I have three hives of bees right now, all stacked next to each other under a sun-rain roof in the upper part of our yard. The first hive I collected off a rosebush in Portland, and I call them the Rose Hive. They were a small but mighty bunch, and are now populated with thousands of new, young bees. No robber bee would think of setting so much as a toe on their entry board. The guards are always out, policing the perimeters.
My third hive, I cut out of the floorboards in someone’s home. It was a mess of a job and I got stung to pieces, but they are settling in well and are busy and focused at their door—just what you want to see. I named them the Freyja Hive after the Goddess of War and Fertility, which I thought suited them to a Tee.
My second hive I named the Shanti Hive, as they have always been very quiet and gentle. And from the day I brought them home, I sensed that in addition to being quiet and gentle, they were just not quite right.
Now, I am very new to bees. I’ve only seen four hives in daily action in my life since I started with bees last year, but I have learned to trust my gut, and my gut said “Uh-oh.” While the Rose and Freyja hives gained in numbers and were always very intent on their work, the Shanti girls were distracted, wandering about on their entry board as though they weren’t quite sure what to do next. Sometimes no one would be attending the door at all, as if the guard bees were napping or playing bridge or something.
If my two other hives had soundtracks playing behind them, it would be “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to work we go!” or “Whistle while you work! Lalala la lalala!” The theme song of the Shanti Hive was more like “Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville…” They seemed to be always be off looking for their lost shaker of salt.
Hives act like this, so I’ve been told, when they have lost their queen. The queen is everything to the hive: Heart and soul, mother and monarch. When she is gone, the bees are lost. They will perish without a queen, and they know it. And that’s how the Shanti bees have seemed for quite some time: lost and dazed.
Now, when a queen is old or injured, a hive can create a new queen if they have some very newly laid eggs available. A queen can be “created” out of any egg less than three days old by feeding it royal jelly, exclusively. But if a queen dies and for some reason—perhaps because they have just swarmed and she was lost in the journey—there are no eggs to transform, the bees are in a terrible situation. They cannot craft a queen.
When a colony cannot create a new queen for itself, it has only one more option. And it is a bittersweet one. A worker bee or bees can—out of dire need—turn on their dormant hormones and lay eggs. These eggs, however, are not fertile, as worker bees never mate—can’t mate.
What comes from infertile eggs? Well, drones. Yes, male bees in a hive are born of infertile eggs. The queen bee normally lays drone eggs by choosing to withhold the sperm she carries inside of her from the tens of thousands of eggs she also carries inside of her. She makes this choice egg-by-egg. “Shall I fertilize it, or not?” she asks, egg-by-egg. It is remarkable. The infertile eggs hatch out into drone bees. They are, essentially, complete clones of the queen, carrying only her genes.
So, when worker bees begin laying drone eggs, they are offering a chance for their deceased queen’s lineage to continue. The workers are all full daughters to the queen. When the drones hatch, they fly out in search of virgin queen bees to mate with, and if any of them are successful, the deceased queen lives on through her daughter’s genes, repopulating other hives. And the ancestors rejoice.
Her own hive of laying workers, however, is not so lucky. Because they cannot reproduce worker bees to tend the hive, the colony is doomed. All their hopes are put into the drone brood. The new drones fly out, week-to-week, as the hive numbers drop off. The workers die of old age and cannot be replaced. Eventually, the last drone departs and the hive perishes.
This is what is happening in the Shanti Hive. I suited up in my bee gear, took a peek inside the combs, and found only drone brood and no queen. No wonder they are so distracted. The better word is disheartened. And I am deeply disheartened watching them. I cannot save them. They are helpless, and so am I. We are learning to let go, the Shanti bees and I. Tonight, I watched a tiny drone chew his way out of a cell on the comb you see below. I have never seen a bee being born, and it was a profound, holy moment, as all births are. He pulled himself up into the light—a wet, shiny, fuzzy near-white bee– then simply sat, waiting. There is no one to feed him, and a drone cannot feed himself, ever. So he sits quietly, his arrival in this world the beginning of his quiet, dignified departure. The Shanti girls had for some reason uncapped his cell slightly early, and he was not yet ready to come into the world, but there he was.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things fall apart. Nature bats last, and why she bats as the does is for the most part a complete mystery to us. Still, for all the confusion and ofttimes unhappy endings, our beautiful World is encoded for life. I watch the fuzzy drones fly out of the Shanti hive each day, I see that even as things crumble into ash, sparks leap out to ignite the flame of vitality, hope, and possibility elsewhere. That is what these drones are: Sparks spiraling up to carry the ancestor line forward. Life springs forward, death igniting new dreams we can’t even imagine.
I wonder if one or ten or a hundred of those drones have found a new, virgin queen, embraced her in a passionate mid-air coupling, and sent their seeds flying into a dozen new hives.
And because a beehive is a single unity of many tiny beings, I believe the Shanti girls will know when this happens. They will rejoice, then, and in my sadness at the loss of these beautiful bees, I will rejoice for them.
Dear Susan, – on a whim I picked out a new book at the New Book section at my library yesterday titled. The Bees by Laline Paull. I have no idea if it will fascinate you, – I have just read 3 chapters, but the books’s characters are bees, – the incredible world of their inner lives in their hives, – well, I’ll leave it up to you if you want to check it out. It just seems a little lovely coinccidence to have started this book after your intensely thoughtful and observational story of your newfound and heartfelt interest in these amazing creatures.
Oooh, sounds interesting!
What a wonderful instructive world you have entered!
Susan, I’m deeply moved by your post. Your words gave me entry into the awe-inspiring world of bees! It was like entering Middle Earth for the first time. Thank you for giving me a glimpse into this magical land. The next time I see a bee buzzing around I’ll remember the sacred journey it is on.
Chris and everyone of you bee-friendly people: Thank you for your good words and interest in Shanti. I shrunk their hive down to one box, and even though they may not be long for this world, they seem happier to be in smaller, more cozy digs. They congregate at the entrance in the early evenings, preening themselves and also helping out the foragers returning with pollen for their dwindling drone eggs. They seem more directed and content than I have seen them before. I believe with the magic chambers of my heart that their drones have been successful in mating, and that this is the reason for the sudden peace and contentment emanating from this little hive. Bless them all!