This was a surprise as the queen I had expected to find in the box should have been marked blue 2.
A potted history
The colony had overwintered with a 2016 white marked and clipped queen. I’d conducted a vertical split on the colony in mid-May and by early July I had two queens in the box, one above and one below the split board.
Neither of them was marked white.
A few days after setting up the split the queenright half looked very much like it was preparing to either supercede the queen or swarm. The white marked queen was still there but there were also charged queen cells present.
Either supercedure or swarming should have eventually resulted in the queen being replaced. However, the quality of her successor could not be relied upon … she might have been great, but she might have been poor. The white clipped queen was pretty good and I didn’t want to lose her 3.
I therefore made up a nuc with the ‘old’ white marked queen for safety and left the box with one charged queen cell.
The upper and lower boxes of the split both eventually – by early July – contained new queens, both of which I’d marked blue and clipped.
On the 7th of July I made up a nuc for overwintering with one of the blue clipped queens. The remainder of the – now queenless – colony I united with the queenright colony below it from the original vertical split. This formed one good strong colony.
We had an excellent nectar flow in July and I got two full supers from the colony by the end of the month.
Pining for the fjords
Nine days after making up the nuc and uniting the colonies I conducted a follow-up inspection. The newspaper was chewed away and most of the bees were behaving as normal. So far, so good.
However, on one frame the bees were agitated and formed a gobstopper-sized clump. I gently teased apart the melee with my forefinger to see if there was a queen buried in the middle … there was.
Unmarked and unclipped. Puzzling.
A little further across the same frame was another queen. To paraphrase Monty Python, this queen was not ‘stunned’ or ‘pining for the fjords’, rather she was very much an ex-queen. And probably relatively recently.
So, as expected, I’d found the 2018 blue-marked and clipped queen in the united colony.
Unexpectedly, she was a corpse 🙁
If in doubt … wait
What was going on in the colony? Frankly, I didn’t have a Scooby’s 4.
Was the (apparently) new, unmarked queen mated or a virgin? Presumably the latter. However, other colonies in the apiary were requeening and it’s not unknown for a queen to go to the wrong hive when returning from a mating flight.
Would she survive the aggravation she was receiving from the workers in the colony?
Where had the new queen come from? If not from outside she must have come from a queen cell in the split hive. However, both sides of the split had new 2018 mated queens, and the timing wasn’t really right.
Under these circumstances the best thing is often to do nothing. I closed the hive up. My notes simply state “Dead BMCLQ! Virgin?? Left them to it.” 5.
No happy ending
Much as I’d like to be able to report that now, a month later, the colony is headed by a new mated queen laying frame after frame of worker brood … I can’t.
At the last inspection 6 the colony only contained several hand-sized patches of brood. However, it was all drone brood in worker cells.
The combination of drone brood in worker cells, with their characteristically domed cappings on sealed brood, coupled with the clustered arrangement of the brood clearly indicated that the colony contained a drone-laying queen (DLQ).
Drone laying queen …
Within the patches of drone brood were one or two attempts to make queen cells. These were abnormally shaped – either short, fat and unsculpted or overly long – and are often seen in colonies with DLQs or laying workers.
It’s too late in the year (here in Fife) to get a new queen mated – at least with any certainty. The bees in the colony were old and their numbers were much reduced. I therefore cut my losses and shook the colony out in front of a row of strong hives.
It’s difficult to see where things went wrong with this colony, or what I could have done to rescue the situation.
Perhaps the timing of my inspection – presumably very soon after the blue queen was killed – distressed the colony, causing them to ball (and possibly also kill) the new queen. Sufficient time then elapsed for the colony to rear a new queen (~16 days) from the eggs or larvae originally laid by the blue queen. However, this queen – who I never found – was either unmated or unsuccessfully mated and was a drone layer.
Colony inspections usually concentrate on the brood box. This is where all the action is. This is where the queen is and where there needs to be sufficient space for the colony to expand.
Or, if times are lean, sufficient stores and pollen to survive.
In contrast, the honey supers get no more than a cursory glance. There’s little of interest going on up there until it’s time to harvest the honey for extraction.
If the supers are light there’s nothing more to do other than hope for a good nectar flow in the future. In contrast, if they’re really heavy they might be ready to remove for extraction. If the frames are all capped the honey is ready.
Usually the supers are not heavy enough (a full super weighs something like 25kg) and they often don’t even get a glance, instead being bodily lifted off and left in a pile while the brood box is inspected.
Nectar has a high water content which the bees evaporate off during the production of honey. If they didn’t get rid of the water the stores would ferment. Since honey is hygroscopic they then add a wax ‘cap’ to the honey-filled cell to protect their stores for the winter.
Nectar is generally stored in the supers, starting in the middle of the middle frames and moving towards the periphery. This is the warmest part of the hive and presumably the easiest to evaporate water from. Therefore, the central frames in the super are most likely to contain capped honey stores.
Ready to extract …
All I do when checking a heavy super is to first briefly look at the central frame to see if the stores are capped. If they are not then there’s no point in looking anywhere else in the super.
If the central frame is capped then it’s worth looking to see if the outside frames are as well. If so a clearer board can be placed below the super and you can take the honey for extraction.
Actually, there’s a bit more complexity as sometimes the honey is ready to extract, but isn’t capped. I’ll deal with that another time. The point I’m (slowly) trying to make is that supers are rarely checked in any detail … until they’re full.
