Early Spring and Queenless
By Bill Miller
Webmaster Note: Bill is the past President of the Wiregrass Beekeepers Association, a member of the ABA Board of Direcors and is an EAS certified Master Beekeeper.
It’s early Spring, and you open up what appears to be one of your strongest hives. At first, you are impressed by the sheer number of adult bees, but as you pull a few frames, you begin to wonder where all the brood is. You pull a few more frames, and you notice vast stretches of empty comb that looks all set to receive eggs – but no eggs or larvae are to be found anywhere. The most likely explanation: your colony is queenless. What’s more, being as it is early Spring, commercial queens aren’t available.
The classic test to prove your colony queenless is to get a frame with eggs from another colony, and stick that in your suspect hive. Look again a few days later, and if your hive was queenless, you will find emergency queen cells on that frame. Now you have some decisions to make.
Probably the simplest alternative is to combine your queenless colony with a known queenright colony. Select one of the colonies to be the bottom colony (it doesn’t matter which one), take off its inner and outer covers, and put a single sheet of newspaper over the open colony. Punch one or two small holes in the newspaper that are roughly centered. Next, put the other colony on top of the newspaper. I’ve included a sketch to show what you should have at this point. You are done for the moment.
The next day, you should find a pile of newspaper bits in front of the combined hive (the mess is biodegradable). While the bees have chewed through the newspaper to join the colonies, the paper has done its job of letting the pheromones from the two colonies intermingle so the bees think of themselves as one big colony. That colony is now queenright. Leave it alone for at least a week, but the later the large colony can be split into smaller colonies using normal splitting procedures.
While the combining method of handling a queenless colony is as nearly surefire as anything in beekeeping, it will reduce your colony count and if your colonies are both many boxes tall, you run the risk of building an unworkably high colony.
For those who wish to go a different route, you can let the queen cells from the frame of eggs you introduced develop into queens. However, if you go that route, you have to keep in mind that the adult bees in your queenless colony are all getting older. By the time the new queen is ready to start laying eggs, the minimum age of the adult bees in the colony will be 21 days, and they will be rapidly becoming forager bees. You will need to make sure your colony has young nurse bees.
To get the young nurse bees, I put a frame of at least 50% capped brood into the queenless colony every week for 3 weeks. I get these frames from my other colonies, and I am careful not to move the other colony’s queen into the queenless colony (one queenless colony at a time is bad enough). The result will be proper young nurse bees to tend the larvae of the new queen, and thus get the colony back on track.
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