The alternate title for this post is: “When it rains, it pours.” Fortunately for people with allergies, phobias, and swimming pools, it does not literally rain bees. (Spiders, on the other hand…)
The Paris hive is doing great! But it is teaching me why beekeepers who want to maximize honey production choose to introduce a mated queen when they make a split, instead of letting the bees raise their own. The bee population has only just started to increase again after the delay, which means the bees have only just started drawing out comb and working in the honey super. I worked frantically to make sure I had another super and some frames ready to add, but they weren’t nearly ready for it. I did, however, say hello to the young queen. I’m getting better at snapping phone pictures while I work, and I got a pretty good picture of a frame of her very young larvae!
Hooo, boy. Let’s talk about London.
After the Great Shaking of 2019, the London hive got a week off. I was happy not to disturb them, although I wondered what was going on in there. Riots? Looting? Revolution? Construction of a new system of government with a tiny bee Constitution?
A few days before my scheduled visit to London, I noticed that there were an awful lot of bees hanging out on the front porch – just as the Paris bees did while they were waiting on their new queen to emerge after I split the hives. For the most part, except for a couple of guard bees on duty, there isn’t a lot of loitering in the bee world. Bees come and go constantly from the hive entrance, but unless something unusual is happening, they rarely stay still. I imagine they’re a bit like toddlers in this regard.
Remember that this is the hive that we looked through at great length during the shook swarm, without locating a queen. (You remember that, right? Of course you do!) I hadn’t seen the queen the week before, either – and while queens can be tricky to find in a full box, she’s always been pretty distinctive, until what I could only presume was her ninja training finally started paying off. My fear, based on her conspicuous elusiveness and the behavior of the bees, was that something had happened to her, and that London was queenless.
When I went into London for the first hive check after the shook swarm, all the evidence seemed to bear up this suspicion: I still couldn’t locate a queen, and I saw no new eggs, larvae, or brood, even though there were empty cells available to fill. I did find one (!!) rather small emergency queen cell, and what looked like another that was in the process of being disassembled: Either a practice cell the bees had built and were unbuilding (which they do occasionally, possibly for the same reason humans build sand castles and then kick them over), or the remnants of a cell that a new queen had emerged from. There were no swarm cells — those would have been located on the bottom of the frames, not in the middle — so I carefully left the remaining queen cell intact and closed the hive up.
My mentor’s bet was that there was a virgin queen somewhere in the hive. He recommended I go back in four or five days and look for her; if not, and I could still not find a queen or signs of a queen in the London hive, he’d bring me one.
My mentor is very wise. But he would have both won and lost that bet, because there wasn’t a queen in the London hive when I went back to check.
There were two.
The first queen I found definitely had the look of a virgin queen: She was crawling around at warp speed on one of the frames in the honey supers — zoom, zoom! — and wasn’t fully developed yet, which is probably how she slipped up through the queen excluder. (Fortunately, I found her before she could turn half the honey super into her brood chamber. It wouldn’t have been the end of my spring honey collection, but would have made it more complicated.) I asked her just what she thought she was doing up there, but in true royal fashion, she did not deign to answer me.
I thought I’d better just move her down into the brood chamber where she belonged, but then I thunk again and set that frame aside to make absolutely sure there wasn’t a second queen down below. I felt pretty smart when I found her on the very first frame I pulled out of the brood chamber below the excluder. She also had the look of a virgin queen – and she definitely wasn’t my Ninja Queen. I would never have predicted that one day I’d say with absolute certainty that this half-inch-long insect was not the same individual as that half-inch-long insect, but I’m 100% sure. And, really, I shouldn’t be surprised: In my zookeeper days, I could identify about half of the 30 individual penguins in my colony without looking at the colors on their bands. Scaling from there up to 45,000 bees seems a little ambitious – please don’t ask me to name them all – but the queens, at least, come in a lot of different color variations and can be very distinct.
So, what to do with the Rogue Super Queen? Double-queen colonies are a thing that some beekeepers choose to do for increased honey production, but in my case, it wasn’t deliberate – and I’ve got enough to learn right now without adding that extra complication. I spent a few moments in semi-hysterical laughter, and then put the Rogue Queen in my spare cardboard nuc with a couple of other frames of bees and two empty frames. I planned to give her to my mentor — who, bless him, hasn’t complained that I’m high-maintenance despite the past few weeks. My hives are weird and complicated, but all the complications appear to be manufacturing more bees.
My mentor, who shall henceforth be known as The Traitor, congratulated me on now owning three hives. He’s even built me a third bottom board since I don’t have one handy*. Argh! He is clearly in on the Bee Pyramid Scheme. (He also told me that in future — WHAT DO YOU MEAN IN FUTURE?! — I can make that kind of split with just two frames of bees instead of three. SIR, are you trying to get me into the business of manufacturing and selling nucs? Offering me TRAITOROUS, SUBVERSIVE INFORMATION? SIR???)
…ahem. So, uh. I guess I have three hives now.
I also have many questions, first among them: What the heck happened to my original queen? She couldn’t have been in the swarm I caught on April 17th: There were uncapped larvae in the hive ten days later on the 27th, the day I found the hive packed with swarm cells. Larval cells are capped when they are three days old, which means that the Ninja Queen had to be present in the hive at least as late as April 24th to produce those eggs. The most likely explanation, sadly, seems to be that we killed her during the shook swarm. (That’s one way to keep a hive from swarming, I guess… but not a very good way. I’m so, so sorry, lady.) The bees would have immediately made emergency queen cells of the larvae young enough to turn into queens instead of workers, hence the appearances of Rogue Queen (now living in Brexit) and the Queen Below (who will remain in London).
At the risk of being repetitive: I definitely have a lot more to learn. One of the things I’m learning, though, is that as long as the bees are healthy – and not burdened with wax moths or a heavy load of varroa mites or small hive beetles – the overall hive itself is remarkably resilient. Bees consistently amaze me. The challenge is whether or not I can keep up with them!
Amid all of the excitement and suspense of “How many queens will be present in the yard this week?!” the bees have continued to do their thing. (It’s good to know that one of us knows what we’re doing. Or… 65,000 of us. You know what, if you average us out altogether, we are 100% on top of things.) I’ll be using the Memorial Day holiday to pull my very first full honey super from the London hive! It promises to be a very sticky day in the kitchen.
*Although I should have. In what I belatedly realize was a previous post full of ominous foreshadowing, I typed the following sentence: ” I don’t have the equipment to set up a third hive right now (though I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have that handy)…” Sigh.