Category Archives: Queen failure

Fainting goats … and queens

Myotonia congenita is a genetic disorder that affects the muscles used for movement. Myotonia refers to the delayed relaxation of these skeletal muscles, resulting in a variety of obvious symptoms including temporary paralysis, stiffness or transient weakness.

In humans these symptoms are often manifest as difficulty in swallowing, gagging and frequent falls. Children are affected more than adults. One of the most dramatic manifestations are the falls (‘fainting’) that can occur as a result of a hasty movement. 

Although physiologically distinct, ‘fainting’ is a reasonably accurate description of the sudden loss of movement and the transient nature of the disorder. Like fainting, loss of movement is usually quickly resolved. However, unlike fainting, myotonia congenita involves muscular rigidity or stiffness, so more closely resembles catalepsy.

Genes

There are two types of myotonia congenita, termed Thomsen disease and Becker disease, both of which are usually associated with mutations in the gene CLCN1 1. This encodes a chloride channel (a ‘hole’ through the cell membrane that allows the transfer of chloride ions) critical for muscle fibre activity. 

Cartoon of a transmembrane chloride channel.

With loss-of-function mutations in CLNC1 the muscle fibre continues to to be activated. When stimulated, for example if the fibre is triggered to suddenly contract for jumping or running (or  to stop a fall), the muscle fibre is hyper-excitable and continues to contract, and shows delayed relaxation

Around 1 in 100,000 people exhibit myotonia congenita, though it is about ten times more common in northern Scandinavia. Treatment involves use of a number of anticonvulsant drugs.

The same loss-of-function CLCN1 mutation in humans is seen in symptomatically similar horses, dogs … and goats.

Goats

In the late 19th century four goats were imported to Marshall County, Tennessee. Their strange behaviour when startled was first described in 1904 and defined as a congenital myotonia by Brown and Harvey in 1939. 

The eponymous Tennessee fainting goat

These pre-war studies formed the basis of of our understanding of both the physiology and genetics of myotonia congenita, though the specific mutation in the CLCN1 gene was only confirmed several years after it had been identified in humans.

Since then myotonic goats have become an internet staple, with any number of slightly distressing (for me at least, if not for the goats) YouTube videos showing their characteristic fainting when surprised or frightened 2.

Don’t bother watching them.

If you want to see a fainting goat in action watch little ‘Ricky’ jump up onto a swinging seat on the National Geographic website.

It’s a perfect example.

He jumps up, gets a mild fright as the swing moves, goes stiff legged and simply rolls over and falls to the ground. A few moments later he’s back on his feet again, looking slightly shaken perhaps, but none the worse for wear.

Queens

All of that preamble was to introduce the topic of fainting queens. 

A fainting queen

This was a subject I’d heard about, but had no experience of until last week.

Periodically it gets discussed on Beesource or the Beekeepingforum – usually the topic is raised by a relatively small-time amateur beekeeper (like me) and it gets a little airtime before someone like Michael Palmer, Michael Bush, Hivemaker or Into the Lion’s Den 3 shuts down the conversation with a polite “Yes, I see it a few times a year. They recover”, or words to that effect.

Since these commercial guys handle hundreds or perhaps thousands of queens a year I think we can safely assume it’s a relatively rare phenomenon. 

Since I don’t handle hundreds or thousands of queens a year – and you probably don’t either – I thought the incident was worth recounting, so you know what to expect should it ever happen.

And to do that I have to first explain the fun I had with the first of the two queens in the hive I was inspecting.

A two queen colony

It was late afternoon and I was inspecting the last of our research colonies in the bee shed.

The hive had two brood boxes and a couple of supers. Nothing particularly surprising in that setup at this time of the season; the colony was quite strong, the spring honey had been extracted and a couple of supers had been returned to the hive for cleaning.

However, it wasn’t quite that straightforward. 

The lower brood box had been requeened ~3 weeks earlier with a mature queen cell from one of my queen rearing attempts. I’d seen that the virgin had emerged and restricted her to the lower box at my last visit. 

I’d added a queen excluder (QE) over the lower box with the intention of removing all the old frames above the QE once the brood had emerged.

However, at that last visit I’d ended up with a good looking 4 ‘spare’ virgin queen. Although I had no need for her at the time, and no time to make up a nuc 5, I decided to put her in a fondant-plugged introduction cage in this upper box.

This ‘upper’ queen couldn’t fly and mate in the week I was away, but I reasoned that I could merge the colony with the bottom box if the ‘lower’ queen failed to mate 6.

So, after adding the virgin queen to the top box I added a second QE and the two supers.

She can fly …

Having removed the supers and the upper QE I carefully inspected the upper box looking for the virgin queen who had been released from the cage

No sign of her 🙁

I went through the box again.

Time to try some of the ‘queen finding tricks’.

I moved three frames out of the way having examined them very carefully. The remaining 8 frames were then spaced out as four, well separated, pairs. I let the colony settle for a few minutes and then looked at the inner face of each pair of frames.

No sign of her 🙁

I looked again … nada, rien, niets, nunda, dim byd and sod it 7.

The obvious conclusion was that the colony had killed the queen after releasing her from cage. 

How uncharitable.

I reassembled the upper brood box and lifted it off the lower QE, in preparation to leave it outside the shed door while I went through the lower box. 

As I carried the brood box to the door I briefly looked up and saw a 8 virgin queen climbing up the inner pane of one of the shed windows, flapping frantically and fast approaching the opening that would allow her escape.

For obvious reasons I have no photographs of the next few minutes.

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

For those unfamiliar with the bee shed windows, these have overlapping outer and inner panes, so are always open. They provide a very effective ‘no moving parts’ solution to clearing the shed of bees very quickly.

Which was the very last thing I wanted at that moment 😉

… rather well

I had a brood box and hive tool in my hands, the shed door was wide open, there was all sorts of stuff littering the floor and the virgin queen was inches away from making a clean getaway.

It’s worth noting that when virgin queens are disturbed and fly they almost always return to the hive. However, the hives in the shed have a single entrance and all the hives were already occupied with queens. I couldn’t let her fly and hope for the best … it probably wouldn’t end well.

By balancing half the brood box on an unoccupied corner of an adjacent hive roof I made a largely ineffective swipe for the queen, but disturbed her enough she flew away from the window in spirals around my head.

I    s  t  r  e  t  c  h  e  d    to reach the shed door and pulled it close, so reducing the possible exits from eight to seven. A small victory.

I put the brood box safely on the floor, leaning at an angle against the hive stand 9, and abandoned the hive tool.

The next 5 minutes were spent ineptly trying to catch the queen. When she wasn’t flying around the shed (where the lighting isn’t the best) she usually made for the same window.

The one behind the hive with four supers stacked on top 🙁

After a few more laps of the shed, dancing around the precariously balanced brood box and reaching around the hive tower for the window, I finally caught her.

And caged her 10.

I’m looking for publisher for my latest book, ‘Slapstick beekeeping’. If any readers know of a publisher please ask them to contact me.

After all that I should have had a little rest. I’d had enough excitement for the afternoon 11.

But there was still the queen in the bottom box to find and mark.

Feeling faint

The queen in the bottom box was mated and laying well. 

I made a near-textbook example of finding her 12.

After moving aside a few frames I should have announced (to the non-existent audience), She’s on the other side of the next frame … ” (the big reveal) ” … ah ha! There you are my beauty!”.

Holding the frame in one hand I checked my pockets for my marking cage 13.

All present and correct.

I then calmly picked her up by her wings. She was walking towards me, bending slightly as she crossed over another bee, so her wings were pushed up and away from her abdomen.

A perfect ‘handle’.

I didn’t touch her abdomen, thorax or head.

A swooning queen

And, as soon as I lifted her from the frame, she fell into a swoon and ‘dropped dead’.

This is an ex-parrot

Her wings were extended to the sides, her abdomen was curled round in a foetal position and she appeared completely motionless.

It is pining for the fjords

I dropped her into the marking cage and took the photo further up the page.

It was 6:49 pm.

For several minutes there was no obvious movement at all. Her legs and antennae were immobile. She showed no sign of breathing.

I gently shook her out onto a small piece of Correx on a nuc roof to watch and photograph her. I picked her up by the wing and held her in my palm … perhaps she needed some warmth to ‘come round’.

Was that a twitch?

Or was that me shaking slightly because I’d inadvertently killed her? 

Several more minutes of complete catatonia 14 passed … and then a gentle abdominal pulsing started.

This was now 10-11 minutes after I’d first picked her up.

Which got a bit stronger and was accompanied by a feeble waggle of the antennae.

And was followed a minute or so later by a bit of uncoordinated leg flexing.

And after 15 minutes she took her first steps.

It looked like she’d been on an ‘all nighter’ and was still rather the worse for wear.

I slipped her into a JzBz queen cage, sealed it with a plastic cap, and left it hanging between a couple of brood frames.

From picking her up to placing the caged queen into the brood box had taken 24 minutes.

Caged queen after fainting (and recovering … more or less)

I reasoned that if …

  • she fully recovered they’d feed her through the cage and I could release her the following morning
  • I’d released her immediately and she’d acted abnormally the colony might have killed her off
  • she did not recover I would at least be able to find the corpse easily ( 🙁  ) and so could confidently requeen the colony (with the virgin I’d tucked away safely in my pocket)

The following morning the cage was covered in bees and she looked just fine, so I released her. 

Somewhere under that lot is the recovered queen – still caged

She walked straight down between the frames as though nothing untoward had happened.

I didn’t have the heart to mark and clip her … I didn’t want to risk her ‘fainting’ again and, if she had, didn’t have the time to hang around while she recovered 15.

So was this ‘fainting’ myotonia congenita?

I suspect not.

Another name for the Tennessee fainting goat is the ‘stiff-legged’ goat. This reflects the characteristic rigidity in the limbs when the muscles fail to relax. The queen’s legs were curled under her, rather than being splayed out rigidly.

