Queen Santa Maria: “Off With Their Heads!”

A.V. Walters

Too Close For Comfort

Too Close For Comfort

They say that a beehive takes on the personality of its queen. That may be a little much, but they are all her children. I don’t know whether there can be a true personality in a critter that has a colony culture. Much of bee activity is driven by pheromones. The queen’s chemical aura both binds the workers to her, and simultaneously suppresses their reproductive systems. They communicate via the famous “bee dance” and with a complicated and primal chemical/olfactory messaging. If you think bees don’t communicate, try disturbing the hive or, more tellingly, mess with one of the scouts.

Our bee adventure has had mixed results. At the outset, shortly after “installing” our bees, I became ill. As a result we lost precious time learning to speak ‘bee.’ Our bees had minimal interference for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Sure, we watched their comings and goings, but until I was back on my feet, we didn’t do full hive inspections.

Just watching from the outside, though, there were clear differences between the hives from day one. We started with two “nucs,” which are established mini-hives—a queen, workers and a few frames of comb with brood and food. Alternatively, you can buy “package bees” and a queen, but they take a little longer to get established. With our short season, we decided on the nucs. We started with two hives and the transfer was pretty uneventful. In the first few days it was clear that the activity levels between the hives was alarmingly different—one was inching along while the other was a bustling center of action. We thought there was a problem with the “smaller” group (who, to their defense had been smaller in number from the start.)

Then, we got the third hive. With three, we needed to identify them better so we named them—Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Niña was the hive we thought was struggling. When Pinta arrived, it became clear that Niña and Pinta were far more alike, and that Santa Maria, (going gangbusters) was the outlier. Pinta came with a few more bees than Niña—so it was a little more active. That Santa Maria, though, was the New York hub of bee-dom. We even relocated the hives further apart from each other, out of concern that the Santa Maria mob might overwhelm the territory. Other than that, we left them alone to do their bee-thing.

It’s fun to watch them, their comings and goings. By careful observation you can see whether they’re coming back to the hive laden with pollen, or empty-handed. While gardening I spent a lot of time observing the bees. People from my bee group warned that there can be hungry times for the bees, between various blooms, even in summer. We saw no such lags. We are really well located to take advantage of several different biomes—forest, open fields, stream habitat and swamp. It seemed something was always blooming. Our intrepid workers were always coming home with saddlebags full of pollen. We’d check, peeking in from time to time, (especially when we had the ant problem) and as the colonies grew we added additional supers on to the stack. Even our little Niña was doing well.

It is enormously gratifying to see your own bees pollinating the vegetables in your garden. As we move around the property we keep our ears open for the buzz of pollinators. Sometimes its one of the local native varieties, but often we spy our honeybees out working the fields. There is something peacefully pastoral about the steady work rhythms of the bees. They remind us that “measured and steady” is a template for natural success.

Santa Maria, though, is like a hive on steroids. It is what beekeepers call an aggressive hive—and that’s a good thing. Aggressive hives produce far more honey than loafers like Niña and Pinta. Some beekeepers search out aggressive hives for breeding. If we get that far, it’ll be interesting to see how the different hive types do in over-wintering.

If we get that far.

You see, like some ominous Frankenbee hive, Santa Maria has become a problem. Our bees share the fenced area with the garden and the orchard, or at least Niña and Pinta do. Santa Maria is not so keen on sharing. Twice, I’ve been driven from the garden, stung, because something about my activity alarmed the Santa Maria scouts. Once I was coiling hose. The other time, I was weed-hacking, but not near Santa Maria. Beekeepers learn to expect the occasional bee sting. It goes with the territory. We suit up for working with the bees. The rule of thumb is, suit up and move confidently—without any fast or threatening maneuvers—and you’ll be fine. That is exactly the case with Niña and Pinta. Steady and just a touch of smoke and the bees tolerate an amazing level of interference.

But, Santa Maria has me wearing my bee gear to garden! We noticed last week that Santa Maria bees sometimes came from underneath the hive. A cautious peek revealed that there is hive building outside the hive box. That either means that these overly busy bees are building unauthorized honeycomb or, worse yet, that a small offshoot swarm has taken up housekeeping close to the old homestead. Either way, it helped to explain why they are so aggressive in the garden.

So, Saturday, we suited-up to investigate. Keeping in mind the general attitude of Santa Maria, it felt like we were arming for war (and it’s a good thing we did.) The objective was to lift and move each of the stacked bee boxes, so that we could flip over the bottom board to get an idea what they were up to, down there. This is a bit of a chore, because at this time of year, when the bees are well stocked with honey, each of these frame boxes can top 70 pounds! (We guess that ours were at about 50.) We got past the first two layers, oohing and ahing at the stores of honey. The bees were well smoked and on alert, but not hostile. When Rick cracked loose and started to separate the third box, the bees went crazy. Some people are afraid of a “swarm” of bees. A swarm is a relatively gentle bunch. They are in the middle of relocating and they have bigger fish to fry than some human. However, bees pouring out of a hive in defense of their home is a thing to behold. Within seconds I was inundated with bees. We kept our cool, that is, until the bees started stinging me through my jeans.

We had agreed, in advance, that in the event of a problem, the stung person would retreat and the remaining person would close up the hive. I retreated—bringing with me a small cloud of angry bees. Once I’d cleared the worst of them off my legs, I went back to help Rick. After all, the retreat didn’t really solve the problem and it wasn’t fair to leave him with the heavy lifting and the defensive smoking at the same time. Ultimately, we just closed the hive back up, but didn’t succeed in checking out the problem under the hive. So, we still have the problem.

Tonight is our beekeeping-group meeting. We are eager to get advice, from the more experienced keepers, on how to handle the-hive-on-steroids. For those of the group, who like aggressive bees, we may offer to swap for a kinder, gentler hive. Maybe what we need to do is replace the queen. (“The Queen is dead… Long live the Queen!”) Whatever the solution, we’re ready to gear up, again, (with more layers) and literally, get to the bottom of this problem.