The queen who wasn’t there

When I was in college, I played in a LARP (that’s Live-Action Roleplaying Game, for anyone who doesn’t speak gamer geek) at a small science-fiction convention, and my character got thrown into LARP prison. (What offense did I commit? I don’t recall.) What this meant for me, practically speaking, was that the game progressed for an hour or so without me. My character was unable to take action to advance the game’s storyline. I, the player, was free to do anything else I wanted at the convention in the meantime.

I remember this story because one of my favorite authors at the time was a convention guest, and happened to sit down near me during this time. For some reason we began to talk (“remember to breathe, don’t gush, be cool“) and he asked about the game, and about what was going on with my character.

Me, glib, feeling witty: “Oh, I’m not here right now.”

Author: “….What?”

Me: “My character has been imprisoned. So I’m not actually here.”

Fortunately for my young ego, he took this dumb joke in the spirit it was intended, and laughed.

And that’s how I have a set of books autographed by Timothy Zahn, “To the woman who wasn’t there.”

All of this sprang to mind as I began to write this saga (not nearly as high on the bestseller chart) about the three-week search for the new queen in my spring split. This is the split that I’d made, forgetting to double-check to make sure the queenless side had young brood present — a necessity for raising a new queen. (Spoilers: I could have avoided weeks of trouble and uncertainty if I’d remembered this vital step.) I have learned to have a lot of faith in bees knowing how to handle their own business, as long as I supply them what they need and mostly stay out of their way. I knew they would raise a queen if they had the materials on hand… but did they?

And most importantly: Every time I opened the hive, was I searching for a queen that was present, but elusive? Or was I searching for a queen that wasn’t there?

I was so convinced there was not a new queen after my first thorough search that I gave the hive a new frame of young brood to correct my oversight. They were happy to raise the brood, but did not build a queen cell, and a week later during my colony check, I still saw no new eggs or brood anywhere else. So I gave them a second frame of young brood, because by this time I was spiraling into uncertainty. Maybe I’d somehow given them brood that were still too old to grow into a queen? Maybe I’d missed some magical bee window, and the workers were all going to start laying drone eggs? (This can happen in a queenless hive. It’s a mess.) It didn’t help matters that our spring was so exceptionally soggy. It’s much easier to inspect a hive in full sunshine, but virtually every time I managed to sneak out between rain showers, I was working in overcast conditions that make it very hard to see what was happening (or not happening) inside the honeycomb. Nevertheless, the third week when I opened the hive and they had still not made a new queen, and I still saw no eggs, I was certain something had gone wrong. I admitted defeat: I was ready to call my mentor and beg for advice.

While I struggled with this decision — a simple step that hurt my perfectionist’s heart — I also had to scrape some sizeable chunks of burr comb away from the queen excluder that I had (optimistically) added, along with a spacer to let bees directly in and out of the honey super. The spacer is a weirdly controversial piece of equipment, but I quite like using them. However, spacers do create (as the name suggests) some extra space between hive boxes, and it’s a universal law that if bees find extra space in the hive, they will fill it with burr comb.

I piled up the burr comb to melt for wax later, and finished my inspection of Paris before closing everything up and heading indoors, planning to text my mentor and ask if he had a queen I could buy. It was by sheer chance — or maybe one last-ditch, wishful double-check — that I held up a piece of that burr comb to a rare beam of actual sunshine…. and saw that it was full of eggs.

Do you see them? That’s okay. I didn’t either…

The queen that wasn’t there was there the. entire. time. The bees had been ignoring the frames of brood I gave them because they already had a queen. They were screaming at me as loudly as they could in bee-speak, “We have it handled, woman. We’re all good here!”

Yes, I’ve learned to have a lot of faith that the bees know what they’re doing. But every now and then, I need a reminder.

This raises the question: Where was the queen the first time I went looking for her? Possibly she was out on her mating flight. Possibly, she was present but I missed her: Newly-mated queens can take a few weeks to develop fully, and look a lot more like workers than they do after they’ve had time to finish growing. And you’d think they would be ungainly, but queens are fast. They zip around like tiny torpedoes and can be very easy to miss… even when you know there is a queen present. When you don’t know whether the queen you are looking for is actually there, that element of uncertainty is agonizing.

I did, finally — FINALLY! — find the little sneak. (This is not a surprise to you if you looked at the cover photo.) She’s beautiful, of course… and she does great work!

A well-mated queen lays a solid pattern of brood with very few skipped cells.

In honor of my sneaky new trickster queen — and, I admit, the Disney trip that was supposed to happen in April, but didn’t — the new colony has been nicknamed Agrabah. This seems right to me: It’s full of mystery and enchantment, with endless riches waiting for those who are willing to seek them.

And a queen who is there, after all.

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