Archive for June, 2011

A Tale of Two Queens (Part One)

As seems to be the case with each of my postings of late, I must preface this tale with an apology. My lack of posting for the past several weeks can be summed up in the following, rather flimsy, excuse: due to a combination of a new job, a family vacation, and sheer reluctance to put this story to proverbial paper, I have been exceedingly lax in my writing. And for that, I must apologize.
With that nasty business over with, you might be wondering why this particular posting would cause such hesitation that I would wait this ridiculously long to share it. Well, to answer that hypothetical question, it is because I have already seen the end of this all-too-true story, and the main characters will not live “happily ever after.” But, before I spoil the ending, I present to you the first half of, “A Tale of Two Queens.”

When Eric and I next checked on our hive (after the events in “A Most Apiaristic Experiment”), we were excited to discover what had become of our buzzing brood. With a mixture of childlike wonder (“There are several thousand bees in that box! We’re actually keeping bees!”) and time-brought pessimism (“We probably did something wrong and the bees flew off, or died, or were attacked by a herd of marauding bears.”) resonating in each step we took towards the hive, we began noticing a few, encouraging bees fluttering in and out of their new home. With my “Beekeeping for Dummies” book in hand, Eric removed the top cover of the beehive. In a matter of seconds, we were well aware of the life swarming inside this unassuming, white container.

After a moment of awe brought on by the sheer number of stinging insects that we were now going to handle, we made quick work inside the hive. With the nearly identical words of every beekeeping guide I had read up to this point ringing in my ears (“Find the queen!”), we tiptoed into the hive, and began our search.

The first place we had to inspect was the queen cage (the small box that housed the new queen, giving the rest of the hive time to adjust to her scent and authority). Although the cage was covered in bees, we decided to test our mettle as beekeepers and stuck our ungloved hands into the mass of insects, and carefully extracted the box (while not wearing gloves is, I’ll admit, the absolute best way to inspect a hive, the first time you stick your bare hand into a group of several hundred bees will be an experience you won’t soon forget!). Although a few of her majesty’s royal attendants had perished in their chamber (most guides said that this would be the case, and that it was not cause for alarm), the candy door which kept the queen inside her prison had been removed, meaning that the queen had, without a doubt, entered the hive. With our initial fears assuaged by this discovery, we delved deeper into the nine, now-humming frames of clean, white beeswax in order to make sure that the queen was alive and well.

We found the outer six frames almost entirely empty, typical for a freshly installed hive, and so our royal search continued. Frames seven and eight, completely covered in bees (as you can see in the picture on the right), also turned up empty for our queen. Frame nine had minimal activity, and, like the other eight, no queen. We knew that the queen would be hard to spot (even trained beekeepers can’t find their queens each time they inspect their hives), but we were truly disappointed by our undiscovery.

But, just as we were about to reseal the hive and traipse home, we saw a flash of white dash across the bottom of the hive! This could only be the queen, herself, marked with a white dot by her original owner to increase her visibility. Oblivious to our feelings of success, the queen made a hasty exit out the front door of her hive. That made us stop cold. You see, queen bees do not leave the hive except to mate, an occurrence that should not have happened for another week or two. But this queen, either ignorant or simply defiant of the thousands of pages of scientific study devoted to bee-behavior, was outside.

Surrounded by her royal court (she’s the white dot in the slightly blurry picture to the left [it’s very difficult to focus a camera while wearing a mesh veil]), our queen had apparently rejected the remainder of the hive still inside. Because we were absolutely baffled, not to mention worried, we phoned the president of our local beekeeping association; and, we were a tad unsettled by his answer to our dilemma. “I have never heard of a queen doing that,” he told us, “I can’t think of a reason why that would happen.” We stopped cold at that, too. If the most highly revered beekeeper in our area was stumped, what hope did we have of resolving this situation?

Thankfully, he did provide several, helpful techniques for reintroducing the queen to the hive (One of which involved re-caging her, a process I was more than a little fearful of performing.). As soon as possible, Eric and I drove out to the hive and proceeded to airlift the queen (using a combination of sugar syrup, cardboard, and our bee brush) back into the hive. Once inside, the queen meandered back into the frames, and disappeared from view. The fact that the workers allowed her to live, instead of performing a six-legged rendition of “Macbeth,” heartened our faith in the hive, and we left in considerably brighter spirits.

Because the queen would need time to readjust to indoor life, we waited about a week before inspecting the hive again. Back inside the hive, we began finding all sorts of interesting things filling the bees’ perfectly formed honeycomb. The workers had neatly arranged cells of water and multi-colored pollen and nectar to form dazzling arrays, rivaling the most intricate stained-glass. But, in addition to “simple” comb, several out-of-place structures were being formed by the bees. These basket-like projections from the wax were queen cells (seen in the image to the right), and their presence only meant one thing: the queen was gone.

I do hate to end my story here, but I feel that I must. However, now that the beginning of this story has been written, the ending will be quick to follow!
Hopefully I’ll see you back here for part two; but, until then, happy gardening!

 

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