Today was a marginal day for flying if you’re a bee: breezy, in the low 40’s, with only a few minutes of bright sunlight. Even so, one of my colonies came tumbling enthusiastically out of their top bar hive for a “cleansing flight” (a chance for the bees to finally get out of the hive and relieve themselves) the moment a friendly ray of sunshine came knocking at their hive. (I used to think that a colony was just a colony, but they have such distinct personalities, I can’t keep myself from anthropomorphizing them.)
In one of life’s frequent ironies, the enthusiastic fliers came from Nueva, the gentle, delicate-seeming colony that I’d gotten last spring. She had never stung me, although I royally deserved it at times when I bumbled around her combs in my sad attempts at hive maintenance, and her numbers had always seemed small when I looked through the observation window. I honestly didn’t expect her to live past Christmas, she seemed so frail. Even so, she sent out a cloud of happily pooping fliers when the sunlight hit her hive.
It was Vieja, the feisty, irrepressible, almost-two-year-old colony who broke my heart with her silence today. She’d miraculously survived her first winter despite being a late July swarm and losing most of her newly built combs to my inexperience in mid-August. (I’d forgotten to cut the combs from the edges of the hive when I lifted the bars up, so the fragile new wax had broken right off.) Even so, she didn’t just survive; she flourished. She yielded almost 30 pounds of honey in early spring—an inadvertent harvest that occurred when my husband and I thought we were just cutting out some cross combs, which we hadn’t interfered with the previous fall because we thought the colony would die over winter. She also sent out three swarms over the summer and still teemed with activity well into fall, sucking down sugar water with the appetite of a teenage boy.
Vieja was sometimes cranky—at one point, she got tired of my opening her observation window every day and notified me of her displeasure by stinging me three times. (I got the message and curtailed my spying. Satisfied, she left me alone the rest of the season.) Even so, she was so full of life that I’d been counting on her to survive the winter and help bolster the rapidly dwindling bee population. (My bee club just notified its members that it can’t fill any more orders for colonies, and it’s scrambling to fill the ones it already took. I don’t know anything about the situation with the suppliers, but the sudden extreme dearth of bees seems to bode ill for all of us.)
I’d imagined that Vieja, with her strong will to live and reproduce, would help bees everywhere by contributing her genetics to the population. Now, though, her hive is silent, and I’m worried that nobody’s left alive inside. I don’t dare open it to find out before the days become consistently warmer, and I can’t look in the window since we have straw bales stacked around it.
So I’ll mourn and worry about Vieja, but I’ll celebrate Nueva’s persistence against the odds. I just hope she’s still persisting come spring.