It’s been a week, bee friends. In the merry month of May, I left for two weeks to visit my parents in Ohio, secretly gloating. I had split two hives before I left and since my splits took the old queen with me, the girls left behind needed to make new queens. One hive made a few modest queen cells. The other gorged their hive with the long peanut looking shapes that housed new virgin queens in the making. I was satisfied that they were well on their way…
I smiled smugly to myself. I would go away and in their secret, mysterious chambers, the worker girls would get their new queens reared. The virgin queen would go off to be mated with the drone congregation—back in a flash to begin her new household chores of laying up to 2,000 eggs a day! I was certain I would find the glorious new royal court in good working order when I returned—laying abundantly for the survival of the hive.
Never. Think. You. Know. More. Than. The Bees.
I came back to hive #1 in my backyard—not only devoid of a queen, but full of the dreaded “Laying workers”. It so. happens that when the vulnerable and venerable little virgin queen(s) goes out on her maiden flight and never returns—be it due to rain, hail, being eaten by a bird or all manner of disasters— the worker girls go into high gear survival mode, begin to mature their own ovaries and lay unfertilized eggs. The hive will die eventually without a fertilized queen. It’s the fertilized diploid eggs that have the worker bees in them.
The honeybee’s evolutionary strategy for survival gives rise to multiple pseudo queens in the absence of a mated queen. Their virgin queen has not returned and they have no fertilized eggs to begin growing a real queen. What would you do? Denial does work well in these cases. The workers ovaries mature, unsuppressed by the queen’s pheromones, causing them to lay their messy unfertilized eggs everywhere. Alas, their abdomens are too short and they can’t “place” the egg in the cell. The scattershot eggs in the cells from laying workers(see photos below) decay and die, like a multi-car pile up on I-40.
The nightmare begins. All the other field worker bees—hey-ho, hey-ho it’s off to work we go— are lulled into believing that someone is keeping house and preparing for the future on the home front. Though life is uneasy and chaotic in the hive without a single queen, the workers “go with it” and bank on this denial. Deposing the multiple laying workers would be one step closer to the very unpleasant reality that they really are queen less and will die. The hive has no other choice. Some unfertilized haploid eggs —otherwise known as drones in the bee world—will make it and the hive will fill up with boys . They are notorious for lazing around the hive, never lifting a wing to help, with their strong suit—their only suit it appears—as mating.
To complicate matters, the laying workers with their developing ovaries exhibit raging PMS. They become territorial wenches. They will kill any well fertilized queen that the beekeeper tries to introduce. The best a beekeeper can hope for, is to introduce open brood from queen-right hives—with a very strong pheromone scent from another queen. The hope is that this will eventually shrivel the laying worker’s cohones. One day, they just go belly up after their life cycle of 30-45 days has ended.
ABOVE: Laying workers scattershot eggs
I was humbled. Even humiliated. How could I have been so complacent? Leaving my hives for two weeks to their own demise? Another year in a beekeepers life. It was going to be a doozy of a long season.
After determining the grim truth of my backyard Hive #1, I went down to check Hives #2 and #3 in the deep south valley. These were not the ones rockin’ out from the blackberry blossoms on Lorenzo’s organic farm. No, these girls live next to a herd of lactating mama cows and their babies. The dust from their hundreds of thunderous hooves coat the hives regularly—scenting the honeycombs a la dairy barn. When I opened up Hive #2, a strong queen right hive, ants exploded from the bars like sewer rats exposed to the light. I was horrified. They had laid mounds of white eggs between the bars. As I began to pull the bars up to see the extent of the insurrection, the eggs and the hapless ants fell through the air and landed on the bottom of the hive. But true to their collaborative nature, as I cleaned up this natural disaster for the bees, I noticed them beginning, bit by bit, to cart away the ant eggs and dispose of them out the front door. It was as though they noticed my effort and decided to participate in my FEMA rescue.
Hive #3 next door was clearly in trouble. They were either queenless with laying workers OR had a very poorly mated queen— which an expert bee friend had alerted me to the possibility. The brood pattern was spotty with pop up brood—sloppy in design, with many unsealed cells. The worker girls were despondent and dwindling. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what was wrong. Were they sick? Parasitic mite disease? Nosema? Did they have laying workers? I toyed with the idea of letting them just die out. I was exhausted from hitting the ground running after my trip. In my stress I was binge eating Swiss cheese and hitting the honeymead— hard. I didn’t need another problem in my life. And this was not going to be a one off.
