Kingdom without a Queen

Hive #10
Wet, damp Hive #10

The weather in northern Minnesota continues to be, at best, cooler and wetter than normal. High winds have also accompanied the cold, wet weather. This has made for sporadic conditions for the bees to venture out from their homes to do their thing. It is not to say they have had zero opportunities; upon opening any of the hives – even ones that are perceived to be in a weakened state – the top bars of the frames are dusted with the bright yellow of dandelion pollen. The frames of nectar are stacking up, too, even with sporadic abilities to reach the nectar in the field.

Hive #10

Hive #10 has had a bit of a storied history. Started last with a package of bees originating from Chico, California, hive #10 had its first queen issue a month after installing the package. With no queen, a worker picked up the call to duty and started to lay eggs. That would be all well and good if workers could just take up the roll of a fertile queen and produce workers; instead, when a worker lays eggs, you will always get drones. Those lazy bugs that just take up space and look out of place with their enormous eyes.

A queen was ordered from Kentucky to replace the missing queen from California. The requeen on hive #10 went well, but we never did get any honey from it last season.

Hive #10 made it through winter and looked be a good candidate for being the source-hive for one or more splits (see my previous post on splits). Unknowingly, and being very new to the world of splits, the source-queen most likely made it into the new hive. This would explain why I had issues "requeening" – the new hive did not need a new queen because it had the original, older queen. On the note of having issues requeen – the new, Russian queen, was freed from her cage (this time). So, what happens with a hive with two queens? It will be a like cage fight; they will fight to the death and the stronger of the two will survive.

This leaves me with a currently strong hive in limbo because of a lack of a queen. There were numerous empty, partially constructed queen cells, but nothing that would suggest a the kingdom was about to throw off a new queen. Without a queen laying female eggs, and after sufficient time for all the existing female eggs to have gone from egg to larva to pupa to adult – there are no viable eggs to be turned into a queen. I did a bit of Internet searching and found several options for purchasing queens, but eventually wandered back to Kelley Bees (out of Kentucky). This is the same outfit that I have been getting my queens from for a while now; particularly this season.

Crow visiting the Ahrens Yard
Crow visiting the Ahrens Yard

In addition to all the queen drama, the apiary at the Ahrens is set to expand by two more hives. My beekeeping apprentice, Beth, is getting setup with her own hive. I am setting her up with a new Russian queen and several frames from a strong hive of mine. The other hive is getting bees from our neighbors to the north in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I am heading up there with a group from the Cook County (North Shore) Hobby Beekeepers on June 4, 2011. There has been considerable effort on the part of Thunder Bay Beekeepers’ Association to keep their area free of mites. I hope to write more about their efforts and my adventure north of the border in another post.

I also received word from the land owners of the Ahrens yard that a neighboring farm had beef cattle and several sheep wander through the field in front of the hives; lets hope that the trail camera caught the beasts moseying along and perhaps the ensuing, Benny Hill-like persuit.

Coup d’état

Beehive at Fifth Avenue Farm

The story of our attempt to split and install a queen from our overwintered hygienic Italians seemed to keep taking twists. For those unfamiliar with what a "split" (each niche activity has its own nomenclature; apiculture is no different) is and what is involved in a successful split, here is a bit of a run down…

The queen runs the show. She kicks off pheromones all while she is laying eggs in empty comb cells. There is only one queen in each hive, but there are thousands of workers at any given time in a strong hive. Traditional Langstroth-style hives (the variety we use) have individual frames (think folders in a filing cabinet). There are multiple boxes (as can be seen in many of our photos), each box contains (most often) ten frames. In a split, you take four frames from a strong, overwintered hive (making sure you do not have the queen), and putting them into the middle of another, bee-less box. You pad out remaining space in the box with empty frames. The frames you pulled from the strong hive should have: (a) plenty of workers, (b) plenty of capped larvae, (c) plenty of pollen, (d) plenty of capped honey. In addition to the empty/bee-less box, the strong overwintered hive, and the empty frames for padding, you will most likely need a new queen. We have been getting queens from a place in Kentucky. You can go without a fresh, new queen – you can allow the hive to develop a new queen on its own.

