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No Queen!

This is not an uncommon exclamation in my neck of the woods (Henrico County, to the east of Richmond, Va) – I doubt it’s uncommon anywhere. A beekeeper goes into a (previously strong, in many cases) hive, only to find no eggs, no larva and no capped brood. It’s been a grueling summer (insert year) and there simply has not been enough time (or energy) to put on a bee suit, sweat 10 buckets of water and go through an irritable hive of bees (no bee likes to be inspected in July!) In many cases, the beekeeper suddenly noticed a decrease in activity and decides to have a check. In a few cases, it is simply a matter of a cool day (and a chance to finally have a peak without the risk of expiring!)

You open up the hive and things look good. We see some stored honey, although maybe the bee population is a bit low. You finally get into the lower brood box and alarm bells start to go off. Not only do you not see eggs, but you also do not see capped brood. Vast areas of the brood nest remain open! What the devil is going on!?!? The first response (typically – based on queries I get from the occasional new beekeeper) is that the queen is dead and all is lost!

In truth, if you do lose your queen in September (in our area – Central Virginia), you are in a pretty tough pickle. The queen should be ramping up production of the first few Winter bees in early September. These bees are fatter and meant to live a bit longer then the normal bee. They are not designed to forage so much as to provide warmth and go get a bit of water or maybe some old grass pollen in January. Few born in September make it to the next Spring, but they are the first wave that will eventually propel your October & November bees all the way to February and March. This is the beginning of Winter prep and its very tough to be without a queen at this time of the year.

But, I have found that many of my strong hives (even with space) go queenless in July-August. I actually believe it is good for them and for the lands around my hives. Today, I began my first Winter checks. I went to check a new outyard in Varina, Virginia. I had take two starter hives (one from the Larry super-Queen and one from a hived Swarm) to this spot in early July. I wanted to see how they were doing. Both hives had done really well with regard to pollen and honey. You want to be sure that your hives have a good store of both when going into the Winter. A late August check is not a guarantee in my neck of the woods, but I use it to identify clear danger hives. Last year, for example, I found one and combined it with the Apache hive. That hive ended up being a super strong hive this year. I doubt the weak hive (Moe) would have made it otherwise.

The very first hive that I opened had a medium that was 90% full of capped honey. Interestingly enough, this was nearly exactly what they looked like in early July (I did a test this year and measured honey stores in early July to see how much my bees would eat in the awful weather of July and August). They had barely touched it. In addition, they had a couple of deep frames that were both 90% full of capped honey and 3 frames of pollen (not full frames, but mostly pollen.) From just those notes, I’d say these gals were ready to make a good go of it this Winter. But, the next ‘note’ was important. The entire brood nest (maybe 6 frames) was empty except for a handful of capped brood (and I do mean a handful – maybe 50, all told.) I must admit that I would probably have freaked were it not for what I found on the very first frame (Deep) that I pulled. A small, unmarked queen! I have my notes that I marked a large, brown queen in May (White), so I was certain this was a new queen. I knew something was up when I found her on the first frame – the old gals somehow always manage to get on the LAST frame during the inspection.

So, noticing a few capped brood, I decided that I had a real virgin on my hands. She probably had not even done a maiden flight. And that’s the kicker. Had I opened the hive a week from now, during (say) 3 pm or so, I probably wouldn’t have found her. But, I would have found no eggs and no brood. Without any other knowledge, I might have freaked and combined them with one of my Nucs for overwintering. But, I have seen this before. For whatever reason (either my area, my line of bees or bees in general), some of my hives will cast a swarm in July, regardless of the weather. I seriously doubt the swarm did very well (hot and dry with no blooms out there), but I do have a new queen. I am not so sure they did swarm, given the number of bees, the lack of any sign of a queen cell and the abundance of capped honey (they didn’t take much with them, if they did swarm). It could have been a supercedure. Regardless, I have a new queen and (big benefit) my bees just went through a dearth of eggs which should set the mites back substantially. A perfect time for a perfect storm.

But, the main reason that I’m glad that I checked is that I know to go back to this hive in 2 (3 at the most) weeks to check for eggs. This outyard is my most distant Varina outyard, so only 1 hive is within 3 miles. The owner had told me in June that they hadn’t seen a honey bee in years. So, I need to cross my fingers for a good mating.

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