Monday, June 3, 2013

A Queenless Hive in Spring

One hive was doing well in early spring but I did notice as the weeks went by that the number of bees was dwindling.  This is a clear sign to do a check for brood.  It may be nothing but then again it can be the first sign of a queenless hive.

It's not necessary to tear the whole hive apart to find the queen.  Instead focus on evidence that she's there.  Such as:  Eggs are the best if you can see them.  They hatch in three days.  A day1 egg sits totally upright, a day2 egg has a slant as it begins to lie flat, a day3 egg lays flat in the cell.  Tiny larvae are great too, indicating brood that are only a few days old.  The chubbier the larvae the older they are.

Capped brood is at least a sign that there was a queen producing brood with the last week or more.

A sign I have found when a hive is queenless is when the centre of the frames in the middle of each box are all filled with nectar.  Also there will be a lack of brood of any kind and often little or no pollen either.

How to resolve this?  If it's very early spring there won't be local queens for sale yet.  In Ontario beekeepers buy imported queens from either Australia or Chile.  That's one option is to give the bees a mated queen.  She'll be ready to lay right away once accepted.  This will avoid a month dip in productivity.

If there are no eggs at all or brood there are a couple problems that can happen.  One is the lack of brood and their pheromones means that a worker could start to act like a queen and lay eggs--except they'd all be drone eggs.  The bees also aren't so productive without the brood pheromone pushing them to bring in the pollen.  The other bigger problem is that the bees can't make a new queen without eggs.

So give them both brood and eggs from another hive.  I go to a good hive and choose a frame with young larvae, capped cells and most importantly eggs.  I check the frame carefully to make sure there's no queen on board.  Then I transfer the frame, bees and all into the queenless hive.

I take a frame from the queenless hive to switch over (removing the bees first) or I'll give them a blank frame to draw comb on.  A drawn frame is best though so the queen in the good hive can start laying right away to replace the workers I removed.

Believe it or not the bees in the queenless hive don't get to fighting.  They're young nurse bees.  After putting anywhere from one to three frames from some of my hives (I don't steal that many frames from one hive) I've watched how within an hour the bees have gotten themselves organized.

They'll start guarding when before they weren't, they'll start cleaning and taking out the dead.  They get focussed and get to work.  The brood pheromone keeps them motivated.

The advice from experienced beekeepers is to give them a frame of uncapped brood every two weeks until they have a queen.  At this point the idea is to keep the brood pheromone in the hive by continually supplying them with brood.  Also as the cells are capped they'll hatch out over the weeks increasing the number of workers in the hive.

I've followed this advice and it worked very well.  I'm doing it now with one of my hives.
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