Happy bee on phacelia.
Happy bee on phacelia.

The weather has been glorious here at MillHaven this past week. Some heat, some clouds, some booming thunder, and some blessed rain. A little bit of everything, and all of it good. Things are changing in the garden quickly at this time of year. Many summer flowers are brown and bent now, and my lawns, which I don’t water, are getting crispy. Things that were lush and juicy are going woody and dry.

Some plants are still waiting to show off their colors: asters, goldenrod, coneflower, and herbs. The bees are waiting for them. It is a time of dearth for them as the big bloom of summer flowers is over. I see honeybees drift over to flowers they don’t normally spend much time with, like the yellow-blooming cat’s ears. Today, I was inspected by several curious bees who were wondering if my blue garden dress was, perhaps, some large, exotic flower…

This is harvest time, when tomatoes and plums are ripening, and blackberries are fat and soft on thick vines. Whatever dreams we had for spring—some are ripening now. Others withered on the vine. A few are playing coy, not revealing themselves just yet.

As I always do this time of year, I am celebrating the successes of the season—my second summer in this house. In only a year, the backyard is hardly recognizable from the one I began playing in last summer. We have fruit trees now, and young asparagus. Borage and lovage—two old-time herbs I treasure—are thriving, and will for many seasons to come. I have managed to find some elusive lamb’s quarters—a weed to many but a nutritious spinach alternative I value for its long growing season and refusal to bolt no matter what. A new hops vine grows by the garden gate, and a big planter pot of Jerusalem artichokes promises a bumper crop.

Hostas are as high as my knees, and for some reason I cannot fathom, the slugs are leaving them alone. It is a mystery. And then there are the volunteers, each of them a total surprise: Two red-stemmed chard plants from who knows where, five cherry tomatoes in all four corners of the yard, some determined amaranth, a few hazelnut bushes, and a Hawthorne tree.

The central stars of my yard this year—the bees and the frogs—are also in seasonal transitions of their own. They are shapeshifting, and morphing at a moment in time when I am–coincidentally?—doing the same.

I began this summer with no beehives, happily finding myself with three hives by the end of July. Now, surprisingly–because everything about bees is surprising—I have found that one and one and one equals…one. No, this is not the new math. This is me finding myself in an unexpected situation, and trying to “feel” my way into the best, bee-friendly solution.

As most of you know, I’ve had two hives that have been struggling, and one that has been going like gangbusters from the day they arrived at MillHaven in early June. The Rose Hive has been every bee-lover’s dream: thriving from the get-go, producing soft amber clouds of the most gentle bees any garden could ever host. One hive—my Shanti Hive, has been doomed from the day they arrived. They had no queen, would not accept a new one, and thus were unable to fulfill their springtime dream of a new and prosperous hive. My poor Freyja hive also had queen problems. I could tell by the particular peanut shaped queen brood cells they were creating in their hive that they were working hard to make a new queen. The old one had perhaps died, or was not fully functional. But Freyja was doing her best to remedy the calamity.

Freyja was on her way to a late-summer chance of success, I hoped, when I discovered that the bees from Freyja’s neighbor, the Rose Hive, were sashaying on over and stealing Freyja’s honey stores. This behavior often happens this time of year. The nectar supply starts dwindling, and foragers go hunting for other sources of nectar. Sometimes, they set their sites on other hives. If a hive cannot defend itself and guard its door, the robbers enter, steal honey, then mark the hive and tell their friends all about it. A hive can be completely robbed out it one day. It is a terrible thing to see, and once it starts, it is very hard—often impossible—to turn the situation around.

So, there I sat one balmy evening last week, watching Rose bees saunter over and walk right past the Freyja guards. The Freyja girls were so disheartened with all of their other challenges, they had simply given up. They didn’t even try to fight the onslaught. I felt about as wretched as I imagined the Freyja guards felt that night. But by morning, I had a plan. I would close the entrance door to Freyja, and move the hive over to a friend’s house for a couple of months, so these beleaguered bees could have some hope of building themselves back up. I would feed them, also—all winter if need be.

That was the plan, anyway, and I suited up in my bee gear early next morning, determined to undertake as helpful an intervention as I could on Freyja’s behalf. But when I removed the lid from Freyja’s hive, I was utterly disheartened to find only a handful of curious, busy bees, bustling about on totally empty honeycombs. They had been robbed completely of every last speck of nectar. And to further compound the dismal nature of situation, there was not a speck of brood on the combs, either. Even though there was evidence of more than a dozen queen cells having hatched out, apparently none of them ever achieved a successful mating flight. No queen had ascended to the throne of this hive. They were as doomed as the Shanti bees who floated off to my right side only a few inches away.

I set the hive roof back on, my mind clicking off options as fast as a ticker tape. There were just about none. Bees swarmed in front of my face and alongside my ears. I sensed a frantic energy building, which was my own. I looked to my left at the towering Rose Hive, her thousands of foragers shooting out from the entrance like choreographed bullets, all searching for nectar, somewhere. The hive was packed full. I had been pondering adding another hive box, but had decided against it. At this time of year, the bees begin to wind down, and their numbers dwindle some.

It takes bees a great deal of energy and food to create a fresh boxful of wax comb—a challenge even in a good-weather year with a full summer out ahead. And summer was fast vanishing behind us. But. But. Freyja had successfully cast a full box of beautiful, empty comb. I had just seen it, not five minutes before, gleaming white like the moon, comb from one end of the hive box to the other.

Rose Towers.
Rose Towers.

There are processes involved in merging different hives together. I followed none of them. Going on gut alone, I took the top off of the Rose Hive, again removed the lid from Freyja, and simply plopped Freyja’s hive box on top of Rose. Quickly, I set the roof back on the newly enlarged Rose Hive. I grabbed Freya’s roof and hive stand and hurriedly stashed it in my garden shed. Then, I ran back to the bee yard, picked up the one small box of what was left of the Shanti Hive, and dumped all the bees out below the Rose Hive. I ran Shanti’s roof and hive stand off to the shed, too. Now, where there had been three hives, there was one very, very tall tower and a cloud of stunned, confused bees spiraling around the two-thirds-empty bee table.

I spoke to the bees, telling them that their best chance was to be together. Freyja and Shanti would have a chance to be part of a going concern for the first time all summer. Rose would have the gift of a fine box of comb to fill up for winter, plus some extra helping hands for the next few weeks. “Please, you all just need to work this out, and I’m going to leave you to it.” With that, I turned and left the bee yard, wondering if I had just done something supremely stupid.

For better or worse, where there were three civilizations, there was now one. One Unity. Three kingdoms had morphed by my hand into one body. And that was just Morph Number One…

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