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Traverse Classics: Bill turned to my bee equipment. He pulled a sharp, silvery hive tool from his pocket and peered into the boxes I’d brought. Bill’s handling of the hive tool and frame were steady and practiced. He examined the brood pattern, checked for signs of foulbrood and eventually gave everything a clean bill of health. During our visit, he continued to remind me of how little I knew. Four years. That would make me a freshman beekeeper. If I truly wanted to learn about bees, I realized I would have to accept my place in the beekeeping community, just like the well-ordered world of the hive.
By mid-June I had new bees. Dad Brad sold me three hives for a little money and some traded equipment. Within days I was out in the meadow, getting to know my new bees. When I removed the inner cover of the first hive I was amazed by the number of bees I saw. Every frame, ten in all, was jam-packed with buzzing bodies. So this was what a strong colony looked like. By comparison, my hand-me-down hives had been weak and sparsely populated. There must not have been enough bees in each colony to rear the replacements needed to survive our long months of snow and cold. It eased my self-blame to learn they probably wouldn’t have made it in their old location either.
During that second summer I was doing something with the bees every week, checking my own hives or tagging along with Bill at his Fredrickson Road apiary on my days off. I’d never been to a large bee-yard in the height of summer. Some days I’d arrive early and watch the bees from a seat in the shade. It was like watching a summer snowstorm, a whirling, swooping flurry of bees in the hazy sunshine. And instead of a fierce howling wind there was a low, happy hum.
As I worked alongside Bill, I learned new lessons in listening. Many of his answers to my questions began with, “The bees will tell you….” Sure enough, by the end of the summer I could tell the difference in pitch between bees at work, bees alarmed and bees communicating “do not disturb.”
My eyes also began to discern the subtleties of bee distinctions. I came to recognize the big, bumbling blunt-ended drones. I spied new worker bees emerging from their cells. I watched nurse bees feed brood, and field bees return to the hive with baskets full of pollen packed on their legs. Always, our work in the bee yard was about listening and observing. Bill wasn’t concerned with speed. Some of my most valuable freshman lessons in beekeeping were simply about slowing down.
By late summer, after the star thistle bloomed and faded, Bill was thinking abouty husband David’s favorite dinner-party story tells of our first bee expedition. Friends from Maple City, the story goes, had offered us three hives abandoned on their farm by a beekeeper-turned-monk. Free bees! We couldn’t believe our good fortune. For years we’d admired bees from a distance as they kept busy pollinating cherry orchards in spring or slept under heavy snow-blankets in winter.