A tale of two queens

A few weeks ago during a bee course we noticed a hive that appeared to be preparing to supercede their queen. Supercedure is where the hive decides the current queen is failing and gets ready to replace her with a brand new one. Usually a swarm is not produced.

The hive was apparently healthy, we could see no evidence of the queen failing and there was a good brood pattern. All seemed just fine to my eye so it was decided to re-queen the hive once the supercedure had happened.

The new queen arrived in the post, the hive was opened and the queen search began. There was evidence of a few queen cells that had been torn down and the supercedure cell was hatched… but hang on… the queen was marked so she must have been the old queen. A good laying pattern could be seen with lots of eggs but not a lot of capped brood. On a hunch the search continued and sure enough a second queen was located. She was a bit small and either a virgin or just mated. Both queens were dispatched and the new queen introduced in a cage.

So it is possible to have a hive with two queens. Who knows how long this would have continued before the old one was killed by the hive or the new queen… those bees really are tricky.


A busy year ahead

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog over the last few months with a crazy season here in Sydney and a few projects taking up all of my spare time. But I am back and will hopefully be posting more often about what’s been happening.

We had a weird beginning to the season here with a very warm winter followed by not a lot of rain meaning that the expected swarms did not appear and in fact the honey flow was very slow. Some parts of the state are actually feeding their bees to keep them alive.

We then had solid rain that has brought on the flow and we now have solid honey flows in most of our apiaries.


Queen breeding

So I decided to try my hand at queen breeding using a jenter style queen kit this year, as the quality of the queens we received last year was questionable. Basically it’s a no graft kit where you place the queen into a special box and she lays into little cups that can be placed into a queen raising bar. I followed the instructions leaving the unit in place for a few days to inherit the hive odour, then placed the queen into the box for three days before releasing her.

I then proceeded to check the cells for the larvae but there was none. I then noticed larvae on the frame I’d put in which was impossible… except the bees had been removing the eggs and placing them on the frame, cunning little devils.

Luckily there were enough eggs in enough cells that I was ok. The next step was to place the cups back into a queen-less hive so the girls would raise these eggs as queens. So I checked each frame carefully to make sure no queen cells were present otherwise the new queen would hatch early and kill my queens. No queen cells found. I inserted the queen raising bar…

Fast forward 10 days and all the queens should have been capped. With eager anticipation I checked on my queen cell bar only to find that all the queen cells had been destroyed… damn girls were too clever and there was a hidden queen cell. So it’s back to square one. Bees 2 Beekeeper 0


Swarming bees

Ok, so you’ve checked your bee hive and there are heaps and heaps of bees and nectar coming in and a full brood box… there’s a good chance they will swarm so what do you do?

We have tried just about every method you read about and none of them seem to work with any sort of accuracy. The best thing you can do is split the colony. Despite what you read, there’s no need to buy a queen. If you use this method the girls are quite good at raising a new queen all by themselves.

The way you do it is open the hive and put a new base and brood box beside the donor hive. (There’s no need to move it away from the donor hive.) Remove half the brood frames from the donor hive and put them in the split. Don’t shake off the bees – you want bees of all ages in both hives. There’s no need to look for the queen either; just make sure that both hives have eggs so a queen can be raised. You then fill the gaps on either side of the brood with either stickies drawn or undrawn frames, and put an excluder on each box… if you use them.

Do the same with the honey super so you have effectively split the hive in two with both halves having half the brood and half the honey. Check back in a week and carefully check each brood frame. The hive with the queen will be happily filling those empty frames, while the queen-less hive should have some queen cells. I usually pick the biggest, most advanced queen cell and destroy the others to prevent after swarms.

If after 40 days there is no sign of a laying queen in the queen-less hive you can recombine it with the donor using the newspaper method or use a purchased queen… but be really sure there is no queen. They sometimes take quite a while to become fertile laying queens.


Spring is here: it’s time to check your hives

So, with the warm weather spring has come early and we have bees swarming. Life is good if you’re a bee.

Last year we tried checkerboarding to reduce swarming, a technique where you insert undrawn frames into the brood nest moving the other frames up and into the middle of the box… it didn’t work.

This year we moved all our queen excluders up before winter to create two brood boxes, in effect knowing that as the honey stores come in they will push the brood back down into the bottom box, trying a method of checkerboarding that alternates empty and honey-filled frames above the brood. So far I think having the excluder up is the best method and is making a difference, though I’m not sure about the checkerboarding.

The next month or so will tell. It’s the busy time with very frequent hive checks as nothing strikes more fear into a bystander’s heart than a bee swarm, especially one in the city.


It’s summer in winter

Things have been a little quiet here at The Beevangelist as I’ve been taking a winter break from bees… except the weather has been really warm with many 20c days. The bees, birds and plants think it’s spring and we have already had a swarm and a few swarm calls. I for one will miss my winter hibernation but I am also really concerned about this unseasonably hot weather and what it means for our climate and the world.

There is a big chance that if we have a cold snap many of the baby birds and new plant shoots will die and the bees which will have huge summer populations will starve, a really horrible outcome.

Before I became a beekeeper I used to think wow what a lovely warm winter, isn’t it nice… now I worry about my bees.


AFB followup

I’ve finally got over the shock of having caught the beekeeper’s equivalent of an STD and instead of not telling anybody I am shouting out loud. I have learnt quite a lot in the last two weeks about AFB and how it’s spread and how to control it. I’ve also done a fair bit of analysis of our systems and more than a bit of soul searching.

Last week I headed off to the apiary, petrol in hand, to suffocate the infected hive before it died out and infected the ones nearby, or the drift of worker bees spread it. I sealed the bees in and poured about a cup of petrol in. The bees roared as soon as the vapour hit them trying in vain to disperse it before they died. Death was quick – about 2 minutes – but it felt like a lifetime and gave me a horrible feeling, something I do not want to repeat any time soon.

So what now? We are inspecting all our hives and I mean really looking at each brood frame (it’s a slow process). We will destroy any hive with symptoms as a precaution. We have to quarantine all potentially infected equipment and will melt down any combs that are more than a season old as another precaution. Any hive bodies, frames, excluders etc. will be irradiated.

We have good records with all hives tracked via software and so know what has happened to the infected hive since we obtained it. We will either burn or irradiate all equipment that has come into contact with the hive… and are looking closely at our management practices with a view to minimising any cross contamination.

One thing we have already done this year is move our queen excluders up at the end of winter. We will rotate the bottom two boxes over, put the excluder back down and when the old honey frames are robbed, melt them down. I think this will become standard practice and will allow us to keep all frames in the brood no older than 12 months… and eliminate AFB spore build up. We had always replaced half the brood frames but this will replace them all.

Because we have a large number of distributed apiaries, keeping equipment segregated from our apiaries is difficult, but we are going to have to invent a system that makes sure all frames go back to the hive they have come from… difficult but not impossible.

So it’s a waiting game and everything is crossed that we caught this before it spread to our other hives… time will tell.