The Sting of Failure

28 06 2010

Every journey is fraught with minor disasters along the way but the rewards for plugging along to make it to the top can be great.

Last week we took a family trip up to Mendocino.  We all love the Mendocino coast — Glass Beach, Bowling Ball Beach, the quaint Mendocino downtown — in fact, this trip we were talking about buying a farm up there where we could spend our summers and holidays.  Both goats fit easily in the back of Danae’s van, so they too could make the trek up with us and enjoy a vacation of open spaces, varied vegetation and fresh air.  When we’re in Mendocino we just feel peaceful and, ever since I found out that College of the Redwoods has a Fort Bragg campus, I have to admit I have toyed with the fantasy of moving up there full time one day.  But that’s the future…

Part of our motivation to take a trip to Mendocino County was to make a trip up to a store called Bee Kind in Sebastopol.  The store sells everything honey (candles, soap, bath additives and, well, honey) as well as anything you’d need in the way of beekeeping supplies.  Any supplies they may sell can certainly be found on the internet, but I really wanted the chance to put my hands on everything before making a decision about what to buy.  We also wanted to visit Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa — they are an old school feed store and, unlike many of our local feed stores, carry milking supplies.  We were running low on milk filters and, while I could have easily ordered those online too, I think I was just stocking my excuses to get back up north.

After two nights on the coast, we headed back inland to 101 to start the drive south to home.  We hit Bee Kind first and were able to get everything we needed to add a honey super to the top of our hive.  The women we spoke to asked if we had checked in on our hive’s progress — presence and health of the queen, how many brood, quality of brood, etc. — and when we answered that we had never even opened the thing (it’s been at least four weeks), they looked at us as though we were a little stupid.  And we probably are.  Truth be told, we got Redwood just a week after we got the hive and the beekeeper who sold us the swarm told us to let them get settled for a week or two before opening the thing up.  A week became four as we set out on our steep learning curve of caring for and milking the goat and then goatS (after we got Rainbow) and then we didn’t open it because we knew we wanted to get a veiled hat and a smoker before and…and…and…the bees just got away from us.  We did notice that the die down of the first week to ten days had decreased and that was a good sign.

After making our purchase at Bee Kind we had twenty minutes to get to Santa Rosa in order to make it to Western Farm Center before it closed at 4:00.  We drove, quickly, and made it with a few minutes to spare.  I barked at Danae to run in and get her foot in the door while I got the kids out of the van.  She jogged across the parking lot and went inside.  By the time we met her in there she was totally relaxed.  No one was rushing her.  In fact, the man who was helping her at the counter was taking his time.  I overheard him explaining to her that the prices at the farm supply stores are generally lower than specialty stores (like Bee Kind) because they operate on the assumption that farmers generally don’t have a lot of money.  They would rather make up profits in bulk and repeat business than take advantage of each individual sale.  I wish I’d known that an hour earlier.  As Danae got everything on the list, I distracted the kids by leading them to the back of the store where they had kittens, chicks and parakeets.  The kids ran to the kittens and fell madly in love (“Can we buy one, pleeeeeeze?”) while I looked up the aisle next to me and realized that it was stocked with beekeeping supplies.  We could have saved ourselves some stress, time and money by just coming here — next time.

The first twenty-four hours after we got our beekeeping gear home, it started to get on my nerves.  The honey super took up the seat cushion of an entire armchair.  The kid gloves, hat and veil, hive tool and smoker added height to the overall mass.  The pile taunted me with my own laziness, fear and neglect and I found myself getting irritated with it (the way you do when you’re arguing with someone even though you know they are right).  I had to either hide the pile of stuff and start nagging Danae to get on it, or do something myself.

