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When the weak become strong

I write this with one eye swollen shut. My neck is as wide as my ears, and I look a lot like a football player, right down to the eye black. And no, I’m not allergic to bee stings: this is normal. I had no labored breathing, weakness in the knees, or rapid heart. And all the stings on my hands disappeared in an instant.

It irritates me, though, because the swollen eye makes me feel like I’ve been crying. But I haven’t been. As a matter of fact, things went especially well with the bees today.

Pesticide kill

Earlier this year, my apiary suffered a pesticide kill. It was during the first weeks of spring when the flowering trees were in full bloom. Flowering plum, cherry, crabapple—whatever—they were all at their pink and white perfection when someone—somewhere—unloaded the sprayer.

I had inspected all my hives the day before and they were great. But by the next morning, each hive had a large dead pile beneath the entrance. Only one thing will do that so fast. I was miffed.

Long story short, I lost two hives completely and the rest were greatly weakened. Two more lost their queen. I didn’t write about it then because sometimes I can’t; sometimes I have to come to terms first, write later. These were the hives on which I had planned to test the various new comb honey supers, but now they would not be strong enough in time.

A lack of queens

Even though I normally avoid buying queens, under the circumstances, I decided I had to. But when I tried to order, everyone was sold out (in early spring that is no surprise). I finally put in an order for three queens to be delivered the first of June, but I had to make due for weeks until then.

I made splits to force the bees to build queens and I caught a number of swarms. When it was almost time for my queens to arrive, I was told they couldn’t ship on time because of the heat wave in California. I began to worry about laying workers, so I decided to play musical queens.

I took a queen from one hive, and introduced her into another. Once released, I let her lay for three or four days and then moved her again. The “red queen”—my only marked queen—was moved four times before she found a permanent home in the top-bar hive. Other queens were moved around as well: I was trying to keep open worker brood in as many hives as possible so laying workers wouldn’t get started.

Surprising results

After a two-month wait, my queens finally arrived in yesterday’s mail. They were perfect. So off I went to do a queen evaluation: who had one and who didn’t was the most pressing question.

My husband is away for a couple days, and when I’m working the bees and no one else is home, he asks me to be extra careful. So I went above and beyond what I usually do. I wore gloves, leg warmers, a piece of duct tape to keep the veil off my face. I didn’t want him chiding me for being careless, so I did everything I could think of except—apparently—zipping the suit under my chin.

The first few hives were fine. In fact, I couldn’t believe I had done so well. Wherever I had left the red queen, she had laid enough eggs for the hive to raise a queen on their own. She left an amazing trail of new queens behind her, each with a rock-solid brood pattern. Way to go, queenie. I was beginning to realize I didn’t need those expensive California girls.

But the next one up, hive number seven, was hot. They rammed my veil, butted into my suit, and made a terrifying racket. Queenless, I thought. A millisecond later I was nailed on either side of my neck and below my right eye. “What the . . .,“ I said as I dropped the tool and fled. Only when I was fifty feet away did I realize my veil wasn’t zipped. So stupid. I had only myself to blame. A few minutes and a dozen stings later, I had myself back together, more or less, although I could feel my face swelling by the second.

After losing two queens to pesticides and making five early splits, I had started the season with five laying queens in a dozen hives—seven queens short. But now (two months later) I am twelve for twelve. All the queen manipulations had been successful, and my idea of moving a queen from hive to hive to stave off laying workers had actually worked. Now I will replace the three weakest with the California imports.

But why did it work?

Now, here is the part I don’t understand. During the two months of waiting, I tried many techniques for getting by. In three cases, I took a weak queen (small or spotty brood pattern) from a weak hive and put her in a stronger (but queenless) hive. I did this because I didn’t want to lose the stronger hives or have them develop laying workers. I figured a weak queen was better than no queen.

But in each of the three cases, two things happened. The weak—and now queenless—hives raised new queens. Seriously, I didn’t think they had it in them. More surprising, however, is that the weak queens I moved into the strong hives began laying like crazy. They suddenly were producing frame after frame of solid brood. Why? Was it the new environment? Change for the sake of change? Was there something about a different work force that encouraged them to produce? In one case, I had switched two queens (traded a weak for a strong) and ended up with two good layers.

I’ve never heard of this before, but the more I think about it, the more I believe the “weak” queens weren’t actually weak, but something about their situation was keeping them from laying at their full potential. Perhaps the queen’s own progeny were causing a problem. When the new brood hatches and her daughters replace the workforce, will a queen’s “weakness” resurface?

