How to Deal with Disappointment…Look for Swarms

dead queen bee

I got a box today with LIVE QUEEN BEE written all over it in black marker. Only, there wasn’t. Everything in the box was DEAD, the queen and all her attendants. Right before I opened the box I put it to my ear and heard silence. I blamed it on my bad ear but that made no sense since I put the box to my good ear. When I opened it up my heart sank. The most frustrating thing about it, was I had made the decision to combine my failing hive with my brother’s hive and I tried to cancel the queen bee order, but they had shipped my order out already. So now I still have a (probably) queenless hive, AND I am out $40. Because in order to get a refund you have to inspect the box in the presence of the delivery person and get it in writing from them that the order was indeed Dead On Arrival. Which of course the person receiving the shipment for me didn’t do. I sent pictures of the dead bees and requested a refund, but since I don’t have the required documentation, they don’t have to give me the refund *SIGH*.

I don’t seem to have good luck with queens through the mail. For the record, I’ve ordered two queens through the mail and, for different reasons, neither of them took. Compared to about 4 queens I easily raised myself last summer without really knowing what the heck I was doing, I think there’s an argument for learning how to raise and bank enough queens over the winter to replace my own winter losses. It would certainly save some money.

From now on, if I have to replace bees though, I’m going to buy nucs and/or buy queens someplace local where I can more easily pick them up in person. Which of course is tricky since most bees around here are shipped up from Southern states each spring, but it is getting easier to find. The Chicago Honey Co-Op has website has some leads and the Illinois Queen Initiative looks promising. But most of all, I would like to try my hand at catching swarms. That sounds like fun to me!

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The Queen Is???

So, I am almost embarrassed to write this. I apologize for being like a bad soap opera. At the last hive inspection, I could not locate the queen and my bees were acting “depressed” and overly docile. They weren’t flying much even though it was the first warm day (I was in short sleeves and I get cold easily). There was no brood or eggs that I could find. Although there was a population bump after I moved them to a dry hive which means there was recently a queen, I do not think she is there anymore. My brother has suggested that since it has been a cold spring and there may not be enough worker bees to keep brood warm, the queen has stopped laying for a while. And while that is a great theory, I think I would have seen the queen. I scoured the hive. I went over each frame like 3 times and there are not a whole lotta bees in there for her to hide behind. The only good sign I saw was that there are no dead bees in the hive, which means they are doing their housecleaning. So…queenless? You can take bets now. I’m thinking of combining this hive with my brother’s hive that could use a boost of worker bees.  I can place a queen excluder between boxes on the outside chance that there is still a queen in my hive, but I’ll bet you five dollars there isn’t. I have the feeling that unless I am lucky and catch a swarm later in the spring, or some kind beekeeper gifts me with a split, I am out of the bee business this season. Fingers Crossed.

The queen is dead, long live the queen.

IMG_1630My bees died.

I had three hives last fall. Now, two are dead and one is queen less and failing fast. It was my fault, I moved the hives too close to the garage, ostensibly to keep them more sheltered from the elements, but what happened instead was water from the melting snow ran off the roof and got inside the hives. Wet bees are dead bees. Lesson learned, the hard way. I’ve tried not to get too frustrated with myself, but I keep thinking I could have three healthy hives right now If I’d only thought things through better.

Before I discovered that my bees were mostly dead, I had planned on making big changes to my beekeeping practices. I am replacing all of my 10-frame medium equipment with 8-frame medium equipment. These new, smaller “garden hives” have pretty peaked copper roofs and are quite decorative.  I am excited to have the smaller equipment because I will be able to lift and move them much more easily. This has been a real problem as I simply can’t lift the larger equipment; even 10-frame mediums have proven to be just a little too heavy for me when they are full. There have been times when I’ve dropped boxes full of bees and thrown my back out trying to work on my hives. Most of the times I’ve been stung are a direct result jostling bees around because I don’t have the strength to maneuver the boxes gently. I need equipment I can handle on my own.

