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A hard bee keeping lesson

June 5, 2011

A few weeks ago I noticed there were heaps of dead bees around the hive. I wondered if this was the natural coming into winter thing where the bees chase all the drones out of the hive so they don’t have to feed them through the winter. I looked up websites and read my book and most seemed to talk about it being fairly normal. Except ofcourse that the ‘normal’ amount of dead bees is not mentioned anywhere.

I then started noticing very little activity around the hive. Each day I saw less and less bees. I have been away travelling for work most days over the last couple of weeks so I have not been keeping a very close eye on them either. Bad bee parent. I had been getting worried though. Luckily Russell was back from his holiday and he called to say hello. When I mentioned how few bees I had flying into and out of the hive, and the fact that we only got 7 kilos of honey, he got really worried and told me to try and order a new queen straight away. I rang the queen breeder he normally uses in NSW but they had already closed for the winter and didn’t think I would have any luck finding a queen. The good thing about Australia being such a big country, is that it is warmer up in Queensland than it is here in Sydney and I found a kind queen breeder who was willing to send me one in the post quick haste.

What a strange thing it is to get a live bee in the mail! When I opened the packed and carefully pulled out the cardboard wrapping, it was empty. Oh dear I though, does that mean that the bees are just flying around in the bag and I have to get them out by hand?! Luckily not. They were in a little plastic cage. They send a few worker bees with the queen so they can feed her and look after her for the journey. Isn’t that sweet and rather regal? Probably the only actual regal part of her life if the truth be told as she is more of a slave to the hive than its ruler.

Russell came over yesterday and we did a thorough hive inspection. It was immediately clear that something was really wrong in my hive. The top box looked a bit mouldy and there were some strange-looking things on some of the frames. There were very few bees and no queen in sight. It looked like it had been many weeks since the hive had a queen and really it was a surprise that any of them had survived so long. I feel like those poor dedicated bees who remained deserved a medal or something for sheer perseverance. There were lots of cells with dead pupae which was also really strange to see (and rather disgusting). Good thing the new queen had arrived as the hive would not have survived many more days without her.

As well as needing the new queen, we thought we also needed some more bees. Apparently you cannot tell which bees are nurse bees that look after the young, just by looking at the bees. The sad state of my bee population meant that there was a good chance that there were no nurse bees left at all. Russell kindly agreed to give me some brood and bees from his hive to help kick start mine back into life. So we had to drive back to his place to pick up some bees. His hive was teeming with bees. Big, fat, happy looking bees. I felt even more of a failure when I saw his healthy hive. You will remember that the last time I saw his hive he was giving us a lesson in honey extracting. All of his frames were more than 100% full of honey and he got about 70kg of honey from his hive that time. Well, just about three months later his hive is once again more than full of honey and he is about to do another honey extraction. The queen in his hive is the sister queen to my old queen so it is not an issue of queen age or breed that can explain the difference. He thought the most likely explanation is that I had a bit of a dud queen, which apparently happens. But he also said that nobody knows for sure and sometimes highly experienced bee keepers open up their hives and find that all the bees have gone or died. Not sure if he was just telling me that to make me feel less bad about my beekeeping skills (lack thereof). I am pretty sure now that the queen had probably aldready gone at the time we did our honey extraction (about a month ago). There were some larvae present which indicated that she had been there a couple of weeks before. But there wasn’t much in the way of capped brood cells now that I think back on it.

His hive was so full that we struggled to find two frames that had some capped brood to take back with me. We popped the two frames into one of my bee boxes and fashioned a temporary base and lid out of cardboard and sticky tape for the journey. I carefully put them in the boot and hoped the cardboard would hold for the journey home. I was anxious about having a horde of bees flying around my car while I was driving. Soon after I left Russell’s place I felt a little stirring around the back of my neck. “Just a bit of my hair coming out of the pony tail” I thought to myself. But no, it was a bee. Luckily I saw it a few seconds before I was due to stop at some traffic lights. I stopped and I managed to shoo it out of the window. Then I spent an anxious few minutes wondering if it was the first of many bees or just one stray one that had followed me into my car. I had the added stress of rushing to get home before it was totally dark as I knew I had to get those frames and bees into my hive that night. I realised when I was nearly home that I had my toes curled and clenched the whole way home!

