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Ed Colby

Why don’t you just send all your bees to California for the almonds,” Marilyn wondered. “Then you’d have the Winter off.” Maybe my gal was onto something.  Just get on the gravy train.

I only send the cream of the crop. Ten frames of bees minimum, in November – Paul’s rule. He ships truckload after truckload. I tag along. This is the second year I’ve done this, the second year I sent 40. Last March, 38 came back, nearly every one begging to be split. 

This year I could have sent more, but life’s little complications got in the way.

My bees that wintered here in Colorado didn’t fare so well. They never do.  And it’s not yet March, the cruelest month. March, the winnowing time, when the strong prosper and the weak perish. How is it that bees make it through December and January, only to dwindle and vanish in March?

So Marilyn’s idea intrigued me. Combine weak colonies to make strong ones, and send them all to the Promised Land for the Winter. Let Derrick take care of them out in the Central Valley or wherever it is they go out there. Then make splits when they come home. And cash my pollination check. Don’t forget that.

The home bees get so needy. I put them on pollen supplement in late January. They can’t get enough of it. They powered through honey stores this balmy winter. A measly 30-some colonies keep me busy, and broke.
You would have thought they’d be relatively mite-free after the grab bag of treatment tricks I threw at them through the Fall and Winter: thymol, Amitraz, formic acid, oxalic acid. Colonies got different treatments, but that apparently didn’t matter. I tested four hives last week.  Everyone has Varroa. 

Do you think almond pollination is a bad idea? Do you believe “they come back riddled with mites,” as I once told a reporter? Look, if I send my bees to the almonds, they come back with mites. If I leave them here, they get mites.

It’s not a perfect world. You heard the horror stories about almond crop dusters and toxic tank mixes? You might need Lyle to broker your bees. He’s old school, and the bees come first.  The growers need our little darlings. Why would they cross Lyle?

Maybe I should go with them to California. Lyle remarked that the almond bloom is something every beekeeper needs to see. Maybe I could make myself useful and not just be in the way. When I dream of the almonds, I can’t get Judy Collins out of my head. She croons her haunting ballad about leaving home to follow her rodeo cowboy.  “Someday soon, goin’ with him, someday soon . . .”

The nasty good California rockabilly band Cracker played an outdoor Valentine concert in Aspen last night, right at the base of the ski hill. Marilyn and I swayed to the music, danced on the snow. I still had my ski patrol pants on. She pulled on my heartstrings when she looked up at me with shining eyes. She’s such a sucker for Valentine’s Day. And it tugged on my heartstrings again when Cracker sang a sweet song of longing with the line “back to the almond groves.” It made me think of my little darlings in the land of milk and honey. Someday . . .

We beekeepers have it made. As the world around us spins into chaos, all we have to do is keep our bees alive. That’s it! Got bees? Lucky you! Honey prices hover just under the stratosphere. Bees equal honey equals money, and the world’s a better place. You could be rich, especially when the almond growers write the big checks. And the more bees you own . . . All you need to do is make some splits. So why is keeping bees alive so hard?

Last May I had 120-plus colonies. Now I count maybe 75. Where did they go? European foul brood and chalk brood cripple my colonies. American foul brood rears its ugly head. I run out of replacement queens. Queens die, or won’t put out, and I throw those hives onto good ones.  Starvation sneaks up on me. Relax, and Varroa mites eat my bees alive. My operation slowly dies from a thousand cuts.

The world tips its hat to the beekeeper. Our task is so noble, so daunting. How do we do it? “Isn’t it true the bees are dying?” everyone asks.  I never know what to say. I know that I somehow keep going. When I have a bad year, I buy more bees from a better beekeeper. You can always tell the better beekeeper. He doesn’t buy bees. He sells them.

Is beekeeping sustainable? I’m not even sure what “sustainable” means. Sustainable for me, in my lifetime? For 100 years? For eternity? I only know that, like honey bees, some beekeepers thrive, while others flounder. In the teeth of persistent and ominous drought, successful beekeepers send their bees to the almonds, and they bring them back stronger than they sent them.

I know that you can learn from the best and the brightest, but you need to figure things out on your own, too. I know that bad advice is as plentiful as good. There are a thousand ways. Do you have a better one? I hope you do! Did you read about it in a book? Did it come to you in a dream?  Wonderful! But be wary. Dare to doubt. Honey bees will confound you every time. Beliefs you hold dear need testing in the white heat of the bee yard. The test is simple: Can you keep your bees alive?