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Friday, June 19, 2015

Ding Dong, the Queen is Dead, The Wicked Queen is Dead…

WickedThe honeybee is wicked, boss,

Wicked as a weasel,

And when she sits down on you, boss,

She leaves a little measle.

Don Marquis/Archie and Mehitabel

“Mom can’t pick a flower that grows in this yard without getting a bee sting,” I said. “We can’t play in this yard without our gettin’ five or six stings apiece. We have to go to the woods to play. The bees have not only the yard but part of the upstairs.”

Jesse Stuart “The Battle with the Bees”

We’ve had our own battle with the bees here this summer, and unlike Pa in Jesse Stuart’s folktale  “The Battle with the bees,” our goal was never to have one thousand beehives on the place. As it turns out, however, we did have one hive too many. The colony at issue was one beekeepers call a “hot” hive. Just plain nasty this one was, aggressive and hot-tempered. Working in the garden, the yard…anywhere on the place we were harassed by over protective guard bees. Whenever I inspected the hive, the bees resented my intrusion and for three days afterwards they were quick to seek me out whenever I was outside. Several times they drove my wife to the house. I would look up just in time to see her making a beeline across the yard, her arms flailing away at the air around her head as she swatted her way to safety. Then, finding the object of their disaffection gone, I became her proxy.  Gardening is not an easy task with two or three angry bees constantly circling your head like satellites, a diversion unpleasant, one no gardener needs. Pulling weeds is difficult enough without worrying about a bee flying up your nose each time you stooped. Over the course of a month I think we shared a half dozen stings from “hive nasty.” I’ve been around honeybees nearly all my life and am usually not intimidated by my bees or another beekeeper’s, but this hive was something else. Sometimes I would stop work, take off my ball cap, and say: “Ok, lady, if that’s the way you want it, you and me are going to tangle,” and using my cap as a swatter, I’d try to dash the offender from the air, knock her to the ground and stomp her. Seldom did our battle end in a draw; I’m proud to admit I did quite a bit of stomping. Once, however, one angry little missus executed a perfect aerial feint, slipped under the slap and nailed me inside my left ear. For the next two nights I slept on my right side.

Clearly something had to be done. At least twice after inspecting the hive I cautioned our neighbor about working in her garden, told her perhaps she might want to postpone her weeding until the evening. I was most afraid my three-year old grandson would fall victim to their wrath, and the last thing I wanted was for him to be, as Jesse Stuart would phrase it, “skeered” of bees. I knew the problem lay not with my combatants in the field but their mistress. Our hostile insects simply were following the genetic design laid out for them by Queen Mother’s genome. Yes, it’s the queen bee that sets the temperament of the colony. Somewhere on her chromosomal blueprint was a dominate gene for nastiness, a genetic callout to her minions to go out and spread her evil.

My friend Jim at the Beez Neez Apiary Supply has the twenty foot rule: if guard bees pursue the beekeeper that distance from their hive, it’s time to deal with the queen. When I inspected hive nasty, the vigilantes followed me to another colony over one hundred feet away. It was as if I had a Perseid meteor shower of bees ricocheting off my veil and helmet the entire distance. (One characteristic of Africanized bees is their tenacious pursuit of an intruder for nearly a quarter mile from their nest.) Without question her royal nastiness had to go. Her replacement cost me thirty-thee dollars (long gone the days of a penny slice of bread, thirty-five cent a gallon gas, and five dollar queens). I had found my nemesis queen a few days before, plucked her off the comb and put her beneath a shallow comb super with undrawn comb following the rule of thumb a queen will not cross undrawn foundation to access drawn comb above. Sprained that thumb as I found new eggs laid in the super above the shallow. I thought I had her corralled, easy to find, but when I purchased a new thirty-three dollar Carniolan queen, the reigning monarch was nowhere to be found. I overnighted the queen regent successor on a queen excluder, went into the hive the next day and finally found her royal nastiness hiding out on a pollen frame. I pinched her swiftly, execution style, and installed the new queen only to find her dead in the cage two days later. Back to the Beez Neez  and thirty-three dollars later brought home the second replacement. Two days later her new subjects had yet to release her, so I pulled the candy plug and watched her rush out and scramble into the hive.

Jim said the hive will maintain its nastiness for at least six weeks, the amount of time for the new genetics to kick in and new field workers to take flight . After losing the first queen, I was uncertain if this recalcitrant colony would accept any queen at all. A week passed before I inspected the colony. I found the new queen and she was running the operation, showing a nice egg pattern and cells brimming with new larvae. My sense of relief was somewhat tempered by five stings but that’s nothing compared to the pain of another thirty-three bucks. So “the queen is dead. Long live the queen.” Since the old monarch was deposed, my pugnacious colony seems a kinder and gentler bunch of bees, and although I haven’t bothered them in over two weeks and the summer honey flow is now a diversion for them, I’m cautiously optimistic the new queen has squelched the anger management issues.

Perhaps pinching a queen to death seems a bit harsh to you. I suppose I could have thrown a pail of water on her, but I doubt very much she’d have melted.

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