A Queenless Hive?

NOTE: This post doesn’t provide much information about queenless hives (or queenless colonies). It’s an inquiry into a specific hive that I suspected was queenless. That’s all.

Well, I think we may have our first queenless hive. Or something.

I checked our one foundationless Langstroth hive today for the first time this year and saw no sign of the queen. No worker brood of any kind. Just a lot of empty cells and plenty of honey on the sides. I saw about twenty or thirty open drone brood about to be capped and some older capped drone cells — possibly from a laying worker — but not much else. No fresh day-old eggs. No sealed worker brood. Nothing. Here’s a quick video of some of the broodless frames I found during the inspection:

The bees were not agitated. The buzz from the hive seemed almost too calm during the inspection. The bees did not scent after I removed a box from the hive during the inspection. Usually the box with the queen starts scenting all over the place. At least I think so. But not this time.

Calm bees. No supercedure cells, no swarm cells, no queen cells. Hmmm…? My guess is the queen has been dead since I reversed the brood boxes on April 22 and a laying worker is doing a good con job for the time being. The queen is also two years old and may have failed on her own — or is very close to failing. I checked all the empty cells carefully and saw no sign of fresh eggs, or even older capped brood.

The activity from the foundationless hive has been slow for the past couple weeks compared the other three hives, but the foragers have been working hard like they still have a queen. They seem to prefer the top entrance to the bottom entrance, if that means anything.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see an absence of brood if it was the fall. Carniolan bees shut down fast in the fall, and I’ve seen hives virtually empty of capped brood while going into winter. But this is spring. That hive should be full of new brood.

I’m not too concerned at the moment because the bees seem to healthy and the population isn’t too low. But they’ll eventually die off without a queen. I either have to requeen the hive or combine it with another hive until I can split it again and requeen.

I mentioned all this to Jeff and he suggested I add a couple frames of day-old open brood from one of my booming hives. The reason is twofold: 1) The smell of the open brood should suppress any laying workers from squirting out drone brood. 2) If the hive is queenless, the bees will start making queen cells from the open brood. (I’ve read about adding open brood to test if a hive is queenless, but I seem to retain only about 5% of what I read these days. I suppose it would have come to me eventually, but I’m glad Jeff is around to remind me.) I’d prefer to double check for the queen, get rid of her if I do find her, and then requeen right away. But I don’t have any spare queens, so I’ll add some open brood for now and see what happens.

If it turns out the hive is queenless, I’m tempted combine one box of the hive with one of my booming hives, and the other box with another booming hive. My thinking is the empty frames will be filled by the good queens in the booming hives, and then once I can get my hands on replacement queens, I’ll make some splits from the booming hives, which should be even more booming once I add another box of drawn frames to each of them. But I’ll take it one step at a time first and see what happens to the open brood, which I plan to add tomorrow.

UPDATE (the next day): I pulled two frames with open brood (1 to 2 days old) from one of our healthy hives; checked that the queen wasn’t hitching a ride; shook off all the bees just to be safe; then placed the frames in the potentially queenless hive. Now we wait and see if the bees start making a replacement queen from the open brood… I haven’t decided what we’ll do if the hive is queenless — whether to wait two weeks for a new queen, or combine with healthy hives and then make splits when replacement queens arrive.

Someone on a beekeeping forum said: “…if there is a laying worker, the bees perceive themselves as being queenright and will kill any foreign queen presented to them. Thus if you attempt to combine them with one of your ‘good hives,’ they may kill one of your real queens.” He goes on to say: “…if you can spare a frame of open brood every week for several weeks, the bees will likely make queen cells. By this point you should be able to introduce a purchased queen. You could remove any queen cells that they’ve made and rather than destroying them you can move them into a new nuc and make another hive.” Well, that’s something to think about.

Will a queenless hive make queen cells from the introduced open brood if a laying worker has fooled them into being queenright? I do not know. I still feel like a first-year beekeeper. That’s probably a good thing. My sense is that the learning curve is long and steep — especially in the absence of a mentor. People who read my ramblings should keep in mind that I work without a net. I’ve done my reading and research — at least enough for now because once upon a time I actually used to read novels, and I miss that — but there is no one here to show me how to do any of this. Mud Songs: We make the mistakes so you don’t have to.

UPDATE (May 21/12): We finally got around to inspecting the foundationless hive again. The bees did not make a replacement queen cell from the introduced open brood. But it doesn’t matter because we spotted the queen today. She is gigantic, just like the queen alien in Aliens. We also saw plenty of fresh brood in the top box. We didn’t bother digging into the bottom box. No need. We did pull a frame of honey, though, and replaced it with some drawn comb near the brood nest — more room for the queen to lay. The bees in the foundationless hive have to be the calmest bees I’ve ever seen. They act like we’re not even there. I don’t know if that’s because the queen is old and her pheromones aren’t as strong, or just calm cool genetics at play. My best guess for the lack of brood: The queen has mostly Italian genes. Italian queens are slow to start laying in the spring compared to Carniolans or Russians that explode as soon as the weather gets even a little warm (they also shut down dramatically when the weather turns cold). I suspect our other three hives have mostly Carniolan genes. All of them are loaded with brood (one hive even has a third brood box). The foundationless queen is a light coloured queen, too, which is an Italian trait. So all signs point to an Italian queen. She’s also the only remaining queen from one of our original hives from 2010. She may be slowing down with age.

