Is The Queen There?

Laying workers: photo by Enid Brown.

End of Summer.

The reality is we are nearing the end of our beekeeping season here in Scotland. It is a very short one. Travelling back north up the A9 yesterday on a gloriously warm sunny day, I saw a soft purple hue creeping up the mountains. Soon heather will be in full bloom and we all hope for some warmth after poor foraging conditions in June and July. Batches of bee hives tucked away not too far from the roadside are visible and awaiting our most important honey crop. Heather honey: our mountain bounty. A vivid yellow field of spring-sown crop of oil seed rape near one site will surely snarl up one beekeeper’s hopes for heather honey in this part of Perthshire though.

Queen-Right for Winter.

How long should we wait for that late queen to get mated? This is the time of year when the phone-lines are buzzing with folk asking around for spare queens. We all appreciate the need to get our bees into winter with well mated queens, and plenty of winter workers and stores to see the colony through till spring. Quite often though we panic needlessly and rush to introduce a new queen. Often this ends in tears with our new queen killed off instantly by the resident royalty. Sometimes, we just need to be patient. We calculate around 24 days minimum from egg to laying queen under ideal developmental circumstances, but so often it takes longer. In this part of the country, I worry after 5-6 weeks of queenlessness as workers may start to lay infertile eggs around then. The photograph above shows how worker bees have laid multiple eggs in cells. Some are on the bottom of the cells but often they are to be found on the sides of the cells if workers have not been able to reach the cell bottom. You do have to learn to read the hive because some young queens lay multiple eggs initially, but then the rest will all be placed at the bottom of the cell.

Before I re-queen a colony I put a test frame of eggs from a healthy colony into the brood box. If, after 24 hours, there is no sign of queen cell construction I assume that the colony is waiting for a queen to get mated and laying. If the colony is strong then raising a queen at the end of summer will probably work out alright. However, if I have a small queenless swarm or colony they may not have time to produce a new queen in time to build up a colony strong enough to survive winter. I must then make a decision to allow them to re-queen themselves, or to introduce a new queen. I might also unite them with another colony.

Virgin Queen on 15th July

I have a swarm that should have a laying queen now. A virgin queen went out with a primary swarm on July 15th but she was not there on August 5th and there are no eggs or brood. This nuc will be united tomorrow by the newspaper method to the nearest colony. I’m moving it closer in 2 stages of less than 3 feet at a time.

Queen Betty 2nd,

Unfortunately for some reason queen Betty 1st is being replaced as I write. She is not to be seen and there are emergency cells which look like these in the picture below.

Because I am increasing the apiary gene pool I shall allow this small colony to rear a new queen. Before the end of summer I will boost it with a frame of brood from another healthy colony and I will feed it syrup till the stores are sufficient.

What to do with Laying Workers?

A very experienced beekeeper friend of mine told me about a good method of dealing with the problem and I’ve found that it works well. You take the offending brood box a good distance away (to a 100 feet or more) and shake all the bees out onto the ground. I like to shake them onto a white sheet so that I can see what’s going on. This is good if you are not sure if you have laying workers or a drone laying queen as you can more easily spot a queen on the sheet. On the original hive site you place a brood box with frames (ideally one frame of brood from a healthy colony) and a caged queen for the flying bees to return to. The laying workers are not all likely to fly back to the hive. Don’t forget to release the queen in a couple of days.

What to do About This?

If you see one or two cells like this at the end of summer leave well alone because these are supercedure cells and the colony want to re-queen themselves. Most beekeepers don’t keep queens longer than 2 years because old queens are one of the reasons for colonies not surviving winter. They run out of semen and become drone layers causing the colony to dwindle and die.

4 thoughts on “Is The Queen There?”

  1. Very useful advice here, Ann. I usually use the nucleus method of swarm control and remove the old queen to this along with a frame of stores and brood. Three weeks after I’ve culled the extra queen cells, if I see no sign of laying by the new queen, I’ll take a test frame of eggs from the nuc and put this in the centre of the old hive. In most cases there is a queen there and by the next week she has started to lay. The test frame, I think, helps to delay the onset of laying workers. It can also ease the congestion in the nuc box if the old queen is still a prolific layer.
    Good to be reminded about the creation of supersedure cells at the end of the summer. I saw a couple yesterday and left them alone, as you suggest.
    Many thanks for your advice, as always. Lovely to see the heather blooming on the Pentland Hills today!

  2. As only a slightly experienced beekeeper this time of year has always been tricky and led to some grave mis-steps. Not recognising superceedure cells for what they are is a critical mistake we have made as is trying to thin out these cells, as the process is not stimulated by a reproductive urge the bees are best placed to manage this situation on their own – which I now understand. Furthermore there is quite often an interruption in egg laying at the end of August, perhaps as the colony transitions from summer to winter bees. Last year one colony went six weeks without an egg, though at the end I gave a pollen substitute so perhaps they had just run out of bee bread and were waiting for ivy which was very poor due to the weather. In the past we have merged such colonies and doubtless caused utter mayhem at a delicate time of year. Experience will give you instincts about the presence or not of a queen which are often correct.

    1. Egg laying slows down at the end of summer, Tristan. I normally do varroa treatment early August then check the bees to make sure that the queen is ok then leave alone, re inspections till Spring>

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