This post starts a serial story about honey bees.
I confess that I have neglected this blog over the summer because I allowed the activities of summer to consume my time. Now that fall sets in, I will probably make posts more often. I am an avid vegetable gardener and was disappointed in the late spring to discover my garden yield was way down due to poor pollination. To remedy this, I started keeping bees. My first colony of bees was one a rescued. I purchased equipment from a neighbor who thought all of his bees had died. While sorting equipment we found one box with a struggling colony of bees. I took the box home and rehabilitated the hive. I later purchased a second colony.
Of course, being a writer, I interviewed the queen of my first colony. Below is the first installment of the history of that colony, fictionalized, of course. I hope you enjoy it.
Chronicles of Honey Country
by Reynold J. Conger
Copyright 2012, Reynold J. Conger
Disaster after disaster struck in the second year of my reign. Any of them could have wiped out the colony, but we persisted. Problems seemed to have started when our patron appeared to lose interest in keeping bees.
Of course, wild bees laugh and say we have sold ourselves into slavery, but we are not enslaved. We can fly away any time we wish. I prefer to call it cooperation. While the wild bees are free, we have a great deal of security when a patron cares for us carefully. We have hives that are generally better suited to our needs than what wild bees find. The patron often assists with minor problems and protects the hive from some dangers. Of course, the patron may take excess honey, but a little honey is fair exchange for his services. I just wish I could communicate with him and tell him my wishes.
I am Queen Natasha 652, daughter of Queen Karla 490, but of course my subjects simply call me Natasha. I never knew my mother because she flew off in a swarm a few days before I hatched, but my sisters, who raised me told me all about her. She had been a strong queen of a breed of bees known as blue Russian bees. One of the more beautiful of the breed. She was known as a strong, but fair leader. My sisters assured me that I have all of her better traits. Perhaps that is why we have survived.
To be honest, I must admit, I am not pure blue Russian. Bee genealogy is determined only by descendents of queens. After all, most queens mate only with their brothers. The other factor is that on the average each queen mates with about twenty drones. It is assumed the drones will be from the queen’s hive which means they are brothers of the queen, but there is a chance one or more drones from other colonies may join the festivities.
I must also admit that I am a hybrid. My grandmother, Alexandria 495, was shipped by mail as a virgin queen to her patron. Her cage was inserted into a hive where the colony where the queen had died. The door of my cage was plugged with candy and it only took a few hours for the worker bees to eat that candy and release her. The workers fed her and groomed her so that the following day she was prepared to take her honeymoon flight. The hive she had been inserted into, and all of the other colonies nearby were Italian bees. She mated, but only with Italian bee drones. My mother and her sisters were all hybrids.
I once overheard my patron discussing bees with a friend. He was proud to have colonies of bees that were hybridized with blue Russian bees. Italian bees are the standard breed in North America. He thought the blue Russian genes gave us resistance to mites, but the Italian genes caused us to swarm less often and to produce a larger flow of honey. Nevertheless, ancestry in bees is matriarchal so I am officially a blue Russian queen and am proud of my heritage.
A few days before I hatched out, my mother divided the colony into two companies. One company swarmed with my mother to start a new colony elsewhere. The rest stayed behind to maintain the original hive with a new queen. Of course, there was no queen, only a half dozen of us princesses growing in our peanut shaped cells.
I hatched first and became queen. My older sisters coached me to quickly search out the other queen cells and mercifully dispatch the growing princesses with my stinger before they hatched for there can only be one queen in a hive.
With that task done, my attendants fed me and groomed me to look drop dead beautiful. Then I took to wing. It was the only time I flew. In fact it was the only time I have ever left the hive. I flew high, full of energy and inspired by the view. I was followed by a cloud of drones. All of them were extremely handsome, but that is to be expected because most of them were my brothers, sons of my beautiful mother.
The first drone to reach me flew a fancy pattern to catch my attention and then mated with me. He was a bit rough, but before I could complain, he died and fell from the sky. As other drones caught up with me, they performed tricks to gain my favor. I chose those who could fly best, and mated with about two dozen of them. Most of them were highly romantic. Each encounter pleased me. I returned to the hive tired but ready to perform the duties of the queen.
That first year went well. Within a month and a half, I had brought the colony back to full strength. Of course, the older worker bees died so that gradually my sisters were replaced by my daughters.
