On Being a Queen Bee

Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker worried about losing her. Grand Funk Railroad wanted to steal her away. Stevie Ray Vaughn liked the way she “grooved” her hips, but Sly and the Family Stone feared her “mean sting.”

In country music and heavy metal, in Memphis blues and Scottish ballads and Brooklyn rap, the queen bee has been celebrated as, well, the queen bee. She’s the hottest chick in town, the ruler of the roost, the top of the heap.

“She rocks me to my soul,” croons Taj Mahal.

His “Queen Bee,” by the way, is my favorite of these musical tributes. Here’s a cool video of Taj Mahal playing the song on a horse-drawn carriage winding through the streets of New Orleans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjTEkhXgu_4#action=share.

I’m sorry to report, though, that the real queen bee lives a very different life from the one portrayed in popular song.

It’s been two weeks since my bees came. They’re getting along fine, doing what bees do: building honeycomb, collecting pollen and storing nectar. The queens in each of two colonies are also doing what they’re supposed to: laying eggs.

And that’s all they do.

The thousands and thousands of other female bees in the hives – except for a couple of hundred freeloading male drones, all are sisters – will spend various parts of their lives fulfilling different vital roles. They’ll nurse the young, clean the hive of debris and the dead, build comb, store nectar and pollen, make honey and guard the hive against enemies. When they mature and develop fully working stingers, the bees start the most glamorous part of their short lives as foragers, going out into the world to collect what the hive needs to survive. These are the bees you see in your garden moving from flower to flower. They’ll do that for a couple of weeks until they literally wear out their wings and die.

the Queen
The queen in the Tuscany hive is the big bee in the center with the red dot. She isn’t born that way. The company that supplied the bees marked her for easy detection.

Every bee has a chore in the highly organized world of the hive. The queen’s only job is to lay fertilized eggs. As many as 2,000 a day. Day after day for two to four years.

She knows nothing of the outside world. As a youngster, she ventured briefly outside the hive to mate. After connecting with as many as 20 drones and storing their sperm, she returned, likely never to leave again.

She can’t even digest her own food. Attendant bees do it for her and feed her. How sad is that?

Make no mistake about it, though, the queens are the most important bees in my hives. The colonies’ futures depend on them. All the other bees take their cues from the queens. Without them, my hives would falter and could collapse.

But would they? Unlike the queen bees of song, the queens in my hives aren’t really in control. If one of them was weak or diseased, the other bees would sense that from the pheromones the queen was releasing. These chemical substances secreted by bees’ exocrine glands trigger different behavioral or physiological responses by other bees in the hive. Think of them as a wireless communication system. Pheromones allow the bees to coordinate the complex activities of the hive. Almost everything they do is guided by these chemical signals.

If the queen’s pheromones are weak, the bees will respond. In the communistic society of the bee hive nothing matters except the survival of the colony. Not even, in the end, the queen. Sensing a failing queen, nurse bees make a new one by feeding several baby bees a steady diet of royal jelly. Also called “bee milk,” it looks like white snot. More than half of it is water, the rest is a combination of proteins and sugars. Special glands in the heads of the nurse bees secrete the stuff, which gets fed to babies, instead of the normal diet of pollen and honey, to make new queens.

The first to hatch will kill the other developing queens in their cells by stabbing them with her stinger. Then, she and the other bees will kill the old queen, and the colony will go on stronger than before.

Freakwater, an alternative country band from Chicago, puts it this way:

I’m gonna be the Queen Bee

And in the beautiful world I see

Way up in a hollow tree, perfect idolatry

Little bees on their knees

Sayin’ “Baby, you’re the Queen Bee”

As long as you keep laying eggs, day after day after day. Falter and you better watch your back because those bees on their knees will get up and turn on you.


The Bees Are Settling In

The 24,000 honey bees that I picked up and put in the two hives Saturday seemed to have settled into their new homes on this Easter Sunday.

Now, it’s a battle to survive the next month.

Twenty-four thousand bees may seem like a lot — the buzzing they made in the back of the car was a bit unsettling. But a strong colony has twice that many bees. And mine are young and struggling at the moment.

The bees I picked up were probably about a week old. They had been taken from established hives and put in boxes with queens whose scents were unfamiliar. They were then trucked several hundred miles. Their tightly ordered, social lives are in disarray as they attempt to start anew.

Plus, there are no honey stores from last year to draw on and no nectar or pollen yet to make new honey.

It will take several days for the queens, assuming they’re accepted  by the colonies, to start laying eggs and then three weeks for those eggs to hatch and new bees to replace my original bees, who will then be approaching the end of their lives.