However, this interpretation may simply reflect my near complete ignorance of the musculature of honey bees 😉

However, I do know that the basics of muscle contraction and relaxation are essentially the same in invertebrate and vertebrate skeletal muscle. There are differences in the innervation of muscle fibres, but the fundamental role of chloride channels in allowing muscle relaxation is similar.

Therefore, for this fainting queen to be affected by myotonia congenita she should have a mutation in the CLCN1 gene encoding the chloride channel.

Although the honey bee genome has been sequenced a direct homolog for CLCN1 appears not to have been identified, though there are plenty of other chloride channels present 16

The majority of the 60 or so mapped mutations associated with myotonia congenita (in humans) are recessive. Two copies of the mutated gene (in diploids, like humans or female honey bees) are needed for the phenotype to occur.

Of course, drones are haploid so it should be easier to detect the phenotype.

I’ve never heard of drones ‘fainting’ when beekeepers practise their queen marking skills on them. Have you?

Repeated fainting

I’ll try to mark and clip this queen again.

It will be interesting to see if she behaves in the same way 17.

A quick scour of the literature (or what passes for the ‘literature’ on weird beekeeping phenomena i.e. the discussion fora) failed to turn up examples of the same queen repeatedly fainting.

Or any mention of daughter queens showing the same behaviour.

All of which circumstantially argues against this being myotonia congenita.

However, there are many other causes of sudden fainting (from the NHS website):

  • standing up too quickly – (low blood pressure)
  • not eating or drinking enough
  • being too hot
  • being very upset, angry, or in severe pain
  • heart problems
  • taking drugs or drinking too much alcohol

… though I can exclude the last one as my bees are teetotal 😉

So, there you have it, a brief account of a cataleptic queen … and her recovery.


Notes

A fortnight after the events described above I clipped and marked the queen. I did everything the same – picked her up by the wings in the shed (so again not exposed to bright sunlight – which may be relevant, see the comment by Ann Chilcott).

She (the queen) didn’t faint. She behaved just like the remaining 4 queens I marked on the same afternoon.

So no repeat of the ‘amateur dramatics’ 🙂

Little dramas

This post was originally titled Drama queens.

Apposite … it’s mostly about queens.

However, the term drama queen refers to someone who overreacts to a minor setback 1 … which is almost the complete opposite of what I’m intending to discuss.

Instead, this post is about the – sometimes unseen – little dramas in the apiary. Things that go wrong, or could go wrong but eventually go OK because you gently intervene … or often because you don’t intervene at all 😉

It’s also about observing rather than doing. It’s sometimes surprising what you see, and – with a little application – you can learn something about your bees 2.

Of course, in the end some things do not end well … but there’s no point in being a drama queen about it 😉

Swarmtastic

There’s a certain predictability to the beekeeping year. It’s dictated by the climate and latitude, by the forage available, by the need for bees to reproduce (swarm) and by our efforts as beekeepers to corral them and keep them producing honey 3.

All of which means that June has been pretty manic. 

After a record-breakingly cold spring things finally warmed up. Here in Scotland this was 2-3 weeks into May.

Since then it’s been a near-constant round of queen rearing, swarm control, making up nucs and adding supers. Most of the OSR supers are now off, meaning that I’ll be hunched over the extractor for hours when I’m not with the bees 🙁

All the OSR near my bees is well and truly over – this lot is sadly just out of range

The rapid warming in late spring triggered a lot of swarming activity. I found my first charged queen cell on the 18th of May and, in at least one or two colonies, at every subsequent inspection since then.

Visits to the apiaries have been hard work. Inspecting a double brood colony with four full supers involves a lot of lifting 4.

And the lifting is necessary because I need to check whether there are any queen cells in the brood chamber.

I know some beekeepers simply prise the two brood boxes apart and expect to see queen cells at the junction.

That certainly works … sometimes.

However, I’ve found several colonies with queen cells in the middle of frames, or otherwise in positions I would not see them if I just looked at the interface between the boxes. 

Queen cell … and what else?

And I would still have to remove the supers to prise the brood boxes apart.

Although I’ve invested in some better quality hive tools, I’d need a crowbar to separate the boxes if there was 80 kg of supers on top 5.

So, if I have to take the supers off, I might as well look through the box carefully.

More haste, less speed

But before I fire up the smoker and start rushing around prising off crownboards I always try and simply observe what’s happening in the apiary.

Are all the colonies equally busy? If it’s the time of day when the new foragers are going on orientation flights are any colonies much less active? Have they had a brood break?

Which direction are the bees flying off or returning from? Has the main forage changed?

Are there any drones on orientation flights yet?

What’s happening at the hive entrances?

Is there pollen going in?

Any sign of fighting?

Or robbing?

It’s surprising what a few minutes observation can tell you about the local forage, the state of the colonies and their relative strength.

If you’ve not already read it (and even if you have) it’s worth finding a copy of At the Hive Entrance by Prof. H. Storch 6. The book’s strap-line is “How to know what happens inside the hive by observation on the outside”. Recommended.

And, now and again, you notice something unusual …

Queen under the open mesh floor

Like – in my peripheral vision – a single bee flying out from underneath an open mesh floor.

My queens are generally clipped. If the colony swarms the queen often finds her way back to the hive stand after crashing – very unregally 7 – to the ground. She crawls up the leg of the stand and ends up underneath the open mesh floor (OMF).

The bees then join her. It’s not unusual to find a large cluster of bees under the hive floor, with lots of activity, and lots of bees flying to and fro from underneath the OMF 8.

But last Friday, by chance I noticed a single bee and this prompted me to investigate.

A quick peek confirmed that there wasn’t a swarm under the OMF.

But there was a queen.

I spy with my little eye … you can just see the marked and clipped queen under this Abelo floor.

Almost completely alone.

I presume the colony had swarmed, the queen had got as far as she could and the swarm had eventually abandoned her and returned to the hive. 

When I inspected the colony I found a single sealed queen cell and confirmed that the queen I found was the one that was missing.

This colony was one of my ‘middle third’ ones 9i.e. destined for requeening with better stock if I had any spares.

There’s a near-to-eclosion queen cell under there …

I did.

I had half a dozen ‘spare’ queen cells almost ready to emerge from grafting at the start of June. I removed the queen cell in the hive and carefully checked I’d not missed any others. I then added the grafted cell, seating it in a thumb-sized depression over some brood. She will have emerged the following day and might even be mated when I check early next week.

Had I not seen the bee emerge from under the floor I’d have never otherwise checked. There are always a few bees under an OMF, but it’s rare to find a queen all alone there.

Queen in the grass

In another apiary the previous week I’d found a satsuma-sized cluster of bees in long grass about 10 metres from the hives. The application of a little gentle smoke and some prodding around with my index finger resulted in a clipped and marked queen calmly walking up onto my hand.

Microswarm? … or more likely the remains of a much larger one …

Again, I wouldn’t have seen this had I not been taking my time checking the hive entrances and the activity in the apiary. I was being even more leisurely than normal as there was rain threatening and I was trying to decide whether to start the inspections or not

Because of the known state of other colonies in the apiary – most were nucs with virgin or recently-mated queens – it was obvious which colony the queen had come from. 

The ‘threatening rain’ looked like it would soon become a certainty. I ran the queen in through the front entrance of the hive and the remaining bees eventually returned to the hive, fanning madly at the entrance.

Bees fanning at the entrance

When I next checked the hive the queen had gone 🙁

There was no sign the colony had swarmed, but there was a recently opened queen cell in there. I assumed there’s a newly emerged virgin queen running about in there with ‘blood on her hands’ having done away with the original queen.

We’ll find out next week.

Again, a few minutes just watching things in the apiary meant I found the queen. Had I not done so I’d have only seen the end result – a queenless colony – not the events that led to it.

Preventative and reactive swarm control

I should emphasise that the majority of my colonies are a little more under control than the two described above, both of which clearly attempted to swarm.

In both cases the clipped queen saved the day, even though she may not have lived to fight another day.

My swarm control (and success thereof) this season has been in stark contrast to last year’s ‘lockdown beekeeping’.

Then the priority was minimising travel and guaranteeing I wasn’t haemorrhaging swarms that might cause problems for the the public or other beekeepers.

I therefore used the nucleus method of swarm control on all my colonies. I implemented it well in advance of the peak swarming period. By doing so, I undoubtedly weakened my colonies. I produced less honey and did no queen rearing.

But I didn’t lose a single swarm 🙂

This year the priority has been to maintain strong colonies. Some are being used for honey production 10 and others are being split to make up nucs.

Inevitably a few have got a little ‘overcooked’ … but the clipped queen has usually ensured the bees remain in the hive.

I don’t think I’ve lost a swarm, but I have lost a few queens.

Queen in the cage

One of my colonies went queenless in mid May. This was well before I’d got any spare queens – mated or otherwise. I’d hoped that they would rear another, but it was too cold for the new queen to mate and the colony started to look a little pathetic.

I considered uniting them but, for a variety of reasons, never got round to it.

When I finally had a spare mated queen (in early June) I popped her into a JzBz introduction cage. I’d already plugged the tube with candy and placed a plastic cap over the end. 

The bees could feed the queen through the cage, but could not release her.

This is my usual method for queen introduction. I check the cage a day or so after hanging it between the frames. If the bees are showing aggression to the queen I leave it and check again 24 hours later.

Once they’re no longer showing any aggression I remove the plastic cap. The bees chew through the candy and release the queen.

Job done 🙂

I then leave the colony at least a week before inspecting, by which time I expect to see eggs and larvae.

JzBz queen introduction & shipping cage with removable plastic cap

On returning a week after removing the plastic cap I was dismayed to find the queen still in the cage. Most of the candy had gone, but there was a plug at one end that was rock hard. Clearly the bees had been unable to release her.

