The middle of November is nearly here and I’m amazed at how many green leaves still have yet to yellow and fall here in this little vale we call Cherry Valley. Other parts of town have their share of late-dropping trees too. It used to be a general rule that the trees were bare by November first. Now, they linger. We haven’t even come close to a frost yet and I still have green and healthy-looking tomato plants with big green tomatoes. I watched a red dragonfly warming itself in a pool of sunlight this morning and there are chrysanthemums blooming next to the fence. Some diaphanous crane flies were grouped together under the maples doing their flying dance, nearly translucent and invisible. The entrance to the beehive, however, was dark and quiet. On a day like today there should be bees going back and forth from this entrance, getting some air and searching for last straggling blooms of aster or late-season goldenrod.
The bees were dead. When I lifted the inner cover off top of the two deep boxes, each holding ten frames of comb, I expected to hear a deep and sudden buzzing as the light intruded on the inner workings of the hive and thirty thousand bees raised the alarm in unison. Today, on this sunny November Saturday, all is quiet. A few bees are visible through the frames, seemingly alive but frozen in mid-step, as if they had simply run out of power. I’m surprised and puzzled. This hive was, as far as I had thought, a paradigm of growth and industry. They started life as a group of sisters somewhere down south at some giant bee supplier in Georgia or Louisiana. Three pounds (approximately 15,000) of bees were knocked off a set of frames into a wood-framed screen box. A can of sugar syrup was knicked open and pushed into the mass for sustenance and then a newly mated queen, mass-produced in another part of the farm and placed in a small wooden box with a few loyal attendants, was set in place next to the can. The can and queen cage were kept in place by a small board stapled into place. These ‘packages were then grouped into sets of three and stapled together with short lengths of strapping and dozens of them were loaded into a van for the long drive north to the Cape.
From the day they were installed in the hive in May they had seemed destined to succeed. Their numbers grew so fast that they filled the two deep boxes by early June and proceeded to send off swarms to found new colonies not once or twice but four or five times. One swarm I collected and set up in a box in the backyard. Any beekeeper can tell you that hives develop personalities and this one seemed to to be all business and no hanky-panky. I would open up the hive and check on things without a veil and they just went about their business. The September asters came in thick and I had to clear a path to their entrance so they had a straight run to the entrance but through the summer and fall I only saw a strong hive. Yet clearly I made a mistake. At this time of year the hive should be heavy and flush with winter stores. A hive needs at least 50 pounds of honey to make it through the winter and I could tell, just by bumping the hive, that the hive held no honey at all. I knew what I would see before I pulled out the first frame.
The bees had starved. In some frames each cell, once full of honey, now held a dead bee, head-down in the comb where they had licked the cell clean and then died there. Thousands of them. What had happened? Where were all the winter stores?
In other parts of them frame were bees that had died before they had even emerged from their cells as adults. These were the ones facing head up. Cold nights must have been a factor too. As the colony collapsed, the declining numbers and lack of fuel meant the means for the bees to generate heat, which normally allow them to keep the center of the cluster a balmy 85 degrees even in winter, dropped down to zero. Bees stopped in place, not enough heat to warm their muscles and no fuel to wait for the warming morning sun.
I can’t explain what happened here. Clearly the bees had not stored any surplus for winter. Had the warm autumn forced them into eating into their accounts much earlier than expected? Did the mild weather leave more troops in the hive than expected so that there were too many mouths to feed? I don’t know. I’ll ask around.
The bottom tray is littered with thousands of bodies, each curled into a comma-shape. I knock hundreds more from the combs and leave them to compost into the garden. The combs go into storage and I stack the boxes by the shed. Late afternoon sunlight slants through the drying green maple leaves and the temperature does its autumnal about-face. Somewhere the red dragonfly has laid up for the night. The clock is running out on him too. Adult dragonflies don’t survive the winter. Tomorrow may find him once again sunning on the fence post. Or, like the city of bees that waxed and waned through the warm months of 2013, he too will fail to rise and his small body will fade into the soil as winter steps forth to close out the year.