(Translated from Dutch)
Below you can read a short story about bees written by artist, poet and ecofeminist Maartje Smits, who also happens to be a beekeeper herself. An adapted version of this story appeared in ‘Onze Dieren’, a collection of short stories, compiled by Rutger Lemm. Maartje is currently writing a prose book about bees.
Bees, global bee mortality and sustainability are important themes in the Kunstfort’s artistic program. In the project ‘Bee Heroes’ we draw attention to these themes in different ways. On the fortress island two bee colonies are being kept and in the village of Vijfhuizen, a large group of volunteers maintain 6000 square meters of wildflowers for the bees.
“My father gave me my first beehive when I was eight. On a warm spring day we carried out the spring hive inspection. I was wearing a huge beekeeper’s suit that smelled heavy of tobacco, the sleeves tied up with hair bows. As always, my father wore a pale training jacket. The beekeeper’s veil – a small mosquito net over his head – was slid sloppy in his collar. The fact that he did not need a suit and was not wearing gloves gave him a mythical authority in my view.
It was not the first time I helped him with the bees; we walked past the hives with a certain routine. My father pried the windows open one by one and held them up, so we could inspect them carefully together. It was my job to find the queen bee. Without a queen, the whole colony falls apart. Although the queen does not give direct orders – she is way too busy producing eggs all day – the army of worker bees loses control without her. In fact, the queen bee is so important that as soon as they don’t scent the pheromones she releases, the worker bees immediately start to ‘freak out’. They tilt their backs upwards, wag their tails to move the air, hoping to catch a scent of their queen in the air flow they evoke. Fortunately, all my father’s colonies had survived the winter. At the last hive, my father said, “This one’s for you.” That was it. No ceremony or moving words. From that moment on these were my bees. Nothing much changed. My hive remained in the same place, in the row at the back of the vegetable garden. We checked it together, just like all the other hives. But now I was in charge to make all the decisions. I opened the hive and pulled up the windows. My bees buzzed hard and low, but it sounded friendly to me. At night, when I was lying in bed with my eyes closed, I could still hear them.
A good beekeeper always tries to do what’s best for his bees. That’s easier said than done, because every intervention is a disturbance to their routine. Honeybees naturally live in rock cavities or hollow trees, which are rare in the Netherlands. Without their beekeeper, bees would hardly survive here. With a beehive we mimic the dark environment of their natural environment. In the thousands of years that humans kept honeybees, several types of hives have been designed, the most advanced being the one with removable shelves and windows that allow honey to be harvested without destroying the nest. Honeybees have become (hobby) livestock. Nevertheless, opening a hive remains an invasive undertaking. Suddenly sunlight falls in the otherwise dark nest. I imagine it feels like someone turns on the light in your room in the middle of the night and pulls the warm blanket off you. My father taught me his way of beekeeping: to intervene as little as possible and especially to see what the bees need. Instead of setting out rules, he asked me questions.
“What do those big caps on the honey comb mean?” he asked me.
“New queens will come out from under these caps, and the colony will soon start to swarm.”
“No, these are new.”
A colony generally tolerates only a single queen bee, but during the spring the bee population in the hive grows extensively. In March there were only fifteen thousand bees in my hive, at the beginning of May there would be forty thousand. In this stage, the Queen’s scent is no longer caught everywhere and the bees decide that it is time for a new colony. They start building large queen cells, elongated cells that hang vertically from the comb. The queen fills these cells with eggs. The larvae that grow from it are fed special royal jelly and transform into full successors to the throne within two weeks.
When the young queen larvae are ready to pupate in their cells – day 9 – it is time for the old queen to leave the hive. She will leave with a part of the bees to start a new colony somewhere else. In fact, these swarms are the true reproduction of the honeybee. Although the queen lays countless eggs every day from which workers or drones grow, these bees do not live longer than a few months. By transferring authority to one of her daughters, a new colony is founded with her genetic material. A few days later the new young queen will go on a wedding flight: for the first and last time – for a while at least – she will leave the hive. She flies to a ‘drone congregation area’, a place in the air at tree height where male bees from different colonies in the area gather in anticipation of a virgin queen. The males chase her and the lucky few who succeed to mate with her collapse to the ground after they come. During this one flight, the queen collects enough sperm to fertilize eggs in the dark for the rest of her life.
My bees were definitely in swarm mode, so we had to find the queen. We had noticed her earlier that spring, luckily. That made it easier to find her. Most beekeepers keep track of their queens with special dated stickers, so you always know how old they are and when they need to be replaced. My dad used nail polish from my sister’s collection, a different color every year. We would catch the queen in a mesh thimble, and when she was sitting there quietly, we would carefully paint a pink stripe on her neck.
This trick made it easier for us to find the queen, even if the hive was almost bursting at the seams. All windows were occupied, and a cluster of bees had formed a beard on the outside of the hive. But I knew that the queen would not be among them: queens like to crawl to the darkest corner of the hive. If you check all the windows one by one, you’ll probably find her sitting on the last one.
I soon found our pink lacquered bee walking on a brood comp. With her long, graceful body, she moved at a different pace and a little faster than the worker bees around her. As if she was in a hurry to be in time for an important reception. We transferred her and the frame she was sitting on into another hive, and moved some of the bees from the old hive to the new one by shaking them off the frames. A queen does not survive long on her own, the colony must feed and take care of her. We gave the bees some honey filled frames and pollen, closed the hive and prepared it for its move to the polder that evening. Far enough away so the new colony would not be able to fly back to their old station.
