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 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.