Sophia last autumn.
Sophia last autumn.

Last fall, I did an unconventional thing—which is in itself nothing surprising—and brought a beehive inside. Sophia Hive was very small, and I believed I had nothing to lose bringing her in and placing her in a lovely, large acrylic fish tank outfitted with ventilation holes plus a plastic bee-highway leading to the great outdoors beyond my bedroom window.

Since the sunny day I brought her indoors, I have loved having Sophia for a roommate. She has made my room smell of honey and beeswax, and at certain times of the day, she gets busy with bee things and begins humming. I had not been certain if she even had a Queen, but figured I could work that out a bit later as bees around here are not laying eggs in the winter anyhow.

One problem with the indoor hive, however, has been the outside exit tube. Sophia has had a hard time locating it. In trying to make their entrance easier for them to navigate and use, I needed to change out a small plastic fitting, so I went to the hardware store and asked if they could recommend a glue that would affix plastic to acrylic and dry fast. Also, I explained, I needed the glue to be totally nontoxic to bees. They sold me a version of Superglue, and I went home and started redoing the bee highway.

The bees were silent, as they are in winter, all cuddled in-between three combs. A couple came out to see what I was doing, then returned to the darkness of the inner combs.

I carefully place four drops of glue on different points of the white plastic fitting and pressed it to the outside porthole on the acrylic tank. To get a better look at what my fingers were doing, I lowered my face down to the fitting. Suddenly, my eyes began to sting. That fast. Just as suddenly, I heard a loud roaring in my ears. I thought the buzzing was in my head. It was not. I yanked the fitting out just in time to watch the entire colony of bees plummet like small falling meteors to the bottom of the tank. That fast. That fast.

Immediately, I grabbed a rag and began scrubbing away the tiny bit of glue off of the outside of the tank while yelling out for Carter. He came running, saw the catastrophe and raced away to grab a fan to ventilate the tank. It was all to no use. The bees struggled at the bottom of the hive, unable to fly, to crawl up the sides, to do anything but slowly die.

Shock grabbed me by the throat and squeezed. I could scarcely breathe. In trying to help my bees, I had murdered them. My eyes fell to the hive bottom along with the bees, and that was when I saw her—the Queen, walking slowly across a chunk of comb that had fallen to the hive floor. She was beautiful and golden. The first queen I had ever had the privilege of seeing in any of my hives. I don’t spend time bothering my bees to chase down the queens. If I see eggs in the comb, I know I have a queen in there somewhere, and I assume all is well.

No bee approached Queen Sophia. Her small court of tenders was somewhere in the trembling pile of bees convulsing bees. I reached inside the tank with a chopstick and gently coaxed her out, setting her gently in my hand. With her long abdomen and narrow profile, she appeared wasplike. Across the lines and wrinkles of my palm she slowly stepped, her antennae tasting the air around her. I grabbed in my fingers five bees that were still walking and buzzing and put the small group into a little jar with some honeycomb and set them in the kitchen.

Sophia last summer.
Sophia last summer.

I hurried back to my bedroom in a daze. Four drops of glue on the OUTSIDE of the tank porthole. The scent that wafted in, the tiny traces, were enough to destroy the bees in mere seconds. To know intellectually that bees are acutely sensitive to smells, vibrations…anything…in their environment is one thing. I know that herbicides and pesticides destroy bees. But to see and hear the shocking crash of an entire colony in seconds is a knife to the belly. I will never forget that sight.

“They’re gone,” I moaned to Carter.

“Have hope, Honey,” he replied. “There may yet be hope.”

I let the hive sit overnight, not having the heart to dismantle them. And what of the Queen moving slowly in her small jar with a few attendant bees now cleaning and feeding her?

That night I slept little. Over and over, I castigated myself for having brought them indoors in the first place, for trying something “different” that turned out to be deadly for my bees. I have been impetuous all my life, leaping into activity as my curiosity pushes me to one edge after another. Sometimes, it has been a good thing, opening avenues of knowledge and discovery and innovation. And sometimes it has ended in calamity as my “What if…?” spirals into “Oh NO!” In the dark of my room, old proverbs assailed me: “Better safe than sorry.” “Look before you leap!” “A bird in hand…” “First, do no harm.”

Come morning, I pulled the tank into the kitchen and removed the large square of wood from which suspended the eight long and beautiful wax combs Sophia had constructed over the summer. I flipped the comb upside down and set it on the kitchen counter.

Bare of bees, I could see their history written on the face of the wax. Honey rimmed the top of the combs in hues from golden to molasses. Bright white dots revealed cells of crystalized ivy honey. Dotted around the sealed honey were colorful ribbons of stored pollens in yellows, oranges, deep blue, and gray. I tugged out an orange pollen plug and popped it into my mouth: Tart, chewy and loaded with enzymes, these tiny disks are naturally fermented and full of beneficial probiotics. Perfect food for baby bees. Bee kraut!

