our preparation, but some may be due to factors we can’t anticipate, variables out of anyone’s control.

We all do what we can and hope for the best, but we’re ultimately guessing at all of it, knowing there will be wounds to heal even if things go as well as can be expected.

Like we tell these students: “adventure” doesn’t necessarily mean “all fun all the time.” Sometimes it means snakes on the plane.

In the end, all we can do is prepare ourselves for either.

When we returned home, I headed out back to check on our bees. Both Harkonnen and Atreides hives seemed to be doing well enough. There were bees heading out while others were re-entering their respective Taj Mahals with sleeves of pollen bulging from each leg.

I’ll get back to my morning routine this week, watching their activity over a cup of coffee. Maybe we’ll chat. They’ll buzz and I’ll give them advice, hoping they don’t get into some random trouble out there in the big world. I have faith, but also, we’re talking about 30,000 bees, each of whom is just living its best life. Whether that means more heartbreak in our future isn’t clear at this moment.

In the chill of the morning, I’ll hover over the steam rising from my coffee.

“Make good choices, guys,” I’ll say. At this point, that advice is all I have for anyone around here.

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