A Game of Drones: Adventures in Backyard Beekeeping

Spring is coming.

In March a new queen will be born. Even now, she's curled in her queen cup, small and larval-white, floating in a bath of royal jelly. Soon, the workers will cap her cell with wax. When she's ready to emerge she'll have to chew her way out.

The old queen gathers her attendants and swarms out of the hive, sending out scouts—her most experienced foragers—to find a new home. They have only the food they carry in their stomachs, and must find a new home quickly or the colony will perish.

The old hive is left queenless. Only a few bees rattle around the cells, workers, and drones. The workers have been raising the drones—male bees, whose sole purpose is to mate with a queen—for the past few weeks. When mating season is over, the workers will attack the drones, tearing at their wings, driving them out of the nest to die in the cold.

When the virgin queen emerges, she spreads her pheromones around the hive, then flies out to mate with the strongest and fastest drones—the ones who can catch her. For the one that gets lucky, the act of mating rips out the drone's penis, and he dies in flight.

The queen will never mate in her life again.

If her mating flight is canceled—poor weather, perhaps—there will be no new babies, and this colony will also perish.

I like to imagine she succeeds. She may lay half a million eggs in her lifetime.

The old queen is also successful. Her scouts find her a new home and the old queen begins laying eggs. The workers are making honey to feed the new babies. They are raising new queens. The virgin queens will chew their ways out of their cells and fight to the death. One will kill the old queen, her mother, the mother of them all.

It's a sunny February day. I am standing in a clearing in the woods of West Knoxville, in one of Tess Arnold's bee yards. A few bees move sluggishly around the hives. In a calm, measured voice, Arnold—owner-operator of Arnold Bee Services—narrates the royal intrigue of the colony. A bee colony is considered a super-organism—each individual has a role to play in the vast drama, like an organ in a body, or a cog in a machine.

The external threats are many. In the 1980s, hoards of tracheal mites that kill by infesting the bee's breathing tubes wiped out most of the bee population. In the 1990s, the varroa destructor, which sucks the blood of young bees directly through their exoskeletons, wiped out most of the rest. Now the bee population faces the hive beetle, introduced from Africa in the late 1990s. The beetle invades the colony, tunneling through the comb, defecating in the honey, and destroying the structure of the hive. The bees are defenseless with the slippery beetle: They can't get a grip on it to stab it with their stinger. The mites, at least, the bees can bite.

"The only reason we have any bees anymore is because of beekeepers," Arnold says.

Beekeepers increase the number of colonies and alleviate pest damage. Through natural selection, some bees are becoming mite-resistant. Many beekeepers use chemicals to control mites and beetles, but Arnold doesn't, preferring to "let Mother Nature do her thing."

Arnold sells bees, hives, and other beekeeping equipment. But before buying anything, he suggests inexperienced beekeepers find a mentor. The Beekeepers Association meets every first Monday at 7 p.m. at New Harvest Park.

Urban beekeeping is gaining popularity as a subset of the local food movement. Honeybees pollinate fruit trees and vegetable gardens, increasing their productivity. Crops like almonds depend absolutely on bee pollination. Stewarding bees is important work, maintaining a vital part of the food chain.

Of course, Arnold says, "the biggest benefit is honey."

Fall is honey-harvest time.

The queen is established. The mites are subdued. The comb is capped, the honey safely stored. The colony is thriving and prepared for winter.

Then, horror. The hive fills with smoke, the roof is ripped off the world. A giant clad in white armor towers above. Pillaging the hive with enormous white paws it takes half the honey, and departs, leaving the colony barely enough on which to survive until spring arrives once again.

Thus goes the epic life and times of a honeybee colony.