“It was a necessary evil to save our bees and get us the bounty of honey we were promised at the start of establishing our colony.”
A series by Nic Esposito – “Notes From the Urban Homestead” for Paradigm Magazine
Nic Esposito is a writer, urban farmer and founder of The Head & The Hand Press.
Visit the KICKSTARTER Here: The Head & The Hand Builds a Workshop
Photograph by Elisa Esposito
-Do you see that, holy shit, do you see that-
I looked up from the 48 and 1/3 dash of the measuring tape and followed the direction of Elisa’s finger out into the yard. That extra third of an inch meant that we’d have to get creative with the give and take of the four-foot particle board to make up for the miscalculated spacing of the posts for the shed, so I didn’t want to look up. But her yelling was more of a command than a question, so I had to.
Off in the distance was a blur of black specks flying like shrapnel but somehow confined to the blast radius. A low rumble of kinetic movement picked up, blocking out the sounds of the surrounding city block. It was like watching a tornado forming on the plains of the mid West. And just like those folks who find a way to keep the camera rolling from the safety of the storm shelter, we stayed in the shell of the shed waiting for the spinning vortex to wind its way down to the singularity of a black mass resting on the branch of the nearest juniper bush.
Once the sky cleared and the landscape fell silent, we emerged from the shed and tentatively walked across the lawn, trying to balance our curiosity with our instincts. But the closer I got, the more I began to realize what had happened.
-It’s okay- I assured them.
Elisa and our friend Zack, who was helping me build the shed, stood behind me.
Zack laughed as he said this, as if to soften his skepticism.
-No, really. When bees swarm they are at their calmest. Look- I said as I waved my hand near the hive at an angle that gave the illusion of being close. But Zack wasn’t betting on that. And even though Elisa knew the science that bees were at their calmest when exposed to the vulnerability of being homeless, she wasn’t taking any chances on getting closer either.
-Look, Elisa, go get a box and the pruners. I’ll grab a ladder-
She hesitated, giving me a chance to stare into her like a mirror, reflecting my outward appearance as a good partner does. I knew that I was taking a huge leap from what I had read about bees to grabbing pruners as a means of dealing with an actual swarm in my tree, but I jumped anyway, going for the ladder as Elisa turned with me and disappeared into the house. When we met back up, she had the box, the pruners, and our roommate and his friend in tow. Elisa never likes an audience when we do our farm stuff, especially stuff that we’ve never done before. But there are some interests that you can’t stop from being piqued, even if they all stood at a safe distance as I climbed the tree.
I only had to climb halfway up the ladder to reach the low-hanging branch the bees had swarmed to, weighing it down like a piece of fruit that grew too quickly for an immature tree. I grabbed the branch with my left hand, testing the tales I’ve heard that you can put your hand through a swarm without getting stung because the bees are so disoriented and their stomachs so full of the honey they gorged on for the long trip to fight back.
I steadied my grip on the pruners, disengaged the lock, opened the blade and lightly dug it into the branch to get my mark. I clenched my other hand onto the branch, not stopping until I felt the sharp bark of the juniper slice into my skin. I looked down to the box below, trying to gauge how long it would take me to get the bees to it. It would take me four seconds.
I squeezed the handles of the pruners, feeling the blade dig into the juniper’s flesh. I was halfway through before the blade stopped. The flaked, dry bark of the juniper looked deceivingly dead. But as the water perspired out, I realized the branch was very much alive. I tried to torque the handle, but as soon as the branch moved, a few bees shot off into the distance, causing my spectators below to duck back a few more steps. I’m not sure if it was the shock, but I didn’t even feel my hand tense as the blade dug through and the bough gave way. Luckily my other hand was clenched just as tight. In one motion I let my feet slip down the ladder and my hand sent the branch into the perfectly positioned box below. I’m not sure how many seconds this took. The first move Elisa made was to pounce on the box with the lid, sealing the bees in, with only the tiniest air holes to block their escape.
Most situations this complex require a plan, but we didn’t have that luxury of time. Leaving those bees on the branch might as well have been like putting a notice on our front door that our house was condemned. Our neighbors put up with our rooster crowing, and they didn’t complain about the compost pile that wasn’t breaking down as fast as it should. But introduce bees, and we might as well have been turning rabid dogs loose in the neighborhood.
So after the box was tightly sealed, I called a beekeeping buddy to see about what to do. He first confirmed that our hive had split, a sure sign of mismanagement. But he assured me that we weren’t fully to blame. Beekeepers usually don’t have to look for the peanut-shaped cells filled with queen eggs in the fall because the bees knew that reproducing when food was about to run out was a bad idea. But since the days were still in the 80’s in October, and the only calendar the bees consulted was the temperature outside, the drones must have went for one last bacchanalian hurrah with the queen, proving that humans aren’t the only ones capable of making contraceptive mistakes.
In all of this action I had forgotten it was Friday night, which explained my friend’s swift lesson on the bee reproductive system. When asked what I should do, my friend said –Keep them in the box, call me tomorrow-
And he hung up.
The next morning I ate my breakfast outside, waiting, listening to the frequencies of the buzzes coming from the box. I was trying to wait until 11 to call out of courtesy. But every time the sound waves got shorter, I gripped the phone and waited until the waves slowed down before I decided not to call. By 10:55 I couldn’t wait any longer, so I dialed the number.
