The Tale of the Queenless Hive

This is the story of how we managed one of our new hives that was without a laying queen for nearly 2 months.

We purchased 2 nucs of Italian bees from a local supplier, and we received the nucs on April 20.  Each nuc consisted of 5 frames.  One of the nucs had visibly more bees than the other.  It is possible that some of the difference was the result of bees lost in the truck ride from the supplier to our hives.  (See our earlier blog post about installing our first nuc if you want to learn how the bees escaped.)  The nuc had some dead bees at the bottom of the box as well.  As new beekeepers, we didn’t know what was a “normal” amount of dead bees, but the amount of dead bees didn’t seem excessive to us.  In this same nuc, we observed an uncapped queen cell when installing the frames into our hive.

The first hive inspection was performed 2 days later.  Both hives had consumed about the same amount of sugar water.  In both hives, the bees had started building comb on the foundation.  We did not see a queen in the hive started from the nuc with fewer bees nor did we see any eggs.  As new beekeepers, we were not sure if the eggs weren’t present or if we just missed them because things don’t always look the same in real life as they do on You Tube videos.  The queen cell we observed when the nuc was installed was being taken down now.  We closed up the hives and didn’t check again until April 29.

Nine days after installing our nucs, we could still not find the queen in our troubled hive.  We saw no eggs.  Two queen cells were observed.  No brood could be found.  At this point, we began referring to the two hives as the Weak Hive and the Strong Hive.

Let me stop the story here to talk about naming of hives.  Our plan is to continue to increase the number of hives through splits.  Thus, we need a way to differentiate our hives.  While the names Weak Hive and Strong Hive were helpful and descriptive those first few weeks, Weak and Strong are transient descriptors not permanent ones.  Being the highly creative people that we are, Doug and I named the hives “A” and “B”.  I have been reading other beekeeper blogs, and some people give their hives extravagant names based on mythological characters or literary figures.  To jazz our names up a little bit for the purpose of this post, I will refer to the hives as Alpha and Bravo.  Bravo hive was started from the nuc with less bees.  We began to have a sinking feeling that Bravo hive did not have a queen.  We were new beekeepers that had to figure out what to do fast to salvage the hive.

In the interest of full disclosure, Doug was doing all the research and work to salvage Bravo hive.  He was so focused on this that it became the primary topic of conversation around the house, and friends and family kept asking about our queen situation.  I had some other life events competing for my attention, so Doug took the lead on saving the bees while I tended to other non-bee items.  I should also note that we are not critical of our local bee supplier.  They were very helpful and cooperative during this entire process.  Bees are not widgets that sit on a shelf waiting to be packaged for customers.  Even with the best suppliers, stuff just happens.  Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart.

Having two hives was invaluable this first year.  We could compare the Alpha and Bravo hives.  Alpha hive was going strong.  Nine days after the Alpha nuc was introduced to the hive, eggs and larva could be seen.  Comb was being drawn out on the foundation.  The queen was easily located.  A person with no knowledge of bees could tell from a distance the difference between the Alpha and Bravo hives.  We had placed entrance reducers at the opening of both hives.  The congestion of bees near the opening of the Alpha hive was reminiscent of the air traffic patterns at JFK on Thanksgiving weekend.  Only a few bees were going in and out of the Bravo hive, and there was no waiting….much like a small regional airport.

The Day 9 hive check was performed on Sunday.  On Monday, Doug called the supplier to ask their advice.  Since we were contacted them 10 days after picking up the nuc, they wouldn’t replace the queen for free, which we understood.  Having to pay for a new queen was not our biggest problem.  The big problem was the supplier didn’t have any queens to supply, so we had to go on a wait list.  Doug called another local bee supplier, but they didn’t have any queens either.  The supplier said nobody in the area had queens because the spring was so cool causing a late honey flow.

We had to hope that either Bravo hive would make a queen on their own or our supplier would get us a queen before Bravo hive died out.  Because the Alpha hive was going strong, Doug moved 1 frame of brood from Alpha hive to Bravo hive to keep up Bravo’s population.  The capped brood was added on May 6, which was 16 days after the nucs were installed in the hives.  On that same day we observed that the queen cells previously observed were being taken down, and we didn’t know if this meant that a queen was released and was possibly out on a mating flight.  The bees were continuing to draw out comb on the foundation and to fill the comb with nectar and pollen.

Two days later, Doug got a call from the supplier that a mated queen was available.  He picked it up after work and introduced the caged queen the same day.  This was May 8th.  At the same time, another frame with capped brood was moved from Alpha hive to Bravo hive.  Some empty foundation frames were also moved in between the original frames from the nuc because we feared that the hive was close to becoming honey bound, and we wanted the queen to have space to lay eggs.

On May 12th, Doug saw that the queen was released, but he could not see her.  This queen was not marked.  No eggs could be seen.  The hive was also very loud, which is a sign that the hive was without a queen.  Alpha hive continued look very strong, so a third frame of capped brood was moved to Bravo hive.  Alpha hive had now supplied 3 frames of capped brood to support Bravo hive.  Doug checked Bravo hive the next day, and he was able to find the queen but no eggs.  The supplier cautioned us to be patient that it could sometimes take a week before the queen started laying eggs.  Another hive check was performed 12 days after the mated queen had been installed in Bravo hive.  The queen was in the hive, but no eggs or larva could be found and only a small amount of capped brood.  The same was true during another hive check 3 days after that.  The supplier agreed to provide another queen for free.  This queen was a marked queen with a white dot on her back.  On May 26, we introduced the marked queen.  Prior to installing the new queen, we had to find the old queen and force her to abdicate the throne, which is just a polite way of saying we had to remove her and reverently squash her against a fence post.  Doug said this made him sad, but it had to be done for the good of the hive.

One week later, Doug checked Bravo hive with great anticipation.  He saw the marked queen but no eggs, no larva and no brood.  How could this be?  Could the supplier have given us two bad queens?  What is the chance of that?  These were tense days at our house.  By now, our family members were routinely asking us for queen updates.  Another hive check was done 4 days later, which was 11 days after the new queen was installed, and no eggs, larva, or brood were observed.  We were beginning to fear that we would loose Bravo hive.  Doug called the supplier, who again urged patience and said to give it one more week.  Nobody in the area had queens for sale, so we didn’t really have any other options open to us besides waiting.   Doug didn’t wait a week.  He had to add syrup 2 days later, so he took a quick peak in Bravo hive.  He thought he saw a single egg and a couple of larva, but at this point it could have been wishful thinking.

On June 16th, 1 week after our supplier urged Doug to be patient and wait a week before inspecting again, Doug saw eggs and larva in Bravo hive!  Hooray, we had a laying queen for the first time since the nuc was installed back on April 20.  Subsequent hive inspections continued to be positive.  We are happy to report nearly 1 month later that Bravo hive is going strong, and we are optimistic that it will have the resources it needs to get through the winter.

Here are some things we learned:

  1. Having more than one hive is important.  Bravo hive would have been lost without the capped brood from Alpha hive.
  2. Actively managing the hives is important.  If Doug had not been diligent about hive inspections and taking action, Bravo hive would probably have been lost.
  3. Patience is a necessity.  Mother nature does not always work on our time table.


1 thought on “The Tale of the Queenless Hive

  1. Pingback: Back to The Hives! – A Summary of Recent Hive Checks | Married with Bees

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