I’m back home in Blighty after a wonderful stay in Vermont, a very pretty corner of the USA near the border with Canada which reminded me of parts of Scotland. Instead of whisky they have a big maple syrup industry, and instead of the midge it’s the mosquito. This year they have had lots of rain, which has impacted the likely honey yield and queen rearing operation (queens don’t go on mating flights in bad weather), so it felt very much like home. Whenever I visit North America I am always jealous of the sheer scale of the place – so much more space than here. But they do have guns, no NHS and Donald Trump so it’s far from perfect.
The purpose of this adventure was to interview Mike Palmer for the book I am writing. This was accomplished with ease in his living room, with the comforting sound of buzzing coming from forty odd caged queens lined up on the coffee table. Mike is a good talker and is very willing to pass on his experience and wisdom to anyone interested, which is rapidly becoming the majority of beekeepers worldwide. By the way, the caged queens were well looked after by attendant worker bees and were just waiting to be introduced to their new homes in Mike’s hives. They had been taken from his mating station having been inseminated by the local drones (male bees) and were all set to head colonies into the winter.
Here’s the thing about beekeeping on a large scale – it is basically farming, except the livestock does not go “moo” and it is free to roam, unconstrained by fences or streams or roads. A dairy farmer knows where his cows are but a honey farmer only has a rough idea where his bees may be (see what I did there?). The clues to the bees’ journeys are there in the hive, the colour of the pollen being brought back and the taste of the honey, and the distinctive odours emanating from within. But a farmer’s livelihood depends on the quality of his or her livestock, whether bovine or bee, so the whole issue of breeding is absolutely critical.
Mike Palmer has a big queen rearing operation. His best queens are selected and bred from, ensuring that quality is maintained from year to year. His cell building colonies are enormous towers perched amongst trees on the edge of a field of corn. Corn is no good for bees, and local farmers seem to grow little else, but thankfully there are still plenty of flowering plants in the area to keep Mike in business.
At this time of the year Mike and his team of helpers descend on an apiary and thoroughly inspect each hive, looking at how old her majesty is (signified by the colour of a dot on her back placed there after mating), how much honey is being stored, the brood pattern, temperament and so on. In many cases the queen will be slowing down after a busy life, and if left alone will eventually be replaced by the bees themselves or will perhaps become a drone layer. So the solution? Kill the queen! The queen is dead, long live the new queen!
It sounds brutal but killing queens and replacing them with vibrant healthy new ones is a vital part of running a honey farm. This is how the farmer keeps control of his livestock, which are kept healthy and productive. There is no fuss or ceremony; nobody passing by would know, but there is regicide going on in the woods of Vermont, and this is as it should be – for both bees and lovers of honey.