Birth and Death


Earlier this week the city cut down an old Valley oak in our neighborhood. It’s a tree I walked past as a child and one that I have always loved. Turns out it was well over 350 years old. I know, of course, that there are plenty of species that live far longer than this, but somehow I can’t get over the fact that a tree in the place I call home grew up in the 1600s, that it shaped this landscape even as the land around it went from open oak savannah to suburban lawns and asphalt.

Lawns and asphalt, incidentally, are probably what compromised its health to the point that, even with all its vibrant spring growth, the city felt the need to limit liability and cut it down.

Kelly and I sat on the curb under its leaning trunk and talked to it in our hearts the night before it died. We went back the next afternoon and touched the great, oozing rounds of it that the city left behind. And we pulled out soft white sponges of oak root fungus (Armillaria mellea) from the tree’s core and smelled the yeasty sweetness.

We are lucky. There are probably dozens of giant old Valley oaks in our immediate neighborhood. They are stunning and majestic, and they are holy to me. Most of them are planted in the middle of irrigated lawns, or crowded next to sidewalks and driveways. There aren’t many young trees, at least not ones that will have space to grow.

I have watched the Valley oaks slowly going over the course of my small human life, taken out by the city or falling on their own. It has always nagged at me that there is no longer space in this suburban landscape for Valley oaks to thrive and reproduce.

But there’s something about losing the tree this week that has lit a fire in me and broken my heart, all at once. Maybe I will nag the city to start replanting trees from local stock. Maybe I’ll go door to door imploring neighbors to stop irrigating lawns at the bases of these drought resistant trees, to take out paving, to make space.


The second death this week is also heartbreaking. Kelly and I went outside today and noticed that no bees were flying into Mondo, our beloved three-year-old top-bar hive. We got underneath and looked up through the screened bottom with a headlamp. There were a handful of zippy, agitated bees, but no group in sight, no rumbling hum of a healthy hive.

As usual, Mondo built up beautifully this spring. They swarmed at least once last month. All we can figure is that their new virgin queen got lost on her mating flight.

Of course, we could always be wrong. Perhaps they swarmed a few more times when we weren’t looking and are still waiting for the new queen to get up and running. But it doesn’t look good, and we’re fairly certain they’re gone.

We have other great bees, but Mondo’s line was our favorite and our longest-lived survivors. To make matters worse, Juniper, Mondo’s first swarm from last year, is our only other hive from this lineage, and she isn’t looking great. Although she built up well coming out of winter, we’re not aware of Juniper swarming yet, and she seemed to slow way down in March. There is a pile of dead bees in front of Juniper that we think have deformed wing virus.


About an hour after discovering Mondo’s troubles, we got a call from some friends who live just two blocks away. They reported that there was a swarm in their front yard, and asked if we wanted it. We jogged over in our bee suits, and there it was: a beautiful, mellow, good-sized swarm about three feet off the ground in a shrub.

This never happens to us.

We are used to swarms high up in trees on perilous branches. We’re used to swarms with eight queens and thousands of worker bees that can’t figure out where their allegiance lies. We’re certainly not used to swarms that march docilely into a box that you place just below them.

Even Kelly, who has sworn off beekeeping with all of its stresses and unpredictability, was excited about this swarm. We wondered whether there’s a little bit of Mondo’s genetics in these bees, or if they came from the cavity in the old Valley oak that stands next to the one that was cut down. We wondered if they are exactly what our hearts need.




5 Responses to Birth and Death

  1. Beautiful post, Sarah. Thanks for writing about the tree. This evening, I walked past the empty space that had contained the Valley oak until a few days ago. It is just a blank spot now, a flat bit of dirt, after 350 years of the same inhabitant. Very hard to wrap my mind around.

  2. The sight of a tree being cut down, especially ancient and grand species, always distresses me.. If your Valley oak was diseased then no doubt its time had come, still upsetting though. You did a wonderful thing talking to it during its last night and it seems Mother Nature thanked you with the gift of a healthy swarm left hanging in a nearby oak! I’m aware you allow your bees to swarm without interference but it could be Mondo continued with casts which would empty the hive. Our weather has been erratic to say the least and I’ve yet to do a full hive inspection so am hoping my bees don’t swarm before we do an artificial swarm to replace a colony we lost during the winter months. Perhaps I’ll place a spare hive close by just in case but you can bet your boots they’ll ignore it and head for the highest tree!

    • Oh, Jackie! So good to hear from you and apologies for not getting to your comment until now. Grad school finals are a real drag….

      Our bees always ignore the swarm lure boxes we set out too. Do you think bees swarm to the point of vacating the original box? Mondo has routinely swarmed 3-5 times in past years, but has always left behind enough bees to keep things going. Kelly wonders if they absconded, since there was no dwindling queen-less group or drone layer. We disassembled the hive about a week ago and found things completely empty, save for some honey and lots of curing nectar and pollen. There were a number of queen cells hatched out. No bees (except for the beginnings of robbers) and no brood. We’re so sad.

      I’ll have to write a post about it as soon as school is done, but all four of my splits raised laying queens this spring! I’m considering splitting Juniper as well, Mondo’s first swarm from last year, to keep the genetics going in our apiary.

      Hope your bees are happy and that you can “visit” them soon!

  3. Alyssa Fernandez

    Thank you for your post, which I came across incidentally while searching “waxing philosophical on death” (weird I know, but I couldn’t sleep and figured I’d see who else was thinking these things). It brought a tear to my eye, as I have once dearly loved a grand and gorgeous tree, that was cut down for no other reason than being a tree. It brought me many years of joy as a child and taught me so much about physics, carpentry, birds, and seeing things from a different perspective, only to name a few. I still have it’s photo which I fondly admire. I’m sorry for the loss of your tree and am happy at the gift of the bees you received. I hope they did and are doing well. Glad I stumbled upon your post. Have a fantastic day!

    • Thanks for commenting, Alyssa! So glad you stumbled on the post and enjoyed it. I wish I had a picture of the tree that was cut down, but I didn’t get one. The bees are doing great so far, and they’ve really built up their numbers over the past few months.

      Hope you’ll stop by the blog again sometime. I’m way past due to update.

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