So many questions without answers, but the entire thing is intriguing. If you’ve seen this before—or understand it—please let me know.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

California-girls
California girls.

Comments

Phillip
Reply

“…so I did everything I could think of except—apparently—zipping the suit under my chin.”

Oops.

That reminds me of the worst experience with my bees since I started beekeeping four years ago. It was last summer and I was dealing with the meanest colony I’ve ever seen. They’ve always been so ultra defensive, it’s unnerving (but they make twice as much honey as my other colonies). I leave them off by themselves in a clearing in the woods far away from my other hives and rarely go anywhere near them. A branch poked a hole in my veil at the precise moment the bees decided en masse to aim for my face. My veil seemed to instantly fill with bees. Bees buzzing and banging into my face in an enclosed space. That was fun. I ran and tore my bee jacket to pieces to get my veil off and slapped at my face and flicked bees out of my nose and ears and at some point flicked my glasses far into the woods where I’ve never been able to find them. I ran back to my car and several bees followed me the whole way and dive bombed my head until I was locked safely inside.

I tell that story to entertain my friends from time to time. I somehow managed to get away without a major sting on my face, but it pretty much took me until this season to feel completely relaxed around the bees again. I’ll tell you, I was shook.

I admire your sense of humour.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

That sounds wicked. It reminded me that I too flicked glasses and hive tool into the underbrush as I ran. I found both, but I crawled around on hands and knees quite a while before I found them. Those events are truly off-putting. Today, I have to go back in a couple of hives, but instead I’m sitting here at my computer . . . anything to avoid dealing with them.

Bill Castro
Reply

WOW…what an ordeal!!!! It’s gotta be one of the lowest things to face as a beekeeper…pesticide kills. Why are so many so careless and thoughtless about spreading such chaos as spraying a substance they have no idea will react in the ecosystem. Which brings to mind why so many don’t even bother to read the labels either…sigh…such a changed time we live in and so many changes…I guess few have time to care?

I have had “weak” queens become MONSTERS the following spring. Perhaps the conditions weren’t right that particular season or time or place? The only thing I could figure is that they needed a period of broodlessness, a period of recovery, a period to take a breath and start again. So many things we humans will never know about the vast and fascinating world of bees that even the PhDs will never be able to explain.

Sorry to hear of your accidental apitherapy session. It happens to the best of us…once I too forgot to zip my veil…I was into my second colony when I finally looked down to realize as my veil now turned gold fish bowl has bees circulating around my head…needless to say I quickly retreated into the woods, evacuated the veil, picked off 3 stingers from my forehead, and went back for more…what a life as a bee wrangler!!!

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I’m glad to know you’ve had non-starters turn around; I was beginning to think I was losing my mind. But I agree, it seems that sometimes they need a change or a rest, time to re-group. I also agree that we humans will never completely understand.

By the way, I like that image of a goldfish bowl.

Aram
Reply

Rusty,
I raise quite a few queens every year, the New World Carniolans mostly, but every so often I will get a nice gentle italian queen to raise daughters from too. I found some Cardovans this year and they are so pretty and hard working. I really like them.

I find that there are truly very few bad queens. But bad ones do come in all shapes, colors and sizes. The queen laying pattern has a lot to do more with the work force she has rather than her inherent abilities. In my mating nucs I observe some queens that lay up the frames regardless of how many workers they have, and some that lay just what the workers can cover. The workers in the end decide what is raised and what is consumed/ignored.

Truly exceptional queens are also very rare. I raise queens mostly from the exceptional ones overwintered ones, but here is the catch. Like-begets-like and regression-to-the-mean are at a constant battle so record mom does not always make record daughters. Ironically terrible queens don’t always make terrible daughters either. You are very likely to end up with very average normal queens no matter what you start with. So all a breeder can do is start with the best, do the best job raising larvae and test the performance after they hatch.

By the way, the best use for terrible queens is two fold. A couple of weeks before the flow put them in the hive, so that bees spend less time raising brood and more time gathering honey. After the flow is over, make swarm attractant from them.

HB
Reply

My first year as a beekeeper, I did something stupid at the hive entrance and 4 bees on the landing board became 4 bees in my hair. The buzzing was unbelievably loud and grew frantic as the bees got more and more tangled. I only took one sting but to this day, 6 years later, if I hear a buzz anywhere near my head, my heart skips a beat.

Looking forward to the follow-up and your revitalized queens. — HB

Patrick
Reply

Speaking of buying queens … what’s the correct protocol for releasing the attendants? I received a queen with a couple dozen attendant bees (queen in a cage, attendants in a paper bag with the queen cage). I released the attendants into the hive and they were promptly killed.

