I suspect that, for most people, opening the pantry and hearing the buzz of bees would be an alarming thing. For us, though, it’s just a reminder to see if the queen wants any food.
Why, you may well ask, do we have bees in the pantry? Because this year we have a few hives that are more aggressive than we’d like. This queen came from our Green hive, which we thought early in the spring had gone queenless. They were pissy at the time, which is the norm for hives that are not queen-right. We weren’t certain that the Green workers would be able to build themselves a new queen but when, after waiting three anxious weeks, we saw new brood in the hive we sighed in relief.
This new queen, however, happens to produce rather bitchy daughters. This has to do with her own genetics as well as those of the drones she mated with. The workers in this hive aren’t really mean, but are more easily riled up and less forgiving than we like to deal with. Fortunately there’s an easy solution to this problem: Re-queen the hive. More on that below.
This is a queen cage:
Queen cages come in a variety of forms but they are essentially all the same: A cylinder that has an openable hatch on one end and some mesh on the sides. The idea is that you put a queen inside the cage with some accompanying attendants. The mesh allows for air circulation, and you can offer food and honey to the attendants who will in turn feed it to the queen. There’s a smear of honey on the mesh in the photo above; I fed and watered the bees when I got home this afternoon.
Now, about re-queening a hive. The first step is to locate and remove the existing queen. If the hive is “boiling over with bees,” as one of our beekeeping mentors likes to say, then it can be a tough job. The queen is captured and placed into the cage with 4-5 attendants who will care for her for several days. Then you can place the new queen, hopefully of a more pleasant disposition, in her cage in the hive. Wait at least three days for the bees to get used to her scent–they’ll kill her as an intruder if you don’t–then open up the cage and let her go into the bowels of the hive. At this point the worst thing that can happen is that she decides to fly. This hasn’t happened to us (yet) but it has to one of our mentors, who admits that he should have known better than to show off by opening the queen cage outside the front door of the hive, only to watch her take off into the air and never come back.
The former queen of our Green hive (the one who has temporary residence in our pantry) will go to a friend of ours who likes bitchy bees. Tomorrow we’ll introduce Green’s new queen, a Taber Italian, to the workers in the hive. After a few days to let the new queen’s pheromones circulate throughout the colony, we’ll release the queen into the and she’ll start laying. Within a month or so, the temperament of the entire hive should have changed from moderately pissy to sweet and gentle.
Re-queening a hive can solve problems of overly defensive bees. Some beekeepers don’t tolerate any hint of unpleasantness in their bees and will remove any queen whose daughters aren’t easy to work with. I’m leaning in that direction, too. Having been chased by an overly competent guard bee and gotten a bad sting the second summer we had bees, I am more nervous around some of our colonies than I should be. In addition to making our hives easier to deal with, selecting for gentleness would also spread this desirable trait throughout feral colonies in the area. Sweet bees FTW!
In the meantime, until we can get our old queen to our friend, Ian, she and her attendant daughters are living in the pantry. The pantry is a dark place (remember, there’s no light inside a bee colony, so they are most comfortable in darkness) where the temperature remains fairly consistent. Plus, the nosy cats can’t get to the bees if I close them in the pantry. I have to admit that it’s a little startling to open the pantry door and be greeted by a loud buzz. But better us than just about anyone else, right?