The colony had now been broodless almost a month. Brood pheromone is really important in suppressing laying worker activity in the hive. Queen pheromone is no substitute for brood pheromone 11 and I was very concerned about the additional lost week due to my stupidity 12.

But there was no point in being a drama queen … I opened the cage and gently released the queen onto a seam of bees. Five days later there are eggs and larvae (and the queen) in the hive, though I also think there are a few laying workers as there’s a smattering of drone pupae in worker cells (a classic sign).

Fingers crossed 🙂

Queen failure

The final ‘little drama’ was played out in full view over almost two months. Its eventual unsatisfactory conclusion was largely due to my procrastination … though I suspect a swallow or house martin may have hastened events at the end.

In late April, during one of the rare warm days it was possible to actually open a colony, I noticed some strange egg laying behaviour in one hive. 

The colony was queenright. The queen was marked and clipped and laying. However, although she was laying single eggs in worker comb, she was laying multiple eggs in about 10% of cells, almost all of which were in drone comb.

A fortnight or so later she was still doing the same thing. Even if it wasn’t obvious to me, it was clearly obvious to the bees that the queen was failing as they started a couple of queen cells. Here’s an enlargement of an earlier photo in this post – blue arrows mark single eggs, red arrows indicate multiples.

SIgns of a failing queen

I removed the queen and added a near-mature queen cell from my first round of grafting. She had emerged when I next checked, but was not yet laying (and I didn’t bother looking for her).

But, unlike the queen stuck in the cage, this didn’t have a happy ending.

By early June there was no sign of the queen and I fear she failed to return from a mating flight. There’s a big pond bear the apiary and it’s a magnet for swallows and house martins 13.

I added a frame of open brood (including both young larvae and eggs) in the hive, but they ignored it 14.

Frames showing the characteristic dispersed bullet brood of laying workers

When I next checked it was clear there were laying workers and I cut my losses and shook the colony out. 

In retrospect what should I have done? 

I should have united the colony in mid-May.

It was obvious then – at least to the bees – that the queen was failing. I’d never seen a queen laying singles in worker comb 15 but multiples in drone cells. 

Uniting would have immediately provided both brood pheromone and a laying queen. This would have suppressed the development of laying workers.

My notes go something like:

  • 18/5 – Still laying singles in worker and multiples in drone. Weird. QC looks like supersedure. Give them a week.
  • 26/5 – Q out. Didn’t check further. Decision time next week.
  • 3/6 – Strange. Increasing drone brood. Behaving queenright. Decision time next week.
  • 12/6 – Laying workers. Shook them out. Will I ever learn? EEJIT 16

The second rule of beekeeping

Anytime I write Decision time next week (or variants thereof, like Give them another weekin two successive weeks then it’s almost always going to end in tears 🙁

If it happens three times in succession it’s a nailed on certainty.

The first rule is – of course – Knocking off queen cells is not swarm control 😉


 

Acting on Impulse

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse … 

This was the advertising strapline that accompanied the 1982 introduction of a new ‘body mist’ perfume by Fabergé. It was accompanied by a rather cheesy 1 set of TV commercials with surprised looking (presumably fragrant) women being accosted by strange men proffering bouquets of flowers 2.

Men just can’t help acting on Impulse …

And, it turns out that women – or, more specifically, female worker honey bees – also act on impulse

In this case, these are the ‘impulses’ that result in the production of queen cells in the colony.

Understanding these impulses, and how they can be exploited for queen rearing or colony expansion (or, conversely, colony control), is a very important component of beekeeping.

The definition of the word impulse is an ‘incitement or stimulus to action’.

The action, as far as our bees are concerned, is the development of queen cells in the colony.

If we understand what factors stimulate the production of queen cells we can either mitigate those factors – so reducing the impulse and delaying queen cell production (and if you’re thinking ‘swarm prevention‘ here you’re on the right lines) – or exploit them to induce the production of queen cells for requeening or making increase.

But first, what are the impulses?

There are three impulses that result in the production of queen cells – supersedure, swarm and emergency.

Under natural conditions i.e. without pesky meddling by beekeepers, colonies usually produce queen cells under the supersedure or swarm impulse.

The three impulses are:

  1. supersedure – in which the colony rears a new queen to eventually replace the current queen in situ
  2. swarm – during colony reproduction (swarming) a number of queen cells are produced. In due course the current queen leaves heading a prime swarm. Eventually a newly emerged virgin queen remains to get mated and head the original colony. In between these events a number of swarms may also leave headed by virgin queens (so-called afterswarms or casts).
  3. emergency – if the queen is lost or damaged and the colony rendered queenless, the colony rears new queens under the emergency impulse.

Many beekeepers, and several books, state that you can determine the type of impulse that induced queen cell production by the number, appearance and location of the queen cells.

And, if you can do this, you’ll know what to do with the colony simply by judging the queen cells.

If only it were that simple

Wouldn’t it be easy?

One or two queen cells in the middle of frame in the centre of the brood nest? Definitely supersedure. Leave the colony alone and the old queen will be gently replaced over the next few weeks. Brood production will continue uninterrupted and the colony will stay together and remain productive.

A dozen or more sealed queen cells along the bottom edge of a frame? The colony is definitely  in swarm mode and – since the cells are already capped – has actually already swarmed. Time to thin out the cells and leave just one to ensure no casts are also lost.

But it isn’t that simple 🙁

Bees haven’t read the textbooks so don’t necessarily behave as expected.

I’ve found single open queen cells in the middle of a central frame, assumed it was supersedure, left the colony alone and lost a swarm from the hive a few days later 🙁

D’oh!

Or I’ve found loads of capped queen cells on the edges of multiple frames in a hive, assumed that I’d missed a swarm … only to subsequently find the original marked queen calmly laying eggs as I split the brood box up to make several nucleus colonies  🙂

Not all queen cells are ‘born’ equal

It’s worth considering what queen cells are … and what they are not. And how queen cells are started.

There are essentially two ways in which queen cells are started.

They are either built from the outset as vertically oriented cells into which the queen lays an egg, or they start their life as horizontally oriented 3 worker cells which, should the need arise, are re-engineered to face vertically.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Queen cells started under the supersedure or swarming impulse are initially created as ‘play cups‘. A play cup looks like a small wax version of an acorn cup – the woody cup-like structure that holds the acorn nut. In the picture above the play cup is located on the lower edge of a brood frame, but they are also often found ‘centre stage‘ in the middle of the frame.

Play cups

A colony will often produce many play cups and their presence is nothing to be concerned about. In fact, I think it’s often a rather encouraging sign that the colony is sufficiently strong and healthy that it might be thinking of raising a new queen. 

Before we leave play cups and consider how emergency queen cells start life it’s worth emphasising the differences between play cups and queen cells.

Play cups are not the same as queen cells

Until a play cup is occupied by an egg it is not a queen cell.

At least it’s not as far as I’m concerned 😉

And, even if it contains an egg there’s no guarantee it will be supported by the workers to develop into a new queen 4.

However, once the cell contains a larva and it is being fed by the nurse bees – evidenced by the larva sitting in an increasingly thick bed of royal jelly – then it is indisputably a queen cell.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

And to emphasise the fundamental importance in terms of colony management I usually refer to this type of queen cell as a ‘charged queen cell’.

Once charged queen cells appear in the colony, all other things being equal, they will be maintained by the workers, capped and – on the 16th day after the egg was laid – will emerge as a new queen.

And it is once charged queen cells are found in the colony that swarm control should be considered 5.

But let’s complete our description of the queen cells by considering those that are produced in response to the emergency impulse.

Emergency queen cells

Queen cells produced under the emergency impulse differ from those made under the swarm or supersedure impulse. These are the cells that are produced when the colony is – for whatever reason – suddenly made queenless. 

Without hamfisted beekeeping it’s difficult to imagine or contrive a scenario under which this would occur naturally 6, but let’s not worry about that for the moment 7

The point is that, should a colony become queenless, the workers in the colony can select one or more young larvae already present in worker cells and rear them as new queens.

So, although the eggs are (obviously!) laid by the queen 8, they have been laid in a normal worker cell. To ensure that they get lavished with attention by the nurse bees, feeding them a diet enriched in Royal Jelly, the cell must be re-engineered to project vertically downwards.

Location, location

Queen cells can occur anywhere in the hive to which the queen has access.

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on underside of the excluder …

But they are most usually found on the periphery of the frame, either along the lower edge …

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

… or a vertical side edge of the frame …

Sealed queen cells

… but they can also be found slap, bang in the middle of a brood frame.

Single queen cell in the centre of a frame

And remember that bees have a remarkable ability to hide queen cells in inaccessible nooks and crannies on the frame … and that finding any queen cells is much more difficult when the frame is covered with a wriggling mass of worker bees.

Location and impulses

Does the location tell us anything about the impulse under which the bees generated the queen cell?

Probably not, or at least not reliably enough that additional checks aren’t also needed 🙁

Many descriptions will state that a small number (typically 1-3) of queen cells occupying the centre of a frame are probably supersedure cells. 

Whilst this is undoubtedly sometimes or even often true, it is not invariably the case.

The workers choose which larvae to rear as queens under the emergency impulse. If the only larvae of a suitable age are situated mid-frame then those are the ones they will choose.

In addition, since generating emergency cells requires re-engineering worker cells, newer comb is likely more easily manipulated by the workers.

Some beekeepers ‘notch’ comb under suitably aged larvae to induce queen cell production at particular sites on the frame 9. The photograph shows a frame of eggs with a notch created with the hive tool. It’s better to place the notch underneath suitably aged larvae, not eggs. Clearly, the age of the larvae is more critical than the ease with which the comb can be reworked. Those who use this method [PDF] properly/extensively claim up to a 70% ‘success’ rate in inducing queen cell placement on the frame. This can be very useful if the plan is to cut the – well separated – queen cells out and use them in mating nucs or for requeening other colonies.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Comb at the bottom or side edges of the frame often has space adjacent and underneath it. Therefore the bees might favour these over sites mid-frame (assuming ample suitable aged larvae) simply because the comb is easier to re-work in these locations.

