Saturday, March 29, 2014

Regicide and the tiger queen of Kundip

It's called requeening.
When a queen isn't working, the hive does not thrive. It's weak. It's susceptible to invasion and disease. It's like a plant that hasn't been nurtured by food and water. And there is no honey either.

He's walking out into the paddock in his dressing gown, chuffing the bee smoker at his side with one hand. He's grizzled and grumpy after nights awake moving hives across the country.
 "Here's your nukes," He poured smoke into some boxes with bees buzzing at the entrance, and resolutely shut the grate. "You gotta let them out as soon as you get there, okay?"
Then he handed me a yellow plastic container, with air holes. It was small; the length of my palm.
"And here is your queen."

Off with the lazy Queen's head.
Decapitate her. Drop her head and her body into the hive so all the workers and drones know that their Queen is dead.

I arrived at Kundip mid afternoon and the first thing I did was put on my sheepskin boots and veil to set up the new hive boxes. Then I set down the nucleus boxes in front of their new home and opened the grate. They were probably starved for air and water by then. They swarmed out of the small nucleus boxes and wandered confused, three hundred and fifty kilometres from their home.
By the time I'd finished it was hot and so I took off my boots and went to check out my shack. I opened the door and walked in. It's built with cedar and smelt beautiful and looked just like I'd left it, a month or so ago. I could hear a the sound of a bee caught in a web; a throaty, hissing kind of noise. I got closer to see - and

Oh J@%#s F%&#ing Christ!

A tiger snake raised its head and had a lunge at me.
"It's about time you left," the snake spoke plain, as plain as only a snake can parse.
On my way out the door, I stumbled over my thongs, tripped, galloped away, and then stepped back on the veranda to have another look.
This was fucking outrageous. I bought this land. I built this shack. I have rights, yeah?
The snake glared at me.
So I went for a walk up the hill into the forest to think quietly about it all.

Pull up a frame and look for the queen. All of the bees will head for the base of the frame. Pull out another frame. And another. Look in the bottom of the box. You will be hot by then in the mid day sun, with your ugg boots, extra shirt from the op shop, your gloves and your veil. The smoker may have stopped working. Get some more newspaper and matches and try to light it with your gloved fingers. Stuff pine needles into the smoker. Try again. Watch errant match heads fly off into the bush. You must find the queen because you have to kill her.
The queen bee is longer, blonder and quieter than the other bees. As soon as you see her, you cut off her head with the blade end of the metal hive tool and dump her body in the bottom of the hive. The hum rises around you, and your sweat smells as sweet as adrenalin and honey and sheoak smoke.
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

I slept in the car that night. The bed, my beautiful bed, my shack, my beautiful shack, had been taken over by a tiger snake who wouldn't even let me in the front door. So I put the car's passenger seat into 'recline', turned on my head lamp and had a rather uncomfortable night reading a fictional account of Irish genealogies and beekeeping manuals. All of my bedding was inside the shack. I put on my coat and my socks and slogged out the night. As I warped and wefted in and out of sleep, cramped and cranky, I heard a heightening of activity in the back seat. The queen bee in her tiny yellow cage was being fanned, fed and kept alive by her five workers. The buzzing grew louder, then quietened again. They did this several times that night.
I was woken by the birds and the light. I drove into town looking for a snake handler, especially one who works for the shire council, because you know, my rates are paid and I don't even get a tip pass.
"Ahh. I'm new to the job," he said.  "I don't have the training to catch snakes but I'm coming into Hopey today. What kind of snake is it?"
"Oh bloody hell. Okay." (We all laugh.) "I'll drop in."

Within twenty four hours of killing her, you need to requeen the hive. Wrap the queen cage in exactly five squares of toilet paper, preferably scented. Break the tab on the queen cage. Plug the hole with one square of toilet paper. Place the package in between the fifth and sixth frame in the brood box. The bees will see this intrusion and work to clean it out of the hive. They will break away the toilet paper over a few days until they get to the plug. Then they will let out the queen. Hopefully they won't kill her.

The ranger arrived while I was in the middle of packing the queen cage between the frames and advised me that hobbyist hives must be at least three kilometres from the nearest apiarists reserve. He looked surprised when I said that Road Eleven was three point two kilometres from the shack. He got out a crooked stick and some pincers and proceeded in good humour to take my shack apart. He shone a torch under my bed and behind the stove. He poked his snake sticks around the filing cabinet. He lifted the mattress of my lovely bed to reveal the three live mice and two frogs living in the slats beneath.
Well, I wouldn't sleeping there tonight, not with that kind of bait under my warm body.
"So, is your ... er ... structure sealed against reptile invaders?" The ranger asked.
We stood in the centre of the room and watched the beams of light come in. His apprentice stayed respectfully outside.
"Look, you've gotta seal this place up," said the ranger.
After his wrecking the place for snakes he said that I should bait for rats and mice to keep tiger snake food at a minimum.
"But what about the pygmy possums who live here too? I don't want to poison them.""

 "They are nectar feeders, so they won't eat mouse baits. You won't have to worry about that snake tonight anyway, love. It's definitely not here. It won't be back. If it does come back, the old people say put flour on the floor, so you can see its tracks in and out. And you know that tug rope? The stuff that washes up on the beach?"

The apprentice nods. "Yeah."
"Well the old people put it all around their houses. Apparently snakes don't like crawling over it because of the bristles. The old people say that. And the flour trick. It's a good trick that one."
"Well good," I said. "That's good advice. Thanks."
"Glad to have helped."
After the ranger left, I walked back inside the shack and saw the snake folding itself back under my bed, its yellow, striped stomach curled into black, like a Celtic spiral.

For the second night, I slept (sort of) in the front seat of my car.


  1. Christ, Sarah - the inside and outside of your shack and hive sounds terrifying. It IS terrifying. Hive politics sound positively Tudor.I don't want to disturb your sleep in the car any more than needed, but H.I. once returned to a burnt-out Volvo in Texas to find she had been travelling miles with a rattle-snake beneath her seat. Keep those doors closed during the day! A really gripping tale, though.

  2. Well the whole idea of regicide is probably a man-made concept.
    Tiger snakes however. Whose invention were they?

    1. Well, royalty is a man-made idea but you still qualify.

  3. Great story. Your life is never dull Sarah. The bees sound quite complicated.

  4. One of the mysteries of life is now cleared up. All that old tug rope kept around shacks - I remember seeing yards and yards of the stuff as a kid - not for decoration!!!

    1. Ha! Yes, when he said that, I remembered too Janine.
      I guess it would be important to put the rope around the shack AFTER I've got the snake out though.

  5. I really enjoyed your story - as Tom said, gripping!

  6. God Sarah. Great story. All of it. Love it.

  7. Thanks Cathy and Melba.
    I felt a bit depressed driving home, like I'd failed in some kind of Amazonian duty.
    "You know they are protected," the ranger said to me quietly, "but you can knock them off if they are living in your house."
    These guys are so territorial that I think it may be the only answer. Unfortunately I don't have the gumption.

  8. I don't know what sort of condition your shack is in, but you couldn't sort the problem out with some fibro sheeting, rubber seals and a dozen tubes of silicone, could you?

    As for getting the bugger out the door – I'm going to suggest a very good pair of boots and something with a very long handle.

  9. Oh Alex ... it's one of THOSE shacks. Expander foam may work around the base but then there are the rafters and then all the cracks in the walls. Hence my getting depressed. It's a big project.

  10. Great story Sarah. Love those Kundip ones.
    Did the new queen take?

  11. I'm not sure yet Ciaran. I think it takes about ten days to find out.