bee stories

My spider queen

Remember the swarm that stayed in a tree for four days before I retrieved it seven times? Well, yesterday—eleven days after it moved into the bait hive—I recalled that the top brood box was missing a frame. I decided to put one in there before the bees filled the empty slot with comb attached to the cover.

I still had no idea whether the colony had a queen. If you recall, the swarm was an after-swarm, so I thought they may have taken a virgin from one of the many queen cells that remained after the Taranov split.

So when the rain ceased for a moment, I cracked the lid and peeked inside. Alas, you guessed it; the comb I feared was already in place. As I lifted the lid, a beautiful, white, architecturally perfect sculpture came along. Damn.

The hive was too high for me to work comfortably, so I decided to remove the lid and top brood chamber all of a piece. I would set it on an empty super where I could carefully excise the comb from the lid and tie it into a frame. I know better, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I hoisted lid and brood box, took a step, and realized it was way too heavy for me. For a moment I froze; I couldn’t put it back and I couldn’t keep going. Disaster was near.

Knowing gravity would win, I performed a rapid but guided decent until the box was about five inches off the ground, at which point I more-or-less dropped it. Actually, it was more “more” than less, but I did manage to hold up one side of the box so it didn’t quash the bees on the bottom.

The occupants, however, were not pleased. They decided to imprint my idiocy on my memory. Nine times. My jeans were drenched from walking in wet grass and they stuck to my legs like a second skin. So once on each knee, once on my right ankle and six times on the left, the bees messaged me. Point taken.

The new comb was partially filled with nectar and pollen, and I started to worry that they hadn’t been able to raise a queen. Still, I cut it loose and tied it into a frame. Then, one by one, I examined the other frames. Empty, empty, empty. Worried.

On the last frame, I gasped. There she was—a big, brawny mother, looking perfectly regal. She had survived the dive in the brood box just as she had survived four days of rain in a tree and capture (perhaps) seven times—once in a box, twice in a plastic bag, and four times in a butterfly net. This was one impressive woman. She wasn’t solid black like a Carny, nor was she yellow like an Italian, but she appeared to have stripes. Not across her abdomen as you might expect, but along it like a race car. She reminded me of a spider, legs asplay and mind centered.

Just beneath her were six square inches of eggs, which made me think I had guessed right. The swarm had left with a virgin. In the ensuing days—many of them filled with wind and rain—she had managed to mate, mature, and begin to lay. Three days earlier during a sunny patch, I had seen several dozen workers outside the hive fanning crazily. At the time I wondered if their queen was out, and if all the fanning was the equivalent of runway workers with flashlights who guide the great birds back home. It probably was.

Gently, I tucked my spider queen back into the hive and closed the lid. What is it about a bug that can inspire awe in a human being? I want to sing her praises, shower her with gifts, and erect monuments to her fortitude. I want her portrait above my fireplace and her countenance on my computer screen. I wonder, do you think I should worry about myself?


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    • All I could think about after closing her up is that I didn’t get a photo. But I had already disturbed her so much that I was afraid to prolong it. Next time, I hope.

  • How wonderful. Congratulations! We’ve been at this only a very short time, but already my login picture is a queen bee and my desktop sports a field of clover in bloom (we’re hoping to turn a huge section of lawn into a honey bee feast). I think you’re just fine:-).

  • Nice tale. I find the combination of semi-competence and improvisation somehow comforting 😉 I think this, in my third year, is the first time I’ve noticed a queen with a personality. She’s been hived for about a month now (from a package). There’s plenty of brood, but it seems more scattered throughout the brood chamber. Whenever I’ve opened the hive I’ve never failed to find her (she’s dabbed with a red dot of paint) and she is always on the move, always without any apparent retinue of attendants. Maybe that’s just her style. Or maybe the old comb I gave her hasn’t quite cleaned up to her satisfaction. There was a fair amount of old pollen packed into it I think.

    • Andy,

      You bring up an interesting point, “semi-competence and improvisation” notwithstanding. That is, I have seen queens that are always surrounded by retinue and others who are not. I used to think it had to do with the amount of pheromone they gave off, but maybe it has more to do with “style” as you put it. Those that run around a lot seem to shake off the retinue as if it were an annoyance. If I were a queen, I would always lose the retinue. That much scrutiny would drive me insane.

  • Believe me, I yearn for the day when I can achieve semi-competence at beekeeping! (It’s not really a true craft if you can achieve full competence, after all.)

  • What a wonderful follow up to a great story! It’s nice to know that I am not the only one who suddenly finds myself in a precarious position with no good options to end it gracefully. You did good, girl!

  • My wife says I worry about every new endeavor involving living things that usually more or less take care of themselves. Especially yeast in beermaking. However my first year beekeeping I worry often about my queens. I had one arrive DOA and the supplier was johnny-on-the-spot in supplying a new one but I see multiple supersedure cells, some of which chewed open and I don’t quite know what to make of that. Time will tell I guess, I look forward to the blackberry bloom.

    • Billy,

      I worry about beer yeast, too. I can think of nothing worse than killing those little darlings.

      If a colony has raised a number of supersedure queens, the first one out goes around and kills her competition by chewing a hole through the side of the cells and then stinging the occupants to death. A clean hole through the apex of a queen cell means a live virgin crawled out of it.

      Sometimes the current queen will also kill the supersedure queens. Check in a few weeks to make sure you have a laying queen. Oftentimes supersedure is the best thing for the colony, so don’t worry about it too much.

