Miller likes to think he's equipped to handle death. If he weren't a beekeeper, he says, he'd be a mortician, with a "black suit and a synthetic smile." He knows how to deal with human mortality. When a neighbor dies, he is often moved to write eloquent if overwrought tributes. When a bee colony dies, though, he lacks the tools to describe his feelings. The loss is so profound. Many people believe that a beehive exists to support its queen - that social insects like bees are motivated by blind, cult-like devotion to a charismatic leader. But the queen also serves the hive, chasing some blind imperative to lay egg after egg, thousands a day, until the end of her productive life, at which point she is set upon and stung or ripped to death. The worker bees forage for supplies to keep the queen alive, but their first job is to care for the young. So really, they are tending to the future.
A typical beehive is a rectangular wooden box, usually painted white. The top of the box comes off, and that is the way beekeepers gain access to their bees, though they usually need a hive tool, a ten-inch, wedge-like steel implement that looks like a caveman's crowbar, to disengage the flat wooden top from all the gunk that has accumulated underneath. Within the body of the hive - also called the brood chamber - lie ten top bars, wooden strips that rest across the rimmed edges of the box and hold the "frames," which are rectangular planes of wax comb that hang like folders in a file cabinet. Each frame is filled with hundreds of wax cells - small, interconnected hexagons in which queens can lay eggs and worker bees can store honey and pollen.
Because the frames aren't attached to each other or to the hive, the beekeeper can easily remove them one by one as a file clerk would remove a hanging folder, pulling the frames straight up and out of the hive to examine the bees or harvest honey. When a colony is healthy, the frames are teeming with thousands of bees, crawling and hatching and eating and working. The workers - the female bees who do all the cleaning, feeding, gathering, storing, and guarding - clamber over and under each other with purposeful direction; the paunchy drones - larger male bees whose sole task is to be available to impregnate a queen - wander around looking for handouts. Amid all this chaos, the queen sits like a rock star in a mosh pit, laying eggs, encircled by fawning workers who tend to her every need.
That's what a healthy colony looks like. But when a colony collapses - when the population dwindles, when the incubating larvae get too cold, when the workers expire in a huddled, fluttering mass inside the hive or crawl out the entrances to die away from home, and when the queen finally dies, too - then it is an entirely different scene: empty brood cells, scattered, disheartened survivors, plundering robber bees and mice and wax moths, filth and rot and ruin and invasion and death creeping in, like a neighborhood abandoned to the junkies. And when that happens, the real tragedy is not simply the loss of 35,000 or 60,000 or even 80,000 insignificant and perhaps soulless individuals, but of the future - the colony's and Miller's. That sort of loss is harder to comprehend. It leaves Miller wordless or, more accurately, overflowing with words he is not supposed to use. The death of a hive is both mind-numbingly ordinary and mind-blowingly sad. How do you describe that sort of bereavement? It is not so easy.
Excerpted from The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus. Copyright © 2011 by Hannah Nordhaus. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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