Rusty
Reply

Patrick,

The only thing I’ve written about attendants is here. But it is about attendants in the cage, not outside of it. Actually, I’ve never of them being shipped outside of the cage, but I can see how it would work. However, I don’t think you can introduce them easily. I would just shake them out in front of your hives; maybe some will find a home.

Mary
Reply

Bill C., “…your accidental apitherapy session” is one of the best euphemism I’ve ever heard, except for the way Floridians like to refer to their gigantosaurus cockroaches as “Palmetto bugs.” After I come to Rusty’s site, I don’t feel quite so bad/guilty/inept about all the mistakes I make. Thanks Rusty and everyone else who shares here.

karen
Reply

Wow, this is my first year and so far I have been stung one time. I can’t get over how much I love my bees.

Andrew Hogg
Reply

Rusty,

I just took a course with Bill Stagg of Sweet Acre Apiaries and he mentioned that nutrition is a huge driver on “weak” vs “strong” hives. I guess that some US government study found that giving weak hives to strong beekeepers resulted in strong hives. I forget the exact details but perhaps the hive was weak so in a strong hive the queen was better taken care of…??? Not sure, but one thing I did love was Bill saying something like, “and we do this because we “KNOW” this is good for bees. As if we have 6 legs and 4 wings so we know what they need…” Our bees keep teaching us. Maybe the answer is to listen better… Obviously you were listening.

Hope that the jerk who sprayed your hives ingested some of the pesticide…

John
Reply

Rusty,
When you were moving the queens from one hive to another, did you put the queen in a cage in the new hive for a few days?

Rusty
Reply

John,

Yes, they spent three days in a cage in each new hive before being released.

Tommy Jinks
Reply

A really interesting test would be to cage a queen from an under-producing hive and then slowly release her back into the same hive. Three days in “solitary” might be just the trick. 🙂 My guess is that it would have no effect but it would be really cool if this was a way to encourage slow queens.

Rusty
Reply

Tommy,

Certainly no harm in giving it a try. I’ll keep it in mind.

Jan Brett
Reply

Feeling so guilty that I learn so much from your mishaps. Does that mean I won’t have the same happen? No, but maybe I will better know how to handle it when it does. I am fairly new at all of this (3 years) but it all sounds terrifying. I tend to pretty much leave my girls alone. Thanks for all of your wonderful insight and experience.

Rob Mc
Reply

Interesting findings on the “bad” queens. Now to try and come up with a controlled experiment to test your findings. What a great project. You would only need to test on nucs so it could be quick.

Anyway, a story like the glasses flicked off into the bush. I released a new nuc that had traveled for a few hours and were not happy. Well, this hero just thought he would nip in there and let them out and do a strategic retreat. Unscrewed the entrance and out they came like a spitfire squadron and they were NOT happy. Took a few hits but one got in my ear. Ballistic would describe my reaction, remember I have a screwdriver in my hand. I still have the scars on the side of my face and neck. Funny how you can usually handle stings but a bee in your ear sets you off. This story keeps my “friends” entertained but none volunteer to get the honey they love…….

Rusty
Reply

Rob,

That sounds gruesome! Have to say, I’ve never had one in my ear and hope I never do.

Aram
Reply

Rusty,

By the way, if you want to do the hive skipping regimen again when you are short of queens, you can easily take the queen on three frames with workers from one hive and place them dead in the middle of a QUEENLESS hive without caging a queen. The workers will spread her pheromone and the queenless hive will have no choice but to accept her. Three frames and a queenless hive (for 24 hours at least) seems to be the trick. No need to cage the queen, she’ll just continue laying as if nothing happened.

I tried the same thing with a hive that just had its queen removed, and that did not work so well. Brother Adam said you can relocate a laying queen from hive to hive, but he must have had very closely inbred queens. I could not replicate that until the bees knew they lost their queen. I introduce virgins by dropping them into queenless mating nucs with no proper introduction. 19 out of 20 times it goes without any trouble. I would do the cage introduction if I had a 5 frame deep nuc for virgins.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you for the tips, Aram. By the way, the red queen (the one moved over and over) is a New World Carniolan. I love those bees. When I can’t raise my own queens, they are my next choice.

Donnabee
Reply

This was a great post. Not because you didn’t “button up”, what beek hasn’t done that at least once? ;0) It was great because after 5 years of beekeeping (and successfully, I might add) you are the first to mention using a “surrogate” queen in a queenless hive to give them brood and thwart laying workers; what a fantastic concept! Also, thanks to the person who asked how you introduced the queen, with a queen cage for three days.
Ok, so then you release her for how long? A week?, then put her back in the cage to another for three days, and so on? Wow!

