By: Stephen Bishop

Now a big hog can move surprisingly fast.

But two young, 40-pound pigs with their first taste of freedom (because I failed to close a gate) were downright speed demons. In fact, as they stopped and looked back at me while I cursed the blackberries and briars that hindered me but helped them, these two pigs seem to grin, demonically. 

During this whole episode of escaped pigs, my wife’s poppaw Lowry was riding around in his Ford Bronco, acting as a mobile incident command as neighbors phoned in reports to him on movements and sightings. He would deploy Wayne, a local farmer, or myself through whistles or hand signals. The pigs raced through the woods, then the pasture, then the oat field, then our neighbor’s woods, then our other neighbor’s woods, then back through the oat field.

Thankfully Wayne had a secret weapon, a blue healer named Sally that accompanied him everywhere. As Lowry, Wayne, and I tried to coordinate our movements and conserve what little energy we had left, Sally was indefatigable in pursuit. Wayne parlayed orders, “Sick ‘em, Sally, Sic ‘em!” After several hours of chasing, the stars finally aligned. I had gotten in front of the pigs, and Sally was driving them toward me. A big fallen oak, tangled and wrapped in green briar, was a barricade sent by God. Sally penned a tired piglet against the oak and I dove. I laid on the piglet with all my weight, face full of briars, Sally barking hysterically, the pig squealing, and Wayne yelling “Hold ‘em, Stephen, Hold ‘em!’”

And I held him. The other pig was still on the loose but it was almost dark. Wayne said that perhaps the lost pig would smell the others and come back, which it did. But I didn’t know what to think. I was glad that we caught the one pig, but disappointed about the other, and embarrassed about the whole situation. As he left that evening, Wayne told me that that there are two truths about raising livestock: “Eventually some are going to die on you, and eventually they’re going to get out. If a man ain’t prepared to deal with those facts, he don’t need to be raising livestock.” That wouldn’t be the last time he would tell me that.

So why is a story about pigs in a beekeeping magazine? It is a roundabout way to introduce Wayne’s truths about raising livestock. Bees are as much livestock as pigs or cows, and as such some colonies are going to die on you – and some are going to get lost in a neighbor’s swimming pool. This time of year many new (and old) beekeepers experience dead bees for the first (and bazillionth) time. It comes with the territory. A learning curve exists to keeping any type of livestock alive, bees especially. On his way to becoming one of the founders of modern beekeeping, Dr. Charles Miller lost 48 of 50 hives in his eighth year of beekeeping and 16 out of 19 the very next year.

Bad years happen, bees die, but don’t give up. When all optimism is gone, when your soul is as black and charred as the inside of the smoker, then you’re closer than you realize (and certainly a lot closer than when you started) to figuring out how to keep bees alive. The first few years of beekeeping often involve naiveté and mistakes of ignorance, followed by a year or two of delusion and mistakes of neglect. Then an epiphany occurs and mistakes of good intention and overcorrecting follow. This is a most dangerous point. You will feel like you’re doing everything you should be doing, and you’ll be righteously indignant that your stupid bees would rather commit suicide than live under your leadership. You’ll want to dowse thousands of dollars’ worth of wretched, worthless, God-forsaken bee supplies in diesel. Don’t light the match. You may not realize it, but you’re about to put it all together, to figure out the learning curve.

Or think of it this way: you’re just following Dr. Miller’s footsteps. After his two disastrous years, Miller successfully overwintered eight out of eight and 19 out of 22 in the following two years. So in the midst of dead or AWOL bees, just remember you’re on track to being one of the greatest beekeepers of all time.