Friday, June 19, 2009

LESSON: 56 HOW TO TELL WHEN YOUR HIVE IS QUEENLESS

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Hello, from Long Lane Honey Bee Farm. We are David & Sheri Burns operating a honey bee farm in Central Illinois. We not only enjoy beekeeping, but it is a passion for us too. We especially enjoy helping more and more people enter the wonderful hobby of beekeeping.

Beekeeping is more than just a few crazy people, wearing funny hats and risking their lives while playing with killer bees. First of all, beekeepers keep gentle bees. For the most part, honey bees are gentle, busy and are not aggressive. We raise queens, and we make sure that the queens we raise are from hives that are not aggressive. Of course the worker bees do have stingers, so proper handling of the bees along with adequate protective clothing is necessary. Beekeeping is a billion dollar industry. Millions of hives are kept by beekeepers across the US.

Because honey bees are becoming scarcer, it is important to educate our local communities on the important role honey bees play in providing us with healthy food through pollination of our crops. Without the honey bee our fruits and vegetables would be at great risk.

Here's a squadron of bees returning to base loaded heavily with nectar. Beyond needing our bees to provide our food, bees are just fun to keep! There is so much to learn and learning is fun. To keep bees and broaden our understanding of the honey bee is a wonderful and very therapeutic past time and hobby.

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Today, I want to share about keeping a strong queen in your hive.

Lesson 55: HOW TO TELL WHEN YOUR HIVE IS QUEENLESS

Queenlessness is serious. In fact, queenlessness is the single most greatest threat to a hive’s survivability than any other disease or pest. Yet, it is easier to correct and overcome than other pests and diseases. Then why is queenlessness such an issue? In this lesson I want to address several key factors about queenlessness: 1) Why do queens die or disappear? 2) How to determine if your colony is queenless 3) How to make a queenless colony queen right 3) What to look for when your hive is about to become queenless 4) How to determine how long your hive has been queenless 5) What causes a worker to start laying in a queenless hive 6) How to deal with a laying worker 7) Suggestions to help avoid your hive from becoming queenless.

Every hive has only one queen. Her primary role is to lay eggs, sometimes 1,000 – 3,000 a day. Without a prolific queen, the colony will never build up in population and will always lack adequate foragers, thus there will be a constant lack of incoming pollen, nectar and water. The colony will eventually become so weak that it will succumb to pests or diseases.

However, with a young and prolific queen a colony will quickly increase in population and ample supplies of pollen, nectar and water will allow the hive to expand, be productive and resist most common pests and diseases. Therefore, a queen right hive is essential at all times during the year. Queen right is a term used to define a hive that has a prolific queen. As you can see in the picture below of a hive, it is full of bees. We believe that by keeping a hive very crowded, but not congested, a hive remains strong enough to resist most pests and diseases.


Notice how the many bees cover almost all of the frames on top. I removed one frame to inspect and to be sure the queen is laying good. But even hives that are queen right can suddenly become queenless. How does this happen so quickly?

Why do queens die or disappear? Remember, honey bees are livestock. More specifically, bees are bugs, insects that are at great risk not only from the normal threat of nature, but also from the hostile world beyond the sweet clover fields and tranquil meadows. Traffic, pesticides, insecticides, and those who see all insects as a pest pose a great threat to the survival of the honey bee. Because a queen is a small ¾ inch bug, she too can perish for various reasons. She can become ill or old and die. She can accidentally be smashed by the beekeeper when frames are pushed back together or covers are placed on a hive. She can be killed by the other bees if she shows signs of inferiority. And when another queen is raised in the same hive, the queens will fight and only one will survive, but certainly they both can perish in the fight.


A virgin queen must fly out of the hive several times to mate. This mating flight can be very treacherous. She can easily become a tasty meal for a bird or fall victim to nasty weather while she’s out. And even if she does make it back, the question is, did she mate adequately. So even though a hive can successfully raise their own queen, there is no better proof that the colony has a prolific queen until eggs are visible.

How do we determine that our colony is queenless? No eggs. You can click on the images to see a larger version. Study the picture and familiarize yourself in identifying eggs and larvae. An egg stands up in the bottom of a cell. By day three, the egg has laid down on the bottom of a cell and hatched into a larvae. You can see the royal jelly surrounding the larvae in the picture.

Even if a mated queen is present but we see no eggs, we are essentially queenless. You’ll develop a skill that will allow you to open up your hive and listen to the bees and observe their behavior. A queenless hive usually has a louder roar, and usually appears more disorganized. If you do not see any eggs on any frames, then you are queenless.

