April 2019 Introduction: This was one of the first times I thought one of my hives had become queenless but wasn’t. Another time was in the fall, September or October, when I found no brood in a hive. That turned out to be normal behaviour for that time of year. Some queens, depending on genetics, stop laying in the fall as soon as it begins to get cold and the days get shorter. Finding no brood in the middle of May, however, especially when all my other hives were full of brood, seemed like a potentially queenless situation to me. But it wasn’t. A beekeeper causing too much stress and disturbance inside the hive can throw the queen off her rhythm and trigger defensive behaviour in the bees (which was a strong possibility during my first couple years of beekeeping), but in this case I think it was genetics again.
In general, queens with Carniolan and Russian genes seem more sensitive to environmental changes, shutting down early in the fall and starting up quickly in the spring. Italian queens, on the other hand, seem to lay eggs well into the fall but are slow to start up in the spring — which is what I think happened in this case.
The rest of this post has been heavily edited.
I checked one of my hives 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 cells about to be capped and some older capped drone cells, 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 (there’s not much to see):
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. 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. I checked all the empty cells carefully and saw no sign of fresh eggs, or even older capped brood. The foragers have been working hard like they still have a queen.
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.
It was suggested I add a couple of 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.
UPDATE (the next day): I pulled two frames with open brood (1 to 2 days old) from one of my healthy colonies; I checked that the queen wasn’t hitching a ride; I shook off all the bees just to be safe; then I placed the frames in the potentially queenless hive. Now I wait and see if the bees start making a replacement queen from the open brood..
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.
My sense is that the learning curve for backyard beekeepers in Newfoundland 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, but there is no one here to show me how to do any of this. Mud Songs: I make the mistakes so you don’t have to.
UPDATE (5 days later):I finally got around to inspecting the hive again. The bees did not make a replacement queen cell from the introduced open brood. But it doesn’t matter because I spotted the queen today. She is gigantic, just like the queen alien in Aliens. I also saw plenty of fresh brood in the top box. I didn’t bother digging into the bottom box. No need. I 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 this hive have to be the calmest bees I’ve ever seen. They act like I’m 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 queen in what I thought was a queenless hive 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 my original hives from 2010. She may be slowing down with age.