Good News and Bad News

After our unsettling discovery that something was amiss with queen 1, Frank and I geared up and went down to our hives like costumed super-heroes armed with smoker and hive tool (rather than really useful equipment like x-ray goggles and stretchy fingers). We were going to find our Hive 1 queen bee and her larvae or, at a minimum, disturb the hive so much that all the worker bees would be furious with us. By the end of our 2 hour adventure we’d achieved all 3 (with some major hiccups) and robbed our 2 hives of a bit of honey.

Here’s an abridged version of yesterday’s hive activity (trust me, you don’t want the long version, it’s full of even more embarrassing bungles by this newbie beekeeping team).

We swiftly removed both supers from Hive 1, lifted the queen excluder and went to work on our frame-by-frame inspection. We convinced ourselves that a) no queen had been laying in this brood box for quite some time and b) spotting a queen in a box with 500 million bees is something that we, mere mortals, would be lucky to achieve. (Note to self: on next queen spotting, race out and buy a lottery ticket.)

Here’s a photo of Hive 1’s brood box part way through this exercise. Note Frank’s gloved fingers covered in bees at the top of the picture. Yes, we did smoke them – more than once – but by the time we got to the last of the 10 frames, they really wanted to cover the box and we didn’t want to over-smoke them. I’m guessing they were working to keep the brood warm – it was in the mid-20s C outside (mid-70s F) and so, though warm, definitely colder than their desired mid-30s.

Brood box with plenty of busy bees

Brood box with plenty of busy bees

We’d already made up our mind that in this scenario we’d rob Hive 2 of a brood frame complete with larvae (and eggs if we could) and place it in Hive 1. We did just that: 2 supers and a queen excluder removed from Hive 2, another gazillion bees disturbed, 2 open hives, frame swapping done as quickly and carefully as humanly possible, patted ourselves on the back and put the queen excluders back on both hives. It was up to the bees to turn one of those eggs or larvae into their next queen (if their old one was dead or had stopped laying for good).

Brood frame complete with pupae, larvae and eggs

Brood frame complete with pupae, larvae and eggs

Queen excluder on Hive 1 - how'd the queen get through that???

Queen excluder on Hive 1 – how’d the queen get through that???

All that was left was to rob the supers of their honey. The first super of Hive 1 was our first target. Its first frame was full and capped so we removed it from the hive. We expected lots of this because our brief inspection 2 days earlier showed several full frames. We moved systematically to the 2nd frame to find a ring of honey, and heaps of larvae and capped brood (worker cells, not drones). What the??? Somehow (super-hero teleportation is my guess) the queen had moved into the super past the excluder. There is no way we moved her there back on the 5th of December when we last went into the brood – if we had, there wouldn’t be any capped brood in the brood box. But the excluder looked normal – no obvious bent bars (more super-hero talents?).

At this point none of that mattered, we had to come up with an emergency plan B. That plan was to move the queen excluder above the lower super creating essentially 2 brood boxes. We hope the queen will move back down where she belongs. In 2 weeks we’ll open the super and brood and check to see where she’s laying and replace the excluder accordingly. Eventually we hope to have the brood back in the lower box allowing us to harvest honey from the top 2 boxes without risking harming the queen or killing brood.

We ended up harvesting 6 more frames from the 2nd super and 3 frames from Hive 2 (10 deep frames total) before calling it a day. There’s more honey in there – lots in Hive 1 and probably some in Hive 2 – but we’ve disturbed the bees enough for this week. We’ve made space in both hives for more honey storage so the bees should be happy. And we collected 25 kilos of honey so we’re at no risk of running out of honey for a good long while (especially since we still have 20 kilos left from the last harvest!).

25 kilos of freshly harvested honey

25 kilos of freshly harvested honey

Last night we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about: how our queen moved out of her brood box (wide spot in the excluder?), why she wanted to in the first place (too hot during the heat wave?), how we missed spotting a frame with larvae in the super at the last inspection (should we have pulled every frame?), … After due consideration we’ve concluded that we have no idea so we’re assuming it’s a fluke and will go on as if it won’t happen again. In 2 weeks we’ll go back into the hive, assess, act based on what we see and rob more honey.