How can we make a queenless colony queen right? Purchase a new, mated queen in a cage and introduce her to the new hive with a candy plug. Or if the hive is raising their own queen, allow them to do so. If you allow the colony to raise their own queen, you will have to wait longer until the virgin queen emerges, matures, mates and starts laying. If you purchase a mated queen, she will start laying within a few days.

Is there a way we can tell if our colony is about to become queenless? Yes and no. Obviously if the beekeeper smashes and kills the queen, this cannot be known in advance. However, if the current queen has space to lay but is laying poorly, then the colony may try to replace her soon or they may not. Or if you see mostly drone brood, which sticks up above the smooth worker brood more like bullets, then you know your queen will soon perish. Also, if you see queen cells, either swarm cells on the lower part of the frame or supersedure cells on the upper half of the frame, then watch your hive carefully. Something may be wrong and it may become queenless. Finally, if you know the age of your queen, then you can determine how long she has left. This is somewhat unknown because some queens can do real well for several years, maybe three or four years. Some are only good for one year. Therefore, it is best to requeen your colony each year.

When you find that your hive is queenless, it is important to know how long it has been without a queen. This will tell you how long you have to obtain a new queen. For example, if you see only sealed brood as in the picture to the left, you know that your queen has been gone for more than a week. Sealed brood looks different than sealed honey. Sealed brood is usually darker and more textured looking. Whereas sealed honey is brighter and looks more wet. If you need help learning the difference, just use a tooth pick and poke a cell to see what's inside. If you see unsealed larvae, then you have some time before your hive experiences the affects of queenlessness. But you should work promptly to provide a new queen.

The unsealed brood means that those bees will be hatching in about 15 days so you still have new bees on their way. Let me test you. If your queen is missing but you see what's in the photo to the left, how long has your queen been gone? You can click on the image to enlarge. Some of the larvae is sealed or capped, but some are exposed. So we know the capped larvae are atleast 8 days old and the uncapped ones are large enough to be atleast 6-7 days old. So you've been without a queen for about a week. You have time to act, but you must act fast to purchase a new mated queen so there will be a minimal gap of emerging workers to keep the hive strong.


However, if there are no eggs and no sealed brood, it means that you will have nothing more than what you have. Each day, your hive will become smaller in number because without emerging brood the older bees will die. If you have no brood at all, sealed or unsealed, then you have an emergency! You must get a queen within the next few days. Pay extra and have her sent overnight. Every day counts. Your hive is a mere 30 days away from total collapse. Act fast.

Once the queen has perished, and the hive has attempted but failed to raise a replacement, you must act fast because without a queen, workers could become what is known as a laying worker. With the strong pheromone of open brood, not the queen pheromone, the other female workers’ ability to lay is suppressed. But without open brood pheromones, several female workers may start laying eggs. But since a female worker is not fully develop as a layer nor has she ever mated, nor could she, then her eggs are all infertile thus they will only become drones, male bees.

A laying worker in a hive usually means certain death of the colony. Since a laying worker will only produce male drones, the absence of workers means certain collapse of your hive. A laying worker does not have the long abdomen of a queen so when she lays, she cannot always place her eggs on the bottom of a deep cell. The eggs are often found on the side of a cell. But the obvious sign that you have a laying worker is that each cell contains many eggs. Sometimes a newly mated queen or a queen without room to lay may lay more than one egg in a cell, but a laying worker will fill up a cell with eggs. Study my photo here to familiarize yourself with what the eggs look like from having a laying worker. See the numerous eggs in the cells. Remember to click on the image to enlarge for a closer look.

It is suggested that even strong, queen right colonies always have a few laying workers, but the bees keep them in check. From the photo, can you see which one is the laying worker? No, you cannot. They are impossible to spot.

How do you get rid of a laying worker? Some say you can dump all the bees out in the yard, twenty feet or more away from the hive and the laying worker cannot find her way back in. Others say she can and will fly back. Some claim to have made special queen introduction cages which allow the newly mated queen to lay eggs on comb under a cage and eventually the bees will kill the laying worker. But introducing a queen into a hive with a laying worker often means the laying worker and her gang will attack and kill the newly introduced queen. And you’ll never find a laying worker. Don’t even bother trying, they all look the same.

