Long Live the Queen
I started raising bees in 2018 with a swarm I bought from a local beekeeper. The bees seemed to love my yard filled with borage, rosemary, and salvia flowers. In season, there were also tomato, squash, melon, and fruit and nut tree blossoms, along with the occasional flowering beets, cabbage, lettuce, and Swiss chard.
But then, in 2020, they all disappeared.
One day they were there, flying busily in and out of the hive, and the next day they were simply gone. It wasn’t a sickness, because there would have been dead bees in the bottom of the hive. There were no bees in the hive. And there had been no swarm leaving the hive. They left behind 40 pounds of honey and no explanation of why they didn’t return. This is colony collapse disorder and no one understands why it happens. My mentor lost half his hives the same season.
The only thing you can do in this case is to replace the bees. Since other beekeepers in my area had all lost bees, there were no swarms available. That meant buying bees from a breeder. It also means the bees get shipped to your house. In a box. They don’t like it and they are very verbal about their mood. The UPS guy was very happy to be rid of my box of angry bees.
Before I tell you about the adventure and errors of releasing those bees, let me tell you that there are several varieties of honey bees. Many of us remember the warnings of the 1970s about dangerous Africanized bees. Most, but not all, of those reports were exaggerated. That situation actually occurred because some scientists were purposely breeding more aggressive bees in Brazil and some of those hybrid bees escaped. Being more aggressive, they take over colonies they find, murdering the queen and setting up shop.
Here’s a brief summary of the major honey bee varieties:
My new bees are a relatively new variety. They are called Saskatraz bees and they are from Saskatchewan Canada. Saskatraz bees were bred to be tidy, gentle, and productive. Being tidy means their hive will be kept clean of varroa mites and tracheal mites. Being gentle makes them a lot easier to work with and being productive is kind of the whole point. Now back to my box of bees.
I had looked online, watched some how-to videos, and figured I had a good bead on how to do this. I was wrong.
My sources said to remove the plastic plate that covered the feeder jar, which was filled with a sugary gel. [Sort of like the bagged peanuts you get on an airplane.] Supposedly, the queen would be in a cage (she was) that I should remove carefully while quickly putting the plastic plate back in position. But I couldn’t find the queen or her cage. For some bizarre reason, my brain told me it was probably attached to the feeder jar. (It wasn’t) So, I dumped the bees into the hive, banging the box several times against the hive wall to knock most of them out of the box. They didn’t seem terribly upset, which was surprising. There was one bee who gave a few angry ZZZZZZZZs around my head but didn’t pursue the attack.
I was feeling stressed because I knew I needed to find the queen. Her cage wasn’t with the feeder jar. Her cage would either have a candy plug, which the bees could eat through, or a cork, which meant she would be trapped. I had to find her.
The reason queens are shipped in tiny cages is because they just met the other bees and they do not recognize her yet. If she was released into the colony right away, they would kill her. It takes a few days for her pheromones to work their way into the colony’s psyche. Once it has, they will sacrifice themselves without hesitation to protect her. For the time being, I needed to protect her from them. And I needed to find her.
Part of my mind knew I had to stick my arm into the hive and fish around for the queen cage which, I assumed, had fallen to the bottom of the hive. I was hoping there was another solution, so I walked back to the garage, unzipped my bee suit hood, and called my mentor. He told me what I had to do, so I hung up and (mostly) zipped back up before returning to the hive.
At this point, the hive is uncovered, filled with travel-weary bees, and topped with the inverted shipping box. This is not going nearly as smoothly as I had hoped, but I was grateful the bees weren’t trying to kill me. I picked up the shipping crate and started to reach down when I noticed the queen cage right where everyone said it would be, tucked up under the top of the shipping box.
It was smaller than I had expected. I have no idea why I thought it would be larger or more obvious. Bees are pretty small. Even the queens. I brushed the bees off as well as I could, attached the queen cage to the hive, and replaced all but one of the frames. As I was putting the cover back on the hive, I felt something crawling around on the back of my neck. I hoped it was not a bee and walked back toward the garage.
As I walked across my lawn, there was one bee flying alongside, scolding me. And there was another bee, inside my bee suit, crawling around on the back of my neck. I hadn’t zipped my suit up as carefully as I should have after talking on the phone. Oops. Meanwhile, my escort had turned back to the hive.
When I was a little girl in Upstate New York, I had long hair. For some reason, bees always managed to get caught in my hair and sting the hell out of my neck. It was difficult to not tense up, knowing there was a bee inside my suit but she wasn’t being aggressive. In fact, it almost felt as though she was walking around, saying to herself that she must be in the wrong room, and wondering where she might fight a door, or someone to ask for directions.
Now, getting tense or scared are two of the worst things you can do around bees, next to flailing at them. So, I followed her non-aggressive lead, unzipped the hood of my bee suit, and flipped it back. It took her a moment to realize she could see the sky, she walked a few more steps and then flew off, hopefully back to the hive. That was it. My bees were installed. Of course, I would have to return a few days later to release the queen. I hoped I did a better job of that when the time came.
And come it did. Bees wait for no man (or beekeeper). When I opened the hive, suited up and smoker in hand, I was amazed at how much comb had already been put in place. There was so much comb that I had to squish some of it together to add the final frame.
My mentor had warned me about not letting the queen fly away when she is released. It happens. I arranged the covers over most of the hive to close it quickly once she was free. I gave the hive a puff of smoke, pointed the opening of her cage downward, and pulled the plug.
It is good to be a beekeeper. Long live the queen.
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.