I found a frame full of queen cells in one of my hives last week (on September 5th). Specifically, supersedure cells. I’ll skip the sad story of how they got there. Just for kicks and giggles, I moved the frame of supersedure cells, along with three other frames including a frame of brood, into a nuc box. Queen cells are usually capped eight days after an egg is laid inside, which means these ones were at least eight days old. Seeing how the queens usually emerge about eight days after the cells are capped, I figured there was a good chance I’d find open supersedure cells about a week later. And I did (yesterday).
It was only six days later, but that shows the cells had been capped for at least two days before I found them. I noticed the bees building the supersedure cells near the end of August, so I knew this was coming. (I’ll update this astounding post with a photo or video later if possible.)
Assuming everything went according to plan, there should be a single virgin queen running around my nuc box now and once her wings and things have dried and hardened, she will, in theory, take off on a mating flight or two by next week. I’m not confident she’ll mate well this late in the year as the drones are already getting the boot in some of my hives. At any rate, it might take her another week after mating for her to start laying. So…
If it all works out well, she’ll be laying by October. So come back in October and we’ll see what happens!
UPDATE (Sept. 30/16): No signs of a mated queen. The bees are calm like they would be if they had a queen, so… I’ll give it more time and see what happens, though I don’t have high hopes.
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.
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… …
I carelessly caused one of my colonies to slowly starve this winter. The cluster was about the size of my fist, maybe a little larger. Ten days ago while I was getting ready to dismantle the hive and cut my loses, I found the queen still alive. I knew the cluster was too small to keep her warm enough to survive another month of cold Newfoundland weather, so I quickly jury-rigged a nuc box with a light bulb for heat, put the bees in that and hoped for the best. The bright light bulb killed off about a hundred bees like moths to a flame. I eventually replaced it with a red light bulb. Today I put a cage around the light bulb (in a different box) for extra safety and it looks like this:
Then I put the bees in like this (that’s a dummy board on the outer edge of the frames to prevent the comb from melting):
I looked over the bees during the transfer and couldn’t find the queen. There’s a chance she’s in there, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve done all I can. The bees won’t freeze with that light bulb. They have an exit hole close by for cleansing flights and three frames of honey. Now all I can do is wait.
Let’s assume this is a lost cause…
I think I could have saved the bees if I’d discovered them starving at least a week or two earlier. The cluster would have been larger. They would have had a better chance. Not using a caged red light bulb from the start probably didn’t help, but it was the best I could do on the spot with the materials I had available. I learned about a beekeeper who uses a red light to keep his bees warm all winter. I would never do that, but I do plan to keep at least one heated nuc on standby for next winter just in case (and I’d probably use a ceramic light bulb instead so the bees can’t even see the glowing filament). I’ve also decided to pick up a thermal imaging device for my smart phone. I already have a stethoscope, which has been helpful though it’s not what I’d call a precision instrument. Cheap endoscopes are also available, though I’ve heard people having mixed results with them. But I’m pretty sure if I’d been able to take an infrared photo of my starving hive throughout the winter, I would have seen the cluster begin to shrink as it was cut off from its honey supply and I would have been able to move honey close to the brood nest and save the bees.
APRIL 6, 2016: Even the caged light bulb attracted and killed some bees. If I had to do it again, I’d wrap the cage with heavy duty tinfoil, or perhaps even better, I’d use a large tin can instead of a cage and poke some tiny heat holes throughout it. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say a 60-watt light bulb, even behind a big tin can, would provide enough heat to keep the cluster and the queen alive.
One of my colonies has been quiet for a some time now and today I found out why. The bees have been slowly starving to death. The cluster is not much larger than my fist and it’s probably queenless by now.
I took a quick peek under the hood and could tell the cluster was tiny. I also noticed poop on the frames near the cluster which usually means the queen is dead. Feces inside the hive is often a sign of nosema, but the bees also make a mess of the hive when the queen dies in the middle of the winter and can’t be replaced. I’ve seen it before. In this case the cluster got so small it wasn’t able to stay warm enough to keep the queen alive. That’s my best guess. …
In my experience, plastic insert feeders that fit inside medium or shallow supers are useless because they don’t provide the bees convenient access to the syrup. Using an insert feeder to build up a nuc could be disastrous, especially in a cold climate like Newfoundland.