It’s therefore interesting what turns up when you do remove them for extraction.
Pollen and stores-free area
With a strong colony, the bottom super i.e. the one immediately above the queen excluder, often has no honey stored in a semi-circular area immediately above the brood nest. Sometimes the edge of this clear area, adjacent to the honey, contains a band of stored pollen.
This clear area indicates that the colony need more space. The workers are keeping it clear for the queen to lay, but the queen excluder prevents her from accessing it. Sometimes you can get the bees to backfill this area by switching the super with one higher in the stack.
“Billy no mates” brood
It’s not unusual to find a very few scattered capped pupae in a stack of supers. These are almost invariably drone pupae, irrespective of whether the drawn super comb is on worker or drone foundation. In ~24 supers I extracted last weekend I saw three or four.
Billy no-mates …
I’ve always assumed that these were due to laying worker activity. There are always a few laying workers in a colony, but their numbers are suppressed by a pheromone produced by unsealed brood. Laying workers can be a significant problem in queenless and broodless colonies.
Since workers are unmated, the eggs that laying workers produce are unfertilised and so develop as drones 1.
There may be other explanations for these singleton pupae e.g. workers moving eggs up from the brood box. However, this doesn’t explain why they are almost always drones 2.
Sometimes you’ll find a super packed with brood in all stages … wall to wall eggs, open and sealed brood. This happens when the queen has somehow sneaked above the queen excluder.
When this has happened to me I usually put it down to a lack of attentiveness in checking the underside of the queen excluder when opening the box. If the queen was on the underside and the QE is leant against the hive stand she can easily wander round to the other side, thereby giving her access to the supers.
Spot the queen
While checking supers for extraction last month I found one box – the lowest super of a stack of three – contained two or three frames with small amounts of clustered brood 3.
Another example of inattentiveness? Possibly, but there were some oddities about this colony.
Eggs and sealed brood …
Firstly, there was no open brood … just eggs and sealed brood. I uncapped a few cells and the pupae were all just at the purple eyed stage. This is day 15 for workers and day 16 for drones. Since eggs hatch after 3 days this means that there had been a gap of at least 12 days when the queen wasn’t laying.
Half-sisters of the same age …
Secondly, there was both worker and drone sealed brood present, but it was on separate frames. There was no drone brood in worker cells, which have characteristically domed caps 4.
Finally, I checked the brood box. There was plenty of brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed pupae – in a busy hive. However, I didn’t see the queen (who was nominally marked and clipped) but by this time I was in a bit of a rush.
A partial solution
Some of these apparent oddities have a straightforward explanation.
The separation of drone and worker brood is because I use a range of different frames in my supers – worker foundation, drone foundation and foundationless. They start as matched boxes, but over the years have got completely mixed up.
All the drone brood was in a super frame originally drawn from drone foundation.
That was easy 😉
However, why was there brood at all in the super if the brood box contained the laying queen?
Or should that read a laying queen?
Perhaps there was another queen in the super?
Aside from speculating about how she got there, or – if she was the original queen in the box – where the one ‘downstairs’ came from, there’s also the puzzle about why she’d taken a 12 day holiday from egg laying.
And where the hell was she now?
She’d been in the top box sometime in the last 3 days (because there were eggs present). However, although I’m reasonably good at finding queens, I searched in vain in this super (and the two above) and couldn’t find her.
Time to be pragmatic
Carefully looking through ~30 super frames takes time and I was running out of both time and patience. These three supers were ready for extraction and I still had half a dozen colonies to check.
I could continue looking and eventually find her … if she was there at all.
If she wasn’t, I’d obviously never find her.
What did I do?
I shook all the bees off the super frames – directly over the brood box5 – and took them away for extraction.
I’m a great believer in Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is probably the correct one.
I reasoned that there was probably one queen in the box. Any other explanation was going to get convoluted.
If there was only one queen she was either in the brood box or the supers.
If she was in the brood box then all was well.
If she was in the supers she’d hopefully end up in the brood box.
There was little point in using a clearer board if the queen was in the supers. Firstly, with brood present many bees would probably remain. Secondly, if the queen was present in the supers, they’d definitely not clear.
Super frames with brood …
And … what happened?
I got well over 60 lb of honey from the colony 🙂
There was a blue marked and clipped queen in the bottom box when I checked the colony a few days later.
She was (still) laying well.
I suspect that the queen excluder was faulty or damaged. It was a wooden-framed wire one. If the wires were prised apart during cleaning or through carelessness the queen could get up into the super.
She could also therefore return to the brood box.
The 12 day gap in laying was probably explained by the queen returning to the brood box during this period.
The two short stints when she’d been ‘upstairs’ hadn’t noticeably left gaps in the brood pattern in the brood box – she might have only nipped up for a few hours or so. There were only a few hundred cells with eggs or pupae in the super.
And the most unsatisfactory thing of all … I thoughtlessly stacked the queen excluder with five others from the same apiary and so now need to carefully inspect all of them for damage 🙁
As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.
In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.
We’re in clover
Busy bees …
Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.
I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principle – not too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.
A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.
That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.
Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂
But, there’s always a but …
I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.
In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.
How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?
I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.
I See You Baby
What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.
And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:
Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?
I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.
This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.
The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.
In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.
You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).
Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.
It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.
How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?
I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.
Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.
One is not enough
I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.
With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.
Two are better than one …
The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.
Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.
Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.
As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.
Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.
