The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

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Killing a queen bee is a strange experience.

The queen is the hive. Her eggs populate it. Her pheromones suffuse it. Worker bees attend to her every want, and beekeepers watch to make sure she’s healthy and prolific. When you spot her, and take her between thumb and forefinger, you’ve got the hive’s future in your hands.

Which is why it feels so wrong to squash her.

Of course, it didn’t quite go down like that.

Back in August, thanks to the kindness of strangers, I got to help a beekeeper remove a hive from the soffit of a house, and go home with the bees. It was a small hive, and I got the equivalent of one full frame of comb, with some brood but not a lot. I bulked it up with a couple frames of honey and some drawn-out comb, set up a feeder pail of sugar syrup, and hoped for the best.

I’ve opened the hive twice since then, and been disappointed to find a colony that was holding on, but not thriving. There was capped brood, there were eggs and larvae, but there wasn’t enough of anything. The queen was there – I saw her each time – but she didn’t seem to be up to snuff.

I’d kept Claire Desilets, one of the veteran beekeepers who run the Barnstable County Beekeeper’s Association, apprised of my progress, and she volunteered to stop by and look at the hive. She even brought a frame of brood and nurse bees to fortify my hive.

Claire, with the verdict on our hive

Claire is possessed of a contagious enthusiasm for bees. You can’t spend any time in her company and not want a hive of your own. She knows all about both the theory and practice of beekeeping, but she talks of the wonder of her successes and frustration of her failures in such a way that you forget just how much more she knows than you do and find yourself simply talking about bees.

Claire and her husband, Paul, have helped Kevin and me all along. They’ve been down to see our hives, they’ve answered questions by e-mail, they’ve done everything they can to help us succeed. Last year, we thwarted their best efforts and lost both our hives. (To freezing, we think.) This year, we’re going to try to get our one hive alive to see the spring.

Just to make it harder, we’re starting with a weak hive. When Claire came to open it with me today, she confirmed what I’d feared – our queen is old, insufficiently mated, lazy, or all three. As we looked at the one frame of brood, Claire said she happened to have one queen left from her queen-rearing program. She’d been saving it, she said, for an emergency. We qualified.

We’d have to kill the queen, wait 24 hours, and then introduce the new queen. Claire spotted her – the one advantage of a small hive is that it’s easy to find the queen – and I picked her up on the corner of my hive tool.

What I should have done was crush her between my fingers. I suppose it was squeamishness that made me want to step on her instead. I put a finger over the top of her, and transferred her, on the hive tool, to the ground. Where, naturally, she flew away.

When you’re trying to kill a queen, this is exactly what you don’t want to do. You need to kill her definitively. Luckily, Claire found her wandering around under a nearby leaf, and I did kill her definitively.

After taking heroic measures to keep bees alive, it feels like a violation of the natural order of things to deliberately kill their queen.

Tomorrow, the new queen arrives. We’ll put her in a separate box with some of her own bees, and put that box over the now queenless hive, with one sheet of newspaper in between. With luck, by the time the queenless bees eat through the newspaper, the new queen’s pheromones will have won their allegiance. Then she’ll start laying like gangbusters to get the hive up to critical mass before the cold weather sets in.

If she doesn’t, I’m hoping our bees will tell her what happened to the last queen who didn’t produce. I hear regicide comes easier, the second time around.

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Comments

  1. Glad you were able to do the deed. Hope you won’t have to repeat it.

  2. ooh that would be tough, to kill one. But I’d hate to lose a hive to starving or freezing also. I did try bee keeping years ago and lost my hive. Sometimes I still see those pretty little Italian bees around in my lupines and apple trees. So I hope they’re living wild or in the eaves of my house.

  3. I would have a very hard time doing that too. At least you’ve got a living hive with a chance. We’re zero for one this year. Our second year of failure as beekeepers. Maybe we’ve got the hive we deserve? Next year is our last shot at it. If we don’t succeed then, I won’t be able to justify the expense of trying again.

  4. I’ve heard that beekeeping used to be much easier. You set up a hive, catch a swarm, and Bob’s your uncle. Now, though, about half the hives here on the Cape die over the winter.

    Kate, my sympathies. I know just how you feel. Standard-issue Langstroth hives are expensive. Bees are expensive. If you have to replace the bees every year, or every other, beekeeping becomes prohibitavely pricey. If I didn’t have the kind of help I have, I don’t think I’d try it again. It’s frustrating and sad to lose a colony, particularly if you don’t know what you did wrong. The hive you deserve is the kind that was commonplace 20 years ago, the kind amateurs could keep healthy and robust.

  5. Maybe Kevin can build you a tiny guillotine for future regicides.

    Actually, I hope there are no more, and this Queen will be(e) your hive’s saviour.

  6. Poor Queenie! I guess it was her time to go. It does seem unnatural to kill the queen, but if its for the good of the hive I don’t think the other bees will hold it against you 🙂
    Long live the new Queen! LOL!

  7. Jen,

    We can be reasonably sure the Queen was not French. In all likelihood she was Italian… so I say we kill her Mafioso style!

  8. Kevin – I should have been more culturally sensitive! Of course now I’m picturing tiny cement shoes…

    Excuse my stereotyping. In my defense, they have been rerunning ‘The Sopranos’ over here.

  9. Love live the new queen! 🙂

  10. Oh dear, I should watch my typing. I meant long live the new queen.