And don’t forget … under the emergency impulse the colony preferentially chooses the rarest patrilines to rear as new queens 10.

Not all larvae are equal, at least when rearing queens under an emergency impulse.

Active queen rearing and the three impulses

By ‘active’ queen rearing I mean one of the hundreds of methods in which the beekeeper is actively involved in selecting the larvae from which a batch of new queens are reared.

This doesn’t necessarily mean grafting , towering cell builders and serried rows of Apidea mini nucs.

It could be as simple as taking a queen out of a good colony to create a small nuc and then letting the original colony generate a number of queen cells.

Almost all queen rearing methods use either the emergency or supersedure impulses to induce new queen cell production 11.

For example, let’s consider the situation described above.

Active queen rearing and the emergency impulse

A strong colony with desirable traits (calm, productive, prolific … choose any three 😉 ) is made queenless by removing the queen on a frame of emerging brood into a 5 frame nucleus hive. With a frame of stores and a little TLC 12 the queen will continue to lay and the nuc colony will expand.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

But the, now queenless, hive will – under the emergency impulse – generate a number of new queen cells. These will probably be distributed on several frames if the queen was laying well before she was removed.

The colony will select larvae less than ~36 hours old (i.e. less than 5 days since the egg was laid) for feeding up as new queens.

If the beekeeper returns to the hive 8-9 days later it can be split into several 5 frame nucs, each containing a suitable queen cell and sufficient emerging and adherent bees to maintain the newly created nucleus colony 13.

Active queen rearing and the supersedure impulse

In contrast, queenright queen rearing methods such as the Ben Harden system exploit the supersedure impulse.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In this method suitably aged larvae are offered to the colony above the queen excluder. With reduced levels of queen pheromones present – due to the physical distance and the fact that queen cannot leave a trail of her footprint pheromone across the combs above the QE – the larvae are consequently raised under the supersedure impulse.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

I’m always (pleasantly) surprised this works so well. Queen cells can be produced just a few inches away from a brood box containing a laying queen, with the workers able to move freely through the queen excluder. 

Combining impulses …

Finally, methods that use Cloake or Morris boards 14 use a combination of the emergency and supersedure impulses.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

In these methods the colony is rendered transiently queenless to start new queen cells. About 24 hours later the queenright status is restored so that cells are ‘finished’ under the supersedure response.

The odd one out, as it’s not really practical to use it for active queen rearing, is the swarming impulse. Presumably this is because the conditions used to induce swarming are inevitably rather difficult to control. Active queen rearing is all about control. You generally want to determine the source of the larvae used and the timing with which the queen cells become available.

Environmental conditions can also influence colonies on the brink of swarming … literally a case of rain stopping play.

Acting on impulse

If there are play cups in the colony then you don’t need to take any action 15, but if there are charged queen cells present then your bees are trying to tell you something.

Precisely what they’re trying to tell you depends upon the number and position of the queen cells, the state or appearance of those cells, and the state of the colony – whether queenright or not.

What you cannot do 16 is decide what action to take based solely on the number, appearance or position of the queen cells you find in the colony. 

Is the colony queenright?

Are there eggs present in the comb?

Does the colony appear depleted of bees?

If there are lots of sealed queen cells, no eggs, no sign of the queen and a depleted number of foragers then the colony has probably swarmed. 

Frankly, this is pretty obvious, though it’s surprising the number of beekeepers who cannot determine whether their colony has swarmed or not.

But other situations are less clear … 

If there are a small number of charged queen cells, eggs, a queen and a good number of bees in the hive then it might be supersedure.

Or the colony might swarm on the day the first cell is sealed 🙁

How do you distinguish between these two situations? 

Is it mid-May or mid-September? Swarming is more likely earlier in the season, whilst supersedure generally occurs later in the season.

But not always 😉

Is the queen ‘slimmed down’ and laying at a reduced rate?

Much trickier to determine … but if she is then they are likely to swarm.

Decisions, decisions 😉 … and going by the number of visits to my previous post entitled Queen cells … don’t panic! there are lots of beekeepers trying to make these decisions right now 🙂


 

A June Gap

As far as the beekeeping season is concerned, we’ve had the starter and we’re now waiting for the main course. 

Like restaurants, the size of the ‘starter’ depends upon your location. If you live in an area with lots of oil seed rape (OSR) and other early nectar, the spring honey crop might account for the majority of your annual honey.

If you are in the west, or take your hives to the hills, you might have skipped the starter altogether hoping the heather is the all-you-can-eat buffet of the season.

Lockdown honey

In Fife they appear to be growing less OSR as the farmers have had problems with flea beetle since the neonicotinoid ban was introduced.

Nevertheless, my bees are in range of a couple of fields and – if the weather behaves – usually get a reasonable crop from it. My earlier plans to move hives directly onto the fields, saving the bees a few hundred yards of flying to and fro, was thwarted (like so much else this year) by the pandemic.

The timing of the spring honey harvest is variable, and quite important. You want it to be late enough that the bees have collected what they can and had a chance to ripen it properly so that the water content is below 20% 1.

However, you can’t leave it too late. Fast-granulating OSR honey sets hard in the frames and then cannot be extracted without melting. In addition, there’s often a dearth of nectar in the weeks after the OSR finishes and the bees can end up eating their stores, leaving the beekeeper with nothing 🙁

Judging all that from 150 miles away on the west coast where I’m currently based was a bit tricky. I had to timetable a return visit to also check on queen mating and the build up of all the colonies I’d used the nucleus method of swarm control on.

Ideally all in the same visit.

Blowin’ in the wind

I’d made up the nucs, added supers and last checked my colonies around the 17-19th of May. I finally returned on the 10th of June.

In the intervening period I’d been worried about one of my more exposed apiaries. I’d run out of ratchet straps to hold the hives together and was aware there had been some gales in late May.

Sure enough, when I got to the apiary, there was ample evidence of the gales …

How the mighty fall

The only unsecured hive was completely untouched and the bees were happily working away. However, one of the strapped hives had been toppled and was laying face (i.e. entrance) down. You can see the dent in the fence where it collided on its descent.

If she hadn’t already (and I expect she hadn’t based upon the date of the gales) I suspect the queen struggled to get out and mate from this hive 🙁

Nuked nucs

Two adjacent 8-frame nucs were also sitting lidless in the gentle rain. The lids and the large piece of timber they’d been held down with were on the ground. The perspex crownboards were shattered into dozens of pieces.

These bees were fine.

Both queens were laying and the bees were using the new top entrance (!) for entering and leaving the hive. They were a little subdued and the colonies were less well developed than the other nucs (see below). However, their survival for the best part of three weeks uncovered is a tribute to their resilience.

They were thoroughly confused how to get back into the hive after I replaced the lids 🙂

Slow queen mating

Other than extracting, the primary purpose of this visit was to check the queenright nucs from my swarm control weren’t running out of space, and to check on the progress of queen mating in the original colonies.

Queen mating always takes longer than you expect.

Or than I expect at least.

Poor weather hampered my inspection of all re-queening colonies but, of those I looked at, 50% had new laying queens and the others looked as though they would very soon.

By which I mean the colonies were calm and ‘behaved’ queenright, they were foraging well and the centre of the ‘broodnest’ (or what would be the centre if there was any brood) was being kept clear of nectar and had large patches of polished cells.

Overall it was a bit too soon to be sure everything was OK, but I expect it is.

However, it wasn’t too soon to check the nucs.

Overflowing nucs

In fact, it was almost too late …

With one exception the nucs were near to overflowing with bees and brood.

I favour the Thorne’s Everynuc which has an integral feeder at one end of the box. Once the bees start drawing comb in the feeder they’re running desperately short of space.

Most had started …

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

I didn’t photograph any of the nucs, but the photo above (of an overly-full overwintered nuc) shows what I mean; the feeder is on the right.

The nucs had been made up with one frame of predominantly emerging brood, a few more nurse bees, two foundationless frames, a frame of drawn comb and a frame of stores.

They were now all packed with 5 frames of brood and would have started making swarm preparations within a few days if I hadn’t dealt with them.

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

And the queens had laid beautiful solid sheets of brood (always reasonably easy if the comb is brand new).

Housekeeping and more swarm prevention

The beauty of the nucleus method of swarm control is that you have the older queen ‘in reserve’ should the new queen not get mated, or be of poor quality.

The problem I was faced with was that the new queens weren’t all yet laying (and for those that were it was too soon to determine their quality), but the older queen was in a box they were rapidly outgrowing.

I therefore removed at least three frames of brood 2 from each nuc and used it to boost the re-queening colonies, replacing the brood-filled frames with fresh foundation 3.

The nucs will build up again strongly and the full colonies will benefit from a brood boost to make up for some of the bees lost during requeening. Some of the transferred frames had open brood. These produce pheromones that should hold back the development of laying workers.

Finally, if the requeening colonies actually lack a queen (the weather was poor and I didn’t search very hard in any of them) there should be a few larvae young enough on the transferred frames for them to draw a new queen cell if needed.

I marked the introduced frames so I can check them quickly on my next visit to the apiary.

This frame needs to be replaced … but could be used in a bait hive next year

The additional benefit of moving brood from the nucs to the full colonies is that it gave me an opportunity to remove some old, dark frames from the latter.

Shown above is one of the removed frames. As the colony is broodless 4 and there’s the usual reduction in available nectar in early/mid June, many of the frames in the brood box were largely empty and can easily be replaced with better quality comb.

