Two weeks ago, I walked past our beehive and noticed that the sugar-syrup concoction I had been feeding my bees had not diminished over the past several weeks. Maybe it was too cold for them to collect any more food, I reasoned. I rapped and placed my head against the white hive box. No buzz answered. I tapped a little louder, but still heard only the rattle of tree branches. I called my husband to listen and knock as well. The ears firmly pressed against the cold wood heard not even a hum.
With trepidation I removed the brick that secures my hive and then lifted the outer and inner cover. I found what I had expected: The bees had perished. A mass of tiny bodies lay in a heap at the floor of the hive, like victims of a genocide. Other bees had died in the midst of a feeding frenzy, their little stingers waving in the air like duck tails, and their heads buried in the comb seeking nourishment.
I mournfully swept their bodies into a bucket and dismantled the hive, all the while seeking clues to the mystery of their demise. A little bit of misty blue mildew had grown on the comb. Wax moths had nibbled on other parts of the bees’ home. A strong colony of bees could have easily dealt with these issues. The acute cause of death was the pathetically low supply of honey and pollen; however, starvation was simply a symptom of a poorly mated queen.
A queen lays two types of eggs: fertilized and unfertilized. The fertilized eggs are female and can either become worker bees or other queen bees. The unfertilized eggs are males called drones. My queen laid many drones at the beginning of the spring — a sure sign that she was not a good queen. Had I been an experienced keeper I would have replaced her pronto. I didn’t know. I let her rule.
As any historian or political scientist or Soviet citizen can tell you, poor leaders murder their followers (intentionally or no). I and my queen were poor leaders.
My queen never laid enough worker bees to collect enough honey to sustain the hive. In July, a record-breaking heat wave and drought accompanied the birth of my son. I was intent on feeding the babe and thus many of my plants died. Flowers elsewhere in the region also wilted and my bees soon consumed all the honey they had stored for winter.
Once I was on my feet, I tried to rescue them by feeding the bees sugar water. However, as my beekeeping uncle said, “Feeding bees sugar water all winter is like trying to raise children on coffee alone.” Like caffeine for humans, a little bit of sugar will wake the bees up in the spring or stimulate them in the fall, but bees are not made to live on processed cane sugar alone.
Perhaps the best atonement I can make for their suffering is to start again next year. Today I am ordering bees to fill two hives. This year was educational. Next year I will (hopefully) be successful.