A Harrowing Tale

I felt like the villain in a Gothic novel.

I had stormed the castle gates, hooded and veiled, and thrown the guards into confusion with a diversion of smoke. Right to the very heart of the fortress I plied, past those who fain would shield their queen to the death, into the sacred quarters of the monarch herself. Sweeping the sentry aside (albeit gently), I took the lady captive and spirited her away before her subjects half-knew what was happening.

It was then that the rush of peril abated somewhat and the high adventure of the thing started to break down. All I can say is that it was a good thing my husband was working at home that day.

“Philip!” I shrieked, running towards the house, gloved hands cupped carefully over the prisoner. “What do I do now?”

It had seemed so easy in theory. The books had all made the process of re-queening a hive so simple and straightforward. And, as I realized now to my supremely wounded sensibilities, utterly, utterly heartless.

We put her in a jar and set her on the counter. And we looked at her. So very beautiful with dainty wings all out of proportion to the long amber body and one small white spot where the apiary had marked her for the benefit of novice beekeepers. We knew what we were supposed to do. What the books would tell us we had to do for the sake of the whole hive and the new queen that was waiting in a box in the dining room to assume her throne. But there was just no way that either one of us could do it. Nothing so senseless as that.

“I could take her in the car when I go out later and release her,” Philip said.

“It has to be a good three miles away,” I replied, my eyes still bent on the bee, struggling against her invisible walls. “To be safe.”

Last summer we had weathered a fiasco of virgin queens in a failing colony that rivaled any of the treacheries of the Stuarts and the Tudors. We captured one swarm only to have a rash of micro-swarms break out later in the day all over the yard as various bees swore their allegiance to the newly-hatched queen of their choice. We couldn’t risk that again, or the very real danger of the bees taking matters into their own hands and doing away with the new queen in the presence of the old one.

And while the nearly-empty brood frames confirmed our fears that “Mary Mac” just wasn’t laying, her former service to the colony demanded—in our minds , at least—a nobler end than an unceremonious squashing. More of a riding off into the sunset. Or perhaps a wild colony of queenless bees…

At any rate, foolish or otherwise, we took her for a ride and let her go. Offered the choice between wise-and-cold-blooded and foolish-but-merciful, I’m going to stick with the latter any day.

The next day we returned to the pillaged hive and placed a small box with a screened top on the floor between two of the frames. Then we closed it all back up again with a prayer that the bees would accept the new queen as their only hope of making it through the winter. Today I went back in with a pounding heart. I removed the super and peered down into the hive body. The little box was covered with bees but their attitude was unclear down in the dimness between the brood frames. I lifted it out into the sunlight and held it up close to my veiled face. There didn’t seem to be any hostility there—the bees were strolling over the surface of the queen cage with apparent indifference to my impertinent proximity. I took off a glove—carefully, hoping no one would notice—and gently pried the screen from the cage, tapping it as I did against a frame of brood that I had laid across the top of the open hive. Out she came, gasping, no doubt, from her long confinement, and instantly the bees were upon her.

I held my breath and prayed out loud. This was the moment of truth. Either they would receive her as their new monarch, or they would instantly fall upon her as a usurper, ‘balling’ her and putting an end to matters within moments.

Were their movements gestures of acceptance? Were they cleaning and preening her—or attacking her? Being the greenhorn that I am, I had absolutely no idea. I picked up the discarded cage, making ready to put her back in should things turn ugly.

But then something incredibly beautiful started to happen. As the new queen stumbled over the bees and brood of the frame, the workers all fanned out around her in an unmistakable dance of welcome. They circled her like the weavings of an ancient rondeau and fluttered their small wings in welcome. I seriously could not believe my eyes.

And I find it hard, so very hard to believe that someone could not believe in a God of order and beauty and breathless creativity after looking into a beehive.

I do not so much rejoice that God hath made me to be a Queen, as to be a Queen over so thankful a people. ~ Elizabeth I

11 Responses to “A Harrowing Tale”

  1. Josh says:

    I absolutely *love* your beekeeping posts! So glad things worked out with the new queen. Long may she reign! :-)

  2. Wendy says:

    Me too! Me too! (such a beautiful post ~ I’m so glad mercy trumped practicality!) My hat is off to the ‘keeper of the bees’!

  3. Lisa says:

    Just what my day needed: a little high adventure! Thanks, Lanier!

  4. Sharon says:

    There are so many marvels to affirm that God is–and that He is Creator.
    We can’t answer all the questions, we can only wonder and praise.

  5. Jan says:

    You certainly do tell a great story–I was reading with abated breath. My father used to keep several hive boxes. I remember seeing him with the netted hat, long shirt sleeves and gloves, harvesting the sweet-filled combs or placing a swarm in a new box, making sure there was a queen within. But I never got close enough to figure out what all it took to keep those hives going. Now I know!

  6. Only Lanier could make me wish I was peeking into the world of creatures with stingers.

  7. Jodi Lenz says:

    You had me hooked from the first sentence. Clever girl. Long live the Queen.

  8. Abby Maddox says:

    Since I just recently finished Keeper of the Bees, I understood what was happening in your drama :) It is incredibly fascinating! Did you rub flowers all over yourself before entering the hive ;)? I just know we’re going to be called to bee keeping….I feel it.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      No, Abby, I don’t. T’would be a good practice I suspect (at any rate, a lovely one ;)). Perhaps it’s a West Coast beekeeping thing.

      And, oh, yes, my friend. I can totally see you doing this. They make the cutest little beekeeping suits for children–I am picturing Pace and Mary Aplin in a few years with hives of their own. The lady at one of the apiaries I talked to told me that she lets her daughters paint their own hives: pink with butterflies. The bees don’t seem to mind the break with tradition, 😉

  9. Samantha says:

    This was simply beautiful–thank you! :-)

  10. No bees here, but we have been hatching butterflies this week with Caroline and came to the same conclusion as you, Lanier. Watching them crawl around as caterpillars, enter their chrysalis, and then emerge a mere week later as something completely different… How can this possibly not be designed?

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