During mid-January here, you'd have to search a long time to find a smug beekeeper. There has been a good long freeze this year, more than a month since the last time temperatures reached flight-worthy levels (also known as bathroom break levels—more important, though less poetic).
Beekeeping teaches this: nature is an amazing 360-degree extravaganza of millions of living things making their bets and living with the consequences. Last year, in late February, the temperature one Friday night was over 60 degrees F (16 degrees C) and as the sun set and the air chilled all the bees around here made group decisions about where to cluster together for the night ahead. This is about to get a little geeky, but you need to know this: bees cluster together to flex their little wing muscles and keep each other warm. They place themselves over stored food—honeycomb to us humans—about as much as they think they will need.
The colder it gets, however, the closer those bees need to mash together. A ball of bees the size of a basketball can look more like a honeydew melon if the temperature changes enough, and bees can face the choice between warmth and starvation as the honey they cluster over has to nourish more and more bees, and the edge of the stores above recedes a few precious inches away.
By Monday at the beginning of March in 2009, the temperature was 7 degrees F (-14 C) in downtown Washington DC. Every bee colony that bet on an average night in an average winter probably died by Monday morning.
Freaky, worrywart bees, or perhaps profligate "why worry" kinds of bees that were willing to place themselves WAY up above the edge of their stored honey supply were the ones who made it last February. And so bets were made, and whole families lived or died.
Some people tell me that generals are always fighting the last war, and perhaps the beekeeper equivalent is to prepare against the last winter. In January, all of us are facing the choices we made for our bees, as well as the choices they are likely to make for themselves. For millions of years, the genes they received from their ancestors stored up good choice-making tendencies that may be worth a lot less in the turbulent climate changes of today. For just a few years, I have been trying to figure out the challenges my patch of the planet presents to these small creatures, and to learn from beekeepers a whole lot more experienced than I ever will be. The bees place their bets, I place mine, and sometimes I know I am betting against the house.
And January comes, and the truth will out.
The not particularly interesting picture above shows the beehive at the Lederer Youth Garden in Washington DC. This week, for about 72 hours, we have flying (and pooping) weather, and I have visited all 9 hives. A whole bunch of them looked like this: too damn quiet for me. No bees flying, no bees obviously dying, nothing at all. Nine times I steeled myself for the worst, nine times I found warm bees inside.
Let me tell you my beekeeping sins: I treat for mites, though I don't count them enough. I am told to move honey close to clustering bees, but I am far too afraid to mess with the inside of a cold hive. Most of my hives go into the winter twice the recommended size. Some of my bees have viruses and I should let them die, some of my bees have queens more than a year old. Some of my bees get regular visits, some of my bees are on the wrong side of rush hour. But today, they are all alive.
When I think about the vagarities of the choices I make, of the way that Nature spreads her bets across the full spectrum of environmental possibilities, of the not-yet understood changes we all face from the weather, how can I possibly take pride in nine live hives? I can only be very humble, and very glad.