One thing that all beekeepers learn quickly; always expect the unexpected. Things can change quickly, even in a well established hive. Just over a month ago, my orange hive was one bustling colony. With lots of eggs and brood and honey making well underway, things looked just fine. But over a period for several days this past week, I noticed that traffic had slowed down significantly. Compared to the other four hives, this one had slowed down to a crawl. So figuring that something had to be wrong, I got out the overalls and tools and went to work. And sure enough, I was right.
Things did not look like the picture to the right. That's how it looked in late April. When I opened the hive on Saturday, I had to look down between the frames to even find some bees. And there was very little noise either, just a faint, low hum. So I started pulling frames and finding a few bees here and there, and along the hive wall, a more bees. Then when I pulled the hive bodies apart, more bees..but nothing like I would have expected. In all, the remaining bees would have made up a small swarm. It was extremely depressing to see such a once brimming colony down to what some beekeepers wouldn't even deal with on a swarm call.
Did they swarm? Were they sick? Was there something that caused them to leave? The answers were not readily there on the basic inspection, but the more I dug into the hive, I found some things that could have caused the problems. I did not see any dead bees were in front of the hive, nor were any inside the hive that appeared to be ailing. There were no eggs anywhere on the 20 frames. There was only one frame that held some capped brood, and all of those cells were filled with drones and some of those looked dead. Oh, and multiple supersedure cells in both deep hive bodies. So my best guess is that the queen became a drone layer and maybe she was superseded. But the next question? Where was the queen? I could not find a queen anywhere. Unless there was a slender virgin queen in the hive that I overlooked, there wasn't one there. So before this colony died altogether or one of the workers decided to become a drone layer, I decided to buy a queen and try to quickly save it. It was time to hit the road for a new queen.
So I called John down at Triad Bee Supply in Trinity, North Carolina, and asked if he had any queens available. Guess what? He did. And on a Saturday too! Matter of fact, they had ten Italian queens caged that very morning. I asked him to mark one and I would be on the way. That is her (to the left). See her? She's hanging from the cage, the lady with the large abdomen. This was the best of around six pictures I tried to snap. She would not stay still to have her picture made. But as you can see, she's large and extremely healthy looking, so I'm hoping she'll soon crank up and save this colony from dying out.
The first thing I did was remove the second deep hive body and ten frames. There was no reason to have all that empty space for a small amount of bees, so I cut it down to one deep. Second thing was to find some really full frames of capped brood from a nearby donor hive to beef it up. So I borrowed some frames from the hive next door and replaced those with empty frames from the orange hive. Third thing was introduce the new queen using the time tested method of placing the queen cage in the hive and allow the workers to eat through the candy and release her. As you can see, as soon as I placed the queen cage on top, the bees from the hive started checking her out. I kept watch to see if any kind of fighting or unusual behavior would start, but nothing happened at all. And that is a good thing. I've got my fingers and a few toes crossed that she will be readily accepted as their new queen.
For new beekeepers reading this (or older beekeepers who need a walk down memory lane), the best method I've found for introducing a new queen is to hang the cage between two frames. First of all, remove the cork that protects the white candy or fondant. And always place the screen where it faces the bottom. That's so the workers can feed the queen and her attendants. Always place the cage where the candy end is slightly downward so the queen can walk out and onto a frame when she's finally released. Then shut the hive up and leave it alone. The worker bees will continue to eat through the candy until the queen is released, then she can go to work and rule the hive. After a few days, you can go back and check to see if she's out and in the hive. The best sign is finding new eggs which mean she's already gone to work.
I can't imagine what happened to this colony to make it change in a short amount of time. Maybe they swarmed and the new virgin queen left to mate and never returned? Did they kill the old queen if she became a drone layer? Who knows. And we probably never will know. But hopefully this new queen will be readily accepted by the existing workers and create a bustling colony of her own. There's always an excitement when introducing a new queen and seeing her become a success, and I can't wait to check and see that she's out and ruling her hive.
Update coming in a few days! Stay tuned.