Queenless in August

Sometimes it seems that beekeeping is one drama after another. In the spring, it felt like we ran after a new swarm every two days. We spent late nights pounding out brood boxes and frames to keep our winged livestock happy and honey-producing.

In the late summer, we have a different kind of drama. During routine hive inspections, we discovered that two of our hives are queenless. One, as far as we can tell, has taken no steps to raise a new queen. The other, with barely any bees left in the hive is clinging to a pocked, peanut-shaped queen cell.

For reference, this is what queen cells look like when they are produced via “grafting” by bee breeders. The cells look the same in a hive, but they are dispersed across wax comb.

Of course, Kelly and I went into instant panic mode. We usually do this while brushing our teeth, or attempting to run out the door to work. The question is what to do, and the answer, as always, is complicated by a muddle of reason, emotion, and doubt.

If we believe in survival of the fittest and want to breed strong, local, survivor bees, we do nothing and let the hives almost certainly die out. Or do we? We suspect it’s too late in the season for a virgin queen to find drones to mate with even if the small hive can successfully care for its queen cell.

This means that, no matter what, the genetics in the two queenless hives won’t carry on directly (though who knows how many drones from these hives may have mated with other queens over the course of the season).

Playing God with honey bees

We’re left with two options for keeping the bees alive. First, we can combine the colonies with one that has a healthy laying queen. The advantage here is that the bees can pool their food resources and workforce, in theory increasing their odds of survival as a colony. The downsides are that they may also swap diseases and pests and that we will have fewer hives than we do now.

The second option is combining the queenless hives and purchasing a mated queen for them (or frantically hunting for a late swarm, combining it with the queenless hives and crossing our fingers that the swarm queen is not a virgin).  Either way, the idea is to introduce a new queen and let the bees take care of the rest. But can they?

I put in a call to a guild member who placed an order for queens from a breeding facility this week. At this time of year, a mated queen bee will run you about $25. He urged us not to go the re-queening route because he doubted that the queenless bees had enough young nurse bees remaining to care for the brood that a mated queen would lay.

As usual, the bees throw a curveball

In the midst of our decision-making (or lack thereof), nearly all of the bees from the more populous queenless hive took off, bringing me back to the question: do we really keep bees?

Next time we discover a queenless hive, we’ll know to act more quickly to combine or re-queen, as we’ve now heard from others that bees frequently take off and attempt to join another colony if their own is without a queen or a queen cell.

We’ve gone into damage control, drastically reducing the hive entrances to allow remaining bees a better chance of defending against robber bees. Tomorrow, Kelly will combine the two queenless colonies, and if no swarms show up (ha!) we will probably add the doubled up hives to Dave, one of this year’s strongest colonies.

This whole experience reminds us of last fall, when we lost three out of four of our hives between late September and mid-November. The first died of pesticide poisoning, the second was something of a mystery, and the third suffered from the famed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This year, we seem to be getting off to an early start.

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