I keep wishing we would get a warm sunny day so we could go check on the bees. I hope they had enough honey stores to get through this long snowy winter. Until I met Jim, I never thought about what bees do during the winter. If anything, I probably thought they hibernated. I am fairly sure I knew they didn’t fly south for the winter. I had no idea that they clustered together as they do, forming a tight ball of bees around the queen, the bees on the outside of the cluster continually fanning their wings to keep the temperature at the center near 70 degrees. Or that the cluster was like a single living being, made up of thousands of individual bees of identical genetic material, all descendants of the one queen being cared for at the center of the cluster. All during the cold days and nights, the bees rotate positions within the cluster, the ones on the outside moving nearer the heat at the center, the ones on the inside moving toward the edge where they will fan their wings to keep the hive warm, the whole cluster inching its way across the frames of stored honey, so the bees can sip from the cells to maintain their energy.
Nor did I realize that you could move beehives from one place to the other, until one cold winter night more than ten years ago, when Isaac and I helped Jim move bees from his old place to a field below our friends’ hundred-year-old farm house. Jim had kept bees for many years, at one time managing more than sixty hives, but he had lost most of them to Varroa mites in the early 1990s. The three remaining hives had been left untended for a couple of seasons after Jim and his ex-wife divorced, until Jim could make arrangements with friends to move the bees to their place. He tried to prepare Isaac and me for what needed to be done. We planned to move the bees at night, after the bees came in from the fields. He told us we would need to plug up the entrance and any other holes in the hive, so the bees wouldn’t escape. Then we’d use staples to hold the boxes together so we could pick up the whole hive at once and load it in the back of the truck.
I had never actually seen a beehive up close and didn’t know how many boxes typically made up a hive, what an entrance would look like, what kind of holes he was talking about, or anything else about bees. But Jim was calm and assured, and the plan sounded reasonable. We took a stack of newspapers to plug up the entrance hole, wire screen and duct tape to cover any larger holes we might find. We also brought heavy-duty staples and a stapler to connect the boxes together. It seemed that we were well prepared. What Jim hadn’t mentioned was that the hives were many years old, with numerous holes in the weathered wood; that it would be dark by the time we arrived at the beeyard, difficult to see what we were doing; and that the bees would immediately begin crawling out of the holes when we started messing with the hives.
As we loaded the truck for the drive to Jim’s old place, he talked us through the process and showed us the equipment he was taking along: the smoker, which he would use to blow puffs of smoke across the hives to calm the bees; the hive tool for prying boxes apart; the extra hive covers to stack the boxes on when he moved them into the truck. The sun was setting fast as we headed north on highway 63, and it was cold. Isaac and I were excited and full of questions about bees. Jim entertained us with stories about beekeeping. Our favorite was about the time he moved bees in his VW van, with bees flying around the inside as he was driving, crawling up the inside of the windows trying to follow the light.
As we got closer to the beeyard, we grew quiet with our own thoughts. It was just getting dark as we pulled into the drive. Jim walked over to each of the three hives and leaned close to inspect them. We had flashlights with us, but he didn’t want to turn them on until we needed to, because the bees would fly toward the light. He gestured to me to come closer and put my ear up against one of the hives, where I was surprised to hear a whirring sound like a small electric engine, a space heater or a fan. Isaac and I were mesmerized by the sound of thousands of bees fanning their wings in the dark interior of the hive.
Then Jim directed as we began preparing the hives for the move. Under his instruction, we stuffed newspaper in the cracks between the bottom board and the hive body and placed pieces of wire mesh over the sides of the oldest boxes and taped the edges. But it was difficult to see what we were doing, and bees were beginning to fly out of the holes to investigate. I realized there was no way we were going to be able to find and cover all the holes in the dark. More and more bees were beginning to pour out of the hives as Jim stapled the boxes together, and Isaac and I tried to locate and plug remaining holes.
We worked quickly to cover the holes as well as we could, turning the flashlight on briefly to check our work, trying not to disturb the bees any more than we already had. I tried to imagine what it sounded like from inside the hive, as we pounded the staples in the boxes. We finally lifted the hives one at a time to the bed of the truck, where Jim tied them down. After we loaded up the equipment, Jim took a last look around the yard, then got in the truck and drove back south. I hadn’t noticed on the ride up how bumpy the roads were, but now I worried about the bees bouncing around in the back. Jim assured me they would be fine in a day or so, after they had time to settle down in their new surroundings.
Our friends Hank and Marie opened the door as we pulled into their drive. Marie described the spot they had picked out for the hives and assured us it had stayed dry even during the floods of 1993. She told us about her plans to plant clover in the field along the creek. They weren’t sure what kinds of crops were in the area for the bees to work on, but they knew one of their neighbors had an orchard not too far. Farmers in the area usually planted soybeans one year, corn the next. And there were lots of wildflowers in the woods and honey locusts along the creeks. Jim told me later that bees will fly many miles in search of nectar and pollen.
“After you get the hives set up, come back and we’ll have tea,” Marie said, as she filled the tea pot and set it on the gas burner. “It’s such a blessing to have bees again.” She touched the fingers of each hand briefly together and smiled at us.