Thursday, 18 August 2016

Adventures in Beekeeping - The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

I'm still new to this bee-keeping lark, and it is a fairly steep learning curve.  I was hoping for a nice, straightforward first season, but it was Not To Be.

 I started the season with a lovely, golden Queen Bee

But at some point last month she disappeared, missing, presumed accidentally squished. Or otherwise lost or damaged.

In these circumstances, what is *supposed*  to happen is that the bees find a nice new egg (or several) and feed them Royal Jelly to make a new queen (or more than one new queen, in which case they can fight to the death when they emerge)  

the books also say that if your hive becomes queenless, the bees will normally be grumpy.

My bees obviously haven't read the books. 

They didn't make any queen cells, and continued to be pretty mellow and laid back.  I got a more experienced (as in, has been keeping bees for 38 years) to come and give me his view. He thought my bees were behaving as if they were queenright (i.e. there was a queen in there somewhere), so recommended leaving them another week to see whether anything changed (one possibility was that the old queen had gone, and that there had been a queen cell I'd missed, in which case a new queen would take a while to hatch, mate, and start laying.

But nothing changed, so a week later, he kindly gave me a cut out from one of his hive.
This is a small section of comb with fresh eggs in - you  replace a bit of you own comb with this, and if there is no queen, the bees can use some of the fresh eggs to build queen cells)

Which, in my case, is what happened. 

Queen Cells - on cut out 

At this point, there is a choice. You can either wait for one (or more) of the queens to emerge, at which point they fight to the death, and the survivor then goes out, has lots of wild sex with lots of drones (which is literally the only reason for the drones to exist - they do nothing else!)  an then comes back and start laying eggs, Or you buy in a new, mated queen, introduce her and hope the bees accept her.

I decided to go for the second option, because  I was worried about how long my bees had been queenless ( leaving it for a queen to emerge would have meant anything up to 4-5 weeks for her to emerge, fly and mate, and then start laying - and in the mean time, the bees are getting older and there are fewer 'nurse bees' to look after any new brood, ad it is getting later in the season

So, I ordered a new Queen.

She was sent to me in the post. She came (via special delivery) in an introduction cage, accompanied by about 6 attendants. 

My new queen in Introduction cage
And a set of instructions. Which start by telling you you should remove the attendants.

They do not offer any clues as to how you are supposed to extract 6 of the 7 bees in your tiny box,  without either (i) losing or (ii) stressing the Queen. (They are very specific that you shouldn't stress the queen out, although I would imagine that being sent through the post might be a little stressful) 

Frantic googling reveals that around 50% of beekeepers think there is no need to remove attendants, and that about 50% consider it to be absolutely essential. And that you do it by opening the cage inside a plastic bag near a (closed) window, in the hope that the bees will come out towards the light, but remain in the bag so you can avoid losing the queen.

It's not as simple as they made it sound, and after getting 4 of the attendants out, and having the queen out once and back in again, I decided that I'd leave the last 2 in with her and hope for the best.

So, down to the hive.

You'd think, given that a hive will die out with no queen, that they would be happy to see a new queen,but this isn't always the case. It all has to do with pheromones, apparently - each queen has her own individual scent, so if there is already a queen in the hive, the bees will be loyal to her, and attack a stranger. But (I didn't know this until I started reading about introducing a new queen) her pheromones also act to supress the egg-laying ability of the worker bees. If she's gone too long, then workers may start laying eggs. They re not fertilized, so won't become new workers, but will develop into drones (who may get to mate with queens elsewhere, so there is a chance of some of the colony's genes getting passed on) 

But this can mean that if you do get workers laying eggs, the pheromones sloshing around can mimic there being a queen well enough that the bees will reject a new one..

So one of the reasons for having an introduction cage for a new queen is that it gives the hive time to get used to her 'scent', while keeping her safe, so the bees can't kill her.

I took a short video of what happened when I put the queen, in her introduction cage, down on tip of the hive.

As you can see, the bees were all over her (literally). Apparently, if the bees like her, they are all over her but if they don't like her and are trying to kill her, they would *also* be all over her ... the difference, according to the books, is whether they are biting - and (if you are not well-versed in spotting whether a bee is biting) you can tell by whether or not you can brush them off..

So, I felt hopeful, as the bees were pretty relaxed and let me brush them off the cage, and went ahead with the next step, which is to put the cage into the hive, still sealed.

The instructions suggest that you use cocktail sticks to hold the cage in place against the comb. This would probably work best for someone who had not carefully located some cocktail sticks, put them in her pocket, and then zipped pocket, sticks and all inside a bee-suit...

However, one can improvise.

Twenty-Four hours later I returned, made sure that the bees were still seeming happy to see her, and took the packing tape off the cage - underneath is an entrance tube filled with sugar candy - the bees eat there way through the candy, releasing the queen. In the mean time, she has already spent 24 hours with her personal pheromones wafting through the hive, and by the time she is released the bees should have accepted her.

At this point I ha to be very patient, as the instructions, and the advice from experienced beekeepers, is that you should leave the hive completely alone for 10 days after taking the cap off the cage, as opening it up to inspect could, apparently, cause the bees to change their minds and reject the queen (I like to imagine that this involves small cadres of revolutionary workers, standing around on corners of the comb and preaching republicanism, but I suspect that it is less political than that! )

Anyway, after a nervous 10 days, I went back to check on the hive on Sunday.


It seems as though the introduction has been successful.  I didn't actually spot Her Majesty (my Queen-spotting skills are not great, and for the second time I appear to have bought a Queen Bee ho was supposed to be marked, but had been cleaned off by her courtiers) 

BUT, there are lots of new eggs (and they appear to be proper eggs from a queen, not from workers), and larvae of various ages, so it appears that La Reine has emerged from her cage, and got to work.

Comb with new eggs and larvae
I shall be checking again this weekend, to make sure that all is well, and shall be hoping to spot the Queen.

I am hoping, also, that with the sunny weather we've been having, and the plants which are out, that they will have time to build up a few more stores before we go into autumn.

It doesn't look as though there will be any spare honey for me (I may take a little bit of comb, just so I can taste it, but people are mostly harvesting their honey crops and starting to prep for winter, now). I'm hopeful, however, that the colony will be strong enough to make it through the winter. 

And it is all experience! 


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