These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.
Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.
The time is right
For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.
Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.
Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.
Good laying pattern …
Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.
Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.
That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.
In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.
Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.
Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.
Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.
Another one for the extractor …
I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.
However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.
Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.
In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.
‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.
Despite the best efforts of the Beast from the East 1 Spring is definitely on the way.
The snowdrops and crocus have been out for some time, willow is looking good, large queen bumble bees are searching for nest sites and the temperature here in Fife has consistently reached double figures during the warmest part of the day for the last week.
Consistently … but only just and only briefly.
Pollen boost …
Consequently it’s too cold for full inspections and the only colonies I’ve been ‘in’ are the two described below. However, I’ve not ignored the others. I’ve lifted the crownboard on most colonies to determine their approximate strength (or just peeked through those with perspex crownboards which is even less intrusive) and have continued to heft colonies to see if they have enough stores. Those that were feeling a bit light have had a fondant top up. I’ve also given several colonies a pollen boost to help them rear early season brood.
Other than that – and moving colonies to the new bee shed – I’ve left them well alone.
Early season checkups
On the warmest part of the warmest day of the week I visited the apiary to check the colony strength. With the exception of two, all were flying well with foragers returning laden with pale yellow pollen.
However, two were suspiciously quiet, with only a handful of bees going in and out 2.
A pretty small handful.
Almost none of the bees returning to these two colonies carried pollen.
One was a five frame poly nuc in the bee shed. This had been made up in mid/late summer while the parental colony was requeened. The old queen, a frame of emerging brood with the adhering bees and a frame of stores had gone into the nuc box. The little colony had built up reasonably well going by my infrequent peeks through the transparent crownboard, but not well enough to move them to a full hive for the winter.
The other suspiciously quiet colony was a full (or full-sized 🙁 ) hive headed by one of the older queens in my apiary. Most colonies are requeened annually or every other year, but this one was reared in my first year in Scotland (2015) 3.
I popped the lid off both colonies and examined them in greater detail. It wasn’t the recommended ‘shirtsleeve weather‘ by a long-shot, but I feared the worst and didn’t think a bit of cold would do these two any further damage.
The nuc contained about a cup full of bees and a small, unclipped pale queen.
Overwintered virgin queen?
This definitely wasn’t the queen I’d put in the box last August. For whatever reason, the colony had clearly replaced the queen late in the year. It hadn’t swarmed, so it looks like they’d tried to supercede the old queen. Going by the total absence of worker brood I presume the new queen hadn’t mated successfully, or at all, and that she was a virgin.
She wasn’t running about skittishly like new virgin queens do, but she wasn’t doing anything very useful either.
There were a few drones in the colony and one or two sealed drone cells. Whether these were from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, or laying workers, is largely irrelevant 4. The colony was doomed …
The full sized colony was only full sized in terms of the hive it occupied. Inside there was another rather pathetic cupful of bees together with a very tatty, marked and clipped queen 5. There was more paint on her head than her thorax and I remember marking her with a very ‘blobby’ Posca pen. This was the queen I’d expected to find in the box.
Old and tired …
There were no drones in this colony, but no eggs either. There was also no sign of a second queen or evidence of attempted supercedure. I suspect the ageing queen simply ran out of sperm, stopped laying and never got started again.
Sometimes old queens turn into drone layers and sometimes they just stop. I’m not sure why they exhibit this different behaviour. It might actually reflect when they’re detected. I think I usually find drone laying queens a bit later in the Spring. Perhaps a failed queen starts laying (unfertilised) eggs only once the ambient temperature has risen sufficiently to help the much-reduced numbers of workers keep the brood nest warm enough?
That’s guesswork. It’s still cold here, with frost most nights. The small number of bees in the colony would have been unable to maintain the mid-30’s temperatures required for brood rearing. It’s surprising they’d survived this long.
Neither colony had any obvious signs of disease. The floor of the full hive was thigh-deep – if you’re a bee – in corpses.
Winter losses …
However, a good poke around through the cadavers failed to find any with signs of the deformed wings that are indicative of high viral loads. I hadn’t really expected to … the Varroa loads in this colony in the late-summer and midwinter treatments had been very low.
Lose them or use them?
Clearly both queens had failed. Both were despatched. To keep them in the vain hope that they’d miraculously start laying again would have been a waste of time and, more importantly, other bees. The virgin would now be too old to get mated and there won’t be drones available here for at least 6 weeks.
This left the dilemma of what to do with the remaining bees. Both colonies were apparently healthy, but too small to survive. In the autumn the obvious thing to do is to unite small healthy colonies with large healthy colonies. This strengthens the latter further and helps them get through the winter.
However, this is the Spring. There were probably no more than 300 bees in either of the failed hives. All of these bees would have been at least 3 months old, and quite probably significantly older. They were unlikely to live much longer.
Furthermore, uniting these small colonies with larger colonies in the apiary would have caused disruption to the latter and increased the volume of the hive to be kept warm. Neither of these are desirable.
I therefore shook both small colonies out allowing the healthy flying bees to redistribute themselves around the half dozen strong hives in the apiary. Before shaking them out I either moved the original hive altogether or – in the case of the nuc from the shed – sealed the entrance, forcing them to look elsewhere for a colony to accept them.
