Funeral For A Queen

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

We broke into the hive of our friendly bees the other day, only to find it was the Overlook Hotel.
Which is not to say it was empty.  But it was hive full of dwindling ghosts, bees working on autopilot on tasks that no longer mattered.  They were fetching pollen, getting honey, keeping the comb clean….
…and none of it mattered, because the queen was dead.  There would be no new bees.  There could be no new bees, without a queen.  The combs were completely free of eggs.  All of their bustle was devoted to furthering a future that could not exist.  Left to their own devices, the poor things would have worked literally to death, the population dropping until eventually every last bee was dead.
“But wait,” you ask.  “How do bees reproduce, if they all die when the queen dies?”  Well, if the queen dies during the spring or summer or early fall, then she’s already laid a bunch of eggs.  The bees pick one egg for reasons that nobody quite knows, feed it royal jelly, and what would have been a worker is suddenly upgraded to an egg-laying queen.  The hive will be struggling to catch up, as bees have short lives and a lot of them will die during the transition period, but the queen will eventually hatch and start up the great bee Circle of Life.
If the queen dies during the winter, though, there are no eggs to upgrade.  The bees open up shop, same as always, emerging from their winter downtime, but there are no raw materials to work with.  All they have is food and comb, and they tend to those like nothing has gone wrong.  But it has gone wrong.  Everything around them is dying.  They are a sterile hive.
The only solution in this case is manual: Gini is driving down this afternoon to fetch a queen bee, as it’s a race against time.  We’re going to put this new queen bee in the hive, give it a week to let her pheromones saturate it so the remaining bees don’t sting her to death upon release, and hope that she can lay enough eggs while the survivors of the last generation are around to tend to them that she can kickstart this hive.
Yet it’s still a loss.  The queen we knew, the one who laid all of those nice bees, is dead.  Perhaps killed by the cold, or maybe by old age – she wasn’t that old, but into her third year she was getting on.  The queen is the personality of the hive, and these bees have been the sweetest, most docile bees a beekeeper could ask for.  Her death is a serious loss to us, as even if this new queen manages to rebuild the population, it won’t be our hive.  It will be a hive, with some overlap for a few weeks, but by the end of June the last traces of the old queen will be gone and New Queen will be firmly in effect.
It’s a terrible loss.  It is an odd thing, to be so sad over a single insect, but this insect was in a very real sense a colony – and a colony we loved.  So we’ll carry on in her memory, and hope this emergency patch works, but…
…it won’t be her.  We’ll miss her.  Her and all her kind.
Goodbye, queen.

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