SHORT VERSION: I heard what I believe is the sound of a new queen piping, but I was unable to spot the queen because, most likely, she hasn’t been inseminated by drones yet, and thus probably looks like every other bee in the hive (she doesn’t get big until she mates and begins laying). If a queen bee doesn’t mate within about 20 days, then it’s game over. Tomorrow is Day 20 for this queen. Bloody great.
LONG VERSION: Well, here comes another learning experience.
I checked on a hive yesterday that was queenless and in the process of capping a supersedure queen cell a month ago. I didn’t touch the hive until today when I discovered no signs of brood and no queen that I could see — but I did hear a high pitched piping squeak from one frame that sounded similar to something I recorded back in 2011 (see Piping From Inside The Hive):
I followed the sound of the piping on the frame for five minutes but couldn’t spot the queen. It was maddening. So I carefully put the frame and everything else back the way I found it so I could ponder over what might be happening in that hive. So let us ponder…
I found a supersedure cell full of royal jelly on July 1, probably about three days old. It looked something like this:
Queen cells are usually capped on Day 8 after the egg is laid, which would be July 6.
Eight days later (Day 16) the queen should emerge — July 16. After that, the queen has a maximum of 20 days to mate — that would be August 5. If she hasn’t mated by Day 20, she becomes a drone-layer or more or less a useless queen, a dud. Today is August 4. Old Queenie better hurry up and get it done because she has about a day, may two, before she hits her best-before date. Perhaps she’s already mated but hasn’t began to lay yet. I don’t know.
The weather for the past month has been cold and cloudy. We had a few sunny periods here and there, but overall, it wasn’t what I’d call prime mating weather. There’s a fair chance she didn’t mate. Only in the past three days have temperatures gone above 25°C (77°F). Maybe she got out and mated then and maybe that’s what all the piping is about. Maybe I couldn’t spot her (despite my eyes being glued to the area of the piping) because she hasn’t begun laying yet and her abdomen hasn’t extended. That’s a whole lotta maybes adding up to I don’t know.
What was that piping about, anyway? I thought only newly emerged queens piped like that, but there’s no way she’s that young. All the capped brood from a month ago have emerged, so any supersedure queens would have emerged long before now. There’s a queen in there somewhere. Why is she piping? Why can’t I spot her? Or was that even a queen bee piping? Do worker bees pipe and quack like a queen? I don’t know.
The only observations I’ve made that might point towards a mated queen is the behaviour of the bees in the hive. Here’s what I’ve observed:
1) Foragers bringing in pollen. From pollen they make baby bee food, queen food, royal jelly. There’s no need to bring in pollen unless they have a queen. Right?
2) The bees are calm and cool, docile, easy to handle and moving like they have a purpose, not buzzy and defensive like some queenless bees can be.
3) After the last inspection, I placed the inner cover in front of the bottom entrance and the stragglers on the cover, once they got a whiff of what I hope is queen pheromone from inside the hive, immediately began to march back into the hive and scent the entrance. That’s a reorientation reflex in the bees, so it doesn’t necessarily mean a queen is in the hive, but it might.
So now what do I do?
I’m going to leave the hive alone for another week and then check for fresh brood. If the theoretical new queen hasn’t began laying by then, I’m pretty sure I have a doomed colony. If I don’t find any brood, I’ll add some open brood from another colony and see if the bees make a supersedure cell. Then I’ll know for sure they’re queenless. A new queen might not mate well near the end of the summer when most of the drones are being expelled. So I don’t know. If it comes to that, I might just combine the surviving bees into a another colony and be done with it. But if somehow the queen is alive and laying, I’ll throw in several frames of brood from my one healthy colony and feed them like crazy until fall and hope they’re strong enough to survive the winter.
Man oh man. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.
August 19/15: Continued in The Piping Queen Revisited.