On Losing a Colony

People who idealize and romanticize beekeeping — I would guess that’s 99% of all people who have ever gotten into beekeeping, including me — are in for a big wake up call after they kill their first colony. Sometimes colonies die of natural causes, but whatever the reason, a hard fact of beekeeping is that bad things happen and colonies die. If honey bee colonies can die in nature even under ideal circumstances, they can die in a beeyard too.

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

My ragged queen bee (and her potential colony) finally died yesterday after what might be called a prolonged illness. And I’m okay with it. Honestly, I barely gave it a thought. Losing my first colony a few years back was a hard hit, especially since it was my fault and the colony was healthy and huge going into winter. The honeymoon phase of my beekeeping life died right there on the carpet. While it was certainly discouraging and sad at the time, I’ve come to accept that these things will happen and when they do, I give myself a moment (and curse to myself if no one is there) and move on. That being said, here’s the lowdown on what I found five days after I installed my ragged queen into a new hive — and after two weeks of keeping her alive with a light bulb inside a nuc box. (For anyone late to the party, all the details of this desperate tale are preserved through a unique label I just created called Ragged Queen.) So…
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A Cold Ragged Queen

The ragged queen I kept alive with a light bulb for two weeks. Caged four days ago and put in a new hive with new bees because most of the bees from her original starved-out colony were dead. How’s she doing? I would love to know.

Is there a queen in there?  Is she okay?  (April 6th, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Is there a live queen in there? Is she okay? (April 6th, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)


I had hoped to lift up the top of the hive today to see if the queen is alive. Did the bees eat through the sugar plug and release the queen? Did they accept their new queen or did they kill her? Is she starved and dead in the cage? Is the cluster large enough to keep the queen warm? I do not know. The snow and the -16°C windchill (3°F) kind of put the brakes on my plans and the weather forecast calls for more of the same over the next two days. I’ll check on her as soon as I can, but man oh man, springtime in Newfoundland is brutal. Perfect timing on the snowstorm, Nature. Thanks a lot.

UPDATE (the next day): She’s dead. I’ll write a separate post soon to explain what happened and what I’ve learned from all this.

Homemade Sugar Plug and God Save The Queen (Maybe)

On March 13th, I placed the remains of a starved colony — a sad, dirty looking queen and a few hundred bees — into a nuc box with a 60-watt light bulb in a desperate move to keep it alive. Most of the bees eventually died and it looked pretty damn grim for old queenie. Luckily the post-apocalyptic winter we’ve had in Newfoundland took a break yesterday when the sun came out and the temperature went up to 14°C (57°F). That was my chance to create a new colony (essentially a nuc) with the ragged queen and some bees from another hive. But first I had to catch the queen and put her in a cage so she wouldn’t be attacked when I mixed her together with some strange bees.

Mixing up some sugar and water. (April 02, 2016.)

Mixing up some sugar and water. (April 02, 2016.)


I dug out some plastic queen cages that consist of a mesh tube (some call them “hair roller” cages). One end has a plastic plug. The other end gets plugged with some candy that takes a day or two for the bees to eat through, by which time they’ll have gotten used to the queen’s pheromones and will accept her as their own (instead of killing her), in theory.
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