Topical Tips – “Dig out ALL Queen cells at your peril!”

Dig out ALL Queen cells at your peril! - from Malcolm Wilkie

I am resending this article to all of you as over the next month you may be tempted to dig out Queen cells. Destroying Queen cells is not wrong in itself but make sure you know what you are doing. Be warned digging out all Queen cells may cause the collapse of your colony if the Queen has already left with a prime swarm, as there may be no more young larvae or eggs to make another Queen. Judy wrote this article for me. She has subsequently lost her bees. If this sort of thing happens to you, you may be better putting yourself on the swarm list early and getting a prime swarm in May. Then with new bees, start over again.

Judy called her article ‘Still alive’ . I have renamed it as I think it serves as a lesson to us all. NB ALL is written in capitals!

Here is the story of a really daft thing I did last summer and various attempts to rectify the situation. I had a lot of help from Malcolm and his fee was an article for the magazine!

I had a little bit of experience of beekeeping from being part of a group in Mayfield that jointly had a few hives five years ago. But the summers were poor and they didn't do very well, and then we lost the apiary site. I did Keith's beginners course in 2014 and learnt a lot but didn't get any bees that summer, so I started the next March by buying from Keith the bees that had been in the glass demonstration case the previous year. They were a lovely calm lot but not very busy. They produced one super of honey which they kept over the winter of 2015/2016.

Last year I kept them as 'a brood and a half' and when Helen Hadley came to look at them she helped me find the queen, which was a new one, so we marked her. All went well and I continued to see the queen, but inspections were taking me a long time as a novice with two boxes to look through. I kept seeing queen cups but nothing in them, and the bees had nearly filled two supers so I was making up frames for another and didn't get back to the hive for a period of nine days. Then I saw sealed queen cells and panicked!

I removed all four in the top 'half' box, thinking there would be more below in the main brood box and that I could choose one to keep from there. But, alas, I found no more. Neither did I see the queen... Nor any eggs or small larvae... Oh no! What had I done? Had she left already and I'd destroyed her provision for the future of the colony? I was hot and bothered and I'd had the nest open a long time and I got stung through my suit, which had never happened before with this lot.
I reflected that there had been some clumping above the crown board, but there were still so many bees as I started the inspection that I didn't suspect they had already swarmed.

Dismayed I asked Helen for advice and she suggested I go back in a few days to look for evidence of emergency queen cells. I did so but found none. The bees were very agitated so I didn't inspect the whole nest; I looked through the whole of the top box and half of the frames in the brood box below. No emergency cells. Just angry bees.

At Bee Banter I sought advice again and the consensus was that they were probably queenless thanks to my clumsy efforts, and that I should buy a queen from the LASI project at the University of Sussex. But then Malcolm emailed to say that he had ordered a queen from there himself and I could buy her from him, and even better he would come and help me introduce her! It was now the end of July and 8 days since I had broken off the queen cells. That day she came in the post we went to the hive in light drizzle. We placed the little plastic cage she came in on top of some brood frames and waited to see how my bees would respond. At first they ignored her. We watched to see that they weren't going to sting her, but that didn't happen. After a few minutes they seemed quite interested so we broke the tab at the end of the cage revealing sugar paste which the workers would eat their way through to release the new queen into the hive. We left the cage hanging between two frames in the brood box. The bees were less aggressive than on my last two visits. Was that Malcolm's calming influence?! Or the drizzle? Or did they still have their old queen after all?

The new one was a virgin queen so wasn't to be disturbed for three weeks. During that three weeks I took my first ever crop of honey - 30 lbs, plus another whole box I intended to return to the bees after their varroa treatment.

At the appointed time I inspected the whole of the brood nest and could find no eggs or larvae. The bees were still working hard, with lots of stored pollen and nectar. I asked a previous mentor from Mayfield to come with me a week later and he confirmed that there was no brood in the nest. My normally good-tempered bees must have committed regicide. It was by now the end of August.
Malcolm came to the rescue again with a spare nucleus of his own which he had made up with one of the hygienic queen offspring. One Tuesday night in September I collected a polynuc box from him and placed it on top of my hive roof with the entrance facing the same direction. This had to be done after dark.

A few days later, on the Saturday, Malcolm joined me to do a tricky manipulation. We first removed the supers to a location about 100 yards distant. Then we carried the whole of my brood nest (both boxes together) to the same place. There were bees left behind on the floor so that had to be brought as well. Then all were dusted liberally with sifted icing sugar, and the bees were shaken off the frames. The icing sugar was to slow the bees down. Some of my frames of stores were selected to go with Malcolm's frames of brood. There was a slight complication in that our sizes don't match so when we built up the new nest, which we did on the original site, we had to start with the super box at the bottom with stores at the sides but a gap in the middle for his 12x14" frames to hang down into, then on top my national brood box with more stores at the sides and the frames of brood with the laying queen in the middle. All the flying bees were making their way back and there was great confusion.

After tidying away all the spare boxes and frames we went back to take a look at the reassembled hive. The front of it was covered with bees. Many were visibly dusted with icing sugar so were my originals. We saw no fighting - not that I know hat bees fighting looks like! They were fanning, which apparently was a good sign.

The new combination colony were then fed with syrup for a week and after that I was instructed to put back on top all the boxes of frames that needed cleaning up of both icing sugar and stores. The configuration was crown board, empty super, another crown board and then the boxes that needed cleaning. At first I had not added a closed crown board under the roof, but when I went back next day with wasp traps I saw what could have been robbing or perhaps my own bees going in at the top of the hive rather than the entrance. Adding another crown board did seem to sort out this problem and thereafter there was less activity around the top of the stack.

Two weeks after our manipulation I opened the nest to take a look. What disappointment! Once again I could see no young brood. There were three frames with sealed brood and next to them only stores. No eggs. No larvae. The bees were getting very agitated and I didn't look at every frame. My smoker had gone out and I gave up the search in disappointment. It was the end of September by now. I'm afraid my hive got none of the love and care that it had had the previous year. A mouse guard, yes, but no woodpecker-proofing, no varroa treatment or feeding and the stores of honey didn't go back on either. I thought the colony was done for and would die out over winter.

In early spring I kept hearing woodpeckers around and my heart would sink. I went to check that the hive was intact but saw no signs of life. Then one sunny Sunday I went over to take another look and saw bees flying, bringing pollen into the hive. I was overjoyed!

The next time I went with a super of empty frames and as I was preparing to open the hive I heard a shout, 'hello', and Malcolm happened to have come to take a look at that very moment with another friend. Inside there was lots of activity. Outside there was lots of rejoicing. The bees had somehow survived and thrived despite me!

Judy Harland (with much to learn!)

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