Teacher and coach

The bees are gone

The bees left last week. It was a rare warm winter day on the mountain, a day when they might have been inclined to emerge briefly from their warm hives to buzz around a bit and answer the call of nature so to speak. So my wife and I decided to go check on them. We’d learned a lot more about beekeeping since our first bee colonies last year. All of our last year’s bees froze to death during a particularly harsh winter, and we’d put in place some safeguards to make that less likely this year.

But when we got to the hives we couldn’t hear any of the telltale buzzing, and when we opened up the hives to take a look, the bees were all gone. Not dead, gone. They left.

I’m not much of a beekeeper really, more of a reluctant assistant. My wife got involved in it a few years ago after deciding for some reason that it would be really awesome to acquire a few hundred thousand stinging insects and keep them around for the joy of working our asses off in exchange for a few pounds of raw honey each year, and of course I agreed to help out. I didn’t mind that much, and in fact I grew to enjoy it almost as much as she did. Bees are fascinating creatures. They’re amazingly hard workers, they have a remarkably complex and sophisticated social structure, and their ability to take nectar and turn it into honey is like magic. They also, quite frankly, don’t need a whole lot of help from us humans; they mostly take care of themselves.

I remember the first time I learned I was a horrible parent, a few years before I became an actual parent. I was 27 and a first year high school teacher, and to my great surprise and annoyance much of my job involved parenting. I wanted to teach high school because I enjoyed my high school years so much and I knew, based on my own experience, that kids of that age were reasonably mature and pleasant to be around. As it turned out, kids of that age are in desperate need of parenting. They need to learn discipline, how to take turns, how to speak without swearing, and all kinds of things that I had no idea at all how to help them with. And of course, I wasn’t actually their parent so there was a lot that wasn’t appropriate for me to teach them, but I eventually learned which parts of parenting were my responsibility and I tried to provide those parts as best I could.

My actual children, the ones who taught me even more about what kind of parent I am, are practically grown now. One thing I learned from them is that they are not me. Sure, they look like me and talk like me in that family resemblance kind of way, but they’re actually entirely different human beings, with entirely different priorities and interests and plans. I tell them what I think they should do, and explain to them why I’m right, and they often nod their heads as though they agree with me, but then they go and do something completely different, something that makes very little sense, something that I would never do.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” they tell me with a smile, but I worry anyway. What if they screw up? What if they lose their job? What if they flunk out of school? What if they blow all their money? What if they mess up their relationship? What if they get hurt? I don’t think they worry enough. I’m not even sure they worry at all.

When a colony of bees just up and leaves it’s called absconding, and like many things about bees even the experts don’t really know why they do it. There could be pests that have been bothering them, from varroa mites, which you have to treat for every year or so, to skunks, raccoons and other critters who try to get into their hives to steal their honey. They could be annoyed by beekeepers, mostly newbies, who try to “help” them too much when they should mostly just leave them alone.

As my wife was telling me about the different reasons why bees abscond, she mentioned that it wasn’t a last minute, spur-of-the-moment kind of thing for the bees. They apparently put a fair bit of thought and planning into it. They eat as much as they can in preparation for the journey and the whole colony leaves together. They decide over some period of time that for whatever reasons they’re just not happy with their current situation, and they’re going to take off and look for something better. It occurred to me that if that’s true, then the bees must have had some reason to think that they’d find something better. After all, they’d been living with us for a while, they probably know our mountain better than we do. Maybe as they were finding flowers and tree blossoms and gathering up pollen and nectar over the past several months, they decided, “You know, there’s a lot of great stuff here, I bet we could set up our own place and not have to deal with those annoying humans always getting in our business.”

I’ve decided that’s how I’m going to think about the bees leaving. I’m sad because I’ll miss them, and my wife will miss them even more. I’m worried because I think we gave them a pretty good place to live and I don’t know for sure that they’ll find someplace better. But bees have been doing their bee thing for a few million years, and while we tried to take care of them as best we could, it’s entirely possible that they actually will find something better.

I wish they would have stayed here. It would have been safer. But apparently bees don’t always choose what I would have chosen for them. I wish them the best and I hope that they are happy, but mostly I hope that they find whatever they needed to find.

Photo by Junie Kim on Unsplash

2 Responses to “The bees are gone”

  1. bledsoe says:

    I’m sad, too, but thanks for the kind words.

  2. Virginia Turnage says:

    Loved this “essay”—just beautiful! I’m sad and very surprised that the bees left.

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