Why is it that one of life’s lessons feels the need to repeatedly hit me over the head? Thick skulled? Slow learner? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know. Keeping bees is good for me. And it has relatively little to do with any honey I garner. But it has everything to do with being a part of something ancient, something miraculous, and allowing it to seep in and be just that. A mystery. Sounds simple, I know. But for some of us – that whole “letting it be” thing? It’s just not that easy.
Here’s the nitty-gritty truth. I like to be in control. I like to know what is going on – and why. I like clear instructions. I like to work hard and get results and answers. I like things that are specific. Give me instructions. Give me a recipe. But, as it turns out, honeybees are not conducive to any of this. I read endlessly about honeybees. I participate in online honeybee chats. I go to honeybee meetings. I give it my all when it comes to understanding honeybees. And still, they always seem to one up me.
My girls have been having an off summer. And it pains me to tell you that I can not figure out why. I can’t blame it on the weather, I can’t even blame it on my management skills. By all indications, things should be going well. But something is off. Valerie’s hive has been lackadaisical all summer – and with no clear indication as to why. I actually miss her girls’ sassiness. Freeda, bless her little bee heart, has been charging along as usual, setting an exemplarily example of what an A+ beehive should look like in the height of summer. Until a few weeks ago that is. I was doing a routine hive check and I got the eerie sense that something was wrong. I buttoned her back up, gave the hive a pat, and hoped it was just me being silly.
But when I checked her hive again the other day, I was dismayed. No capped brood + no larvae + no eggs = no queen. No Freeda. I could tell right away that her girls were squirrelly and unusually frantic. A bad sign. It was all I could do to hold in my tears as I pulled out frame after empty frame from the brood nest. Lest you think I am entirely sappy, I should clarify that Freeda is the queen bee I have had the longest relationship with. She has set the bar for all others. So I feel a particular bond with her. Her absence was palpable. (That’s her in the photo above – right in the center.)
A hive without a queen is not really a hive. I immediately ran through my options. I could get online and search for an available queen, paying an exorbitant price to overnight her to northern Wisconsin. Or better yet, I could call my good friend and bee guru Kris (who lives conveniently down the road) to she if has any of her northern hardy, queen stock to spare.
Another option would be to take a frame of eggs from Valerie’s hive and give it to Freeda’s girls so they can raise a new queen. A slower process by far, but one that is entirely amazing. Bees are the only species I know of that can dictate the outcome of an egg based on how they treat it. The majority of eggs in a hive develop into more female worker bees. But should the need for a new queen arise, the workers can feed an egg a special substance called royal jelly and raise a new queen from an egg that would otherwise become a worker bee. How and why they know to do this astounds me. But when it happens, you know it. Queen cells are very distinct. They look like full-size peanuts hanging off of an otherwise flat frame of brood.
I opted to stick a frame of eggs from Valerie’s hive in just for insurance, which also bought me a bit of time to check into my other options. I called Kris first. No queens. Drats. I did find a queen in Georgia that could be sent via UPS. But the cost coupled with the fact that I am heading off to the Boundary Waters for a few days of paddling, deterred me. The new queen might arrive in time, but if she was at all delayed, she’d spend a sad week on my doorstep and neither of us would be the better for it. So I have decided to let the bees take charge and run their own show. After years of keeping bees, I fully acknowledge that the bees almost always know better than I do. I might think I know, and as much as I might think they should be doing something differently, I’m really second fiddle to it all. My girls repeatedly remind me to relax and take a big step back from things. I love them for that.
Even so, I can’t help mentally wrestling with what might have transpired in the hive. The last time I looked, I found one fully developed, neatly exited queen cell in the hive. It’s possible that they decided to swarm. Which means that once the new queen cell was underway and developing, the older bees with Freeda in tow took flight from the hive in search of less crowded accommodations (a simply astonishing sight and sound to behold). After Freeda’s new daughter hatched (a solid two weeks from the egg stage) she’d have to leave the hive in order to complete a few mating flights. So it could be that I looked in on the hive on an afternoon when the new queen was simply out. The timing was perfect for this. It could also be that the new queen went out, but never made it back – leaving the hive queenless, and eggless. A bad combination. Or, for all I know, they were planning on swarming but something happened to Freeda before they could pull it off.
If pressed, I could probably provide a half dozen renditions of what might have happened. But eventually, after several whacks to the head, I realize that I don’t need to figure it out. The girls certainly aren’t asking me to. They’re forging on in whatever way they can. For my part, I am reminded yet again to step back and watch the mystery unfold. Maybe when I return home from canoeing and peek in the hive I’ll see that tell-tale peanut, signifying one of Valerie’s daughters is about to hatch. Or perhaps there will already be new eggs and larvae, indicating that Freeda’s daughter made it back to the hive to carry on the legacy. And it’s entirely possible that I still won’t have a clue. And that’s okay too. I can let it be.