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.
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.
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.