Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Separation Anxiety

One of my girls visits blooming spearmint.
These photos were taken with my iPhone with a macro lens.

Bee-ing away from my bees for 7 summer weeks created some separation anxiety for me. The concept of sustainable beekeeping would have had me leaving those hives alone and letting the queens handle whatever may come, but hands off is easier said than done. I am still too new a beekeeper not to worry. My friend Susan did check on the hives twice while I was gone and I got thorough reports of what she saw.  I knew before I returned to Ohio that generally, Hives 1, 2 and 4 were doing well and that honey awaited harvesting.  I also knew that Hive 3 was weak. This is one of the hives that had gone queenless in May and I knew from the last time I inspected in in mid-June that there were too many drones and not enough workers. When Susan took her first look for me, she found so little brood and so many drones that we knew we had a laying worker.


The queen is the only fertile bee in the hive.  When she takes her mating flight, she stores all the sperm she needs for life.  Worker bees are sterile females; they don't mate and they can't repopulate a hive in a useful way.  Every so often, however, one of them decides to lay eggs.  Since she is sterile, no good will come of this. The eggs are not fertile. The nurse bees care for the eggs as though they had been laid by the queen but since these are incomplete eggs, the only kind of bee they can produce are drones (males).  Drones have one job, to fertilize a queen. They don't scout. They don't bring in nectar or pollen. They don't take care of brood. They eat stored honey.  In other words, they are useless to their colony. 

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE WEAK HIVE the brood that had been developing when there was a good queen all emerged on schedule.  Without a queen to lay 1,000 eggs every day, with subsequent emergence of 1,000 new workers every day, the hive became weak.  At some point, the laying worker kicked in, the colony's population of workers aged and died (a natural, expected progression) and the colony was doomed.  

I returned to Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday night found me in the COBA beeyard at Ohio State.  I hadn't looked in the hive yet, but I knew what I would find and I needed advice.  We beekeepers know that if you ask two beekeepers for advice you will get at least three answers.  I asked three beekeepers for advice, got the expected surplus of ideas and mentally cut and pasted my plan. As soon as I had a chance to look in that hive, I found precious little capped brood, no honey stores and a couple of hundred bees.  A healthy hive would have as many as 60,000 bees by now.  

In June, I left Hive 3 with four hive bodies (boxes) just to be sure they wouldn't get too crowded if the colony prospered.  I found that one super had not been developed at all. I removed it. My plan was to add the weak boxes to the top of my strongest colony, Hive 1, the swarm hive. I laid a sheet of newspaper over the top of the uppermost box in Hive 1 and stacked the weak hive on top.  The newspaper trick is to create a fragile barrier that allows the bees from both colonies to adjust to each other.  Without it, the strong hive's guard bees would kill the weak hive's bees.  The barrier would hold for maybe three days, after which the Hive 1 bees would find, and kill, the egg laying worker and clean up any problems in the frames of the weak hive.  As I inspected the frames, I saw a few wax moths, a very few tiny wax worms (bad because they destroy the comb--we weren't there, yet), a scattering of hive beetles and something I am guessing was chalkbrood, a fungus. The bees in a strong hive can keep these problems under control.  A weak colony can't defend the hive. 

One week after combining the hives, I will reassemble Hive 3 in its former location. Because it is so late in the summer, time is not on my side for the bees to create a new queen from the eggs of one of the sister hives. I will buy an Ohio queen and place her in the reorganized hive box with frames of capped brood from my three other hives.  The new queen will start laying 1,000 eggs every day and the borrowed brood will soon emerge, now workers belonging to Hive 3. With luck, I will have a small, but strong, colony to overwinter in a nuc.  We'll see how this turns out.

She was too busy to notice the camera which was only 1/2" away.


The next blog entry will be all about the honey harvest that took place Sunday. Stay tuned for tales of mayhem, carnage and lots of sweet, sticky stuff.


2012   4
2011  13

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