The term dud is used these days to mean a “thing that fails to function in the way that it is designed to”, with this usage dating back to the 1914-18 war where it referred to shells that failed to explode. However, the word is much older. Its original meaning was a cloak or mantle, often of coarse cloth, with references to the word dudde dating back to the 14th Century. Over the next few hundred years the meaning, in the plural duds, evolved to mean clothes and – more rarely but more specifically – ragged, shabby clothes or scraps of cloth. This seemed appropriate considering the tatty state of the old marked queen …
I’ve previously commented that weak colonies that build up very slowly in Spring are more trouble than they’re worth. The resources they need – syrup, frames of emerging brood, more TLC – are rarely reflected in the subsequent honey yield.
Quite the contrary, they’re often a lost cause and it could be argued that, from a purely efficiency point of view, it would be better if the colony succumbed during the winter than staggered on into the Spring.
Better still, assuming they’re disease free, use the bees in the autumn by sacrificing the queen and uniting the colony with a strong colony. You’ll boost the latter and strong colonies both overwinter better and build up better the following year.
Do as I say, don’t do as I do.
All the above makes perfect sense, but a combination of sentimentality and ill-placed optimism means that it’s not unusual – in late Spring – to find myself being reminded that “weak colonies that build up very slowly in Spring are more trouble than they’re worth”.
And it’s happened again.
One of my colonies was undersized in late autumn and had built up very slowly this Spring. The queen was a little older than most in the apiary but she’d done well in the past and I thought she might have another season in her. Varroa drops in late autumn and mid-winter had been very low and the bees were beautifully tempered, calm, steady on the comb and a pleasure to work with.
But in the first inspection of the year (10th of May) there just weren’t enough of them. The queen was laying, pollen was coming in, there were no signs of disease and the colony behaviour remained exemplary.
Comparison between colonies is very informative. That’s why it’s easier to maintain two colonies than one. Other colonies in the same apiary were building up well. By late May I was starting swarm prevention measures on these, using pre-emptive vertical splits.
The small colony was largely forgotten or ignored. I peeked through the perspex crownboard a couple of times and could see they were building up.
I got distracted harvesting the early season honey from other colonies, running out of frames and with more swarm prevention and control. I finally completed a full inspection of the colony on the 17th of June, shortly before the summer solstice and the first official day of summer (so still technically Spring).
Queen failure … not epic, but failure nevertheless
The colony had only a couple of frames of brood and covered a frame or two more than that. The temper and behaviour was still very good. The queen was present and laying. She was being attended by a retinue of workers and not being ignored or harassed.
Failing queen …
But she was clearly losing her faculties. Many of the cells contained two or more eggs.
Multiple eggs in cells are often seen with laying workers and sometimes seen when a newly mated queen first starts laying. With laying workers the eggs are often placed on the sidewalls of cells and, as they’re unmated, they develop into drones. The brood pattern is scattered randomly around the frame. With newly mated queens the eggs are usually correctly placed in the base of the cell†.
The colony was clearly doomed. They showed no sign of trying to replace the queen, without which the future was bleak. I needed to rescue something from the situation. The choice depended on my interpretation of what had gone wrong. The options were:
Queen failure, plain and simple
Laying workers in a colony with a failed queen still present (an unusual situation)
A new, recently mated, queen was also present with the old queen (supercedure)
A thorough inspection of the colony failed to find another queen or any evidence of a recently vacated queen cell. Frankly this didn’t take long, the colony was simply too small to ‘hide’ either of these. Option 3 could therefore be discounted. The presence of another queen would be really important if I was considering requeening the colony or uniting it with a queenright hive – both these are likely to go badly if there was a queen still present.
There was no drone brood at all in the colony and the laying pattern was clustered as would be expected from eggs laid by a queen. Option 2 could therefore almost certainly be discounted. Fortunately again as it’s difficult to requeen a colony containing laying workers. As another aside, I can’t remember seeing a colony with laying workers that also contained a (failed) queen.
That left the most likely explanation for the multiple eggs (and the undersized colony) was the simple failure of the queen. For whatever reason, she was laying at a much lower rate than usual and had started laying multiple eggs in cells. Of the three possibilities, this is the most straightforward. Occam’s razor (William of Ockham, ~1287-1347) is the problem-solving principle that states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one.
Better late than never
The queen was removed from the colony and it was united over newspaper on top of a strong hive in the same apiary. Two days later the Varroa board underneath the colony was covered in shredded paper indicating that the colonies were united successfully.
Successful uniting …
Which is what I should have done in mid-autumn last year.
Better late than never 😉
A few days later I rearranged the colony, placing the two frames of brood into the bottom brood box and putting a clearer board underneath the top brood box. The resulting single colony, now a bit stronger, will be well-placed for the summer nectar flow and the nine frames of drawn comb vacated by the colony will be reused making up nucs for overwintering.
† Interestingly, I’ve never seen several larvae developing in cells after the multiple eggs hatch. Either the excess eggs or larvae must be removed by workers. I presume this means that the workers can’t count eggs, but may be able to count larvae – not literally of course, but by the amount of pheromones produced presumably. If they could count eggs they’d remove the excess and leave only one, making the identification of laying workers (or a recently mated misfiring queen) much more difficult. Something to be thankful for perhaps? They can, of course, identify the origin of eggs – this process is the basis of worker policing which was touched on in discussion of Apis mellifera capensis, and is of relevance to those using grafting for queen rearing.
