Death in the Afternoon

I lost a hive yesterday.

Completely lost, with almost all of the bees already dead. A few stragglers were listlessly hanging on to make the scene sadder still, but what really pushed me over the edge into full-blown depression were the one or two newborn bees pushing their way out of their larval containers into a world of complete destruction and decay.

There’s a smell to death on the farm or in the wild. It doesn’t overpower you. It’s not the smell of rotting meat. It’s not the smell of long decay. It’s the smell of death. It’s the smell of decay juuuust getting started. I can’t describe it in words, except to say that there’s something metallic about it, and when you mix that metallic smell of death with that sweet smell of hive wax … well, that to me will always be the smell of senseless loss.

What happened? The queen died some weeks back. No telling how or why, but she died. It happens. With enough time and resources a hive will elevate one of its own into a new queen, but this was a smallish hive and we’ve had an unbelievable amount of rain over the past month, so they didn’t make it. Like I say, it happens. A bad break.

But that’s not the full story. The full story is that I hadn’t done a real inspection of that hive in 6 to 8 weeks. Sure, I’d walk by and see a lot of bees “bearding” at the entrance to keep cool on a hot summer night, and I’d smile and say to myself “looks good!”, but I didn’t do a full inspection. I didn’t crack open the hive and check for myself the combs and the brood pattern and the honey production. I didn’t check on the queen. You know … vacation, kids home from college, starting a new business, did I mention how much rain we’ve had this summer?

I can still hear my father’s voice from 40+ years ago. “Ben, you have excuses, but you don’t have reasons.”

Could I have saved this hive if I had checked on it sooner? Probably not. But here’s the thing. We will never know. And that not knowing  makes this loss all the more piercing. That not knowing is the shame I feel for letting down this member of my pack. They were good bees. They deserved better. Even if the outcome were the same, they deserved my effort.

What does this have to do with investing?

Look … we’re going to lose on some investments. Some, in fact, are going to be total and complete losses. From time to time, Mother Nature or, as Machiavelli called her, the bitch goddess Fortuna is going to wipe out a hive and just leave a few baby stragglers to really make it poignant. Fair enough. You give the bees a good burial, you toast them with a glass of nice scotch that night, and you move on. There’s no shame in taking a loss.

Where there’s shame, for both investing and beekeeping, is not sticking with your process. And if your process is only for getting into an investment or starting a new colony … sorry, but that’s not a process. Investments and animals have a life cycle. Your JOB as an investor and a beekeeper is to be there for the entire life cycle, even for the really hard parts like culling a weak queen or getting out of a weak investment. Even if it’s raining outside.

About a year ago I wrote “Always Go To The Funeral“, about the responsibilities we have to our animals and our investments in life and in death. It’s as good a note as I can write.

I just wish I didn’t have to keep relearning those lessons.

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