By Stephen Bishop
Somewhere in a ditch guarded by a wall of blackberries, a tangle of honeysuckle, and an unseen army of chiggers is a hive tool. Misplacing and then randomly finding hive tools is a skill I excel in, but this hive tool may be permanently lost. The problem is I’m not sure how far I slung it or the trajectory. It all happened in such a flash. A stinger impaled the skin above my right thumbnail, and the hive tool started sailing to its final resting place. Although alone, I still feel embarrassed—something like a baseball player who unlearned a habit formed in T-ball and slung a bat. I am also experiencing a sense of ridiculousness about crawling around the perimeter of this ditch to peer through its vegetative concealments to search for the hive tool. Upon closer inspection, this ditch is full of pollinator forage. Blackberries, honeysuckle, lespedeza, goldenrod, and asters are plentiful, but no hive tool. The broom straw is good for starting smokers.
After a half hour of climbing through the ditch, I give up. It’s getting dark and I hear rustling in the brambles. I’d hate to meet whatever lives in this tangle. That night, as I drift off to sleep, I contemplate the possibility of burning the ditch to find the hive tool. But the hives are too close to safely use fire, and the vegetation makes a good Winter windbreak—plus I already have a warning on my record because of this very ditch.
To specify, my wife, her grandpa Lowry, and I did decide to burn this ditch years ago, well before I kept bees beside it. This seemed like a reasonable idea to knock back its ever-expanding vegetative presence. By 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning, we had successfully burned the ditch. We had also created flames head high and a two-fronted blaze traveling across a field and down the roadside. For whatever reason, my neighbors doubted our trio’s ability to keep it contained with rakes and loads of water hauled in the front end loader of the tractor. A neighbor called the fire department. I’m glad to report that by the time the local volunteer fire fighters arrived, sirens blazing, we had successfully contained the fire. Nothing to see here, we told them, except a charred black roadside. We were just doing the DOT mowing crews a favor.
Because of this, fire is out of the equation. It’s probably best to borrow my dad’s metal detector. As I drift off to sleep, I think about how humbling a hobby beekeeping is and wonder if other experienced or semi-experienced beekeepers have ever accidentally slung their hive tools.
The good news about losing a hive tool is that if a person is falling asleep thinking about a lost hive tool, then the hobby is serving its function perfectly—distracting and providing relief from the onslaught of serious concerns that face us daily. It’s a strange thing to take pleasure in getting stung in the thumbnail and crawling through briars, but I would have rather been doing that than sitting in my office. And I’d rather be drifting off to sleep thinking about a hive tool than a meeting at work.
Hobby beekeepers should keep this in mind when considering (or dreaming about) transitioning to larger-scale sideline or full-time beekeeping. Drifting off to sleep thinking about bees might not be so pleasant then. Bees might keep a person awake. A local dairy farmer told me that during an arctic freeze a few years ago, in which the temperature didn’t exceed freezing for a week (a rarity in NC), pipes were bursting all over his farm. One night during the freeze, he rose up to a sitting position, still asleep, and exclaimed, “Damn you, Winter!” nearly scaring his wife to death before lying back down and slumbering until his 5 AM frigid milking. There is a lot of pressure on full-time farmers, beekeepers included.
On the other end of the spectrum, hobby beekeeping should be a pressure-relief valve. That is, losing a hive tool can prevent losing your mind. If hobby beekeeping is adding to your stress level, then something is probably going wrong.
I did eventually find that hive tool. All I needed was a sunrise and, to quote Dickinson, “a certain slant of light.” While working the bees one morning, I glanced behind me and just happened to notice a glimmer in the ditch.
That’s a good analogy. At its best, hobby beekeeping is a glimmer in a ditch, providing a bright spot in life’s tangled and thorny brambles.