Category Archives: Queen failure

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 🙁


 

In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.

I’m not complaining 😉 1

In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.

I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principlenot too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.

A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.

That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.

Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂

But, there’s always a but …

I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.

In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.

How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?

Self-sufficiency

I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.

And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:

  • Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
  • They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
  • Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
  • I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?

I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.

In perpetuity

This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.

The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.

In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.

You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).

Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.

It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.

How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?

I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.

Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.

One is not enough

I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.

With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.

Two are better than one …

The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.

Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.

The art of the probable 4

Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.

As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.

Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.

These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.

Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.

The time is right

For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.

Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.

Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.

Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.

That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.

Beekeeping nirvana

In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.

Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.

Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.

Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.

However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.

Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.


Colophon

In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and  has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.

‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

Old and new duds

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

Despite the best efforts of the Beast from the East 1 Spring is definitely on the way.

The snowdrops and crocus have been out for some time, willow is looking good, large queen bumble bees are searching for nest sites and the temperature here in Fife has consistently reached double figures during the warmest part of the day for the last week.

Consistently … but only just and only briefly.

Pollen boost

Pollen boost …

Consequently it’s too cold for full inspections and the only colonies I’ve been ‘in’ are the two described below. However, I’ve not ignored the others. I’ve lifted the crownboard on most colonies to determine their approximate strength (or just peeked through those with perspex crownboards which is even less intrusive) and have continued to heft colonies to see if they have enough stores. Those that were feeling a bit light have had a fondant top up. I’ve also given several colonies a pollen boost to help them rear early season brood.

Other than that – and moving colonies to the new bee shed – I’ve left them well alone.

Early season checkups

On the warmest part of the warmest day of the week I visited the apiary to check the colony strength. With the exception of two, all were flying well with foragers returning laden with pale yellow pollen.

However, two were suspiciously quiet, with only a handful of bees going in and out 2.

A pretty small handful.

Almost none of the bees returning to these two colonies carried pollen.

One was a five frame poly nuc in the bee shed. This had been made up in mid/late summer while the parental colony was requeened. The old queen, a frame of emerging brood with the adhering bees and a frame of stores had gone into the nuc box. The little colony had built up reasonably well going by my infrequent peeks through the transparent crownboard, but not well enough to move them to a full hive for the winter.

The other suspiciously quiet colony was a full (or full-sized 🙁 ) hive headed by one of the older queens in my apiary. Most colonies are requeened annually or every other year, but this one was reared in my first year in Scotland (2015) 3.

I popped the lid off both colonies and examined them in greater detail. It wasn’t the recommended ‘shirtsleeve weather‘ by a long-shot, but I feared the worst and didn’t think a bit of cold would do these two any further damage.

Unfulfilled promise

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

Overwintered virgin queen?

Overwintered virgin queen?

This definitely wasn’t the queen I’d put in the box last August. For whatever reason, the colony had clearly replaced the queen late in the year. It hadn’t swarmed, so it looks like they’d tried to supercede the old queen. Going by the total absence of worker brood I presume the new queen hadn’t mated successfully, or at all, and that she was a virgin.

She wasn’t running about skittishly like new virgin queens do, but she wasn’t doing anything very useful either.

There were a few drones in the colony and one or two sealed drone cells. Whether these were from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, or laying workers, is largely irrelevant 4. The colony was doomed …

Worn out

The full sized colony was only full sized in terms of the hive it occupied. Inside there was another rather pathetic cupful of bees together with a very tatty, marked and clipped queen 5. There was more paint on her head than her thorax and I remember marking her with a very ‘blobby’ Posca pen. This was the queen I’d expected to find in the box.

Old and tired ...

Old and tired …

There were no drones in this colony, but no eggs either. There was also no sign of a second queen or evidence of attempted supercedure. I suspect the ageing queen simply ran out of sperm, stopped laying and never got started again.

