One of My Queens is in Trouble

On Monday we opened our hives to do a general inspection. They looked and behaved like healthy bee colonies from the outside but you really have to get inside a hive to know what’s going on. We wanted to make sure there was no damage after we had 2 days where the mercury hit uncomfortable highs: 42.3 C (108 F) on the 8th and a record-breaking 45.8 C (115 F) on the 18th. Bees can certainly survive those temps and ours were aided by our mister. But still, keeping the hive cool at those temps had to take a lot of effort. We also wanted to discern if it was time to harvest the next lot of honey. The last batch was harvested 7 weeks ago so there could be quite a few full frames.

Here’s Frank inspecting Hive 1. He’s removed the first super and is loosening the 2nd super to gain access to the brood box. Both supers are deeps with 10 frames. I helped lift off the supers and I can tell ya, they are heavy (yeah, lots of honey).

Inspecting the bee hives

Inspecting the bee hives

Unfortunately our euphoria over heavy supers in hive 1 quickly faded when we got to the brood box. We found lots of capped brood and HEAPS of pollen, but we only spotted 1 or 2 larvae (and no eggs, but I’ve never seen an egg; they’re tiny and I have old eyes). There was a nice top section of honey on the brood frames and a lot of busy bees doing housework. We checked 4 or 5 frames and all were the same – few or no grubs. Oh dear.

We quickly checked the supers as we put them back in place and discovered that many of the frames were fully capped (or nearly full) and that we really should get some of the honey out of there.

Capped brood and plenty of pollen but where are the bee larvae?

Capped brood and plenty of pollen but where are the bee larvae?

Hive 2 was fine, the brood looked good, the bees were happy and busy and there was some honey we could harvest, but not enough to be a problem. Also the queen had a lot of space to lay more eggs so no issue there either.

Lovely brood frame with honey on top, lots of larvae and capped brood grouped well

Lovely brood frame with honey on top, lots of larvae and capped brood

We thought about it and decided there was definitely something amiss with our Hive 1 queen but we weren’t positive the best steps to take. So, like all good new beekeepers our first step was to phone an experienced beekeeper and ask him his opinion. He said:

  1. He’s never had to re-queen.
  2. We should search every brood frame for a queen or larvae or eggs. If we see a queen but no eggs or larvae, maybe we need to re-queen. If we don’t see a queen (I wish I could be confident in our ability to find her) we should look for queen brood cells which would indicate the hive is taking matters into their own hands. If they are and it’s capped – that’s good, we can expect a virgin queen to be born. We may want to steal some brood from Hive 2 to top up Hive 1 until the new queen is producing well. If no queen cells are evident, we may want to steal some brood from Hive 2 with eggs or young larvae and move it to Hive 1 so Hive 1 can use one of those eggs to produce a queen. Or we may want to buy a new queen.
  3. We may want to talk to the club apiarist to get more advice after our full inspection.

Oh dear, oh dear.

The plan now is to borrow the club extractor this morning and at the same time we’re messing with the brood, we harvest honey. (No need to bug the hive more times than necessary.) We’ll examine as best we can the brood and hope that we suddenly see plenty of eggs and larvae and the queen was just being systematic in her laying and we missed the frames with larvae. Otherwise we’ll probably be up for some sort of frame swap with Hive 2 (bees moving between hives are killed but colonies are happy to take another hive’s brood or honey).

On the 21st (the day of our inspection), this would be what we should have expected to see in the brood:

  • pupae (or capped brood) laid between Jan 1-12 (12 days to emerge as a bee)
  • larvae (or grubs) laid between Jan 12-18 (6 days to pupate)
  • eggs laid between Jan 18-21 (3 days to hatch)

We can therefore conclude the queen in Hive 1 had been laying sometime between the 1st and 12th since there was capped brood. The lack of larvae (I don’t trust my ability to discern eggs) means that she hadn’t been laying in the period 3-9 days before the 21st. So it appears that by the 12th she had stopped laying; potentially as early as the 2nd if the capped brood we saw was all laid on the 1st. This is highly unlikely but maybe she hasn’t laid since that hot day on the 8th.