No more bees in the car and I managed to get the bees into the hive with no drama. This morning there were quite a few happy looking bees buzzing around which made me feel happy and more hopeful that my hive will survive. I gave the bees most of the day to settle into their new home and late in the afternoon I put the queen’s cage into the hive. The bees will apparently eat out the candy plug that is in the spout like thing you can see in the picture. This gives the bees time to get used to the smell of the new queen before she emerges and makes them more likely to accept her. I have to wait patiently for a couple of weeks before I can open the hive to see if the queen has made her way out of the cage successfully and if she is laying eggs and getting on with the job. Keep your fingers crossed for me. You know my toes will be for sure!

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011 6:08 AM

    That is very sad news about your old queen – glad you got it figured out before it was a total catastrophe. I always thought that if the queen died, one of the young queens grew to take her place? Obviously that’s not the case, but if not, why do they have young baby queens in the wings ready to go?

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      June 6, 2011 8:24 AM

      Normally the worker bees will start laying eggs in an attempt to grow their own queen (they don’t really have young queens around unless they are planning to swarm or replace the queen). For some reason my bees didn’t do that. I wonder if it was that super cold week that we had that could have caused all those bees to die. Once they lost so many bees the hive would have been under stress and really struggling to cope. Hence the mould, dead pupae, and possible chalk brood (my new suspicion after looking at photos on the internet) – all signs of a hive in stress. I don’t think we are out of the woods as yet. I went out there this morning and there were no bees flying around. It was still pretty cold so I am hoping that once the day warms up a bit I will see some more activity.

  2. June 6, 2011 9:06 PM

    Oh I hope it all works out! Long live the queen!

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      June 9, 2011 4:33 PM

      Me too…I am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that it all works out.

  3. June 10, 2011 7:48 PM

    Good luck with your hive and to the new queen. Let’s hope she “ascends to the throne” without any problems 🙂

  4. June 13, 2011 8:35 AM

    Oh wow this is just fascinating! More bee posts please, anxiously waiting to hear how it’s all going!

  5. June 13, 2011 11:07 AM

    Lovely! When you first started keeping bees I remember reading about your initial experience . As mentioned before, I’m absolutely terrified of bees, but this story is fascinating to read. Perhaps, as I continue to read your blog to learn about them, I will become less terrified.

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      June 13, 2011 6:29 PM

      I totally understand. I am terrified of flying creatures (luckily bees don’t have highly visible wings – I think it is the flapping wings that I have a problem with). Even writing that gives me the shivers so I can certainly sympathise with your fear and would not try to dismiss it.

  6. Caitlan permalink
    June 30, 2011 11:17 AM

    Did the queen bee survive??

  7. September 7, 2011 9:24 PM

    How is the hive going, Spice? Bees fascinate me at the moment but the idea of beekeeping seems so daunting. I really hope your bees made a comeback, survived the winter and are out there gathering pollen in the spring blossoms for you to enjoy. My fingers are crossed!

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      September 9, 2011 1:47 PM

      The sad news is that my bees are not doing too well. I noticed a dramatic drop in the number of bees buzzing around the hive a few weeks ago and have been a bit too disheartened to open up the hive and have a look to see what has gone wrong. The new queen must not have survived afterall. And I am worried that the spot I have the hive in has turned out to be a rather damp and cold spot in winter. The sun does not reach it until early afternoon which I am sure must make a big difference to the bees. I have been urging spring along and hoping that warmer weather would help them recover. I need to order another queen and get some more bees from my friend. Also need to speak to my neighbour to make sure that he has not been spraying his garden and inadvertently killing my poor bees. I am feeling like quite a failure as a bee keeper at the moment.

      • September 9, 2011 9:01 PM

        Not a failure at all…a caring novice who is learning as she goes. I take my hat off to you for even starting down this path, that takes guts. Hopefully a change of location to a sunnier spot and a new queen will see them kick into action over the spring/summer months. Keep at it, you’ve put a lot of effort in and the rewards will surely be on their way soon.. keep us updated, won’t you?

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