Country Living Series

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The queen is dead; long live the queen!

Here's some beekeeping updates:

With the unseasonably hot weather we've been having, the bees often congregate (or "beard") outside the hive on hot evenings. Apparently this in no way indicates swarming is imminent; it's just to cool down.

One of our hives is thriving enormously (the one on the right).

So much so that it was time to put on supers.

The active bees had built burr comb on the underside of the lid. Yep, definitely time for supers. I don't want crowded conditions to trigger swarming.

But the other hive wasn't thriving at all. In contrast to the right-hand hive, the left-hand hive many frames were still entirely empty, with no comb-building at all. A close inspection of the existing combs revealed no eggs, no larvae, nothing.

Crud. The queen is dead.

After consulting with our beekeeping mentor, we made arrangements to purchase another queen. Unfortunately I couldn't pick her up until my next "city day" in Spokane, which was yesterday.

This is the beekeeper, fetching the queen. You can see just a few of the dozens of hives he has scattered around. Behind him is the Spokane River -- he's right on the bank. It was a lovely peaceful spot in the midst of the city.

I wanted to get right close in to take photos, but not without protective gear -- as the beekeeper noted, the bees get testy when working with queens, and he doesn't smoke his bees when opening the hive.

He removed a frame...

...and put it to one side.

I was surprised to see it was a specialized frame with queen cages tucked inside.

Reverting back to the previous photo shown above, I learned later that while the frame with the queen cages was put to one side, what the beekeeper was doing was taking another (empty) queen cage, and tucking in some worker bees inside to become attendants to the queen for the next few days.

Then he closed up the hive. Back inside the shop, he removed the plugs from the queen cages (closing them up with his finger)...

...then put the cages end to end so there was a tunnel between them. We gave the insects a few minutes to sort things out -- either the queen would crawl into the cage with the workers, or the workers would crawl into the cage with the queen (which is finally what happened).

He re-plugged the queen cage (which, by the way, has some sort of food source inside the cage) and handed it to us. Younger Daughter carried it on her lap as we made the long drive home, making sure to keep it out of direct sun.

Once home, it was past 7 pm and too late to insert the queen into our hive. This morning we made ready to do so.

The queen is helpfully marked with a bright blue dot. Apparently the color is determined by the year -- 2015 is the "blue" year -- and this will help us locate her in a mass of moving bees, should the need arise.

Younger Daughter christened the new queen "Elizabeth II." Long live the queen!

This morning I smoked the weak hive and opened it up. I filled the frame feeder with fresh syrup -- the stronger hive has long since ceased using supplemental feed, but the weak hive still needs it -- and inserted it back into the hive.

Then I inserted the still-plugged queen cage between two frames and lodged it there, and closed up the hive.

As Don put it, there must be a Borg-like sense of relief at the introduction of a new queen, even if she's a stranger at the moment. After all, without a queen, a bee's existence is purposeless.

According to the instruction of our beekeeping mentor(s) (both said the same thing), we'll wait a few days before replacing the plug on the queen cage with a mini-marshmallow, which the bees will chew through in short order. A day or two after that, we'll lift an entire frame of capped brood (brushed free of bees) from the healthy hive and insert it into the weak hive, so the bees have a jump start on extra workers. A day or two after that, we'll repeat the process with yet another frame of capped brood from the healthy hive. And -- hopefully -- that will do it.

Incidentally, it's worth noting both the professional beekeepers I've spoken to in the last week have asserted the same thing: this is one of the toughest summers regional beekeepers have faced in a long time. Drought combined with high temperatures are making things challenging enough. For novice beekeepers such as ourselves, all we can do is rise to meet that challenge.


  1. Heavy bearding can in fact be a sign that a hive is going to swarm or is in the process of hatching out a swarm queen. If you have two hive that are relatively the same size and one swarms everytime it gets into the mid 80's and one doesn't. It's a good bet the one that does is needing room. Hives really shouldn't start bearding heavily until the temps are in the mid to upper 90's in my experience.

    Burr comb is also not necessarily a sign the bees are running out of room when you are using foundation on the comb as it appears you are doing. When a hive puts out all that burr comb it usually means they are wanting to raise drones cause the girls like their cabana boys. Try putting a green drone frame into each brood chamber that seems to help alleviate my burr comb problems.

    Good luck with the new queen she is a good looking one.