The title of this post is a corruption of The Autumn of the Patriarch, a book by the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, written in 1975. The book is about the God-like power and status of a dictator, the General, and the awe in which he is held by the people. Of course, this isn’t the situation in matriarchal honey bee colonies, the structure of which is determined as much – if not more – by the workers, the brood and the circulating pheromones.
One of characteristics that distinguishes inexperienced and experienced beekeepers is the time taken finding the queen. Generally an experienced beekeeper will be much, much faster. Not every time – anyone can have a good day or a bad day – but on average.
A local queen
An inexperienced beekeeper will carefully scrutinise every frame, turning it end over end with the half-way rotation they were taught during the midwinter beekeeping beginners course they attended. They’ll examine the end bars and the bottom bar. They’ll look again at either side of the frame and will then slowly return it to the box.
The experienced beekeeper will gently open the hive and lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame. They’ll look across the remaining seams of bees before splitting them somewhere in the middle. They’ll lift out the frame on the nearside of the split and expect to find the queen on it or on the frame on the far side of the split.
And they usually do.
No, experience. And not necessarily in actually spotting the queen. Mostly this experience is in better handling of the colony in a way that maximises the chances of seeing the queen.
In the couple of paragraphs above I hinted at these differences. The beginner goes through the entire brood box thoroughly. The experienced beekeeper ‘cuts to the chase’ and splits the box at or near the middle of the brood nest.
The beginner takes time over the scrutiny of every frame. The time taken by the beginner – probably coupled with additional smoking of the hive – disturbs the colony. Disturbance results in the bees becoming agitated, which causes the beginner to give them a couple more puffs of smoke … all of which unsettles the colony (and the queen) further. Ad infinitum.
In contrast, the experienced beekeeper only bothers with the frames on which the queen is most likely to be present. The experienced beekeepers is quick, as gentle as possible and causes as little disturbance as possible … and probably uses only a small amount of smoke.
Focus where needed, skip the rest
Locally bred queen …
With minimal disturbance the queen will be in or around the brood nest. She’ll almost certainly be on a frame with eggs, young larvae and ‘polished’ cells. Polished cells are those that have been prepared by the workers ready for the queen to lay in. They usually have a distinctive shiny appearance to the inner walls; this is particularly easy to see if the comb is old and dark.
There’s little chance the (undisturbed) queen will be on sealed brood and even less chance she’ll be wandering around on frames of stores. All that time taken by the beginner examining a frame of sealed stores contributes to the disturbance of the colony and reduces the likelihood of the queen being where she should be.
The experienced beekeeper splits the box at or near where s/he expects to find eggs and very young brood. There’s probably only a couple of frames in the box that are at the right stage and it’s experience – of the concentration of bees in the seams and the behaviour of those bees – that allows most of the other frames to be safely ignored.
Reassuring but unnecessary
The reality is that, during routine inspections, finding the queen is not necessary. The only times you have to find her is when you’re going to manipulate the hive or colony in a way that necessitates knowing where the queen is e.g. an artificial swarm or vertical split.
The rest of the time it’s sufficient to just look for the evidence that the queen is present. The first of these is the general temperament of the colony. Queenless colonies are usually less well tempered. However, this isn’t alone a dependable sign as lots of other things can change the temper of the colony for the worse e.g. the weather or a strong nectar flow stopping.
The key thing to look for is the presence of eggs in the colony. If they are seen the queen must have been present within the last 3 days. In addition, the orientation of the eggs – standing near vertically or lying more horizontally – can provide more accurate timing. Eggs start vertical and end horizontal over the three days before they hatch. This is usually sufficient evidence that the queen is present.
Of course, just finding eggs isn’t sufficient evidence that the colony isn’t thinking of swarming. To determine that there are other things to check for e.g. the rate at which eggs are being laid and the presence or absence of queen cells, but I’ll deal with these in more detail some other time.
If you still feel the need to see the queen on every inspection my advice is to stop looking for her … at least consciously. Instead, concentrate on what really matters. Look for the evidence that the colony is queenright, by comparison with your notes work out whether the queen is laying more or less than at the last inspection, observe the laying pattern and look for signs of brood diseases.
By doing this you’ll predominantly be concentrating on the frames the queen is most likely to be on anyway. By doing this with minimal disruption to the colony the queen should remain undisturbed. Instead of running around frantically she’ll be calmly seeking out polished cells to lay eggs in. Therefore your chances of finding the queen are increased.
Observe the behaviour of bees to other bees on the frame – not by staring at every bee, but by quickly scanning for normal and unusual behaviour. Get used to the rate they walk about on the frames, their pattern of movement and how closely they approach each other.
When undisturbed, the queen is the one that looks out of place. She’s bigger of course, she walks about with more purpose and often more slowly than other bees. The workers make way for her, often parting as she approaches and closing up again as she passes. She may stop regularly to inspect cells or to lay eggs. Bees may be more attentive to her than to other bees. She’s the odd one out.
If you’re intent on finding the queen, stop searching and start seeing.
This is a continuation of the post from last week (Drone Laying Workers; DLW’s) on possible ways to fix things if you only have small numbers of colonies. If you have loads of colonies and/or have no interest in maintaining colony numbers you can simply shake the bees out or unite with a strong colony … there’s no need to read any further. However, if you have only two or three colonies and want to keep them then this might work for you.