So, here’s my theory about why a queen may appear weak in a weak hive: She knows that she doesn’t have enough work force for anything more. If there isn’t enough food, etc., how can she lay too many eggs? When she is put into a strong hive with lots of bees, she can let loose, knowing that her brood will be cared for to maturity.

How did the California gals compare with the ones your bees raised?

I enjoy your blog very much. Bee well.

Rusty
Reply

Donnabee,

Some were in the hive for four days after release, some for a week. I was out of town a lot so I had to do it when I had a chance, so it wasn’t a strict schedule.

As for the California queens, we will have to wait and see; they haven’t been released yet.

Bill R
Reply

Rusty,

Sorry to hear about your stings! However, I found your post, as usual, very interesting. I’ve put your musical queen swapping technique into my bag of tricks to try if I run into such an issue.

Unfortunately, the ignorant will continue to spray the flowers.

Bill

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Thanks Rusty —

I spoke with an Irish beekeeper about their efforts at encouraging their native Irish honeybee, better adapted to the cool wet conditions they have in Ireland. While the honeybee will always be an introduced bee in North America, somehow it seems that encouraging local reproduction makes sense, that useful regional traits could develop here as much as in the old world.

We’re talking bees here — I’m not sure how one breeds for traits such as Poison Application Reluctance in humans, and it will take time to put the Knucklehead Poison Applicators completely out of business. Human failings aside, there seems to be good reasons to develop regional bees as much as possible, a part of redeveloping regional food systems. It seems that in beekeeping, local requeening is a good place to start.

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I agree and, given a choice, I will always opt for a local queen. It turns out I didn’t even need the three I purchased, but my crystal ball is highly unreliable.

Darwin Deming
Reply

It is only a beekeeper, or someone who has taken a sting to the face that can truly empathize with your situation. I was adjusting my sugar-water on top of my hive (it just sits on top of the hive and drips in) and one bee made it out of the hole and made a “bee line” right for my face, and zowie, stung right on my eyelid. I was able to get the stinger out rather quickly with my wife present, but within the minute, the burning and swelling started. I wore my sunglasses to school the next day and my junior high students were wondering why I had them on. After taking them off, the facial expressions where priceless. One student said, “Mr. Deming, can you put your glasses back on? You’re freaking me out.” Let the good times roll! If you want a chuckle, I’ll send you a picture.

Darwin

Erin
Reply

I feel so much better that you said you’re avoiding dealing with your bees after the stings! I’m a very new beekeeper, and my usual beekeeping partner was away for a month so I had to go in and do an inspection on my own. I wear thick jeans tucked into socks, bee jacket with veil, and gloves to work – unfortunately one found my thigh through my jeans and another found my knee half way through the process. I started getting all shaky and upset, but had the hive all apart so kept talking to myself to keep calm, and got everything back together and ran downstairs (our bees are in a roof garden). But I was so upset! My bees have rarely stung me before, but they seem to have it in for me now, dive bombing me when I walk by sometimes. It’s ridiculous but I didn’t want to hear anything about bees or beekeeping for days afterwards, I felt like my five-year-old son when he’s angry about a LEGO construction falling to pieces. I felt so cheek-stingingly embarrassed and stupid for thinking I could do this, take care of bees I mean. That was a couple of weeks ago, and my beekeeping partner is back from holiday now, I’m going into the hives tomorrow.

It is heartening to hear even experienced beekeepers avoid their charges for a bit after a frustrating experience!

Rusty
Reply

Erin,

It wasn’t so much dealing with them after the stings; after all, stings happen. It was dealing with the idea that someone sprayed them with poison that got to me.

Erin
Reply

Ah I see! Yes, that would be very hard to take.

David
Reply

I’ve recently posted on a really spotty brood pattern (http://theapiarist.org/time-change-queen/) in a colony when there is a really strong nectar flow coming in. I interpreted this as the queen slowing down a bit and the bees filling empty space with nectar. However, there were also queen cells, so clearly the colony was preparing to swarm. I conducted a Demaree. The queen is now laying a much better pattern in the bottom box. Not sure about her rate of laying, but it looks perfectly satisfactory.

However, there are more queen cells, so she’s going to have to be replaced as soon as my most recently grafted cells are ready.

Wayne Davidson
Reply

I did that same thing with the veil not being zipped earlier this year, I got stung twice in the neck.
Good idea to rotate the queens every few days to keep the different hives productive, I haven’t thought of that.

Wayne

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