Sometimes old queens turn into drone layers and sometimes they just stop. I’m not sure why they exhibit this different behaviour. It might actually reflect when they’re detected. I think I usually find drone laying queens a bit later in the Spring. Perhaps a failed queen starts laying (unfertilised) eggs only once the ambient temperature has risen sufficiently to help the much-reduced numbers of workers keep the brood nest warm enough?

That’s guesswork. It’s still cold here, with frost most nights. The small number of bees in the colony would have been unable to maintain the mid-30’s temperatures required for brood rearing. It’s surprising they’d survived this long.

Health check

Neither colony had any obvious signs of disease. The floor of the full hive was thigh-deep – if you’re a bee – in corpses.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses …

However, a good poke around through the cadavers failed to find any with signs of the deformed wings that are indicative of high viral loads. I hadn’t really expected to … the Varroa loads in this colony in the late-summer and midwinter treatments had been very low.

Corpses ...

Corpses …

Lose them or use them?

Clearly both queens had failed. Both were despatched. To keep them in the vain hope that they’d miraculously start laying again would have been a waste of time and, more importantly, other bees. The virgin would now be too old to get mated and there won’t be drones available here for at least 6 weeks.

This left the dilemma of what to do with the remaining bees. Both colonies were apparently healthy, but too small to survive. In the autumn the obvious thing to do is to unite small healthy colonies with large healthy colonies. This strengthens the latter further and helps them get through the winter.

However, this is the Spring. There were probably no more than 300 bees in either of the failed hives. All of these bees would have been at least 3 months old, and quite probably significantly older. They were unlikely to live much longer.

Furthermore, uniting these small colonies with larger colonies in the apiary would have caused disruption to the latter and increased the volume of the hive to be kept warm. Neither of these are desirable.

I therefore shook both small colonies out allowing the healthy flying bees to redistribute themselves around the half dozen strong hives in the apiary. Before shaking them out I either moved the original hive altogether or – in the case of the nuc from the shed – sealed the entrance, forcing them to look elsewhere for a colony to accept them.


Colophon

The term dud is used these days to mean a “thing that fails to function in the way that it is designed to”, with this usage dating back to the 1914-18 war where it referred to shells that failed to explode. However, the word is much older. Its original meaning was a cloak or mantle, often of coarse cloth, with references to the word dudde dating back to the 14th Century. Over the next few hundred years the meaning, in the plural duds, evolved to mean clothes and – more rarely but more specifically – ragged, shabby clothes or scraps of cloth. This seemed appropriate considering the tatty state of the old marked queen …

 

 

The Autumn of the Matriarch

I’ve previously commented that weak colonies that build up very slowly in Spring are more trouble than they’re worth. The resources they need – syrup, frames of emerging brood, more TLC – are rarely reflected in the subsequent honey yield.

Quite the contrary, they’re often a lost cause and it could be argued that, from a purely efficiency point of view, it would be better if the colony succumbed during the winter than staggered on into the Spring.

Better still, assuming they’re disease free, use the bees in the autumn by sacrificing the queen and uniting the colony with a strong colony. You’ll boost the latter and strong colonies both overwinter better and build up better the following year.

Do as I say, don’t do as I do.

All the above makes perfect sense, but a combination of sentimentality and ill-placed optimism means that it’s not unusual – in late Spring – to find myself being reminded that “weak colonies that build up very slowly in Spring are more trouble than they’re worth”.

And it’s happened again.

One of my colonies was undersized in late autumn and had built up very slowly this Spring. The queen was a little older than most in the apiary but she’d done well in the past and I thought she might have another season in her. Varroa drops in late autumn and mid-winter had been very low and the bees were beautifully tempered, calm, steady on the comb and a pleasure to work with.

But in the first inspection of the year (10th of May) there just weren’t enough of them. The queen was laying, pollen was coming in, there were no signs of disease and the colony behaviour remained exemplary.

Lagging behind

Comparison between colonies is very informative. That’s why it’s easier to maintain two colonies than one. Other colonies in the same apiary were building up well. By late May I was starting swarm prevention measures on these, using pre-emptive vertical splits.

