In every walk of life, there is a time of year which brings heightened anxieties. For farmers it is the harvest, for office workers it is the annual pay-rise, for motorists it is the first snowfall of the winter, for students it is the hiss on the doormat of the unopened letter of acceptance or rejection, for sprinters it is the hiatus between “On Your Marks” and the pop of the starting gun. For we Beekeepers, is the wait for the first warm day of the Spring, to open up a beehive and see how the overwintered bees are doing.
This year, 2013, the freezing weather has lasted to the end of March, almost 5 months since the hive was last opened up and inspected. That passage of time, as the days slowly lengthen and the present apprehensively tip-toes into the future, is a rich canvas for the human mind. Somewhere between knowing that the die is cast and its unseen consequence, our imagination trespasses into a world of different outcomes – and only one outcome is good – a healthy hive. The psychologists have a word which blankets it: “Angst”. This German word is variously translated as “Fear”, “Dread”, “Apprehension” or “Anxiety”, but it expresses a colly-wobbling anticipation of an uncertain outcome (which is why “Angst” is generally preferred for its descriptive brevity!). The cult Seventies film “The Goal-Keeper’s Fear Of The Penalty” centres on this prickly period: the eponymous goalkeeper and a policeman are watching a football match: on the field, the whistle has gone for a penalty kick; all attention now focuses on two players, the poised penalty-taker and the goal-keeper, shifting his weight tensely. The observers and the players know that the outcome depends on the actions of the other. But the tension is greatest for the goal-keeper, since he cannot influence the event : he has no choice but to wait until the referee has blown his whistle and the penalty-taker has started his run to the ball before being free to move. The goalkeeper, like me, has no choice but to anticipate, and wait.
So this the time of year when I experience my own version of this existential phenomenon, which I call “The Bee-keeper’s Fear Of The Apiary”. The dark depths of January and February have passed and the fate of each over-wintered bee colony has yet to be disclosed. The ball is placed firmly on the penalty spot. Will this be a healthy, queenright Spring, or will there be a gut-wrenching “dead-out”? Will the Queen be laying worker eggs, signalling a rapid build-up, or will the listless and unconnected wanderings of the bees on the comb indicate a Queenless hive, doomed through indolence and indifference to fail, just as April starts serving up its bounty of blossoms? Only a shirt-sleeves temperature will allow the beekeeper to lift the roof, the insulation and the crown board to reveal the true state of a Colony’s health. The Angst is pupating in me.
As the days lengthen into March, the waiting gets more oppressive. My imagination is pulsing, the flow-charts of indecision budding freely. Things will not always be what they seem. The appearance of numbers of dead bees outside the hive is not bad news at all – the good news is that at least there are sufficient live bees inside to carry out this macabre housekeeping. Even before my first inspection, activity at the hive entrance should include the reassuring sight of bees taking colourful baskets of pollen into the hive to feed the new brood, but only the first peek inside will reveal whether clumped domes of drone brood indicate a failing Queen and a drastic management decision. But, like the goal-keeper, the beekeeper is rooted to the spot, waiting for the whistle, waiting for a warm day, the hit-and-miss of a seven-metre shot, a cracking of the crownboard to open the hive. But for now, I wait. And wait.