The Queen is Dead, the Queen is Dead! Long Live the Hive! Part 2

Our new queen @empirebeefarm
The new queen is getting to work

Like any good beekeeper, we had read a lot of beekeeping books. But, as we’ve found so far this year, reading about something and doing it in real life is completely different. Likewise, actually going through the process of raising a queen is just not the same as reading about it. The process can take a long time, as the queens have to develop, hatch, mature, mate, and start laying. And a lot can go wrong at any point. We humbly resigned any notion of harvest a significant amount of honey this year, and decided that we really needed hands-on experience so when we’re faced with this situation again we know what to do. Since we are managing only two hives, we could afford to take our time to focus on this one hive and really understand the process of allowing a hive to requeen itself. This would not only be beneficial to a full working hive, but also to raising nucs and queens. So while requeen with a mature queen would have short-term benefits to allow us to collect (and sell) a lot of honey, the long-term benefits to us becoming better beekeepers through this experience would surely be worth it. Knowledge is worth more than honey anyway.

After realizing the colony was raising supersedure cells, we looked through the hive for the queen to be sure we didn’t accidentally kill her. Sure enough, she was there. We didn’t pinch her off, but wanted the colony to take care of the situation as naturally as possible.  That would mean that upon the hatching of a replacement queen, we would have a two-queen hive. After the new queen is mated, the old queen would be killed or kicked out of the hive. So, we closed up the hive with the queen cell and let them do their thing.

The next week we opened up the hive and saw the queen had hatched, but didn’t take the time to track her down.

The next week we again checked the hive. We saw no queen and no eggs. Hmmm. It had been rainy weather, so perhaps her mating flight was delayed and we just missed her when inspecting?

Another week went by. Again, we did not find any queen – new or old. And no eggs. Crap. Our plan to allow the hive to raise their own queen was not panning out. And the hive was out of eggs to raise new queen cells. Meanwhile, the nuc that we made a couple weeks prior was doing great.  The queen had hatched and was starting to lay. We decided to use this nuc as our backup plan, and merged it with the hive.

Cover the hive with newspaper @empirebeefarm
First, cover the hive with a sheet of newspaper
Place the new colony on top of the newspaper @empirebeefarm
Next, place the new colony on top of the newspaper.  That’s it!
The process of merging two colonies is quite simple. We opened the hive and removed the inner cover, replacing it with a sheet of newspaper. Next a hive body containing the nuc and empty frames was placed on top of the newspaper. The excess newspaper was cut off, and the inner and outer covers were put on. The newspaper acts as a barrier so there is no fighting between the two colonies and to also protect the queen. The bees will chew through the newspaper, allowing the pheromones of the two colonies to mix. By the time the holes in the newspaper are big enough to pass through, the bees are familiar with everyone’s scent and there is no fight and no killing of the queen.

We placed the inner and outer covers on and let the bees do their thing. The fully merged hive should be ready to go by next week. That was probably the simplest thing we had done all summer. If only everything else was so simple.

The Queen is Dead, the Queen is Dead! Long Live the Hive! Part 1

Listen to your bees.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming.  Looking back, the signs were there.  But this being our first year, we didn’t know exactly what was going on.  We still didn’t understand bee language.

All honey, no brood

It started with some queen cells in the established hive.  A couple months ago we opened the hive and in the medium brood box (1 deep and 1 medium) there were a hand-full of queen cells on a frame.  We thought the hive was preparing to swarm, so we took obvious preventative measures by removing the queen cells and adding a deep brood box to give the colony some room to expand.  We checked again the following week, and again there were queen cells.  That seemed a bit odd since they had plenty of room to expand.  We figured the cells were left over from the previous week and removed them.  Meanwhile, the hive seemed to be quite busy.  They were packing all the frames in both the brood chamber and the super with nectar.  They weren’t really drawing new comb very well, but they were really filling the hive up with nectar.

After another two weeks we went back into the hive and again saw queen cells.  This time they were capped.  And not only that, as we were examining the frame, we saw a new queen hatching.  That in and of itself was very cool to witness.  But our awe was short-lived as we tried to figure out what was going on with this colony.  We moved the frame with the new queen plus a frames of brood, honey, and pollen to a 5-frame nuc box.  Our first nuc!  That was exciting.

When we opened the hive up the following week there was yet another queen cell.  Another one?  No matter what we did the past month these girls were persistent in making a new queen.  We tried giving them more room, adding another super, splitting them into a nuc.  What were they trying to tell us?  It was then we realized we weren’t dealing with a swarming hive, we were dealing with a failing queen.

It all started to add up.  The queen was supposedly two or three years old.  While we still saw eggs, there were less and less opened and capped brood and more and more nectar.  The laying pattern was spotty.  The queen cells were on only one frame, and clustered together.  And there was plenty of room in the hive.  We had been so concerned with (and read so much about ) swarming that a failing queen wasn’t even on our mind.

At this point we had a decision to make.  Buy a queen or let the hive raise a new one?  The first option is the quickest and the most fool proof.  Pick up a new queen that was raised and selected by a breeder, add her in a queen cage, come back in a few days to check that she was accepted, and you’re done.  The second option is much longer and far more risky.  The hive will raise several queen cells.  Once they hatch, the most fit queen will kill off remaining queens and queen cells, at which point she will mate and start laying.  The whole process takes 3 to 4 weeks.  It’s a lengthy process that can go wrong at any time.  Perhaps the bees will raise sub-par queens.  Maybe the queen will get killed on her mating flight.  Or she may mate with an inferior drone.  If anything goes wrong, the process starts over.  The hive could go queenless for a couple months.  In the interim a laying worker may emerge that screws the whole thing up.  The whole colony could collapse and be lost.

So which option did we choose?  The sure-fire method that would get our hive back in shape in time to salvage the remainder of the nectar flow?  Or the risky we-could-lose-it-all method that could cause us headaches and sleepless nights?  Of course we picked the path that could lead to total failure.  More of that in Part 2.