Everyone’s a winner 😉

Drone laying queen

One of the nucs made in mid/late May had failed. The queen had developed into a drone layer.

Drone laying queen

The laying pattern was focused around the middle of frame indicating it had been laid by a queen. If it had been laying workers the drone brood would be scattered all over the frames.

There was no reasonable or efficient way to save this colony. The queen was removed and I then shook the bees out in front of a row of strong hives.

I was surprised I’d not seen problems with this queen when making up the nucs in May 5. I do know that all the colonies had worker brood because the nucs were all made containing one frame of emerging (worker) brood.

Perhaps the shock of being dumped into a new box stopped her laying fertilised eggs. Probably it was just a coincidence. We’ll ever know …

Extraction

And, in between righting toppled hives, checking for queens, stopping nucs from swarming, moving a dozen hives/nucs, boosting requeening hives and replacing comb … I extracted a very good crop of spring honey.

Luvverrrly

Although I had fewer ‘production’ hives this season than previous years (to reduce my workload during the lockdown) I still managed to get a more than respectable spring harvest. In fact, it was my best spring since moving back to Scotland in 2015.

The crop wasn’t as large as I’d managed previously in Warwickshire, but the season here starts almost a month later.

A fat frame of spring honey

I start my supers with 10 or 11 frames, but once they are drawn I reduce to 9 frames. With a good nectar flow the bees draw out the comb very nicely.

The bees use less wax (many of my frames are also drawn on drone foundation, so even less wax than worker comb 6), it’s easier to uncap and I have fewer frames to extract.

Again … everyone’s a winner 😉

Not the June gap

Quite a few frames contained fresh nectar, so there was clearly a flow of something (other than rain, which seemed to predominate during my visit) going on. These frames are easy to identify as they drip nectar over the floor as you lift them out to uncap 🙁

In some years you find frames with a big central capped region – enough to usefully extract – but containing lots of drippy fresh nectar in the uncapped cells at the edges and shoulders. I’ve heard that some beekeepers do a low speed spin in the extractor to remove the nectar, then uncap and extract the ripe honey.

I generally don’t bother and instead just stick these back in the hive.

If there’s one task more tiresome than extracting it’s cleaning the extractor afterwards. To have to also clean the extractor during extracting (to avoid the high water content nectar from spoiling the honey) is asking too much!

Colonies can starve during a prolonged nectar dearth in June. All of mine were left with some stores in the brood box and with the returned wet supers. That, plus the clear evidence for some nectar being collected, means they should be OK.

National Honey monitoring Scheme

I have apiaries in different parts of Fife. The bees therefore forage in distinct areas and have access to a variety of different nectar sources.

It’s sometimes relatively easy to determine what they’ve been collecting nectar from – if the back of the thorax has a white(ish) stripe on it and it’s late summer they’re hammering the balsam, if they’ve got bags of yellow pollen and the bees are yellow and the fields all around are yellow it’s probably rape.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

But it might not be.

To be certain you need to analyse the pollen.

The old skool way of doing this is by microscopy. Honey – at least the top quality honey produced by local amateur beekeepers 7 – contains lots of pollen. Broadly speaking, the relative proportions of the different pollens – which can usually be distinguished microscopically – tells you the plants the nectar was collected from.

The cutting edge way to achieve the same thing in a fraction of the time (albeit at great expense) is to use so-called next generation sequencing to catalogue all the pollen present in the sample.

Pollen contains nucleic acid and the sequence of the nucleotides in the nucleic acid are uniquely characteristics of particular plant species. You can easily get both qualitative and quantitative data.

And this is exactly what the National Honey Monitoring Scheme is doing.

They use the data to monitor long-term changes in the condition and health of the countryside” but they provide the beekeeper’s involved with the information of pollen types and proportions in their honey.

National Honey Monitoring Scheme samples

Samples must be taken directly from capped comb. It’s a messy business. Fortunately the labelling on the sample bottles is waterproof so everything can be thoroughly rinsed before popping them into the post for future analysis.

I have samples analysed already from last year and will have spring and summer samples from a different apiary this season. I’ll write in the future about what the results look like, together with a more in-depth explanation of the technology used.

When I last checked you could still register to take part and have your own honey analysed.


Notes

Under (re)construction

Lockdown means there have been more visitors than ever to this site, with numbers up at least 75% over this time last year.

This, coupled with the need to upgrade some of the underlying software that keeps this site together, means I’m in the middle of moving to a bigger, faster, better (more expensive 🙁 ) server. I’m beginning to regret the bloat of wordpress over the lean and mean Hugo or Jekyll-type templating systems (and if this means nothing to you then I’m in good company) and may yet switch.

In the meantime, bear with me … there may be some broken links littering a few pages. If it looks and works really badly, clear your browser cache, re-check things and please send me an email using the link at the bottom of the right hand column.

Thank you

 

Queenright … or not?

A brief follow-up to the (ridiculously long) post last week about leaving queen cells in the colony after a) it swarms, or b) implementing swarm control 1.

How long does it take for the new queen to emerge, mate and start laying? 

And what if she doesn’t?

How did we get here?

We are approaching the peak of the beekeeping season. Colonies have built up strongly and should now be topped by comfortingly heavy supers of spring honey. 

Mind your back 😯 

The box you inspected in early April and found three frames of brood in is now bursting at the seams with bees and brood. Everything is getting busier and bigger. You may have already run out of supers or – lucky you – are frantically extracting to free-up supers to return to the colonies.

Depending upon your location you may already have discovered that your swarm prevention efforts, whilst temporarily effective, were soon treated with disdain as the colonies started to build queen cells.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

You are now using some form of swarm control and the colony now contains a mature queen cell.

Or they swarmed … leaving a mature queen cell 🙁

Queenless colonies

Is a colony with a charged, capped, queen cell queenless? 

A philosophical question 🙂

I guess the answer is technically no, but practically yes.

There’s clearly a queen in the hive, but she’s really a potential queen. To be useful to the colony (and the beekeeper) she has to emerge, mature, mate and start laying.

It’s at that stage that the colony can be described as queenright.

All of this takes time and all of which significantly changes the tempo of the season.

Colonies that are requeening should generally not be disturbed and the change from full-on to full-off can feel strange.

Doubly so, because the lack of reassuring inspections can make the wait seem interminable. 

It’s tempting to have a quick peek … after all, what harm could it do?

Tick tock

The development of a queen takes 16 days from egg to eclosed virgin. The first three days as an egg, then six days as a larva before a further week as a developing pupa. The rapid development is due to the very rich diet that queens are fed in the first couple of days. This triggers a host of changes in gene expression 2 which dramatically alters the morphology, behaviour and longevity of the queen from the genetically identical worker.

After a virgin queen emerges she needs to mature sexually which takes 5-6 days. During this period they don’t look or behave much like queens. They tend to be quite small and, if disturbed, rush about the frame skittishly. They are also a lot more willing to fly than a mature laying queen – you have been warned! 3

Where have all my young girls gone?

What a beauty

Virgin queens are not lavished with attention by a retinue of workers, all of which often makes them more difficult to find in the hive.

The queen goes on one or more mating flights which usually take place on warm, calm, sunny early afternoons.

She then returns to the hive and, 2-3 days later, starts laying eggs. A queen that has just started laying sometimes lays more than one egg per cell. However, she settles down fast and will usually lay in a reasonably tight pattern in the centre of one of the middle frames in the brood nest.

Have patience

Add all those timings up and you have a minimum of two weeks between the capping of the queen cell and the day when she starts laying.

To be sure, you need to know when the queen cell was capped which is difficult if you’re dealing with a colony that swarmed. Was the cell capped on the day the colony swarmed (not unusual), or was it capped during the lousy weather a few days earlier that then delayed the emergence of the swarm?

It is unwise to disturb a virgin queen.

All sorts of things can go wrong. You might inadvertently crush her during an inspection 4 or scare her into taking flight and getting lost in the long grass.

Equally calamitous would be inspecting the colony on the nice, calm, warm mid-afternoon when she decides to go off on her mating flight. She’ll be off consorting with the local drones for about 10 – 30 minutes, and may go on more than one flight on subsequent days. If she returns to find the roof and supers off, the brood frames out and smoke being puffed everywhere she may never find the hive entrance.

Inspecting a colony

None of the above ends well.

Minima and maxima

The two weeks detailed above is the absolute minimum. I don’t check these things routinely but think the only time I’ve really seen it taking that short a period (from cell sealing to a mated laying queen) is when queen rearing using mini-mating nucs.

Mini-nucs …

Queens tend to get mated in these very fast if the weather is suitable. I don’t know why 5.

But, if the weather is unsuitable, irrespective of the hive type, mating will be delayed.

By ‘unsuitable’ I mean lousy. If it’s raining persistently or blowing a hoolie the queen will not venture forth.

If it’s cool (16 – 18°C) and cloudy she might, particularly if she’s of the darker Apis mellifera mellifera strain. 

But then again, she might not 🙁 

All of which means that the two weeks quoted really is a minimum.

What if it rains for a month? The virgin queen has a ‘shelf life’. If she does not get mated within ~26-33 days of emergence she is unlikely to get successfully mated at all.

Here we go again ...

No queen mating today …

To summarise, it will take a minimum of two weeks from queen cell capping to having a laying queen in the hive. If 40 days elapse before the queen is mated (again from cell capping) it is likely that she will be a dud.

Three weeks

Assuming the weather has been OK for queen mating I usually leave a minimum of three weeks between closing the hive up with a capped queen cell and looking for the mated queen. 

There’s little to be gained by rummaging around the hive before then … and a whole lot to be potentially lost.

If you do open the hive up too early – assuming none of the nightmare scenarios above occur – what can you expect to see?

Lift the dummy board out, prise out the last frame and then split the hive somewhere in the middle of the remaining frames i.e. don’t work through frame by frame, this isn’t a routine inspection, it’s a Royal Checkup.

