Regime change in our beehives

Despite bad weather and nervous handlers,
two new queen bees are now buzzing in our hives

Last week Felix and Stew set out to replace the queen bees in two of our three hives, a tricky ritual even during optimal conditions—bright sun and warm weather—that became trickier during the torrential rains we’ve been having for several days.

Our three hives. Bees roam as far away as a three-mile radius
from the hives.

The two queens to be replaced had been at their posts for about two years and Felix and Stew thought it would revitalize the two hives and spur more honey production if we got replacements, which they did from a supplier in Morelia, for $620 pesos or approximately $30 dollars, including some very fancy overnight shipping.

Neither speed nor punctuality being a given for any transaction in Mexico, everyone was astonished when the little buzzers arrived two days later in a very fancy cardboard box labeled “live bees.”

Félix and the bees from Morelia. 

Inside were two small plastic cages, each about the size of large thimbles, securely glued in place. Each cage contained a queen plus several helper bees, sort of ladies-in-waiting, to keep the queen company during what must have seemed, from the bee’s perspective, a harrowing, four-hour trip through pot holes, toll booths and (for all they knew) even gangs of armed narco bandits.

The bees arrived with a supply of food that looks like a small wad of chewing gum that seals each tiny cage while providing nourishment during the trip.

Royal transport: Each queen bee arrives with several other
“helpers” in this plastic cage that carries enough food for three days. 

To replace the old queen and install a new one, one must take apart the beehive, which is made up of two or three wooden boxes or “supers” stacked on top of a bigger box called the “brood chamber.” The latter is where the queen over time lays hundreds, maybe thousands, of eggs that somehow create lots more little bees, and honey. That’s about as detailed as I can get.

The supers each contain eight frames with wires holding sheets of wax where the bees deposit the honey. At the end of the season the keepers extract the honey by running the frames through a hand-cranked centrifuge, a crude and messy spectacle in our small operation.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This week the mission was to look around the brood chamber, spot and kill the old queen—a quick execution that takes place between the index finger and the thumb of one of the keepers—and placing the cage containing the new queen and her helpers in the brood chamber. The other bees already in the hive quickly pounce and eat the remaining wad of food still sealing the cage and by doing so release the new arrivals. Pretty nifty.

Problem is that bees don’t appreciate humanoids disturbing the hives, and will let you know by attacking any square millimeter of exposed skin, sometimes even penetrating clothing with their stingers.

Keepers protect themselves with ridiculous-looking hats, gloves and veils, an ensemble that makes them look like nuns from outer space. Light-color materials are recommended, for bees seem to be attracted or annoyed by dark colors.

For their work with the hives, Stew and Felix each carried a smoker which is a tin can with a nozzle and loaded with shreds of cardboard from egg cartons that are lit. The smoke, pumped by a bellows, has a soporific or mellowing effect on the bees, a bit like marijuana. They tend to lean back, relax and send out for pizza—unless you blow too much smoke up their probosces. That makes them really angry.

Smoke gets in their eyes. Félix and Stew in full bee-smoking gear.

It’s best to mess with the hives on a sunny, warm day when most of the bees are out buzzing about, presumably looking for

During cloudy, clammy, rainy conditions, just like we’ve had this week, the bees mostly stay inside the hive, muttering and cussing to each other about the lousy weather and vowing to pounce with full fury on any fool that dares to take the lid off the hive.

Enter Felix and Stew. They kept checking the weather on the smartphone, and looking pleadingly at the clouds which only got plumper and darker. Waiting was not option because the queens and the helpers in the little cages have only enough food for three days and we would lose th $620 pesos if they didn’t move fast.

So during a brief pause in the rain, when the sun even peeked out for ten or fifteen minutes, Felix and Stew geared up and set out to replace the queen bees.

And Lordy, they actually managed to find one queen, kill her and put in the new one. The next day they attempted an encore in the second hive but that didn’t go so well, as they couldn’t find the old queen bee. They left the new queen, figuring it would kill the old one anyway.

Given the adverse weather, the queen switcheroo went well. The only casualty was Félix getting stung on the tip of one finger.

He and Stew barely had time to collect the equipment get out of their nun suits before the torrential rains resumed.


2 thoughts on “Regime change in our beehives

  1. Anonymous

    Good lord! You've staged a regicide! Just hope that none of your neighbors wants to replace two old queens with hot young queens either. Could get dicey there on the Rancho. ;-)Saludos,Kim GRedding, CAWhere we once kept bees.


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