|This picture is a bit of a spoiler because I took it this morning but wrote the article on Monday. The escape worked and there is only a fist-sized clump of bees remaining on the dropped burr comb sheets. I doubt the queen is in there.|
Yeah, I think I’ll hold off on that bee tattoo for a while yet. I think I’m a pretty bumbling beekeeper. (Ooh, new bee pun!)
It had been quite a while since my last hive inspection and I was curious to see if the bees had moved into the frames as I’d been trying to force them to. Monday afternoon I suited up, headed out, and with my smoker smoking in fits and starts, I opened up the hive. I took off the top box and set it on an empty shallow in front of the hive stand. In the process of moving the top box a chunk of burr comb about eight inches by five inches detached from the “stalactite” and dropped onto the top of the frames in the bottom box. I scraped the stray burr comb chunk off of the frames and set it on the grass in front of the hive. It was the consistency of day-old ABC gum on hot asphalt where I jabbed it with my hive tool. I stuck my face up close and saw that the cells were an almost even mix of 1/3 empty, 1/3 food storage, and 1/3 brood. There were quite a few drones wandering about (about one for every dozen female workers), getting in their busy sisters’ way, looking big, dumb, and aimless like high school football players – but, being stingless, far less dangerous than your average high school quarterback. I turned my attention back to the bottom box. Only on one frame under the stalactite was there any sign of activity, and that was just a few tenths of an inch of drawing (meaning that they were beginning to attach a little beeswax to the plastic foundation).
Disappointed, I turned back to the top box. I cracked the inner cover and levered it up an inch or two with my hive tool. Plenty of action in there, as far as I could tell. But, because the stalactite is attached to one side of the hive box, the inner cover, and two of the frames, all I could see was the tops of the frames and I wasn’t able to lift the lid off to pull frames and get a better look. I slowly lowered the inner cover again, giving the bees time to get out its way, and then I stood up and hefted the box off its temporary stand to put it back on the bottom box. The buzz level suddenly increased as though I had just smoked the crap out of them and the box got lighter.
Plop! . . . Plop! . . . BUZZ! BUZZ!
“Ohhhhh,” I said out loud. “Shit,” I added, sort of as an afterthought.
Still holding the top box, I tried desperately to maintain what I refer to as “astronaut speed”, the slow-motion movements that ensure the fewest bees will meet an untimely death-by-squishing. My voice wavered a little as I continued to softly sing “We’re all living in Amerika / Amerika ist wunderbar . . .”. I slid the top box back onto the top of the bottom box and turned to see what havoc I had wreaked. About half of the stalactite was laying in terraced layers on the grass inside the empty shallow box I was using as an inspection stand. It was positively alive with bees. I squatted down beside it and leaned in to see if Queenie was anywhere in sight. I stared for the whole rest of my poor rendition of “Amerika”, but I saw nothing but bustling workers lumbering drones. I picked up the first chunk that had fallen off and added it to the mess inside the shallow box and ran back inside for the escape board. I set the escape on top of the shallow box, hoping that the queen was not buried in there and that when I lift the escape off again in a day or two there will be very few bees in there. In class we did discuss that there are always a few bees left after an escape has been installed because they won’t abandon the brood . . . but we didn’t discuss what happens if you foolishly let your first colony build a burr comb metropolis the size of your own head and then drop half the thing on the ground because it’s eighty freaking degrees in the shade and it melted right off (you dumbass).
The plan – and we know how my beekeeping plans have gone thus far – is that if I go back and find that pretty much everyone has relocated to the hive then that means the queen is still doing her thing in the hive proper and I sacrifice the brood in the burr comb chunks to my appreciative laying hens and life goes on. If the opposite has happened and Queenie is still in the burr comb under the escape, I can remove the stalactite in the top box and replace it with proper frames, and then I’ve got to find some way to get the queen back into the hive without her entourage going Medieval on my ass. (Once again, it only takes three hundred stings in one sitting to kill you!)
For those keeping track, I have (against all logic and statistical probability) still avoided being stung.