To be, or not to beekeep, is the question

Finding a queen among 50,000 honey bees requires concentration and keen eyesight. An experienced beekeeper can usually find her within 20 minutes. Many years passed before I even saw a queen while examining a colony. As I gained experience I occasionally spotted them. Then one year I reached a sort of threshold. I saw queens virtually every time I opened a hive.

Sometimes I found her on the first frame I removed from the brood nest. Once I opened a small hive and found her strolling across the top bars. Virgin queens flew out and landed on my shirt or jumped from comb to comb as I removed them from the hive. Queens appeared when I wasn't looking for them. Even in dreams, queens were crawling under my shirt, in my veil, and up my trouser legs.

I mentioned to a fellow beekeeper, the retired Reverend Bence, that I had recently acquired a knack for locating queens. "Yes, it is amazing to me," I said modestly. "I usually pull out one or two frames and there she is, looking up and practically waving at me. I wonder if I smell like a drone."

Reverend Bence looked thoughtful. "You know, I have a couple hives over at the Stewart place. They're not doing well and I'd like to replace the queens, but I can't find 'em."

I was glad to help. We arranged to meet after he'd picked up a few new queens.

It was a scorching summer morning when I heard "Jimmy" the bee car sputtering into the driveway. I threw my stuff into the back. Bence ground the gears into first and we lurched off to the Stewart yard.

Like a balky old mule, Jimmy grudgingly obeyed his master with loud complaints. Bence's lips were moving, so I leaned over to hear if he was talking to himself or to me. It could have been either. From every third word I caught I managed to piece together the story.

"Jimmy just got a new muffler. I didn't want to spend the money for a new one but the mechanic had one that sort of fit with a little cutting and welding. Problem is it's loud and still doesn't quite fit – rubs on something. That's the scraping noise you hear."

Which scraping noise? I wondered quietly.

Bence's various outyards were connected mostly by single lane seasonal roads. We crested "Dead Man's Hill." The dirt road disappeared, swooping below Jimmy's hood, then suddenly reappeared as we began our rapid descent.

"We did the same thing on the car years ago," he said. "Tailpipe was rubbing on one of the brake lines. One day as I was slowing down to cross a railroad track – boom! Brake pedal went right to the floor. We had to get a new muffler and a new brake line. Taught me a lesson!"

I was thinking about my wonderful wife and beautiful children and how I hadn't been the best husband and father and how I would change my life after this moment if I had the chance. My friend was humming softly. The engine whined as the rpms increased. The brakes screeched and shuddered.

At the bottom of the hill, we turned into a driveway ending at a pasture gate. I unhooked the wire and Bence drove into the pasture. Then he aimed straight toward a cliff.

"Er ... if you swerved around to the right, the hill isn't quite so steep." I was surprised that my voice came out an octave higher than usual. my friend looked quizzically at me.

"Well, if you think so." He swerved and followed the gentle slope.

At the creek bottom stood three old hives. Bence opened the hives and I began to sort through the frames. I found no queens anywhere. We went through them three times. There was a spotty brood in one; a failing queen, perhaps. Another colony seemed to have a laying worker with a drone brood in worker cells. There were no eggs that I could see. The bees lost their patience. Bence's hands looked like pin cushions, covered with stingers. I put on canvas gloves.

"What do you think I should do?" he asked. It is impossible to install new queens without finding and removing the old queens.

"The one has a drone layer," I said. "You could dump out all the bees and hope that all but the laying workers would fly back. They may not kill the queen you put in. I think the others may have virgin queens that I somehow missed. Maybe they are out with the drones right now. Maybe you ... er ... we ... should check again in a couple days when they've settled down."

He looked thoughtful.

"Or, you could sell the whole mess to a beginning beekeeper," I said. "It would teach him an important lesson. He can play around installing queens, get stung, and by spring the hives will probably be dead. He'll be out of the bee business before he wastes too much money on a useless hobby. Someday he will thank you for the experience."

"How long did you say you've had bees?" Bence asked.

"Oh, 20 or 25 years." I said.

"For $55 each," Bence said, "I'll throw in three new queens. I've been wanting to cut back for the last, oh, 30 years."

How dumb did he think I was?

To appear shrewd, I frowned and hesitated half a second.

"I'll pick them up in a couple days, when they quiet down."

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