Some time ago I read a short story by Roald Dahl called “Royal Jelly.” It’s the tale of a father desperately searching for ways to save his malnourished infant daughter who refuses her mother’s milk. This man is an apiarist, and while looking for answers, he picks up the latest article on royal jelly—the microbial mix that honeybees feed to their larva when they want to raise a new queen. “Royal jelly… must be a substance of tremendous nourishing power,” he eventually tells his wife when she discovers that he has been secretly feeding it to their child, “for on this diet alone, the honey-bee larva increases in weight 1500 times in five days!” Soon his daughter is rapidly gaining weight and ravenous for her milk.
I became fascinated with bees after reading this story. I bought guidebooks, joined beekeeping meet-ups, watched documentaries, and, last year, finally sent away for a nuc of 20,000 bees. I asked a friend if she thought this was a good idea, and after a telling pause, she said, “Well, you’ll have to be okay with being that guy.” Undeterred, I installed the bees on the roof of my Brooklyn apartment and began the absurd process of learning how to keep them alive. Incredibly, they flourished, and by October I had perhaps 70,000 bees and had harvested nearly 30 pounds of honey.
Then, this past spring, disaster struck. The queen wasn’t laying fertilized eggs, and if I didn’t act quickly, the hive would be dead by the end of summer. Thus began a months-long struggle that I only later realized was really about loyalty: mine to the hive, and the hive’s to its queen.
For the first few months I had the hive, I checked on it incessantly. I had no idea what I was looking for, but felt like I had to do something—there were thousands of bees on my roof. If I wasn’t opening the hive to pull out frames and check for eggs, I was watching the bees come and go. Worker bees can fly up to 15 foraging flights a day, and seeing them return with little balls of pollen on their hind legs gave me a strange sense of accomplishment.
And I really did become that guy. I went to a beekeeping class where I met Jessica, another novice beekeeper, and found that just describing how I was lighting my smoker felt good. She knew what it was like. For months, anyone who expressed mild interest in the hive received a personal tour. Even my roommate, who was allergic to bees, found himself standing on the roof bundled in four sweaters and a mosquito net asking when he could go back inside. I had been thinking and reading about bees for so long that I was oblivious to the fact that not everyone shared my enthusiasm. It wasn’t until halfway through the summer that I started noticing how my friends remained on the far side of the roof while I, with bee suit and dish gloves, marched around pulling out frames and yammering on about drones and brood and propolis.
For weeks I had dreams about beehives wrapped in plastic bags in the back of taxis.
Every beehive is unique, so despite classes and guidebooks, the novice beekeeper inevitably engages in a lot of improvisation. If I had to clear a frame, I brushed the bees off with a feather. When I harvested honey, I used spaghetti strainers and cheesecloth. Worried that my whole approach was too haphazard, I asked Todd Hardie, a friend’s father who has an apiary that provides honey for his distillery in Vermont, to come see the hive. We went up to my roof one night in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, and, incredibly, he was impressed. As I shined a nearly-useless flashlight, he grasped the bottom board and tipped the hive back for a brief moment.
“How many brood chambers did you say you have?”
“And two honey supers?”
“Yes.” We were practically yelling at each other over the rain and wind.
“You’re fine. This is one of the best hives I’ve seen all year.” I felt my heart thump a little more quickly. “I’ve never seen a first-year hive do so well.”
“How can you tell?”
“By the weight.” He said a full hive needs about 60 to 80 pounds of honey to survive the winter. He thought mine probably weighed 100 pounds. It’s rare that a beekeeper can harvest anything their first year. “Whatever you’re doing,” he shouted, “they like it.”
Shortly after Todd’s visit, my landlord sold our apartment. For weeks I had dreams about beehives wrapped in plastic bags in the back of taxis. Finally, I decided to move out, but to keep a set of keys, leave the hive where it was, and hope the new landlord wouldn’t raise a fuss. I treated for mites (a crucial beekeeping task), made sure food reserves were up, and left the hive to weather the winter.
As far as I can tell, my queen died sometime in the spring. Queens typically live for about four or five years, so this caught me by surprise. A new queen, however, is a regular event in the life of a hive. Beekeepers frequently replace their queens every year or two to introduce genetic variety and ensure that the hive has a strong monarch who can lay enough eggs to keep the population up. Bees can also raise their own queen, and when I did an inspection early that spring, I was pleased to see that mine had taken the initiative. Before she died, my old queen must have laid a few fertilized eggs that worker bees raised as replacements. They would have selected six or seven fertilized (female) eggs and fed them only royal jelly. When the first queen hatched, she would have immediately killed any unhatched competition and ideally flown a few mating flights, storing enough semen in her abdomen to spend the rest of her life laying eggs.
While a newborn queen may seem ruthless, the success of a beehive hinges on allegiance to its queen. Though she can mate with an average of 12 different drones, there is only one queen, which makes for a hive of closely related bees. As a new queen begins to produce her own pheromones, the hive slowly aligns with her as the old bees die and new workers hatch. In a sense, the hive is genetically wired to be loyal to the monarchy. If the hive was to raise multiple queens, or if the workers were to start laying eggs, the interests of the population would slowly fracture.
