Bee Queen

Bee Queen

Lauren Doninger, the proprietor and beekeeper of Yellow House Honey, will often simply watch her bees. Behind the titular house in suburban Hamden, she stops among her wooden hive boxes, gently lifting the lids, then pulling out frames, as interchangeable in design as circuit boards but covered in a living mass of bees and honeycomb. “Do you see all this glistening?” she says, angling a frame toward the sun to reveal the liquid in the cells. “This is all glistening nectar... The bees built all this comb. And now they’re filling it with nectar. And they’ll keep filling it and keep filling it. And then they’ll dehydrate it and that will make it honey. And when it’s at the exact right consistency, then they’ll cap it with a wax cap.”

The wax cap is the unmistakable sign that the honey is ready, with nothing left to do as far as manufacturing is concerned; it’s in the nature of honey production that the bees really do all of it. In Doninger’s back yard, thousands of bees are entering and exiting freely through narrow apertures in the boxes, emitting a steady hum both placid and surging with energy, as unconcerned by their keeper as they are by me. They’re delivering pollen and nectar to nourish the colony, enabling the colony to produce more bees, which will bring more pollen and more honey, which will bring more bees. For beekeepers who are in it for the honey, successfully reading the indicators of the bees’ life cycle, frame by frame, is how they get it. But it is almost a misnomer to say that bees are kept.

“A bee,” Doninger says, “is going to forage in, like, a 2- to 3-mile radius,” stopping where they please. Doninger keeps a field journal to record her observations of bees in the hive but has only educated guesses about her bees in the field. She gestures to the nearest patch of woods. “Trees before they’re blooming are a lot of the native source [of forage]... And also any agricultural area where there is a lot of... nectar and pollen.” She then points in the direction of the Mill River, flowing somewhere nearby. “There’s lots of skunk cabbage, which is one of the best early forages for a colony... It’s one of the first times, in February, when you start seeing the pollen come in.”

Doninger watches for signs of swarming, which is a bee’s way of leaving without coming back. “They all fly out. It’s like Old Testament. They all fly out and there’s like suddenly the cloud. It’s a dark cloud and it’s buzzing.” A bee colony swarms because it has grown to the point where it can confidently divide itself to form a second colony elsewhere. The leavers take the queen with them and—problematically for beekeepers—almost all of the honey. The remainers hatch a new queen and—too gradually for many beekeepers—replenish the honey.

Doninger extracts another frame to show me another network of comb cells, designated not for nectar but for tiny white bee eggs. There, bits of comb on the edges of the frame are more like mounds with larger dwellings inside. “This is a queen cup... I’m going to keep a close eye, because if they fill that with an egg, and they start feeding it... that means they are going to swarm.” Gently hooking one of the queen cups with her hive tool, she is reassured to see that the chamber is empty, theoretically just practice for the worker bees. “They’re just like, ‘We’re gonna keep our skills tight.’ But if they put an egg and royal jelly in the queen cup, that means they’re going to swarm.” She pats the bees, milling and mingling on the comb like a crowded dance party viewed from the rafters.

In hopes of mitigating their desire to swarm, she had recently given the colony a new frame, a canvas of black plastic, and is gratified to see the colony has already begun construction on it. She also shows me how she will often preempt swarming by dividing her colonies into two colonies, one without a queen. Unstacking the boxes, rearranging the frames, then restacking the boxes with a screen between them will prompt the newly queenless bees to “make” emergency queens. So-called vertical splitting is also a way to get more honey.

“Up here,” she demonstrates at one of her stacked hive boxes, “I put all the brood”—the comb containing eggs and larvae—“so what this is doing is giving this hive nothing to do but collect honey... And this hive”—in the lower box—“has to make a queen. And then I manipulate these doors so that as these bees hatch”—from the upper box—“I force them to be part of the workforce down here to make more honey.”

The modular elements of a hive box are the means by which beekeepers can manage their bees. (Bee behavior otherwise invites debate: “If you ask five beekeepers, you will get six different opinions, and they will all be absolutely certain it’s the right opinion—myself included.”) “A couple weeks ago,” recounts Doninger, “I opened this hive and it sounded like a jet engine. I was like ‘Oh, something’s wrong. There’s not going to be a queen in here.’” To test for the disappearance of the queen, she gave the colony a frame full of bee eggs from another hive. If they started repurposing the eggs to make a queen, then their old queen had somehow departed. “And depending on the time of year,” she adds, “I might just have let them make their own queen. But this time of year, I bought a queen, because right now they’re already collecting nectar to make honey.” She shows me the brood frame, on which the newly coronated queen is easy to spot, moving ponderously among her jostling subjects.

Doninger began beekeeping—and almost stopped—in 2016. “My kids were up and grown. I’m like, ‘I have always wanted to do it. I’m going to do it.’” She attended “bee school” with the Connecticut Beekeeping Association, shadowed a veteran beekeeper for a while, then brought home her “nucleus hive” in a cardboard box. “So I had them in a wheelbarrow and I was moving them two feet every day,” toward her desired location, “because I knew that was the rule.” Bees, she had learned, can’t find their hive if it’s been moved more than two feet while they’re gone. “And they were attack bees. I could not walk in the backyard. It was horrible.” Only after the Connecticut state bee inspector saw her colony and swapped out the queen did the bees begin to calm down.

“When you have an aggressive hive,” says Doninger, “sometimes it’s a skunk that keeps harassing them at night. Or it’s mites.” Doninger, it turns out, had effectively harassed them by causing their house to quake, angering the bees in a way she’s now better at avoiding. Still, bees will be bees. “I really hate getting stung on the scalp. Partly it’s the anticipation. Because you know it’s coming. You can hear the bee.” But her fascination with bees raises her pain threshold, and bees are generally too busy to attack. “Every single day, when I get home from work, I do not go inside. I watch them. And watching from the outside gives you a lot of information.” In summer, she says, bees will stand in rows at the hive entry and send currents of cooling air into the hive with their wings. And in spring, new bees emerge to take orientation flights.

Doninger gestures toward a column of bees, tightly looping just outside the hive. “These bees are making the perfect GPS map of exactly where they are. They’re doing physics with the sun right now. So when they go back in the hive now, they’ll go out wherever they go, like miles away. And,” she adds hopefully, “they’re going to come back right there.”

Yellow House Honey
130 Lincoln St, Hamden (map)
(860) 690-6121
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Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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