The small colony was largely forgotten or ignored. I peeked through the perspex crownboard a couple of times and could see they were building up.

Slowly.

I got distracted harvesting the early season honey from other colonies, running out of frames and with more swarm prevention and control. I finally completed a full inspection of the colony on the 17th of June, shortly before the summer solstice and the first official day of summer (so still technically Spring).

Queen failure … not epic, but failure nevertheless

The colony had only a couple of frames of brood and covered a frame or two more than that. The temper and behaviour was still very good. The queen was present and laying. She was being attended by a retinue of workers and not being ignored or harassed.

Failing queen ...

Failing queen …

But she was clearly losing her faculties. Many of the cells contained two or more eggs.

Multiple eggs in cells are often seen with laying workers and sometimes seen when a newly mated queen first starts laying. With laying workers the eggs are often placed on the sidewalls of cells and, as they’re unmated, they develop into drones. The brood pattern is scattered randomly around the frame. With newly mated queens the eggs are usually correctly placed in the base of the cell.

Occam’s razor

The colony was clearly doomed. They showed no sign of trying to replace the queen, without which the future was bleak. I needed to rescue something from the situation. The choice depended on my interpretation of what had gone wrong. The options were:

  1. Queen failure, plain and simple
  2. Laying workers in a colony with a failed queen still present (an unusual situation)
  3. A new, recently mated, queen was also present with the old queen (supercedure)

A thorough inspection of the colony failed to find another queen or any evidence of a recently vacated queen cell. Frankly this didn’t take long, the colony was simply too small to ‘hide’ either of these. Option 3 could therefore be discounted. The presence of another queen would be really important if I was considering requeening the colony or uniting it with a queenright hive – both these are likely to go badly if there was a queen still present.

There was no drone brood at all in the colony and the laying pattern was clustered as would be expected from eggs laid by a queen. Option 2 could therefore almost certainly be discounted. Fortunately again as it’s difficult to requeen a colony containing laying workers. As another aside, I can’t remember seeing a colony with laying workers that also contained a (failed) queen.

That left the most likely explanation for the multiple eggs (and the undersized colony) was the simple failure of the queen. For whatever reason, she was laying at a much lower rate than usual and had started laying multiple eggs in cells. Of the three possibilities, this is the most straightforward. Occam’s razor (William of Ockham, ~1287-1347) is the problem-solving principle that states that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one.

Better late than never

The queen was removed from the colony and it was united over newspaper on top of a strong hive in the same apiary. Two days later the Varroa board underneath the colony was covered in shredded paper indicating that the colonies were united successfully.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Which is what I should have done in mid-autumn last year.

Better late than never  😉

A few days later I rearranged the colony, placing the two frames of brood into the bottom brood box and putting a clearer board underneath the top brood box. The resulting single colony, now a bit stronger, will be well-placed for the summer nectar flow and the nine frames of drawn comb vacated by the colony will be reused making up nucs for overwintering.


† Interestingly, I’ve never seen several larvae developing in cells after the multiple eggs hatch. Either the excess eggs or larvae must be removed by workers. I presume this means that the workers can’t count eggs, but may be able to count larvae – not literally of course, but by the amount of pheromones produced presumably. If they could count eggs they’d remove the excess and leave only one, making the identification of laying workers (or a recently mated misfiring queen) much more difficult. Something to be thankful for perhaps? They can, of course, identify the origin of eggs – this process is the basis of worker policing which was touched on in discussion of Apis mellifera capensis, and is of relevance to those using grafting for queen rearing.

Colophon

The title of this post is a corruption of The Autumn of the Patriarch, a book by the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, written in 1975. The book is about the God-like power and status of a dictator, the General, and the awe in which he is held by the people. Of course, this isn’t the situation in matriarchal honey bee colonies, the structure of which is determined as much – if not more – by the workers, the brood and the circulating pheromones.

