If you follow me on twitter and instagram, you will know we have beehives in our roof garden. I talk about them all the time, because I love the bees. This year, I have the amazing opportunity to be one of a pair of proper beekeepers, taking care of our bees in a right-in-there, bee-veiled and everything, kind of way.
I find myself thinking about Margaret Atwood’s [amazon_link id=”030739798X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Year of the Flood[/amazon_link] and[amazon_link id=”0771008465″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Maddaddam[/amazon_link] books quite a bit, standing on our rooftop talking to our bees. Aside from societal breakdown and the quasi-religious organizing principles, my co-op’s roof garden and beehives have a lot in common with Atwood’s God’s Gardeners. So, I find myself telling the bees the news, when there’s a new baby or someone has moved away.
Unfortunately, one of our hives didn’t make it through the winter. Well, they did, but the sickness wasn’t obvious right away and then they started dying in droves. It wasn’t pretty. One beehive can have tens of thousands of bees, so that’s a lot of little deaths. I spent an afternoon sitting in the garden, shivering when the sun went behind clouds, scraping the boxes clean and washing them with diluted bleach.
The other day, I opened the remaining hive with my bare hands for the first time. Our chief beekeeper was right behind me, talking me through it with a calm and quiet voice, but it was my hands on the inner cover. I slipped my hive tool in between the inner cover and the top super, cracking the propolis the bees work so hard to chink the holes in their home with. You can feel a ripple of warning move through the bees when you do that, and an audible spike in their ever-present hum. A few sentry bees flew up to check what was happening, but they didn’t even bang into my head the way they do when I’m weeding too close to the hive entrance in bad weather.
It’s always a surprise to me, when the hive is opened, how many bees there are in there. I mean, I know intellectually how many bees there are, but faced with a teeming box when I lift the cover, it can still send a wave of panic to my brain. So. Many. Bees. Once I’m in there for a minute, though, and realize they are not angry, I relax a bit.
The whole process is actually quite calming. You must move slowly, smoothly, and without jarring things or dropping or banging. Vibrations are very important to bees. Step slowly. I talk quietly and constantly. Whether talking to them makes any difference is up for debate, but it calms me down, so maybe that’s worth sounding like a bonkers bee lady.
That night I had to go in again, without the coaching. Thankfully, a fellow trainee beekeeper from our co-op came with me. For a couple of hours beforehand it was all I could think about. I have to open that box, by myself. They will know I am afraid. They will feel my inexperience.
In the end, it went quickly and smoothly. The bees were even less interested in me than they were in the morning, and hardly any flew up to check me out. Despite dropping nine things while making dinner beforehand, I didn’t even jar the heavy outer cover when I was out there.
I might be able to pull off this beekeeping thing after all.