I remember the day distinctly. It was a beautiful summer’s day of sunshine and blue sky. Even though this day was a rare event in the distant part of the early summer, the unfolding of events is still fresh in my mind due to its singularity. At first I noticed the excitement in the bees. Then I noticed the large repeating circles of flights around the hives. These flights are a usual event just around late lunch time on a bright day as bees unfamiliar with flight and navigation try to memorise their surroundings at the start of six weeks of foraging until their wings are torn and ragged. However, it was only ten o’clock in the morning and all four hives all seemed excited. Then it dawned on me; love is in the air. Due to a combination of incompetence and bad luck I found myself with four hives, all queenless, but with emerging virgin queens. I did a quick calculation in my head and concluded that on that particular Sunday the first of the virgin queens was due to go on her nuptual flight. The other three hives were not due for another couple of days but the fronts of those hives were quite excited too. No doupt they were chancing thier arm by trying to entice the newly mated queen back into thier own hives, maybe out of desperation or maybe shrewdness. Once I realised what was happening I decided to leave them straight away in case the queen might catch sight of me. It is said that if you are present when a queen emerges from the hive then it is best to stay standing where you are for a half hour or so, as she might have used you as a navigational sign post.
After that one day of bliss the Irish summer returned in all its damp and drizzly glory. The other three queens had a window of only a few days in which to mate and the miserable weather robbed them of this, and a productive life. This in itself was a tragedy. Then it was compounded only a few weeks later when we lost the only mated queen we had. I tried to unite this queen with the bees from one of the failed hives and the result was a disaster. I had carried out a successful uniting last year, but this time they fought with each other and the queen must have been lost in the epic battle.
At this bleak stage of events I decided to try something different, something desperate. I sent for a new queen in the post. Only one was available, so I set up two hives. In one hive I placed a frame of eggs for them to rear a new virgin queen, and in the other I placed our new mail order queen.
This was something I was apprehensive about. It is a gamble that requires boldness and a hope that the bees have some sense. The new queen arrived in her cage with a small entourage to feed and clean her. I secured the cage with insulating tape and placed her far from the brood nest in the hive. Twenty four hours later I removed the tape and placed her deep in the brood nest and left her. All that kept her from the thousands of angry bees that smelt her unfamiliar aroma was a small block of hard sugar that sealed her entrance. As I placed her there and the bees immediately began to eat her out of her cage, I felt like a gambler. I had just waged thirty pounds on the whim of the bees.
After that we went away on holiday and left the bees to fate.
Now the year is turning and the autumn is beginning. It hasn’t been a proper summer but the sun and the moon do not care about the weather. As it is the time to harvest the honey and begin feeding the bees I had to open them up and see how the gamble went. The transformation was amazing. Our bees are not particularly aggressive, but with their new queen they were amazingly calm. They nearly reacted as if I wasn’t really there. The signs were all there, the mass of bees, the neat brood frames, and then the queen herself; jackpot.
The second hive was a little more, strange. I lifted the lid on the hive to release a horde of angry male bees. They are big and fat and had somehow got trapped above the bars of the queen excluder. Below the excluder I found evidence of a laying queen but I did not linger to investigate further. After giving it some thought i think that a queen got herself trapped above the excluder and another queen was below her and successfully mated. The trapped queen could not have left the hive to mate and, in an ironic twist of fate and strange bee genetics, could only lay eggs that developed into male bees. The very bees she was unable to meet when she really needed to.
Yesterday I removed a modest harvest of honey, then I cooked up the beginnings of their winter feeding. The moon is still full and the new queens are in their respective kingdoms. Their entrances are reduced down to help them guard against the wasps and the mouse guards will soon be in place. Autumn is here and the world is still slowly turning.