The plan: Requeen the hive as soon as possible in case the queen in on the way out. I should have two virgin queens (still sealed in their queen cells) in four or five days. I’ll create mating nucs for them and once they’re mated, I’ll start requeening. I’ll tell you more about that later.

12 thoughts on “A Queenless Hive?

  1. Phillip, I would do as suggested and put in a frame of brood from another hive. It does work and it would give you a queen hopefully then once established you can remove that frame unless it is currently a frameless frame. Just so you don’t have mixed frames, as long as you remove the nurse bees you will be great I have never tried to leave nurse bees on the frames. I have been told that they would be fine but I always remove them
    Good luck and keep us posted

  2. I will add the open brood later today, but even if they make some queen cells, as interested as I am to see that, I’d rather not have the colony lose the time it will take for a new queen to begin laying (our summers are too short, are sunny days too unreliable).

    I have two other hives that look like they’re ready to explode any minute. I get the impression each of them could easily use a new brood box, especially one mostly full of empty cells. Unless I’m missing something, I think combining is the best move. Then splitting once I get some replacement queens.

    I was reading over my beekeeping journal. I reversed the brood boxes on the foundationless hive on April 22 (about 3 weeks ago). Two days later I noted that there was less activity from the hive compared to the other hives. We weren’t having the greatest weather, so I thought perhaps the colony has shut down a bit. But I’m pretty sure I either killed or severely injured the queen that day.

  3. I added the open brood frames. I’m not using Rite-Cell foundation anymore, even if it is deeper than regular foundation. It’s white. Trying to spot tiny little eggs through my veil is hard enough. Against a white background doesn’t help.

    But anyway, it’s done. I replaced the pulled frames from the healthy hive with empty foundation. There’s brood in the hive, but not as much as I expected, at least not in the top box. Still, no worries.

    Now we wait to see if they build some queen cells…

  4. I have been battling this issue, too. I hived a swarm first week in April, and had to cut out some bad comb they were building. I just have chopped or pinched the queen, because two weeks ago I found the same thing you did — no brood and a really chill hive. Not much excitement.

    So I robbed open brood from another hive, shook off all the bees and am hoping for the best. On Saturday, I’m doing a full inspection of all my hives (and doing a cut-out in another hive where a second swarm has cross-combed the crap of the frames. Eeesh.) I hope to see queen cells or evidence of emerging queens. If not, I’m going to combine the swarm with another hive.

    Good luck to you, and to me!

  5. Phil,

    Give them a few days and pull the frame(s) with brood you installed and look at. For the time being if you do see some some queen cells leave them for the time being. As for a laying worker. If you had one already you would be seeing eggs by now. But you may have one just on the horison. Also if you are not working monday stick another frame of eggs/open/capped brood in. You need the smell of the brood to prevent that laying worker from taking hold.

    Also, this early in the season I would not worry about recombinding. I would contine to steal a frame of brood from one colony each week until you have a laying queen. Whether they make their own queen or you take one of my grafts. In 3 – 4 weeks you should have a mated queen again. It is still early in the season. By the way, I grafted 12 cells yesteday. I intent to move them into the finisher on Friday so then I will know how successful I was in my grafting.

  6. I checked the brood frames today. No queen cells. 19°C, but I can’t do a full inspection because the wind is too strong today. The bees in that hive are acting funny. We smoke them and they barely react to the smoke. My guess is a laying worker has taken over.

    For the record, winds this high are too high for beekeeping:

    Westerly wind: 48 km/h
    Gusts: 69 km/h

  7. Hey phil, this is a good time for you to know off a few of those drone frames for me while the colony is queenless.

  8. No problem. I’ll pull some frames as soon as I can get at them — probably Monday. Crazy wind today. The frames aren’t exactly drone comb. They just seem to be very well cleaned out empty brood comb. But I’ll get you whatever I’ve got.

  9. We’ve put in a frame of brood and eggs into a queenless hive. Worked for us. This hive is now pretty strong! Glad to find out the hive is queenright.

  10. I think I squashed my queen, too tight, new to the game. Rather than move the hive can I put on a third brood box to Overwinter?

  11. I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking. I’m not sure why you’d move the hive. To combine it with another hive? Here’s a few scenarios:

    It’s not uncommon to find a broodless hive by late October (at least in my cold climate). Plenty of queens stop laying in October and don’t start up again until December. No brood in October doesn’t necessarily mean no queen.

    A queenless colony is October is doomed (if it really is queenless). Adding brood (a third brood box?) from another colony will only delay the inevitable.

    If I had a queenless colony in October and there were enough bees in the hive to make it worth saving, I’d combine the remaining bees with an existing colony or colonies. I haven’t had to do it too often, but the last time I did it, I used the extra bees, along with the honey in the hive, to boost up a small colony that would have otherwise struggled to get through the winter.

    If the colony wasn’t worth saving, I’d at least add its honey to the top box of any colony that could use the extra honey going into winter.

    Bottom line: If the colony is indeed queenless, the best you can do for the bees this late in the season is combine them with another colony.

    Unless you live in some place like Australia where the bees are moving into summer now (May or June for the rest of us). Then go ahead and add open brood and see if the bees make a new queen. I’ve done that several times and it usually works.

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