  • Had me laughing with “point taken” and the “perhaps” seven captures. I always get a little excited when I see you have a new post. Can’t wait to see a picture of this awesome queen!

  • Rusty,

    Excuse me, bees are not bugs. Just like larvae are not worms, pollen is not “seeds” and “hives” do not swarm. Bugs are a specific class of insects.

    That said, “…a spider, legs asplay and mind centered.” is plain brilliant writing.

    And it is always a thrill to see the queen.


    • The definition of bug at Merriam-Webster is: “an insect or other creeping or crawling invertebrate (as a spider or centipede).” Further down the list (i.e. not so common) is your definition,: “any of an order (Hemiptera and especially its suborder Heteroptera) of insects that have sucking mouthparts, forewings thickened at the base, and incomplete metamorphosis and are often economic pests—called also true bug.”

      The great beauty of the English language is its adaptability, versatility, and range. It changes, evolves, and expands all the time. The great thing about entomologists, at least the ones I’ve had the good fortune to know, is their hilarious senses of humor, especially in reference to their passion, bugs. No entomologist I have ever met would call me on that usage.

  • Can we see a picture of that girl at some point? I would love to see her once she gets a little more established and fully filled out.

  • Naaah, you shouldn’t worry about yourself. You are in great company in the bee world, surrounded by all of us who love and admire you…. your very own retinue! (…that you can shake off with the flick of a button! 🙂 )

    • Cindi,

      Okay, you make me laugh out loud for real! I knew there was a reason I liked computers.

  • Excuse me…Nan. You are the queen of pompous and nit-picky.
    You’re right, that was a thrill.

    When it comes to beekeeping, your blog is my bible. Thank you for teaching me and making me laugh at the same time.

  • Hi, Chrissy,

    Nit-picky, yes. Pompous, no. I enjoy a laugh at my own expense as much as anyone could, and I accept Rusty’s correction. I apply “bugs” to some of the most troublesome of plant pests, which I struggle to control without chemicals. Guess I just flinched to hear it applied to bees.

    In the same way, I flinch (AND nit-pick) when someone calls yellowjackets “bees” especially in front of children.

    In partial justification, I sincerely believe science to be under siege from ignorance. Saturday at market, I was attacked !!by a fellow beekeeper!! for mentioning that bees have been on Earth for millions of years. He maintains the Earth to be no more than 6,000 years old. And this man does school programs!

    A little more nitpicking – with accuracy, of course – in the face of waves of willful ignorance and denial of science, might be called for. Although not in this forum, OK.

    Sorry Rusty – overreaction. And I think you know how much I respect your knowledge and admire your writing.

  • I find this site so very helpful in introducing new and old methods of bee management. Very stimulating – even for someone who has been keeping bees for nearly fifty years. Thank you Rusty [And I thought you were a male with that name :-))]

    I don’t see the point of Nan introducing her diversion from the subject. But I’m not going to leave it unchallenged. It is only willful ignorance and folly to say that bees have been on earth for millions of years. Absolutely no proof for such claims, just theoretical conjecture. Your fellow beekeeper is nearer the mark than you realise, and it would be much easier not only to assert but also to prove.


  • I had to laugh. My idiocy has been imprinted in my memory numerous times also…. Just yesterday, for going barefoot in the clover in my backyard. I was just going to water 2 tomatoes, and I was careful to look for honeybees, or not, dang!

  • I confess that I’m a little reluctant to add to this thread. However, I would, should this pass the moderator’s cutting board, add a couple of points.

    The easy bits first.

    The use of ‘bug’, contextually, in Rusty’s exclamation is practically a vernacular use of the word. In this case it isn’t a technical comment but more a literary passage. The sentiment is clear, as well, shared among us, inclusive of Nan if I read between the lines of her writings elsewhere in these blog comments.

    I do tend to remember that as a mode of conversation, the written word does not convey the tone of voice or body language of a face to face conversation. Intent is often a casualty of a reader’s assumptions. As a result, I prefer to ‘read’ comments in the best light that I can put on them.

    As a result, where some might see sharp criticism I tend to see a little teasing poke of humor, but with a valid point. (Rather like a sister trying to play “grute” in a game of Scrabble. Ha!)

    Nan’s point of some need for nit-picking being needed isn’t invalid. Rusty has a pretty good track record of trying to keep the details straight, be that the latest from snake oil salesmen or finding her own spelling errors.

    A little searching on the existence of bees does show that Nan was a little vague on how long bees have been around. Until fairly recently, the more common mention was 20 to 40 million. The current recorded hard evidence puts the existence back further to 100 million. That’s a bee trapped in amber, found in Burma.

    Stating ‘millions of years’ is neither ignorance, nor folly, nor conjecture. Absolutely no proofs?? Really? And yet you dare point a finger to Nan and label her ignorant and a fool?

    Apologies Rusty,

    I wouldn’t blame you for not putting this one up. I guess I got a bee in my bonnet.

    Kent, Wa

  • Rusty, I saw a drone in my hive the other day that reminded me of your spider queen, black with light “racing stripes.” Now my queen is a carnolian, that should mean my drones are too right? It shouldn’t matter that the workers are carnolian/italian cross, since the drones are haploid. On the other hand, there is a slight possibility I missed a supersedure and that the “drone” I saw was a virgin queen, not quite the right shape though…

    • Heidi,

      The drones get all their genes from the mother. But the queen’s genes get sorted out in different ways when her eggs are formed, so all her drones will have slightly different genetics; they won’t all be the same.