Decline of a civilization

    It was after Hurricanes Irene and Lee, according to my neighbors, that something seemed amiss in the beehives.

    “What happened to your bees?” was asked by a few of the people who liked to watch the bees zooming in and out of the hives, perhaps the only creatures that seem truly happy to go to work every single day.

    I only wish I knew. Many would-be apiarists are scared away from the prospect of beekeeping by stories about the number of pathogens, predators, and parasites that attack the honeybee. These dangers are all in addition to the still-mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, which has reduced honeybee populations around the globe. CCD is still not understood, although anecdotal evidence and some small studies point to broad spectrum agricultural pesticides as the culprit.

    Honeybees are sensitive creatures with a complicated social order, and on a good day they’re already putting up with a lot. Having evolved to live in hollow tree trunks in Europe, we coax them into living in pine boxes in a foreign location, where as thanks we then take a lot of the food they make.

    Around the same time that the neighbors did, I had noticed that the number of bees outside my hives seemed to be declining. When I opened the hives to assess, it wasn’t good. Although there were still a lot of bees, one hive had no eggs or brood (bee babies) and the other had very, very few. What had taken the place of bees in the overly roomy hives were wax moth larvae, each about an inch long, extremely soft, and greasy to the touch. Wax moths will eat through empty frames of wax and leave a webby trail when there aren’t enough bees to defend the inside of the hive.

    But wax moths are opportunists. There must have been another reason my hives went into a tailspin before this. It could have been the wet weather, which bees hate. It could have been a disease. And it could easily have been a mistake on the part of the beekeeper- did I take too much honey? Squish the queen when opening the hive? Fail to notice a hive had swarmed?

    Since then one hive has died completely, and the other seems destined to live out a Shaker-like existence, continuing to go about its celibate work as its population dwindles to nothing, probably by the end of winter.

    Although sad about the bees, I’m not totally surprised, and I’m not ready to give up. Observing these creatures has been such an interesting, sometimes even mesmerizing, experience that I don’t like thinking about not having them around. In my short tenure as a beekeeper, I’ve come to feel like bees are as much a part of a garden as flowers, and if they weren’t there something important would be missing. In spring I’ll start again. I’ll buy a couple of queens, and a friend has offered to give me some of his bees- if they make it through the winter.

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