Disclaimer … this works for me but there are no guarantees 😉
Multiple eggs …
Although DLW’s can clearly return to a colony after shaking them out (see image right and the explanation of what it shows posted last week), the numbers are significantly reduced … or at least look as though they are. To be pedantic you actually can’t be sure the number of DLW’s is reduced without formally testing it … perhaps they’re all still present, just laying fewer eggs? I can’t think of an easy way to discriminate between fewer and the same number doing less. Can you?
However, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the numbers are reduced based upon two observations:
the number of ‘mislaid’ eggs per day appears to be lower in what is still a broodless and queenless hive (i.e. the same conditions that prevailed before shaking the bees out)
a colony that has previously refused to draw queen cells on an introduced frame of eggs and young larvae is – in my experience – much more likely to do so after shaking them out
The second observation is, to me, the clincher. Colonies with well-established DLW’s often completely ignore the first frame or two of open brood added to them. They rear the larvae as normal, but don’t start generating queen cells because they still consider themselves queenright. Remember, as discussed last week, it is the open brood pheromone that suppresses ovary development by workers and you may need to repeatedly add a new frame of open brood every few days before you finally overcome this. With only a couple of colonies, the DLW’s might be saved but the other colonies will definitely be weakened.
However, if you combine shaking the bees out with the addition of a frame of eggs and young larvae there’s a reasonable to good chance they’ll recognise their queenlessness and start drawing out emergency queen cells (QC’s). Once that’s been achieved you’re in a much better position to rescue the colony.
Prevention is better than cure
Drone laying queen …
Far better you identify a colony is queenless and resolve that before they are irretrievably broodless. This requires regular inspections and careful observation. Once the colony appears queenless and devoid of worker brood you need to look for the characteristic signs of a random pattern of drone brood in worker cells and multiple poorly placed eggs. Remember that newly mated queens sometimes lay multiple eggs per cell, but – at least in empty drawn comb – these are more likely to be clustered in the centre of the frame within an area of ‘polished cells’ prepared by the workers. In contrast, DLW’s eggs are usually dotted all around the place (see the image at the bottom of this article). The only other queen problem DLW’s can be confused with is a drone laying queen … in these colonies there is usually a clustered pattern of drone brood (see image right and compare it with the one further down the page), sometime mixed with worker brood if she’s only just starting to fail, in the centre of the frame.
Don’t leave things too late
If you’re confident in your diagnosis of drone laying workers then don’t delay. The longer you leave things the worse the situation will get … more workers will start laying eggs, the colony will weaken, the younger bees in the colony will age etc. All of these things makes rescuing the situation less likely. If you’re not confident in your diagnosis then ask someone else.
Once I’m confident a colony has DLW’s I do the following:
move the original colony as far away as practical, but typically 50-100 yards ‡
replace the original hive with a new floor facing the same direction, a brood box containing drawn comb, some stores, some foundation if needed and a single marked frame of eggs and young larvae placed centrally. Add the crownboard and roof.
shake out the original colony completely, removing every frame and vigorously shaking all the bees off (you can use a bee brush, but it’s actually far gentler to learn to give each frame one or two hard ‘snaps’ and shake the bees off … the brush always aggravates the bees)
carefully inspect the ‘new’ colony in the original location 2-3 days later
Marked frame (X) with larvae and eggs …
Queen cells … we’re saved!
Don’t wait too long until you inspect the colony. Three days is more than enough. You’re looking for two things:
one or more new queen cells on the marked frame
the absence – or more probably significant reduction – of ‘mislaid’ eggs in worker cells on the unmarked frames of drawn brood in the colony
Queen cell …
Of these two, the presence of queen cells is critical. If there are no QC’s then the colony still considers itself queenright. I’m afraid my interest and enthusiasm for saving the colony rapidly dwindles at this point and I usually shake the colony out again in front of other strong hives in the apiary (having removed the original hive completely so no bees can return to it †).
If there are QC’s the colony considers itself queenless (even if there is some evidence of eggs laid by workers on other frames) and there’s a very good chance you’ll be able to save it. At this stage your options include:
allow the colony to raise their own queen, remembering that this takes time (perhaps 3-4 weeks) and that queen mating is both weather and drone dependent. If it’s late in the season it’s, at best, likely to be a risky strategy.
requeening the colony using a mated queen from elsewhere, in which case add the queen cage adjacent to the introduced frame of brood.
uniting with a queenright nuc, even one that isn’t overly strong. Since the receiving colony now knows it’s queenless they’re far more likely to accept the new queen. Nevertheless, you still need to use newspaper or one of the other methods that ensures the gentle merging of the two colonies.
Successful introduction …
Drone laying workers …
I usually discard the frames containing drones in worker brood, particularly those with a large number of occupied cells (see right). Alternatively, you can distribute them to other colonies in the same apiary. It’s best not to switch them between apiaries to prevent the spread of diseases. However, because of the high level of drifting and the movement of drones between colonies, hives in the same apiary can broadly considered as a single super-colony. If there are frames of stores in the original colony they can be saved for use later in the season, remembering to protect them from robbing bees and wasps.
