A Tale of Two Queens (Part 2)

When our story last left off, the swarm’s matriarch had gone missing, leaving only anarchy to reign in the hive. Well, it wasn’t complete anarchy, I suppose. Even without a queen, the bees continued to construct their extraordinary honeycomb. Not only were we able to witness the final product of our insect’s architectural abilities, but, as we further inspected the hive, we were able to catch the girls in the act of building comb! In the picture to the right, you can see what looks like a tightrope of bees between two frames of wax. This is, I eventually learned, called “festooning;” and, while its true purpose was a mystery to me, it indicated that our builder-bees were hard at work putting together their new home!

Despite this slightly humorous indication of progress, I was still in a bit of a panic due to our queen’s decision to abdicate her throne. Although I had hated to again bother Mr. P., the president of our county beekeeping association, this was a situation I knew Eric and I could not tackle alone. Upon listening to our woeful tale, Mr. P. advised that we wait a week in case the queen had simply left on a mating flight (the only time an acting queen should leave the hive); and, if she had not returned by then, he had a last resort in mind for our hive.

When the torturous week at last came to a close, we returned to the hive; hearts heavy, and minds swirling with thoughts of impending doom. When we at last mustered the courage to look inside the hive, we were met with the actualization of our deepest fears that had haunted us for the past seven days: the queen still had yet to return.

We were able to tell this because we were visually unable to locate the queen (this does not necessarily mean that the queen is gone, as she can be quite stealthy when she wishes); the workers were still placing food and water in the cells at the center of the frames (a reigning queen will not allow these central cells to be used for anything besides eggs in a normal hive); and, the production of empty queen cells had continued.

Without hesitation (I was still standing in front of the precariously open hive in my bee suit), I frenetically placed a call to Mr. P., in hopes that he would have some sort of resolution to this ongoing problem. After a few heart-pounding moments of silence, he offered to help out in the last way he could: by giving us a new queen. Apparently, one of his hives had been over-producing queen cells; but, instead of remaining empty like the ones in my hive, his had been filled with eggs by his current queen, stuffed with royal jelly by dutiful nurse-bees, and eventually capped by the hive’s architects. So, after accepting his offer for two queen cells, I (legally) sped over to his apiary and was presented with what appeared to be two peanuts in a queen-cage (which you can see on the left).

Inside these elongated cells lay two, metamorphosing pupae on the road to queen-hood. Now, you’re probably wondering why I was given two queens (and how I can still title these posts as the tale of TWO queens, when there are now clearly three); and, I’ll admit, I wondered the same thing at the time. As it turns out, one queen must hatch first in order to assert her dominance over the hive. She does this by first emitting an admittedly odd buzzing/humming sound called “piping” (A video of this can be found here: “Virgin Queen Honey Bee Piping.”) as a way to announce her plans to take over the hive and call the workers to fight alongside her in her quest for glory and power. Following this vocal display of superiority, the newly-hatched queen will tear open the cells of any queens in her vicinity and fight them to the death. Whichever queen comes out on top is allowed to rule until she dies or is deemed unfit by the workers (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: bee politics are weird).

Now, here’s where our story takes a slightly gruesome, and ultimately unhappy turn…
The queens I was given had been incubating for approximately a week and a half, meaning that there were only a few days left until one of the queens emerged (a royal bee stays in the cell for a period of fifteen to seventeen days). After offering my heartfelt-thanks to Mr. P. (especially after learning that the acquisition of only one queen would usually cost up to $40 from a professional queen-farm), I returned to the hive to install the cells.

In a few days time, we again returned to the location of the hive in hope to find some sort of queen activity. We had no idea what we were in for.

Even as we approached the hive, we knew something was happening. The bees inside were a bit louder than usual, but, being that it was a slightly warm day, we shrugged this off as being the bees’ natural air-conditioning system. However, as we got within arms-length of the hive, we saw something incredible unfold. A large, rather queen-like bee was being wrestled out of the hive’s front gate by two or so worker bees. These selfless bees were essentially cleaning up the result of this colony’s latest royal war.

