Category Archives: Queen failure

Old and new duds

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

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

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.

Unfulfilled promise

The nuc contained about a cup full of bees and a small, unclipped pale queen.

Overwintered virgin 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 …

Worn out

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 ...

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.

Health check

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 ...

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.

Corpses ...

Corpses …

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.


Colophon

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 …

 

 

The Autumn of the Matriarch

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.

Lagging behind

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.

Slowly.

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 ...

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.

Occam’s razor

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:

  1. Queen failure, plain and simple
  2. Laying workers in a colony with a failed queen still present (an unusual situation)
  3. 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 ...

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.

Colophon

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.

Finding the queen

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

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.

Magic?

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 ...

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.

Stop looking

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.

May the force be with you.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Dealing with DLW’s

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 😉

Drone laying workers ...

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 ...

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 ...

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

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 ...

Successful introduction …

Tidying up

Drone laying workers ...

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.

Disadvantages:

  • 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

 

Drone laying workers

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.

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.

 

 

DLQ RIP

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 ...

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

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 ...

Successful uniting …

Remaining stores

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 😉

Time to change the queen

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

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

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.

If not … it’s going to get prickly for her.

Bramble in flower

Bramble in flower