This is a throwback post, first published in the winter 2009 edition of Farming Magazine.
It’s human nature to look for signs. Easy success appears to be a portent of even better things to come. Too much bad luck seems to tell us to change direction. Give up. Run away.
My husband, Mark, and I have had plenty of practice warding off naysayers who think we’re foolhardy to hang on to our small farm. A few years ago Mark’s neck was broken in a car accident and he’s still dealing with some chronic health problems. Then we lost our home business and were left with heavy debt. After that, Mark was downsized from several jobs due to the floundering economy.
Although bills mount as we repair ancient tractors and pay vet bills, living here keeps our spirits up. Tending the land with our four children bonds our family together in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we moved here. Baling hay, stacking firewood, learning about animal husbandry —these are living memories for us all. And the beauty of living closer to nature provides spiritual depth beyond measure.
We enjoy simple pleasures, all the while hoping the next farm venture will turn our fortunes around. Our newest project has been beekeeping.
Mark, and our 13-year-old, Sam, took beekeeping classes last winter. After each session they came home excited about the intricate world of these insects. Mark and the kids built hives together. I copied poems on the wooden boxes. We read about the science, mythology, and practical keeping of bees.
On the first warm day of spring we chose a clearing near wild blackberry bushes and clover-filled pastures to set the hives. We hauled them there under the inquiring gaze of our cows. I couldn’t help think of our land as one flowing with milk and honey.
The project became expensive as costs for equipment and the price of bees exceeded our estimates. The week before the bees were due to arrive both our vehicles broke down. A dozen chickens were killed by a marauding dog. The bridge over our creek washed out in a storm. The omens didn’t seem promising.
Finally boxes teeming with thousands of insects arrived. Prepared as any novices could be, we walked out back carrying these humming packages over the creek, past chickens and cows, blessed by blue skies.
There’s a careful procedure to follow when ‘hiving’ bees. Each queen, along with a few insect attendants, is enclosed in a tiny lightweight wooden box called a queen chamber. This is sealed two ways. Inside there’s an edible barrier called a candy plug and outside of that is a cork. The beekeeper pulls the cork, puts the whole queen chamber into the new hive, shakes the bees loose around the queen chamber, then puts the hive lid on. The bees become acquainted with the queen’s pheromones and accept her as their own. In a few days’ time the attendants have eaten through the candy plug and the queen is loose in the hive but at home enough to stay.
There we were, ready at our lovingly constructed new beehives. We started on the first hive. Mark followed the procedure— easing out the cork plug on the queen chamber as planned and lowering it into the hive.
Without warning, the queen flew out.
Apparently the wooden chamber wasn’t sealed with a candy plug. Now we had several thousand bees for that hive but no queen. After months of preparation, our sparse funds pulled together for this project, our very first hiving had failed. Mark, Sam and I stood in silent disbelief.
Then we realized we could see the queen circling around us, a dot against the bright spring sun. I talked aloud to her, saying we needed her to stay near her new home. Sam tried to gently trap her in some spare netting. All to no avail. What’s the chance an insect will do what we want her to? Characteristically, Mark started working on another hive, focusing on what needed to be done next.
Right then, unbelievably, the queen landed next to Mark’s hand. And there she stayed, offering her presence like a gift. He reached out and covered her with his other hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I put the wooden chamber near his fingers and improbably the queen crawled back into the tiny opening. He placed the chamber in the hive, then Sam shook in the bees and closed the lid. All of us felt goodness and mercy descend on us in that clearing.
Later Mark asked several apiary experts about the likelihood of new beekeepers recapturing an escaped queen. They all said there was no chance at all. But we know better. Hope is always within reach, even when you least expect it. On our farm we savor that sweetness every day.
This article is old, but we’re still here and it’s still sweet.