Long live the queen

I’ve been travelling a lot and I’m dreadfully behind, so please take a journey to the past with me to Saturday, May 12th, which was the day my three-day post-installation check.

One thing I’ve heard that really stuck with me is that you never open a hive without having your intentions set in your mind beforehand. Beekeeping is a little bit like yoga that way: Always set your intent for today’s practice. (Also, until you are used to what you’re doing, everything’s going to feel kind of uncomfortable.) Since entering the hive disturbs the bees, it makes sense to have a clear plan of action to minimize your time in the hive. I have read that every time you enter the hive, consider that you are setting their work behind by about one full day.

So my to-do list that Saturday looked something like this:

  • Check the supply of syrup in my hive-top feeder and refill it if necessary.
  • Remove the empty queen cage
  • See how much pretty new comb the bees had drawn
  • Go looking for the queen, along with any eggs in any honeycomb that was already built.

Great plan, right? But we all know what they say about the plan of attack and first contact with the enemy a whole bunch of bees…

First of all, the hive-top feeder was a giant mess. I’ll give it this: The design gets an A+ for not drowning bees (except the unfortunate souls I trapped there during its installation). But I found it cumbersome and difficult to handle, and I didn’t like how the syrup was congealing in the hot sun. I ditched the feeder and replaced it with an entrance feeder. I’ll have to fill it more often, but it’s much easier to handle, and I’m more confident the syrup won’t go bad in the heat.

Those who know me will understand how delighted I am to have yet another use for a mason jar.

Beneath the feeder, the bees were industriously building burr comb under the queen cage. (Burr comb is perfectly good comb, built where it isn’t convenient – much as weeds are just flowers, growing where we don’t want them. These two things tend to meet with similar fates.) I pulled the cage and comb out together, broke the comb off, and set it aside. Then I turned over the empty cage to–

–wait. No. The cage wasn’t empty. The queen was still in her cage.

I definitely said a bad word at this point. I’d set an intention, but not a contingency plan. I knew, theoretically, that the queen might still be in her cage. But I didn’t have a game plan for what I intended to do about it if that were the case. She was still active and looked well, and the candy plug was definitely being dismantled. I had two options, each with associated benefits and risks:

  • Remove the cork plug from the non-candy end of the cage, and let her out immediately. If I did this and the workers hadn’t yet accepted her, they would kill her. If I did this badly, and let her into the air instead of into the hive, she might fly away.
  • Leave her in the cage and risk that she might be unable to escape and die. My brain manufactured a whole fleet of unhelpful suggestions for how this might happen. (Maybe the candy is too hard to chew through? Maybe it’s too hot for her to be trapped without the ability to reposition herself within the hive? Maybe the workers will (inexplicably) stop tending to her?) I have no idea how irrational some of these fears were, but the fact remained that some beekeepers deliberately leave their queens caged seven to ten days, to make absolutely sure that the rest of the hive has time to accept her before she’s let out. A longer period in the queen cage is standard practice for some beekeepers.

In the end, I chose Option B. After agonizing for a few moments, I snuggled the cage back down into place and closed the hive back up.

Then I spent a little over a week in a state of low-grade terror for her life.

(Beekeeping: This is how it goes, right…?)

I want to digress for a moment and add that I also spent part of that week repeatedly marveling at the tiny fragment of burr comb I’d removed from the hive. Comb is amazing. What I removed was very fresh, colorless except where the bees had already begun diligently storing sugar syrup and pollen away, and alarmingly soft to the touch  (see the suspiciously finger-shaped crushed places in the picture below):

Yep. My relationship with my bees is only three days old, and already I have established myself as a thief.

Over the next week, I refilled the entrance feeder as needed, and fretted, and left them alone. Watching the hive entrance was reassuring, because everybody’s behavior seemed pretty normal. I identified workers returning with pollen on their legs, which was pretty thrilling all on its own.

I thought a lot about what had happened, and second-guessed my decision not to let the queen out. I decided she might have still been in the cage because my mentor told me to add a drop of lemongrass oil to the sugar syrup. Lemongrass oil smells a lot like queen pheromone to bees, and while there was only one queen in her cage, my decision to try the hive-top feeder meant there was an entire vat of sugar syrup attracting their attention. That may have distracted them from the candy plug.

And I’m going to pause the story there for now, because I am already late in updating – and because I had to suffer for a week and wonder how this story was going to end, so you do, too. (But since I’m still writing this blog, the suspense is probably in absolutely no danger of killing anybody.)

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