By Melinda Munson

We shouldn’t have spent the money. Hundreds of dollars on two boxes of Old World Carniolans bees; eight pounds of writhing females ready to work.

With my husband’s job on pause due to COVID-19 and decreased ads at the newspaper, it would have been prudent to leave our Slovenian beehive empty for the season. But it beckoned to us, full of optimism and promise and a tantalizing suggestion of sugary complexity yet to come. With quarantines and masks and school out of session, we needed something to look forward to.

When we heard the plane land, my husband rushed to the airport, assuming Alaska Seaplanes wouldn’t want to hold onto the insects longer than necessary. He was correct. We had planned to wait a few days for fairer weather to unbox the bees and hive the queen. Our neighbor wisely cautioned against postponing for a sunny day because after all, we live in Skagway.

The queen bee, shipped in its own small box, is installed in the hive by Paul Munson. Photo by Melinda Munson

Hiving a new colony is a curious process. The queen is placed in first. Once she is positioned, the beekeeper pries open the carton of bees and they steadily march into the hive, unwilling to be separated from their leader.

Normally, bees fresh out of their screened wood travel boxes are gentle. They have no honey to protect, no home to defend to the death. They shouldn’t sting. Just in case, we wear white beekeeping suits with gloves and mesh hats. We peg-leg our pants and pull our socks up to our knees. It’s the antithesis of fashion but it’s effective. One time, perhaps recently, we got overconfident. We wore Crocs with socks and left our pant legs flapping. Soon, disoriented bees were caught in our jeans and it wasn’t long before we were forced to whip off our pants and hop across the deck in our underwear, searching for a knife to scrape away the stingers. Chief Leggett didn’t get any phone calls, so maybe no one saw us.

Bees are a matriarchal group. Out of a colony of thousands, only a few hundred are males, called drones. The drones live for one thing–to fertilize the queen. They rely on (female) worker bees to bring them food and clean the living quarters. They spend most of their time hanging out with other drones. I can imagine the conversations: “My antennae are huge. You know what that means, don’t you?”

The sexual journey of a drone is short-lived. After fertilizing the queen, the drone’s abdomen falls off and he plunges to his death. This is not as tragic as what happens to drones who never get a chance to mate. 

At the end of the season, worker bees drag any remaining males outside the hive. The females continues to fight off the desperate drones who repeatedly attempt to gain admittance. This can go on for hours. The drones eventually die of exposure or starve to death. It all sounded funny to me at first — an interesting case of feminine empowerment. But when I watched, I averted my eyes and cringed.

Bees keep us learning as we try to understand their complex and ordered systems. They keep us standing in the sun as we trace their flight paths, mark the number of dead and examine the pollen collected on their hairy hind legs.

We have no reason to believe we’ll achieve a harvest at the end of the season. To our knowledge, most of Skagway’s apiarists feed the honey back to their “girls.” High winds and frequent rains make the town less than hospitable to pollinators. But we are hopeless optimists, which explains the seven kids and the move to a cruise ship town with a population of 1,000. 

Watching the bees dance outside our window, checking the comb for eggs the color and shape of an uncooked grain of rice and the tiny hope that we might, just might, all be gathered around the honey extractor taking turns cranking the handle this fall, is enough for now.