One of the casualties of my busy spring has been any pretense at competent beekeeping. On May 8th I managed to pick up a couple of packages of bees only a few hours before I was heading off for two and a half weeks. I hurriedly installed them in the hives I'd prepared and as often happens when you hurry, I made a mistake.
The bees that arrive in a package are not a true colony. It contains a mated queen and a random collection of workers which are vacuumed out of the air at a breeder complex. 4 or 5 thousand of them are put in a small box with a kind of paint can full of sugar syrup that has a few holes poked in it. The bees form a swarm around the food source. Although the bees are from many different colonies they don't molest one another, but if you introduce a strange queen to this motley collection they will attack her and kill her. The workers need a week or so of exposure to her pheromones before they will accept her as their own queen.
For this reason the queen is put in a queen cage. Three little conjoined chambers are routed out of a little block of wood and a hole drilled in either end. One chamber is filled with "candy" a sugar paste. The queen is placed in the neighboring chambers with a couple of attendants, a scrap of screen covers it and both holes are corked shut.
The idea is that you do a "slow release" of the queen when you get her. The main box of bees you disassemble and dump into a hive. You remove the cork from the candy side of the cage and suspend it in the hive. The bees will stay in a hive with the queen and the candy plug allows the bees to eat their way in to her over several days. By that time, they will have accepted her and settled into their new home. As she starts laying eggs the workers will feed and tend her brood until they reach adulthood themselves.
But as I said, I was in a hurry, and I removed the wrong cork, releasing her directly into the hive days earlier than planned. I couldn't see what happened to her in the confusion of bees, whether they balled around her and killed her, so I closed up the hive and hoped for the best.
It was May 28th, three weeks later, when I next could look in, and there was no sign of a queen, no sign of any brood (that is larva or pupae) that would be in evidence if a queen were present. I did note that they were constructing "queen cells", which is something a colony will do if the queen is dead or dying. But if there are no larvae a colony can't make a new queen. It didn't occur to me to examine the queen cells closely. I assumed that the remaining colony were simply the package bees, which would continue to work at bringing in nectar until they gradually died off.
Fast forward to June 23nd, nearly 7 weeks after I'd fumbled the hiving. I saw there was still some traffic in and out of the hive, but assumed it was the successful colony robbing out the honey from the dead one.
Capped brood contain pupae and the open cells white larvae
But it turns out there is a small colony inside with brood and a healthy supply of nurse bees looking after it. Somehow I must have missed something in that first hive inspection. Maybe the queen was a slow starter. Or, given the small size of the colony, maybe the original queen only survived long enough to lay a few eggs, which the workers nurtured into a new queen, who took a mating flight and is now building up her colony.
She's in there somewhere, though I didn't manage to spot her. I'll look again and see if she has the little spot of paint that the breeders usually put on. Until then, it's a mystery.
At first, when I realized that I would spend the day of the summer solstice working - and end it on an airplane - I was disappointed. Though the summer solstice has never felt quite as significant as the winter I do always think that I should mark it better than I have.
But this day in Ohio would represent the end of a 10-week gauntlet of research and travel. I spent a few hours walking with my videographer, Greg, first in the sleepy Saturday suburbs of Columbus and then among the strollers at the Creekside Jazz and Blues Festival in Gahanna. I was asking people about why we have a government, what its for, what it should do, what it shouldn't do - and from there into a meandering conversation about collective responsibilities, resentments, power, discourse and freedom.
After a week of this, my little brown notebook contained notes on 89 people we'd encountered - Greg's cameras and hard drives contained a couple hundred gigabytes of video and audio recordings to be reviewed and transcribed.
Around 2 pm, I wrapped up a last interview with a trio of pretty and optimistic college girls. It was time to stop gathering data and turn toward synthesis and analysis. Besides, Germany was playing Ghana in the World Cup, and we had just enough time to get to the airport, drop off the car, pass through security and find a bar where the match was on.
So we got our beers and watched the Ghanians hold the Germans at bay, while Greg loaded the day's video files onto my laptop.
After the satisfying match, Greg got on a plane bound for California, while I worked on my laptop. Tornadoes in Illinois delayed my flight for an hour, then another hour. I was at a gate at the end of the terminal and through the towering wall of windows I could see the solstice sun sloping down onto a plain of hangars and equipment and aircraft. It was certainly no Chaco Canyon or Stonehenge - just a scene of Late Oil Age Utilitarianism.
Later, after the storms had spent themselves or moved on, I was on the airplane. It was a couple of hours before midnight and we were approaching Chicago from the south and east. The aircraft passed out of a layer of clouds into the most spectacular sky I have ever seen. We were traveling along an enormous, curving wall of billowing thunderheads - like a towering amphitheater of the gods. The great folds and cleavages and billows were alternately blued by the darkening night and bronzed by the sunset that raged to the west. Dark blue sky above green and yellow with slashes of translucent cloud - and orange lava flowed upon the horizon. But as huge and imposing as the thunderheads appeared, they were dwarfed by the cloud-structure that rose up from behind them. It was a vast mushroom, whose stem rose up from their midst miles to the south, and then spread its umbrella cap above us - painted scarlet and rose by the sun from some even more distant horizon.
. . . and the setting of this sun took my breath away - which is a pretty good solstice gift . . .