I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but every beekeeper worth their salt will tell you that re-queening a laying worker hive or even a hive with a poorly mated queen, is not for the faint of heart. It is dicey at best. And I had TWO hives that needed requeening.
Because the worker girls in Hives #1 and #3 were treacherously loyal to their substandard queen or laying workers, I would need to work with their very strong pheromone instincts to beat them at their own game. Introducing a foreign queen from outside the hive would be seen as an intruder, most certainly assassinated upon smell. Unless…I put the new queen into the hives with very strong pheromone scented open brood, robbed from another one of my strong hives.
So I set about my work, saying a blessing and asking the girls to please PLEASE cooperate for a new queen! I didn’t want to “waste” the gift of these fresh eggs from my other hard working girls in the Blackberry beeyard.
In the midst of this high drama, a cheerful smiling woman named Rachel jumped the gate and came to watch me doing my swapping of open comb. Rachel was eager to talk with me as I shook the bees off all the disastrous half baked comb from the wretched Hive #3. Poor timing. I was having a hard time keeping my bee helmet from falling down over my eyes. Sweat poured down inside my bee suit as I shook and pulled comb right and left amidst the smoke and a cloud of angry, bewildered bees. Rachel sweetly said, “I’m so glad to finally meet you, how long have you been the beekeeper? I’ve been hoping to meet you! One of these days I will have a hive in my yard up the street! Call me if you need help. I’d love to learn!”
I tried not to fume and fuss out loud. I could feel my annoyance rise. I yanked my hand back hard and yelped as a well placed sting seared my third finger. I wanted to tell her that these days, beekeeping is no longer a picnic. Could I warn her off while there was still time? Tell her about endless days of 90+ degree temps inside a bee suit sauna, lifting up to 50 lbs of equipment? And what about the honey harvesting disasters? Those hot summer days with the honeycomb as soft as butter, melting off the bars and drowning my precious bees as I desperately try to scoop and winch out the oozing comb. Should I tell her about the hours and hours of crushing and processing honey…the sticky, sweet endless summer days with my sweat and honey co-mingling all over my kitchen counters and floor. Or what about the COVID scourge of the bee world—varroa mite and parasitic mite disease? And then there were all the diseases, and laying workers, unmated queens and africanized workers that assail beekeeping today. Would she like to know about 44-50% losses annually? I felt like Scrooge.
But how could I take away her eager innocence? I remembered falling in love with the bees over a decade ago. How quickly I could forget.
Eventually Rachel left. I was heartened by an odd little event as I was closing up Hive # 3 (photo above). I had packed up my equipment and taken everything to the car. After an hour of ripping out bar after bar of dismal comb and brood and replacing it with beautiful fresh brood from another beeyard, I took one final sit by the door of my girls, enjoying their buzzing and a sense of accomplishment and unity.
I suddenly noticed that, lo and behold, the workers had dragged out a body that had clearly been stung in her abdomen—the guts of the brave bee who did the deed, trailed out behind the deceased. This pseudo queen’s head had been severed. The workers stopped to examine her as they entered and left the hive. My eyes popped open. I had seen this once before. When a hive needs a new queen, they will kill the old one and leave her crushed head at the entrance—her pheromone center severed so all know “the queen is dead”.
The hive had just shown me they were ready to collaborate for their survival.
This worker bee colony had had enough. They had been in bondage to a severely inept queen. Without a new monarch in the oven(so to speak), they could only carry on like good soldiers, doing their myriad daily work detail. By collaborating with them, I had broken the spell. The honeybee democracy had spoken. They were done with the chaotic, distressingly sub-par, destructive lack of order and this incapable queen. With astonishingly swift action, they had swapped out their ailing bee democracy with hope for an orderly, humming queen- right future. In one fell swoop the hive chose to remove her. The fresh brood I had inserted, and subsequently the queen I would install next week, would lead to a future after all.
Somewhere in the back of my mind was a memory of the 2020 election cycle and our own close call in the democracy of this country. Though the girls had draconian ways of replacing their ill equipped queens, which are not recommended for a democracy (!), they had chosen together how to proceed to a sustainable future.
I hoped the girls of my laying worker Hive #1, which I had yet to address, would also finally secede their self destructive behavior and allow me to requeen them for their best interests.
All in a day of the life of the Bee democracy.