They’re racing against time now, and I’ll do all I can to see them through it.

The bees arrived from Georgia in three-pound boxes. About 12,000 bees were in each box. The buzzing coming from the back of the Subaru was constant as I drove home from the pickup point. Very eerie.
Each package of bees comes with a mated queen — she’s the big bee on the right with the red dot — in a separate cage along with a few nurse bees. The white substance on the left is a hard sugar candy that plugs an escape holes drilled into the end of the box. The bees in the package, drawn to the queen, will eat the candy to release her. In the process, they will get used to her scent and accept her as their queen.
I’ve suited up in a protective coat and veil to insert the first be package in the Calabria hive, which is two boxes separated by a wooden divider. The deeper, bottom section is the brood box. That’s where the queen will lay her eggs, about 2,000 a day, and where the bees will raise their young, store pollen and nectar and make honey to get them through the winter. The shallower top box is a “super,” or surplus, where eventually the bees will make honey for me.
For the foreseeable future, the supers will be chow halls for the bees. I’ve filled four, one-quart Mason jars with equal parts water and sugar. I’ve punched small holes in the lids that the bees will use to suck out the solution. It will have to hold them until the nectar starts flowing in a couple of weeks.
This is one of the frames that are the guts of the hive. There are 10 in each brood box. The wooden frames hold a sheet of beeswax. On this foundation, the bees will build comb where the queen will lay her eggs, where forager bees will store nectar and pollen and where workers will store honey.
Bees are methodical planners. I’ve numbered and marked each frame so that I can replace them in the right order and orientation after inspections. Putting them out of place seems to be doing a disservice to the orderly bees.
Here’s the open brood box of the Calabria hive about 24 hours after I installed the bees. I had to remove five of the frames to make room for the box that contained the bees. I also removed the queen cage and left the top of the box open before closing up the hive.
That brown substance on the top of the frames is a pollen patty that you can buy from bee-supply stores. It will also help sustain the bees. I removed the now empty bee cage on the right and added the missing frames before closing up the hive.
I tacked the queen cage to one of the frames. It’s suspended from that yellow ribbon and the clump of bees on the left are busily chewing away at candy to release the queen. I’ll check on their progress in a couple of days.




Hives Ready for Occupancy

hives.jpgThe hives in my backyard are ready for the bees that arrive tomorrow. A local commercial beekeeper is picking them up in Georgia. They’re probably on I-95 right now.

Their arrival has been delayed for two weeks. Cold weather prevented the queens from mating. It seems that bee amore is dependent on temperature.

Speaking of lovers, these will be Italian bees. Most managed bees in America these days are of that sub-species because it is less aggressive. Why sting when there’s honey to be made?

Old hands at beekeeping recommend naming or numbering hives for record keeping. Our niece Isa painted the one on the left in bold, abstract colors. I’m calling it Tuscany, the birthplace of some of the world’s great artists. Her sister, Olivia, opted for a simpler design,  a bee house with windows and doors. It’s Calabria, the pastoral region in the heel of the Italian boot that is the home of all my ancestors.

Come back tomorrow for pictures of the bees moving in. I’m planning to play a Caruso aria to keep them calm. It worked for my old man.


In Celebration of Rev. Langstroth

They gave Lorenzo Langstroth sort of the bum’s rush in “bee school” yesterday. He invented the hive that revolutionized beekeeping and is still in use 150 years later, the instructors noted during the first of four classes that will lead to state certification as a beekeeper. With a lot to cover in four hours, they then moved on to bee pollination, hive location or some such.

Lansgstroth markerIntrigued, I came home determined to learn more about the acknowledged “Father of American Beekeeping.” The initial Google search produced the image of this street marker that I immediately remembered from one of my morning ambles through Philadelphia on our visit there in the fall. I’m a sucker for historic markers. I’ve been known to turn around if I pass one as I zip along at 60 mph. I strolled past this one on Front Street, near the intersection with Chestnut, along the Philly waterfront. It told about this guy who invented a new beehive in 1852 and wrote a manual for it that advanced beekeeping and honey production worldwide. Interesting, I thought at the time, and ambled on.

Langstroth, who was born in Philadelphia in 1810, must have been a weird kid, or at least that’s what the neighbors must of thought as they watched him spend hours on his hands and knees playing with ants on the sidewalks outside his house. While later studying just up the road at Yale, Langstroth transferred this fascination with small, social insects to bees when his saw a friend’s hive in 1838. He brought home two colonies. For most of his life, Lorenzo Langstroth would never be without bees.