Advantages and disadvantages
I assume this approach works because shaking the colony out at least partially reduces the number of DLW’s which, once they’ve returned to the new hive containing open brood and eggs, realise their queenlessness and start to do something about it, whilst at the same time the brood pheromone suppresses the further development of ovaries and egg laying in the workers. I’ve had more success, and much faster, with this approach than with the repeated addition of frames of open brood. I’ve also had colonies that refused to make QC’s on added frames do so after shaking them out …
The advantages are three-fold:
it only requires a single frame of eggs and young larvae. Your other colonies are not significantly weakened while trying to ‘save’ the drone laying colony.
it’s pretty quick. From diagnosis until you’re in a position to know you’re ready to proceed only takes three days.
if successful (i.e. new QC’s) you can be reasonably confident the colony can be saved. And, as far as I’m concerned, if unsuccessful (i.e. no QC’s) I need spend no further time or resources on the colony.
it needs more than one visit
it involves more physical work
it requires more equipment
If you try this approach I’d be interested to hear how you get on with it.
† it’s worth noting here that the majority of the shaken out colony will return to the nearest colony to their original location. Do not leave an Apidea containing a recently mated queen, or a weak nucleus colony nearby or they will be inundated with bees … with potentially disastrous consequences.
‡ I assume that the further you move the colony the less chance the DLW’s will return to the original hive, but have no evidence for this. Would success be more likely if you moved them a mile away? So many questions, so little time
Chronically queenless, and hence broodless, colonies can develop egg laying workers †. Since these workers are unmated the eggs are haploid so develop into drones, therefore explaining the usual term ‘drone laying workers‘ (DLW). Without intervention these colonies are doomed and can be problematic to deal with, particularly if you only have one or two hives. It’s not the absence of the queen but the absence of open brood that allows the development of DLW’s. This is because pheromones produced by open brood usually suppress the egg-laying activity by workers. For a variety of reasons – lousy conditions for queen mating, failed colony uniting, balled queens, dodgy record keeping – I’ve had several colonies developing DLW’s this season so have (unfortunately) had to investigate ways to deal with them effectively.
Diagnosing drone laying workers
The two characteristic symptoms are spotty drone brood appearing in worker cells and multiple poorly placed eggs in individual cells.
Spotty drone brood …
Drone laying workers …
Multiple eggs …
The brood pattern is spotty because, unlike a drone laying queen (DLQ), there are usually multiple laying workers in the colony, each laying at random. This contrasts to the clustered brood pattern seen with a DLQ. Secondly, eggs laid by DLW’s are often located on the sides or edges of the bottom of the cell, rather than centrally. In addition, DLW’s often lay multiple eggs per cell and you can sometimes even see 2-3 young larvae developing together. Not shown in the photograph, but also characteristic of DLW’s (and shown nicely in a photograph here), is eggs laid on top of pollen already stored in the cell.
Recommended solutions for drone laying workers
The key point about a colony with DLW’s is that they ‘think’ they’re queenright. If you add a frame of eggs and young larvae they may well not raise queen cells. Therefore the usual test for queenlessness – queen cells generated from young larvae – gives misleading results. If you add a mated queen they are likely to kill her. If you unite the colony with a weak queenright colony – such as a small nuc – they may well again kill the queen. This makes ‘curing’ a colony with DLW’s problematic, particularly if you have only one or two hives.
If you have many colonies, don’t need and don’t want the bother of trying to ‘save’ the DLW’s then the solution is simple … move the hive from it’s original location, shake out all the bees in front of other strong colonies, distribute the frames to other colonies in the apiary and go and get a cuppa. Job done.
But I’ve only got two colonies …
However, I suspect many readers don’t want to reduce their colony numbers in this way and would like to consider alternative solutions. You’ll find a range of ‘fixes’ in books and online, including:
unite the colony with another
add a frame of open brood every few days until they start generating queen cells
shake the bees out some distance away and requeen those that return to the original site
Of course, the first of these still reduces your hive count (!). However, you can certainly unite with a strong nuc successfully. I’ve used this method, but am only really confident if the queenright colony is good and strong.
Adding a frame of open brood effectively adds the brood pheremone that suppresses ovary development and egg laying by DLW’s. You can tell when it works because the colony will attempt to raise queen cells i.e. they now consider themselves queenless and are trying to fix things. At this point you should be able to requeen them if you can get your hands on a spare queen. Alternatively, let them raise their own if the weather permits. However, adding frames of open brood is expensive in valuable resources – if you only have a couple of colonies you might rescue the DLW colony, but you definitely will weaken your other colony. Remember that strong colonies collect more nectar, overwinter better and build up faster in Spring … despite the maxim that two colonies are better than one, at many times of the season you’re better off having one strong colony rather than two weak ones.
Finally, what about moving the colony away, shaking them out and requeening the workers that return? The principle here seems to be that the DLW’s will not or cannot return to the hive. Therefore shaking them out reduces the DLW’s either because they are younger bees that have yet to go on orientation flights or older bees that are, for whatever reason, just less able to fly well.
But they can fly …
However, my experience suggests that at least some DLW’s are able to fly perfectly well. The image of the eggs right above was taken three days after shaking out a colony ~100 yards (or 91.4 metres in pre-Brexit measurements) away. These eggs were in the middle of a frame of drawn comb with some stores, flanked by frames of foundation. This colony contained a lot of DLW’s (an assumption from the levels of drone brood present in the original hive) some or many of which could clearly fly.
I ended up shaking this colony out and walking away … for a cuppa.
This summer I’ve started using a composite method to ‘rescue’ DLW colonies that seems to get reasonable results. Importantly, it achieves this without excessive delay, without using up multiple frames of open brood and without reducing the colony number. I’ll write something about this next week.
† actually there are usually a few laying workers in every hive … these probably account for the rare single drone pupae developing in the honey supers that are sometimes seen.
