Keeping hope in the hive mind.

Early spring is always a roller coaster ride in Western Oregon. Warm sunny afternoons may end in hail, and days of rain can have vivid sun breaks. The clay soil starts to slowly and temperamentally drain and clover is blooming in the unkempt lawn. Before and after work I plant trees and plan for bees.

Ever since I learned about Emile Warre the French priest and bee keeper I have been fascinated by his concept of bee keeping on a bee-size scale. Living from 1888-1951 in France, through three major wars he developed a hive meant for the small farmer (he called them “The People’s Hive”) and advocated for good beekeeping as an essential part of good land management. In our time of late stage capitalism treats bees worse than workers; they are cogs in a machine to wear out and abuse. Honey is a marketing concept without meaning and the game is how much it can be adulterated before someone notices. Costco sells “Oregon Honey” that is not made in Oregon, and probably isn’t actually honey either.

The issue with one-off bee keeping is that everything in use is made for the more common Langstroth hive, and Warre hives are considered niche and boutique and a Warre hive box turns four dollars in wood into fifty dollars of box. So building my own boxes has been a long term goal. This year with the addition of a table saw and a router, this became a possibility.

2018 Hive setup bought from Uncle Craigslist

But Having to start over I had enough hive boxes, for the moment anyway because it is amazing how fast bees will fill them once the flow starts. I decided to start with making Langstroth to Warre transfer boxes to buy commercial bees and restart my apiary faster. This involves making a box that is smaller on the bottom than the top. Not having used a table saw or a router since High School shop and having a deadline for the bees arrival I set to work making a mock up with an old “Lang” hive box for starting out. The result was functional but far from ideal, or “workmanlike”.

I had forgotten the ease and joy of long straight cuts with a table saw; most of my building as used a circular hand on plywood which works well but the entire cut is slow and stressful as the slightest movement can wreck a hundred dollar sheet. The table saw is sold and the blade guides the wood straight. Once started the wood pretty much cuts itself. Planing would improve the joints but the bees aren’t overly particular about finish quality so that step is skipped

Having the basics under control I made another box but avoided the router. The box has an interior ledge where the frame rests and I milled slats for the purpose. The issue here is that the area below the slat is more than 3/8″ which bees will then fill with wax, making the frame a more or less permanent part of the box.

So one night after a full day of work and dinner, playtime I left my wife reading to the younger kids and headed out to the corner of the stable and sat down with the router manual and started wrecking scraps of wood. The router is an effective but dangerous tool; basically a spinning blade sticking up out of a table. I decide to forgo mitered joints for speed and stick with butt-joints but rooter a ledge that the frames will rest on.

Several nights of after dinner shop work ensued culminating in a late session the day before the bees were ready. The router is loud and I half expect one of my hobby farm neighbors to show up in the darkness, but no one does thankfully. In the late night I assemble the boxes to make sure everything is ready for the morning. As I was modifying the design none of the parts are interchangeable and stumbling around while handling bees is something I have learned to avoid through painful education. The boxes stand ready in the barn just after midnight.

The three stooges…

The next day I start the transfer around noon when the sun is warm and the bees humming in their temporary homes. There are two basic ways if buying bees; a box of worker bees paired with a queen and sold in two boxes, one large and one small so the workers won’t kill the Queen before they get used to her. These act like a swarm and are in general fairly docile. The second type is called a nucleus colony, or in the trade a “Nuc”, pronounced “Nuck” or “Nuke” variously. The bees and queen are well acquainted and have settled in to their starter home and do not tolerate disturbance quietly. There are a lot of emotions on the part of the bees; they are scared and act accordingly.

My method to dealing with these troubling emotions is to be prepared. All the tools are laid out and checked; the smoker loaded and chugging before the first box is opened. Suited up and seams checked I go through the motions for each hive and move slowly and gracefully as I can, speaking calmly to my new hundred thousand neighbors, trying not to amplify their angst. The best description of moving a settled hive is it is like waltzing with a horde of angry teenagers. While I planned for three hives I ended up with four and used the early model so ugly I won’t even share a picture. At the end of a sweaty afternoon the bees are settled and unsuited I check on their progress. The hives are quiet as the temperature drops to just above freezing and the bees ball up around the Queen and heat themselves deep in the hive.

The bees will be fed until the apple trees bloom in week or two to get a head start on the season. Until the boxes fill with blackberry honey there will be little to do and more time for other important tasks in the shop. Like changing out the gigantic 90’s turn signals on the motorcycle.

The old ones were really ugly… just trust me.

The weather lowers and we stumble collars turned against it another week. The rain is warmer and the sun breaks through more. Hope is in the heavy grass and humming beefs and temporarily quiescent motorcycles. This rain will end, this long isolation, whatever economic upheavals will be weathered and overcome. Spring is persistent and pervasive as water once unleashed and can wear down the sharpest edges. You cannot see the strength in a drop of water but that does not make it unknowable. Like gravity, germ theory, evolution it can be discerned from the effects observed. So in this long time of isolation and uncertainty I look for the effects of hope on the horizon while we plod along our lonely way towards it.

The morning I finished this I was awaken at twilight by a wren outside the bedroom window left cracked open the night before. Both the song and the window are signs of the coming season. And there is good in that at least.

Or as Emily Dickinson observed:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

and now to rest…


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