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.