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.

9 Responses to Queenless in August

  1. I empathise with you because it seems whatever side of the Atlantic we can suffer similar bee traumas as we discover beekeeping to be full of surprises at every inspection. My neighbour and I share the hobby in the UK and a week ago discovered a colony not only queenless but also with few bees in the hive just 3 days after seeing what appeared to be a swarm. However this seemed unlikely because they had swarmed 2 months earlier followed by a cast and the few remaining bees were left alone to hopefully raise a new queen and this time stay put! So for the 2nd time we too went through panic and placed a frame of capped brood from another colony in the nearly empty hive before realising here we are towards the end of August with little or no chance of a virgin queen meeting up with drones who are probably already being kicked out of their respective hives so will have to leave them to fade away and start again next year with an artificial swarm from a strong colony, should we be lucky enough to get the remainder through the winter months!

    Thankfully CCD and pesticide poisoning are rare in my part of the world and I admire your efforts to maintain your colonies in spite of these added problems because as a relatively new beekeeper (3 years) experience has already taught me that those pesky bees are going to do whatever they want no matter how hard we try to control and colonise them.

    I wish you success in your venture and hopefully your early autumn trauma will be the only one of the year.

    • Hi Jackie, I’m sorry to hear that you too are having late summer bee drama. Did you find any queen cells during this recent inspection? We have a beekeeper friend who captured a swarm in our area just last week, and know other beekeepers who swear there are still drones in their hives (though we have seen none around ours for several months). Of course, you are in a different part of the world, and I don’t know if you get fluke swarms this late. It is always so discouraging to see a hive fade away like that.

      I am due to write a follow-up post regarding our queenless hives. We attempted to combine them in hopes that they could successfully care for the one queen cell together. It’s hard to say what’s going on in there (we haven’t dared peek), but there is distressingly little activity at the entrance.

      Thank you so much for writing! It’s great to hear from a beekeeper on another continent. Good luck with your hive.

  2. Good morning Sarah ~ Thanks for your email; I was certainly going to check back and your response to my post is fascinating….. you seem to know the best way forward for your colony to at least give them a chance. Everything in nature has been turned upside down this summer in the UK because of extreme weather…… rain, rain and more rain so bees are struggling to forage and virgin queens have found it difficult to find a dry day to fly out to mate. The plight of honey bees has even hit our national news recently, it’s been that bad! In answer to your question, we did spot an old empty queen cell on the original frame that had been placed in the hive after the cast had left but what happened is pure guess work because we were advised not to inspect so as to give a new virgin queen a chance of settling and then the bad weather stopped us. With the original swarm and then the cast feeding themselves with honey for their journeys it could be the stores were depleted and the remainder starved or we may have missed yet another cast leaving. Every little disaster that befalls us teaches us a lesson that we take in to the following year so we figure by the time we reach a 20 year beekeeping anniversary we might know what we’re doing!

    Since I also work an allotment with the same neighbours and keep hens that potter around my garden I’ve added your website to my favourites and am sure I’ll enjoy following your antics and comparing notes even if the sunshine of California is not something we’ll ever experience here. However fluke swarms any time of year are something we know all about!!

    • Hi Jackie–Sounds like we’re in similar boats. This is only our second year of beekeeping, and most of what we do feels like (somewhat) educated guesswork.There have been so many pitfalls and surprises and wrong turns in our hive management, and so many curve balls from the bees. We are fortunate to have a wonderful community of beekeepers in our area, attend guild meetings religiously, and regularly pick the brains of our more experienced friends.

      I’m sorry to hear of your challenging summer weather. It seems that climate has such an impact on the approach to beekeeping. Kelly has great respect for a beekeeper named Serge Labesque from whom she took a class last year. I am not as well versed in his beekeeping methods, but my understanding is that he feels it is of great importance to keep excess moisture out of hives through the use of follower boards and top feeders filled with dried lavender (or other dry plant material?). I don’t know what your experience has been keeping bees in such a damp climate, or if there are extra steps UK beekeepers have to take in terms of ventilation? Of course, none of this would help a virgin queen get out there and mate on a rainy day…

      Our location is fairly coastal, and we do get summer fog and, of course, rainy winters. We have noticed mold growth in some of our hives, especially the top-bar hives, this despite screened bottom boards, ventilation holes, propped up lids, etc. We are going to experiment more with follower boards and lavender next year.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing more about your bees and chickens(!).

