It was no surprise when I opened one of the bee hives I tend here at Organic Valley and found worker bees turning the queen cups into queen cells, long chambers used to raise new queens. Through the process of hive consensus decision-making, the bees have decided to replace their existing queen.
I have been concerned about this colony all summer. Our other 3 hives have been growing at a steady rate but the queen in this hive has been showing her age. She has not been laying regularly, scattering a few eggs in random cells instead of laying large, tight clusters in the center of the frames as she did when she was younger. Her hair is worn short from years of raising daughters and directing the hive. I watch her moving from cell to cell, spending more time being soothed by her attendants than laying eggs. Today, the hive is louder than usual, a sigh that the queen has lower pheromone levels than the bees need to keep the hive cohesive.
Knowing the hive is tending the new queen cell, covering the egg with the royal jelly needed to help the larvae develop into a queen bee rather than a worker or drone, I decide to retire the Grandma Queen. Traditionally, the older queen is left in the hive where she will be killed by the emerging queen or she is squished by the beekeeper during the “requeening” process. The thought of removing her from the hive and squashing her brings a lump to my throat.
I get out my small nuc box, used for transporting bees and place it in on the side of the larger hive. I add a frame of capped honey and select another frame from the hive containing a small amount of developing brood cells and some cells full of stored pollen and add it to the box. A small amount of bees follow the frames and settle down on the nursery cells to keep them at the proper temperature needed for good development. The Queen bee’s retirement home now has enough honey to feed her and the bees that willingly moved to tend her. There is a small nursery that will keep the bees active enough to help control the temperature of this new house as well as companions to gather fresh pollen and tend the queen in her last days. The new home is close enough to the original hive that I know once the worker bees are no longer needed to tend the queen they will easily find their way back home.
I gently pick up Grandma Queen and move her from the hive onto the nursery frame in the nuc box, watching a small circle of attendants gather around her. I hear my Grandmother, referring to Buttercup, a goat she chose to keep on the farm but no longer milked, “She will be content here, out on green pasture.”
The late summer honey harvest of 2013 is amber, colored by basswood blossoms and wild prairie flowers that grow around the apiary. It is sticky sweet, dripping with respect.