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Friday, March 26, 2010

A Bee-Happy, Bee Healthy Valley…

Tualco V. March

Note the dandelion-sprinkled roadside this March morning.  Like miniature suns they throng the shoulder, and do their part to stir the spirit of spring.

Years ago when Tony Broer built his new house up the road from the old place, I was impressed by his immaculate, well-clipped lawn. Weed-free it was, to a flaw, and I was “green”with envy. I commented on this verdant perfection one day when I saw Tony in his driveway, picked a spent dandelion and threatened to blow the airy seed in the direction of his blemish-free yard. Tony smiled and shook his fist at me in defiance.

The Valley dandelions are the honeybees’ pollen cache, and when I notice several well-dusted bees burrowing their heads deep into the blossoms, I wonder if they are workers from my own two colonies. And that ledandelion plundererads me to leave the road into the raspberry field behind the Streutker homestead to see if my bees have any competition.

Two years ago at the far end of this field I met a young man dressed in full beekeeping regalia. He had permission from the property owner to place three or four hives there. He introduced himself as “Thane.” Now I hardly ever forget a face, but names easily escape me. This young man’s name I will never forget: “Thane.” I have known Shanes, and Zanes and Blaines but never before a “Thane.” The etymology of “thane” is Old High German and the title given a Scottish feudal baron. I knew the name from Macbeth as part of a prophecy the three witches make as the play opens: “Thane of Cawdor,” they predict for Macbeth, who is already Thane of Glamis. When Cawdor is charged with high treason, the witches’ prophecy comes true. Lady MacBeth takes over from there. Thus begins the bloodletting….

Thane is a tall, good-looking young man, Josh Grobanish in manner with hair genes to match. When I alluded to Macbeth, he admitted that Shakespeare had indeed influenced his name. Thane was new to the craft of beekeeping and was conducting a spring examination of his colonies. He was disappointed to learn that all had died; not a one survived the winter. I was pretty sure I knew the cause, the same that had killed off my bees two winters in a row and currently plagues all beekeepers across the country.

For years keeping bees in the Valley was a pleasurable experience, an easygoing enterprise that was both fun and profitable. At one time I had sixty colonies. All that changed about fifteen years ago. I had four colonies then. They were gang-buster strong in September, but by the end of October all four were dead. The cause? The Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a pernicious little arachnid solely parasitic to Apis mellifera, the common honeybee. Varroa had finally spread to Washington State. Now local apiculture had a real challenge facing it, a vicious pest so ugly it made a tick seem like a beauty queen. When my friend Floyd Preston saw the evil critter under a microscope, he had this reaction: “If they were the size of large dogs, we’d all be running for the hills!” Not only does the mite parasitize the honeybee, but it also spreads viruses that deform bees’ wings so they cannot fly. Varroa and these viruses are part of a perfect storm of stressors that manifests itself as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD): One minute you have bees, the next, whoops, you don’t.

I saw Thane the next spring at a local bee supply store in Snohomish. He had ordered a package of bees and was starting afresh. Last summer on the hottest day of the last half century (101 degrees), Thane stopped by the house to fill a jug of water for his thirsty hives. The honeybees roadside reminded me of Thane and his bees. I thought I’d check his hives to see how they fared the winter. I had already lost a hive early in February and hoped that Thane had not suffered the same fate. As I approached his four colonies, each stacked several supers high, I noticed activity around three. The fourth was a dead out. Two appeared to have weak flight; the third displayed a healthy field force. Some workers returning to the three hives had  pollen  loads, an indication each colony had a laying queen and was raising brood, a good sign now, but colonies experiencing CCD dwindle in the spring and are dead outs by summer. competition

The  Valley’s berry crop is dependent on bee pollination, and Beeboxalthough there is a healthy bumblebee population present in the Valley, honeybees are still essential to pollinate its crops. I have upped my bee ante by setting up an orchard mason bee nesting box and have two dozen dormant cocoons  waiting to emerge come warmer weather. Their cycle, though, will Mason cocoonsbe long past when my squash and cucumber plants need pollination services, and unless I want to brush pollinate each female blossom by hand, I need honeybees to work their magic.

It is a Brave New World in which modern beekeepers live, and through new methods, techniques, and modes of treatment we hope to save our bees. It would be a sad spring indeed if I couldn’t visit my own colony of bees and watch their determined flight to and from the hive. They are the pulse of spring, of Mother Nature, responsible for the bounty of the Valley.

I wonder if Thane knows the beekeeper’s creed: “Wait til next year!” Well, Thane, it is next year; it is spring; and we have new hope. Let’s do our work and keep the bees healthy and flying. (And if someone out there knows anyone else named Thane, I would certainly like to know about it.)

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1 comment:

  1. My hubby gave me your e-mail address, and I'm very interested in the everyday life of the Valley. I'll never forget 16 years ago when we came up from Houston for a house hunting trip.As we drove through the valley we just were in awe(you realize we'd been away 10 yrs!) and still to this day do not take the beauty for granted!