  3. Hello Sarah, we too have a local apiary set up for our community of beekeepers and in the winter months they hold regular indoor meetings with invited guests who do their best to advise on a variety of bee matters although we’ve realised over time that any one query invites at least 3 different answers, any of which is correct, so we’ve become ever more confused at times! We are lucky to have a great mentor in the man who initially supplied us with our first 2 colonies so I completely understand Kelly’s appreciation of her Serge. Anything we can’t solve ourselves gets the same response…. phone Terry ~ email Terry ~ let’s ask Terry to pop round and I’m not sure we’d still have bees if it wasn’t for his help and advice.

    It seems British bees, originally from Italy, are able to withstand most of what our weather can throw at them although damp is certainly the worst environment but we do much the same as you in keeping air moving through the hives wherever possible. In the winter we place matchsticks between the crownboard and broodbox so air can travel up from the entrance and out the roof but I suppose our bees just have to work that much harder to remove any moisture from their stores. We are advised to do any autumn feeding when the weather is still reasonably dry and warm to give them a chance to do this. Using top feeders full of dry material is not an idea I’ve come across before but it certainly sounds viable because throughout our first winter I did place cardboard packaging into an empty super above the broodbox ~ one of Terry’s ideas and it certainly didn’t harm the bees and may well have done them a good turn.

    Cornwall is my home which is on the west tip of England so we have to deal with Atlantic weather systems summer and winter. It’s worth it for the stunning countryside, beautiful rugged beaches and amazingly calm and peaceful lifestyle compared to our cities so I’ll tolerate the rain and hope my bees can too.

    I can bore for England on the subject of my chooks so won’t go there just yet!

    • Yes, what a valuable thing to have more experienced beekeeping friends to call upon (regularly!) for advice. Our bees are also Italian, though many of our bees now come from swarms of unknown stock (I suspect they’re still mainly Italian). We did get a package of Russian Carniolan bees this spring as an experiment. They have not seemed different in terms of behavior, health, or production so far. We’ll see how they do through the winter.

      We found a source for loads of free dried lavender, so I’ll be able to report on the efficacy of its use to combat the damp this winter. I bet your bees are used to Atlantic weather systems; seems like they are pretty adaptable critters!

  4. Fascinating and I look forward to seeing how your bees get through the coming winter. Even in our small country we’re advised to do our best to stick to locally reared bees as the climate differs immensely from one corner to the other but in my short beekeeping life I’ve experienced both bitterly cold and mild, damp winters so it could be down to luck rather than judgement my ladies come through!

    • Yes, there are so many variables in beekeeping that I always have a hard time parching them out. Are their local bee breeders in your area, or do you get your bees from swarms or splits? We are excited to try dividing colonies this spring. We have had very poor luck with most of the package bees we have bought these past two years, but swarms have seemed to do better. Again, luck, other factors? Who knows.

  5. OurTerry raises queens annually as a business and sells them with a small nuke to set a colony off or if disaster strikes and a queen is lost, he will requeen a hive. Last year after one of my colonies swarmed I was left with a feisty queen that had her workers attacking me even if I was quite a few metres away from the hive so he requeened them this year and within 2 weeks I had gentle ladies again which is great because I prefer to handle them without gloves. The nice end to the story was that Terry was so impressed with the work ethic of the original queen he decided rather than kill her to set her up in a colony in the middle of a field away from humans. I think artificial swarming is the best way to go when expanding your apiary because you know the history of your bees and avoid introducing disease from outside which can happen even with so-called reputable dealers. At our apiary meeting last night we were told of a national dealer selling bees that suffered with European foul brood and several beekeepers were having to destroy hives which is heartbreaking as well as expensive. Of course you don’t always know if swarms are going to be carrying disease but at least the fact they decided to split themselves in half could mean they’ve probably come from a strong colony. A couple of years ago I managed to split one hive into two and was delighted with the results and my neighbour plans to do the same next spring to replace the colony we lost earlier so you go for it!

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