Queen Envelope
Queen Shipping Envelope

This method usually takes a bit longer, and has other risks involved – swarming likelihood as well as the possibility of a drone-laying-worker. We pick the new queen from Kentucky option. Once you have the hive box with the full frames of brood, bees and goodness installed, you are ready to put your queen into the hive. The queens from the place in Kentucky come in the deluxe cage – corks are both ends with a large piece of candy already installed. The candy is exposed to the workers in the hive when the cork is removed. This way, the queens pheromones can start to spread through the hive while being protected in the cage – all the while the workers are slowly removing the candy and eventually allowing the queen to exit the cage and begin to do her egg-laying duties. The cage with the queen is most often "pinched" between two of the middle frames toward the top of the frames.

With that explanation, that is how it should work and usually does work. But, occasionally, things do not work out; which is what happened with the first attempt to queen the split hive.

Hygienic Italian Queen
2010 Season – Hygienic Italian Queen

Two weeks ago, friend Theresa, from Fifth Avenue Farm, had a bit of a panic and in a worry that one of her queens had failed, she ordered a queen from Kentucky. On closer inspection, her queen was there and doing just fine. We offered to take the new queen when it arrived as we were planning a split.

Thursday of last week rolled around and Theresa called; the queen had arrived. Back in Proctor, we made the split and installed the queen in her cage (as outlined above). We then left for Michigan and the hound fundraiser.

Once back in Minnesota, we checked the acceptance of the new queen in the split: fail.

The cage was sitting on the bottom board of the hive, no workers around it, and the queen with the handful of workers that came with her were all dead. We immediately anthropomorphized the situation: it had to be a coup d’état.

"A new queen from a foreign land comes to the kingdom expecting to rule the land for many generations only to be knifed by a close attendant. The kingdom realizes their new ruler is dead and kills the killers."

What exactly went wrong will never be known. The queen may have been weak, the cage may have simply fallen from the top and with the unusually cold temperatures and the hive entrance directly in front of where the cage was found – the queen may have simply gotten too cold. Workers can "revolt" against a weak queen; they will form a ball around her, and raise her core temperature until she is basically cooked (hell of a way to die, is it not?). This, however, usually will occur when new queen cells (called supersedure cells) are present; we did not see any in the split-hive when we pulled the dead queen out.

Another queen was ordered, a Russian this time, and she arrived and was installed on Thursday (May 19, 2011). As it is currently raining, we wait for a break in the weather to give the progress a check. Let’s hope the queen install was successful this time.


Mackinac Bridge - Saint Ignace Side
Mackinaw Bridge, from the Saint Ignace Side

We are in Troy, MI, at the moment; attending Michigan Basset Rescue’s annual fundraising event. We left Minnesota at 3:30 AM CDT yesterday morning. Across northern Wisconsin and into Michigan’s upper peninsula, we rolled across the Mackinac Bridge nine hours later. Upper Michigan has the same look and feel of far-northeastern Minnesota – very rural, paved roads but mostly single lanes, scenic overlooks, and poor cellphone reception. It is very pretty in that rustic, pine-bog way – comfortably familiar to those of us who grew-up and continue to live in the boreal forest region of the upper midwest (see Taiga).

Here, in lower Michigan, it is more low, rolling hills mixed with farmland and deciduous forest. Near the hotel, I spotted a black walnut tree (and empty shells). On the hotel grounds, all the flowering crab trees are in bloom – complete with their wonderful smell.

Before leaving Minnesota, much had to be done with the bees.

During the winter, when planning out this season’s bees, I had planned out eight new hives. The two at the house were still doing well, and so, we were not going to have do anything new with them. One of the two at the house failed to make it through winter (as I have mentioned on this blog before). I put in a second order for a package of Italian workers with a Russian queen.

Fifth Avenue Farm, Carniolan Queen
Fifth Avenue Farm, Carniolan Queen

Last week, one of the newly installed packages of eight at the Ahrens’ bee-yard, swarmed. This left down one package. However, the second order of a package of bees was arriving on this past Tuesday. That would suffice for the Ahrens’ bee-yard, but it still left us short one hive at the house.

