Ground Control to Major Tom – Reality Check

It’s spring, the air is fresh, the new sun is bringing real warmth, the first flowers are sharing sweet fragrances and hopes are high for what the coming season in the beeyard will bring.  The packages of new bees arrived and you lovingly installed each one into a new hive, feeling sure that each of them would be the best hive ever.  The queens were released without a care and before long comb was being drawn and then filled with brood.  Its so easy to get caught up in the euphoria and high hopes at the dawning of a new season isn’t it.

It’s been five weeks since the new hives were installed this year and while most years it seems this is the easy part of the season, this year is different, with numerous challenges presenting themselves.  So I thought I’d write a piece that addresses some of these issues while also letting those of you who might be considering keeping bees that its not all roses and honey.  There will be disappointments and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about beekeeping, no two seasons are alike.  This has been a particularly challenging year so far and I’m trying to just roll with the punches and learn from the things that are going on.  All this to say that you too will have problems when it comes to keeping our little insect friends and I hope you will not give up when they strike and instead use each challenge to learn all you can from it.

This year I wintered four strong hives, at least I thought they were strong, as all of them began building good numbers as soon as the weather began to turn.  Then for what seems to be no reason, the queens in two hives faltered.  One quit laying entirely and the other was laying only a little.  The numbers weren’t coming up and all I ever found were small pancake sized patches of brood on just one frame.  So I requeened that hive five weeks ago in April.  However, the new queen isn’t doing any better than the old one.  This hive remains a mystery.

The other hive that lost its queen is a mystery too.  Was a very strong hive all through the winter and off to a good start this spring.  The queen was only a year old because I had purchased her the season before to replace another weak queen.  Why she faltered after getting off to such a strong start is anyone’s guess though I suspect she was not a well bred queen and simply ran out of fertilized eggs to lay.  So, in looking to turn a bad situation into a good one I thought I would order up some queens and split this powerful hive four ways, thereby creating four new hives.  The queens arrived today and when I went to split this hive most the bees were gone.  It’s the old saying, when it rains it pours.  Lot of bucks potentially down the drain here.  I made the splits anyway to give me time to think what might be done.  After all, I had new queens that needed a home.  One option will be to steal brood from other hives to try and build up these weak splits.

Then there is the case of the new hive that started out great, was building up nice capped brood and then lost its queen.  I don’t know what happened to that queen either, but today it got a new queen out of the bunch I ordered and hopefully will be back underway soon.

Maybe I should refer to this season as the Lost Queen season when I think of all the queens that have been lost.  At another out yard I started this season we installed four packages of bees and established a new apiary in mid-April.  One of those packages came with a dead queen.  We contacted the company and got a replacement queen back into the hive within a few short days.  This has worked out very well and the apprentice beekeeps I am working with did a great job of installing the new queen.  This beeyard is nearly three hours away and I had my reservations about trying to make something that far away work, but the requeening job went off without a hitch and the hive is doing as well as can be expected.

When I visited this beeyard this weekend I was disappointed to find that the first hive had lost its queen.  I don’t believe she ever really got started as no brood was ever laid.  She was released from her cage properly as reported by the new beekeeps keeping an eye on things, so I can only assume she was not healthy when caged and added to the package of bees we purchased.  Unfortunately this hive is lost as it has been five weeks since the bees were installed.  My novice beekeeps told me the hive had had an unusual buzz about it.  This is the sound of a queenless hive.  If I had been able to be there the hive might have been saved, but this is the risk I accepted when deciding to try to establish a beeyard out of town.

So what do you do with the remaining bees in the queenless hive you might ask?  Rather than just let them slowly die off we added them to another hive.  You do this by placing a piece of newspaper over the top of the bottom bee box of a queen-right hive (after removing the cover on the hive).  The paper has a few small slits in it to allow the new bees that are being added to become familiar with the queens pheromone before they can actually get to her.  In this way you prevent the new bees from killing the queen.  So we then added the next box of bees from the queenless hive and replaced the cover.  Today my apprentices checked the hive, found the paper had been eaten through and the bees joined together.  Success you might be thinking!?  That remains to be seen.  The box that was added on top contained numerous bees, including the possibility of the queen being up in the second box.  These bees needed to be moved into the bottom box.   My novices may have been a little rough in accomplishing this before they figured out the best way to do the job.  Again, part of the risk of not being there to oversee things.

Remember that sound of a queenless hive I was telling you about??  A-huh, that is what they will be listening for over the next couple of days.  But I like to look at it this way.  Though it may cost me another hive, they have heard what a queenless hive sounds like and therefore, for the first time, can begin to apply some of the experience they are gaining.  Lets hope they don’t hear that sound.

There are a couple other issues going on in the beeyard, but I will save them for later.  Yes, this young season has turned out to be quite trying and I’m even beginning to wonder if there will be any honey produced at all this season.  The real harvest may come in the form of the experience and knowledge I gain and not in the form of sweet goodness.  Such is the life of a beekeep and as I am now working hard to do, you need to try to keep is all in perspective if you run into problems of your own.  There simply are no guarantees when it comes to bees.

Hmmmm, with that in mind maybe I will return to working on the sequel to my book, where I have control over the outcome.

My best to all of you and stay tuned for more news on the bee front which should come fairly soon.

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