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.
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.
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.