Finding the queen

One of characteristics that distinguishes inexperienced and experienced beekeepers is the time taken finding the queen. Generally an experienced beekeeper will be much, much faster. Not every time – anyone can have a good day or a bad day – but on average.

A local queen

A local queen

An inexperienced beekeeper will carefully scrutinise every frame, turning it end over end with the half-way rotation they were taught during the midwinter beekeeping beginners course they attended. They’ll examine the end bars and the bottom bar. They’ll look again at either side of the frame and will then slowly return it to the box.

The experienced beekeeper will gently open the hive and lift out the dummy board and the adjacent frame. They’ll look across the remaining seams of bees before splitting them somewhere in the middle. They’ll lift out the frame on the nearside of the split and expect to find the queen on it or on the frame on the far side of the split.

And they usually do.

Magic?

No, experience. And not necessarily in actually spotting the queen. Mostly this experience is in better handling of the colony in a way that maximises the chances of seeing the queen.

In the couple of paragraphs above I hinted at these differences. The beginner goes through the entire brood box thoroughly. The experienced beekeeper ‘cuts to the chase’ and splits the box at or near the middle of the brood nest.

The beginner takes time over the scrutiny of every frame. The time taken by the beginner – probably coupled with additional smoking of the hive – disturbs the colony. Disturbance results in the bees becoming agitated, which causes the beginner to give them a couple more puffs of smoke … all of which unsettles the colony (and the queen) further. Ad infinitum.

In contrast, the experienced beekeeper only bothers with the frames on which the queen is most likely to be present. The experienced beekeepers is quick, as gentle as possible and causes as little disturbance as possible … and probably uses only a small amount of smoke.

Focus where needed, skip the rest

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

With minimal disturbance the queen will be in or around the brood nest. She’ll almost certainly be on a frame with eggs, young larvae and ‘polished’ cells. Polished cells are those that have been prepared by the workers ready for the queen to lay in. They usually have a distinctive shiny appearance to the inner walls; this is particularly easy to see if the comb is old and dark.

There’s little chance the (undisturbed) queen will be on sealed brood and even less chance she’ll be wandering around on frames of stores. All that time taken by the beginner examining a frame of sealed stores contributes to the disturbance of the colony and reduces the likelihood of the queen being where she should be.

The experienced beekeeper splits the box at or near where s/he expects to find eggs and very young brood. There’s probably only a couple of frames in the box that are at the right stage and it’s experience – of the concentration of bees in the seams and the behaviour of those bees – that allows most of the other frames to be safely ignored.

Reassuring but unnecessary

The reality is that, during routine inspections, finding the queen is not necessary. The only times you have to find her is when you’re going to manipulate the hive or colony in a way that necessitates knowing where the queen is e.g. an artificial swarm or vertical split.

The rest of the time it’s sufficient to just look for the evidence that the queen is present. The first of these is the general temperament of the colony. Queenless colonies are usually less well tempered. However, this isn’t alone a dependable sign as lots of other things can change the temper of the colony for the worse e.g. the weather or a strong nectar flow stopping.

The key thing to look for is the presence of eggs in the colony. If they are seen the queen must have been present within the last 3 days. In addition, the orientation of the eggs – standing near vertically or lying more horizontally – can provide more accurate timing. Eggs start vertical and end horizontal over the three days before they hatch. This is usually sufficient evidence that the queen is present.

Of course, just finding eggs isn’t sufficient evidence that the colony isn’t thinking of swarming. To determine that there are other things to check for e.g. the rate at which eggs are being laid and the presence or absence of queen cells, but I’ll deal with these in more detail some other time.

Stop looking

If you still feel the need to see the queen on every inspection my advice is to stop looking for her … at least consciously. Instead, concentrate on what really matters. Look for the evidence that the colony is queenright, by comparison with your notes work out whether the queen is laying more or less than at the last inspection, observe the laying pattern and look for signs of brood diseases.

