The Bees Chose Us: Dumb Luck Leads to Populated Warre Hive

Hot, Hot, Hot

Last week we had a shocker of a heat wave, over 40 degrees celsius for five days straight, with most days getting to 42 or 43.  It’s often a bit hotter on the farm than what the weather reports say, but we’re not sure exactly how hot it got because the weather station on the farm crapped out over 41 degrees.

We had some problems with comb collapse in the hives in the extreme heat.  We’d attempted to prepare them by making sure they were fully shaded from about lunchtime onwards (the temperatures were peaking around 4-5pm) and had given them empty supers to help with ventilation but it obviously it wasn’t quite enough.

Of the three hives Queenie’s had no problems, Little Little Emily’s had a single comb collapse and Hatshepsut’s had a huge disaster that left the brood chamber beyond repair.

Bees on landing board of hive

Queenie’s hive seemed unconcerned by the crazy heat.

Bees Preparing to Abscond

It was clear Hatshepsut’s colony had decided it was time to take off – they started to swarm on the front of the hive (it wasn’t just bearding, they had sent a cloud of scouts out to start looking for a new home).

Unsure of what to do, and with our minds befuddled from the prolonged heat (there’s no escaping it when you live in a caravan…) we figured we’d try to catch the swarm with the only spare hive we had, one of the Warre hives.

At first we just left it out as a bait hive nearby in the hope they’d go in, they showed some interest initially but that subsided pretty quickly.  Then we decided they might need some convincing so we decided to empty the hive they had clustered on and shake them into the Warre.

Some of our "Tragedy Honey" from comb collapse.  We have fed a lot of the honey we collected back to the bees to give them a boost.

Some of our “Tragedy Honey” from comb collapse. We have fed a lot of the honey we collected back to the bees since it would have been left with them as their winter stores anyway.

Queenless

When we opened the hive to empty it we were faced with a massive mess of combs, honey and drowning bees.  It was awful (no wonder they’d decided to abscond).  We also found no eggs or young brood, only some capped brood: there was clearly no laying queen.  (We don’t have pictures of much of what happened because we were too busy trying to figure out what to do).

The most likely scenario was that Hatshepsut was killed when we moved the bees from town out to the farm a few weeks ago (one poorly timed bump on the road is all it would take).  We had moved the bees so that they could be free to swarm and so we could observe them more, the irony being that our attempt to put the bees in a situation where we wouldn’t need to interfere so much had required interference and that interference had left them queenless.

Candles made from the wax we salvaged from Hatshepsut's brood chamber.  It was a a messy process extracting the wax, the number of dead bees we had to strain out was pretty depressing, but we thought it was better than wasting it.

Candles made from the wax we salvaged from Hatshepsut’s brood chamber. It was a a messy process extracting the wax, the number of dead bees we had to strain out was pretty depressing, but we thought it was better than wasting it.

What to do next?

So, doing the bee maths we figured there were a few possibilities.  The first was that Hatshepsut was still alive but not laying.  The second was that they had raised an emergency queen but she hadn’t started laying yet.  The third was that there was no queen at all.

Given the amount of damage to the brood chamber, the number of dead bees and the chances of losing the queen while shaking the bees into the new hive we figured the chances of there being a queen were very slim indeed.

The possible options at that stage were:

  • Combine the bees with one of the other hives.  We decided against this because on the off chance Hatshepsut’s hive did have a queen there is a small risk that in the fight between the queens with combining would leave both queens dead or injured.  We really didn’t want to risk messing with either of the hives that were doing fine.
  • Shake the bees back into the Langstroth after cleaning it out and give them brood/eggs from one of the other hives so they could raise a queen if they needed one.  The main reason we didn’t opt for this was potentially causing problems in the two hives that were ok – we didn’t want to stress them by opening the brood chamber or risk killing their queens while poking around in there.  Risking another hive to save one that seemed doomed didn’t make sense.
  • Requeen.  While this is certainly not the most ‘natural’ approach and it is definitely the most expensive we thought it was worth a shot, if they didn’t have a queen we wouldn’t be risking problems with the other hives but we would have a chance of saving them.  We also had the added time pressure of leaving for an overseas holiday next week so we needed to do something soon.  Even if they did raise an emergency queen we figured we wouldn’t know about it until just before we left, by which time it would probably be too late for us to do anything and we’d lose the colony anyway.

The Requeening Debacle

We ordered a queen.  She arrived yesterday, two days later than expected (turns out this was very lucky).  We named her Eris.

We attempted to use a method of heavy smoking to introduce the queen, after doing a lot of reading we figured it would be a quick way of doing it and by all reports the success rate was close to 100%.

We wrote notes about how many puffs of smoke we needed and in what order to do things.  We removed the queen from the cage with the attendants and put her into a little glass jar.

Armed with smoker and queen we went into the hive.

We tried to release the queen between frames by turning the open jar upside down, thinking she would scurry into the darkness to hide.  She had no intentions of cooperating and as soon as she could she slipped out from under the jar and flew off.  We saw the little green dot on her back disappear over the paddocks.  Our hearts sank.

Thinking everything was hopeless, we thought we’d check to see if there were any signs of a laying queen.  We really thought that there was very little chance they had a queen and even if they’d raised an emergency queen she probably wouldn’t start laying for at least another few days.

All Hail Queen Eris!

So, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we lifted out a frame and found eggs.  Eggs laid in the centre of the cells, one egg per cell, sitting bolt upright and laid in a lovely pattern in the centre of the comb – this did not look like the work of a laying worker.

Not only had these bees managed to raise an emergency queen, she had survived against all odds in the chaos of the heat wave.  They are just awesome.  And now, through sheer dumb luck, we have our very first Warre hive populated with a healthy colony.

Since the bought queen nicked off we took her name and gave it to the emergency queen the bees had raised (it’s a very fitting name for her since she seems to have thrived in chaos).  All hail Queen Eris!

If the bees choose the beekeeper then these bees certainly seem determined to stay with us, we feel like the luckiest beekeepers in the world right now.

Eris' hive - our first working Warre hive!

Eris’ hive – our first working Warre hive!