If you look around the middle of the face of the central frames you can often see polished cells. These have been cleaned and prepared by the workers for the queen to lay in. They’re particularly obvious if the comb is a bit old and dark – then they really do look polished and shiny.

If there are polished cells present, but no eggs, I’m then reasonably confident that there’s a queen in the hive but that she’s not started laying yet (but is probably mated).

There’s no point in looking for her. Close the hive up and leave it another week.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

If she is laying, leave her be. Wait until she’s laid up a few frames and you can tell she has a good laying pattern of worker brood i.e. look at the appearance of the sealed brood, then find her and mark her 6.

Breathe a sigh of relief … your colony is again queenright.

Five weeks

If five weeks 7 have elapsed between leaving a freshly capped cell in the hive and the non-appearance of eggs I start to fear the worst.

The colony will now have no brood – it all emerged about two and half weeks ago – and the lack of brood pheromone means there’s a possibility that the colony will develop laying workers

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

There may be a queen present, but she’s rapidly becoming an ageing spinster

In this situation it is probably wise to decide what Plan B is … how will you ‘rescue’ the colony?

If you leave the colony for another week or fortnight you might find a laying queen, but you probably won’t. During this period the colony will dwindle further in size and strength 8

Plan B

You effectively have four choices:

  1. Unite the colony with a known queenright colony.
  2. Requeen the colony with a mated, laying queen 9.
  3. Add a mature capped queen cell to the colony. Start nervously pacing the apiary again waiting for her to emerge, mature, mate and start laying.
  4. Allow the colony to rear their own queen by providing a frame of eggs (see below).

It is important to find and dispatch the ‘failed’ queen if you are going to do 1, 2 or 3. The queen may have failed to get mated but she might still be able to kill a challenger queen in the hive. 

Uniting the colony is often the best and safest option. It’s quick. It uses the bees remaining in the colony immediately and it strengthens another hive. It’s my preferred option … but I have quite a few colonies to work with. If you have just one (and you shouldn’t have) it’s clearly a non-starter. 

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Adding an expensive purchased mated laying queen (or a cheap one) can be risky. Terminally queenless and broodless colonies are often tricky to requeen. The most successful way I’ve found to do this 10 is to use a large cage pinned over a frame of emerging brood. And even then it doesn’t always work 🙁 

If you already have laying workers it is not worth trying to requeen the colony – they’ll almost certainly kill her. I usually try once to ‘rescue’ a laying worker hive (details here), but then shake them out.

Adding a capped queen cells can work if the colony is queenless but you will have another long wait ahead of you … and all the time the colony is dwindling in size.

She emerges into a population of geriatric workers. Far from ideal.

But what if you can’t find the queen?

Is the colony really queenless?

Perhaps she mated quite late because of poor weather and is about to get started?

Perhaps she failed to mate and is just lurking in there waiting to slaughter the £40 Buckfast queen you’re about to add 🙁 

Frame of eggs

Most of these questions can be answered by adding a ‘frame of eggs’.

A queenless colony will start to rear a new queen if presented with eggs and larvae.

A queenright colony will not.

If you are unsure whether a colony is queenright add a frame containing a good number of eggs. I usually like to use a full brood frame also containing some larvae and sealed brood. The brood pheromone will help hold back laying worker development. The new young bees that emerge will bolster the hive population and will be there to help the new queen when she returns from getting mated.

If you have the luxury of choosing a frame of eggs on relatively new fresh comb the bees will find it easier to draw queen cells. However, don’t worry if you don’t … if they’re queenless they’ll be thankful for anything.

Check the colony a few days after adding the frame of eggs. If they’ve started queen cells 11 then I just let them get on with it and check again in about a month or so for a laying queen. They won’t swarm or generate casts as – by this time – bee numbers are significantly depleted. 

However, if they don’t start queen cells it means there’s a queen somewhere in the hive. Check the other frames in the hive for eggs. It’s not at all unusual to find the original queen has now started laying. Again, leave her to get on with it.

But if there are no eggs on other frames and no queen cells (on the frame you added) you need to find the non-functioning queen … and we’ll deal with that sometime in the future 😉

Good luck


Colophon

The usual dictionary definition of queenright just references a colony of bees that contains a queen. The OED has references going back to 1911 (When a colony is found that is not queen-right, it is remorselessly broken up, and distributed among other colonies, or united with a weak colony having a good queen, C.C. Miller in Fifty Years among Bees) including some from Wedmore and E.O Wilson.  

However, none specifically state whether the queen is laying. Or what she’s laying. A queenless colony is easy to define. But what about a colony containing a virgin queen? Or a drone laying queen? 

I’d argue that in these situations the colony contains a queen, but things aren’t really ‘right’ (as in correct). In my view, queenright means a mated, laying queen. 

Please, no pedantic questions or comments about a colony containing a well mated queen that, because there’s a nectar dearth, has stopped laying … 😉

Polyandry and colony fitness

Honey bees are polyandrous. The queen mates with multiple drones during her mating flight(s). Consequently, her daughters are of mixed paternity.

In naturally mated queens there is a relationship between the number of patrilines (genetically distinct offspring fathered by different drones) and the ‘fitness’ of a colony.

Colony fitness

A ‘fit’ colony is one that demonstrates one or more desirable traits (those that benefit the colony … and potentially the beekeeper) such as better population growth, weight gain, resistance to pathogens or survival.

If you analyse the molecular genotype of the worker offspring you can determine which patriline they belong to. If you genotype enough workers you start to see the same patrilines appearing again and again. The more patrilines, the more drones the queen mated with 1.

Shallow depth of field

One of many …

Naturally mated queens mate with ~13 drones. Depending upon the study a range from as low as 1 to as high as 40 (and exceptionally into the high 50’s) has been demonstrated, though different studies all tend to produce an average in the low- to mid-teens.

There is a well-established link between polyandry and colony fitness 2. Essentially, the more genetically diverse a colony i.e. the larger the number of patrilines, the fitter that colony is.

The benefits of polyandry

Why should colonies with increased genetic diversity be fitter?

There are a number of hypotheses that attempt to explain why intracolonial genetic diversity is beneficial. These include the increased behavioural repertoire of the worker bees, a reduced production of diploid drones (which would otherwise be produced due to the single-locus sex determination system) and an increased resistance to a wide range of parasites and pathogens 3.

Parasites and pathogens are an extremely effective evolutionary selective pressure. Several studies from David Tarpy and Thomas Seeley have shown that increased polyandry results in better resistance to chalkbrood and American foulbrood.

But what about Varroa? It’s a new pathogen (evolutionarily speaking) to honey bees and there is evidence that the resistance mechanisms observed are genetically determined 4.

Does polyandry contribute to Varroa resistance? 

Would increased polyandry result in improved resistance to mites?

Limits of polyandry and natural resistance

Why is the average number of drone matings in the low teens?

If polyandry is beneficial – and there’s no doubt it is – then surely more patrilines (hyperpolyandry) would be even more beneficial?

How could this be tested?

Naturally mated queens only very rarely exhibit 30+ drone matings. Not only are these colonies hard to find, but they are so rare that doing any sort of statistical analysis of the improved (or otherwise) fitness is probably a non-starter.

Perhaps there’s an alternative way to approach the question? Rather than look at individual colonies within a mixed population, why not study the overall level of polyandry within a population that demonstrates resistance?

For example, do queens that head colonies of untreated feral bees that exhibit a demonstrated enhanced resistance to Varroa, the most important pathogen of honey bees, exhibit higher levels of polyandry?

Two relatively recent scientific papers have tackled these questions. Both have produced clear answers.

Drones : if more is better, is lots more better still?

Yes.

Keith Delaplane and colleagues used instrumental insemination (II) of virgin queens to produce queens ‘mated’ with 15, 30 or 60 drones. Sperm was collected from 1, 2 or 4 drones from 15 donor colonies, mixed thoroughly and used for queen insemination.

Full-sized colonies were requeened with the II queens and left for 6 weeks 5 after which sampling started. Over two seasons a total of 37 colonies (with 11, 13 and 13 colonies respectively headed by queens ‘mated’ with 15, 30 and 60 drones) were tested at approximately monthly intervals.

Testing involved visual analysis of colony strength 6 and comb construction. Mite levels were measured using standard alcohol wash of ~300 bees at mid- or late-summer timepoints.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

The results of this study are commendably brief … just 8 lines of text and two tables. I’ll summarise them in just a couple of sentences.

Colonies headed by queens ‘mated’ with 30 or 60 drones produced significantly more brood than the colony headed by the queen ‘mated’ with only 15 drones. Conversely, significantly more colonies headed by queens mated with only 15 drones had a higher level of mite infestation 7.

Natural Varroa resistance and polyandry

One of the best studied populations of feral bees co-existing with Varroa are those in the Arnot Forest in New York State. These are the bees Thomas Seeley and colleagues study.

These colonies live in natural holes in trees at low density through the forest. The colonies are small and they swarm frequently. Their spatial distribution, size and swarminess (is that a word?) are all evolutionary traits that enable resistance, or at least tolerance, to Varroa and the pathogenic viruses the mite transmits.

I’ve discussed Seeley’s studies of the importance of colony size and swarming previously. I don’t think I’ve discussed his work on spatial separation of colonies, but I have described related studies by Delaplane and colleagues.

Essentially, by being well-separated, mite transmission between colonies (e.g. during robbing) is minimised. Similarly, by existing as small colonies that swarm frequently Iwith concomitant brood breaks) the mite population is maintained at a manageable level.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Her majesty …

Do the Arnot Forest Varroa-resistant 8 bees exhibit especially high levels of polyandry, suggesting that this contributes their survival?

No.

Seeley and colleagues determined the number of patrilines in 10 Arnot Forest colonies using the same type of genotyping analysis described earlier. They compared these results to a similar analysis of 20 managed honey bee colonies located nearby.

