I once went to an air show in Texas in August. The heat shimmered off the concrete in waves, the runway rippled like a reflection. I watched a pilot in a prop plane perform a maneuver where his plane was tossed nose over tail, spinning, tumbling out of control, and then powering out with precise burst of speed. Said the announcer, “At the beginning of that he’s a pilot and at the end of it, he’s a pilot. In between he’s just a spectator with a really good seat.”
You couldn’t get much further from that Texas summer air show to the middle of winter in the far northwest. The air outside is seventeen degrees, the ground is frozen solid. I can’t help but look through the frost laced window down the hill to my hives. It’s snowing, silent and dark. I worry about my bees, locked their huddles, holding on in the darkness. I sent them into winter with hives loaded with stores. I sheltered them and fed them and put up the wind breaks. Now I wonder if they’ll make it.
After that show I met the pilot, standing by his plane and signing anything that stood still. I asked him how he did it. I didn’t even need to say what “it” was– he knew. “All you got to do is know when to go. Until then you just hang on.” He took out a tiny die cast version of his plane and twirled it in his fingers. “You can make it go,” he said, “but you do it too soon and you crash.” And if you wait too long? “Crash.” What if you crash before you can pull it out? “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that.”
I sometimes forget that the bees know how to do this. They’ve been practicing longer than humans have been around, and with a really good teacher. If you think gravity is harsh, let me introduce you to natural selection. They know when to cut back the brood and build the stores, and when to cut loose in the spring and go for it. Like the air show pilot they know when to hunker down and just hang on. If they don’t run out of fuel they’ll pull out when the time is right, soaring up to their spring population. They can do this trick with their eyes shut. Come to think of it, that would really be a trick since they don’t have eye lids, and they have thousands of eyes. And us in the house? Well, in the fall we’re beekeepers, and in the spring we’re beekeepers. In between we’re just spectators with a really good seat.