We last inspected the hive on the 7th but haven’t been into the brood since our harvest on 5 Dec so it was nothing we did (thank God). Did heat stress kill her? or make her pause in laying to reduce the numbers in the hive and therefore the temp? Is it a seasonal thing? Or are we just overreacting and there is a bunch of larvae waiting to be seen by us when we inspect all the brood frames. Oh what I wouldn’t give for some reliable telepathy between my bees and me.

Off we go to collect the extractor and begin our long day of bee husbandry.

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About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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24 Responses to One of My Queens is in Trouble

  1. Emily Heath says:

    “The lack of larvae (I don’t trust my ability to discern eggs) means that she hadn’t been laying in the period 3-9 days before the 21st.” Is it swarm season where you are? That can stop a queen laying. But then you would normally see queen cells.

    It’s so easy to miss the queen as she moves very fast and dislikes light, but it helps if you work in pairs as you can double-check each other’s frames. What was the mood of the bees like as you were inspecting? Being queenless often makes them more irritable.

    • We’re going to try to be very systematic but I’ve seen 2 queens in my life and, as you say, they move fast (and down) so I’m not super confident.

      The bees are in a fine mood which gives me hope they have a queen and she just slowed down or paused in that heat. I’ve heard they are really irratable and noisy if there’s no queen but ours are placid and still collecting pollen as if they expect to feed brood.

      Fingers crossed.

  2. Oh you are such good beekeepers already! My fingers are croseed that the queen was just taking a siesta during the heat.

  3. Good luck! We have never been able to see eggs or reliably spot the queen.

  4. Linda says:

    It is difficult for me to remember, but I think usually if there is no queen, the other ladies will begin to lay and produce drone cells which look completely different.

    • Oh dear, I hope if this happens it’s different enough for me to notice.

      • Linda says:

        Drone cells should be a raised bump because drones are bigger. A queen cell would be even bigger…
        I know some beekeepers that have had problems with honeybee providers sending old queens with bee packs.

        • Okay, I can spot a normal drone cell and a normal queen cell in the brood – as long as the worker bee lays them the same way, I will be able to spot it. Thanks for this info. It’s nice knowing there are people out there who have some idea about this mysterious little critter.

          • Emily Heath says:

            The eggs laid by workers are also in different positions – you can get multiple eggs in a cell, and they will be laid at the side rather than the bottom of the cell, because the workers’ abdomens can’t reach the bottom like the queen can.

          • Linda says:

            Beekeepers can be really secretive…so it’s good to be able to share the knowledge with others! I was fortunate to grow up in an area that had a strong beekeepers association that promoted sharing knowledge and even offered free beekeeping classes taught by somebody who had kept bees for over 50 or 60 years.

            • Wow, you really were lucky. Yes, there’s nothing like having a mentor with real world experience. In this day and age we have the internet but it’s just not the same.

              • Linda says:

                I agree! Especially when it comes to beekeeping…there’s a lot of bad and good information out there. The beekeepers association back home has fought with an agricultural university for years because they stopped promoting the knowledge and testing the association was doing and started pushing chemical treatments instead of more natural ones. Always comes down to money, I guess.

  5. Ah, now I see you’re a beekeeper too! You are lucky to have all that sunshine to inspect your bees. Last year I had to do my basic assessment practical exam in the rain while the bee examiner held an umbrella over the hive! Your bees look like nice bees 🙂

  6. I hope your queen turns up feeling better 🙂

  7. First of all, I am in awe of your precise knowledge of the queen’s laying schedule! We are going into our fourth beekeeping season and have yet to see any of our queens never mind keep track of their fertility. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about the not seeing.

    There is a drawback to expecting the bees to adhere to a schedule or even proscribed behavor, in that they will every once in a while foil all expectation, thereby causing you stress! I also ascribe to a non-interventionist approach (otherwise known as laziness): if there is a problem I wait to see if the bees will resolve it themselves. This happened to me this past spring, when I thought both my hives were dead, without queens, after excessive swarming. I waited, and the hives came back stronger than ever.

    This is all by way of saying: relax! It’s a bit early to say there is anything wrong. You know what your options are but then again so do the bees. Between the bee and human, all should be well.

    • Ah yes, relax. I’ve read in several places that this is priority #1 when it comes to bees. They don’t like stressed out beekeepers and I sure don’t want to be one myself.

      Actually, there was an interesting development when we opened the hives yesterday. I’ll post more today.

  8. Pingback: Good News and Bad News | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

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