Thursday, April 4, 2013

Return to open the hive; the queen is dead S.O.H. (Hive)!

The Saturday (before Easter) arrived at long last!  Saturday was our first gloriously beautiful spring day in the mid-Atlantic with temperatures in the upper 60'sF and sunshine.  It was predicted to be the best day of the weekend, as rain was coming on Easter.  Yes, this will be a good day to finally open the hive and peer inside and check the queen and the frames of workers to see what has occurred with our very bizarre recent March snow storm last Monday. 

I was so hopeful and eager to know what was inside, but I wanted to wait until the temperature rose a bit more to open the hive; (the temperature should really be about 55F or higher to open the hive for any amount of time.)  If all was well, there should be eggs present and a vibrant queen walking around with a very swollen abdomen full of eggs to be laid; at least, in my almost 7 years of doing this, that has always been what has occurred.  But, I've never had a snow storm follow my bee hive installation before.  I've been very worried about this weather.

In the mid-morning, I checked my thermometer on the porch; it read 44F.  It was due to get warmer, so I decided to wait until about 2-3pm to go into the hive.  (Mid-afternoon is always a good time for new -really all -beekeepers to get into a hive, as most workers will be out of the hive and foraging at this time, and so it is easier to manipulate/work the frames and therefore easiest not to kill as many bees, but also there is less chance for a sting to you as a result; opening and working in a hive very early in the day or late in the day at or after sunset, or in cooler temperatures means more girls are at home to defend their stores of honey, pollen and brood!) 

Although still cool and early, I did run down the terraced steps of the backyard and down by the creek to peer as to what was happening thus far at the entrances to the hives.  Activity, yes, good sign!  I sat on the bench by my hive to watch the rising morning sun as it warmed the hives and resulting activity increased. 

First a few guard bees at the door and a few young workers testing their wings and doing scouting/learning flights navigating out and back.  Then, here came the mortuary bees.  I watched as they carried out dead carcasses of their sisters; they struggled to both fly and carry them to about 3 feet in front of the hive and drop them there on the black tarp; then they returned home to grab another deceased sister.  (Keep in mind these bees are small and their sisters are equal-sized.  The male drones are slightly larger in size.)

Bees are very clean, and will try and keep the hive as hygienic as humanly (beely) possible.  The removal of the dead workers and also dead drones is a full time task for the mortuary bees.  By doing this, and dropping the carcasses at a distance from the hive, they prevent the attraction of flies, rodents, skunks, dermestid beetles and other secondary pests.   They also remove diseased or parasitized members in this fashion. Thus, they keep the hive as disease and parasite and pest free as possible.   (A future blog will have to describe the roles different worker bees assume during their lifespans.)

I sat and suddenly saw one small mortuary bee dragging out a very large dead drone bee; (drones are  few in the hive at this time of year; these are only here because of my ordering and installing the package from GA; normally there are no drones until the queen lays some; now I see maybe why.  These workers are so small this time of year as they are new and young and the drone is so big.).  She was trying so hard to fly with him.  She made it to the landing board and tried to take off.  Plop! She fell immediately down to the ground with the much heavier drone bee.  She sort of staggered her way back onto her feet.  I laughed out loud!  (No one was there to hear me, but it was so funny looking! Very entertaining.)  She had taken on a Herculean task.  I heard her say, "Well, that will just have to be his final resting place.  Oh, well, R.I.P."  And, back into the hive she flew to continue her tasks.

Fellow beekeeper Trevor called to say he'd be out later in the day to check his queen's status in his hive.  I needed to check mine sooner, as I had errands to run on Saturday afternoon, and Walt and I wanted to go to supper.  I assured Trevor there was activity at his hive and that I saw his bees bringing in both crocus and red maple pollen.  (I was gazing out my window as I talked to him, and I looked at my red maple, and whereever there was full morning sun on it, there were little maple flowers and there were bees; our girls were in these flowers, picking up pollen, but only where the sun was shining on them.  They were flying back and forth from the hives in the backyard to the top of the red maple.  Another good sign, I thought! 

But, very strange signs, too, I simultaneously thought.  My maple usually flowers in late January or early February and is the first pollen source available in this area for the honey bees.  Here it is end of March and these flowers are just now opening?!  Wow.  We are way behind schedule weatherwise.  In fact, it appears we are at least a month behind on blossoms.  Come to think of it, the spring peeper frogs are just starting to sing at night in the marshy areas along the Potomac River a block away, and they are way behind too! They usually start singing their mating songs the first week of March.   And, then I notices, hey, that's a junco sitting on that maple branch in my yard!  They are supposed to be gone northward by now!  (Juncos are birds that ride the cold fronts that come through and are a good indicator of coming cold weather changes.)  Where are the robins?! And, where are the next nectar and pollen sources, the dandelions and skunk cabbages?  Apparently, they are a week or two away. Hang on girls!  One day it will be spring here.

