Rites of Renewal

If there’s anything better than a ball of happy bees I haven’t found it.  Well, maybe three balls of happy bees.  Today was package bee day at the Nelson household. I picked up three packages of bees, each a tiny ball of hope.  The bees of last year died, starving to death in a cold snap split between two small patches of brood.  In the interim I was bee-less.  I spent many days looking down into the yard at the hives.  Every time a forager from a neighbor’s hive so much as buzzed my hives I got excited – this could signal a swarm moving in!  No, not really.  Not in the middle of winter.  Still one can hope.

 Installing a package of bees is a rite of passage into the membership of beekeeping.  Everyone remembers their first package.  Most of us were afraid if we tell the truth.  I was.  I remember the sound of the bees – were they angry?  Were they angry at me?  If they were angry, how many were going to come out and attack me on sight?  Fumbling for the queen cage – aaaaah!  The bees won’t come off the cage.  And now they’re flying around.  Nobody said they’d fly around.  I thought those wings were for decoration.  Now they’re on me!  And they have stingers!  On me!  Shaking them into the box, trying to avoid crushing more of them – now the box lid is on! I think I set a record for holding my breath.  Didn’t even know I got stung till I was back at the house.  I felt sorry for the bees that stung me.  Back at the house I felt a wave of satisfaction sweep over me - I was in, a bona fide member of the beekeeper’s club.  Little did I know this cycle would repeat; a rite of passage becoming a rite of renewal.

Everything in nature goes through the cycle of renewal. In the face of powerful adversaries, the act of starting over may be our only our only method of survival. In this regard honeybees share the plight of the chestnut tree.  Chestnut trees once made up over fifty percent of the eastern forests.  Ernest Hemmingway wrote “The baby’s crib was made of chestnut, and the old man’s coffin the same.”  Once chestnut was the signature tree of the east, as well known as the maple and as sturdy as the oak.  Then a story familiar to beekeepers played out.

In China the parasite cryphonectria parasitica is little more than nuisance.  In the deadly arms race of evolution the Chinese (and Japanese) chestnuts have reached a stalemate with Cryphonectria.  Imported to the United States the parasite leaped to the native chestnut and disaster ensued.  Within a few decades the mighty chestnut was nearly eradicated.

I need not repeat the story of Varroa, nor the story of Nosema Ceranae.  There is more to the story of the chestnut, and in it a message of hope.  The American Chestnut is not extinct.  Islands of isolated trees remain, safe beyond the easy transfer range of Cryphonectria.  We had varroa free islands like Hawaii for a while.  Even where the blight has had its way the Chestnut remains.  Reduced to a stump the trees still send up branches each spring.  They rise through the summer, storing just enough precious energy to survive the inevitable onslaught of the blight.  This rite preserves them in a stalemate.

Beekeepers do the same.  Every year we fight a war with diseases not meant for our pet species.  Some years we lose.  It doesn’t stop us from trying again.  Foulbrood, Varroa, Nosema, we know these.  Nosema Ceranae, Small Hive Beetle, we’ll have to adapt.  For the chestnut, tree lovers have begun mixing the Chinese Chestnut with American Chestnut to produce resistant hybrids.  In time these trees will return to our forests and homes.  Likewise for bees the future lies in breeding resistance.  We can irradiate the bees until you can collect swarms in the dark.  We can blast toxins into the hive and declare anything that kills more mites than bees a treatment…or we can look to the Chinese Chestnut for the path to the future.

For now we cling to these rites.  We make our splits, purchase our packages and gather swarms from the survivors.  We search for breeds with resistance to these destroyers and hope no new ones arrive.  I’d like to see a fall when I can relax under a chestnut and talk about the bees.  I’ll say “Remember how bad those mites were?  Well, we’re holding their own now”.  One can hope.