Whew, that episode’s behind us! In the end, it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared. Our queen is alive and well which is the main thing. And, after all, I do have over 40 kilos of honey to take the sting out of any beekeeping pain 🙂

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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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16 Responses to Good News and Bad News

  1. Happy news that the hive is queen-right after all!

    Googling finds reports that a long, skinny queen occasionally gets through an excluder. As for why she would want to, perhaps she had run out of handy empty cells to lay in below it?

    • Thanks, it is happy news that the hive is queen-right in spite of their superior management by me!

      I don’t think she ran out of space – there has always been plenty when we checked and right now there are a lot of empty cells. I too searched the internet (which isn’t easy because most searches just explain how the excluder keeps the queen out of the supers) but I did find a case where someone had a colony produce a new queen (superseded) and, after her mating flight, she moved into the super to lay. She was still young and therefore small. They moved her down to the brood box. You definitely don’t want a queen caught above the excluder.

      I hope our queen is new and not just small like the example you found. If she’s small and she likes to climb during a heatwave this escape act of her could become a very irritating habit.

      • Emily Heath says:

        Some queens prefer to move up rather than sideways or down, it seems to be an instinct of bees in general that they like building the nest upwards (maybe from all the millennia of life in trees?). They do like to cause trouble!

        • I’ve done more searching online after Prospect’s comments and I see that any queen who’s made up her mind to move through the excluder will do so.

          I’d like to thank you both for your comments, but I’d also like to tell you to please be wrong, that it was teleportation after all and she’ll never do it again!!!!

          🙂

  2. Amber says:

    Wonderful post. I waffle back and forth on beekeeping. I love honey, and I brew and love mead. But I am terrified of bees. You and your hubs are very brave. I look forward to reading more.

    • I am not terrified of much, however, that said, I don’t actually want to get stung by a bee! I have been told that getting stung is inevitable for a beekeeper but so far, so good. My gear is pretty good and I never take short cuts when suiting up. Yesterday a bee managed to get her stinger through my glove but I didn’t get much more than a prick and very little venom so that doesn’t count. Really, bees aren’t such scary creatures – mainly they just circle around willing you to leave the hive alone rather than attacking.

      I too love mead but hubby is very non-plussed by it. One day though I’m going to convince him that we should make our own.

  3. Linda says:

    Glad you found your queen alive and well! What a sneaky little bee! At least you got a harvest out of the whole ordeal…sounds like they owed you! Lol.

    • I just wish we had realised that she’d moved – it would have saved us all a lot of disruption. Next time I’ll be smarter and in another 50 years I might even be one step ahead of my bees, between now and then I’m just trying not to do too much damage!

  4. On the whole it seems a pretty good outcome. The bees gave a practical lesson on how queens can pass through queen excluders and you got lots of honey. As a non bee-keeper it seems a lot of honey you harvested.

    • It is a lot of honey and probably only half of what’s available to harvest if I really want to. Talking to local beekeepers give me the belief that I’m really lucky with very productive bees. Some people are having a dreadful year but my bees just aren’t taking a break. I owe them the best care I can provide and I do try to do that but in this one case, I’d like that silly queen to bend to my will!

      • I think misting them during a heat-wave is taking pretty good care of them. It seems to have been effective.

        • I think it was – though I’m suspicious that’s when the queen moved higher to try to find a cool spot.

          Yesterday I heard about a guy near here who found honey running out of his hive on that hot day. I wonder what damage was done and how many of his bees died. I will continue to mist my little ladies and hope they continue to thrive.

  5. Glad things worked out in the end. There are queens who are wanderers, some at a slow amble, some lickety-split! I often imagine it’s their way of trying to shake loose all those workers who cling on, just looking for a bit of peace and quiet away from the kids…

  6. Pingback: SWARM!!! | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

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