By doing this you’ll predominantly be concentrating on the frames the queen is most likely to be on anyway. By doing this with minimal disruption to the colony the queen should remain undisturbed. Instead of running around frantically she’ll be calmly seeking out polished cells to lay eggs in. Therefore your chances of finding the queen are increased.

Observe the behaviour of bees to other bees on the frame – not by staring at every bee, but by quickly scanning for normal and unusual behaviour. Get used to the rate they walk about on the frames, their pattern of movement and how closely they approach each other.

When undisturbed, the queen is the one that looks out of place. She’s bigger of course, she walks about with more purpose and often more slowly than other bees. The workers make way for her, often parting as she approaches and closing up again as she passes. She may stop regularly to inspect cells or to lay eggs. Bees may be more attentive to her than to other bees. She’s the odd one out.

If you’re intent on finding the queen, stop searching and start seeing.

May the force be with you.

Mid-season memories

Mid-season memories …

Dealing with DLW’s

This is a continuation of the post from last week (Drone Laying Workers; DLW’s) on possible ways to fix things if you only have small numbers of colonies. If you have loads of colonies and/or have no interest in maintaining colony numbers you can simply shake the bees out or unite with a strong colony … there’s  no need to read any further. However, if you have only two or three colonies and want to keep them then this might work for you.

Disclaimer … this works for me but there are no guarantees 😉

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs …

Although DLW’s can clearly return to a colony after shaking them out (see image right and the explanation of what it shows posted last week), the numbers are significantly reduced … or at least look as though they are. To be pedantic you actually can’t be sure the number of DLW’s is reduced without formally testing it … perhaps they’re all still present, just laying fewer eggs? I can’t think of an easy way to discriminate between fewer and the same number doing less. Can you?

However, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the numbers are reduced based upon two observations:

  • the number of ‘mislaid’ eggs per day appears to be lower in what is still a broodless and queenless hive (i.e. the same conditions that prevailed before shaking the bees out)
  • a colony that has previously refused to draw queen cells on an introduced frame of eggs and young larvae is – in my experience – much more likely to do so after shaking them out

The second observation is, to me, the clincher. Colonies with well-established DLW’s often completely ignore the first frame or two of open brood added to them. They rear the larvae as normal, but don’t start generating queen cells because they still consider themselves queenright. Remember, as discussed last week, it is the open brood pheromone that suppresses ovary development by workers and you may need to repeatedly add a new frame of open brood every few days before you finally overcome this. With only a couple of colonies, the DLW’s might be saved but the other colonies will definitely be weakened.

However, if you combine shaking the bees out with the addition of a frame of eggs and young larvae there’s a reasonable to good chance they’ll recognise their queenlessness and start drawing out emergency queen cells (QC’s). Once that’s been achieved you’re in a much better position to rescue the colony.

Prevention is better than cure

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Far better you identify a colony is queenless and resolve that before they are irretrievably broodless. This requires regular inspections and careful observation. Once the colony appears queenless and devoid of worker brood you need to look for the characteristic signs of a random pattern of drone brood in worker cells and multiple poorly placed eggs. Remember that newly mated queens sometimes lay multiple eggs per cell, but – at least in empty drawn comb – these are more likely to be clustered in the centre of the frame within an area of ‘polished cells’ prepared by the workers. In contrast, DLW’s eggs are usually dotted all around the place (see the image at the bottom of this article). The only other queen problem DLW’s can be confused with is a drone laying queen … in these colonies there is usually a clustered pattern of drone brood (see image right and compare it with the one further down the page), sometime mixed with worker brood if she’s only just starting to fail, in the centre of the frame.

Don’t leave things too late

If you’re confident in your diagnosis of drone laying workers then don’t delay. The longer you leave things the worse the situation will get … more workers will start laying eggs, the colony will weaken, the younger bees in the colony will age etc. All of these things makes rescuing the situation less likely. If you’re not confident in your diagnosis then ask someone else.