After milking the goats and feeding the chicks, chickens and ducklings Tuesday morning I decided it was time to bite the bullet and go up to deal with the bees.  I am terrified of getting stung and when I do get stung I swell up like Lisa Rinna’s lips after a fresh collagen injection. But this particular morning I was motivated to get all the bee gear off of the office armchair and out to where it belongs.  How hard could it be?  I put on a pair of Danae’s jeans (mine don’t fit right now, and likely won’t until I drop that ten pounds that I gained last semester), my Ugg boots and a leather jacket then extended the ladder up to the roof and began hauling up everything that I would need — stuffed smoker, matches, drill, the super.  Once everything was up on the roof, I put on the veiled hat and let Gwen know where I was going to be.  As I climbed the ladder she said, “I’m coming up!”  I told her she’d better stay put, unless she was looking for some bee sting therapy.  She stayed down, but lingered at the bottom of the ladder.  I put a match to the kindling in the smoker but couldn’t get it to stay lit, so I decided to proceed without it.

I took the drill and unscrewed the top of the hive, surprised by the length of the screws the beekeeper had put in just for transport, then placed the drill down and attempted to lift the top.  It took some doing to get it off the box and, once I did, something felt off.  It was much heavier than I had expected.  I lifted it a little higher to get a look underneath only to realize that four frames covered in bees had come off with it!  I freaked out.  Bees started to surround me and I dropped the lid back on the box, oblivious to how it fell (on or in) and how many bees were smashed in the process, then ran screaming to the other side of the roof.  Gwen called up to me again, “I’m coming up,” as if I needed some adult supervision.  I called back to her that it wasn’t a good idea and as I walked to the edge of the carport roof to ask her to bring me the hive tool, her eyes grew wide as she looked at me — bees all over my jacket, all over my veil.

All she could say was, “Uhhhh…”

I needed to scrape the wax that was attaching the frames to the lid in order to get them to drop down into position.  Gwen climbed part way up the ladder with the tool and handed it to me.  I had to go back into the hive.  A calm came over me — this just had to get done.  The feeling was similar to the first time we milked Redwood when we got her home.  We were so nervous and unsure of ourselves, but there wasn’t an option not to do it.  I sat down in front of the hive box and lifted the lid once more.  Bees once again surrounded me but I surrendered to the inevitability of the sting — likely there would be just one or two, and I had so much protective gear on that any sting that could penetrate leather or make it through a hole in the veil, I likely well deserved.

I scraped the lid and the frames fell easily back into place.  I could see honey glistening in the matrix of waxen cells, but I saw no brood.  I didn’t take the time to investigate further — I had caused enough damage.  Drones had fallen off of the sections in my panic and were dying on the roof.  I tried to put some of them back into the hive but they didn’t seem to have the will to go back in.  I placed the super on top of the hive box and placed the lid on top of the super then looked around at the bee carnage.  There was a distinct trail of smooshed yellow bodies where I had panicked — obviously shaken from the frames and then trampled by me as I ran away to the other side of the rooftop.  I felt so inadequate and sad.  What if my fear had caused the death of the queen?  What if I had caused substantial losses — flattening more of the resident populace than could recover?

Flowers abound in downtown Mendocino.

My bee debacle reminded me of so many other things in my life — the way that there is never really a “good” time to do most big things.  Some times may be better than others to buy a car or house or to relocate, start a new career or (not to equate this with bee stings) have children but there is always a level of discomfort with the decision — a level of uncertainty as to whether you’ve done the right thing, a level of inconvenience that goes along with the choice, no matter how well justified.  Any change worth making carries with it that necessary period of adjustment, the learning curve that seems insurmountable from down below.  If you just sit and look at your metaphorical pile of beekeeping crap, or the untended hive up on the roof, you are bound to feel like a failure.  But if you jump right in there and screw things up in your own special way, who knows, the learning curve may just become a rainbow with a pot full of honey at the end.




2 responses

30 06 2010

As Nike said: “Just do it!” That’s really the only way to learn.

As you probably already know, an inner cover will fix the problem you had of frames being attached to the top cover. The bees might still attach frames to the inner cover, but since it has no lips extending over the hive, you can just give it a sideways twist to detach any stuck frames.

Same with lifting a super off of another super. Giving it a bit of a sideways twist before you lift much will break any attachments to frames in the super beneath.

Keep learning!

30 06 2010

Thanks for the tip! Next time I’ll give a little twist before lifting the cover (and I’ll bring the hive tool up with me). I bought “Backyard Beekeeping” and will start reading up some before venturing up to the roof again…

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