My palace consisted of two boxes filled with frames of wax combs. I spent most of the time in the lower box laying eggs, one per wax hexagon. The nurse bees carefully tend to the young that hatch. A set of attendant bees feed me and keep me comfortable while I lay 2000 eggs per day during the summer. That keeps me busy, but not so busy that I can not administer my realm. About half of the attendant bees are administrative assistants, who bring reports and distribute orders to other bees. Of course, I am too busy to inspect everything, but the system works well with bees bringing me information and dispatching orders.
Combs not containing brood, are filled with honey for hard times. The second story of my palace is a box full of wax combs. I seldom lay eggs there, but the workers fill it with honey to feed us during the winter.
When nectar flow is good, the patron adds one or two more boxes on top. He calls them supers, but I have never been in one. Between the winter box and the first super is a set of doors that are too small for me to enter. The worker bees can pass through and store more honey in the super. It is from the super that our patron takes combs full of honey for his own use. That doesn’t bother me, because we should be able to store enough honey in the brood box and the winter box to feed us during the winter. As I said earlier, it is a fair trade of honey for security.
And so it was the first winter of my reign. Individual bees do not live long, but colonies have long memories. My mother gave the workers who would become my attendants specific instructions of what I should be taught. Sure, like most animals, we have instincts, but we also have history. Nursery bees teach pupae and young bees while attending to them. An entire corps of bees are charged with storing information, and the best of these bees are responsible for memorizing history and teaching that history to the next generation of historians. Some activities have been going on for so long that the colony has standing orders. Survival of the hive is the results of instinct and bees following standing orders.
That first fall as the number of flowers declined, our patron removed the super from my hive and put a cover directly on top of the winter box. Scouts reported to me further declines in flowers and a shortening of daylight hours. I ordered all available combs filled with honey and within two days, the hive contained all the honey it would hold. I also ordered bee bread to be stored in all available corners. Bee bread is a mixture of pollen and honey that provides high protein food.
As daylight hours reduced further and temperatures dropped, I ordered all drones to be escorted out the door. We could not afford to feed them over the winter. Few bees were leaving the hive for any reason. Those who did fly outside reported that flowers had almost completely disappeared.
I issued the standing order to ball up. By huddling together, we kept the hive close to the standard 95 degrees, but within the ball of bodies, the temperature stayed at 95 degrees, especially around the combs where the brood grew. Bees from within the center of the ball would occasionally go to the edge to allow cold bees to warm up near the core. Of course, with a large colony, even the coldest corners of the hive were close to standard temperature. The most serious problem was the guard bees. They had to stand just inside the entrance to guard against intruders. I had them relieved frequently so that the cold bees could warm up.
Everyone, including me, became less active. I laid only a few eggs and the nursery workers had little to do. The objective of the colony was to stay warm and alive. As the winter wore on, we ate our way through the stores of honey and pollen. The ball of bees moved slowly upward into the winter box.
Late in the winter, our patron opened the top of the box one warm afternoon. He removed several frames, and after inspecting them, replaced one empty frame with a feeder full of sugar water. While we appreciated the extra food, it probably would not have been necessary. We had stored enough honey. We would have made it through the winter without help.
Days started getting longer. On warm days, I would send out scouts . One day an excited scout returned with news that the apricot trees were opening their blossoms. I dispatched all available bees to collect nectar and pollen. Then I got to work laying eggs. Most of the bees of the colony were getting old and many had died off during the winter. I would need to replace them by the time the full spring flow of nectar started.
Soon the population of the colony was up to full strength and the combs not used for brood were starting to fill with honey. The patron installed a super, and I anticipated a summer like my first.
Information and gossip are shared between scout bees from the different hives. The challenge is to separate gossip from information. Subgroup of the historian corps sorts through information. It appeared our patron kept 30 colonies of bees at three different locations.
Reports came in about reduced honey yields, but we were packing honey combs far faster than we would need for our winter stores. There there was a report of the death of an entire colony. Then reports came in of other colonies dying. Our patron was angry. Even from within the center of the brood box, I could hear him muttering and complaining as he opened my hive and worked.
Of course, all of this worried me. A good patron helps the colony to survive, to stay healthy and safe, but a lazy or sloppy patron can do more harm than good. I inquired of the history corps about dying hives and famines. Of course both had occurred in the past, but nothing in recent history. We were not prepared for the disasters that were about to strike.
To be continued
More to come. Keep reading.
Note: The bees have been busy, and the garden is doing much better.