I have to confess: Mardi Gras has never mattered much to me. Imagine a holiday that fell a week before Christmas; who would have enthusiasm to waste on that? No, I’m too filled with giddy anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day to give anything to Mardi Gras. Besides, the two holidays are philosophically incompatible. How can I in good faith have a Fat Tuesday where I pull out all the stops to prepare for the deprivations of Lent when I know full well I’m coming up on a feast day centered on the indulgence of beer and salty meat? Sure I’ll make up a big pot of gumbo* tonight, maybe open a beer or two, but my heart won’t be in it.
Last year I was in a beekeeping class and Tony Jadczak brought me one new reason to love St. Patrick’s Day. Tony, Maine’s State Apiarist, is one of the most knowledgeable and skilled beekeepers in the country. When he tells me to do something I listen. Sometimes I write it down. This time I wrote it down, underlined it, and later hit it with my yellow highlighter. He said, “Start thinking about your bees again on St. Patrick’s Day.” I’m going to aspire to this.
Of course he didn’t say “don’t worry about your bees,” because he knows for beekeepers with just a few hives the entire winter is devoted to worry. We spend a lot of time worrying about whether the hive has enough honey. But of the friends nearest to me who had a beehive die already, the hives had plenty of honey. Sometimes when it’s really cold the cluster of bees will consume the honey around them and can’t extend outward to honey an inch away. They starve, but there was nothing the beekeeper could have done about it.
We worry about disease in the hive. An in-depth discussion of disease is beyond the scope of this essay, but if you’re pursuing beekeeping you should have a copy of The Beekeeper’s Handbook on your shelf – it has an excellent overview of disease. As the bees eat honey through winter they expel water vapor. If moisture builds up in the hive it can lead to disease, so before winter set in I put an absorbent insulating board on top of the hive and allowed for ventilation with a screened bottom board. (I thought at first that would let too much cold in the bottom, but the bees don’t seem to mind.) And I try to leave enough honey for them to eat all winter. Honey is naturally antibacterial so if they have enough of that, rather than sugar or corn syrup, it can help them fight off infection. But other than getting the hive in autumn prepared for winter there is nothing I can do about disease until spring.
If there is too long a time when the temperature doesn’t rise above about the mid forties Fahrenheit the bees can’t fly out to poop and they have to defecate in the hive. This too can lead to disease. There is certainly nothing I can do about the weather. But if I start poking around the beehive when the bees are clustered it can make the cluster active. Then they eat more honey. Then they have to poop more, and we know where that leads. So the best thing to do is leave the hive alone.
This is not to say I’m going to inspect the hive on St. Patrick’s Day. Devoting the day to consuming beer and salty meat would make this a poor choice even if the weather were reliably warm on that day. (And I can tell you from having watched a fair number of parades the day is rarely warm.) But with each day past this annual threshold I can look forward to more days warm enough to open up the hive and look inside. My options for feeding a hive light on honey increase when the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing every night. And a diseased hive can be fed some medicated syrup.
So I’ll stop worrying. For a while. Then the earth will begin to bloom and I can start worrying about the hive swarming. But that’s a story for another day.
*Epilogue: At the grocery store I was able to find a small package of Andouille sausage hidden behind six different kinds of Kielbasa but I was unable to find okra. HOW CAN I BE EXPECTED TO LIVE UNDER THESE CONDITIONS?!