    1. That should have been "One beards" not swarms.....

  2. That's fascinating Patrice, thanks for the lesson.

  3. Sorry to hear about your queen. Glad you are not giving up. Your new picture is so pretty.

  4. This is truly a weird year. I am not able to keep bees in my back yard which will soon change in a few months as I am moving to a hobby farm in Idaho. So for the mean time I have grown 2 plants in particular that truly attract bees of all kinds, those are Salvia and New York Aster. These have never failed to attract them in droves. I am hoping that these are good plants for them, sadly this year I am only getting a few visitors. On the Salvia I only cut the flower heads when they are gone to seed and by cutting them I get a new crop of flowers, the NY Asters normally don't come in till Aug/Sep which is good for an end of the season treat, however with this weather they are now starting to bloom. I plan on taking some of these with me to Idaho and continue to encourage my little pets to visit my organic garden. They also like the mints and oregano. Are there certain plants I can grow to help our little friends out?

  5. From one novice beekeeper to another. Great job. At least you now have experience determining there is no laying queen. I find it hard to see the eggs.

    My two packages installed on Mother's Day are bearding heavily these days. Guess the upper 90's with humidity at 74% will do that.

  6. Although we don't keep bees we grow Russian sage for the local bees. It is heat loving, drought tolerant and blooms all Summer. We've grown it in harsh Nebraska weather and milder western Washington weather.

  7. My daughter thinks we have a hive in our oak tree, but there is some type of bee that shows up almost yearly and stays about a month, and then poof, they are gone. I have two 45 yr old oaks in my front yard, and the sound of their humming is sometimes LOUD! Would anyone have a clue what type of these seemingly nomad bees are? Last year my neighbor commented about the bees in his oak too. I live in KS if that has anything to do with the type of bee it might be.

  8. Patrice-
    I am only a 2nd year beek so I don't know much either, but I do have a small thought for you. Everyone we learned from absolutely INSISTED that bees draw comb on plastic foundation just as well as wax. We struggled with massive amounts of burr comb and our bees just not building much comb even though the summer was good and we were supplemental feeding as well. The only frame they liked was one that we wired a bunch of burr comb into because they built so much burr comb (worker and drone filled) that we didn't want to loose that much brood. Out of frustration and as an experiment, we bought wax foundation. To our surprise, our girls took off. Suddenly we had to add several more supers in a very short time. If your bees don't start building up for you once they're queenright, you might try the wax foundation if you haven't already. Our girls are Russians, and I have since read that apparently Russians much prefer wax to plastic foundation, and maybe there are other bees that feel the same way!

  9. A question from someone who knows absolutely nothing about bees here - do they need shade? I know it's been terribly hot out there this summer. I know you keep your cattle shaded, do the bees need shade, too?

    1. Actually, I asked that very question a couple days ago when I spoke to our beekeeping mentor -- he said no, bees are used to hot tropical conditions so shade isn't necessary. They fan the hive to keep themselves cool. That said, next year we'll probably relocate the hives to a fenced-off spot under some trees.

      - Patrice

    2. Choose your shady spot carefully after you look for yellow jackets because you may not want to get too close to the trees. Two of my hives were overrun by yellow jacket attacks when I had them near Deary in a garden clearing surrounded by conifers. From your photos you probably have good shady areas that aren't super attractive to the yellow jackets.

      You may want to fill a second hive body before putting the super on. I am not very far south from you and use two hive bodies each year to help the bees overwinter. This year is especially tough because there is a lack of pollen, nectar and flowers for the bees to feed on. The bees are putting away some honey, but haven't decided to pull comb on the super and store excess honey.


  10. We've had struggles with our hives last year and this year. We went from 5 hives to 2 over the winter because of starvation and lack of proper air flow, but we're now up to 6 hives. It's a constant balancing act to keep the hives strong and healthy, but not too crowded.

    To create our 6th hive, we combined brood and bees from Russians, Italians, and Carniolans, then installed an Italian queen. We made sure to choose frames with older capped brood (the darker the caps, the older) so that that new hive would get helpers sooner. We avoided new eggs and larvae as they require feeding, which would be a burden on an already-weak hive.

    I'm not optimistic about this year's honey crop. My main goal is to make sure all the hives have enough honey and pollen to survive the winter -- anything we might harvest will be a nice bonus, though.

  11. I've struggled with my bees the last 2 seasons...drought has really been hard on them. I won't be taking honey from them this year...I don't want to cause them any added stress...I just keep planting more and more bee-friendly flowers and make sure they have lots of fresh water.