In beekeeping courses you’re always taught to look carefully at the underside of the queen excluder (QE) when removing it incase the queen is there. If she’s not you can then gently place it to one side and start the inspection.
It sometimes also pays to look at the top of the QE …
Queen above the QE
I inspected this colony last Sunday and my notes said something like “beautifully calm, behaving queenright but looking queenless … frame of eggs?”. The colony was on a single brood with a QE and one super, topped with a perspex crownboard. The ‘frame of eggs’ comment indicated I thought it would be wise to add a frame of eggs to the colony – if they were queenright they’d simply raise them as worker brood. However, if they were queenless they’d use them to raise queen cells.
I was running out of time and anyway wanted eggs from a colony in a different apiary. If the colony were going to raise a new queen I wanted it to come from better stock. Alternatively, I’d wait and provide them with one of a recent batch of mated queens once they had laid up a good frame or two to demonstrate their quality. I closed them up and made a mental note to deal with the colony later in the week.
If they behave queenright, perhaps they are …
I peeked through the perspex crownboard this afternoon while visiting the apiary and saw a distinctive looking bee walking about on the underside of the crownboard. Despite being upside down it was clear, even with a very brief view, that it was a small, dark queen. She was walking calmly about the super and wasn’t being hassled by the workers.
I strongly suspected that she was a virgin that had either wiggled through the QE – perhaps it’s damaged or she was particularly small at emergence – and then got trapped. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, I’d inadvertently placed a brood frame near the super during a previous inspection and she’d walked across. This colony is in the bee shed and space is a bit cramped during inspections.
I know from my notes that the colony had an unsealed queen cell in it a couple of weeks ago so – weather permitting – there should still be sufficient time to get her mated before she’s too old. I removed the super, located her on the QE, gently lifted her off and placed her in the brood box. She wandered quietly down between the brood frames and the bees didn’t seem at all perturbed.
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 😉
With the season nearly over, now is the time to feed the colonies well and treat for mites so they have the best chance of overwintering successfully. I almost exclusively use fondant blocks for autumn feeding. I prefer feeding fondant to using syrup or Ambrosia for several reasons:
I don’t have to spend hours over the stove making syrup from hot water and granulated sugar or collecting gallons of Ambrosia from our co-operative purchased tanks
I don’t need any specialist additional equipment (such as Ashforth or Miller feeders) which need storing for 11 months a year. Fondant is simply added under the crownboard (see below).
Fondant appears to attract fewer wasps and doesn’t encourage robbing by other bees, possibly because there are no spillages using it.
I think fondant encourages later brood rearing as the bees take it down more slowly than syrup, so the brood nest never gets packed out with stores leaving the queen nowhere to lay.
I first heard about autumn feeding with fondant from Peter Edwards of Stratford BKA 1. Most of my colonies have perspex crownboards with an inbuilt eke on one side. The 50 mm gap isn’t enough to accommodate a big block of fondant, but addition of a simple eke from 46 x 22 mm softwood provides sufficient space, and the eke (unlike the Ashforth feeders) is both inexpensive to make and has lots of other uses.
Fondant (often called Bakers fondant) can be purchased from places likes BFP Wholesale who have depots around the UK and offer competitive pricing – particularly if you purchase ten or more 12.5 kg boxes at once. At the very least you are likely to need one 12.5 kg block per colony. Prepare the fondant by cutting a block in half along the long axis. Cover the cut faces with a single sheet of clingfilm (if you don’t do this they ‘fuse’ back together and are tricky to separate again), reassemble the block and put it back in the box for easy transport.
Insulation in place …
Feeding with fondant is simplicity itself … having removed the supers to extract the honey I leave the queen excluder in place. I add the shallow eke and place the block of fondant with the cut face down on the queen excluder. I replace the perspex crownboard inverted, and balance the insulation block on top, before replacing the roof. You can use an empty super in place of the eke and inverted crownboard but – with luck – they’re all full of frames ready to extract if it’s been a good season. I add Apiguard at the same time, rather than feeding and treating for mites at different times. There’s little late season forage here, so not a lot to be gained from delaying feeding.
The colonies take the fondant down over the next days and weeks. This happens at very different rates. Some of my colonies have already taken at least a quarter of a block (3+ kg) in about a week, with others barely touching it yet. However, by mid-late October I expect most to have emptied the blue plastic bag the fondant is supplied in. I then remove the ’empties’ and the queen excluder on a warm day and wrap the hives in DPM to prevent woodpecker damage. If the bees haven’t finished the fondant it can be left on overwinter, with any remaining being dissolved to make a stimulative 1:1 feed in the spring. Fondant has a long shelf life. If kept wrapped, cool and away from mice it will keep well over a year.