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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Tale of Two Hives

Air Date: Week of

Helen Palmer's bees.

Living on Earth’s Helen Palmer is a self-proclaimed “incompetent” beekeeper but recently, something miraculous happened to her hives. She says she owes it all to her queen bee, Victoria.


PALMER: I have two bee hives on my back deck.

GELLERMAN: That’s our managing producer, Helen Palmer, who came into work this week and told us a story with a sweet ending.

PALMER: Over the winter, the bees in one of my hives died. No, it probably wasn’t colony collapse disorder – that’s much more a problem for commercial bee-keepers, who truck their bees up and down the country than for hobbyists like me.

Helen Palmer timidly approaches her hive.(Courtesy of Helen Palmer)

Now, I’m not a good beekeeper – in fact I’m incompetent and also timid – I’m very allergic to bee-stings. So I decided to downsize, and not get more bees for the dead hive.

Then I cleaned it out and it seemed such a waste that I changed my mind. Too late – I told you I was incompetent. In April and May you can order three pound packages of bees from lots of breeders; they arrive in the mail. But by June – everybody’s sold out!

Now there is another way of filling an empty hive. You can steal bee-eggs – they’re called brood – from a healthy hive and relocate them. A hive’s kind of like a file cabinet with hanging folders. The queen bee – I call mine Victoria – lays eggs in honeycomb cells that the worker bees build on these folders – they’re called frames.

Helen's hives.

(Courtesy of Helen Palmer)

So to restock a hive you take about three frames and the bees that are hanging out on them and put them in the other hive. Then you order up another queen – they’re shipped overnight from Georgia – and put her into that hive. She lays lots more eggs, and builds up the strength of the colony. But there’s a snag: the bees aren’t too happy when you invade their home and steal their babies, - they tend to attack very aggressively and, as I told you, I’m scared of bees.

Still I was game to take some frames from my healthy hive—it’s just a foot away from the dead one. Then events – or rather the bees - took the decision out of my hand. About nine o’clock last Saturday, suddenly, outside on the deck, the air was thick with bees – bees zooming and buzzing frantically – a whirlwind of bees stretching way up into the sky and way out across the garden. And then – almost as soon as the commotion had started – the swarm was gone. Half the hive just flew off and away.

Now, it’s not actually uncommon – if bees feel they need more space, they DO swarm – but I was dejected. Queen Victoria was gone - my healthy hive was only at half strength – and there was no way I could take brood away from it to repopulate the dead hive. But I was relieved too, I suppose. I mean even if I’d harvest much less honey, at least I wouldn’t have to fight the angry bees.

(Courtesy of Helen Palmer)

Then on Sunday morning, I went out onto the deck, and noticed there were bees going into the empty hive. They’re probably robbers, I thought – stealing the honey from the empty hive – that’s quite common, too. And then suddenly, a massive tornado of bees filled the sky – buzzing furiously and swirling round. They sank down towards the deck – they flowed into the empty hive. Now of course it was choice real estate – well appointed for bees with nice clean frames – but beekeepers will tell you – it’s a waste of effort to set up an empty hive - swarms never move in. I just couldn’t believe it.

But the more I thought about it the more logical it became. I may be an incompetent beekeeper, but bees have been creating colonies, raising brood, and making honey for millennia. They think as one organism – it’s called hive mind. And I have to believe that these bees of mine understood my shortcomings, and took pity on me.

They knew I couldn’t possibly manage to resurrect the dead hive – that I’d squash plenty of them trying and they’d have to sting me – so they saved us all the pain and trouble. So thank you Queen Victoria! I promise not too take too of your much honey!

GELLERMAN: When Helen Palmer isn’t tending her bees – she’s producing our program.



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