The circle of life keeps turning, and I’m turning with it. It had plunged me downward with breathtaking speed a couple of weeks ago when Paul and I opened my second hive, the one whose bees had been so industriously building comb and sending out foragers, and realized that the plucky rogue queen that I believed had been ruling the colony did not, apparently, exist.
I had assumed there had to be a queen, despite Paul’s finding the original one dead in her cage a couple of days after I’d removed it, because the colony seemed so busy and well, NORMAL. The bees’ constant activity was in stark contrast to the bees in the first hive, which had stood forlornly waiting for death. They had made no attempt to build comb or even to find food—they had been without motion, without guidance, without hope. When I’d opened their hive after all signs of activity had ceased, mounds of dead bees covered the floor.
Not so with the second—they had built four nice combs and recovered from having two of them fall and need repairing. When I’d opened the hive, I’d been focused on the repair efforts, so I’d only glanced briefly at the bee-covered combs that were still hanging. I’d seen some drone cells and what I assumed were worker cells, although I didn’t take the time to brush the bees off and look more closely.
That was a mistake; maybe if I HAD taken the time to investigate, I would have realized there was no worker brood. But the bees were working the comb so energetically, I’d assumed all was well and, once the fallen comb had been repaired, I’d closed the hive back up and left them to their own devices.
Over the next couple of weeks, I noticed that traffic in and out of the hive had slowed considerably. I’d had two exit holes open to accommodate all the initial bee traffic, but I plugged the second one back up because there were so few bees exiting and entering. Even so, I wasn’t too concerned, figuring that the population would be thin while the initial generation of bees, which was nearing the end of its natural lifespan, was being replaced by the new one.
Finally, though, I realized that the traffic wasn’t picking up again. I asked Paul to help me open the hive, and I was horrified when I found three nice but mostly empty combs and one, the largest, with only a handful of bees still clustered on it. Many of the cells on this one seemed warped, almost as if they’d melted slightly, and there were some stillborn drones scattered about. There was no sign of worker brood anywhere. From what I can tell, the rogue queen that I’d assumed was laying eggs was never there; a worker had laid some eggs, but since the unmated workers can only produce drones, that’s all there were, and not even many of those.
At least the handful of elderly survivors is dying happy; they lived to see the motherwort around their hive bloom. Motherwort is my spoiled child of a plant, a weed I allow to grow rampantly because the bees love it so much. Like their wild compatriots, my bees have been buzzing happily on it, one last song before the hive falls silent.
I’m going to wait until all the bees have died off, then take the comb to the next beekeepers’ meeting and ask an experienced beekeeper to inspect it for disease. If there doesn’t seem to be anything that might infect and kill a future colony, I’ll be able to re-use the good combs as starter combs next year. Despite my initial sorrow, I have no doubt that I’ll try again next year.
I have to admit that the main reason for my calm and philosophical attitude about losing the bees is the dog I’ve just gained, a beagle mix named Court. Sage and I brought him home from the Humane Association last week, and so far he’s been the best dog I’ve ever had. In an eerie parallel, he’s about the same age my previous dog Chaussette would have been had she lived. I’d gotten the bees to try to fill the void that Chaussette’s death had left in me, and now that I’m losing the bees, Court has come to take their place. The circle keeps turning…