The last six weeks were not good for the bees. Our queens kept vacating their thrones, and we were left struggling to keep our colonies healthy while they tried to make new queens. We have all the elements of a hit HBO series within our bee yard: restless queens, villains (in the form of small hive beetles), sexual intrigue (Will the virgin queens get mated?) and oppressive natural forces in the form of never ending rain. In case you are new to the blog, let me give you a short recap on our beekeeping history. My husband and I started beekeeping in 2018. We purchased two nucs from a local supplier. We performed a late year split in 2018 to give us a third colony. All three colonies made it through the winter, and we had high hopes for 2019. Our goal was to harvest honey this year and to hopefully make enough splits to take six strong colonies into winter. Things were looking good in April and early May.
Our colonies were so strong and we had so many bees that we were concerned about swarming. As I wrote previously, swarming is what worries beekeepers the most in spring. We kept inspecting the hives to make sure there were open spaces for the queens to lay eggs. We destroyed swarm cells and performed splits in order to prevent swarming. (A split is when you divide a strong colony into two. The queen remains in one hive, and the second colony has to make a new queen.) Our efforts weren’t enough, and our colonies swarmed. Looking back we probably should have put honey supers on earlier in the spring. Maybe the bees thought they needed more room to work. They didn’t seem interested in the supers when we added them in late May, but by then maybe it was too late. As one beekeeper told us, “It is hard to stop them from swarming once they get it on their minds.”
After the swarms left, we still had plenty of bees in the hives. What we needed were queens. You can purchase mated queens, and we did this last year when we made a split. However, our local supplier didn’t have mated queens for sale earlier this month. Mated queens can be hard to get at certain times of the year, and beekeepers search for mated queens like a junkie looking for a hit. You see desperate social media posts with beekeepers asking if anyone knows where mated queens might be for sale. Mated queens aren’t like widgets that you can pump out of a factory. We decided to try to let the bees make their own queens. Doug purchased a queen castle last winter. A queen castle is a hive that is divided into four chambers that trick the bees into thinking there are four separate colonies. Each colony makes its own queen. If all goes well, a beekeeper should have four mated queens residing within one queen castle. Those queens can be used to start new colonies or to re-queen existing colonies.
This might be a good time to explain how honey bees make their queens. A queen can lay fertilized eggs or unfertilized eggs. The fertilized eggs will become female bees and the unfertilized eggs will become male bees called drones. Female bees are either worker bees or queen bees. A colony only has one queen at a time. In the rare instances in which a colony finds itself with more than one queen, the queens will fight to the death. Didn’t I tell you it was like an HBO series? The food provided to the female larva is what dictates if a bee becomes a worker or a queen. Queens are fed a diet exclusively of royal jelly, which is a protein rich substance secreted by glands in young worker bees. The bees also make a larger cell for a larva being fed royal jelly to give the future queen more room to develop. These larger cells are called queen cells or queen cups. Once the queen emerges from the queen cell, she typically mates within 6-10 days. The queen only goes on one mating flight. She flies to an area where drones congregate and will mate with multiple drones. She then returns to the hive and can begin laying eggs.
Quite a few things can go wrong with the queen making process. If the weather is rainy, the queen may not be able to leave the hive to mate with drones. Rain has been a serious problem for us this year. We received rain nearly every day this summer making it difficult for a virgin queen to go on a mating flight. Queens can also get eaten by birds while on their mating flights. If something happens to the queen during the mating flight, the colony may have to start over and identify a new fertilized egg to pamper in hopes of raising a queen. All of this takes time, and while the new queen is being made the population within the colony begins to dwindle since eggs aren’t being laid. As foragers die, there eventually aren’t enough new bees to replace to the losses and the colony will die without intervention by the beekeeper.
Beekeepers can intervene to help colonies without a queen but only if the beekeeper has multiple hives from which to draw resources. Frames of eggs and capped brood can be taken from a strong hive with a laying queen and moved to a weak, queenless hive to keep up the population. As of early June, we had 8 colonies. Four of the colonies had queens and four did not. Doug has been shuffling frames back and forth between the hives like a Las Vegas casino dealer. Small hive beetles destroyed one of the cells in the queen castle, and one cell failed to produce a queen. Doug was able to get two queens from the castle.
Without a laying queen in the hive, the comb had many empty cells that should be holding eggs. The bees decided to fill up the empty cells with honey, which is not good. We want the bees to store their honey in the honey supers so we can harvest honey. Instead they packed the frames in the brood chamber with honey. Now we can’t harvest any honey unless the bees make some during the fall honey flow. The whole situation left me feeling a bit depressed.
Doug was at our local bee supply store buying hardware when he learned that they were about to receive a shipment of mated queens. The supplier let Doug buy two queens, and he was as happy as a kid on Christmas morning. The queens were installed in two of the queenless hives. I would love to tell you how things are going, but I can’t because we haven’t been able to check the hives due to rain. We hope these queens choose to stick around for a while. Our track record with keeping the queens happy is not that good. You will have to tune into the next blog post to find out what happens next, which is just one more thing our bee yard has in common with an episode on HBO.