Inspecting a beehive is the central mystical ritual of beekeeping. Seeing the bees at work, spotting the queen scuttling around and appraising the hard work they are all doing is, I’ll be honest, one of the major draws for me. It’s something that should be done as infrequently as possible because it disrupts the hive, stresses the bees and interferes with the environmental conditions that they’re trying to maintain. At the height of inspection season no more than once every few days.
Beekeepers go to great lengths not to damage or kill insects. But sometimes it does happen.
After an inspection I carefully put my hive back together, placing the boxes, slowly lowering, encouraging bees to get out of the way. But somehow in the process of putting the boxes back into position, I fumbled and caught a bee between two boxes. She was trapped. Her abdomen completely crushed. Looking wildly from right to left, front legs casting about. I did it. She was still alive, and I was at the epicentre of an appalling mess.
Quickly a large cluster formed, crowded round her. Perhaps they thought they could help, or wanted to calm her in her dying moments, or were out on strike to protest the manslaughter of a fallen colleague, or just acting on pheromones and programmed to cluster round a dying sister. I didn’t want to find out, and slunk to a safe distance until they had calmed.
Death of animals is natural, an unfortunate but uncommon byproduct of bee-keeping. In the dark ages, nests would be torn apart and colonies destroyed to get the honey. Things are different now. But sometimes bees die.
At the diagnosis of Foul Brood, the colony must be destroyed immediately. One method is to use petrol and let them go in the haze of a solvent high. Prevention of varroa destructor mite means stabbing large samples of the drone brood as they are grow, for inspection or to interrupt the life-cycle of the mite. Sometimes queens must be killed. The book says that a queen may be killed by crushing between the fingers, but that sensitive souls may prefer to use the deep-freezer.
Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town,
where they consider death unnatural,
But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.
These are things which I know I will have to learn. But the death of my first bee, like seeing their true insect natures, was a formative step in learning who bees are in reality. Avoidable but unavoidable.
A few minutes after the dreadful moment I returned. The cluster was still there, but a little less agitated. The fallen worker was still there too, still hopelessly struggling to free herself. I knew what must be done. I picked up a twig, gently smoked the bees that surrounded her, and scraped. I tore her, protesting, from the front of the hive, smoked the spot where she had been to try and cover some of the pheromones.
And I felt truly sick to my stomach. Full of adrenaline. Crushing her was the worst thing, but actually scraping her off, arms still flailing really was unspeakably nauseating.
And the bees got over it. They do. Death is inevitable. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Meanwhile, in my haze of regret, mosquitoes divebomb my wrists and ankles, sneak along my jeans probing for a vulnerable seam. I swat them away, killing a couple. Damned insects.
Read more about my bees.