The beekeepers creed in spring is to not look into the hive when you want to. Instead you must have patience and wait until you need to. It is said that if there is no purpose to opening up the hive other than curiosity then leave it shut. With that said, I felt I needed to see how healthy the colonies were and have a go at marking and clipping the queens. It is easy to say it, “marking and clipping”, but it strikes me with nervous apprehension. The aim is to delicately manipulate the queen into a little cage, put a little paint on her thorax and then clip one of her wings with tiny scissors to stop her flying away in a swarm. All this needs to be done without touching her with my hands, covering her in paint, cutting her legs off, or damaging her in any way. Before all that, I have to find her.
Yesterday the sun was out and the temperature was hovering around twelve degrees and I decided to inspect one of the hives. I suited up and pushed down my nerves. I had to be confident and gentle as the bees can smell fear. I’m not kidding, this time last year I remember doing some of my first inspections and it was obvious from their reactions when I was either calm or freaking out. I removed the roof and unfolded their quilt that rests over their ceiling. The unfolding revealed a plastic carton that I had filled with sugar fondant for them. The carton was now filled with the creamy yellow of built comb. If they are building comb then it is usually a good sign. I gently broke the seal on the ceiling board (crown board in beek lingo) and lifted it to reveal the bees and frames. Lots of bees! The slow and steady movement of the hive inspection started; a frame of stored honey, another frame of stored honey, another frame of stored honey, then a frame of brood. The brood was healthy looking with baby bees at all stages, but no queen. Another frame of brood and no queen, then another frame of brood and no queen. I tried to apply all the techniques to spot her. I looked on the dark side first and then looked for a circle of bees facing in, her little royal court bending the knee to their queen. I even tried to ‘read’ the frame from right to left and not from left to right. This is supposed to make us more observant and is a technique used by pilots to spot for other aircraft. It is said that our brains have been rewired by reading so that our focus skips and jumps too much, a consequence of the words on a page. Still no queen though.
I worry that she has inherited her mother’s strange habit of darting about the hive and hiding from me. Eventually I paused at a frame of mostly eggs as a thought drifted into my mind, “the most likely place to find her is on the frame of freshly laid eggs”. I refused to put this frame down for a moment longer and tried again. I can only describe it as a Where’s Wally moment, there she was. The bees look like bees, the queen looks like something else. Her body is unusually long and slender and her wings are folded up on her back to exaggerate her length. What followed was a period of intense concentration while I zoned out the bees in the air around me, the bees crawling all over me and the bees threatening me. It was only me and the queen, this tiny little creature that I must not damage. A damaged abdomen could jeopardise her thousands of tiny eggs. A damaged leg could harm her ability to size up the honeycomb cells to see if they meet with her approval. And any sort of damage or human smell could cause her servants to turn on her and kill her. To them she is not the queen, to them she is the egg laying slave and they have high expectations.
I painted her with a drop of white paint. The paint did not dry well at all and very little seemed to stay on her. I completely bottled out of clipping her. I think I should practice first. They say it is good to try clipping a few of the male drones first, no one cares about the males. I slipped the queen into a match box to keep her safe while I carried on with the inspection.
Was there a point to all of this apart from a queen with bad make up and an adrenaline fuelled game of Where’s Wally? In the end there was an unexpected purpose; the hive was packed with bees and in need of some space. I did not expect so many bees at this time of year. Nearly eight frames of brood means it is time for a super. Will there be an early honey harvest? Will they swarm? The queen is in her first year, it is said that this means they will not swarm. Then again, if she is anything like her mother…