Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Queenright in Red Hook, Part 1

A Beekeeping Adventure in three parts.

Those of you who have made it to my public hive inspections at the Added Value Farm in Red Hook have heard the story about how one of the hives is a bit of a dud. A few weeks after I installed the hives, the queen started to fail, and then a month or so later, stopped laying completely.

Fact:  Girls like bees.  Or they're scared of them?  I always mix that one up.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

I made several attempts to requeen the hive, first by providing them with frames of eggs and very young larvae from its healthy sister. No new queens were made. In fact, many of the eggs were seemingly ignored; several frames of new brood were underfed and allowed to die.



At least I like bees.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

I like talking about them too.  Or maybe I just like the sound of my own voice.
I can never remember.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

Then, I tried to give them a new queen provided by Mark Negley, the original provider of the nucleus colonies I started the season with. Caged, I hung her between some brood frames for a week and came back to check on her. The bees were feeding her through the cage rather than trying to bite at her; a good sign that she had been accepted by the workers, so off came the cap covering the candy plug and back in the hive she went. The next week I dug in to the hive expecting to see plenty of new eggs and young larvae.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

No sign of the new queen other than the empty queen cage.


Gita helping me to inspect the queenright hive.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

Dennis having a look-see.  Again in the queenright hive.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

Well, if you don't succeed, try, try again, right? Time for another queen. After inspecting the hive to ensure that nothing had changed, I inserted another caged queen from a different source. A week later, I went back and found that the bees were completely ignoring her. Even when set in a cluster of bees, they just ignored the cage like it wasn't there.

Worse, I found eggs.

But not good eggs. Drone eggs. In worker cells. On the SIDES of worker cells, and often in multiples. This is one of the classic signs of a laying worker; the condition in which several workers of a queenless colony develop working ovaries due to the lack of inhibitory queen and brood pheromones which, in a queenright colony, prevent workers from laying. Unfortunately, because a laying worker is not a true queen, she doesn't have the capability or instinct to mate, so she can only lay unfertilized (haploid) drone (male) eggs. In the wild, this is a clever evolutionary trick; it allows a colony that was unable to raise a new queen or lost its virgin queen on a mating flight to propagate its genetic through the male line via mating with virgin queens from other colonies.

Actually, all the pictures in this article are from the queenright hive.
I just wanted to show you all the pretty pictures.
Also, lookit all 'dat honey!
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

See?  Brood.  Definitely not from the hive in question.
A little of the capped stuff, but mostly eggs in those cells.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

However, in the bee yard, especially an urban one, a laying worker is often a death sentence. In the country, there is a method that many people use to fix a laying worker colony. Since a laying worker is just a regular worker with active ovaries, she is impossible to distinguish from a regular worker and remove physically, but as laying workers develop from young bees who have never left the hive, you can weed them out (along with all the other young non-foraging bees) by physically removing them from the hive. By shaking out ALL the bees in the hive several hundred yards away from the original hive location (too far for young and un-orientated bees to find their way back), you can eliminate the laying workers and the older bees will fly back to the original hive location. You can then requeen the weakened (but laying worker free) hive using the normal methods.

Nice lookin' capped brood.  Smile for the camera, babies.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

I have them.
Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

Too bad you can't do that in the city. There are few locations large enough to get a couple hundred yards away from the original hive, let alone the fact that it seems rude to shake out thousands of bees and allow them to wander around the city queenless, homeless, hungry, and increasingly cranky. In the end, I decided to let nature take its course and let the hive die out. I figured that I would be able to use the honey and pollen they had collected over the summer to reinforce the healthy hive and give them a better chance of surviving the winter. I returned the second caged queen to the hive in the hopes that they would accept her and allow her to take over from the laying workers.

She was not so lucky.

During my next inspection, I found her and her attendants all dead in the cage with plenty of food remaining in the candy plug.

And so it went for several weeks. Then, something happened…

Image c2011, Valery Rizzo

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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