The Secret Life of Bee (Keepers)

“Apis”; watercolor by Hugh Markey

Childhood obsessions are pretty common. Some children love a particular line of dolls, trading cards, or teddy bears. As they grow, the obsessions are set aside, sometimes to literally gather dust. In other cases, though, the obsessions simply morph into something new.

“When I was little, it was a unicorn obsession, and as I grew older it went from unicorns to something legitimate like bees.” At 26, Azure Giroux’s childhood obsessions are not so far behind her. Yet this new one, this bee thing, has grown far beyond having toys on her bed. It has become part scientific interest and part personal mission. “I don’t know anyone else my age who does this.”

Azure Giroux holding a bee hive frame.

On a late summer day at her home in East Greenwich, Azure curls up in a chair in the sun and talks bees. She’s a bit like a walking National Geographic special, a blend of articulate expertise and sheer joy at being a part of the Apis world. And yet, her enthusiasm is a relatively recent phenomenon.

A recent URI Master’s Degree recipient majoring in environmental science and resource economics, Azure stumbled into bees when her course projects came up. “Throughout my whole Master’s degree, starting in 2015, I did virtually every project on honey bees. It may have been the economic value of a bee, it may have been suitability mapping. That was where I would use GPS information to come up with ideal site locations for bee hive placement. I read more scientific journals than I can count about bees, and all the books I can get my hands on about them.”

But why bees? “I have no idea. I have zero idea where it came from. They need help, and they’re so necessary to society. And they’re so cool! Every time I learn something new about them I think, ‘well of course they can do that,” she smiles. “They’re like the coolest things ever.”

Bees, tongues visible, drinking sugar water solution.

For a tiny insect, honey bees have a complex social structure. Keeping them requires an understanding of that structure if the hive is going to be successful. At the top of the list is the importance of the queen. Without a healthy queen, Giroux says, nothing else about the hive will work. “We had an issue where we thought we were queenless. (Queens will sometimes leave the nest or die.) So we started freaking out, because you obviously need a queen or the hive is going to die. (The queen’s sole duty is to lay eggs; without eggs, there will be no nest.) We were able to get another queen, and kept her in a cage so the other bees could get used to her. If I were to place her directly in the hive, the other bees would perceive her as a threat and would kill her. The cage, which is basically like a small cup, gives the resident bees a chance to become accustomed to having her around. After a time, she can be released into the colony.

Dawn Giroux, Azure’s mother, took a bee keeper’s class with Azure.

However, we went to check the nest one day, and it turns out that the bees had produced another queen of their own. It turned out that our bees knew how to be bees better than we did. So we had two queens in one hive, which is not a thing.”

If two queens are loose in a hive, the duo will do battle, fighting desperately and trying to sting one another to death. Although this occasionally happens in nature, it is not a desirable outcome for the beekeeper; both queens may kill each other, or the remaining queen may be too damaged to carry on.

In a normal situation, where the bees sense that they need a queen, they will create seven to ten “queen cups”, slightly larger cells for eggs. As the eggs hatch, the bee will enter into a larval stage, and are fed a particularly high nutrition substance known as royal jelly. In fact, the only thing that separates a worker from a queen is that diet. From there, it’s a race to see who can emerge as a bee first. The losers of that race will pay the ultimate price.

“The first queen to emerge actually goes around to all the other queen cells and stings them, or she’ll rip open the side and sting them, so she eliminates her opponents while they’re still in the cell. If there happens to be two queens alive at the same time, they’ll just go at each other, and grip each other with their little legs and sting each other to death.”

Later, Giroux puts on a white bee suit to attend to the hives. She has two hives (“and a quarter”, as she describes the smaller new one still in the process of developing) that are at the back of the property. Dawn, Azure’s mother, pauses in her cleaning out of a barn to assist. Once Azure convinced her parents that bee keeping was something she genuinely wanted to try, Dawn joined her daughter in taking a kind of “Bee Keeping 101” course designed to give neophytes the knowledge to get the hives going. She lights a smoker, which looks like an oil can with an inverted funnel on top. The smoke produced will make the bees think that there is a forest fire, thus tricking them into staying in the nest and calming them.

“Excuse me girls. Watch out,” Azure says as she moves the frames that form the inside of the hives. Do you always talk to your bees? “Yes!” both Azure and Dawn respond simultaneously. “They’re being good girls, they’re doing good stuff,” Azure says proudly.

Closeup of a hive frame.

The frame contains some cells that are sealed off. Those contain larvae that will soon hatch. Although queens may live as long as three years, workers have a life expectancy of only two weeks, so worker reproduction is an ongoing process. On another part of the frame, dozens of bees are crowded around one that is shaking its body as if it’s in an earthquake. “Oh yeah, she’s found pollen and now she’s telling her sisters about it.”

Given Azure’s devotion to the 15 – 20,000 of bees that form this hive, devotion that extends beyond the hobby level and into a hoped-for career, how exactly does one experience affection? “You have to think of the bees as a super-organism, and not as each individual bee. Getting too attached to them would be too depressing, with bees dying off and getting squished and so forth. So I think of the hive as a whole organism that I have an attachment to. As long as they are thriving and being functional and doing what they’re supposed to do as a colony, that’s where my attachment lies.”

The author suppresses his instinct to run screaming and displays a hive frame.

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