Once I’m confident a colony has DLW’s I do the following:

  • move the original colony as far away as practical, but typically 50-100 yards 
  • replace the original hive with a new floor facing the same direction, a brood box containing drawn comb, some stores, some foundation if needed and a single marked frame of eggs and young larvae placed centrally. Add the crownboard and roof.
  • shake out the original colony completely, removing every frame and vigorously shaking all the bees off (you can use a bee brush, but it’s actually far gentler to learn to give each frame one or two hard ‘snaps’ and shake the bees off … the brush always aggravates the bees)
  • carefully inspect the ‘new’ colony in the original location 2-3 days later
Marked frame (X) with larvae and eggs ...

Marked frame (X) with larvae and eggs …

Queen cells … we’re saved!

Don’t wait too long until you inspect the colony. Three days is more than enough. You’re looking for two things:

  • one or more new queen cells on the marked frame
  • the absence – or more probably significant reduction – of ‘mislaid’ eggs in worker cells on the unmarked frames of drawn brood in the colony
Queen cell

Queen cell …

Of these two, the presence of queen cells is critical. If there are no QC’s then the colony still considers itself queenright. I’m afraid my interest and enthusiasm for saving the colony rapidly dwindles at this point and I usually shake the colony out again in front of other strong hives in the apiary (having removed the original hive completely so no bees can return to it ).

If there are QC’s the colony considers itself queenless (even if there is some evidence of eggs laid by workers on other frames) and there’s a very good chance you’ll be able to save it. At this stage your options include:

  • allow the colony to raise their own queen, remembering that this takes time (perhaps 3-4 weeks) and that queen mating is both weather and drone dependent. If it’s late in the season it’s, at best, likely to be a risky strategy.
  • requeening the colony using a mated queen from elsewhere, in which case add the queen cage adjacent to the introduced frame of brood.
  • uniting with a queenright nuc, even one that isn’t overly strong. Since the receiving colony now knows it’s queenless they’re far more likely to accept the new queen. Nevertheless, you still need to use newspaper or one of the other methods that ensures the gentle merging of the two colonies.
Successful introduction ...

Successful introduction …

Tidying up

Drone laying workers ...

Drone laying workers …

I usually discard the frames containing drones in worker brood, particularly those with a large number of occupied cells (see right). Alternatively, you can distribute them to other colonies in the same apiary. It’s best not to switch them between apiaries to prevent the spread of diseases. However, because of the high level of drifting and the movement of drones between colonies, hives in the same apiary can broadly considered as a single super-colony. If there are frames of stores in the original colony they can be saved for use later in the season, remembering to protect them from robbing bees and wasps.

Advantages and disadvantages

I assume this approach works because shaking the colony out at least partially reduces the number of DLW’s which, once they’ve returned to the new hive containing open brood and eggs, realise their queenlessness and start to do something about it, whilst at the same time the brood pheromone suppresses the further development of ovaries and egg laying in the workers. I’ve had more success, and much faster, with this approach than with the repeated addition of frames of open brood. I’ve also had colonies that refused to make QC’s on added frames do so after shaking them out …

The advantages are three-fold:

  • it only requires a single frame of eggs and young larvae. Your other colonies are not significantly weakened while trying to ‘save’ the drone laying colony.
  • it’s pretty quick. From diagnosis until you’re in a position to know you’re ready to proceed only takes three days.
  • if successful (i.e. new QC’s) you can be reasonably confident the colony can be saved. And, as far as I’m concerned, if unsuccessful (i.e. no QC’s) I need spend no further time or resources on the colony.

Disadvantages:

  • it needs more than one visit
  • it involves more physical work
  • it requires more equipment

If you try this approach I’d be interested to hear how you get on with it.


† it’s worth noting here that the majority of the shaken out colony will return to the nearest colony to their original location. Do not leave an Apidea containing a recently mated queen, or a  weak nucleus colony nearby or they will be inundated with bees … with potentially disastrous consequences.

I assume that the further you move the colony the less chance the DLW’s will return to the original hive, but have no evidence for this. Would success be more likely if you moved them a mile away? So many questions, so little time