After moving around New England as a Congregational minister, Langstroth returned to Philadelphia in 1848 where he set up a two-acre apiary on the west side of town. He immersed himself in his bees, mostly at first as a distraction from his periodic “head troubles” and bouts of depression. Lansgstroth watched how they moved in and out of their hives, and he read everything anyone had written about them.

Lansgrtoth with hives
Lorenzo Langstroth shows off his invention in his apiary in the 1850s. Photo: American Philosophical Society

There’s some debate now as to whether Langstroth discovered “bee space” or merely applied it to invent the first practical, man-made hive. Bees like to have precise 3/8-inch gaps in their hives to move around. They fill anything wider with propolis, a resinous substance that bees make by mixing wax with pollen and tree sap. It hardens into a glue tougher than anything you get out of a bottle, and it made early beekeeping difficult and often fatal to the bees.

People have been keeping bees in boxes and containers almost since there were people. Clay pots were the preferred containers in North Africa 9,000 years ago. Art in the tombs of Egyptian emperors 4,500 years later shows a variety of vessels used as beehives. Skeps, cone-shaped structures made of branches and leaves, and hollow logs were common in Langstroth’s day.

No matter the design, though, the bees got very angry when beekeepers tried to extract the honey by tearing into the propolis. Keepers found it a lot less painful to simply kill the bees first.

Langstroth was “pondering” all this while walking late one afternoon from the apiary to his home two miles away. “The almost self-evident idea of using the same bee-space…came into my mind, and in a moment the suspended movable frames, kept at a suitable distance from each other and the case containing them, came into being,” he wrote in a reminiscence published in 1893. “I could scarcely refrain from shouting out my ‘Eureka’ in the open streets.”

He patented a wooden box that opened from the top and had removable frames 3/8 of an inch apart on which the bees would build their combs of honey. The frames could be lifted out the box to extract the honey with a minimum of disturbance. His Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-Bee, published a year later, provided unsurpassed practical advice on bee management.

The simplicity of the Langstroth Hive made it easy to copy. Quickly, beekeepers around the world adopted it, despite Lanstroth’s efforts to end infringements of his patent.

Endlessly imitated and modified, the Langstroth Hive helped make commercial honey production and bee pollination large-scale industries. By the 1880s, most American beekeepers used some form of the Langstroth Hive. By the late twentieth century, more than 100 American crops and one-third of the American food supply depended on bee pollination and the Langstroth Hive.

Langstroth in 1858 gathered his family and moved to Oxford, Ohio. There, between continued struggles with illness, he devoted his time to beekeeping and research, writing articles and playing chess. In 1863, Langstroth became one of the first Americans to import the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica), whose queen bees he and his son sold to beekeepers across the United States. Today, the Italian bee is the most popular commercial bee in North America because it is less aggressive than other subspecies.

In 1874, Langstroth retired from beekeeping.  He died 21 years later while giving a sermon at the Wayne Avenue Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, where he lived with his daughter.

That’s Isa, on the left, and her sister, Olivia, standing behind their tricked out Langstroth Hives.

Here are the words on Langstroth’s tombstone in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery:

“Inscribed to the memory of Rev. L.L Langstroth, ‘Father of American beekeeping,’ by his affectionate beneficiaries who, in the remembrance of the service rendered by his persistent and painstaking observations and experiments with the honey bee, his improvements in the hive, and the literary ability shown in the first scientific and popular book on the subject of beekeeping in the United States, gratefully erect this monument.”

We had our own celebration yesterday of Langstroth and his invention. Our nieces, Isa and Olivia, came from Hillsborough to trick out the two Langstroth hives that will be in my backyard. Olivia wanted her hive to look like a home and painted window with curtains and flower boxes. Her older sister chose an abstract design of splotches of bold colors.

The bees, who are scheduled to arrive on March 24, won’t mind. The whimsy of it all would also probably please the reverend.


Giving Bees a Hand

I’ve spent the last few days preparing for my new advocation as a beekeeper. Honey bees, as


we all know, are in trouble. I hope to do my part in helping them out by keeping two colonies in my backyard.

Pieces of the hives arrived the other day. I started putting them together today. Shown here is one of the hive bodies, a pine box where one of the colonies will call home.

That’s me in the protective veil and jacket. The bees, Italian honeybees, will arrive in mid-March. Beekeepers prefer the Italians because they are less aggressive than other species. I figure we’ll eventually come to an understanding — I plan to speak to them in their native language— and I’ll be able to approach them with less armor.

Special thanks to Eric Talley, a master beekeeper in nearby Hubert, who has become my mentor. The man knows his bees.

Watch for updates here as this new adventure proceeds.