New queen arrives in the post
Yesterday I had a rather nervous postman ring my doorbell with a package that had the words 'LIVE BEES IN TRANSIT' emblazoned across the top. He handed it over gingerly and told me he had taken care to keep them upright on his morning's post round. I could tell he was bursting with curiosity as to why I wanted bees in the post as this was his first ever bee-mail encounter In fact, bees are the only livestock that can be sent by Royal Mail. They stopped putting cattle and sheep through the postal system awhile ago.
The reason for getting a new queen is that I have a hunch, confirmed by a few beeks I've spoken to, that the root of my swarm issues is that I could have an old queen who is no longer sending out the right pheromones. In cases like this, and other instances where bees are aggressive, it's advised to requeen the colony as the whole temperament of a colony is dictated by the queen.
So, I got a new queen on order from BS Honeybees. I decided to go for a buckfast variety as she is renowned for being calm and in turn breeding calm bees. So, when she arrived yesterday I snipped opened the packaging to find her inside a queen cage with a few attendants to feed her during her journey. Queens in the bee world don't feed themselves at al, their minions do it for them.
BS Honeybees put an A4 guide in the package too explaining the step-by-step process to introducing a queen to the hive (very useful and clear information - that basically said place queen in dark place, squish old queen, wait 24 hours and introduce new queen).
So, the next step was placing her royal highness and entourage in a dark, warm place. I put her in the cabinet of the downstairs bathroom with the cabinet door open to allow air in. I closed the bathroom door and placed a note on the outside with 'Careful, there's a queen in the loo' for my husband to find when he got home from work later as I was going to be out.
Then I had to go to the hive and behead the old queen. I was feeling nervous about this task because I know how elusive she is, made even worse by the fact that the mark on her back has rubbed off. I lifted the roof of the Beehaus and went in the left side to find her (the right side is queenless with a queen cell that should pop out a queen early next week). As I was inspecting the second or third frame I was so disappointed to find queen cells. Why were they thinking of swarming AGAIN after I'd just carried out a hive manipulation??? There were a few more queen cells on some of the other frames but still no queen. At this point I was getting anxious as I knew I couldn't introduce a new queen if the old one is still there.
I decided to close up and go in for a cup of tea while I had a think. Whilst sipping tea I tried to remember if I saw any eggs - even if you can't find the queen, if you spot eggs that is a sure sign that she is there. I really couldn't remember seeing any which means that if there are no eggs, there is no queen.
So, I went back and sure enough I spotted small larvae (laid about 3 days ago) but couldn't spot a single egg. That means this colony is queenless, surely. How did she die then? Perhaps on her swarming flight she tried to leave the hive and then dropped to the ground and got lost on account of her wings being clipped.
I was feeling pretty pleased that I could put my spanking new Buckfast queen in tomorrow and all will be well. She has been marked already with a big green splodge - surely a good omen as green's my favourite colour. But then on a train journey into London yesterday afternoon for a work event, I was googling queen bees and read that the queen may stop laying and eating a few days before swarming to make her more mobile in flight. Arrrrggggghhhh - does that mean that a slimmed down version of her is still in there??
I hatched another plan together with fellow beekeeper Daniel who was having an email conversation with me on the train and has been a massive help. I won't go into all the details but essentially I was going to transfer some of the frames over to the other side of the hive, leaving just a few frames of brood and young bees on the side I was going to introduce the new queen in to.
So at midday today, having checked that the queen was still alright in the loo, I went out to do the manipulation. I couldn't spot the old queen again and this time I saw that two emergency queen cells had appeared at a bottom of one of the frames where the young larvae were, which is another strong indication that she isn't there as the bees are attempting to make a new queen. Either way, I decided to persevere with the 'mini hive' idea on the one side and then transfer the remaining frames and bees to the other side. You do this by shaking the bees into the hive - so hold the top of the frame and give it a sharp bang of your wrist. The bees then drop down and the ones that cling to the frame are the young bees. So I made up the mini hive of three 'shaken' frames with young bees and a frame of stores. With that done I closed up to go get the queen out the loo.
Now this was another ordeal in itself as you have to get the bees out of the cage but leave her inside it. They suggest you do this inside a clear bag - let them loose inside and then gently pick her up and put her back in. Sounds easy in theory! But in fact it wasn't that hard at all and I also did it gloveless. Yay me.
So, with the queen in the cage I sprayed her with a sugar solution. This was in the guide too - apparently as the bees eat the sugar off her and the cage she's in, it helps spread her pheromones through the hive. So, as I went out the kitchen door, I quickly put on my gloves and headed to the hive. I opened it up and was gently wedging her cage between two frames when I felt a bee buzzing near my cheek. I HADN'T ZIPPED THE HOOD ON MY BEESUIT. There was nothing I could do until I got the queen in so if I got stung on the face again, I'd be going on my work trip to Boston tomorrow as the elephant man. I'm sure none of you will forget how I looked earlier in the year with a sting to the face.
But nothing happened and she was safely inside the hive. I then gave the bees a feeder full of sugar syrup - the theory is that it's a good idea to introduce a new queen when there is a honey flow as it distracts them from her. So, with that all closed up I breathed a small sigh of relief.
My next task is to go back into the hive tomorrow morning before I jet off and remove the seal on the side. The bees will then take 2 to 3 days to eat through the fondant that separates them from her. By the time I'm back on Thursday I should hopefully come back to a laying queen and a calm, happy bee family.
In the best case scenario, the queen will be accepted and start laying and on the other side, the virgin queen will emerge and she'll go on her mating flight and then start laying too. The worst case scenario is that the bees reject and kill the new queen and the bees on the other side swarm off with the virgin queen. I'm praying to the bee gods that it's the former. Surely I'm due some good luck considering the trying year I've had so far!
Meanwhile, on a positive note, the tree bees are going like the clappers. Considering that they were a tiny swarm that landed in my bait hive in May, they are certainly growing and the queen is laying very well. I had a brief look but couldn't spot her either. I've had enough of queen searching for while, so I'll leave that task of marking her to another time.
Not sure whether they'll expand to produce honey this year, but maybe those same bee gods will smile down on me too. It would bee nice :)