Each winter is different, but many times winter means making difficult bee decisions. In a normal year the first frost would have laid its silver tips on the fields six weeks ago, but this fall has been wetter and warmer than any other. My bees are awake, drippy wet flowers lounge in the fields, and curtains of drizzle keep the bees on their front porch. Some have ventured out in the brief spots of sunbeams but not all have found their way back. One fat splotch of rain on that little furry body is enough to ground a flying maiden, and if the sun’s warmth doesn’t quickly dry her out, she perishes in the field.
My measuring of honey stores is based on normal fall and winter weather and in late September everyone looked to be in excellent shape. By now frost should have shut down the flowers in the Pacific Northwest, the weather should have gotten colder, and the bees should have been starting to huddle together in cluster for warmth and dreamtime. That would be normal for late November.
But the weather’s wacky. In October the pear tree in the north yard filled a broad branch with delicate white flowers. The yellow peace roses and dandelions are blooming again, and yesterday our chest-high rosemary bushes shot forth hundreds of blue flowers. The nearest tree hive a scant twenty feet away had dozens of bees at the entrance sniffing the waft of rosemary blooms, so near and yet so far. I watched from the kitchen window but didn’t see a single bee visit all drizzly afternoon.
What a conundrum. If it stopped raining, the bees could harvest the still-blooming calendulas, cosmos and borage. Or if frost arrived as scheduled, the cold would have knocked down the flowers and set the hive to sleepiness. But instead they’re wide awake, stuck inside and eating honey that was meant for springtime. Difficult bee decisions, indeed!
This was the year I determined I was no longer going to feed my bees. I provide a farm’s worth of nutritious forage from late winter through mid-fall and as a treatment-free keeper of bees, I’d decided that strong hives shouldn’t need feeding and that I was propping up weaker hives by doing that.
In prior years I’d winter-fed the smaller hives with 50-50 results. Some lived, some died, but at least those who perished didn’t die from lack of food. As years pass, I find my commitment to raising healthy bees puts me in places where ethics and compassion tangle. The long view is that I want to provide the living situation whereby local bees can successfully weed out weakness and grow stronger each year. The short view is that it’s hard to watch a perfectly healthy hive go hungry.
This year — my thirteenth bee year — I came to the realization that humans should not be taking on the tasks of a healthy hive. The difficult bee decisions are not ours to make. Over-management is erroneous human thinking that causes us to believe we understand bees, that we know them so well we can think like a bee. And not just any bee, we act like we are the OverLord bee who knows what’s best for the colony and thus we introduce all kinds of situations that throw perfectly good hives into disarray.
Strong hives, on their own, bring in appropriate amounts of pollen and nectar at the right time for build-up and slow-down. They make and clean the structure; create medicines that maintain health; communicate with a radius of thriving plant and ethereal life; share space with “not-bee” critters who live in the fall-away; and they do it all on their own timing. For those who pay attention, bees also teach deep bee wisdom.
As winter came on, I felt really good about my decision to step back and allow the bees to determine the rules that govern their lives. Absolutely no more fussing on my part. Bees rule. I am not a bee.
And then we had this wonky fall where the bees, of necessity, plunged into their winter honey stores to feed themselves. At the end of November, when I hefted the back of the hive to feel how heavy it was, oh dear me they were mighty light.
Most were fine, but my smallest hive was way light. Which brought me face-to-face with the rule I’d just given myself, don’t interfere. The intent had been to let them sort out the stronger hives from the weak — a good goal and in keeping with my philosophy — but dang, now I have to figure out is this year just a fluke and would it be dumb of me to let a hive die because of weather? Those old difficult bee decisions came back to haunt me.
Isn’t it curious how whenever we finally think we know something, Life plunks us down in a situation that tests our resolve?
It’s the weather, not the bees, I argued with myself. How do I withhold honey that’s sitting in my kitchen, from hungry bees growing through a climate-challenged winter? Or is this the point — that we all have to survive these changes and some will not make it due to circumstances they cannot control. Only bees who put extra aside will make it and those who run a little shy in fall will be drastically lacking in February.
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I want to have the courage of my convictions, to always know what proper action is, and to boldly step into doing the right thing. I spend countless hours ruminating on right action, yet even with considerable bee communication skills, I don’t always know the perfect answer. Treatment-free beekeeping is hard because all our actions are geared toward providing conditions that support the sustainability of the colonies in their own individual situations. That’s a good definition of compassionate tough love and I’m not always up for the tough part.
I am not pleased to tell you I caved. I removed four empty combs, combs that had been chock full two months ago, and I fed the small hive. I don’t know if they’ll make it or if that was the right thing to do. As I refilled the dish with crumbly wax and honey, my mind was in the uncomfortable human moment where I question everything I do, wishing for divine guidance yet knowing the true test is — win or lose — that I do the best I can.
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