I have just completed my first year as a beekeeper and a couple of months ago I was feeling somewhat pleased with myself. I had brought my bees through the winter and the hive was expanding rapidly. I even obtained a couple of nucs (small hives for my diminishing number of non beekeeping friends). Two so that I might consider expanding my empire. The Plan Bee for the year was clear, to go into the next winter with one full hive and two back ups. A bee equivalent of an heir and a spare.
And it was working up until the bees took charge. At the beginning of April I added a super to give the bees plenty of room. You can probably remember that April was rather wet and cold and I only did a couple of quick inspections including knocking down a dozen or so uncapped queen cells. I was still surprised when I did a full inspection at the beginning of May to find a huge sealed queen cell I’d missed. It was about the size of my thumb, right in the centre of a frame. Of course I took a step back, reviewed the books, articles and the videos I had digested over the winter and formulated a Plan Bee B. No I did not, I panicked. Straight onto the Sleaford Beekeepers Facebook page and called for help.
Two beekeepers agreed, well almost agreed, they are beekeepers after all, that I should split the hive by placing the capped queen cell in a nuc with a frame of food, frame of brood and some syrup. This was done on the 4th May. I read up on queen development and resolved to leave them alone until the end of May. Then when I went to the nuc two days later the syrup jar had leaked and emptied its contents into the box. No harm done. Most had drained out of the nuc to the delight of the local ants. Got a proper feeder and doubly resolved to leave them alone.
All the books say plan your hive inspections. Hands up who does a plan. Well, I thought I do plans but really I just think what I want to do. This means I am relying on memory and I can not remember why I when upstairs. We all do that you say but I live in a bungalow. And here is a good reason for doing a proper list. When I split the hive I did not see the queen but assumed she was still there because I saw small larvae. I did not take my glasses or magnifier so could not check for eggs. Mistake.
A week later and there are more capped queen cells which I proceed to knock down BEFORE I check for the queen. Big mistake. I now have a small nuc that may or may not have a viable queen and a packed hive probably without a queen and no larvae to produce one. Back to Facebook and panicking. Simple, say the experts, put a few eggs in the hive and if in five days or so they have drawn a queen cell there is no queen in the hive. A very generously donation of eggs allowed me to put some the hive and the rest in the nuc. It was an anxious wait but I did manage to leave them undisturbed for the full five days.
The hive had drawn a single queen cell with a big fat larvae in it. This called for another decision, do I let nature take is course and hope this single potential queen is viable or replace it with an already laying queen. The books tell me it can take up to a month for a queen to emerge, mature, mate and start laying. With the hive already queenless for a month I decide on the more certain path of replacement. The original Plan Bee called for an extra queen which I had already ordered. A quick call and I arrange to pick her up the following week.
The nuc was a different story. The little section of comb with eggs I had place between the frames had completely disappeared. Further investigation reveals eggs and larvae in the central comb. The original queen cell that started this tale must have hatched, mated and started laying. I feed them syrup and protein so they can put all their efforts in to expanding their rather small colony.
Dodging showers on the 8th June I collected my new queen and rushed to my hive. Rearranged the frames in the brood box and introduced the queen in her little white plastic cage. Three days later I checked the hive. The plug of fondant icing in the entrance to the queen cage has been eaten away and the queen is loose. I leave the bees undisturbed for a few days believing all is sorted, wrong again.
On the 15th June I check the hive, no eggs, no larvae and I do not find the queen. I assume she has been rejected.
The same day I open up nuc and find only capped brood. No eggs, no larvae and no queen. Here we go again. Then the next day nature smiles on me, a small swarm condenses on my front garden gate. I wonder if these two events are connected.
The swarm is a little resistant to being collected until I simply place a cardboard box over them. The following morning the swarm has moved up into the box. I gently carry the box to the nuc and unceremoniously dump the bees in. Then more waiting.
I decide to purchase a second queen for the hive that still appears to be thriving without a queen, honey is being laid down rapidly. Weather and the Lincolnshire show intervenes so I can not arrange to pick up a new queen that week. Then on the 22nd June I inspect the hive and find considerable numbers of eggs. My first reaction is that I now have a hive with laying workers. The books say that it is very difficult to recover hive when this happens. I consult my mentor who dismisses my theory (on the basis that it too soon for workers to start laying) and requests a photograph.
To my great joy my fears are dismissed and I have a laying queen. My sighs of relief are reportedly heard in Boston. I am still not sure what happened here. Was there a young queen in the hive when I added the new laying queen? If so the fate of the new queen was probably unpleasant. Or could the markings on the new queen have warn off and she just took a few extra days to settle in to her new home?
This week (27th June) I have checked both the hive and the nuc, both appear normalised with eggs, larvae and capped brood.
I have learnt a few things these last two months. First don’t panic. It is not necessary to rush to rectify a supposed problem straight away, the bees may well sort it themselves. In years to come my skills may improve to the level where an inspection plan is unnecessary until then I am going to take a check list with me. Also next year I am going to nail the plan to the hives so the bees know what to do.