I am looking forward to seeing this February in my rear view mirror. My bee journal tells me this time last year we had our first crocuses blooming and we had already had the taps in the maple trees for over a week. But now I’m looking at a pile of snow at the end of the driveway and having a hard time believing it will ever melt. I wasn’t fool enough to hope for two Maine springtimes in a row to be so early and I had a feeling going in this winter was going to be a hard one. The weatherman is predicting an inch or two of snow tonight, followed by maybe a quarter inch of ice on top of that. I’m not the only one in the neighborhood who has had enough of this stuff. But this time of year had a bleaker effect on my mood before I kept bees.
I grew up outside Chicago and while winters there are tough, by mid-April you could usually count on a feeling of spring in the air. In Maine mid-April is still awfully wintery.
When I was in my twenties I moved to California where spring hits its stride in February. In Napa, where my wife and I lived as newlyweds, the vineyards are exploding with yellow mustard flowers right about now. We rented a house there where the back half of the yard had been piled with old brush and leaves. We cleared the area and found that earthworms had been working the ground for years and the soil was deep, dark, and rich. We tilled the area for a vegetable garden and I went to shop for tomatoes. I am crazy for tomatoes and I wanted different types; the store sold varieties in six-packs. So I planted thirty little seedlings. Being from Chicago, I assumed most of them would die. My wife, Meghan, grew up in California; She just assumed I was crazy. By mid-summer the bounty of tomatoes was beyond my wildest imaginings.
When we moved to Maine I looked over my sunny back yard and waited for spring to come. In March we tapped our maple tree and collected enough sap to make a few pints of syrup. April passed, then May. Around here we can’t trust the weather to feel reliably spring-like most years until June and we don’t stop worrying about frost until the beginning of that month. The first year here I planted a row of tomato plants and watched them sadly until some started to turn from green to red by around September.
After a few years’ pathetic attempts I gave up growing vegetables and switched to livestock. We got six baby chicks and a hive of honeybees. By September of 2008 we had fresh eggs daily, and extracted our first crop of honey.
I still put a single cherry tomato plant in the ground by the chicken coop but now I get my full-size tomatoes from the farmers’ market. Springtime in Maine used to be all about waiting. We waited for the daffodils, then we waited for the tulips. We waited for the last night of frost. But with the bees I start thinking about spring in February again.
Through the autumn, the queen began laying fewer and fewer eggs and the nest shrank down going into winter. Through December and January she was laying hardly any eggs at all and the bees didn’t do much more than huddle together in a cluster to keep themselves warm. By this time of year the queen is laying more and size of the nest within the hive is starting to grow. So far my hives have made it through the hard freeze of mid winter and now I have to start paying attention to how much honey the hive has left. If they’re low on stores I can make them some sugar candy to eat. By mid March there is often a day warm enough I can peek in and be sure the hive is healthy.
Tonight’s 7-day weather forecast makes it look like next week might be a good time to tap the maple trees. Through March I’ll watch the maple sap drip and hope for a good syrup harvest. Last year the maples budded more than two weeks early and the syrup season was nearly a complete bust for us. But once those buds push out it means the beehive is about to go gangbusters. I’ve spent some of the bleak mid-winter putting fresh paint on the hive parts and I’m ready for a new hive to be put in place by the beginning of April.
Searching for spring in Maine by looking down at the gardens can seem muddy, bleak, and dreary. But now I look up to see what the bees are seeing. A poplar tree blooming at the top may not be as lovely as a tulip but it happens a month sooner. I now know that is when spring has really begun for me and the bees. And it’s coming. Soon. Right?