Imagine you’re hot, hungry, fearing for your sisters’ collective survival and walking around with the equivalent of a 25-pound weight stuck to your back. Unless you’ve got the patience of Penelope, I’d bet you’d be pretty prickly. I probably would be, too. And in late August and early September, I know our bees certainly were bothered by the conditions because I had two dozen bee sting welts to prove it.

Not all the bees my friend, Ann, and I keep on her property in Wiscasset were bee-ing that bee-tchy, just the 15,000 to 20,000 Italian bees buzzing around QE3’s long hive. The ladies in our other two vertical hives, queened by Latifah2 (her predecessor vanished without a trace in June) and Beeatrix, respectively, were less ornery, even if they were hangry. Originally, we chalked up the difference between the hives’ temperaments to, as all beekeeping resources tell us, every hive having its own distinct personality.

When some worker bees are about 21 days old – the age at which scientists say the venom in their stingers is at its most potent – they are tapped to serve as hive guards for a few days. Guard bees stand at the hive’s entrance on their back four legs with their front legs and antennae raised, inspecting every bee that attempts to enter the hive. They determine if a worker bee belongs to the colony by its odor. If they pass the sniff test, bees can enter. They also allow any bee approaching the entrance with a load of nectar or pollen pass. No colony minds accepting free food even if it come from a bee mistakenly homing in on the wrong hive. And most male drones come and go as they please as they pose no real threat.

Guard bees, will gang up on, sting, and remove all intruders — bumble bees, wasps and yellow jackets, included. They will also try to drive away larger interlopers like skunks, raccoons, and even their lovely beekeepers. Guard bees give beekeepers a warning before they release their final blow that – assuming you are not allergic – will hurt them more than it will hurt you. You’ll have a welt, they’ll die. But before they sting you, they buzz around your head. If you don’t heed that warning, they dive bomb into the net around your face again and again and again. If you persist, they go in for the sting on whatever part of your person is least protected. In my case, that’s on the tight parts of either my socks at the ankles or my jeans at the upper thigh. When they attack, they release an alarm pheromone that smells a little like banana to attract other guards to protect the hive. If you are not careful to step away from the hive and apply some smoke to your person to cover the scent, you’ll likely get stung multiple times in quick succession. That only happened to my ankles and thighs once, once on each location, in fact.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige uses a piping bag to ice the cupcakes. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

What we’d originally written off as bad temper for QE3’s cohort, we’ve since learned was more likely real distress as the drought choked off their nectar supply while the hive’s numbers were still rapidly multiplying. In addition, we concluded they carried a heavy load of varroa mites despite our initial effort to treat for them. These mites don’t kill the bees outright but attach to their backs and can transmit many viruses. The mites mainly feed and reproduce on larvae and pupae in the developing brood chamber, causing malformed wings and weakening the hive overall. In this weakened state, QE3’s girls likely worked themselves into frenzy about bees from healthier hives robbing them of the winter honey stores they were killing themselves to protect.

To learn how badly their hive was infected with the varroa mite, Rudalevige and her beekeeping partner collected bees and mites in a jar full of rubbing alcohol, then counted the number of mites. The news was not good. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

As soon as we understood their behavior – Ann is an avid beekeeping YouTube video watcher and Northeast Beekeeping Facebook group reader – we resumed feeding all three hives sugar water to make up for the lack of nectar. Honey production in all three hives kicked into high gear, but QE3’s lot were still cantankerous. We conducted a mite test – you scoop out a half cup of bees from a brood chamber and place them in a jar of rubbing alcohol. This wash kills the bees and separates the mites. You strain the alcohol to catch the bee carcasses but put the mites onto a paper towel for you to count. More than five or six mites means you have a problem. QE3’s hive had 45. We treated them a second time, the hive calmed down temperamentally, and we located a queen bee. But she did not sport the blue mark on her back that was placed there when we bought her to help us easily identify her. It’s likely we’d lost QE3, and the hive hatched this new queen to try to make everything right again. The jury is still out on whether the mite load is now low enough for this hive to survive through winter.

To ensure our three hives have plenty of honey to make it through the winter, we’ve not taken even a single drop for ourselves. We’ll check them a few more times before the first hard frost to make a couple of necessary hive configuration adjustments and maybe perform a final mite treatment, but the bulk of our beekeeping for 2020 is over. Ann’s husband Mark is busy making insulated quilt boxes to help the hives keep warm over the long Maine winter.

All we have left to do now is to worry and wait in hopes for a busy, buzzy spring.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Rudalevige pours honey into the buttercream for icing her cupcakes. She collected no honey from her hives this year, as the bees will need it themselves to make it through the winter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Banana Cupcakes with Honeyed Buttercream Frosting
I doctored two Martha Stewart recipes for this sweet treat. For the optional honey bee decorations, thinly slice black and yellow Jujyfruit – Dots or jelly beans – and stack them to look like the body of the real thing. Use slivered or sliced almonds for the wings.
Makes 18 cupcakes

2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup (115g) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup (100g) packed brown sugar
½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 ½ cups mashed banana
¾ cup (120ml) buttermilk

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon honey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line muffin tins with cupcake liners.

To make the cupcakes, in a medium-sized bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt together. Set aside.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the butter and both sugars together on high speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs and vanilla, then beat on medium-high speed until combined. Scrape down the sides as needed. Beat in the mashed banana. With the mixer on low speed, add the combined dry ingredients just until incorporated. With the mixer still running on low, slowly pour in the buttermilk until combined. Do not overmix.

Spoon batter into the cupcake liners so they are 2/3 full. Bake in the preheated oven until the cupcakes have risen and are golden brown, 18-20 minutes.

Allow the cupcakes to cool completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, in a large bowl, use an electric mixture to beat the butter until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon and honey. Beat again until fluffy, about 1 minute. Scoop the buttercream into a pastry bag and pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes.

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