I don’t remember exactly what happened to my colony in the end. After a few years of beekeeping, I became a stubborn teenager and I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents and their hobbies anymore. My father took over my beehive.
When I was twenty-four, I decided to become a beekeeper for the second time. It was winter. I had just graduated from art school, unemployed and abandoned by the man I thought I was going to grow old with. In an effort to make my life my own again, I chose a hobby that reminded me of a time when difficult subjects like heartbreak and my career didn’t exist yet. But this time I really wanted to try to do it on my own, without the help of my father, so I didn’t tell him about the plan. Beekeeping could only really become my thing if I relearned everything. So I took a beginner course at the local beekeeping association that winter. I studied like a monk for weeks and absorbed the teaching material that I had to learn for the theory test.
When the first crocuses started to bloom and the bees carefully ventured out of their hives, it was time to put what I’d learned into practice. Each student had to take care of a colony throughout the season, under the watchful eye of a mentor. Of course the beekeeping association was almost entirely formed by old men, who all had their own rituals and crafted tools. They interfered in everything that I was doing. Every step I took was tested and questioned in a fatherly manner. More and more often I felt the familiar feeling that I had as a teenager: could I ever do it right myself?
One of my mentor’s magic sayings was ‘BRIAS’, which meant breeding in all stages: eggs, larvae and closed cells. During every inspection I had to first ensure if the BRIAS was all right and if the queen was still alive and in good condition. I had to write all of my results in mysterious abbreviations in a logbook that was laminated and taped to the inside of the hive’s lid.
In all those years I had never seen my father use a logbook. He followed his intuition: if you see eggs, there is a queen. When the colony is calm, the bees are satisfied. If the bees are stinging quickly, you know that something is wrong. Perhaps there is a storm coming up, the bees are hungry or you are being too hasty. (In my second beekeeping period I drank a lot, and I could add to this list: or you have a hangover. Bees hate the smell of alcohol).
When I had completed the course and I showed the diploma proudly to my parents, they were pleasantly surprised. My father gave me another colony. I had permission to place the hive on the flat sedum roof of my apartment. And, although I dubiously accepted my father’s offer to bring the hive to Amsterdam, I couldn’t wait until I was an independent beekeeper. On the roof of my house, no know-it-alls were looking over my shoulder.
At first my colony was quiet and friendly. Although our rooftop rose above the city trees and the flat roof had no fence, I was never afraid when I was working with the bees. That changed when I decided to make a second, artificial colony the following year. I had followed the bees closely in the weeks before. I was relieved to conclude that they behaved by the book. First drone brood appeared, the larger cells from which male bees emerge. A few days later I noted in my hive chards that I had spotted the first caps on the honeycomb. I was ready to divide the colony. I put the old queen with the hive frame and everything in a cardboard box that I thought was very suitable for transporting a bee population. When the new colony was complete I closed the top of the box with tape.
At the association’s bee park, some fifteen kilometres away, a brand new hive was waiting for my second colony. I did not have a car, so I attached the cardboard box with lashing straps to the front of my bike and I tried to ride as carefully as possible. The buzzing in the box swelled with every bump. Afraid to let loose a furious swarm of bees in the city center, I stopped at every intersection to check if the tape was still holding.
When I arrived at the bee park an hour later I was totally exhausted. Now I only had to transfer the bees into the hive. I put on my suit, but as soon as I opened the box, it became clear to me that the bees had not really enjoyed the bike ride. Aggressively they flew against my hood all the while I did my best to shake them into the hive. I was so relieved when the job was done that I forgot to check the box for any dead bees. Maybe then I would have noticed her, lying on the bottom.
We call a colony ‘hopeloos moerloos (hopelessly capless)’ when the queen bee is dead and there are no eggs that can be transformed by the worker bees to grow a new queen – they do this by quickly building an emergency cell around an ordinary cell and by feeding the larvae inside the royal jelly that normally is only given to the queen larvae. When I went to check on my colony a week later, the bees were not happy to see me.
Probably, the queen had got stuck during the bike ride, but I didn’t want to believe it and kept checking all the windows for BRIAS. I have never been stung as much as that afternoon, bees were constantly attacking me. If I myself still doubted whose fault this was, the bees made it clear that they accused me of being the queen murderer. They stung through my gloves, through my jeans. The poison made me dizzy and itched all over my body. Ultimately, there was no other option than to acknowledge my failure and to unite the lost swamp with a strong colony in another hive.
In general, bees do not allow newcomers into their hives, but a simple trick makes it possible to merge two colonies together. I opened the other hive and put a newspaper on the top shelf. I put the shelf with my queenless colony on top of that, the bees still attacking me relentlessly. In the upcoming days, the two colonies ate their way to each other through the newspaper, while the ink would disguise the strange smells. Beekeepers prefer to use the Dutch newspaper ‘De Telegraaf’ for this purpose, because bees seem to like its cheap printing ink.
Later that evening I called my father. I hardly dared to tell him what had happened to my queen bee, as I had so triumphantly told him about my action a week ago. But he comforted me saying that this experience had made me a better beekeeper. Good beekeeping means trying to do the best for your bees, knowing that the best will never be enough because you keep bees in an unnatural environment. The ideal situation for a colony of honeybees is an environment without human activity. I realized that my fear of my father’s judgment was mainly in my head, and that by stubbornly going my own way, I had forgotten his advice.
Since this incident I always call him when I have a question about the bees, and those conversations are always very pleasant. It brings us closer together. Maybe you have to become an adult yourself to share a hobby with your father. ”