ADDENDUM: READ THE FIRST COMMENT FOR A QUICK SUMMARY OF THIS LONG POST.
New beekeepers are so silly, aren’t they? One day they say the queen is dead and all is lost. The next day they say maybe not. And that’s the underlying theme of our first summer of keeping bees in St. John’s, Newfoundland. We don’t really know what’s going on. Reading about honeybees can fire up one’s enthusiasm for beekeeping. But keeping those bees in your small backyard by yourself, sometimes you get a little too close to them, so when they step out of line and do something you haven’t seen before, the sky starts falling. Silly little beekeepers. Not that all the little beekeepers’ concerns are invalid, but there’s a tendency among new beekeepers to freak out and mess around with their hives when the bees are most likely doing just fine on their own.
What follows is a possible illustration of that point. It’s long and there are no pictures. Just a bunch of words talking about how confusing it is at times to keep bees on an island, where perhaps no man is an island, but every novice beekeeper is.
We had reason to believe the queen in one of our hives was dead. Nothing is outside the realm of possibility when it comes to beekeeping. Bees do all kinds of strange and wonderful things that are often perplexing to novice beekeepers who are probably better off just leaving the bees alone without worrying so much. But all that amateurish discombobulation and concern and nervous poking around is part of the learning experience, especially on the island of Newfoundland where novice beekeepers are pretty much on their own most of the time. There is one certified beekeeper on the east coast of the island and another on the west coast with an eight hour drive between the two of them, and that’s it. There is no beekeeping association in Newfoundland. There are no meetings, no places to get together to talk shop, no convenient way to have the experienced beekeepers check on hives around the province — not much beyond a brief phone call once in a while.
So when we noticed the bees in one of our hives behaving in an unusual manner a couple weeks ago, and because we had no one who could take a quick look at the hive and tell us, “That’s nothing, don’t worry about it,” we began to worry about it. The first thing we noticed was that the bees weren’t as active coming and going from the hive, collecting nectar and bringing back pollen. Then we noticed they weren’t taking up as much sugar syrup from their feeder. Our colonies were started 77 days ago from nuc boxes and we’ve been feeding them every day since, which is normal procedure for starting a colony and preparing it for a Newfoundland winter. We also noticed the bees bearding for the first time, condensation building up inside the hive, wasps getting inside and the bees fighting with each other, latching on and not letting go. Then we recently did a full inspection and noticed only a small number of capped brood cells, a few frames of empty cells from emerged brood (mostly empty drones cells on foundationless frames), lots of honey — and no larvae. We were always told that no larvae meant no queen.
So we spoke to the east coast beekeeper about it. From the way we described it to him, no larvae and not much activity, he said it sounds like the queen could be dead. He said it was difficult to be sure, but it didn’t sound good. To save the bees in the hive (because they can’t survive the winter without a queen), we were advised to combine them with the healthy hive. We were preparing to do that by installing a bee escape to move the queenless hive down to a single brood box. Then we would follow what’s called the newspaper method of combining the hives. That was planned for a few days from now.
But before we went ahead with combining the hives, we decided to call the west coast beekeeper (who sold us our original nuc boxes), just to make sure we were doing the right thing, and maybe they could give us a replacement queen to save the hive. (I say they, because the west coast beekeeper is actually a couple, but most of the time it’s easier to refer to them in the singular. They act as one.) I made the phone call, and man oh man, what a phone call it turned out to be. It’s still possible the queen is dead, but no larvae does not necessarily mean no queen, and combining two hives with two queens can result in the two queens battling it out and actually killing each other. Then we’d be left with one big queenless colony of bees that would be dead before Xmas. With or without a queen, the safest action would be to leave the bees alone. Experienced beekeepers with several hives could chance it, but we’re just starting out, so losing both hives would be devastating. It’s not worth the risk.
So guess what we’re going to do now? You get one guess.
First, though, let me tell you what the west coast beekeeper told me today…
The absence of larvae does not mean the absence of a queen, because queen bees in Newfoundland started from nuc boxes in mid-July will often stop laying by the end of September. Healthy queens in well-established colonies may continue to lay into October, but that’s not the case with younger queens in new colonies. Most of the west coast beekeeper’s hives that were started from nucs this year barely have any capped brood left in them now, let alone eggs or larvae. So there’s nothing abnormal about that.
If the bees were queenless, they would be extremely agitated when we inspected the hive. All the bees from both hives got nastier as their sources of nectar gradually disappeared over September, but this hive (Hive #1) was no more agitated during the inspection than it usually is. In fact, except when we did something drastic like bang a super down hard on the hive, the bees were possibly more calm than usual. “The presence of the queen will keep the worker bees calm.” And our bees are calm.
Despite the lower number of foragers coming and going from the hive, if they’re still bringing in pollen, then chances are the queen is still alive. I was told that most bees will give up collecting pollen when they’re not motivated by the presence of a queen. The number of bees coming and going from Hive #1 is a trickle compared to what it’s been all summer, and pitiful compared to the other hive which has never been more active, but we do see bees coming back with pollen. So that’s another sign the queen might still be around. The number of bees inside the hive are looking good too. The hive isn’t packed to overflowing with bees, but there are still a lot of bees in there. If they still have a queen, they have a good chance of making it through the winter.
I was also told that it’s difficult to spot the queen at this time of the year because she becomes smaller after she stops laying eggs. The fall queen can easily fit through a queen excluder, so shaking the bees on a queen excluder won’t filter out the queen. Unless the queen is marked, she’s nearly impossible to find in the fall when she’s no longer laying. The hive might be queenless. But even if there is a queen (apparently, a newly-created virgin queen would be just a small), a physical search won’t tell us one way or another. We’re better off not messing with the hive.
Add it all up and what do you get? Don’t ask me. Honestly, it’s a coin toss for me now. Is the queen dead? Well, the hive is extremely inactive, and it doesn’t seem too interested in feeding, though its numbers are high and the bees still have plenty of comb to fill with nectar or syrup. That doesn’t seem like the most motivated colony of bees to me. But I don’t know. Is the queen alive? Well, there are no signs of recent laying, but most new queens started from nuc boxes in July stop laying by September, so that’s no big deal. The bees seem calm during inspections and a few foragers are still bringing in pollen — both good signs that a queen may be present. And that’s what it all adds up to: a lot of maybes. But the safest maybe is not to mess with the hive. So the plan is this:
Continue to feed the bees until they stop taking the feed. Then seal them up for winter and forget about them until the spring. That’s it. What else do I need to say? The big lesson I’ve learned in beekeeping this year is leave the bees alone. Chances are, whatever is going on, they know how to deal with it. If I poke my head in and mess with the hive, I’m likely to cause more problems than I solve. You know, like I might accidentally squish the queen. And maybe the queen in Hive #1 is dead, and maybe not. Either way, there’s not much I can do about it. And perhaps that’s the key to good beekeeping: knowing when you can’t do anything — knowing when to get out of the way of the bees.