Save Yourself, not the Bees

Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart–or faint or mind either. A beekeeper who is “keeping bees to help save the bees” is a beekeeper who has yet to wrestle with the harsh reality that most beginning beekeepers will kill more bees than they will ever help save. The beekeepers who reload and return to the beeyard, despite the despair of dead outs, may eventually tilt their cosmic scales back toward bee savior, but, on average, I wonder how many hives die before a beginning beekeeper actually becomes proficient enough to save bees–that is to keep bees from drowning under the virus load of varroa. It probably took me thirty dead outs over five years before something finally clicked and I started overwintering hives successfully and my hive numbers started multiplying

Now I’m in my tenth year of beekeeping, at least if you count the first five years which were mostly me killing bees. Sure, I could say it was varroa that killed them or pesticides or small hive beetles or poor nutrition or extraterrestrial bee snatchers or whatever the excuse de vogue at the time was (at the time, I, like many others, just lumped all these excuses into a singular catch-all excuse called Colony Collapse Disorder). But the truth is my hives died because, first and foremost, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen to the advice of seasoned beekeepers because I thought I knew more than they did. I didn’t listen until, finally, enough cognitive dissonance erupted between my bee savior desire and my bee killer despair that I finally asked the great existential beekeeping question–“To beekeep, or not to beekeep?”

I chose to continue to beekeep–that is, to get serious about beekeeping, which is really the only way to keep bees now.

I hate to say this, but the term hobby beekeeping is now an oxymoron. Think about it this way: suppose you took up some other hobby for pleasure and relaxation. Let’s say fishing. You could just dig a few worms, buy a cheap Zebco and basic tackle, and then go catch bream or sunfish to your heart’s delight. And if by chance you don’t catch any, well, a bad day’s fishing is still better than a good day’s work. 

To fish, you don’t have to buy high-priced fishing gear, subscribe to Field and Stream, and join BassResource, the most popular bass fishing forum on the web. Of course, you could and many fishermen do. But even if you did–and this is the point–you still wouldn’t have to build your own farm pond and become an expert in farm pond management and ichthyological parasites to keep your bass from going belly up every winter. 

Or, put it another way: a fisherman just needs a hook, line, and sinker. A beekeeper needs a hive, veil, and standing appointment with a shrink.

Dad-blame It

After years of providing, all that dads receive is blame. As much as I’d like to tell my dad thank you and take responsibility for my abnormalities, I’m obligated, as his child, to place blame squarely on him. He had strange tendencies. To name just one, he searched for junk in the ground. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” and my dad was digging up a fine specimen of pull tab, rusty nail, or contorted piece of unidentifiable scrap. He took me to some swell trash heaps to metal detect. Ever since, junk has been in my blood, for which I’ve had many tetanus shots.

That said, my mom should shoulder some blame. For Christmas, she gave my dad the metal detector because he needed a tenth hobby. And she also took away good practical gifts right after my dad gave them to me. She confiscated, in an hour, my first pocket knife. The knife was a little red beauty and so was  the wound. I could barely hold in my tears of pain I was so elated. The thought of a legitimate scar was exciting enough, but showing off stitches would make me the most popular boy in second grade. “What did you get for Christmas?” I imagined my friends asking. I would hold out my hand stoically, three stitches in my forefinger. My friends would clamor in envy. 

My dad, however, vetoed the Christmas morning trip to the emergency room for stitches.  He was too busy sanitizing a fish hook in a lighter flame and tying on a small length of ten-pound monofilament. He already had the kitchen table prepped for an inpatient procedure, not wanting to pay Christmas morning emergency room costs. Alas, before he could perform surgery, he stopped the bleeding with superglue, which wasn’t nearly as cool as stitches  made of fishing line. 

I waver on whether to blame my dad for genetics. It’s not like he chose to pass on specific genes for my specially-formulated high-viscosity cholesterol. It probably wasn’t smart that he weaned me with bacon, but a boy’s gotta eat. According to my mom, he sprinkled bacon bits on baby food to improve the taste and lower the volume of my shrieking (I think parents may go to jail for that now). Still, it’s easy to blame my dad for my cholesterol, especially when I’m torturing myself by exercising and eating salads. But he’s been torturing himself by eating grilled chicken sandwiches for decades, ever since he had a stint put in when I was in high school. Mutual torture to stave off bad genetics is a great way to bond. There’s nothing like eating a salad together when you’d both rather have baby food sprinkled with bacon. 

Though I’m trying to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible, I hope he’s around for my first stint. The thought of having it done without him is frightening. Bonding over a stint is surely better than bonding over a salad. Maybe I’ll have some of the same doctors and nurses he did. Maybe they’ll recognize some similarities in our blockages. We could both blame our forefathers. 

If you still have your dad around, blame him while you still can. I think it’s best to do it while fishing. He’ll appreciate it, even if he doesn’t say “I blame you” back. He may merely grunt and go about his business of tying on a fish hook, which is something else I blame my dad for: He never taught me proper knot-tying. He just made up combinations of loops and twists and gave them a name. “This is the swallow tail knot,” he would say, after just watching barn swallows skim the pond surface. Later, I realized no one else had heard of a swallow tail knot. That’s probably how all knots were invented. Some dad somewhere was just trying his best to impress his offspring when he happened upon a combination of loops that actually held. Trying his best is one thing you can’t blame a dad for. Nor is tying his best, especially if the knot holds. 

Me, my dad, and Thomas