We have had numerous swarms in our new hives this summer. The remaining bees that did not leave are still very quiet and wonderful to work with. They have even brought in some honey last week. Not an easy task with all the rain we had this summer. Sadly, our much-loved queens Rachel and Esperanza turned out to be less than satisfactory. In fact, they were downright disappointing. So we feel no loss now that they have up and left. This is not uncommon with new packages of bees. Queens are often added to a package of bees just before delivery. They may not always be young, healthy, well mated or from the original apiary where the bees came from. But the bees will accept and tolerate her until such time when their numbers increase and they feel secure enough to make one of their own liking, from scratch.
So once Rachel and Esperanza had flown the coop, followed perhaps with multiple swarms of their sisters, it was time to look in the hives for a “State of the Union” inspection. Sadly in both hives, there were no eggs or larvae left for them to make another queen. If left alone the bees would have died off with age. They would eventually have had with no new bees to replace themselves. One solution to this problem is to add a few panels of larvae and newly laid eggs from another hive. The bees would then select an appropriate egg to feed royal jelly and make their new queen. Sadly we didn’t have more panels with eggs so we purchased newly mated queens from “Rucher du Nord” in Brebeuf, Quebec. A quick trip was made and we installed the new queens after cutting out all left over swarm cells from both hives. These new queens will change our stock to a locally bred and historically successful strain of bee. That’s the plan…
Photo above: The new queen in her cage with an entourage of carers awaiting insertion into the hive.
So what were the signs of our poor queens?
Poor brood laying pattern, which may be a sign of poor mating or disease. Eggs were laid in a haphazard and spotty sequence with some panels having no eggs whatsoever. Sealed brood was not in a “slab” format and there were many missed cells. The proportion of empty cells in the brood area is an indication of the extent of inbreeding. What’s that I hear you ask? Thanks to Mr. Craig from the Scottish Beekeepers Association for his clear explanation below. (You may want to read this out loud with a thick Scottish accent and a wee dram just for fun)
In the honeybee a fertilized egg is diploid, having 32 chromosomes and will develop into a female caste; an unfertilized egg is haploid, having 16 chromosomes and will develop into a male caste. With multiple matings of the queen with, say, up to ten drones diploid females are usually produced. If inbreeding occurs some of the eggs would produce diploid drones. Diploid drones are detected by nurse bees whenever the egg hatches. They are not seen in the colony because they are not tolerated and get eaten by the worker bees leaving a “pepperpot” appearance to slabs of brood.
By Ian Craig, “My Beekeeping Year”, Scottish Beekeeping Association
It seems inbreeding can occur in isolated colonies but is becoming more prevalent in heavily bee-populated areas due to the lack of feral colonies and problems of varroa infestation. This is not our case locally but may have been in the areas where our newly bought packages of bees were bred.
A high number of drones cells outnumbering worker cells. This may indicate a queen was not mated properly. A good queen will lay mostly worker bees, sometimes up to 2000 eggs per day. Worker bees run the hive in a streamlined efficient manner. Drones just hang around sharing dirty jokes, getting in the way of workers or waiting for that special doozy of a queen to mate with. (*Yes, doozy is a word) Presently, our hives are still overrun with large numbers of fat drones. That can be a good thing, especially if we need queens to be mated, but that is not the situation at this time of the season. Today, many beekeepers are replacing their queens yearly or every two years even though a good queen may live up to four to five years. I question whether this practice is warranted or advantageous to colonies in general. It also has been found that some miticides cause a decrease in the viability of drone sperm and the sperm stored in the queen’s spermatheca.
The above photo shows worker cells on the left and larger drone cells on the right and lower left.
Poor honey production. As yet our supers are still light in weight but this does not worry us too much. Our concern this year is with the bees and not honey production.
High tendency to swarm. Swarming behaviour has a high genetic component. A young healthy queen will release more and stronger pheromone levels than an older one. This makes the colony less likely to swarm or supersede the queen. However, swarming is a natural occurrence for the colony. The departing swarm reduces the population, alleviates congestion and reproduces more colonies. However, as the departing bees leave, they gorge themselves on the hive’s honey to have enough supply upon arrival at their new destination. This of course results in a reduction of honey for the beekeeper. This is the reason beekeepers dislike swarms. A swarm is normally docile as most of the bees are packed with honey. Concentrating on the new location, following the queen’s pheromones and stinging at the same time is a difficult task. We must remember that not all swarms are successful in surviving. This great expedition, by the old or a newly hatched queen, with thousands of bees may not always end successfully. The destination is unknown for them and the trust is given to a handful of scouts in securing a new location will result in life or death for the entire swarming colony.
Workers failed to form a retinue around the queen. Perhaps it was because one of the queens was from Chile but this royal got no respect from her subjects! As they walked about, there was little interest or acknowledgment of her existence. Which perhaps describes most royalty today…
Other possible signs of a poor queen to look for are:
Defensiveness, low bee populations, bees prone to disease and high mite numbers, an injured or diseased queen, excessive debris on the hive floor (non-hygienic), excessive propolizing, high honey consumption (difficult to discern), and poor wintering success with low numbers before and after winter.
So, what could be the possible advantages of requeening, if any? There are two obvious reasons. One, the new queen will be more productive. Two, the new queen will release more pheromones making the colony less likely to swarm. There is also a third, perhaps overlooked advantage. You can call it a bonus. As the brood hatches the cells remain empty. This break in the egg laying cycle for a few weeks also stops any new varroa mites from being laid. Consequently, this interruption in the mites cycle of reproduction allows the colony to re-establish themselves in strength.
We will keep you informed how our two new queens are progressing.
*Note: I have visited the Scottish Beekeepers Association web site on numerous occasions and found it to be very helpful whenever I had problems. Perhaps because of their geographical location, I feel the tips, solutions and calendar year closely resemble our Eastern Canadian Nordic beekeeping year.
Link: Scottish Beekeepers Association
Link: Rucher du Nord