Here and there along the edges of the combs I found more than a half-dozen,peanut-shaped Queen cells. Sophia had replaced her Queen over the summer, those cells told me. If their Queen is injured, old, or unable to produce eggs quickly and strongly, honeybees will craft a new one by ushering their Queen over to specially crafted cells and encouraging her to plant an egg there.

Some of these cells were open on the bottom, indicating a successful gestation. Others showed evidence of being torn apart by rival newly hatched virgin queens.  Creating a new queen is an enormous gamble and time-devouring task for a hive. Between rearing a new queen, seeing her successfully mated, and hatching her first brood weeks later, more than a month of time—sometimes two—passes for the hive. During this time, nectar production stalls. It is a stressful time for the bees, being between queens and new brood.

With a small flashlight, I peered between the combs. There, in the middle of one comb, I found yet another Queen birth cell. This one hung from the center of the comb—a common indicator of bees losing their Queen in an emergency and having to create a new one from eggs on comb the deceased or disabled Queen has already laid. These emergency Queens are crafted from eggs originally destined to be new worker bees, and some new research indicates that perhaps these Queens are not as strong as those grown from the start in Queen cells. No wonder Sophia had not become a large and well-stocked hive by fall. I suspected she had lost not one but two queens that season.

Queen honeybees, more than any other bee in a colony, are suffering the profound effects of environmental degradation. Most bees in a colony live for little more than a month during the summer season. Winter bees, because they go into torpor for long periods of time, are able to survive through the winter months. Only the queen traditionally survives for years. This extended life span means that this honeybee—upon whom the hive survives or perishes—has years of time to accumulate poisons in her system. With toxins building up exponentially in the soils and perennial native plants that dwell at the fringes of agricultural fields, foraging bees bring home increasingly poisonous droplets of nectar and pollen. These silent killers build up in the systems of the maiden or worker bees, and are passed on through royal jelly into the mouths of larval queens. Throughout their lives, queen bees are fed these weakening diets that depress their hormonal, glandular, and immune systems.

Queen bees are dying. Their hives are dying. And we forget that these accumulated toxins in the land have interactive effects upon the chemistry of each other that science does not even bother to study. Effects that poison bees and poison us.

My fingers wandered slowly over the cool wax of the combs. My sorrow for these stalwart bees deepened in tandem with my profound respect for their resiliency. They had struggled all summer to get their colony up and running in the face of two Queen losses, and had done their job to be ready for winter. They had stored enough honey for their small group, and ended autumn with a lovely young Queen. These were—or had been, or would have been—survivor bees.

As I bent my head over the far corner of the last combs, I was startled to find a small handful of bees diligently working along the edge of the wax. They were a handful—literally only a handful—of survivors. I took a quick breath. It was time to think of something fast. “What if…?” Again, that dangerous and creative query. “What if…I put them into a smaller box and returned their Queen to them?” There were simply not enough bees to make a go of it. Not enough maiden bees remaining to keep any new brood warm even if they could coax the Queen into laying. “What if I could find some extra helper bees from some other hive somewhere to add to their numbers and give them a chance?” Or “What if I put them in a small container and at least let them perish in peace with their Queen?”

Letting my mind have its reins, I shrugged into a jacket and hurried across the yard to the garage. Was there anything I could use to create a new, smaller hive box for Sophia? My eyes landed on a small wooden fruit crate. An old suitcase. A tool box. A decorative barrel that Carter had brought it home from a garage sale. Choosing quickly, I lugged the barrel back into the house where Carter gave his blessing for me to turn the barrel into a smaller indoor hive.

For the half hour, I worked on the barrel, cutting an entrance port for the bees to exit outdoors of they chose. I sliced a small rectangle off the face of the barrel so I could enter the hive if needed, and tacked a screen across the hole. Then, I carefully cut away side pieces of comb until I had an assembly that I could lower onto the open top of the barrel.

Through all this, the bees never budged off the comb, except for two explorers whom I captured in a glass jar and returned to the barrel. I carried the bees back into my room and attached the “bee highway” exit tube. Knowing Dinky’s proclivities to perch on anything he can haul his huge behind atop, I set a large rock and two metal bee decorations on the lid to discourage him.

Sophia this morning.
Sophia this morning.

This morning as I write this from my bed/office, Dinky snuggled under the covers at my hip, I can hear an occasional soft hum from Sophia. There is little hope that she can survive. But little hope is always better than no hope. Sophia’s Queen has been returned along with her attendants. I am looking for a handful of spare bees, perhaps from a hive that has lost its Queen, although in winter, few beekeepers would want to get into their hives and risk chilling their bees. Still, you never know. What if someone DOES have some bees? What if?

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