Today is exactly three weeks after the Queen bees in my hive should have hatched. Within the last twenty-one days these new Queens should have made their maiden voyages to meet the masses of male bees that congregate high above the ground. After mating with anywhere up to twenty ‘Drones’ she returns to the hive and begins her life’s work of laying eggs and building up the colony. Usually the Queens make this flight about a week after they’ve emerged from their Queen Cells and they’ll begin laying eggs only a few days after they’ve mated. If you’re in a situation like me and you’re waiting to see if your Queens have made it back successfully then you’ll know by the end of this three week period.
Even though you might not be able to spot her Majesty herself, you know that a Queen is present by looking through the comb and seeing if you can spot any newly laid eggs or grubs. Though I didn’t see any during the last inspection two weeks ago, I wasn’t worried because it was early days. I’ve left the hives alone since then with yesterday being the day of truth.
I found no sight of any new eggs or larva upon opening and inspecting my hives yesterday
It’s seemed so long since I’d last had a look inside my hives and I was really looking forward to seeing how they were doing – especially since we’ve had such terrible weather lately. I’ve been peeking at them from a distance just to make sure the high winds hadn’t caused any damage and they both seemed to be doing okay. Even on cool days the bees were out foraging and I saw plenty of workers making their way in and out of the entrances.
My first reaction on opening the first hive was that they seemed much calmer than usual and that their numbers had dwindled. This is normal when no new bees are being born since in the summer a bee only lives for about six weeks. What really disappointed me was that I didn’t find any sign that a mated Queen was inside. Though the Queen cells were open, which means that they hatched successfully, there was definitely no sign of eggs or larva. Either the Queens were picked off by predators while out mating or the wet and windy weather kept them from venturing outside in the first place.
I figured that they’d be low on food because of not being able to get out much recently so I closed up the hive with a bucket filled with about six cups of sugar-water and turned to the nucleus, where I’d placed some of the nurse bees with frames containing two of the Queen cells. Again it was the same story, no sign of an active new Queen and very little honey. My colonies were dying.
The bees in the nucleus were moved into a new hive so that I could have enough space to feed them
In the time since I’d last visited the bees I’d actually ordered a brand new hive for the split colony and had spent time painting it a lovely green from leftover paint used for the chicken run. Though the bees had plenty of room in the Nucleus box I still moved them into the new hive so that I could put the bucket of sugar-water in for them using an empty super to provide the space. With a heavy heart I left the hives and headed home to brood over the situation.
If I were anywhere else in the world I could easily order a new mated Queen off the internet. It would arrive via FedEx and be introduced to the hive no problem. But on the Isle of Man it’s another matter since bringing in bees from outside the island is forbidden due the threat of Varroa. We definitely don’t want it spreading here so the only option is to find a local Queen.
A British Black Queen bee marked in white Photo courtesy of Border Bees Diary
As chance would have it, our local Pest Control Officer keeps a hive in a neighbour’s garden – a hive that we’ve just heard has been swarming and causing a bit of a nuisance. If it’s been swarming then I thought that there’s a good chance that additional Queen cells might be inside so I rang up and asked if I might be able to have some of them. Luck was on my side since he offered as many as I needed.
We met this afternoon and his hive turned out to be a really a strong colony with quite a few nice looking Queen cells. He kept one for himself and then gave me three frames containing five cells which I rushed up to put into my hives. The idea is that by the time the Queens hatch they’ll have absorbed the smell of the new hive onto themselves and they’ll fit right in. If they smell foreign then it’s likely that the bees in my hive will try to kill them by balling up and smothering them to death.
Honeybees kill foreign invaders by balling around them. Photo courtesy of IO9
I made it to my hives in record time and laid the towel-wrapped bundle of frames on the ground before I opened the first hive. I took a couple of frames out then turned to unwrap the new frames and place them inside. I was stunned as I opened the towel because the first Queen bee had already begun to emerge from the cell! I quickly placed the frame in the hive and then went on to unwrap the second one which had not one but two Queens coming out! I hurriedly flipped the second hive open and then placed these two with their single frame inside. You’re not going to believe it but another Queen was hatching on the third and final frame so I put that in the first hive. Mr Pest Control was quite lucky that he’d given me those Queen cells or he’d have had some serious swarming on his hands!
It was only after I’d put the Queens in and shut up the hives that the thought that they might be killed by the workers crossed my mind. My emotions went from high and happy to back in the beginner beekeeper slump. It was pretty much too late to go in now and even if I did find them I didn’t have queen cages to place the bees in. These are small mesh boxes in which you place the Queen so they’re kept safe in the hive while their scent changes.
With nothing else to do but let Nature run her course, I trudged up to the car to head home. Just as I was peeling off my beekeeping kit guess who pulls in but Mr. Pest Control. He too had a Queen Cell hatch just after I’d left and since he didn’t need this extra Queen he put her in a matchbox and drove her up to me. Hurrah! After a quick chat I raced to put on my gear again and then went down to my hives. Opening the matchbox just a crack I placed it on top of the frames in my original white hive. Tomorrow I’ll go up and release her completely and hopefully the bees will take to her even if they’ve killed the other two. Trying to re-Queen using the matchbox isn’t the best way to go about doing this but it’s really the only option I have right now.