Have you ever actually met royalty? I have always thought they seemed so distant and elusive. But today I am going to get up close and personal with thirty Queens. Queen Bees!
Today is the first time I will get to directly handle the bees. Last week, when I first worked with the bees, I only watched Scott open and examine the hives. Since my last outing to the bee yard I have been seeing the hexagonal comb in patterns when I close my eyes. Seven nights of dreams where I swear I can smell honey and hear buzzing. It is fair to say I have been eagerly awaiting this day.
When I arrive at Hamakua Apiaries, Scott informs me we will be catching and caging Queens today. I’m thinking: catch a Queen, how exactly am I going to do that? How do I even hold a bee? And there’s one more thing! Not only will I be holding and caging Queen Bees today, but I will be doing so without gloves. Since the Queen is so essential to a hive we cannot risk damaging her. The sense of feel is important in handling Queens and gloves can interfere. This is going to be an interesting first day on the job to say the least.I learn we will be pulling Queen Bees from small Queen rearing hives arranged in neat rows along the property. I am told the hives I will be working with today are smaller than traditional hives. At Hamakua Apiaries we use Langstroth hives. This design typically holds nine or ten frames. The starter hives I will be pulling Queens from today have 5 frames each. I am thankful; I’m thinking less places for the Queen to hide!
As Scott opens the first of these small hives he explains why we are taking the Queens:
The Queen is the heart and soul of the hive. Her scent, or pheromones, bonds the colony together and regulates the other bee’s behavior. She is the only bee who can continue the population of a hive. She does this by laying about 1,500 eggs a day. A colony that is Queenless for too long will not survive. This is why some beekeepers will opt to buy a new Queen when their Queen dies or is lost. I am told the average cost for a Queen Bee is about $25. For a hobbyist beekeeper who might have only two hives this is a reasonable cost but Scott had to buy more than 100 Queens for the apiary last month. The Queens we pull from the starter hives today will be placed in hives that need a Queen. We also leave behind her eggs in the starter hive. Since her scent will no longer be present in the hive the bees will sense they are Queenless and begin the process of transforming some of the eggs into potential new Queens. This process will take about fifteen days. So by taking, hopefully, thirty Queens today we will have thirty new Virgin Queens in just over two weeks. The circle of life in a beehive!
And so with a new sense of purpose I open my first hive. I have been watching videos of beekeepers using a hive-tool effortlessly, but I struggle in the beginning. I feel clumsy prying and pulling until finally the frame is free. I am holding a frame of bees! Again, I feel any anxiety I had about the task before me fade as I scan the comb for the Queen. It feels natural to become mesmerized by the bees. She is not on the first frame, so I continue. The second frame slides away more easily than the first. I find her on the third frame, right at the center of the hive. I feel proud when I spot her and her long pointed abdomen. Now, to catch her. Scott tells me to aim for the wings, avoid the abdomen and not to squeeze her too tightly. And then I find myself reaching into a cluster of bees barehanded. Suddenly, I am holding the Queen. It happened so fast I almost don’t know how I did it. But here she is, her abdomen curling towards her middle and her legs flailing around in the air. I pick up a Queen Cage. This is a plastic cage that is smaller than the palm of my hand. I open it and encourage the Queen inside. I have to be careful not to catch her wings or legs when I close the cage. And just like that I have a Queen ready for transport to her new home.
I go through the hives methodically. The repetition becomes calming. Sweat is rolling down my forehead and into my eyes, I have been stung on the hands and face but I am in the zone, plucking and caging Queens until I drop one. She fell out from inside the cage before I could close the lid. Where is she? What do I do? I search the front of the hive frantically. I am mad at myself for losing her. My heart beats a little bit faster. Then I see her crawling in the grass. It takes me a few tries to contain her but finally she’s safe in the cage. I breath a sigh of relief.
When we finish going through the hives we ve twenty Queens. Some of the Queens were left behind to ensure the starter hive is strong enough to survive the fifteen days it would take them to make a new Queen.
Scott and I gather the Queens and drive them to a yard a few miles away. Each hive that needs to be re-queened is marked. Together we examine these hives to ensure they are still Queenless. If eggs are found there is a Queen and we hold off inserting a new Queen to avoid them killing each other. In the hives where we find no eggs we destroy any Queen cells that hold a potential Queen. A hive can only have one Queen Bee.
On the drive back I think about all I have learned today. I found out I am a lot tougher than I thought I was. I was stung multiple times and I never let it stop me. I reached into a beehive barehanded and was rewarded with holding royalty. The bees help me realise how much I am capable of doing. They show me I am brave.
Come back next week to see what else the bees can show me on my journey to becoming a beekeeper. Thank you for reading!