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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Queen is Dead! Long Live the Queen!

Beekeeping takes me into unexpected places - most of them good ones. Today I had a sad, sad experience.

My two hives at Blue Heron are doing badly - one has a queen who appears to be a drone layer (or at least that's how the hive looked at the August 8 inspection) - probably poorly mated. The other has a queen who is barely laying, has a poor brood pattern and was also probably short-bred when she mated. Both of these queens were made by the bees in the hive from their own eggs.

So conferring with other beekeepers, the decision was made to order a new queen. I would then combine the two hives, getting rid of the current queen in both hives and order a new queen to rule the combined hive.

Honestly, I have dreaded the day. I never find queens well in the hive and today I was going to have not only to find them but to do away with them.

This morning the UPS guy arrived at my office with my new queen from the Purvis Brothers Apiary. He had no idea that the package contained bees (it did have an apiary health certificate in bright yellow affixed to the package.....). I asked if I could take his picture and it's not in focus because I did it really quickly.

I opened the package in front of him and showed him the queen cage - he was amazed and wanted to know what I was going to do with it. I guess it was a little strange to deliver a queen bee to a psychologist's office!

So here's where the sad part of the story begins. I loaded up my car and drove to Blue Heron. On the way, I called Cindy Bee for help and advice. I wanted to know if it were OK to install a new queen and put a baggie feeder on the hive at the same time.

She gave me the thumbs up, so I went armed with
  • a baggie feeder, full of 2:1 sugar syrup
  • a nuc to put one of the queens in (I was planning to give her to Julia, my Blue Heron partner in crime, to put in an observation hive).
  • A closed container of vanilla, watered down a little, and a silicone brush to brush it on the top of the frames
  • Her Majesty and attendants, now with a string and a push-pin tack to attach her to the hive frame top
  • All of my hive inspection paraphernalia
I opened up the third and weakest hive at Blue Heron. There were few bees in the hive, but enough. The queen had been laying - I saw eggs and tiny circles of larvae. But the hive is weak and there were few bees flying in and out.

First I told myself that I would find the queen in each hive. I thought I should have the right mindset and I should believe that I could spot her in order to find her easily . I used very little smoke - just a puff at the door and moved slowly, giving myself plenty of time (I had a 2 hour break in which to do this).

I looked through the frames on this hive and found the queen almost immediately. I took the frame she was on and put it in the nuc (a weak queen is perfect for an observation hive). BTW, the frame also had an almost ready to emerge perfect queen cell on it. The bees must not like this queen either.

Then I added a second frame of brood, a frame of honey, another frame of honey and a third frame with very little brood but some pollen. I turned the entrance away from the hives and put a basket of hive inspection stuff in front of it because it would need to sit there until I was done. In effect I created a split.

The rest of the bees on frames that had a little brood and lots of open cells stayed in the box for transfer to the combined hive. Cindy and I talked about doing a direct transfer at this time of year. The plan would be to paint the tops of the frames with vanilla to confuse the odors in the hive so the bees would be confused and blend with each other.

And then I would simply put the frames from one hive into a box directly with the frames from another hive. Cindy said it's too hot in Hotlanta to do a newspaper combine in August. Below you can see my vanilla concoction and silicone paint brush.

Then I got to hive two and opened it. I found the queen on the second frame in the bottom box (the first one I looked into). I debated. Should I do away with her right then while I could see her or look deeper into the hive to make sure she was still a drone layer.

She was a beautiful, large majestic queen, but I hesitated to go through the hive for fear I'd not find her again.............so I flicked her off of the frame with my hive tool onto the ground. Then I used my hive tool, supposedly to cut off her head, but I couldn't watch so in effect I split her. I didn't take pictures. It seemed so cruel and sad.

I'm never doing that again, I swear. I felt horrible and sick.

I'm going to set up a retirement nuc for aging queens and put them all in there. I can never, never destroy a queen like that again.

Then of course, I looked through the rest of the hive and doubted my decision. The hive looked good with lots of brood and young larvae.

I'm trying to comfort myself by saying that the Purvis Goldlines are disease resistant, the combination will create a strong hive going into winter, it will help the combination to work if they have to all adjust to a new queen, etc. etc, but I still think I'm going to feel sad for a while after this destructive beekeeping act.

So here's the queen cage. I've threaded a paper clip through the top and tied a string to the clip. I uncapped the sugar fondant for the bees to eat through it.

I lowered her Majesty into the newly combined hive, every frame anointed with vanilla (see the brown drops of it on the frame? This is an eight-frame box which has a little wiggle room so I also put a frame into the space where the cage is, put the baggie feeder in a third box with a couple of frames of honey, closed the hive and left them all to get acquainted.

I am serious about never wanting to do this again. Cindy said to put the body of the queen on the floor of the hive so the bees would know, but when I looked down to pick her up, a mortician bee had already carried her off.

A sad day in my beekeeping world.
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  1. I'm sorry to hear about your queens. It is sad and I know it would be difficult to do. I hope the new queens do really well for you.

  2. Anonymous9:11 PM

    Wow, Linda. Sorry to hear about your woes too. My queen has one week as of now to get back to work laying -- or she goes to that great hive in the sky. She was doing great, she stopped completely, and yesterday there was a span of eggs as big as my wide open hand. The apiary inspector said that she may to be replaced, so I may have to follow you in what you had to do and I already dread it and it hasn't even happened yet.

  3. awh! You write well as I find I am feeling sad for your loss. Please don't be too hard on yourself.

  4. Linda, I am sad with you....you are such a gentle person, I know this was a very difficult decision....I wish your bees and the new Purvis Queen all the best....be kind to yourself....you do much more good for the bees than harm....think of all of us who learn from and with you and how you are helping so many bees all over the world

  5. Thank you, Jane. It was not easy and I really don't plan to do it again. I think I might pay for an observation hive just to have a place to put queens that aren't doing what they are supposed to well!

  6. Anonymous1:11 PM

    I had to find a queen that was a drone layer this Spring, but I never could find her and they ended up superceding her anyway. Thank goodness I did not have to go through that.

    Annette from Placerville Ca.

  7. Anonymous6:24 PM

    Oh, the agony! I love your retirement nuc plan. Honeybees need more caring keepers like you.

  8. Anonymous8:41 PM


    I just loved that song "God Save The Queen". It made me just laugh and laugh. You have a great sense of humor to post that.

    Anyway, as Michael Bush always says. The bees kill off numerous queens until they find one they like. You only killed off one.

    You are a great beekeeper and always learning.
    Annette from Placerville California

  9. Hello Linda,

    I had the same exact experience the other day. I was putting a new queen in my hive because the the prior queen had disappeared and the colony was slowly disappearing. As I was putting the new queen in the hive I noticed the bees had made a new queen. She was a large beautiful Italian Queen. I couldnt figure out how this could have happend. I had checked the week prior for all supercells and swarm cells before ordering the new queen. I also checked for eggs and larvae and there were none. So I went ahead and orderd the new queen. When I was placing the new queen in the hive and noticed the queen the hive had made, I was shocked. Wondering what to do, I remebered what you had wrote in you blog about not wanting to kill the queen (I couldn't either). So I ran in the house and grabbed my sons toy bug box (It is a plastic box made for children to place insects in). It took three tries but the third try was a charm, Instead of trying to place her in the box, I just let her walk right in. Now I have a lonely beautiful queen in a toy bug
    box:-( Any Ideas on what to do with her? I do not have enough bees to start a new colony but I dont want to kill her either. Any ideas would be appreciated.


    Stephen from North Florida


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