The queen cells had been torn down. A worker crawled out of a gaping hole in the side of a cell as I wondered who had given the order – a new queen or rebel workers? The old queen, Melissa, had disappeared in early June. Her last public appearance (to my mother) had been just before the May bank holiday. A week later she was mysteriously gone and a single, small queen cell on the middle of the frame – most likely an emergency cell or supersedure – had been left in her place.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the workers had decided to supersede the queen. She was going into her third year and had been struggling to build up the colony after winter. This may have been because the spring was wet and cold, although I had constantly fed and kept the hive clean and warm, or it may have been due to nosema, because both hives had some spotting on the entrance coming out of winter. However, both hives had been treated accordingly with good husbandry and any sign of disease had been very brief and long since passed.
All that being said, the fate of mine and Emily’s longest-standing colony had rested in a single, rather stunted, queen cell. It was like living on a knife edge for the next three weeks as I visited the apiary daily to feed the hives during a month of unsettled weather and patiently waited for the new queen to emerge and mate.
The June gap was very poor this year, in our area at least, and the feeders were drained dry of syrup each day with desperate tongues poking out below the rim at the bottom. On the last Monday in June the weather was fair for an inspection. Peppermint’s colony had been growing steadily stronger and the queen had been spotted and laying well. As all seemed fine in our larger hive, I decided to check the nuc colony first and find out whether Melissa’s heir had emerged.
The bees were content inside the nuc. They were purring. Kitten bees. I went forwards and backwards through the nuc to inspect each frame twice. The queen cell was gone, but there was no sign of a new queen or brood. Every frame was packed full of honey on both sides. If a new queen was present and if she had mated successfully, she had nowhere to lay. Frame by frame, I carefully moved the nuc colony into a full-sized hive then closed up and fed syrup to help the bees draw out fresh comb on the rest of the frames.
Peppermint’s colony was starting work on a super and I was proud of their progress after a slow start in spring. Going through the frames forwards and backwards, I couldn’t find the queen. The bees were as good as gold and shiny eggs at the bottom of cells suggested the presence of a queen at least three days ago. However, I did find four queen cells across two frames and one was still unsealed. A rainy Saturday had delayed an inspection till Monday – had I just missed Peppermint flying off in a swarm by a couple of days? I went forwards and backwards again through the frames in the hope of finding her and making an artificial swarm in the nuc that was now conveniently empty. The queen was nowhere to be found, although I could see the nest had doubled in size since my last visit a week ago. Perhaps it was supersedure despite Peppermint being a young queen in her second year? She too had been quite slow to build up the nest in spring.
Swarm or supersedure: there was little point in worrying about it as it wouldn’t change anything. I decided to take out a frame with two of the queen cells and put it into my other hive. This might help prevent further swarming, if this was the case, in Peppermint’s colony and it might possibly help Melissa’s colony, if queenless, to requeen.
The next day I went back to the apiary to see whether Melissa’s workers had accepted the queen cells. If Emily and I were to lose our longest line of queens then I wanted to know for sure. The cells had been torn down suggesting that Melissa had left an heir or that the workers hadn’t been queenless for long enough to accept the new queens. It can sometimes take a new queen almost a month or more to get into her stride. This had certainly been the case with Melissa after she emerged in summer of 2014. I had been patient with both hives since March and with the colonies only now getting on their feet, I could be patient a little longer.
It was a happy day in early July when I finally saw Melissa’s heir. A healthy patch of brood and eggs heralded her appearance when I saw her climbing across the comb. A long dark abdomen sprinkled in light gingery stars, she was very pretty. I couldn’t get a picture while holding the frame and so I put her carefully back inside the hive and closed up. After discussing with Emily, we decided to break the tradition of names inspired by essential oils and call the queen Patience because the bees had needed a lot of patience this year. And it seemed they would need to be patient a while longer.
The following Saturday my mum, Ronnie, came to help with the inspection and to take a picture of the new queen. I went slowly through the small hive – it wasn’t difficult as the nest was still only five to six frames strong – and couldn’t find the queen, which was disappointing with my mum poised to take a photo. We smoked and cleared the bees from each frame looking through the hive again, and still no Patience although I did see eggs, larvae and sealed brood. I closed up the hive.
Seven days later, yesterday in fact, I opened the hive again and this time found a cluster of queen cells in the middle of the frame. I was disappointed. The cells looked like emergency cells made and sealed very quickly, because they had certainly not been on the frames the week before. What had happened to Patience? How had she disappeared, or why had she failed, barely a month after she had emerged? I felt disappointed for my bees too. They had persevered to recover after spring and I had felt so pleased for them when I had seen Patience on the comb and the brood nest start to grow. But worrying would again change nothing. I let Thomas remove one of the queen cells at John Chapple’s request for a beginner’s hive which had gone queenless. I was glad at least to give one of our lovely line of queens to another hive.
Inside Peppermint’s hive all was well. This week I had a small gathering around the hive of familiar and new beekeepers. Peppermint’s heir was spotted climbing over a frame and I quickly caged her to do some manipulations to the hive, which included taking a frame of brood and a frame of honey to donate to Patience’s former colony. I hoped this would help to sustain the queenless colony while waiting for a new queen to emerge.
I could have marked the new queen, but I had just recovered from a small operation and was starting to feel like I had done enough beekeeping for the day. As I closed the hive, I decided to pass on Patience’s name to Peppermint’s daughter. It is too good a name to waste and it seems both myself and the bees will need a little more patience before the hives can be ready for winter.
Inbetween hive inspections there has on occasion been time for cake for both beekeepers…
… and bees.
I’ve enjoyed every moment spent with my bees in spite of the challenges this season, though I’ve spent less time blogging about the bees in favour of spending time in the garden. That’s a story for another post.