I circled the first hive, looking for signs of life. Pressed my ear to the lid: nothing. Though it’s really too early to open a hive and risk chilling fragile spring brood, I had worried my way through bone chilling weeks all winter. I hoped for some sign of survival, now that the snow was gone and the sun was warming my soggy, monochromatic back yard.
I opened the lid, just slightly, to smell the hive. A beehive has a glorious perfume, a scent of beeswax and honey and frankincense, sweet and floral, savory and feral.
It smelled promising. I lifted the lid and pulled up wooden frames one by one, but nothing stirred.
The brood chamber was a tomb. Bees climbed head first into empty comb cells and froze, starved, failed. It felt like a Greek ruin, like a miniature Pompeii. Here were the chambers where babies were raised, here the pantry, there the queen lying in state. Dead bees hung from the comb in a cluster, by the hook-ends of their feet, so natural that I held a few in my warm palm, raised them to the sunlight, bathed them in warm breath to make sure they were not just too cold to move.
The second hive’s lid, when raised, decanted the unmistakable, troubling aroma of fermentation.
Bees forage and return in gathering season, filling comb with nectars from a thousand blossoms; it’s wet, unripe, until the fanning of wings and the heat of the hive evaporate the liquid and it reaches just the right level of “sticky” to be honey. They cap each finished cell with wax, and that’s their savings account, their pantry store for the long months after hard frost kills whatever blooms.
But unfinished honey stores, not capped or tended when a hive is lost, will ferment into some aboriginal mead. It gives the hive a yeasty aroma, sweet but ale-ish, like kombucha, or the working fruity must for wine.
Another tomb, a damp one. Not the empty hive of colony collapse, no bee-pocalypse or bee rapture: just a pile of dead bees on the bottom board, where they dropped one by one, unable to turn enough calories of honey into calories of heat. When the cold goes on too long, no bee can leave the cluster’s protection to retrieve honey stored along the farthest edge of the frames. They warm the cluster by shivering their flight muscles, but none dare leave the queen.
I pulled out and sorted the wooden frames of comb, they way we pillage shipwrecks for valuables still of use. Combs of built up frame, deep beeswax combs, will save future colonies the trouble of building a place to store goods and raise babies. Young bees make beeswax from a gland on their bodies but it takes a lot of energy and time.
Combs full of bright orange pollen (protein rich for feeding baby bees) and darker combs of honey from the brood super went into my freezer, bagged, to await new occupants: move in condition! furnished quarters, meals provided! They will have a good start.
Fresh, white combs of capped honey from the first hive went into a box, which I will carry to my kitchen and cap into jars for my own narrow pantry shelves. I sprinkled bees by the thousands into the compost. Even the bug-munching chickens didn’t want them. Maybe they remember that the striped tidbits come with a sting, or maybe the bodies were mostly dried exo-husk with no protein inside worth the bother. I don’t know. I didn’t taste one. (don’t laugh, my bee inspector gobbles the larvae and finds them nutty and sweet) Still, the bodies felt empty and light in my hands, like chaff.
I had big hopes for the last hive. Over the winter I had seen a peppering of dead bees dumped into a snowdrift behind the hive, sure evidence that somebody in there was cleaning house and carrying out the dead. Maybe this last one would be Noah’s Ark, Battlestar Galactica, with enough survivors for a new beginning, and a fertile queen whose daughters could fill three hives.
Lifting the lid brought a scent that was all wrong: mouse?
Mouse. The smell of a childhood hamster cage in need of cleaning, or the surprise find of shredded work gloves in a garage drawer, stuffed with insulation and smelling of something wild, rodenty, funky and fertile. Mouse pee and birth nest.
The top box had honey but was empty of bees, and as I worked my way down, I found the careful hexagonal rows of beeswax cell that had been destroyed; chewed through in tunnels, emptied of content. Wax bits and mouse poop everywhere. Deeper exploration offered grass, and fluff, and finally the bright challenging stare of a doe-eyed field mouse, sleek and fat on a winter of honey and fat bee-grubs. I pulled out the whole section of comb that contained her nest and put it on the ground but she stood her ground, hanging on for the ride; another fat mouse ran for the cover of the bleached fall leaves mulching raspberry vines, but this one would not budge.
Crap, I thought. Babies.
I went to the house for an aquarium, thinking to transfer the whole crew to a safe place, and when they were raised, to drive them far away to for release. When I returned, she was still there, but leapt from the nest at last when I hefted the whole works over the glass tank. After a split second of imagining what it would be like to bottle feed baby mice, I pulled the nest apart in my hands: no babies. Thank heavens for small favors.
The nest was made of the thinnest dry grass, and long strands of shredder-paper. It had once been my junk mail and wastepaper, was shredded to make bedding for my kids’ cage pets, then dumped into the compost bin where the mousewife apparently recycled it yet again. There were long white strands of guinea pig hair in the nest, as well.
I am sorry to have lost my bees, but the winter was hard and the bee inspector says losses are high all over. On the 14th of April, a man named George in Waldo, Ohio will package up six pounds of Italian bees and a queen, and ship them to me. Between the boxes of chicks and boxes of bees, employees at my suburban post office always remember my name.
Last year, I put myself on an exterminator’s list to capture honeybee swarms, and befriended with a man whose enormous, ancient maple bee-tree produced swarm after swarm last year. So maybe he will call me again in spring; last year’s bees have done the hard work of building and storing, so I could have a surplus by fall. Meanwhile, I have empty supers (the box parts) leaning on the garden fence for sun. I will scorch the insides with a weed burner, just for the sake of a fresh start, give them a coat of paint, and reassemble the hives when shipping dates come closer. Before I hive the new-bees, I’ll go to the freezer and fill their bottom box with drawn comb, stores of pollen, and several frames of capped honey that have just the slightest aroma of mouse.