On average, Arnot Forest queens had mated with ~18 drones (17.8 ± 9.8) each. In contrast, queens in managed colonies in two nearby apiaries had mated with ~16 and ~21 drones. These figures are not statistically different from each other or from the natural mating frequencies reported for honey bees in other studies.

Hyperpolyandry and colony fitness

The first of the studies confirms and extends earlier work demonstrating the polyandry (and in this instance hyperpolyandry i.e. at an even greater level than seen normally) increases colony fitness – at least in terms of colony strength and Varroa resistance.

Delaplane and colleagues hypothesise that the increased mite resistance in hyperpolyandrous (30 or 60 drones) colonies may be explained by either:

  • the importance of extremely rare alleles (gene variants), which would only be present in colonies in which the queen had mated with a very large number of drones.
  • the presence of beneficial non-additive interactions between genetically-determined traits e.g. grooming and hygienic behaviour and reduced mite reproduction.

Neither of which are mutually exclusive and both fit at least some of the extant data on natural mite resistance. Discriminating between these two hypotheses and teasing apart the variables will not be straightforward.

Absence of hyperpolyandry in naturally mite-resistant colonies

At first glance, the absence of the hyperpolyandry in the mite-resistant Arnot Forest bees studied by Thomas Seeley and colleagues appears to contradict the studies using the instrumentally inseminated queens.

The Arnot Forest bees exhibit the same level of polyandry as nearby managed colonies, and for that matter, as colonies studied elsewhere. They are mite-resistant but the queen has not mated with an increased number of drones.

In other studies 9, naturally mated colonies exhibiting different levels of polyandry (within the normal range) showed no correlation between Varroa levels and queen mating frequency.

Perhaps it’s surprising that the Arnot Forest queens hadn’t mated with fewer drones considering the extreme separation of the colonies (when compared with managed colonies). The colony density within the Forest is approximately one per square kilometre.

However, at least during the peak swarming and mating period in the season, drone availability is rarely limiting.

This is because drones are not evenly spread in the environment. Instead, they accumulate in drone congregation areas (DCA) to which the queen flies for mating.

What limits polyandry?

Polyandry is beneficial and, apparently, hyperpolyandry is more beneficial. However, queens mate with 10 – 20 drones, rather than 50 or more. Why is this?

Queen mating is a risky business. The queen has to fly to the DCA, mate with multiple drones and then return to the hive. She may make one or several mating flights.

I’ve discussed how far drones and queens fly to reach the DCA previously. Most drones fly less than 3 miles and 90% of matings occur within about 5 miles of the virgin queen’s hive. The queen probably flies further to the DCA.

All the time she is travelling to and from the DCA, and all the time she is present within it mating, she’s potentially at risk from hungry house martins, swallows, bee eaters (!) or from thunderstorms.

Or simply from getting lost.

Additionally, a number of honey bee pathogens are transmitted between drones and queens during mating. Hyperpolyandrous queens 10 are therefore at risk from these sexually transmitted diseases 11.

It’s therefore likely that the level of polyandry observed in honey bees has evolved as a consequence of the beneficial pressures polyandry brings balanced by the risks associated with mating multiple times.

Practical beekeeping

Although the two studies described here don’t have an immediate relevance to day-to-day practical beekeeping, it’s worth remembering that poor queen mating is regularly blamed for queen failures e.g. queens that develop into drone layers during the winter.

I’m going to write about drones later this year so for the moment will just make these points:

  • drone production is maximised to generate sexually mature drones for the swarming season
  • after eclosion, drones need to mature before being able to mate
  • drones live about 30 days and their sperm volume, though not necessarily viability, decreases as they age

Together this means that late in the season – perhaps late July or early August (though this will vary depending upon location) – the number of drones will decrease.

More significantly, the drones will be ageing.

In turn this means that late-mated queens may not mate with as many drones, or that the matings may not result in insemination.

Most beekeepers will be aware of queens that apparently ‘run out of sperm’ and become drone layers.

However, there may be less obvious problems with late-mated queens. I’m not aware of any studies on seasonality of queen mating and polyandry. However, I would not be at all surprised if they exhibited a reduced level of polyandry.

And, as described above, these colonies are likely to exhibit reduced fitness.

Something else to consider when deciding whether to unite a colony late in the season or hope the last of your virgin queens mates successfully …


 

Spotty brood ≠ failing queen

I thought I’d discuss real beekeeping this week, rather than struggle with the high finance of honey sales or grapple with the monetary or health consequences of leaving supers on the hive.

After all, the autumn equinox has been and gone and most of us won’t see bees for several months 🙁

We need a reminder of what we’re missing.

Beekeeping provides lots of sensory pleasures – the smell of propolis on your fingers, the taste of honey when extracting, the sound of a full hive ‘humming’ as it dries stored nectar … and the sight of a frame packed, wall-to-wall, with sealed brood.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

This is a sight welcomed by all beekeepers.

Nearly every cell within the laid up part of the frame is capped. All must therefore have been laid within ~12 days of each other (because that’s the length of time a worker cell is capped for).

However, the queen usually lays in concentric rings from the middle of the frame. Therefore, if you gently uncap a cell every inch or so from the centre of the frame outwards, you’ll see the oldest brood is in the centre and the most recently capped is at the periphery.

It’s even more reassuring if the age difference between the oldest and the youngest pupae is significantly less than 12 days. Hint … look at the eye development and colouration.

This shows that the queen was sufficiently fecund to lay up the entire frame in just a few days.

What are these lines of empty cells?

But sometimes, particularly on newly drawn comb, you’ll see lines of cells which the queen has studiously avoided laying up.

That'll do nicely

That’ll do nicely …

It’s pretty obvious that these are the supporting wires for the sheet of foundation. Until the frame has been used for a few brood cycles these cells are often avoided.

I don’t know why.

It doesn’t seem to be that the wire is exposed at the closed end of the cell. I suspect that either the workers don’t ‘prepare’ the cell properly for the queen – because they can detect something odd about the cell – or the queen can tell that there’s something awry.

However, after a few brood cycles it’s business as usual and the entire frame is used.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

All of these laid up frames contain a few apparently empty cells. There are perhaps four reasons why these exist:

  • Workers failed to prepare the cell properly for the queen to lay in
  • The queen simply failed to lay an egg in the cell
  • An egg was laid but it failed to hatch
  • The egg hatched but the larvae perished

Actually, there’s a fifth … the cell may have been missed (for whatever reason) but the queen laid in it later and so it now contains a developing larva, yet to be capped.

What are all these empty cells?

But sometimes a brood frame looks very different.

Worker brood 1 is present across the entire frame but there are a very large number of missed cells.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

Note: Ignore the queen cells on this frame! It was the only one I could find with a poor brood pattern.

This type of patchy or spotty brood pattern is often taken as a sign of a failing queen.

Perhaps she’s poorly mated and many of the eggs are unfertilised (but they should develop into drone brood)?

Maybe she or the brood are diseased, either reducing her fecundity or the survival and development of the larvae?

Sometimes spotty brood is taken as a sign of inbreeding or poor queen mating.

Whatever the cause, colonies producing frames like that shown above are clearly going to be less strong than those towards the top of the page 2.

So, if the queen is failing, it’s time to requeen the colony …

Right?

Perhaps, perhaps not …

Which brings me to an interesting paper published by Marla Spivak and colleagues published in Insects earlier this year 3.

This was a very simple and straightfoward study. There were three objectives, which were to:

  • Determine if brood pattern was a reliable indicator of queen quality
  • Identify colony-level measures associated with poor brood pattern colonies
  • Examine the change in brood pattern after queens were exchanged into a colony with the opposite brood pattern (e.g. move a ‘failing queen’ into a colony with a good brood pattern)

If you are squeamish look away now.

Inevitably, measuring some of the variables relating to queen quality and mating success involve sacrificing the queen, dissecting her and counting ‘stuff’ … like viable sperm in the spermathecae.

Unpleasant, particularly for the queen(s) in question, but a necessary part of the study.

However, in the long run it might save some queens, so it may have been a worthwhile sacrifice … so, on with the story.

Queen-level variables in ‘good’ and ‘poor’ queens

By queen level variables I mean things about the queen that could be measured – and that differ – between queens with a good laying pattern or a poor laying pattern.

Surprisingly, good and poor queens were essentially indistinguishable in terms of sperm counts, sperm viability, body size or weight.

Poor queens i.e. those generating a spotty brood pattern, weren’t small queens, or poorly mated queens. They were also not more likely to have fewer than 3 million sperm in the spermathecae (a threshold for poorly mated queens in earlier studies).

Furthermore, the queens had no statistical differences in pathogen presence or load (i.e. amount), including viruses (DWV, Lake Sinai Virus, IAPV or BQCV), Nosema or trypanosomes (Crithidia). 

Hmmm … puzzling.

Colony-level variables

So if the queens did not differ, perhaps colonies with spotty brood patterns had other characteristics that distinguished them from colonies with good brood patterns?

Spivak and colleagues measured pathogen presence and amount in both the good-brood and poor-brood colonies.

Again, no statistical differences.

So what happens when queens laying poor-brood patterns are put into a good-brood pattern hive?

And vice versa …

Queen exchange studies

This was the most striking part of the study. The scientists exchanged queens between colonies with poor-brood and good-brood and then monitored the change in quality of the brood pattern 4.

Importantly, they monitored brood quality 21 days after queen exchange. I’ll return to this shortly.

Changes in sealed brood pattern after queen exchange

Queen from good-brood colonies showed a slight decrease in brood pattern quality (but not so much that they’d be considered to now generate poor brood patterns).

However, surprisingly, queens from poor-brood colonies exhibited a greater improvement in brood quality (+11.6% ± 9.9% more sealed cells) than the loss observed in the reverse exchange (-8.0% ± 10.9% fewer sealed cells).

