Friday, September 23, 2011

Queenright in Red Hook, Part 2

A Beekeeping Adventure in three parts.
Part One can be found HERE.

For weeks, I'd been watching the queenless colony peter out slowly. With no functional queen, and a couple of laying workers in her stead, the colony had no chance of surviving the winter. The existing workers were ageing fast and would eventually all die off, leaving only drones. I was avoiding digging into it too deeply; checking a couple frames in the bottom deep every two weeks for signs of improvement I found nothing but a few scattered drone pupae in 'bullet brood' cells, and hardly any of those either. Yet the colony remained in a fair mood and quite productive.

With no young to feed, the bees quickly filled the hive with large amounts of honey and pollen, and I figured that once the population collapsed completely, I would be able to give all that food to its healthy and queenright sister colony to supplement their winter stores. And so it went. The hive kept on working; productive, but not improving.

Then, it happened.

For the record, that's a billow t-shirt, not my big fat belly.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

See?  I told you so.  But where did my booty go?
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

I was going through my regular hive inspection routine. Check the queenright hive first, because they're almost always in an excellent mood. Pass around a couple frames of honey, pollen, brood, and bees around the crowd, and explain what is happening in the hive- how a beekeeper looks at the activity within a hive and translates that information into useable data. As usual, everything in the first hive was fine and dandy. The brood was solid, there was plenty of food (honey AND pollen), and there seemed to be more coming in.

Looking at the comb, checking for honey/pollen/eggs/larvae/etc.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

Showing off for the ladies by showing them my ladies.  Yeah girl.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

So I moved on to hive number 2. The queenless wonder.

As I had seen previously, the top deep was absolutely PACKED with honey and pollen. The population was surprisingly strong considering how long they had been without brood, but the percentage of drones was very high, clearly up from the normal max of ~10%. The drones in that hive are interesting in and of themselves. I have never seen drones so solidly dark, like they'd been carved from ebony. They're big, healthy things as well. I suppose that without the presence of any worker brood, the drones are getting all the food and protein they could ever ask for.

Magritte strikes back.
Also, lookit all that honey.  Pooh bear just poohed himself.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

No babies = more stuff for you.  A true life lesson.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

The bees were in a good mood, and so I decided to pick out a frame or two from the lower deep hive body. I had a nice, curious audience, and a couple of friendly photographers, so I figured I may as well give them the full monty. I decided to pull a frame directly out of the center of the hive. All the combs had been drawn perfectly, so there were no 'hot spots', raised areas of comb that get knocked off when you pull the frame, and it came out nice and smooth.

Exactly what I had been seeing for months.  Some food, some scattered drones in bullet brood cells.  Ick.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

Just as I expected. A ring of pollen and honey around the edges and a couple of scattered drone cells closer to the center, with a couple random cells containing a couple of side-laid eggs. I flipped the frame over and...


Is that a queen?


But not just any queen. Jet black and shiny as basalt, she was the size of a virgin queen- only slightly larger than a worker. She was moving fast and constantly burying herself under her daughters. Before I lost track of her, I scooped her off the frame and into my hand.

I opened my hand to get a closer look and she flew off into the wild blue yonder.

Flight weight?


How inconvenient.

I yelled at everyone to keep an eye on her while I went to find something to capture her with. She was easy to spot in the air. Queens aren't fantastic flyer, even at their lightest, and with the weight of eggs (even drone ones) in her abdomen, she flew ass down and slow as molasses. Normally a queen won’t fly at all, weighed down by her own stores of sperm and developing eggs.

By the time I returned with a suitable container, she had settled on the butt of Paul Smith, a photographer and student at the Columbia School of Journalism who had come down to get some shots of an urban beekeeper for a feature he was working on.

Telling him not to move, I gently scooped her into a waiting pill bottle and popped the lid on.

I handed the queen off to Tobin, Ross Brown's son and budding beekeeper so I could use my hands.
The queen is fully stretched out here.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

Back in hand, you can see just how small the queen really was.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

What to do now? The ‘queenless’ hive was not queenless after all! Comparing her to the drones in the hive, it was abundantly clear to me that she had been present but unseen and unnoticed from the beginning, that she was mother of the drones, and the reason I hadn't been able to requeen the hive successfully. The 'laying worker' was actually a true queen who had run out of sperm to fertilize eggs. I don't have a solid explanation for the poor egg placement or the instances of multiple eggs in a single cell. My best guess is that reduced to flight weight, her abdomen was simply not long enough to reach the bottom of the cell. It is also very odd that the workers didn't take the opportunities to replace an obviously failing queen presented to them by my multiple requeening attempts, but no matter.

With the queen removed, the bees would be desperate to replace her. Thinking (and working) quickly, I effected a 'transfusion'. From the "queenless" and broodless problem hive, I transferred five of the deep frames of solid packed honey and pollen they had collected. In exchange, from the queenright colony I swapped in five deep frames of capped brood, eggs, and empty comb in the hopes that the workers from the ailing hive would finally recognize their queenlessness and take steps to raise a new one.  In both cases, I shook all the bees clinging to the frames back into their original hives to prevent any fighting.

Making room in the "not so queenless" hive.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

Choosing frames to transfer from the queenright hive.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

I can has babies?  Yes, I can!  A nice frame holding a large amount late stage capped and emerging brood, and even more eggs.  Perfect for providing a boost in population and the raw material to make a queen from.
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

Nice bee 'C', a solid laying pattern by the queen in the healthy hive.  Free of bees, you can swap frames from hive to hive without worrying about them being accepted.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

But what did I do with the old, unlaying queen, you ask? Usually a dud queen like her gets squished and tossed into some rubbing alcohol to make "Queen Tea", a pheromone heavy brew that you can use to anoint swarm traps with queen scent. It's an old-school trick, and a great way to recycle extra queens, but obviously necessitates killing the queens. Ick.

Instead, I opted to put her into a retirement home. Taking an extra 8 frame hive body full of honey and pollen, I transferred a couple thousand bees from her original hive into a single story nuc. In the hopes that she'll continue raising viable drones to populate the local drone congregation areas (mating fields) until she peters out completely, I released her into her new home.

Putting together a retirement home for the sterile queen.
A bit of a downgrade in terms of space, but better than my hive tool to her face.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

Letting the queen loose on the top bars of the 8 frame nuc.
Notice the lack of other bees on the top bars.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

I don't think that I've ever seen bees form a court so quickly. Within seconds, the workers shaken into the nuc had formed a perfect circle surrounding the queen and marching her down between the frames. With pheromonal pull like that, it's no wonder that they refused to replace her.

The beginning of the court.  Approximately 10 seconds after release of the queen.
See how little she is?
Image c2011, Paul Smith.

Another view, a few seconds later.  A perfect court around the dud queen.
She is practically the same size as a worker and differs mainly by colouration.
Image c2011, Alex Brown.

Hot, sweaty, and feeling clever, I closed up the hives.

Image c2011, Alex Brown.

The following week, I cracked the hive open and found exactly what I had hoped for; a multitude of queen cells in various stages of development. Some were even capped. We’ve got queens. But will they be any good?

Hell if I know!

I guess we’ll find out in PART 3 of Queenright in Red Hook!

Image c2011, Micah Garen.

This weekend, during my FREE Public Hive Inspection at the Added Value Community Farm in Red Hook, I'll (we'll?) find out if the new queen survived and managed to mate.

For the *live* conclusion of the tale, stay tuned or COME OUT and find out first hand! The fun will start at 11AM, across the street from IKEA.

Cross your fingers for better weather.

Can't check bees in the rain!

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