The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe
by Loree Griffin Burns, illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz
Text copyright © 2010 by Loree Griffin Burns. All rights reserved.
Put on your veil, grab your hive tool, and light up your smoker . . .
. . . we’re going into a beehive.
Before we begin, remember this: Honey bees are gentle insects.
Gentle? you ask. But don’t they have giant stingers on their rear ends?
Well, yes, most bees do have a stinger at the tip of the abdomen. But they only use it in emergencies. If you move slowly and deliberately (no jerks in the bee yard!) and remember not to block the hive entrance (bees hate to find a strange body between them and the entrance to their hive), you can spend an enjoyable afternoon with thousands of honey bees and walk away without a single sting. Mary Duane does it all the time.
Mary is a hobbyist beekeeper. She keeps a small number of honey bee hives in her backyard for the pleasure of working with the bees and, of course, for the honey. Every week or two, from early spring until fall, Mary opens and inspects each of her hives to be sure the family of bees inside is healthy and safe. If anything is wrong with the colony—and, unfortunately, there are many things that can go wrong—Mary will see signs during the inspection. Her goal as beekeeper is to recognize these signs and take the steps needed to correct them. It’s not an easy hobby, but the rewards, according to Mary, are many.
“When you work with bees you have to pay close attention to what you are doing,” says Mary. “Everything else in your life drops away. The bees are fascinating, they help the environment, and the honey is great, but mostly I love that keeping bees forces me to be mindful.”
In nearly ten years of beekeeping, Mary has been stung about twenty times—not bad when you consider she’s handled millions of bees. Most of those stings happened early on, when Mary was new to working with honey bees. Now that she is used to the sights and sounds of an apiary, or bee yard, Mary is more relaxed and stings are rare. She wears a veil, of course, to protect her face, and she keeps sting remedies in her bee box, but she works her bees barehanded.
“I started off wearing gloves, but I find that I’m more gentle without them,” Mary says. She pats the top of her bee box and adds, “If I come across an ornery hive, then I put my gloves on like anybody else.”
Mary also keeps a smoker handy. Any worries the bees have about Mary poking through their home—worries they communicate with each other by releasing a smelly chemical called alarm pheromone—will be masked by the smell of smoke. Unable to smell alarm pheromone, the majority of bees in the hive don’t realize anything is amiss and, as a result, remain calm during the inspection.
To prepare the smoker, Mary fills it with dry pine needles, drops in a lit match, and fans the flames with air from an attached bellows. Once the needles are burning well she closes the top and a thin line of smoke issues from the metal spout.
Like most modern beehives, Mary’s consist of several boxes, called supers, stacked one atop the other in a towerlike structure. The supers come in different depths—and depending on the beekeeper, in different colors, too—but inside, all supers are the same: ten rectangular frames hang side by side.
Each frame provides a foundation on which the bees can build their wax honeycomb. They fashion rows and rows of hexagonal cells that will eventually be used to store food and raise young bees. Supers and frames are designed so that the honeycomb is arranged just as it would be in a wild hive. Of course, the removable frames and stackable supers make handling a man-made hive much easier than handling a wild hive in a hollow tree.
Mary begins her inspection at the top of a hive and works her way down. Because her hive tower is fitted with a queen excluder—a metal screen with openings large enough for worker bees but too small for a queen bee to squeeze through—the contents of each super is predictable. Above the queen excluder, in the part of the hive the queen can’t reach, are the so-called honey supers. These will be full of worker bees storing nectar and turning it into honey. Below the queen excluder, toward the bottom of the hive, are the brood boxes. These are the only supers the queen has access to, and so they contain the result of her hard work: the colony’s young and developing bees. Since developing bees are called brood, this part of the hive is often called the brood nest.
To get started, Mary grabs what looks like a small metal crowbar—beekeepers call it a hive tool—and pries open the first honey super.
“We beekeepers like to say that whoever invented the hive tool should get a Nobel Prize,” Mary jokes as she works the hive tool into position. “It’s that useful.”
Hive tools are necessary because bees seal every crack and crevice in the hive with propolis, a gummy substance they make from the sap of plants and trees. Propolis protects the bees by keeping wind, water, and pests (such as ants and spiders) out of the hive, but it is a hassle for beekeepers.
“It’s sticky!” says Mary. “There has never been a hive I couldn’t open, but sometimes it takes a bit of muscle.”
When she finally opens the top honey super and pulls out a frame, the news is good.
“Look at all that honey,” she exclaims, pointing at the rippled wax surface the bees are crawling over. The bees made the wax and used it to cover, or cap, honey-filled comb cells. Though most cells on this first frame are capped, others are open, and sunlight bounces off the liquid nectar inside them. The bees collected this nectar from flowers in and around Mary’s yard. When it is fully ripened into honey—a process that involves a little bee spit and a lot of evaporation—the bees will cap it, too. Eventually they will fill every cell on every frame of this super with honey. Only then will Mary collect and bottle it.
When she is satisfied with her inspection of the first honey super, Mary removes the entire box from the top of the hive tower and sets it gently on the ground. Then she begins to inspect the honey super below it. When this box also passes inspection, Mary is ready to move deeper into the hive. She pries off the queen excluder and takes her first look inside the brood nest.
“This one is just boiling with bees!” she exclaims.
She blows smoke gently across the top of the box and then, just as she did in the honey supers, removes a single frame. Thousands of honey bees come with it, but Mary hardly notices them. Believe it or not, the bees hardly notice her either.
“This is beautiful,” she says, gazing at the frame through her veil. “Perfect. I couldn’t be happier. There’s a great brood pattern.”
She points beneath the crawling bees to an area of honeycomb covered with what looks like a graham cracker crust. The crust is actually more wax. Unlike the fresh wax that covers cells in the honey supers, the wax in the brood nest is recycled. It is darker in color and drier in appearance. In the brood nest, the wax-capped cells contain young bees in the final stages of their development. When the bee in each cell is fully developed, it will chew through the wax and join the hive.
“And here are some larvae,” Mary adds, pointing out a few open cells, each housing a curled white grub. Eventually, when these larvae grow big enough, their cells will be capped and they, t...