I wake up early. It is still dark. I realize I won’t be able to fall back to sleep again because today, just five days after my first day handling bees, is my first day working the hives alone. I have known about this task for those five days and it’s all I’ve been able to think about.
On the drive this morning I repeat the things I need to look for when I get into the hives. I list them over and over. Queen, eggs, larvae, leather. I picture each in my mind. I feel somewhat apprehensive about inspecting the bees by myself. I am going to be checking 32 of the five frame queen rearing hives today. That’s more than I went through with Scott a few days ago! And there will be no one to direct my questions to or guide me if something is wrong with a hive. I hope the modest experience I have with the bees will be enough to get me through the inspections.
When I arrive at Hamakua Apiaries’ base I gather the equipment I will need: a smoker, a hive-tool, a veil, and rubber gloves. I also take a marker to make notes on the hives. My mentor can recheck any of the ones I have trouble with.
The sun is shining. I can smell smoke and honey as I open the first hive. I scan the first frame of comb looking for the Queen. She’s not there, so I pull another. As I move closer to the center of the hive there are more bees, so the buzzing gets louder. I see a healthy brood pattern on the third frame. There are clusters of capped brood cells. The brown waxy color is consistent and the texture is even and smooth, so it resembles leather. This are worker brood cells. Worker bees are female. In a hive there may be 20,000 to 80,000 worker bees. Fittingly, they are responsible for all the work done in a hive: building comb, feeding larvae, tending to the Queen, foraging for pollen, guarding the hive. Surrounding the leather are cells filled with pollen. It ranges in color from almost pure white, to golden yellow, to amber orange, and caramel brown. The different colors indicate the different sources of pollen, like a map to where the bees have gone looking for food! Below those cells are ones containing fat creamy white larvae. They are arranged in a tight compact pattern on the frame. All of these things are signs of a strong Queen and healthy hive. I find the Queen on the next frame. Having done so, I replace the frames I removed and close the hive.
When I move on to the second hive, I make sure not to sit in front of the entrance. I remember Scott telling me, on my first day of training, that bees are OCD. They will wait behind you to enter the hive at the entrance they are used to. That is until they get impatient and sting you! As I check this hive I realize how much about this task has become familiar to me already. What feels like only a few days ago, I knew almost nothing about beekeeping and now I am finding comfort in the repetition of inspecting the bees. I enjoy watching them eat. I find a few clustered in a circle happily dipping their tongues in a cell of uncapped honey. The first seven hives I go through are routine. I find eggs, larvae, and capped brood in each hive. Sometimes I struggle to find the Queen. I know the young eggs are a sign she has just been there, so I mark each hive as ok when I close it.
The eighth hive is different. I can tell right away it is not like the other hives I have examined. It is quieter. It is not buzzing with the activity of the previous seven. I hope I am able to figure out what is going wrong with this hive. The comb on the first frame I pull is empty; No bees, no brood, no honey. Just dark brown wax. On the inner frames I find a few bees and sporadic brood. There are some capped cells scattered randomly across the comb. These cells are protruding out further than worker brood. The cappings are rounded like the eraser on the end of a pencil. It is drone brood. Drones are male bees. In a healthy hive there may be a few hundred drones making up about 10% to 15% of the hive. The function of a drone bee is to mate with a Queen. I have to trust what I have learned about bees so far to determine what has happened to the hive. It is Queenless. I can tell from the low population and the spotty brood pattern. She is no where to be found! I also think back to Scott showing me a Queenless hive on my first day training with similar scattered, raised brood. He told me when a hive has no Queen a worker bee may begin laying eggs. However, these eggs are unfertilized and will always become drones, sterile drones, which is why a hive is doomed without a Queen. A worker is laying in this hive. It explains the protruding brood. I close the hive and make a note for my mentor about my findings.
I continue through the hives more confidently now. Most of my inspections find strong hives and healthy Queens. Some do not, but going through those hives makes me realize I can identify anomalies in the hives by myself. I am starting to feel like a beekeeper! I close the final hive feeling satisfied with the work I have done. I’m like a little worker bee! I collect and return the equipment and begin my drive home.
With the windows down in the car and the breeze blowing on my face I feel a sense of contentment. Today working with the bees showed me I can trust myself. I can be confident in my ability to learn and become the beekeeper I want to be.
Come back in a week to see what’s next on the path to becoming a beekeeper! Thank you for reading.