I conducted my first inspections of colonies outside the bee shed last week. One colony that had looked good going into the winter had about 5-6 ‘seams’ of bees when I lifted the crown board … but some of the first bees to take off were big fat drones. Even without seeing them you can hear their distinctive buzz as they fly off clumsily. Something was wrong. It’s still too early for significant numbers of drones to be about in what is turning out to be a late Spring.
Drone laying queens
Sure enough, the first few frames contained ample stores and the frames in the middle of what should be the brood nest had been cleared, cleaned and prepared for the queen to lay in. However, the only brood was a rather pathetic patch of drone cells. Clearly the queen had failed early this season and had become a drone laying queen (DLQ). The brood was in a distinct patch indicating it was a DLQ rather than laying workers which scatter brood all over the frames. There were no young larvae, a few late stage larvae, some sealed brood and a few dozen adult drones. The absence of eggs and young larvae suggested that the queen might have either recently given up or been disposed of. There was even a rather pathetic queen cell, no doubt also containing a drone pupa.
Drone laying queen …
I think this colony superseded late last season so the queen would have been unmarked. It also might explain why she was poorly mated. However, a quick but thorough search through the box failed to locate her. I was short of equipment, newspaper and time so shook all the bees off the frames and removed the hive … the hope being that the bees would reorientate to the other hives in the apiary.
Think, then act
I tidied things up, made sure the smoker was out and packed away safely and quickly checked the location where the colony had been sited … there was a pretty good sized cluster of bees accumulated on the stand. It was getting cooler and it was clear that the bees were not going to “reorientate to the other hives in the apiary” as I’d hoped. More likely they were going to perish overnight as the temperature was predicted to drop to 3°C.
I never think it’s worth mollycoddling weak or failing (failed?) colonies in the Spring as they’re unlikely to do well enough to get a good crop of honey. However, I also try and avoid simply letting bees perish because of lack of time or preparation on my part. I therefore put a small number of frames – including one of stores – into a poly nuc and placed it on the stand in place of the old hive. Within minutes the bees were streaming in, in much the same way as a swarm shaken out on a sheet enters a hive. I left them to it and rushed back to collect some newspaper. By the time I returned they were all in the poly nuc.
Since I still wasn’t certain where the DLQ was, or even if she was still present, I placed a couple of sheets of newspaper across the top of the brood box on a strong colony, held in place with a queen excluder. I made a couple of small tears through the newspaper with the hive tool and then placed the DLQ colony on top.
Uniting over newspaper …
The following day there was lots of activity at the hive entrance and a peek through the perspex crownboard showed that the bees had chewed through a big patch of the newspaper and were now mingling freely. I’ll check again in a few days (it’s getting cold again) and will then remove the top box and shake the remaining bees out – if there’s a queen present (which is pretty unlikely now) she won’t know how to return to the new site.
Lessons learned† … firstly, be prepared during early-season inspections for failed queens and have the necessary equipment to hand – newspaper for uniting, a queen excluder etc. Secondly, there’s no need to rush. These bees had been headed by a DLQ for a significant period – going by the numbers of adult drones and small remaining amount of sealed and unsealed drone brood – another day or two wouldn’t make any difference. Rather than shaking them out as the afternoon cooled I’d have been better returning another afternoon with the necessary kit to make the best of a bad situation.
Repeat as required
I checked another apiary later in the week and discovered another couple of hives with DLQ’s 🙁 In both cases the queen was either unmarked and invisible, or AWOL. If the former they’d have again been supercedure queens as they should have been marked white and clipped from a batch raised and mated in late May/early June last season using a circle split. However, this time I was prepared and united the boxes in the same way over newspaper held down with a queen excluder. All the other colonies I checked were strong. However, these three DLQ colonies – all nominally headed by queens raised last year – are the most I’ve ever had in a single winter and confirm what a poor year 2015 was for queen mating.
Successful uniting …
These three failed colonies – in addition to the presence of variable amounts of drones or drone brood – were also notable for the large amounts of stores still present in the hive. Although it’s been unseasonably cold this April (with regular overnight frosts and strong northerly winds keeping the temperatures – and the beekeepers – depressed) healthy colonies are still building up well, using remaining stores when they can’t get out to forage. As a consequence there’s a real risk of colonies starving. In contrast, colonies with failed queens will be raising little or no brood, so the stores remain unused.
Assuming the colony is disease-free these frames can be put aside somewhere safe (and bee proof) for use during preparation of nucs later in the season.
† Of course … I probably learned these lessons last season as well but managed to forget them in the intervening period 😉
Or perhaps that should be “Time to change the queen?”. This disappointing brood pattern suggests that the queen is not laying very well and that – with an excellent flow from the bramble and clover – the bees are filling any gaps they can find with nectar before the queen has a chance to lay.
Patchy brood pattern …
The colony has ample space in the supers and there were several other frames with a similar patchy brood pattern. The colony is very strong. Clearly the bees also think a new queen is needed by the row of charged queen cells along the top bar. There was even one attached directly to the queen excluder. I could have transferred this directly to a queenless colony without any further manipulation.
Queen cell on excluder …
However, I’m waiting for the most recently grafted larvae to be sealed, so it will be about three weeks before I have spare mated queens to replace the current one. In the meantime I’ve given her another chance. I knocked all the queen cells back and did my normal Demaree swarm control. I’ll let the bees exploit the good flow to draw out some foundationless frames and see if the queen lays these up well.