Now it seems I will have a hard time filling those new hives with bees. I have ordered a new Carnolian queen from Apple Blossom honey farm, but I have my doubts about saving my remaining hive. It is true that I had written this particular hive of bees off last fall when the varroa mites nearly wiped out the hive, and they still made a full recovery. However, they didn’t lose their queen that time. Still, I transferred the remaining few frames of surviving bees into a small hive that is clean and dry, and added a swarm lure to the hive. Bees without a queen get demoralized and lose their work ethic. I’ve never heard of using a swarm lure this way but if I can trick them into thinking they still have a queen, maybe they will remain motivated enough to keep going until the new queen arrives.

If my last hive fails then I will have no bees this spring. I’ve thought long and hard about it but I don’t want to buy another package of bees. I’m already way over budget on garden projects this spring and another package will be about $160. I’m going to have to get creative about getting new bees. I’m going to put up a few swarm traps and might ask a few people in the area if I can hang one on their property. Also, I just filled out a form to be put on a swarm list. I’m hoping someone calls me to catch a swarm that is not beyond my skill level to deal with. I can’t deal with bees in a wall, or 20 feet up in a tree. But if someone in Chicago or the surrounding towns has a bee swarm in their bushes and wants it gone, then I’m back in business.

Wish me luck!

A Tale of Two Queens

On June first I did a hive inspection that revealed no visible queen, no new eggs, and most of the capped brood hatched. So I figured most likely their attempt at supecedure failed and there was a real emergency in the hive. The bees were still very busy but not moving up or building new comb. However, I believe the cold rainy weather would have prevented them from doing much foraging. So, knowing that as soon as I put my money down on a fancy new queen from Texas (a Buckfast queen from BeeWeaver apiary, raised without chemical treatments and disease resistant) my locally raised lady would show herself.
On Saturday, May 25th I took advantage of a brief break in the rain to do an inspection. I wasn’t looking for the queen, rather I was trying to locate new eggs, which resemble tiny grains of rice sticking up from the bottom of the cells. Or, for tiny c-shaped grubs. I can see how I might have missed eggs, but larva I would have recognized. As I stared into a frame of bees debating whether I should brush some off to get a closer look at the actual comb (it is a bit difficult to see minuscule rice grains when hundreds of bees are crawling on them) when Sweet Melissa! She practically jumped out at me. She was gorgeous-most definitely the largest bee in the hive. Her workers fell behind her at a respectful distance (so as not to get in the way of laying eggs)? Yet they followed her every move. I watched her for a while hoping to see her laying eggs, thus giving me faith that my hive was, indeed, queenright. Alas, while she carefully inspected several cells, she did not back up and lay an egg.

So now, my situation was not so clear-cut. I could try to cancel my queen order before she shipped, but what if my local girl was poorly mated? Then I’d run the risk of not being able to get a viable queen in time. I could kill this queen while I had her in my sights, but what if they rejected the Texan Queen? The local girl, at the very least, had strong queen pheromones and ran a tight ship in the hive. Frankly, with the shortage of queens between Andy’s hives and mine, she seemed way too valuable to kill without making really sure she couldn’t make the cut. At least she wasnt a laying worker. Plus, I just couldn’t bring myself to kill this beautiful young queen. She looked perfect, large, plump, and rather dark in color, kind of like chocolate with a little bit of honey colored banding on her abdomen. Her mother, the Carniolan queen who came with my package of bees from Apple Blossom Honey Farm, was darker brown still. I know I was totally anthropomorphizing, but after all of the work the hive did to successfully raise their own queen, and given the fact that it was the very first time I’d seen a queen active in her hive, I couldn’t bring myself to murder her. I just had the strong feeling that these bees were going to be fine, and I was going to make matters worse by messing with them.