As it would have it, Theresa, of Fifth Avenue Farm, in Rice Lake township, in a bit of a panic, ordered a new Italian queen. She was worried that one of her new hives of Carniolans was in the process of beginning to swarm; she could not find the queen. I stopped out at the farm on Tuesday after installing the package at the Ahrens’; The queen was there (see bee photo), and the rest of the hive was working hard to bring in nectar and pollen – not getting ready to swarm.

This left Theresa’s Italian queen still arriving on Thursday. We settled on the idea of making a split of the Italians that wintered over successfully and using Theresa’s queen.

In between packing for the trip to Michigan, we began to get things ready for the queen’s arrival. Mixed a pail of sugar syrup; loaded dog crates into the truck. Cleaned out a hive deep, selected four drawn frames of wax; loaded luggage and miscellaneous hound gear.

Italian Queen in mailing package
Italian Queen in mailing Package

We had never made a hive split before. For those unfamiliar with this concept, it is basically take a number of frames with bees, comb, pollen, honey and all that from an existing, strong overwintered hive and putting them into a new hive with a new queen.

With the truck mostly packaged, and the arrival of the Italian queen in its fancy "Beeware!" box from the postoffice, it was time to get a split made and the queen installed. The donor-hive was stronger than I had thought it was be; three hive boxes full of bees, larvae, pollen, and honey. From being a struggling hive last May; needing to be requeened because of no queen and a drone-laying worker. We even combined the hive with a feral hive shortly after last season’s requeen.

The split went well, and it is a just a matter of seeing if the queen and workers mesh well once the workers free the queen from her candy-cappedcage. We will have to check once we return to Minnesota.

Ill Gertrude
Gertrude, under-the-weather, with a fever

Back here in Michigan, senior-hound, Gertrude, fell ill. She was lethargic, refused food and was running a fever. Luckily, this being a large gathering of dogs, there was a dog-doctor in the house. A visit from the doc, a few pills, some homeopathic treatment, and Miss Gertrude is doing better. Her fever broke, and she ate dinner; now she rests and sleeps.

Russian Queen with Her Italian Entourage

Beth, my beekeeper apprentice

With a busy two weeks of work, travel and hound fundraising ahead of us, and nearly a week of laryngitis behind me, I needed to squeeze in a run to the bee-yard. After work, and after a quick bite to eat, we packed up the 2500HD and headed up to the bee-yard.

Beth, the woman who owns the property the hives are located on, has been wanting to dig in a bit more. She has shadowed me from a distance since the installation of the bees. She decided to put a suit on this time, and get into the hives with me.

Over all, the hives are doing well. All of the Carniolans are living up to the abilities to lay down wax hard and fast. Of the six Carniolans, we rotated frames from the center out toward the edges in roughly ½ of the hives. The queens were laying eggs and larvae could be seen quite well against the black foundation.

The one sour note of the evening was hive #2 – one of the Russian queened hives. There was little activity in the access area from the hive into the feed-box. This was somewhat alarming because all of the other hives’ feed-box accesses were choked with bees coming to get a sip of syrup. Lifting the feed-box off revealed an empty hive. There were dead workers on the bottom, but those were from originally emptying the package into the hive. No queen, either – we easily found the marked Russian queen in hive #1.

Carniolan larvae with workers on comb
Carniolan Larvae with Workers on Comb

There are questions, of course. Why did the hive empty out? Why would a hive leave a place where there is 2.&half gallons of food sitting on their roof? Honestly, I do not know. The queen may have had a bit of wanderlust, or a parameter within the hive was slightly incorrect — too drafty.

I have one more package of Italians with a Russian queen arriving on Monday or Tuesday of this coming week (May 9 or 10). The plan is to install this package at the bee-yard instead of here at the house. There are a few things that I am going to do this go-around.

  • Move Hive #2 to far end of the line of hives
  • Turn the entrance to face opposite of the others
  • Restrict the entrance to just one or two holes with the adjustable entrance reducer