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Black Lamb


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Light for the larder

January 1st, 2010


If you could wring the color out of October aspens, distill it into a viscous light, and capture this light in a Mason jar, you would have honey. We capped thirty-five pints of it this fall. Like a piece of super-enlarged honeycomb, the jar pattern covers the countertop, too precious to put away.

beehive.pngThis honey has been seventeen months in the making, a big experiment to keep bees in high-desert snow country, far from orchards and verdant fields of clover. We assembled the hives, including deeps and supers, floorboards, lids, and enough trays to fill each super. The bees arrived in two screened cages, each about the size of a shoebox. Hundreds of them vibrated, a writhing ball of buzzing insect, twiggy legs hooked on the box or the wings or bellies of their sisters. The queens were sequestered within their own tiny boxes with cotton plugs laced with pheromone. Where the queen goes, the rest will follow. All were dumped from the cage into their new pine boxes and, with a supply of sugar water, they immediately took up the business of their hivedom, building comb and brood.

We peeked into the boxes, as spring turned to summer, wondering if they had mites, virus, wasp attack, or some version of malcontent. We didn’t know for sure if they were suffering or thriving. One hive swarmed. A queen with wanderlust took her subjects to a more suitable locale — we hoped not between the rafters of a neighbor’s attic, but maybe in the crook of an elderly poplar or elm somewhere. We bought a new queen that buzzed through the postal route and was delivered to our door. She was black, her kind bred in New Zealand, and within weeks our flowering things had representatives from both the yellow hive and the new black hive. Charming to find our girls in the yard wallowing in the pollen of ash, birch, willow, and aspen. The girls forage within three miles from home, but don’t make honey until the flower nectar flows. This they regurgitate into the cells of their comb and cap it off for their winter food supply. Each hive needs only one super (ten trays) to feed it through the winter, but they stay on task, foraging, building comb, raising brood, and spitting out honey for as long as there is nectar to harvest.

October is when the rabbit brush dries up and sage blossoms whither. The nights begin to freeze and the bees caulk the hive cracks with their dead fellows to seal themselves from unforgiving temperatures. They also kick out the drones. Winter is strictly a female season. Heaps of bee bodies are piled outside the hive, a seasonal genocide. Thick as mulch, these male bodies choke out even grass. The queen will not mate or lay eggs in winter, and when she needs new drones she and her worker-daughters will make more.

Our bees survived the first sub-zero winter. Even with March snow still melting around their hives they tested the warming season, flying, searching, waiting for bloom. Sometimes a bee would get stuck in the snow and whirr a small grave with its wings inches from the door to the hive, too tired or wet to make it back to the colony’s ball of buzzing, warming wings.

This last spring another hive swarmed, imperialists that they are. We caught this one and made it a new home. We husband just three hives now and wonder how many more will swarm and how many will die and where this bee-keeping venture will go if they survive another winter.

I run a stiff plastic spatula into a tray of fresh comb. Honey spurts through each hexagonal cap, the waxen cells, squirting and oozing through a plowed path in the tray. The honey-laden comb plops into the bowl and I scrape more juicy furrows until this tray-side is clean down to the wooden frame. I flip it over and scrape comb from the other side. Sticky binds my fingers, bits of wax, too, and perfect droplets drip off the frame, dotting the counter with a lickable mess. Stacks of empty trays collect on the kitchen table. The bees will lick them clean, recycling the leftovers for their larder or for ours. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Russell | Link to this Entry


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