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Introducing her majesty
I am standing in the soft spring light, under the shelter of silver birch trees. Across from me and thankfully separated by a fence, stand in the middle of the paddock some very solid looking cows, watching. In my hands I hold a frame of bees. We are splitting this hive into two smaller ones and the first task in doing this is to find the Queen. The frame I am holding is where the Queen currently residing. She is marked with a pink dot making her easier to find, even without her pink dot she stands out. Her body is golden and tawny, the colour of golden syrup and radiating the same feeling of warmth. She is bigger, longer than the other honey bees and gilds across the comb, other bees make way for her as she moves. I watch her with focus making sure I don’t loose her. She is very agile as she moves from cell to cell and while I watch she stick her head in a cell, inspecting. Her head pops up and she turns, backs in and then is still for a moment as she lays an egg. The beginning of new life. A simple quiet marvel. I watch her repeat this task another 4 times. My mind turns to wanting to capture it but it is not possible. Like so much of our beekeeping you can’t capture it, you just have to observe it.
A hive is made up of many things. Waxed frames that become honey comb. Nectar that is turned into honey. Eggs and larva that turn into bees. Bees are either workers (female) or drones (male). The workers make up the bulk of the hive population. They are most likely the ones who you will see in your garden foraging. They work hard. In the peak of the harvest season they will live for 6 weeks and work until exhausted, their wings worn with use. Before becoming a foraging honey bee they will have different roles as a younger bee within the hive, from nurse bee, to queen attender, to undertaker. Little newly emerged bees are fluffy and pale, older gals are worn and darker. If you meet a grumpy bee it is most likely to be an older bee and given how hard she has worked over her life she is entitled to be a little expressive in her views. The drones have one sole task and that is to mate with a new virgin queen. This happens once and on the wing so drones have a lot of sitting around and waiting. They don’t partake in the tasks that keep the hive running smoothly and for this reason they are promptly booted out of the hive come cooler weather. Drones are a user of resources and if there is anything I have learnt over my years of bee keeping it is that they are very efficient creatures and if you are not adding to the hive then you are not welcome.
Each hive will have one queen, normally. We have had a few over the years which have resulted in two queens where for some reason the mother daughter combo has worked out and lasted for a season. Why we have no idea? I do love that about beekeeping, there is still a lot that we don’t understand. A new Queen can be ruthless in claiming their hive. A Queen newly emerged from a cell will use her sting (which is harmless to humans) to puncher any remaining cells that are in existance in the hive. Any other Queens still within the hive meet the same fate with a battle occur, complete with battle cry (If you are enclined look up Queen Bees Piping). A Queen will use scent to keep her hive happy with her pheromones releasing to keep the peace. If you introduce a new queen into an existing hive you need to keep her safe until the bees have adjusted to her scent or they too will remove her out of continuing the loyalty to the Queen that was ruling. I have watched a Queen being balled by other bees as they dispose of her, creating a new one to regin in her place. Most people view the Queen as the regal manager of the hive but it is not always so. The well being of the hive is what all the bees are working towards and if there is an instance where the queen is not living up to par she will be removed. It is a very ruthless and effecitve place, a hive.
The Queen I am watching continues to move across the frame. My eyes follow her. After spending the morning at work in an office to stand in a farmers paddock with an audience of cows watching a Queen bee seems a like a privilege. The older I get the more satisfaction I get from the simple things that I am sure in my youth I would have brushed off as nothing special. But this is special. The hive at home is slowly building up again as is the garden. I see a few bees as I garden, on the blossom, hunting a hellebores who have not yet been pollinated and turned to seed. As the days become longer due to day light savings I look forward to summer evenings in a garden bountiful with bees and flowers
This is a very broad summary of bee hive activity but if you do have questions I am more than happy to share what I have learnt so far. Leave a comment if you have a question.