The Hive, Part Three: Epilogue/Prologue.

The bees are dying.

All was, or seemed, well.  We had weeks where the bees were busy busy.  Collecting nectar, the clover in the field surrounding the hive a-buzz with 40,000 tiny beating wings.  Bringing in pollen, little globes of yellow and orange and chestnut brown attached to their legs as they arrived home from their forays.  Building comb, first white then yellow, filled slowly with honey and brood, alien geometry.  All the wild carrot species were in bloom, along with plenty more mid- to late-summer blossoms, a feast for the eyes and the insects.  We fed the bees a little sugar syrup to help them build their winter stores, as we had installed the swarm later in the season than was sensible due to delays from the breeder, and they lapped it up on overcast days or ignored it on sunny days.

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The weather has been changeable, very wet for a Burgundy summer, though with plenty of sun and heat interspersed with the storms.  This has limited the good foraging days for the bees (and for me, though it does mean mushrooms are popping up earlier than last year).  We have watched the bees intently, spending hours sat in front of the hive watching the comings and goings, trying to get a handle on what it all means, these waggles and leg-waves and circular flights.  They have been tolerant of our presence, only becoming antsy if we have taken friends to show them the colony and lingered too long.  All was, or seemed, well.

Then the daily activity on the landing board seemed to slow, little by little, until there were mornings, hot and bright, when the arrivals and departures were sluggish and sparse.  One afternoon, both of us in the field raking hay (wet, unusable, though we shall use it as a mulch for next year’s planned no-dig beds), there was a sudden fierce buzz. Approaching the hive, we saw hundreds of drone bees flying in tight loops.

Drone bees are the male bees; bigger, heavier than the workers, with domed eyes that meet at the top of the head like a crash helmet.  They have no sting.  They are the product of an unfertilised egg, meaning they have no father, only a mother.  If one traces back the number of genetic ancestors of a drone, a sequence is revealed; the Fibonacci sequence, that code that is found throughout nature, in the spiral of a shell, in the uncurling of a fern, numbers revealed in nature.  Drones have one job: to mate with a queen.  They do no foraging of nectar or pollen.  They do not nurse the larvae or tend to young bees.  They are all noise and sex.

Drones often fly in the afternoon, heading out to seek, and mate with, queens from other colonies, but we thought the number we were witnessing was rather large.  A quick look through the observation window revealed something worrying.  More drones, fewer obvious workers, and much more comb visible than normal, suggesting a general decline in numbers.  They were not dying of starvation, there was no obvious disease, no sign of varroa mites.  The possibility, which is today all but confirmed, was that we had lost the queen, that she had died, or been killed. When this happens, sometimes one of the worker bees will begin laying eggs, though these eggs are infertile, the worker never having mated (indeed she lacks the anatomy to do so).  These unfertilised eggs will only produce male drones, no workers, meaning that as the workers reach the end of their lifespans they are not replaced.  The population of the colony is not refreshed, the number of drones increases whilst the workers decrease. Eventually the hive becomes a male-only hive, and, as the males cannot reproduce or even feed themselves, they die.

The only way to confirm what was happening was to open the hive, which is not something recommended in natural beekeeping.  If we were to open the hive and see only drone brood, no worker larvae, this would be a definitive answer.  Our fear was that we might be wrong, that the queen may be alive and laying, and we were simply worrying because of our inexperience, bamboozled by the complexities of the bee society as we are.  Opening the hive, apart from being detrimental to the health of the colony, risks accidentally killing the queen.  Our very quest to save them might be their end.

We asked advice of other Warré beekeepers, which was mostly positive; the bees will be fine, don’t worry, keep an eye, don’t interfere.  So we did just that.  Watched.  Tried to not worry.  Watched and watched.

