Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch…Sweet Talking Our Queen

Can you spot the queenWhen I was in high school, Where’s Waldo was a popular character. People spent hours looking for the guy in a red and white striped shirt, carefully camouflaged but in plain view. Finding the queen in a hive is like that. There’s one in the photo above. She’s a lot like the rest of the girls, but if you look closely, there are a subtle differences. She bigger than the worker bees, and her abdomen is long and pointed. That point makes it possible for her to deposit an egg inside the tiny cell of the wax honeycomb. Her wings are short compared to the rest of her body. After her mating flight, she spends most of her time inside the hive laying eggs, so wings are not a major need for her. (More about the “birds and the bees” in a later post. It’s fascinating! Okay, that made me sound a little weird, but I was a biology major in college. Creation amazes me!)  Normally it’s GREAT that the queen stays in the hive, all safe and sound, but remember we had to get these girls out of our front porch column. To do that we had to get the queen out, and to get the queen out, we had to outsmart her.

Sounds easy enough, you say? I mean her brain is pretty tiny. What could be so hard about that? For starters our bees had to learn to fly in and out through a specially built hive box. This is where that whole civil engineer (let’s build something to fix this thing) came in really handy. IMG_0534Instead of flying in and out like normal, my husband built an attachment that the bees had to navigate on their way to find food and water. They hated this! They found an opening along the other side of the column to come and go. We tried filling that crack with latex caulk, but they just ate their way out. One tiny, bee bite at a time. They were determined not to use that adapted entrance. After multiple trips up the 20 foot ladder, surrounded by unhappy bees, silicone caulk finally kept their back door closed. After that, he adapted a traditional hive box that attached to the tunnel for them to fly through as well. The hive box was filled with frames of foundation (wax sheets molded with guidelines for building honeycomb) in hopes of enticing the queen and her workers to move out of our house and into a home of their own. It was going to take more than a deluxe apartment in the sky to get her movin’ on up.

So if you want to catch a mouse, you’ve got to bait the trap. In this case, instead of peanut butter, we used fresh bee eggs and larvae from our existing hive. IMG_0884 (1)If you look really closely in the photo, you can see teeny, tiny worm-like things in the bottom of the honeycomb. Those are baby bee larvae. Now don’t panic, they keep the larvae separate from the honeycomb that stores the honey. After the queen lays an egg, the worker bees spend about a week feeding the larvae. When the baby has gotten her allotment of food, the workers put a wax cap over the honeycomb cell and allow the baby to grow. It takes about 21 days for the egg to hatch into a newbee…not a scientific term there, y’all…don’t be throwing that out, trying to impress your friends with your new found entomology knowledge!  The smell of fresh bee eggs and larvae, makes the queen curious. I mean, if somebody continually left babies in your attic, you’d eventually go check things out, right?  In truth, she gets upset when she thinks another queen is laying eggs in her house, and she comes out to investigate. We had to keep watch to catch her in the act. Once we found her in the new hive, we placed a device called a queen excluder in the tunnel between the column and the hive box. The excluder kept her stuck in her new home because she was too big to fit back through the holes. Thank goodness! We were on the home stretch!

IMG_0896 (2)We had to wait another month after the queen was out to give time for all the eggs and larvae in the column to hatch and reach maturity to fly out. A one-way bee escape placed between the column and the new hive kept the bees from going back in the old hive. Operation Outta Here was a success! Now the bees could be safely moved…well as safely as you can move a hive of refugee bees from the top of scaffolding. From start to finish, it took several months to lure all those silly bees out of our house. Much to our neighbors disappointment, this was just the tip of the iceberg on that blue scaffolding though. Complete restoration of our front porch is still a work in progress, but that’s a topic for a completely different blog!

So what was inside that cozy hive?IMG_1437 Well, bunches of beeswax and loads of honey! The really sad part is, we had to throw it out! Normally the undertaker bees carry the ones that have passed on to that “great field of clover in the sky” straight out the front door of the hive. In this case though, their door was at the top, and most of the dead bees fell to the bottom of the column to rot. The smell of that many decomposing bees is less than pleasant, and it left the honey and wax with an harsh scent. Ick! But it was still amazing to see the long sheets of honeycomb carefully glued to the ceiling of the column. Let’s think about this. Once a year you, an intelligent human, try to hang a banner from your ceiling announcing little Suzy’s birthday, and it takes six pieces of tape, two thumbtacks, and a stapler to hold it up for a party that lasts about 3 hours. These honeybees, who are less than an inch long, can glue tiny pieces of wax to a wooden ceiling, in the dark. These bits of glue hold up a six foot long, heavy chunk of honeycomb, filled with honey or baby bees. No wonder my engineer husband is amazed by them!

So now you know how we became beekeepers, but I’m pretty sure that it’s the bees that keep us! From this crazy beginning, Bee Sweet Bee Farm now has ten hives. We are continually amazed at the humble, hardworking honeybee, and we hope you will be too. Please take a moment to follow our blog. We’ve got more stories to tell, and “maybee” you’ll learn a thing or two along the way. Until then, Bee Sweet!

Oh! Did you find the queen? In case you missed her, she’s near the bottom of the frame, just slightly off center to the right. Some beekeepers mark their queens to make them easy to spot, but we prefer a challenge!