I bought an insert feeder during my second spring of beekeeping in 2011 because it seemed like a cheaper alternative to a hive top feeder. But I could never get the bees to take syrup from the feeder. (I’ve heard the same from numerous beekeepers over the past four years.) My bees would have starved had I kept trying to feed them with the insert feeder. …
I forgot to post an update about the possible Piping Queen I heard in a queenless colony a while ago. (It’s a longer-than-usual but detailed post that might be interesting for beekeepers who’ve never encountered piping or even heard of it.) The update: I pulled a frame from the hive six days after I heard the piping and found a frame full of royal jelly.
Royal jelly isn’t a guarantee that I have a well-mated queen. I could have a laying worker or a drone-laying queen. But I’m taking it as a good sign. For now on if I hear piping, I’ll assume that a good queen is present. A shot in the dark: The virgin queen mated the very day I heard the piping. (I’ll update this post if it turns out the queen is a dud.) …
Here’s a brief recap of the saga known as They Killed Their Queens: Mated queens (in standard cages with candy plugs) were added to three splits about 25 days ago which were checked five days later (July 18th) and the following was found:
Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells. Today (18 days later): A naturally mated queen, because Life Finds a Way. Happy Ending #1, or as good at it gets anyway.
Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly. Five days later:Fresh eggs and supersedure cell gone. Happy Ending #2.
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 added a caged mated queen to three splits last weekend. I checked on them today and found supersedure cells in all three hives. Here’s a sample (if you click the image to enlarge it, you can easily see the larvae swimming in royal jelly):
Here’s what I found in…
Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells.
Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly.
Split #3: The new queen M.I.A. (possibly dead) and several capped supersedure cells.
I have video of the whole bloody affair which I might post once I’ve determined what happened and what I’m going to do next. I’ll provide more details at that time, but feel free to speculate while I pour myself a drink…
P.S.: I say supersedure cell, but I suppose the more accurate term is “emergency queen cell.” Supersedure cells are created when the queen is failing but not yet dead, whereas emergency queen cells are created when the queen is suddenly dead. I think. Maybe. The difference seems so minimal to me, I always say supersedure. Furthermore, the presence of swarm cells means the bees are going to fly away, but presence of supersedure cells means they’re simply replacing a failing or dead queen. That’s how I sort it all out anyway.
JULY 23/15: I did a quick inspection of Split #2 and found a few frames of fresh eggs. Woo-hoo! The supersedure cell full of royal jelly is gone too. Way to go bees! All of this will be revealed in detail with a video and photos that are in the works.
I have a queenless colony of honey bees. I can tell because I pulled out a frame today with a supercedure cell — a queen cell — that’s a day or two away from being capped. (I’ll take a picture of it if I get the chance.) The bees are also a bit feisty, which often happens when a colony is queenless.
The queen will emerge in about two weeks because it usually takes about 16 days for the queen to emerge after the egg is laid, and the egg was laid two or three days ago. If my numbers are correct, the queen will emerge around July 12th. After that it takes about two weeks for her to mate and start laying. Add up all those days and it comes to about a month. So…
In theory, if I do nothing and let the bees work everything out themselves, I should see fresh brood in the hive by August 1st.
That’s (almost) exactly what I will do. I’ll add capped brood from one of my stronger colonies every four or five days to keep the colony’s number up during the full month in which it won’t have a laying queen, but other than that, the bees are on their own.
I could remove all the brood and bees from the hive and add them to one of my weaker colonies and be done with it. I could also reduce the colony down to a nuc box and move it to another beeyard where the new queen can mate with a variety of drones, which is probably the smartest thing to do because my beeyard only has two other colonies, so the queen is likely to be inbred if she mates in my beeyard. But an inbred queen isn’t the end of the world and I can alway requeen the colony later this summer when I have some well-mated queens on hand (which I’ve ordered from a local supplier).
So that’s my big plan and I’ll document it as well as I can. Let’s see what happens, shall we?
This falls in line with my general approach to beekeeping: whenever possible, leave the bees alone.