The queen is dead.
Long live the queen.
Except that queen’s almost certainly met her demise by now too.
So, why bother buying a new queen?
Good question, and one that requires a lengthy explanation.
Before you read on, please keep in mind I’m not a beekeeping expert. (I’m not even sure I qualify as a beekeeper yet.) If you’re truly interested in the subject, I suggest you check out a book from your local library.
But this is what I understand from what I’ve read and heard.
When a queen dies, a beekeeper can do one of two things.
S/he can allow the hive to do their thing and raise a new queen from an emergency queen cell. Doing this relinquishes all control over the type of queen that is raised and means accepting that the new queen may not be a strong one since she was raised in a crisis and not as a planned supersedure.
The difference between the two may seem small, but it’s important because a supersedure cell queen was raised from the start to be a queen in a cell designed for queen rearing. An emergency queen is raised in a normal cell that’s been enlarged, sometimes resulting in smaller queens.
The other option is possible only if the beekeeper catches the situation in time. S/he can order a new queen, introduce her, and hope the hive accepts her.
They might, or they might not, for a variety of reasons.
If they’ve started emergency queen cells by the time the new queen arrives, they probably won’t accept her.
If they’re feeling testy for whatever reason — say, for example, because the weather keeps fluctuating between 70* (like today) and snow (as forecast for Monday) — they may not feel like playing nice with a new queen. Hives aren’t overly welcoming to new queens in the best of times, and if you add in any additional stressors, all bets are off.
If the hive has gone too long without a queen, and workers have begun laying eggs, you might be able to get them to accept the new queen, but the process is more complicated.
You didn’t know workers could lay eggs? Generally they can’t because a strong queen’s pheromones will suppress workers’ ovaries. However, if the queen is weak — or dead like ours — workers can and will lay eggs. Since these workers are unmated, all offspring will be drones. You remember drones. They’re the male bees, the ones who do nothing but eat and fly out to try to mate with queens.
Some say the workers lay eggs in a desperate, hopeless effort to raise a new queen, but no one really knows the minds of the bees.
In a beekeeper’s mind though, laying workers are nothing but trouble.
Now you can understand the saga of our deceased queen.
In a previous post, I mentioned The Engineer always checked the dead bees we cleared from the hive this winter to be sure the queen wasn’t one of them.
About three weeks ago, she was.
So we had a look at the hive, going through all three boxes to see what was happening. There was lots of honey, a fair amount of bees, but no eggs, and therefore no supercedure or emergency queen cells.
After speaking to our bee gurus (we now have two), we discovered that we should be able to requeen the hive because the workers probably wouldn’t be laying this early in the season.
The problem was there were no queens available until 10 April. We again consulted bee guru #2 who thought we’d be okay.
We ordered a queen, picked her up Tuesday, and received very specific instructions on how to introduce her. (Remember, this weather makes the bees cranky too.)
On arriving home, we opened the hive to find drone cells.
This was bad news.
I have to emphasize this doesn’t mean our gurus’ advice was wrong. It’s just — repeat after me — no one knows the minds of bees.
Still, it was bad news.
I’d read up a bit on queenless hives, and generally the consensus was once the workers start laying, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to stop them. And if you can’t stop them, the hive will kill any queen you try to introduce.
Yeah. Bees are ruthless that way.
I won’t go into detail on the methods a beekeeper can use to try to introduce a queen into a hive with laying workers except to say due to several factors, none of them are available to us.
All we could think to do was put her into the hive, and let nature take its course.
We have a friend who’s getting a new package of bees in a few weeks. If we still have any bees left by the time her bees settle in, we’ll give them to her. Bees from a hive with laying workers can be introduced into a hive with strong, laying queen (a “queenright hive”) because the laying queen’s pheromones will suppress the laying workers.
By that time, though, our bees may be dead. They are winter bees, which means they’ve been alive a long time and, in the normal course of things, would be dying off as they are replaced by new bees.
It’s likely we’ll have to buy another nuc this year (if we can find one).
Meanwhile, I’m praying for a miracle (because no one knows the minds of bees). Maybe they’ll go against all reasonable expectations and accept her.
The bright side in this year’s adventures is we now have drawn comb, which will give any future hive a head start on the season. And we have plenty of honey if they come up short for the winter.