Chapter 18: Dust Clouds...
The weather is hot and dry. A persistent bee faces the sun at the hive entrance, her legs folded under her thorax. Her sisters crouch beside her on the hive's landing board. Bees are fanning their wings, moving hot dry air through the hive, up into the box, between the combs hanging from the ceiling. But one bee spreads her wings and becomes airborne.
She circles the hive in a small loop, expands the circle, then again, a wider circle. Farther and farther from the colony. The dry air crackles with static and the bee is slightly disoriented. Purple-headed alfalfa blossoms had secreted thick sparkling orbs of nectar a week earlier, but today they are dry. Blasted by sun and wind and drought. The flowers, struggling to survive, can not spend their scarce energy and water producing sugary luxuries for bees. The persistent bee returns to this patch of alfalfa each day, searching among the blossoms for food. Each day she flies back to the hive. Empty.
I sold the Florida farm, sold my American bees. I would live in Saskatchewan, become a full-time Canadian beekeeper. Crops had been good. Val Marie - remote, rural - was pleasant. I could relax a bit during the winter, perhaps package honey for a few stores. Perhaps take correspondence classes, learn about business and science and language. Perhaps.
Saskatchewan was dry. I enjoyed the crisp air. Florida had been too wet, too humid. I had been sweating constantly, my oily skin dripped. My hair was thick, greasy, twisted in kinky strands. In Saskatchewan, my skin was dry; my hair flattened nicely.
When I lived in the east, I had a runny nose. All the time. In the arid western climate, all the freely flowing snot caked up into hard nuggets that ached and burned. Buzz told me it was the difference between easterners and western folks. He said that the people in the east are wet-nosed; westerners are hard-nosed.
We were becoming more hard-nosed. It grew ever drier in Val Marie. Florida got fifty inches of rain a year; in southern Saskatchewan, ten inches is normal. By 1985, we were getting even less...
***It was dry, but I was confident there would never be a honey crop failure in Val Marie. The government irrigated ten thousand acres of alfalfa in our valley. Two huge lakes quenched the hay meadows. We could never lack water.
I told my banker I would always make two hundred pounds of honey per hive per year. He encouraged me as I borrowed money to expand and take advantage of the boundless opportunities southern Saskatchewan presented to her farmers. In the summer, it was always hot and sunny, so I wouldn't expect cold rainy weather to interfere as the bees sipped nectar from flowers. Many crops in the east were lost because of too much rain - this had been the bane of Pennsylvania beekeepers. But southern Saskatchewan was always hot, dry, and sunny. Good honey weather. I would thrive.
Local folks assured me, "It never gets that dry here - well, maybe in the '30s but that was fifty years ago. The government won't let that happen again." They were as unprepared as I when the drought arrived...
***Mrs. Moine, Buzz Trotttier's aunt, had seen this all before.
"It's a circle, God's circle," she said. "You get good times, then bad times, then good times again. It's the way things will always be."
Mrs. Moine made rose hip tea for us. She had saved last fall's red bulbs from the wild roses that cluttered the roadside east of town. Mrs. Moine boiled and strained the tea, served it on china. We sipped the tea in her house, two doors west of my own tiny home.
Louise Moine handed me her book, a story that told of her family's arrival from Manitoba, part of a group that fled the British Canadians when they seized her parents' land near Winnipeg. I opened her book. Remembering Will Have to Do. Half the words were in English, but every second column was printed in the blocky Cree alphabet, where triangles, squares, and circles caught my eye.
"You can read this?" I asked her.
"I wrote it," she said. "English and Cree." She dripped more honey into her tea, stirred it again. "It's going to be dry this year, Ron. And windy."
I objected. Surely it would rain during the summer. And we had had a flood.
But the prairies dried up.
"Just like the Thirties," said Louise Moine, "The circle goes again..."
***A beekeeper's life is governed by climate. When the weather is gorgeous - warm and sunny with a light breeze, the beekeeper isn't on a golf course or poolside - even on a Sunday afternoon. Every day with pleasant weather is a day for the commercial beekeeper to exercise his hive tool and smoker. Not a day for play. In fair weather, the beekeeper is cloaked in an almost sting-proof white uniform, complete with canvas gloves and wire mesh veil. An astronaut-farmer. The armoured knight of the hayfield.
Beekeepers hate bad weather - anything that isn't good for the bees. A beekeeper doesn't mind a nice rainy day in July - a chance to do some bookkeeping, work on equipment in the warehouse, slow down a bit without feeling too guilty - as long as the rainy day is followed by six days of bright, clear, sunny skies. Sufficient rain followed by bright sunshine resets a flower's photosynthesis button and allows nectar to ooze. Beekeepers like sunny weather. And beekeepers have other demands. No frost. No wind. Not too hot.
Bitter, howling winter winds tore insulation from my hives in December. Cold drizzle kept the bees eating honey in their hives for weeks in the spring. Snow in May and frost in August created short summers with little honey. Other beekeepers had similar tragedies. Earl told me about the afternoon he drove home to his farm in South Dakota and parked in the spot where his warehouse had stood that morning. The gray metal building had been plucked away by a tornado.
A strong wind peeled lids from hundreds of small colonies of bees Murray Hannigan once wintered in a warm British Columbia valley. An ice storm followed the winds. His small hives filled with ice, bees died. Other beekeepers have had hives washed out to sea, burned in forest fires, shattered by lightning bolts. Strange that anyone bothers with a business the gods have such great sport at.
We usually associate bad weather on the prairies with winter. Rightly so. Forty-five percent of Canada is permanently frozen. Permafrost. And while one hundred and eight people are killed each winter in Canada by extreme cold (that's an average, not a requirement), only eleven are killed by the effects of extreme heat. Particularly pesky, though, are the persistent prairie winds. In my part of Saskatchewan, gale-force gusts appeared on calm days in mid-summer. Then things settled down again. For a few hours.
Sometimes there would be no change in temperature, no storm clouds, simply a gratuitous blast that would topple tall beehives - as a child might upset a stack of blocks with his toes. This would happen in late June, shortly after I'd stacked six or eight empty honey boxes on top of the colonies' brood chambers.
With a strong wind, boxes would tilt and sway. Sitting on uneven ground, some of the hives were already leaning. The wind was sometimes a gentle hand, a finger that slightly shifted the center of balance, selecting a direction that made an unsteady hive fall against its neighbour. The neighbour would invite a third stack of bees to participate. The bees may have been aware of the consequences. Perhaps they rushed to the opposite side of the hive. In despair, one bee would scream out "We're going over!" and they'd all hug each other and wait for the jolt and the crash of beehive against hard prairie earth...
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