I have two new hives of bees, one Italian, one Russian. Teachers often recommend having two, so you can compare them, learn more over one season by so doing, and if one hive’s in trouble, use frames from the stronger hive to bail out the weaker.
I’m examining the hives more or less every week as they get established, and I couldn’t help noticing that the Russians are building up really fast. They’ve almost filled one hive body and happily moved into the new one I added last week, and started laying in honey.
In contrast, the Italians didn’t have any capped brood. I couldn’t even see newly laid eggs, evidence that the queen is doing her job. There was uncured honey--cells of uncapped honey that had yet to be evaporated to the correct density to cap and store. There were also lots of bees, but that was sort of it.
Luckily we have a local bee expert, Denny, who agreed to come by with an extra queen and see what was happening in my hive. There is nothing, in my opinion, as useful as looking at your own frames with someone who can tell you what you’re seeing: the queen, excellent; laying workers, terrible.
It was the latter we saw today, in the Italian hive, with no evidence of the former. When I first emailed Denny with my suspicions, he told me to take a frame of open brood from the Russian hive, brush off the bees, and put the naked frame into the Italian hive. The brood would give off a pheromone that would retard the development of laying workers.
Laying workers are, Denny announced, the worst thing that can happen to a hive. Besides, maybe, bears and RAID. When the queen isn’t laying, or has died, workers begin laying unfertilized eggs. Those eggs hatch into drones, boy bees whose only enthusiasms in life are eating and mating with the virgin queen. Since virgin queens are in relatively short supply, that means eating, not putting up honey, or producing more girl bees who do all the work--and that spells death for the hive.
People have been extrapolating from their knowledge of bees for centuries, anthropomorphizing like crazy, using the hive as a metaphor to kiss up to whatever monarchs or political systems happen to be in power. So I will resist belaboring the obvious feminist parallels that may suggest themselves, and leave those to my gentle readers.
Anyway, you do not want laying workers. And once they start, you can’t just introduce some fragrant uncapped brood in the hopes that the workers will desist. Nor can you introduce a new queen, because these laying workers are not going to revert. They’ll kill her, no matter how good she smells.
Denny, bless him, had an idea. It seems that laying workers do not fly very well. We could take the Italian hive off into a field, shake off the bees. The laying workers would not be able to fly back to the hive’s original location (where we’ve helpfully left some empty frames); the regular field bees will beat us back there.
We tried it. I, of course, was suited up. Denny wore a short sleeved shirt, no gloves or veil. He took out a frame, gave its edge a smart smack on the ground, and a thousand shocked and possibly quite angry bees fell onto the grass. I couldn’t help recalling the repeated advice I’d heard just last week at a Bee-a-thon at UMass, about moving slowly and gently, lest you rile the bees and turn your hive into a permanently aggressive sting-fest. I asked him if these bees would ever be calm again. He assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, so I started whacking frames, and brushing off the stragglers with the bee brush. We carried the frames back to the hive and reinserted them, along with a frame of open brood (carefully crushed off) from the Russian hive.
He worried about introducing his queen into this roaring hive. A queenless hive really does roar. He thought he’d bring her back home, do some research, then be back in touch with the next steps. But when he went to his truck, he discovered the queen’s attendants had escaped. He picked them off the side of his truck one by one, (again, fearlessly) put them back in the box holding the queen cage. Then he had another idea.
He took the queen cage in its little box, with its few recaptured attendants, over to the bee dumps, where plenty of bees were flying around. They flew to her like she was a new soft serve stand. When Denny ran his finger over the cage, the bees didn’t cling aggressively to the cage, but climbed up over his finger and down to see her again. This was a very good sign-- they seemed curious, even fascinated. possibly (we hope) falling in love, rather than plotting her demise.
So we introduced the queen cage into the Italian hive, suspending it next to the frame of open brood, the cork stopper still firmly guarding the candy plug the bees will eventually eat through to free the queen.
I go back on July 4th to pry out the cork and allow her by then besotted subjects to get to her. Keep your fingers crossed.