Queenlessness, a Swarm, or Nothing?

It’s probably nothing, but the bees in one of my hives, a mostly foundationless hive with a high drone population, are beginning to concern me. I’m thinking they might be ready to swarm. Or they might be queenless. Am I just a paranoid novice beekeeper throwing out theories that will never stick? Most likely. But stranger things have happened.

I last checked the hive about two weeks ago and there was plenty of room for the queen to lay, so I wasn’t concerned about swarming. However, I’ve noticed the bees clustering heavily off the bottom bars recently, which may only be a sign of the extreme heat (anything over 25°C is extreme in St. John’s). Fair enough. I’ve read on some forums that heavier than normal bottom clustering can indicate a colony about to swarm, but that may simply be a coincidental observation that doesn’t indicate anything other than an over-heated hive. Either way, I’ll make sure to keep the hive well ventilated. The hive already has what I call a ventilator rim above the inner cover, and I’ll add follower boards if I have a chance. So no worries there, I suppose.

At the same time, though, I noticed the flight path of the bees had changed. The bees used to fly east as soon as they exited the hive, rising up over our fence and then turning off to wherever they wanted to go. But now they leave the hive and take off in every direction. Perhaps some uneasy scouts looking for a new home? The bees come back in every direction too. I used to stand on the steps of my back deck and watch the bees, but now they’re coming in from the north over the roof of our house and I’m standing in their way. Bees coming in for a landing don’t seem to have any kind of breaking abilities. So I’m just standing there in what is usually a free lane and a bee coming in from the north crashes into the back of my head (and gets stuck in my hair), and another one and another one and so on. That’s new.

The other change in behaviour, one that is definitely a problem, is that the bees have become more defensive. Anyone who walks into the backyard is bombarded in the face by at least one or two bees within minutes. The bees buzz like they’re annoyed and fly in a zig-zag pattern more like wasps than honey bees, all of it uncomfortably close to the face. The pestering bee will quickly bang into the victim’s head (my head) — smacking into the ear, the nose, close to the eyes, all the tender spots that no one wants a potentially stinging insect to get at. And in the hair, of course. The bee will burrow into the hair until it reaches the scalp, and good luck to you then. These defensive bees will follow me all the way into the house. I hate them. Some forum beekeepers say unusually defensive behaviour like this can indicate queenlessness.

I won’t have time to inspect the hive for another couple days, but I did have a chance yesterday to add a medium super with foundation to the hive in the hopes that if the colony needs to expand, it can move up into the super. I don’t have any drawn out frames to add, so the extra super is the best swarm prevention step I can take for now.

When I added the super, I happened to notice the sound from the hive seemed more like a rumble than the usual calm buzz, which I’ve also read is a sign of queenlessness. The bees get restless without a queen and begin to roar. But that extra rumble might be the sound of the excessive number of drones in the hive. Drones produce a deeper buzzing sound compared to worker bees. So…

What’s really going on? I don’t know. Maybe nothing. We have two nucs arriving in a few days, along with at least one new mated queen. And that will be a momentous day. We get to start over and get it right this time with two brand new baby colonies, and we can at least requeen our one problem hive and see what happens. I have no experience in requeening a hive. I’ve never once even spotted the queen in either of our hives. I hope to have the assistance of a beekeeper with some requeening experience when the time comes. If I have to do it alone, well… I’d rather not think about that at the moment.

To be continued…

5 thoughts on “Queenlessness, a Swarm, or Nothing?

  1. Phillip,

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    Your errant bees are not scouts. Scouts don’t start looking for a home until after the swarm has landed somewhere. The change in flight path could be due to a change in nectar source.

    Although a swarm is possible, swarming drastically drops off after the summer solstice. Bees detect the days getting shorter and usually the queen’s laying slows down. That’s not to say a swarm can’t happen, but it is less likely than it was a few weeks ago.

    Cloudy, rainy, or very humid weather can make the bees ornery, too. It’s hard to say, but crankiness is usually cyclic. They will probably calm down in a bit.

  2. Thanks, Rusty. Like I said, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just speculating when I don’t really know anything and I don’t have time to do much research. (I’ve been trying to read a novel in my spare time for the past month. I just can’t find the time.) I hope the bees start playing nice soon. The cats are virtually attacked every time they’re out back, and us humans aren’t doing much better. We see bees flying around the windows of our house and our back door like they’re looking for something, waiting for us to come out so they can get us. It really looks like they’re scouting out the territory getting ready for an attack. I know we’re still new at it, but we’ve never seen anything like this before.

    Hive #1, the hive that’s overloaded with drones, looks like it’s ready to boil over with bees. I’m curious what we’re going to find during this Saturday’s inspection. I think all the mean bees are coming from that hive. The bees must be cooking in the heat. 90°F is the average high from the past week. If this kind of grumpiness is typical with this heat, I have to take better measures to make sure the hive is cooler. I wouldn’t be able to keep bees if it was like this on a regular basis.

    I’m looking to secure some land behind our shed where we have a big open field perfect for bees. Four hives in our back yard, especially if the bees are in a bad mood, won’t be good for us or our neighbours.

    We’ll see how it goes this weekend.

  3. If you get time (and can get close enough!) inspect the frames closely for eggs. If the hive has been queenless for a while you’re likely to have laying workers in there laying more than one egg to a cell. It might be a good idea to check this before introducing one of your lovely new queens as a hive of laying workers are very difficult to re-queen and will often ungratefully kill any new queen introduced to them.

    The famous English beekeeper Ted Hooper (author of Guide to Bees & Honey, 2010, sadly now passed away) recommends that the only sure way of finding out whether a hive is queenless or not is to put in a test comb of very young larvae and eggs from another hive. Put this in the centre of the ‘queenless’ hive’s brood nest area. If the colony is queenless they will make queen cells on this frame which can be seen four or five days later. If they have not made queen cells they have a queen in there.

    The only times the test comb method doesn’t always work is immediately after a colony has swarmed or when you have laying workers. A colony which has just had a swarm is likely to make more queen cells in another attempt to swarm (even if they have a virgin queen in there) and laying workers may just ignore the chance to make queen cells.

    Sorry for going on for ages, good luck!

  4. Our beekeeping experience is gradually downhill. We may not keep the hives in our backyard anymore. We’re still constantly pestered by one or two bees, and I’ve been stung a few times no where near the hives, just sitting out back reading a book. That gets old fast.

    If this is typical bee behaviour for July, I wouldn’t recommend anyone keeping bees in a small backyard like ours. Who wants to hang out with mean bees?

    We get a new queen tomorrow. We’ll inspect both of the hives then. If we find signs of a queenless hive, then we know where the new queen is going.

    If the bees don’t start playing nice after that, we’ll have to relocate the hives or get rid of them altogether. This is not what we signed up for.

  5. Note to self: Always inspect the hives on Saturday if possible, because the sunny forecast for Sunday can easily change to wind and rain overnight.

    We don’t have rain today, but we’ve got 100kph winds barrelling down on us. That’s about 62 miles per hour winds. We won’t be inspecting the hives or introducing the queen today, not any time soon anyway.

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