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A month on and the numbers of bees have reduced to the extent that we could count them, if that were not a macabre and depressing thing to do.  No pollen at all is being brought in by the few workers who are still going about their business.  Too many drones, smaller than they should be, are hanging from the comb in the hive, doing nothing.  Wasps and, we think, bees from nearby colonies are robbing the hive.  We have reduced the size of the entrance to make it easier to defend, but our bees seem disinterested in war, seem to have accepted the siege is lost.  We continue to feed them, now supplementing the sugar with pollen for protein, but every day there are fewer and fewer bees, more tiny corpses, and ML and me look at each other and despair.  ML sits by the hive in the evening sun, swatting at invaders.  I visit the hive less and less; it is too sad.  It feels as if we are presiding over a dying planet, witnessing the end of the world, and this is true, for the bees.

Did we do something wrong?  Possibly.  Could we have intervened?  Yes, but our interventions would have been unlikely to succeed this late in the year, and we are of the mind that if, as seems inevitable, the bees are on their way out it should be because of the natural rhythm of things rather than a clumsy, misguided helping hand.  Are we wrong about all this?  We have talked it over for hours.  I am still unsure.  And it is too late, in any case.

There are many positive things that have happened.  We have been laboriously dealing with a glut of tomatoes, green beans,  and courgettes.  We have canned the tomatoes, either simply chopped and cooked down, or then passed through a sieve and reduced to make a sweet, intense puree, and we have stored enough to last us until next summer. The courgettes we have frozen or sliced and dehydrated in the hot August sun.  Our aubergines and carrots have been a success, and a revelation in terms of flavour.  We have bought no vegetables for two months now, and have been eating well.  The chickens, odd birds, grumble and scratch and lay four eggs, every day.  This evening we are going to look at some sheep, with a view to buying two ewes along with their four lambs.  We’ll keep the ewes for breeding, and raise the lambs on for a year or so for hogget.  Our first meat animals, which raises a whole new set of questions and feelings. Sheep, less inscrutable than bees.  New lives coming in as others fade.

We will not give up.  We’ll start a new bee colony next year, learning from our observations and errors of this year to, hopefully, help create a strong colony.  This is our first real experience of failure, and it is not sweet.  But next year we will get it right.

The queen is dead.  Long live the queen.

 

The Hive, Part Two: Tea With the Queen.

Read part one here.

Note: bees are complicated, wildly so.  I am not an expert, not even close, and much of what follows is knowledge I have gleaned from books and courses, and some is still controversial in the beekeeping world.  I have provided links to further reading for those that wish it.  I cannot take responsibility for external links.  I do not really see myself as a beekeeper.  I own a hive that bees live in. I am more of a bee-landlord, who will collect rent only if the tenants can afford it.

The next morning, the sky was clear.  We tried to be calm, to go about our morning routine and resist the urge to rush out to the hive and probably knock it over, clumsy humans.  Chickens were fed, Mrs. Badcrumble (our cat) found and given breakfast (she has taken to wandering the land all night, all day, returning only for meals and a belly-rub), vegetable plot and orchard saplings checked over, toast toasted, tea sipped.  Then the moment of truth – were the bees still in the hive?  Or had they absconded, queen and all?  Had they been washed away in the Biblical deluge of the previous evening? (Probably not the last one, I am possibly being a little dramatic.)

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The hive was still standing, next to its empty neighbour (we had hoped a feral swarm might move in, but this was not to be).  We donned our bee-armour and walked through the long grass of the field up to the hives.  The front and the landing board were covered in bees, clinging, climbing, launching themselves in the air and flying in circles around us.  They were still here, for the moment at least.  We opened the little observation window in the back of one of the boxes, and peered in.  Thousands of bees hung from the bars of the top box, in a huge drooping cluster, legs linked in a network, a vibration humming through the whole thing, pulsing in rhythm to a music we could not hear.  It was as if there was a debate going on amongst the swarm, decisions being made about this new space they found themselves in.  A question, a statement, and a ripple of bodies and wings in response.  We replaced the cover of the window and, fascinated, sat in front of the hive, sweating in our protective clothing.  We watched the bees for a full hour, all the grooming and leg-waving, flying and buzzing.  We needed to leave the queen-cage in the hive for at least another day to give the bees a chance to free the queen of their own accord; we would free her ourselves the next day if she was still trapped.  With nothing left to do except wait, we retreated and got on with the day, talking of little else but the bees, returning to the hive every hour or so (just to ‘check’, you know), and I had a little knot of fear/anticipation twisting in my belly at the thought of opening the hive the next day to see if the queen was free, or dead, or simply vanished.  Sleep did not come easily that night.

