A Failing Queen and Hope for The Future

What follows is an example, from my own experience as a small-scale hobbyist beekeeper, of what’s involved in keeping bees and keeping them alive and well. This is nothing compared some things I’ve had to deal with before, but the point is that beekeeping takes time and effort and close attention. It’s not all about the honey (though the honey helps). So anyway, I says to Mabel, I says…

One of my little honey bee colonies is toast.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

The queen is failing. She’s been on the way out for a while, but now she’s fading fast, laying small, spotty patches of brood over three or four frames, the entire brood nest contained within half of a single brood box (a single deep). The cold weather we’ve had for the past two weeks (well below 10°C / 50°F) hasn’t helped. I did a quick inspection yesterday and found a few patches of capped brood abandoned in the bottom deep, abandoned probably because it got so cold the bees were forced to cluster up top.

Some abandoned brood. (June 07, 2016.)

I’ve never seen that before. Not good.

I reduced the hive to a single deep and put the abandoned brood frames in with the regular brood nest. I put on a jar feeder with honey. I don’t have high hopes.

Then there was one.

Then there was one.

It’s possible the queen doesn’t react well to cold temperatures, that she needs a good warm spell to get into a strong laying cycle. But I doubt it. Now that I’m feeding them, maybe the bees will create a supersedure queen. But I have my doubts about that too. If there’s no improvement by next weekend, I’ll probably remove the queen, if she’s still alive, and add whatever is left to one of my healthier colonies.

The problem is that I don’t have many healthy colonies to choose from. One colony has been living in a nuc box for the past couple months. The queen isn’t outright failing. She’s maintaining what she’s got but not expanding the brood nest. I transferred the bees to a full deep yesterday with drawn comb and frames of honey and added a jar feeder with honey. Maybe it’ll come back to life when and if the weather ever warms up. But again, I don’t have high hopes.

That leaves me with only two other colonies. One colony has been building up slowly into two deeps, but again, not the most impressive laying pattern I’ve ever seen.

The last colony, the only one that’s in pretty good shape, has its own issues that give me concern. While the queen appears to be laying at a steady pace, filling about eight frames, top and bottom, with a natural looking pattern of brood in the middle, ringed with pollen and then honey (no full edge-to-edge frames of brood), she’s possibly FOUR YEARS OLD. I know she’s at least three years old and I expected she’d fail on me by now. Somehow, though, she’s chugging along like a trooper. The colony doesn’t have many drones and it isn’t overflowing with bees yet. But at the same time I have to say I’m impressed.

Still, a four-year-old queen… she could croak on me any minute. She’s always had a mean gene in her too. The bees of this colony have always been extra defensive and difficult to handle. So far this year they’ve been nothing but docile, but I expect they’ll turn mean again when they have more honey to protect. They’re not the kind of bees that gradually turn mean. There’s no low gear to their defensive response. It’s either off or in your face. I don’t look forward to them being in my face again. I plan to requeen the colony ASAP, regardless of how well the queen is laying.

Assuming that I can’t get help in the form of brood from any other beekeepers on the island and that importing packages from Western Australia is not a responsible option for me at the moment, what can I do to keep my little beeyard alive? Not much.

I’ve ordered three mated queens which can’t come soon enough. I might up my order to four if I can and requeen all of my colonies. Never hurts to have young queens. But the queens might not be ready for another month. In the meantime, I know I’ll have to combine my hives. By next weekend I’ll probably combine what’s left of the failing queen’s colony to my small colony that was living in a nuc until yesterday. I’ll feed and see what happens. If that queen is failing as well, I’ll combine them with my other colony that’s been slowly expanding. That will leave me with two colonies, which I will then still probably requeen as soon as the queens arrive.

So with any luck, I’ll have two healthy colonies by July. If everything goes exceptionally well, I might be able to harvest honey from those two colonies this summer, though I’ll be happy with honey from one of them. I also have two nucs on order which should arrive in July. So with even more luck, I’ll have four healthy colonies by next spring and I can relax again.

All of this rebuilding because some little shrews destroyed six of my eight colonies during the winter of 2015.

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