These results indicate that the colony environment has a statistically significant impact on the sealed brood pattern.

Admittedly, a 10-20% increase (improvement) in the sealed brood pattern on the last frame photograph (above) might still not qualify as a ‘good brood pattern’ queen, but it would certainly be an improvement.

Matched and mismatched workers

Since exchanged queens were monitored just 21 days after moving them all the workers in the receiving hive were laid – and so genetically related to – the previous queen.

The authors acknowledge this and comment that it would be interesting to extend the period until surveying the hive to see if ‘matched’ workers reverted to the poor brood pattern (assuming that was what the queen originally laid).

This and a host of other questions remain unanswered and will undoubtedly form the basis of future studies.

The authors conclude that “Brood pattern alone was an insufficient proxy of queen quality. In future studies, it is important to define the specific symptoms of queen failure being studied in order to address issues in queen health.”

Notwithstanding the improvements seen in some brood patterns I suspect they would be insufficient to justify not replacing an underperforming queen … when considering the issue as a practical beekeeper i.e. there may be improvements but they were much less than could be achieved by replacing the queen from a known and reliable source.

But it might be worth thinking twice about this …

Insufficient storage space

In closing it’s worth noting that I’ve seen spotty or incomplete brood patterns when there’s a very strong nectar flow on and the colony is short of super storage space.

Under these conditions the bees start to backfill the brood box, taking up cells that the queen would lay in.

Usually this is resolved just by adding another super or two.

If there remains any doubt (about the queen) and you’ve provided more supers you can determine the quality of the laying pattern by putting a new frame of drawn comb into the brood nest.

The queen should lay this up in a day or two if she’s “firing on all cylinders”.

In which case, definitely keep her 🙂


 

And they’re off …

I posted last week on the relative lateness of the start of the beekeeping season here in Scotland 1. Having been away for a few days I was both surprised and disconcerted to find this waiting for me when I arrived at the apiary to conduct the first inspections of the year.

When is a swarm not a swarm?

When is a swarm not a swarm?

Surprised because I’d missed all the seasonal clues that indicated swarming might be imminent.

Disconcerted because, in the interests of full disclosure, I’d have to admit to it 😉

The colony behind the near-invisible one inch entrance hole through the bee shed wall is a double brood colony in an Abelo poly hive. It was headed by a 2018 queen (or had been 🙁 ) and had a nice temperament and good manners.

The queen was marked blue and one wing was clipped to prevent her flying off.

But it wouldn’t have stopped her trying to fly off. Instead she would have ignominiously spiralled to the ground 2.

Usually what then happens is she attempts to climb back up and the swarm gathers around her. In a standard hive this is often this is underneath the hive stand.

My guess was that she’d made it up to the landing board and stopped or got stuck there.

I had a gentle prod about in the beard of well-tempered bees but could see no sign of her.

With about 20 more hives to inspect I quickly decided to walk them into a fresh hive … I’d let them do this while I got on with other colonies in the apiary.

Don’t think, do

Walk this way

Walk this way

I put together a new floor and a brood box of mostly foundationless frames. I put one or two frames of drawn comb in and gently dislodged a couple of clumps of bees into the box.

Within a very short time more bees were marching down the wall of the shed and clustering between the frames of drawn comb in the brood box.

What started as a trickle became – if not a torrent – then certainly a determined stream of bees taking up residence in the new box.

To encourage them I balanced a split board across the tops of the frames to provide a welcoming dark ‘cavity’ for them to occupy. Very soon you could see bees fanning strongly at the opening between the split board and the shed wall.

Fanning workers

Fanning workers

I interpreted this as meaning the queen had entered the box and the workers were encouraging others to join her.

After an hour or so I moved the hive a few inches away from the shed wall, placed a crownboard and roof on and carried on inspecting other hives in the apiary. By this time about 75% of the bees had left the ‘swarm’ and entered the brood box.

Not so fast

And that’s when everything ground to a halt.

There were no bees fanning at the hive entrance. No more bees entered the box through the entrance. Instead they started leaving in dribs and drabs.

I’ve hived swarms like this before, or done the classic ‘walk them up a sheet’ having dumped them from a skep outside a hive. Other than this being a real spectacle, one of the striking features is that what starts as a mass of bees ends being an absence of bees … they all enter the hive.

'Walking' a swarm into a hive

‘Walking’ a swarm into a hive

Clearly something was wrong and I was beginning to suspect that there wasn’t a queen in the ‘swarm’ at all.

So I did what I should have done in the first place. I had a look in the original hive.

Hello there!

Blue skinny queen

Blue skinny queen

I smoked the double brood box gently from the bottom, intending to encourage the queen (if she was there) into the upper box.

The box was busy but not packed with bees 3, there were good amounts of sealed brood (and a really nice tight laying pattern on many frames).

There were quite a few ‘play cups’ and a few had eggs in them. This is one of the early signs of swarming.

I found the queen on the 19th of 22 frames.

Perhaps I was too gentle with the smoke 🙄

She was the queen I was expecting. Marked blue, though the paint was beginning to rub off a bit, and with the left wing clipped.

She looked like she had lost a bit of weight.

Big fat queens in full laying mode (which they should be getting to by late April) aren’t very aerodynamic so workers slim the queen down before swarming to improve her flying ability.

This queen looked to me like she’d been on the F-plan diet (but remember I’d not seen her since last August). In addition, the number of eggs in the colony was relatively low. This would also be expected if the colony had been preparing to swarm as queens reduce their laying rate in the few days before swarming.

What else could be seen?

Stores and pollen levels were good.

The notable absence from the hive was of well developed, sealed or unsealed queen cells.

A colony will normally swarm once developing queen cells are capped. A colony with a clipped queen often delays swarming for a few more days. It’s therefore usual to find sealed queen cells in a swarmed colony. There may also be unsealed cells as well.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

There wasn’t anything close to a sealed queen cell in the colony 4. The best developed were, at the very most, a couple of days old.

So what happened?

Other than the absence of well developed queen cells the colony looked as though it had swarmed.

If it walks like a duck etc.

Since the queen was clipped she had eventually clambered back to the hive and re-entered, leaving many of the workers who had left with her clustered around the hive entrance.

That’s currently my best guess 5.

If that was the case, notwithstanding the current lack of well-developed queen cells, they’d be trying again as soon as the weather was good enough. I therefore decided to preempt them by doing a classic artificial swarm.

I moved the queen on a frame with a small patch of brood into the box I’d used to try and ‘walk’ the swarm into. I then moved the – now queenless – double brood box a couple of metres off to one side in the shed. Finally I placed the queenright box in the place the original colony had occupied.

And what will happen?

Full details are in the description of Pagden’s artificial swarm. The flying bees from the double brood box will return to the box with the queen. The hive bees in the double brood box will start to rear one or more new queens.

And at that point I’ll intervene.

The double brood box has lots of brood and stores spread across 21 frames. The bees are well tempered, stable on the comb and have no significant signs of chalkbrood or other diseases (and Varroa and virus levels are exceptionally low – I’d measured both 6).

They are a good stock to make increase from.

I’ll check them in a  few days and see how queen cells are developing. Once there are good sealed cells I’ll split the colony into several 3-5 frame nucleus colonies. The final number will depend upon the number of good queen cells and the number of bees left in the colony.

It should be possible to generate half a dozen good nucleus colonies from a suitable double brood colony without too much of a problem.

First inspection summary

I got through all my colonies (eventually). With a reasonable number to compare it’s easy to define the good, the bad and the indifferent ones.

It’s much easier to do this once the season is properly underway, which is a good reason not to inspect too soon in the year. Some colonies are very early-starters, others lag bit. If you inspect too early you might consider the slow ones are dud or failed queens.

I was pleased to see that most were good or at least indifferent, with only a couple clearly exhibiting undesirable personality traits – aggression, laziness, running, following – or, in one case, disease (rather too much chalkbrood). These will be destined for prompt requeening and drone brood will be removed to reduce their contribution to the gene pool.

My overwintered 5 frame nucs looked excellent, with a couple needing re-hiving immediately.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The first inspection is really little more than a check that things are all OK. It doesn’t matter whether I see the queen. If there are eggs present I’m happy.

Eggs? Overt disease? Stores? Brood? Space? … next please!

Overwintering losses

I lost 10% of my colonies this winter – two from 20. This includes both full colonies and overwintered 5 frame nucs.

One colony drowned. The lid and crownboard blew away in a severe storm and they were subjected to a three-day deluge over a long weekend when I was away.

Mea culpa. I should have had more bricks on the roof.

Spot the drone laying queen

Spot the drone laying queen

In the second colony the queen failed and turned into a drone laying queen (DLQ). This had been my worst-tempered colony last year and was scheduled for requeening. However, the queen I found wasn’t the clipped and marked one I’d left there in August. Clearly there had been a late-season supercedure and the replacement queen was poorly mated.

Although she was a bee I didn’t keep it is great to be beekeeping again 🙂


Colophon

And they’re off! is the phrase used by horse racing commentators at the start of a race. It is also the title of a song composed by William Finn from the musical A New Brain. The song is about the damage gambling does to families. There’s a good cover version by Philip Quast on YouTube.

Spot the queens

A little over a month ago I opened a recently-united hive to be faced with this …

Spot the queen

Spot the queen …

That’s a ‘bit of a stooshie’ as they might say in Glasgow 1. Somewhere in the middle of that brawling mass of workers is a queen.

She’s unmarked and not clipped.

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.

Regicide ...

Regicide …

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 ...

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.

In retrospect

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.

So, if in doubt … wait.

Particularly if it’s not clear what else to do.

But it still might end badly 🙁


 

Downstairs? Upstairs?

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.

Checking supers

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

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 ...

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.

Clustered brood

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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.

Unsatisfactory explanation

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 🙁