In the morning (another clear bright day), armed with a lit smoker and a soft brush, we approached the colony.  The smoker is a small can with a spout and some bellows attached.  Filled with wood pellets and ignited, it produces clouds of cool white smoke, the idea being this ‘calms’ the bees.  The smoke simulates a forest fire, causing the bees to gorge on honey and leave the hive, and it is this gorging that helps prevent them from stinging, as a bee with a crop full of honey can’t bend her abdomen round easily to administer the sting.  There is also a suggestion that the smoke masks alarm pheromones, though the mechanism is still not fully understood.  A newly installed swarm such as ours, with no stores of honey, cannot gorge on anything, so the use of the smoker that morning was unnecessary (useless), though at least helped us to feel like we might know what we were doing (we didn’t).

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I removed the top box, heavy with bees, as ML squeezed little puffs of smoke from the smoker, and bees instantly filled the air.  I placed the box aside, careful to not squash anybody, and reached into the remaining one for the queen-cage.  The candy plug was gone, chewed through by the workers from the outside and the queen’s attendants from the inside, and the queen was free.  Puffing more smoke, we gently popped some bars, prepared with wax, into the lower box, and I lifted the top one (still full of the majority of the swarm) and replaced it, ML using the soft brush to encourage any bees to move away from danger of being crushed.  So far so good.  We downed tools and watched as the bees flew in ever decreasing circles around us and the hives, landing in groups of two or three on the landing board and returning to the fold of their companions.

And then, a louder, lower buzz.  A hum, somehow heavier than the other bees, came from somewhere behind my head.  A larger shape was moving in the air, and as it came into focus we could see it was the queen, smoked from the hive by our inexpert processes.  (The queen is larger than the worker bees, and also has a coloured dot on her back, added by the breeders for ease of identification.)  She flew, uncertainly, toward the hive entrance, only to be pushed at by other bees, who were seemingly unhappy with her return.  She flew off again, and we lost sight of her.  We looked at each other.  We looked at the hive.  This was not good.  If the queen was out of the hive, and did not return, the colony was all but lost.

A dark shape appeared on the veil of my bee-suit, crawling left-to-right.  The queen.  She walked across my face-covering, and then took off, flying around us, and then alighted on my arm.  She rested for a moment and took off again, only to return, this time landing on my shoulder.  We whispered to her, encouraging her to go back to the hive (slightly mad, though there is a history of talking to bees).  She made a few exploratory passes of the entrance, waved at by workers, in welcome or not we could not tell, and finally landed, a slight stumble as she did.  And went in.

We watched the hive entrance intently for a long time, expecting the queen to reappear any moment and fly off into the distance, but she did not show herself again.  Within an hour, some routine seemed to return to the swarm, with workers leaving the hive and heading out, hopeful of nectar and pollen to begin constructing comb from wax, to start to store honey, and, most importantly, for the queen to start laying eggs, producing new workers to refresh the colony and build up strength and numbers in preparation for winter, not so far away now.

We were both a little shaken, annoyed with ourselves for risking the queen, for not being careful enough, but all was, we hoped, now okay.  Six weeks later and the colony is still there.  They have filled three quarters of the top box with comb, and we think the queen is laying.  Workers leave in sqaudrons, returning  laden down with nectar, with parcels of pollen attached to their legs.  We visit them every day, more confident now, even foregoing the bee-suits (we do not open the hive, and the bees seem quite content with our company).

We visit in the evenings, feeding a little sugar syrup to help build up food stores for the winter.  We watch the behaviour around the hive for any indications of problems or disease, and check the removable board at the bottom of the hive for varroa mites (as yet, none).  We visit in the morning to say hello, sometimes clutching hot drinks.  We sit, we watch, we sip tea with the queen.

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