When killing a queen invites a disaster

I’m glad I can’t be charged with regicide for killing the queen. The killing of royalty is, of course, a crime. Just like patricide, infanticide and good old homicide.

But in this case, the untimely demise of my queen bee – either because it got squished between two frames or couldn’t handle the harshness of a formic acid treatment to kill a round of varroa mites in the hive – doesn’t come with criminal charges.

Virgin queen in cage

Virgin queen in cage

On Wednesday Amanda and I opened up our hives to remove formic acid pads we’d placed in there to knock down mite levels. Amanda’s hive is going gang-busters, proverbially as busy as bees raising brood in preparation for the summer honey flow.

However, my hive was positively subdued by comparison. When I began to inspect every frame in the two brood boxes, I made an alarming discovery: not one single egg, larvae or capped brood. Zip. Brood frames that once had been packed with capped cells were cleaned and empty and the bees around all were at least a week or 10 days old. In the upper brood chamber, the bees had started to draw out cups for queen cells. (photo right) But with no queen to lay eggs, they couldn’t finish.

In my eagerness as a newbie beekeeper I tend to be a bit rushed when I am working with the hive. That’s a problem I am trying overcome. In this case, it’s possible that’s what led to the queen’s death. I have to look at this potential disaster as a learning experience. But what do you do when you don’t have any queen and the bees in the hive are getting old?

Queen in cage in frames

Queen in cage wedged in frames

I called on three helpful people; beekeeper and columist Allen Garr, provicial bee inspector Jaquie Bunse and Gus Axen, a New Westminster beekeeper. All advised me to quickly put a frame of brood and eggs from Amanda’s hive into mine. That would hopefully stop the production of a worker queen, who is capable only of laying drone eggs. It would also give the hive new young bees for when a new queen is developed or installed. In their effort to survive without a queen the bees will create a worker queen but that bee has no ability to lay fertilized eggs. It results in the eventual death of the hive. We transferred over one frame immediately, much to Amanda’s chagrin.

Garr suggested letting the bees create a new queen from a fertilized egg from Amanda’s frame. That would take upwards of three weeks before the hive is back in production. Bunse suggested installing a new queen along with the replacement frame of brood. But the trick is to find a queen at this time. She put me in touch with Axen, who said he’d have some available within a couple of weeks.

Unhappy bees with bums in the air

Unhappy bees with their bums in the air

On Wednesday we happened to stop in at West Coast Bee Supply in Richmond to pick up some plastic comb foundation for Amanda’s hive and ran into Bill Picha. He runs Bill’z Beez and just happened to have three virgin queens for sale. Each queen was housed in a plastic cage with three or four attendants. The entrance is plugged with candy, which the hive bees chew out to free the queen. (photo at left)

Bill, who has been keeping bees for 18 years, calmly showed us how to integrate the virgin queen into the hive. He also recommended compacting my two brood supers into one – especially since the frames in the upper one were only partially drawn out for honey and hadn’t yet been used for brood. We kept the cage overnight lodged on a wet paper towel to help keep the bees inside hydrated.

Early Thursday morning found Amanda and I out in our apiary installing our new virgin queen. We cleared the bees off the upper super and stored the frames inside the loft. They were relatively calm but still irritated; lines of bee butts poked into the air threateningly (photo right). I carefully poked a hole in the candy-plugged end of the cage to make it easier for the hive bees to chew out the queen.

It is important for the hive bees to become accustomed to the new queen and her pheremones; they would likely just kill her if I just dumped her directly into the hive.

I’ll go back in a day or two to make sure she’s been freed. But almost as soon as I put the cage in there bees were working on the candy. So I suspect she’s already at home.

Over the next couple of days her new attendants will likely take her out on a mating flight. There are a number of hives in our neighborhood so there will be lots of drones around with which to mate. I’m hoping she comes back fully mated and ready to lay. It will be another week or so before I know for sure if the hive is back in production.

If there is any good to come out of this disaster, it is that the queen is from local stock. Her predecessor was apparently a California-bred queen. There is a belief among many beekeepers that locally-bred stock tends to be more adaptive of climatic conditions. So in one hive we will have a locally-produced queen and in the other an import.

I don’t know what this will show. But I have learned one very valuable lesson; slow down and be more patient. It is quite likely that my crashing about in the hive is what injured or killed the first queen.

As Amanda says, I have to learn the art of Honey Bee Zen

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