This is the fourth piece in my six-part description of my colossal failure as a beekeeper this summer. If you’ve been following this little series, you saw how I acquired a little queenless nuc, transported it to my home, and watched as it raised queen cells. But it appears that wasps captured the queen during one of her mating flights, leaving the colony terminally queenless.
A hive usually recovers after being queenless. If a queen suddenly dies (crushed by a beekeeper?), the workers feed a few larvae a steady diet of royal jelly. In most cases, a new queen develops, mates, and takes over the colony’s egg-laying chore.
If something goes wrong (as in the case of my little hive where the queen developed but then disappeared before laying), the hive is in big trouble. If a beekeeper has more than one colony, she could quickly insert several more frames of brood and young bees into the dying hive, essentially creating another nuc and giving the bees another chance to raise a queen. Caught at the right time, a new laying queen might be accepted by the hive. I might have done this, but I had just one hive so there was no back-up brood. I could have driven off to my daughter’s farm and returned with more brood, but I was in Europe, so I missed my chance.
Experienced beekeepers can guess what happened next. I’ll quote Leo Tolstoy, one of the 19th century’s best beekeepers, who compared Moscow to a queenless hive in War and Peace.
Here’s Lev Tolstoy’s description, from Chapter 20 of War and Peace:
Meanwhile, Moscow was empty. There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.
In a queenless hive no life is left, though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.
The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance it smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way. But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it. The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the beekeeper are not the same.
To the beekeeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive. From the alighting board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odor of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey. There are no longer sentinels sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defense of the hive.
There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder. In and out of the hive long black robber bees smeared with honey fly timidly and shiftily. They do not sting, but crawl away from danger. Formerly only bees laden with honey flew into the hive, and they flew out empty; now they fly out laden. The beekeeper opens the lower part of the hive and peers in.
Instead of black, glossy bees- tamed by toil, clinging to one another’s legs and drawing out the wax, with a ceaseless hum of labor – that used to hang in long clusters down to the floor of the hive, drowsy shriveled bees crawl about separately in various directions on the floor and walls of the hive. Instead of a neatly glued floor, swept by the bees with the fanning of their wings, there is a floor littered with bits of wax, excrement, dying bees scarcely moving their legs, and dead ones that have not been cleared away.
The keeper opens the two center partitions to examine the brood cells. They reek of decay and death. Only a few of them still move, rise, and feebly fly to settle on the enemy’s hand, lacking the spirit to die stinging him; the rest are dead and fall as lightly as fish scales. The beekeeper closes the hive, chalks a mark on it, and when he has time tears out its contents and burns it clean.
So in the same way Moscow was empty when Napoleon, weary, uneasy, and morose, paced up and down in front of the Kammer-Kollezski rampart….
My hive was Moscow at its worst. It was August and my story just gets worse. It was too late to fix the colony and . Tomorrow, I’ll describe the inside of my hive. It was much as Tolstoy said, “There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.” That – and other sad signs of defeat – will be our subject tomorrow.