-Hey, it’s Nic. Looking at the bees right now. I think they want out of the box-
-Yeah, sure. They want to get back to work-
-You have some extra frames and hive boxes-
-Yeah, in the shed-
-Tell you what, set up one box with frames right next to where the bees are now-
-Put another hive box on top and leave it empty and get a lid. Shake the bees into the empty box, wait till they settle, then put a jar of sugar water inside so they have something to eat-
-Okay, and then what-
-Then call me back in a week-
-What happens in a week-
-By then the bees will have made enough comb on the new frames from the sugar water and whatever food is left around to survive. Then you can recombine them-
-And what happens when I recombine them-
-You’ll find out in a week-
And that’s where the conversation ended. So, like he said, I set up the boxes, one with frames, the other without. I filled up an old yogurt container with one part water, one part sugar and got an old piece of particle board. And then just as I did that day in early May when an anxious and visibly annoyed postman dropped off a small, buzzing wooden crate that said LIVE BEES to my equally anxious and visibly annoyed housemate who was extremely afraid of bees, I installed the hive. I could still feel that rush as I opened the box and shook the couple pounds of thousands of bees, feeling their collective mass give way as they all dropped into the bee hive. After a few more shakes, I quickly slid the particle board onto the top and took a few steps back, listening for the waves of buzzing to slow down.
-So, I gotta admit, I didn’t check much on the hive-
This deflective apology was the first thing I told my friend when I got him on the phone a week later. But this time the pace of his instruction was much slower.
-No worries, they should be fine. Here, I’ll stay on the phone with you, walk you through part of it. Go take the lid off the bees, what do you see-
I pinched the phone between my shoulder and the side of my head and followed along.
-Okay, it’s open. Um, there’s, holy shit. There’s comb all around the water jar-
-Yeah, thought that would happen. They made comb like they would in the wild, without frames. You got to take that comb off-
I lifted the piece of the wood and the water jar came with it. The comb had bound the two together in a spiral that looked like the artist rendering of the double helix DNA strand I remembered from elementary school science textbooks. The bees’ work was meticulous as each cell of the comb was set in a precise pattern. Their work was so well crafted that my hands were not strong enough separate the jar from the comb that held like an industrial adhesive. I looked around at my feet and saw a flat-head screwdriver sitting in the grass next to the chicken fence. I told my friend to hold on, set the phone down and started scraping the comb, doing two or three times the work I could have done had I had the right tool. But after a few minutes, the comb was scraped off and sitting in sections on the piece of wood.
When I picked the phone up, my friend’s voice was rushed –Hey, look, I have to get going. But the rest of the process is real easy-
-Go find some rubber bands and use them to attach the comb to the frame. This is the only way they are going to be able to get a jump on building comb on the frames before it gets cold. When you’re through with that, put the new hive on top of the old frames and then you’re done-
-Done, that’s it? Nothing else happens-
-Well, yeah, something else happens. Hopefully the old queen will work her way down to the brood box-
-And then what happens-
-And then the old queen will kill the virgin queen-
-Yeah, at least that’s what I hope happens. Look, I have to run. Are you good handling this?-
And the line shut off. Without a thought to what would happen later in the process, I went to work, step by step, just as I was instructed. It was just about noon as I started and the neighborhood kids were flowing into the farm. I could feel them getting close to the fence, sensing the barrage of questions that always come whenever they see me doing something that takes a lot of concentration. But when they saw me standing there with the smoke pouring out of the smoker I was using to keep the bees at bay, the kids all stayed away, allowing me peace as I laid the comb down on the frames and secured it with rubber bands. I had enough comb to cover three of the eight frames, but that was all I could do. It was now up to the bees to take care of the rest.
The box violently vibrated with buzzing as I carried it over. As soon as I sealed it onto the other box, all was silent and I let out a deep breath. Beekeeping is one of those activities wherein so much intricate work is done in such a rapid amount of time that it’s easy to forget to breathe. But now my heart rate settled down and my soaked skin began to dry. I studied the hive for a moment. From the outside it was just a white box, its only imperfections being a few chipped pieces of paint. I let my eyes lose focus and scanned the panorama of the landscape and the vacant building across the street, its chipped brown paint flaking off the façade in the calm, quiet destruction that attacks with every passing season and rain storm. Both seemed so peaceful.
But inside of the bee box, I knew that the bees were not at peace. I imagined that they were in the midst of doing their wiggle dance. The first time I saw this phenomenon of language-less communication, the bees were setting their coordinates for where the most nectar was flowing. It was a motion that I thought sounded as playful and innocent as it looked. But now, I understood that this dance was to relay the coordinates and the plan for a group of bees to follow their old queen, whom they still held their allegiance to, down through the frames into the box where the virgin queen lay. In the bottom brood box, only two feet down from the frame I just placed on top, the virgin queen was being attended to by the worker bees while her pheromones were being fawned over by the drones who were to give their lives for the privilege of a one night stand.
But if all went as planned, the old queen would travel back to the brood box with the other workers to slaughter the virgin queen and reclaim the colony as her own, bringing order back to a hive that would have died had the mature, seasoned queen not been there to usher her colony through the winter. It was a necessary evil to save our bees and get us the bounty of honey we were promised at the start of establishing our colony.
I sat out there for a few more hours, waiting until I saw the first few bees fly out of the hive. I followed them with my eye, watching them hover around some marigolds before making a line back to the box. They were going home; this was still their home. I watched the bees go back to work as the shadow from the house across the street cast the hive into shade as the sun disappeared through the rafters of the holes in the roof. Order was restored, and all it took was just one death.