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.
if you’ve encountered either me or my Mama at a cocktail party in the last year you will have heard all of this and more: the first question anyone asks us when they hear we’ve started keeping bees is “when do you get the honey!?”. That is a good question. The answer is sort of complicated because the final answer is “Maybe never, or perhaps in October?”. A little explanation: bees make honey for themselves, to nom nom nom through the winter, and you have to be sure they have enough for themselves before you take any. When you first get a hive, the bees are all in one hive body, a single box. They build out comb and store honey and the queen lays eggs and they raise their brood, growing, building up their hive until they fill up that box. Just like any growing family in a Brooklyn apartment, there’s a lot of discussion on what to do next, how to renovate, whether to move upstate. Luckily for the bees it’s possible to just double the size of the available real estate just by adding a new hive body up top. If only it were that simple for the Brooklyn brownstone (just add another one on top!). With the addition of a 2nd box, the bees have room to grow, to begin filling that hive body up with honey, pollen, eggs, and brood. Then when/if they have that hive body filled up, then you can add another, smaller box to the hive called a “honey super” and that’s extra, that’s gravy, that’s honey. We might not get that this year, we might not get that ever, but as of now we’re about halfway there. Two weeks ago we added the second hive bodies, and last weekend, after my great uncle Tall Paul’s 94th birthday party, Mama and I came home and did a late afternoon hive-inspection to see how the hives, Shangri-la+Xanadu, were doing. Shangri-la is always busier, always has a scrum of bees outside in the late afternoon, while Xanadu is a little mellower, her bees coming zagging in backlit in the afternoon sun heavy with loads of pollen and nectar. It’s almost impossible to tell what they’re up to until you open up the hive, and we’ve been consistently surprised. They’ve both started building out comb in their new additions, but Xanadu (quiet thunder) has stepped it up, is already putting away honey and is growing fast. The glistening comb in this picture is full of almost-ready honey, and the white capped comb at the top is honey stored and ready to go.
Mama took the top picture, I took the middle two, and Daddy (getting very close in just his shirtsleeves!) took the last one. Love+Honey indeed.
We’ve been spending our mornings drinking coffee and watching the bees zoom in and out of their hives. They leave the hive, shot out like a bullet, up and over the house making, yep you guessed it, bee-lines towards the ancient and gigantic blooming tulip poplar in the neighbor’s yard. On the way back, they weave woozily, back and forth in a zig zag, lady bees laden down with yellow bolls of pollen on either side of her back legs, under the wing, like saddlebags. And after much discussion (and minor confusion about which one was which “the one on the left is bringing in more pollen than the one on the right” which left? which right?) we have decided to name our hives: Shangri-La and Xanadu. Paradise.
Mama took the picture of the bee with the pollen. Isn’t she good?
Actually, TODAY was the day. Mama and I went out to the east side of town to pick up our two nucs from a very sweet beekeeper named Jacob who I immediately wanted to set up all of my friends with (laaaaaadies? he breeds his own queens!). You can see our two nuc boxes resting on top of the two hive bodies above. A “nuc”, or nucleus hive, is a short box containing a fully-functioning mini-hive, five frames (as opposed to the 10 in a standard hive) of bees who have already drawn out and built the wax comb every aspect of their lives is based on, who have already been storing honey and pollen in those combs, and a beautiful queen painted with a red dot who has already been diligently laying brood to make more bees to go off and harvest the sweet nectars that are flowing as we speak. Last night, we strapped down the two long, audibly buzzing, rectangular boxes to the back of our little pickup and began the hour long trek home. When we got back, not only was it dark (ok for bee move-in day) it was also raining (NOT ok for bee move-in day). So we had to put the bees under cover and wait for the morning to move them in. When we woke up, the pent-up bees were making so much heat trying to cool down their plugged up hive, it fogged up my camera lens, air hot to the touch being beaten out of any vent hole by the flapping of 40,000 wings.We puffed them with smoke to calm them down, then sprayed them with sugar water to zuzz them up and then moved them, slowly and surely, frame by frame, from their temporary cardboard hutches to their forever-homes. They immediately took up ancient established positions- some moved to the empty frames to start exploring, some situated themselves at the door of the hive, fanning their wings with a special perfume to let any sister-bees know that this was home, so come on in, and some of them alit on the dewey honeysuckle nearby to cool off after a hot night in cardboard city. Needless to say, after our very first time handling our very own bees, meeting our very own beauties, Mama and I are two very happy beekeepers.