As it turns out, I was very wise to leave well enough alone. A few days later, on June 5th, my little Texan Queen arrived. She was actually quite a bit smaller than the one in my hive already, but she arrived looking spry and healthy and with all of her attendants alive and well. My brother Andy and I talked it over and we decided to attempt something rather difficult under the circumstances…make a nucleus hive from my hive using the new queen and some combs of honey and bees from my hive.  It would be great if it worked, since Andy lost 3 out of the 4 hives he ordered. If my hive was unable to right itself, I’d have this nuc ready to requeen it, and if my hive was fine, then Andy would get a nuc to hopefully grow into a full size hive for his blueberry farm, and we’d introduce some good genetics into the mix. However, this was an iffy proposition for a few reasons and, both being newbies, we thought we had a shot at making it work when it was probably a very long shot at best. If not flat-out impossible.

One, it is recommended that the new nuc hive be moved as far away as possible (a few miles!) from the parent hive so as to prevent the bees from simply flying home. Two, you are supposed to make such splits from a strong hive and provide eggs, brood and bees of all ages. This was impossible because my hive at the time had no new eggs and no capped brood, only adult bees. So, feeling like I was sending the Texan Queen to certain doom yet unable to bring myself to kill my local queen to make room for her, I built the nuc hive and hoped for the best. At the very least, they had plenty of food. I screened the nuc shut for a few days to  give some chance at the bees acclimating to their new home. My worst fear was that I would kill my Buckfast queen with a sloppy split AND my local queen would be a dud!

I waited a week. It rained and was cold several days during that week. I first opened up the nuc, and my worst fears were confirmed! The bees had eaten every spec of candy in the queen cage and she had indeed been released, but it was a sad picture in the hive. There were dead bees on the bottom of the hive, but it looked like most of them just went home to Sweet Melissa. The Texan queen was not found among the dead in the hive, so I do not know what happened to her.  Unfortunately I think the hive was not watertight and that was what did them in… some of the bees that remained were kind of soggy and the hive was damp. This attempt was a dismal failure, and I was crushed. Bad beekeeper!

Next, I took a deep breath and opened up Sweet Melissa. I went carefully frame by frame, and they were moving up to the next level, drawing out comb beautifully! When I got to the heart of the hive, on the very same frame I had seen her on before, was the queen. Only this time, she was laying eggs! I still didn’t actually see the eggs, but she was very diligently backing into each cell and doing SOMETHING. So I closed up my hive, fairly confident it was finally queenright! Yay!

On Sunday, June 16 did one more quick inspection, just to verify that there were eggs being laid. I didn’t even make it down to the bottom. There were 3 combs of capped brood in the second brood box, with a perfect solid laying pattern. The queen must have moved up to the second box practically after I closed up the hive, for the previous week that had been freshly drawn comb!  I was elated! This queen is not a dud! Not only had they gotten a good start on the second box, but the bees had moved up into the third box and were drawing out comb. I went from worrying about the survival of the hive to thinking, “hey, I’d better get another medium honey super ready a.s.a.p.! I might actually get to harvest a little honey!” I am also pleased to say that this locally raised queen is raising a bunch of really gentle bees. If anything, the hive has gotten less defensive and even more chilled out than before. Although I am noticing that the hive is getting more sticky with propolis. Andy’s bees liked to glue together everything…could it be the drones from his hive saved the day by being available to mate when the local drones weren’t out yet? Maybe hives with laying workers have something to contribute to the bee ecosystem after all? All pure speculation, but these things cross my mind.

So, I now have one strong, queenright hive. Other than checking to see when I need to add another honey super, I’m not going to do another complete inspection for another few weeks.

As for the little Buckfast Queen from Texas? I hated sending her off to certain death. Thinking I could make a split under such bad conditions was wishful thinking and I wish I hadn’t spent the money. Hindsight is 20/20 I guess.  I hope I’m never in that situation again. I hope that between Andy and I we’ll always have enough bees and queens to go around. Next year I’d love to order from BeeWeaver Apiary again and learn a bit more about the Buckfast bee…they seem really cool. I really like the Carniolans I have now, and would most certainly order from Apple Blossom Honey Farm again.

So, I think I’m going to take a break from writing about bees for a little while and do a few posts about some other cool things…like salad tables, tomatoes, and artists. Or maybe about artists who like salad tables and tomatoes. Or maybe I’ll talk about food and recipes. We’ll see.

But I’ll definitely let you know if I harvest any honey ; )