You will find that beekeepers keep very specific journals and diaries and calendars documenting flowers and their blooming dates, and other natural phenomena, as well as of what's happening within the hive.  It's interesting to compare year to year and over time.  You can almost predict events within the hive by the animals and flowers you see. There should always be a pollen source (and hopefully during the nectar flow time of late spring to mid summer) a nectar source available.  I plant flowers in my own yard to keep my bees happily in pollen and nectar hopefully all season long from January until November.  (And, as you might suspect, each flower's nectar produces a different kind and tasting of honey that also has a different identifying characteristic color to it. More on this in a future blog.) But, in the late winter/early spring the girls (and in fact, all social insects-termites, ants, bees and wasps) need pollen for their queens to have protein to make yolks for the abundance of eggs she will be laying.  Maple provides this first bit of pollen protein in this area.  Dandelions typically follow shortly afterward.  I've seen no dandelions yet in my yard.

So, at last it was 2 pm and the temperature read about 59F.  The sun was high in the sky and the girls were flying in and out happily. No wind.  I tied Clifford to the apple tree, and I grabbed my beesuit, my bucket of hive tools, and I went down to my hive.  I decided against any smoke for this bout, as the bees in general are gentle this time of year. I donned my hat, veil, suit and gloves, and ensured no open spaces existed that would allow any girls entering near to my face.  (Stings in the face are not fun.)  I grabbed my red hive tool, and I cracked open the roof of my hive.

I opened up the top cover and looked inside.  The syrup can was there, the now empty of sugar syrup baggy was there with propylis around the edges, and there were workers running around and flying up to check me out.  I removed the can and the baggy and extra empty super that had surrounded them.  I removed the outer frame to be able to move the other frames.  (I have a nifty frame hanger to place these on while I do this.)  I began to reveal and check the other frames. 

Hmmm, no pulled out wax comb, thus far, and no eggs or brood.  Maybe when it is colder like this it takes longer?  I've never had it be so cold before.  Then I got to the two frames holding the now empty queen cage.  Well, she's obviously out of the cage; that's normal a week later.  The sugar plug has been devoured and all attendants and queen are gone.  I pulled out the cage and put it in my pocket.  (Because of the pheromone scent lingering on it, some of the workers flew immediately to my pocket!)  But, then I pulled the frame out where the queen cage had been hanging. 

Uh oh!  Oh no!  There are supersedure cells here!  Four of them to be exact.

A supersedure cell is found in the middle of a frame of beeswax.  It usually diagnostically indicates that the worker bees have determined something is very wrong with the queen or that the queen has already died, so they are now trying to make a new queen as quickly as possible.  (These are not queen swarming cells which are found at the bottom of the frames and later in the year as the hive gets larger and more complicated demographically needing space.)  This instead is an all out emergency response to save our hive by the workers. S.O.H.!!!!!!!!!

I know this sounds bizarre!  But, what in nature isn't full of intrigue?!  The workers take an egg (or two, or here, four) turned larva and feed it a substance called royal jelly secreted from a small gland in their little worker heads-its near the antennae- to convert a sister who would have otherwise been destined to be a worker now into a royal queen.  A queen cell forms.  It take almost two weeks for a queen cell (supersedure or swarm either one) to develop into and emerge as a new queen.  This queen is not fertile.  She must then take a mating flight.  She flies to a local drone mating field, and flies high and fast and the drone that can best keep up flying with her mates her.  He then promptly explodes and dies in mid-air; his body parts fall back to the ground! (Nature can be cruel!)

The mated queen flies back to the hive and begins to lay eggs. The hive is again happy.  Now, all of this presupposes that a) one of the 4 supersedure cells emerges ok as a queen-the others will be stung to death by her to prevent her being unseated from her new throne, b) there are existing drone mating fields with drones waiting to mate, c) a mating occurs and she returns to the hive.  Remember for drones or queens or workers to fly, the temperature must be at least 50F according to the text books.  (Warm enough for the thorax muscles to warm-up and be able to innervate and fly those wings!)

The weather forecast for the next five days does not look good.  This stinks! It is to be in the upper 20sF or low 30sF at night and in the low to mid 50'sF during the day, and with a lot of wind, 15-25 mph each day.  Rain on two of the days.

So, it's a waiting game again.  Patience is required on the part of the beekeeper.  Nature cannot be rushed.  I have a few options. 1) Let the supersedure cells emerge and hope the weather breaks so that the queen and drones can fly and find one another to successfully mate.  2) Quickly order a new queen to install, or 3) If Trevor's hive has a healthy queen, I can combine our two hives in a special way so that mine would be accepted by his.  But, he would need to agree to want to do this.  What to do?

I feel so down.  In my 7 years of beekeeping, I've never had an installed queen not take to a hive!  What happened?!  (I've also never installed to have a snow storm hit two days later either!)  The fact that there are four supersedure cells suggests she likely did come out of the queen cage successfully and attempted to start laying eggs ok, but then last week's snow storm and extreme cold temperatures were too much for the cluster to keep up with to keep her warm.  She succumbed.  Does that mean any queens resulting from her supersedure cell eggs might also be too weak for this area? What to do?

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