It’s been a whirlwind spring full of adventure and blossoms (and yowza is it summer already?). Tales of THUNDER to come, but in the meantime, a little shout out to my girls in Shangri-La who we thought requeened themselves last fall and now we have proof. In short (just to blow your mind if you don’t know too much about bees/love Shakespearean-style epics): a beehive always knows how their queen is doing. Much like in any period drama, a small scrim of bees called the “retinue” surround the queen at all times and groom her and feed her and generally worship her. Only a few bees at a time comprise the retinue and they swap in and out so many bees have a chance to get close to the queen. Once the bees closest to the queen have swapped out, they then are able to send the pheromones of the queen to every ladybee in the hive in a complex game of telephone, so that every bee in the hive knows exactly what the queen is up to at all times. This is super important to all bees, as the health (and fertility) of the queen is necessary to the hive’s survival. If something happens to the queen, the hive can immediately tell. If the queen dies, if she gets squished by the beekeeper, if robber bees kill the queen, if her pheromones start to get weak, if the queen is just getting old, the hive will know. A very strong and intuitive hive (disclaimer: beekeepers are infinitely desirous of anthropomorphizing their hives. I do it, like, one million percent) will get the sense that their queen is failing and they will pick a part of the hive where the current queen seldom goes and they will start grooming a replacement to overthrow her. I put this Shakespearean cloak-and-dagger impulse in italics because it is truly incredible. Various factors (brood pattern, queen cells) led us to believe that we had this exact “re-queening” situation in Shangri-La last summer. Like her sister queen in our other hive, the old queen in Shangri-La had a red mark on her, so the only way to be sure that the hive had, in fact, re-queened itself, was to spot a new, unmarked queen in her place. This spring, we saw her, in all of her huge, beautiful, un-marked glory. Proof. Proof that these crazy divine bees know what’s best for themselves and proof that (on however small a scale) by keeping bees we are helping the species overcome the obstacles that we as humanity have set up for them. She’s in the bottom right corner, with a shiny exposed thorax (where a store-bought queen would normally be marked) about twice as long as the worker bees and surrounded by cells of larvae. Long live the Queen.And in case you have trouble spotting her, here’s an image with an arrow:
Spotted in Xanadu, the Queen Bee.
This has been our first bee-winter, and, as the weather channel fear mongerers/anyone with eyeballs can tell you, it’s been a real beast. Weeks at a time stretched with the hives covered in snow, with me just watching from the kitchen sink, hoping it was like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter” when they live in the rickety store-bought-wood house in town which, unlike Pa’s hand chinked log cabin in the Big Woods, was always drafty and freezing UNTIL the huge snow, when the drifts rose to the top windows and the girls were finally snug as bugs in rugs… or snug as bees in a hive? Aaaanyway, when the temps slowly started to rise, we saw them making forays out of the hives, sweet bumbling little flights on wobbly wings, proof that they had made it through their own long, hard winter. And, bless them, they would return to the hive, woozy, riding low in the water, laden with pollen. Full saddlebags of bright yellow alder and maple’s greenish grey or dun. In the spring, this pollen is used to make bee-bread, a heady ambrosia of pollen’s protein, a little bit of honey, and some probiotics from the bees themselves that is the stuff that baby bees are nursed on to rear them strong and mighty in time for the coming nectar flow. So, seeing our bees heavy with pollen, we knew that the Queen was holding court, and that the next generation of honeybees are being groomed to flourish. Signs of spring indeed.
This is called bearding and lots of people confuse it with swarming, but it’s just a few ladies hanging out, cooling off in the late indian summer afternoon.
Here is Sweetheart on his first-ever hive inspection, and he’s a natural. Just look at that frame full of capped honey! Xanadu is almost full, we are considering whether or not to harvest some (just a little?) before the fall nectar flow. Toto, we aren’t in Rockaway anymore.
It’s funny, when people you love learn that you love something, you all of a sudden end up with a lot of it. My grandmother is known for always wearing fabulous scarves, in fact, the only time I’ve ever seen her without a scarf wound impeccably around her crown is when she’s swimming (in which case she wears an awesome old-school bathing cap)… but I digress. The point is, she loves scarves and I bet every holiday she unwraps at least three new ones. Dear Miss McKay’s Granny somehow got a reputation for loving pigs, and now pig-jars, pig cutting boards, piggy banks, and winged pig figurines fill the surfaces of her brilliant turquoise kitchen. My own mama loves bird nests, so Miss Rav sends them to her in the mail when she finds them, thatched with Samson’s fur. It’s sort of a commerce of affection, you become linked with the object in the minds of those that love you. For me, this has most certainly been the case with honey. Since I’ve been blathering on to anyone with earholes about how awesome bees are and how fascinating their behavior structures are and how CAN YOU BELIEVE IT they will actually overthrow their queen like something out of Shakespeare if she starts acting unruly, it seems that my dear circle has taken notice. Honey from an old beekeeping couple Rav’s family lets keep hives on their South Carolina farm, honey from Miss McKay’s old rooftop hives that I taste once a season to remind myself of those sweet old days, honey from Anna’s acres, honey from Abby’s north wilds, honey from the beekeepers with the roadside sign, honey from Mexico, honey Rachel picked out, honey Mama and I helped extract from Art’s hives, all laid out in glorious honey jewel tones waiting for teas and hot porridges or even just a tiny spoonful dip to taste on the kitchen windowsill. Such sweetness.