At the beginning of this year, we started two brand new hives. One of them was a nucleus colony from notable local apiarist Randy Oliver, the other was a swarm that we caught in my mom’s back yard near Davis. The nucleus colony queen we named Cleopatra (a.k.a. Miss Cleo), after Cleopatra VII; and the swarm queen we named Dorothea, after one of my photography heroes Dorothea Lange. So far, it’s been a wonderful lesson in the variability of honey bees and how different two colonies can be.

Dorothea has been a nearly perfect queen so far. Her workers are super gentle and we can take our time inspecting the hive because it takes longer for them to get upset at us. When we peek into the brood chamber, there’s these perfect concentric circles of precisely laid eggs, larvae, and capped cells. For a queen that we got for free just by putting a box outside for two weeks, I was really impressed at how well she was doing. Since capturing her, she’s slowly expanded to fill a small Langstroth hive. Her workers have collected lots of pollen and honey for the colony, but I don’t expect them to produce enough to take any until next year at the earliest. California’s awesome and our bees can forage pretty much year-round but I still like to let the bees determine how much honey they need.

Which brings us to the other hive, which has been a hell of a saga. Miss Cleo was a super badass queen, laying eggs faster and throughout more of the hive than our others, with workers that could get shit done. Moody bees, but extremely productive. Miss Cleo was so productive, in fact, that she ran out of laying space and swarmed out with about 1/3 of the hive’s population. I saw them swarming around my neighbor’s orange tree, but all my attempts to coax them back to an empty box failed. So, they went, and someone within 3 miles or so of me got free bees just like I did in Davis. Beekeeping is truly heartbreak.

After an anxious couple of weeks without a queen, the colony managed to raise a new queen. She left for about a week and came back from her mating flights charged up and ready to rock. We marked her and named her Eartha, after singer, Catwoman actress, and all around badass old school baddie Eartha Kitt. With the protests going on and all of the conflict around the country, it felt especially poignant to name a queen bee after a lady who made first lady Lady Bird Johnson cry by pointing out the anti-war protesters her husband railed against had good reason to do so. I know it’s pretty foolish and I won’t always be able to individually name each and every queen bee, but I thought this fitting and was excited about it … which made the subsequent months of beekeeping that much more heartbreaking.

First, they got Varroa mites. This is a super common thing in northern California and it’s somewhat treatable* and not necessarily the end of the hive, but it’s not great and it puts the other hives at risk of also getting mites. Then, a couple of inspections later, the unthinkable happened: we didn’t see our queen in the hive, but saw a brand new one that looked very young. I kicked myself, lamenting how we’d held off inspecting them the previous weekend and how I didn’t even notice them swarming out even though I was around the whole time, what with sheltering in place and all that. It was kind of devastating not only to have lost another good queen, but to have missed an opportunity to split that hive, which I’d finally bought the necessary hive boxes to do. With the swarm capture and all the honey, I had been starting to think of myself as a decent beekeeper, and this just brought me right back to my first couple of inspections not knowing anything I was doing. I closed the hive back up and didn’t come back to it until the following weekend.

Then something really weird happened that surprised me more than anything else I’ve experienced while beekeeping…

When we opened up the hive the following weekend, we saw Eartha in there workin’ hard. She’d never left, and presumably had killed the virgin queen we saw in there the previous weekend. So what happened?

DISCLAIMER: I’m only in my second year of beekeeping, so I cannot yet claim to understand the bees to a level where I can definitively say what happened here. The following is a hypothesis I have no way of testing.

We think that Eartha, sensing that the brood cells were being invaded by Varroa mites, decided to stop laying eggs for a time. Queens can do this to try to cycle out a batch of bad brood and start a fresh one. If she did, the workers may have become restless (they do this) and decided to raise a new queen just in case. We must have seen one of these spare queens when we inspected. I’m not sure where Eartha was hiding that whole time, but she must’ve, er, reasserted herself**. However it happened, Eartha is laying eggs again and I’m continually fascinated by the lives of bees.

* they’re getting treated with some formic acid strips, which don’t harm the bees or cause the honey to be considered non-organic.

** I mean she must’ve shanked the new queens