Emboldened by the events unfolding before us, we clambered into the hive to find the bee who stood as the last vestige of hope for our ever-aging colony (since bees only have a fifty-day lifespan, our workers only had a couple weeks of life left before their time ran out). Without having to pull out a single frame, we saw our new queen perched atop the hive; and, I swear that a look of accomplishment and triumph could be seen in her five eyes. Content with this discovery, we blissfully returned home to alert everyone of this great news.

What we did not know was that the power of the new queen was anything but secured. Although she appeared in control of the hive, something dreadful would occur between the time we left the hive and the date of our next visit. When we next visited the hive around two weeks later, we were met with every beekeeper’s worst nightmare. Not only could we not find the queen, but no eggs had been laid, the order of the cells was still in disarray, queen cell production had again begun, and we were offered the rare (but unwelcome) opportunity to witness what amounted to the death-knell of our hive: a laying worker.

When the worker bees begin laying eggs, a hive is essentially beyond repair. What is unusual (but still quite fascinating) about bee anatomy is that all female bees, not just the queen, can lay eggs; but, this instinct is repressed by the pheromones released by a laying queen. In the event that these pheromones are not present (which was the case in our hive), the workers are free to begin laying unfertilized eggs. Unfertilized bee eggs are quite different from eggs of other animals, in that they will actually grow and develop into new organisms; however, due to a process I’m not entirely sure that I understand well enough to explain, only male bees will hatch from an unfertilized egg, eventually causing the hive to be overrun by bees who do nothing to benefit the hive.

One frantic call to Mr. P. later, and we were left without any more options. It was official: our first hive had failed. We tried to take some solace in the fact that our hive wouldn’t truly die off. Certainly, the workers would soon disappear; but, the males who were left behind would abandon the hive and venture into the great unknown. Once they find new, wild queens they will carry on the spirit of our hive in countless colonies throughout the area.

Nevertheless, although we have yet to clean out the hive and remove the now-vacant beeswax, we have officially hung-up our suits for this year.

But! I hope that this tale does not sway anyone away from the joy of keeping bees!! Our story is a bizarre exception to the rule of backyard beekeeping. While the global populations of wild bees are dwindling, novice beekeepers may very well turn the tide in this worldwide disaster. Even though our first year has ended in bitter defeat, Eric and I will return to the backyard battleground next spring to valiantly fight against the demise of the bees!

Well, now that my beekeeping tale is done, I promise to return to a far more light-hearted topic next time: the garden! With several months of growing now behind us, I do believe that a true gardening post is in order (this IS a gardening blog, after all)! Plus, I’ve been able to test out quite a few recipes over the past few weeks that need to be shared, so stay tuned for a few updates from the Scholar’s Kitchen, as well!

For now, though, my time is up! Happy Gardening, and good luck with your summer adventures!


3 responses to this post.

  1. Very sorry to hear this, you did everything you could and I’m sure you’re going to be great beekeepers. Glad you’re going to try again, best of luck for next spring when things will hopefully go better.

    By the way the bees hang together in chains to produce wax because it helps raise their body heat, making it easier for them to excrete the wax from their wax glands. You will notice they draw out the wax on a super on the frames above the brood nest first, where it’s warmer. They then pass the wax flakes along the chain to the bees working on building the comb.


  2. Nate so sorry to hear about the hive. I have several beekeeping friends around the country and am always fascinated by the work, the happy stories and sad tales. I can’t wait to see how your garden has been and the culinary treats you will share…


  3. Like you, this was not the ending I was hoping for. Nevertheless, I was captivated. It reminds me of a book that I’m currently reading: Anthill. It’s amazing what happens in the lives and societies of cultures all around us. I hope you don’t give up and will resume bee-keeping in the future.


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