Monday, May 19, 2014

Long Live the Queen

Nathan inspects a frame while wearing a stylish bee suit. 
 A few weeks ago, our hive was acting weird - the bees were clumping together on the bottom of the hive, and we weren't sure if they were getting ready to swarm or trying to stay cool or engaging in some other mysterious honeybee behavior. We opened the hive a few days later and found queen cells. Some were along the bottom of the frames, which meant that the bees were getting ready to swarm. Some were hanging from the frames and torn open, which meant a new queen had emerged. 

Honey for days. 

Okay, we thought. This seems normal. Queen bees live for about two years. Our hive is just about two years old. Bees know when to make a new queen - the nurse bees feed enough royal jelly to a chosen larva for her to develop accordingly. We guessed the old queen had swarmed or died, that the bees had replaced her, and that everything would be back to normal in no time. 

A few more weeks went by. We opened the hive again, and this time we saw some things we did not like. The bees' numbers seemed low, considering the time of year. The bees had slowed down - they'd barely touched the honey super we'd added during our last inspection. And most concerning was the utter lack of brood or larvae. We didn't see one egg in the whole hive, which meant the new queen wasn't laying. Uh oh. 

Brood, where are you?!

This is concerning because the average worker bee lives about six weeks. If the queen is not providing a steady supply of new workers, the hive will fall apart in no time at all. While the transition to a new queen will be bumpy - she has to emerge, go on her maiden voyage, mate with drones, and return to the hive ready to get to work - she should have started by the time we were looking for her eggs. It was pretty clear to us that something had gone wrong. Our hive, it seemed, was in need of a queen. 

We got in touch with our local bee supplier and asked if she had any extra queens for sale, which she did. So last Wednesday before work I went to her tiny shop, exchanged $30 for a queen bee (and a few of her attendants), and rushed home to put her in the hive. 

The attendants kept shielding the queen from the camera. No paparazzi allowed!

The queen comes in a tiny cage which is plugged at one end with sugar. When you put the cage in the hive (wedging it between two frames, so the mesh part of the cage is facing out) it takes the colony a few days to chew through the sugar to get to the queen. This is because at first she's a foreigner in their midst, and their instinct is to kill her. While they chew and chew, however, her pheromones are hard at work. By the time the bees release her, the queen - if all goes well - has the hive under her spell. The bees accept her, she ascends her throne, and the hive is saved. 

Our queen came marked with a green dot, so she'll be easier to find during inspections. 

That's the hope, anyway. I installed the queen last Wednesday (my first time working the bees by myself!) and we have to wait five to eight days before we can open it up again. Fingers crossed that the sugar trick worked, they the queen is accepted, and that we see some eggs soon. I love my little hive, and I don't want to lose it. 

PS - the day we brought the bees home + the hive that didn't make it.