In a healthy hive, a queen will lay hundreds, sometimes thousands of eggs each day in spring and summer, which she either fertilizes or doesn’t. The fertilized eggs, the females, can either grow to be workers or queens. The unfertilized eggs become male drones that do nothing but inseminate the queen—quite literally, flying bags of semen. Drone bees, though crucial for reproduction, don’t forage or sting or raise brood—they can’t even feed themselves.
A queen that is properly inseminated will lay eggs in a uniform pattern at the center of a frame. In the middle is a large section of worker brood, and along the outside are a few drone cells. Worker cells have flat tops, while the drone cells are slightly raised, like tiny bubbles. But in my frames that spring, I had only scattered drone brood, a sure sign that something was wrong. In a healthy hive, the ratio of workers to drones is about 3-to-1. By late April my ratio was probably closer to 1-to-1, and new drones were hatching every day.
I’m generally terrible at admitting when something is wrong, especially when it comes to the bees. I want so desperately for things to go well that I’ll ignore all signs of impending disaster. When I saw the irregular brood, I told myself all was well—the queen would fill out the rest of the frame soon. When I saw that all the eggs were drones, I reasoned that the workers would be along shortly. I even proudly showed the hive to my mother when she came for a visit, asserting that since my hive had raised its own queen, there was an excellent chance it would thrive.
In late April I signed up for a “bee tour” around Brooklyn with some fellow urban beekeepers to compare notes and do some “field work.” Embarrassingly, I had never seen another hive beside my own. So on a sunny day in May, I rode my bike to a garden deep in Brooklyn. I showed up late and sweaty, and everyone else was already around the hives at the back of the garden. The email had asked us to bring a bee jacket, which I had forgotten, and the only one left was a child’s size. With the sleeves just covering my elbows and the hood unzipped, I bashfully edged up to the group gathered around the veteran beekeeper who had come from upstate to show us city-slickers a thing or two.
It was immediately obvious how poorly my hive was doing. Almost every frame in the perfect hive in front of me was already packed with uniform worker brood and even had a little honey in the corners. The bees were industriously packing in pollen and capping cells, and there was the queen scurrying around keeping things in line.
The beekeeper needs to understand what it is the hive wants. In my case, it wanted to die.
What had happened to my queen? Perhaps there were no drones in the hive to inseminate her when she hatched—they are killed off in the fall because they become just another mandible to feed in the winter. Some of the first eggs a queen lays in the spring are usually replacement drones, but maybe my hive was still drone-less when the new queen emerged. Or maybe it was too cold for her to take a mating flight. Or maybe the chemicals I used to treat for mites compromised the virility of the drones’ semen. Whatever the cause, seeing this new hive made the effect obvious.
When our host tried to slip inside for a glass of water, I rushed up to him in my absurd children’s jacket, caught him by the shirtsleeve and explained my situation. His face darkened.
“There’s not much you can do, really. Try to get a new queen, but this time of year, most breeders don’t have any left.”
“What will happen if I do nothing?”
“Well, the queen will keep laying drones and soon the workers will all die, and then the drones. If I were you, I’d cut my losses and start again next year.”
Someone else volleyed for his attention, asking whether it was important to use organic sugar for feeding. I extricated myself, and felt the panic set in.
Frantically, I spent the rest of the afternoon calling every queen breeder I could find on the East Coast. I eventually found a man in Florida who could send me a queen that would arrive within days. She would cost $50 with shipping. She’d come by regular mail in a small cage about the size of a granola bar with a candied plug, inside a perforated envelope marked “LIVE BEES.” After you remove the old queen, he said, you place the new one—cage and all—between the hive’s frames, and let her chew her way out through the plug. She’ll be laying eggs in a few days.
Bees have about 165 pheromone receptors on their antennae and though it’s not entirely clear how workers “decide” what to do and when (the question of agency is still very much up for debate), it is certain that the queen’s pheromones prompt them to go about their business. When the reigning monarch dies or stops laying eggs in her old age, the change in her pheromones prompts the hive to raise a replacement, as my hive had done. Similarly, if a new queen arrives and releases her pheromones before those of the old queen have dispersed, the hive will consider the new queen an invader, and kill her. Above all, they are loyal to their queen. I did not fully grasp this fact. Because I waited only six hours between queens, the worker bees probably stung my new queen to death within an hour.
A week later, when I realized my new queen was dead, I called Todd with a sinking heart. “The hive is moving in its own direction now,” he said, “and it’s a different direction than the one you want.” In other words, if I did nothing, my honey-producing hive of workers would slowly become an unproductive hive of drones that would all eventually die. My tinkering had seemingly led the bees to cultivating the hive’s demise. But at least in this, I was not alone.
