I like to think I know what insects are doing after about 23 years of spending a career as a Ph.D. Entomologist. True, I’ve been beekeeping now for only about 7 of those 23 years, but I’ve worked with social insects (ants, termites, bees and wasps of all sorts) in a variety of settings, and I like to at least think I can anticipate their behavior.
What always interests me is how the insects throw you a curve ball sometimes, and do not read the books or literature; it keeps it very interesting. I learn something new every season. And, it’s never ever dull.
(This is also a reason to keep two hives and not one if you are new to beekeeping. Each hive will have its own separate personality - dependent on the queen - and can be very different from the other. And, then there is the matter of potentially losing a queen and the whole hive collapsing as a result. Good to have a back-up!)
When I’m truly stumped, I go to someone with more experience than I. For beekeeping, that is usually an older beekeeper who has done this for about 40-50 years! This guy never wears gloves or a beesuit; he does use a veil and smoke, but he seldom gets stung at any time of the year or season! I’ve personally nicknamed him the “beewhisperer.” When he does happen to get stung, he’s grateful, in that bee stings (if you are not in that 1% of the population that has anaphylactic reactions) mount a wonderful immune response that is known to assist with a host of ailments, including: arthritis, MS and other diseases; they are even thought to help prevent cancer. (A future blog will have to address the medical benefits of the hive, from honey and pollen to stings!)
So, since I’ve been concerned about what would happen in my hive with this really bizarre cold weather we have had, I called the guy.
Rule no. 1 in beekeeping: Know your limitations! Never be unwilling or afraid to ask for help! There are no dumb questions. All beekeepers are generally eager to share their advice and experience.
I explained the situation to him. In a nutshell (both for review and for those of you who have sped read the blog to date…), I installed the hive package and queen on Saturday, March 23rd. (The bees installed were from Georgia; but, I live in Western Maryland; these Southern belle bees were no doubt shocked.) On Monday, March 25th, we had had a late season and very unusual snowstorm. Temperatures dropped into the low 20F’s at night and got up to only the upper 30F’s during the day. There was also a vicious North wind blowing about 10-25 mph. This weather lingered for a week. On the following Saturday March 30th, I opened the hive to discover the queen was out of her queen cage, but I saw no sign of her. There was also no evidence of her presence such as eggs or larvae (called brood).
What to my horror I’d seen instead, were 4-5 supersedure queen cells! These are emergency queen cells and typically only made when the queen has died or is on her way out. I assumed the worse. Now you, the reader, are caught up.
Thus, my call to the wise old beekeeper. I asked him, “do I need to buy a new queen immediately and have her shipped overnight? Or do you think the supersedure cells will emerge ok and a new queen be developed? Or should I combine this now weakened hive with the healthy stronger hive that does have a queen who emerged.”
(I have on purpose failed to mention that fellow beekeeper Trevor’s hive has a queen! I’ve not mentioned this mostly because I’m very competitive and was so appalled and embarassed that mine would die and that his would survive; I’ve been doing this for 7 years and he is a brand new beekeeper! Ok. I admit it! I was really bummed! He of course was convinced his superior beekeeping skill and recent classroom learning
“Hmmm”, the old beekeeper said with his drawl and brought me back to my senses-he hails from Georgia himself, and I could just picture him scratching his beard. "Well, it’s hard to say precisely, but I’ll bet you she’s still in there and is ok." “Really?”, I asked incredulously.
“You say you got her from Georgia?” “ Yes sir,” I replied. “ Well, there’s been times I’ve seen it where they are disturbed or upset and just make supersedure cells to make supersedure cells," he said, with some authority provided by experience. “Even if the queen is ok,” I asked? "Well, yes, they are from Georgia, and you’ve put them in a snow storm and cold weather in Maryland, and they’re just perturbed and upset," he said.
“Perturbed and upset,” I echoed into the receiver.
“So, I’d say the queen left the queen cage successfully, and laid a few eggs before the temperature fell. The workers have fed those larvae royal jelly and they are now pupating as presumptive emergency queens on the ready. The problem is that they wouldn’t be ready in time to save the hive likely if your queen really is gone. Once they emerge, they need about 12-14 days to become reproductively competent and take their mating flight. The problem is that there are no drones out there to mate with. It’s been too cold. You’d need to order a new queen to save the hive. You could combine it with the other good hive, but I have 100 queens on order ready for purchase this next week. Why not check your hive this weekend, when the weather is good, and tell me what you find. But, again, I’d not be surprised if she’s in there!”
“Oh, thank you so much, sir!,” I hung up in a much happier frame of mind. And, suddenly, I just had a good feeling he’d be right and all would be well with my hive after all.
Now, my interest is really picqued! Do you suppose she has survived and is really in there? It’s too cold to find out today! I can’t wait for a warm day (hopefully tomorrow?) to see.