The post office called on this mid-April morning, 8:00 o’clock sharp with a slight sense of urgency on their end of the phone. It appears I have no ordinary package to pick up. My thousands of honeybees have arrived.
They are not killer bees, so I decide to let the post office enjoy these honorary guests for another hour while I finish bottling milk, cleaning the milking machine and drinking a cup of tea made perfect with (what else?) honey. Finally, I hop in the truck to go claim my nine pounds of bees.
So how do you mail nine pounds of bees from Jessup, Georgia, to Tamworth, New Hampshire? The smart-ass answer is very carefully, and it’s true. I start three hives every spring so I received three separate boxes, each one containing three pounds of bees. They are wooden boxes a little bigger than a shoe box, with screens for sides so the bees can breathe. Each box also contains a can of high fructose corn syrup with a few tiny holes punched in it to feed the bees during their three-day first-class journey. The bees spend their time in a cluster around the can to stay warm, texting each other on Hivechat.
There is one other thing inside the box besides the bees and corn syrup. It’s a tiny box the size of your thumb containing a queen bee and half a dozen other bees known as her attendants. They feed and care for the queen, allowing her to pursue her queenly duties. I have always wanted a half-dozen attendants.
This little queen box with a screen top hangs next to the can of corn syrup, and all of the other bees can cluster around her as well, keeping her warm and passing on her pheromones as they all get to know her. The three pounds of bees already know each other, since they were taken together from an over-crowded hive in Georgia. But the queen is not from that hive and therefore must be introduced slowly from the little protected box, or they might kill her. She needs time to win them over, but even a queen can have a bad day, no matter how many attendants.
Back at the farm, I wait for the calm of early evening to install each package into their hive. It’s a bit tricky, but I carefully remove the queen box from the main box and put it inside the new hive. Before doing so, I must “open the door” to the queen box so she can come out in the next few days. The “door” is a plug of soft sugar the diameter of a pencil. I poke a small hole through the sugar with a finish nail, and now the hive of bees can slowly chew their way towards the queen, and the attendants can start chewing on the other side of the “door.” After a few days of chewing the sugar will be gone, the queen will be known, and she can safely make her entrance into the hive as the accepted queen.
She will soon discover it’s not all clean sheets and royal jelly. Her life will now consist of mainly laying hundreds of eggs each day in the honeycomb, like a chicken on steroids. Where, you might ask, is the rooster?
Ninety-nine percent of a hive is female; they do all of the work. In their short six-week lifespan they will perform different duties for the hive, such as nurse bees taking care of the brood, guard bees at the entrance, housekeeping bees, and of course the field bees gathering nectar and pollen. The few males, known as drones, exist only to mate with the queen, and she will only mate once, taking flight on some sexy sunny day with hopes that a strong young drone will catch her.
When he does, they copulate (keeping it clean here) and the drone has his genitalia ripped from his body where they will now fertilize the queen’s eggs, thousands of them, for life. The drone then goes into a death spiral, perhaps wondering how life can seemingly be so good and so bad at the same time.
I am not making this up, but I have never witnessed the mating of a queen and drone. Some beekeeping books describe the fateful moment as having an “audible pop.”
I love having bees around the farm for spring, summer, and autumn. They pollinate vegetables and fruit trees, and provide lots of wildflower honey. But I no longer try to keep bees through the winter. I did that for years and years, and typically what happened is this: You leave them 80 pounds of honey or so to get through the winter, and they consume most of that but still die in late winter. The 80 pounds of honey is gone, which could have made me a thousand dollars at the farmers’ market, and I still need to spend more money on new bees.
Since I am trying to make a living at small farming (and I have been for many years, now), it is most profitable to keep all of the honey, sell most of it, and buy new packages of bees each spring. When late autumn rolls around, I can’t get too sentimental about a fascinating but non-native insect with a six-week lifespan. I have bills to pay.
Every January, just like ordering seeds for the gardens, I make my call to the same apiary in Georgia for the bees. Sometime in mid-April I will get the phone call that symbolizes, for me, the beginning of another year of farming, another New England summer where most everything in life is about to get a little bit sweeter.