If you’ve heard anything about bees in the past decade, it’s that they are dying. Their disappearance is a serious problem, as domesticated honeybees are responsible for pollinating approximately 80 percent of all fruit, vegetable, and seed crops in the United States. There is still much debate among experts about whether so-called Colony Collapse Disorder is a single problem, or whether it might actually be a convenient catch-all that describes multiple threats to beehives. Pesticides, stress, poor diet, infestation, disease, and mismanagement are all possible culprits. In fact, it may not be ideal for hives to be domesticated in the first place. There are feral bee colonies throughout the country that survive perfectly well on their own, even though many began as domesticated hives, like mine. The root of this difference isn’t entirely understood, but it appears that feral bees are more genetically diverse than their domestic counterparts. In a kind of DNA re-wilding, feral bees develop a greater range of ways to respond to environmental changes. If DNA is a manual and the environment determines which instructions should be used to accommodate a given situation, feral bees simply have more instruction sets to choose from.
My unraveling colony made clear to me the complex, fraught relationship between honeybee and beekeeper. Bees are tremendously self-sufficient, and follow a set of old and finely tuned instincts. The beekeeper, ideally, needs only to nudge them in the right direction to make them do what he wants: pollinate an almond orchard, or survive on a Brooklyn rooftop. But to do this correctly, the beekeeper needs to understand what it is the hive wants. In my case, Todd was telling me, it wanted to die. Its queen gone, and its new queen rejected, my best efforts were being brushed off. In a bizarre mash of genetics, instinct, and husbandry, the hive and I were now at odds.
Near the end of the Roald Dahl story, the child’s mother begins to worry about all the weight her daughter has gained. She is unnerved by her husband’s brash use of the royal jelly and even detects “a touch of the bee about this man.” Finally, she undresses the child to weigh her, and sees that though her abdomen has fattened, her arms don’t seem to have grown proportionally. “The baby was lying naked on the table, fat and white and comatose,” Dahl writes, “like some gigantic grub that was approaching the end of its larval life and would soon emerge into the world complete with mandibles and wings.”
The father, on the other hand, is ecstatic. He admits that this isn’t even the first time he’s put royal jelly to good use—he’s been secretly eating it himself for the past year. “Why don’t you cover it up, Mabel?” he says to his wife. “We don’t want our little queen to catch a cold.”
As much as I don’t like to admit it, I admire this man. He was determined to fatten up his daughter, and I was determined to save my hive. For better or worse I couldn’t stop tinkering. The hive was headed toward disaster, but I refused to follow.
I called my man in Florida again. I alerted the receptionist at work. This time, when the new queen arrived, rather than placing her cage in the center of the hive with all the other bees, I separated the hive in two with a piece of paper. The bees would eventually chew through and reunite the two sides, but cutting the hive in half might mitigate their aggression. I gave them some food and fresh water, and left the hive alone for two weeks. I figured the queen had a 10 percent chance of making it.
So much remains unknown about bees that most of the time beekeeping feels like a matter of luck. As of this writing, my luck is holding. The hive is raising worker brood with a healthy queen. The drone population has leveled out, and there are two brood chambers flush with capped worker cells. There aren’t as many bees as last year, but two honey supers are nearly full. I don’t know if it will be enough to last the winter, but the new queen seems to be on board with my vision. I don’t see her every time I do an inspection, but frequently I’ll seek her out, just to make sure. She is, after all, my partner-in-crime, my hive’s savior—my little queen.
John Knight is a writer, editor, and beekeeper whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Millions, and elsewhere.
Beshers, S. N., Huang, Z. Y., Oono, Y., & Robinson, G. E. Social inhibition and the regulation of temporal polyethism in honey bees. Journal of Theoretical Biology 213, 461-479 (2001).
Buchler, R. et al. The influence of genetic origin and its interaction with environmental effects on the survival of Apis mellifera L. colonies in Europe. Journal of Apicultural Research 53, 205-214 (2014).
Chittka A., & Chittka L. Epigenetics of royalty. PLoS Biology 8, e1000532 (2010). Retrieved from doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000532
Dahl, R. “Royal Jelly” The Best of Roald Dahl Vintage, New York (1990).
Guo, X. et al. Recipe for a busy bee: microRNAs in honey bee caste determination. PLoS One 8, e81661 (2013). Retrieved from doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081661
Kamakura, M. Royalactin induces queen differentiation in honeybees. Nature 473, 478-483 (2011).
Meixner, M.D. et al. Occurrence of parasites and pathogens in honey bee colonies used in a European genotype-environment interactions experiment. Journal of Apicultural Research 53, 215-219 (2014).
Oliver, R. “What’s Happening to the Bees? Part 5” American Bee Journal June Issue 679-684 (2014).
Oliver, R. “What’s Happening to the Bees? Part 4” American Bee Journal May Issue 535-542 (2014).
Ratnieks, F.L.W. & Helantera, H. The evolution of extreme altruism and inequality in insect societies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological Sciences 364, 3169–3179 (2009).
This article was originally published in our “Nothingness” issue in August, 2014.