photo: Ana June
I was sprawled out on our “zero-gravity” lounge chair on the patio, soaking up some vitamin D one early summer afternoon, when Charles came into the yard with a little box and a long face.
My husband is a beekeeper — or in the affectionate terminology of his fellow beekeepers, a “beek,” which I think is short for bee geek. He keeps two hives on the roof of our house, and manages several others in the yards of friends all over Santa Fe. It’s a common summer occurrence to see him in his white bee suit, part-Ghostbuster, part-priest, dangling the box of smoke that pacifies the bees as he inspects their hive. He often gets called out on “bee rescue,” to relocate hives from abandoned buildings or deal with swarms, and has amassed encyclopedic knowledge about bee life cycles and contributions to modern agriculture. There may be midlife madness behind all this, but so “bee” it.
In the normal course of events, when a queen bee gets old or sick, the worker bees select a new queen. Sometimes, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen, and the beekeeper has to kill the old queen to make way for a new one. Most beekeepers do the deed with a pair of pliers, or the sole of a boot. Charles brought his home in a little box.
“It’s awful,” he said in the most forlorn voice. “She was a good queen for years and now she has to die but I can’t bring myself to do it. Nature isn’t fair.”
“Because there’s no rest home for retired queen bees,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said, sensing no irony. “Because there’s no rest home for retired queens.”
I nodded sympathetically, suppressing sarcasm. I can see this is about more than bees.
Charles had spent an hour or two that windy June morning looking for the queen, inspecting each bar of comb for a queen’s distinctive elongated body. Finally he gave up and put all the slats back in the hive, when, hidden in the crease of his pants, he found the queen.
“And she looks terrible,” Charles said. “Her abdomen is shrunken like something is wrong with her. Then she drops off my knee and scurries in the weeds. I have to believe she knew what I was going to do and she was trying to hide. Because nobody wants to die. There’s never a good time to die.” He dropped his head.
“So I pick her up and put her in the container, and I know it’s futile but I put a little dab of honey in it and tell her I’m sorry. And she does a faceplant in the honey, probably trying to eat. Because here’s the wild thing. A queen bee can’t feed herself. She needs the other bees to feed her. She has attendants, worker bees, whose job it is to feed her.”
The queen lived for a few days in a little plastic salsa container on a table in his office. I could argue that it would have been more sympathetic to squash her than starve her, but this was the queen from his first hive, originally in our yard. And I know this isn’t just about bees.
Charles had already ordered a new queen, by second-day air. This is like a mail-order mother. A queen bee, he explained to me again (I tend to forget all this), isn’t born; she is selected by the hive and fed special food to make her bigger and stronger than the others. Then she goes off on a mating flight. Drones (male bees) follow her in hot pursuit, flying higher and higher to see who will be mighty enough to mate with her, in mid-air. After a drone fertilizes the queen, it dies.
“She’s a real siren,” Charles said. “She lures them to their death. But their DNA gets to go on, which is a really big deal, because we’re talking about the natural world.”
The queen will mate with up to a dozen drones on her mating flight. Then she comes back to the hive with their combined DNA stored in her abdomen. She will dole it out, a little at a time, for the rest of her life, each time she fertilizes an egg. “She will lay an egg a minute during the summer, 24 hours a day during the height of her reproductive power. She’s a reproducing machine.”
But this hive won’t survive long enough for a “virgin queen’s” mating flight and subsequent rest before laying. So Charles ordered a mated queen, from a company in California. She arrived by express mail in a little plastic cage, in a padded envelope.
For the hive to accept the new queen, Charles had to wait 24 hours or so before he introduced her, to allow the scent of the old queen to dissipate. He then placed the new queen’s little cage in the hive. In a few days the other bees would eat through the crystallized sugar that sealed her cage, allowing her to emerge. God save the queen bee.
This all took place last summer, but I recently asked Charles to tell me about it again because I needed the distraction of a good story. It’s been a tough summer, Tumblepeeps. My dad’s back problem, which I wrote about in the last issue, has put him in near-constant pain, and he is considering surgery. A nasty old sibling issue reared its head this year, causing immense family havoc. And my beloved friend Sherry Tippett, a former SFPS school board member and member of Tumbleweeds’ original advisory board, passed away unexpectedly in May. Grief and anxiety seemed to take on a life of their own in me, bringing me to tears at times with little warning.
So one afternoon, a week or so ago, feeling the waves of anxiety rise, I asked Charles to tell me about the retired queen bee that he brought home in a little box, and the replacement that came by express mail. Of course I’ve heard it before, but I’ve forgotten half of it, and I’ve been a mom long enough to know the power of a story.
And so, he tells me — again — with old details and new flourishes, about the queen that had to die to save the hive, and the face-plant in the dollop of honey, and the mail-order queen, who I am glad to learn has been laying eggs in a successful hive ever since. I feed him questions, maybe the very ones I asked the last time, until I feel the wave of panic subside. By now, I’ve been soothed by Charles’ storytelling charms, and I want to learn more about those amazing little creatures, and about my husband, the beek. Because even now, easing into the healing balm of relief from my own turmoil, I can see: it’s not just about the bees.