February 21 2015

Jokes about regicide apart, it wasn’t easy killing the queen. Not that we did it. Our mentor, Alwyn, took us out to where he had sited our ailing hive and his (new swarm) hive, in someone’s lovely vegetable garden on the outskirts of town. We opened up both hives to find that our hive was still – after three months – just managing to replace itself, still only occupying the five original frames it came in. Our queen was there, and a new queen cell near her. ‘They know she’s no good,’ Alwyn said. A sixth frame had a massive hole in the middle of the wax. ‘Wax moth. Sign of an ailing hive,’ said Alwyn. Judgement day was upon us.

The new swarm hive, the control against which ours was being measured, was booming. Bees occupied every frame, the eggs were being laid in a regular pattern, we saw larvae and pollen and honey. The queen was wandering around with an entourage, a bubble of worker bees around her. Alwyn picked her up to put a blob of blue marker pen on her – it makes them easier to spot, and the colour coding for each year lets you know how old she is – but she scrambled out of his hand and flew off. We tiptoed around, not wanting to be the person who squashed the good queen, until Alwyn spotted her on the ground, picked her up and marked her and threw her through the front door of her hive. Then he turned to our hive. Our queen’s red-dotted back came into view, close to the new queen cell again. That red dot had once been the source of excitement, alerting us to our queen’s activity, showing us that all was well with our queen on her throne. Today, the red dot is sad. It marks her out for her fate. Alwyn reaches down – not with those careful fingers that held the other queen so lightly that she flew away, but with hard pincers that squash the queen and … she’s already gone. A smear. ‘What about the queen cell that they’re building?’ I ask. ‘That needs to go too,’ he says and it’s gone, broken in half. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing to a viscous substance in the cup-like half of the cell, ‘there’s the royal jelly they were feeding to the young queen.’

The rest of the procedure was quick. Alwyn placed a piece of newspaper over the top of our box, then some thin pieces of wood on three sides and another box on top. He punched holes in the paper with a nail. We moved the five frames from the good hive into the box along with three empty frames. The thin pieces of wood keep the boxes apart and give the bees in the top box an access door in one direction while the bees in the bottom box have their access in the other direction. This means the bees can go in and out of their own hives separately until they’ve eaten through the paper and the hives have combined.

We put the lid on top of the top box, and bricks on top of that. I wonder if I’m too soft to be a farmer.