I’ve had success by introducing new queens in cages into a laying worker hive, but it does take several tries. Unless you raise your own queens, this can be costly. It is easiest for me to remove a few frames from a queen right hive with the queen on it, and place them against the wall of a laying worker hive. The good queen along with her two frames of bees seem to seek and destroy the laying worker. Then you can easily replace the queen that you removed from the queen right hive.

The traditional solution is to take all the frames out of a laying worker hive and give them to strong colonies. The strong colony will usually kill the laying worker.

Finally, how can beekeepers protect their hives from becoming queenless?

Inspect your hive every 2 weeks. You do not necessarily have to spot the queen as long as you see that there is a good number of eggs and larvae. The photo to the left is what you want to find. Brood in various stages including eggs. This photo shows eggs near the edge of the frame.

Also be sure there is plenty of room for the queen to lay. If you see your hive is honey or pollen bound, you either have to shake out the pollen or extract the honey or put in empty drawn comb if you have some available. Failure to provide room in your hive for expansion can cause the bees to become congested. Remember we advocated crowded hives, but not congested hives. A congested hive means there is no more open, drawn out cells for the queen to lay in, or the forages to store pollen and nectar. Thus they will prepare to swarm.

Yesterday one of our hives did just that. Because we crowd our hives, they can become congested faster than we can sometimes give them drawn comb. But we'd rather err on the side of being too crowded than having a small and weak colony. Swarms are friendly. This swarm was gracious enough to agree to have their picture taken with me. I later shock them into a new hive and they are content now. By the way, if you are a beekeeper, you absolutely must have an extra hive on hand to catch swarms, swarms that come from your hive or for when you are called upon to help save a swarm near you. Yesterday a gentleman called us because he caught a swarm and had nothing to put it in.

Fortunately, we rushed him out a hive. But we cannot always send a hive right out, so please plan ahead. June is a big swarm month. Hives seem to swarm more on the first nice day after a storm or rainy weather. Now the hive that produced this swarm may become queenless. Hopefully they did their job, and produced a new queen. The old queen leaves with the swarm and the new emerging queen takes over. But remember, she is virgin queen, and must fly a mile or two away to mate with other drones, not from her hive. She can be killed in her flight by birds or storms. Will she make it back, and will she be mated well. Much is at stake.


Replace your queen yearly to ensure you have a young, prolific queen. Each day we send out queens to beekeepers across the country. These are queens that we raise from our honey bee farm that show the characteristics that we want in a honey bee.

We gather queens from their mating nucs once they've proven to be good layers. Then we add 4 attendants to care for the queen during shipment. Then, we add the candy plug along with one drop of water for the 1-2 day trip. It works out well.



We have mating nucs scatter throughout. The queens do not mate in the nuc, but it merely provides a place for the queen to live, be cared for and to show how well she can lay after she mates.


These mating nucs are near a cedar tree and use it as a land mark to find their way back to their specific hive. It is amazing that a queen can fly out, travel for miles to mate, and return home.

I was holding a virgin queen in my hand a few weekends ago, showing her to several people. She took flight, flew around a few times and was gone. The people were sad that she flew away. About twenty minutes later, she came back and landed on my leg. I picked her up and put her back in her cage. She did not mate on this flight. When queens return home from mating, they have the last male's genitalia still attached. Even though she returned home without a mating sign, it was still impressive that she had such a great sense of orientation and returned to her original take off point.

In fact, in my main mating yard, I can't even find my way around, but the queens do great picking out which hive is their home.


Some people use colors or markings on the hives or physical land marks, but we've found that for the most part the queens do fine finding their way back home.

Well, this concludes today's lesson and I hope it has been helpful to you in being able to keep your hive queenright!

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Until next time, BEE-have yourself!

David & Sheri Burns
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4 comments:

Mommaw's Corner said...

Hive balled yellow queen from last year two weeks or more ago. Placed new brood and combined another queenless hive with this one. Today I discovered one long peanut shaped cell. So is it a queen cell or a swarm cell. Only one of these....help...I seem to always be queenless.

Author said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have learned more in the 10 minutes it took me to read this than I have in the several books that I have read so far. Thank you.
OhioDisasterDad.Wordpress.com

Fritz Klein said...

I am a second year beek. I just split my warre hive on Tues night. I know one has no queen. I believe there is uncapped brood in both halves. Your pictures helped. I live in springfield . Thank you!

MC Sloth said...

Not sure if I need to requeen. My 2nd hive is well behind hive number 1.

Originally thought it was just difference in working hours (more shade). I had added a second level of brood when the hive seemed to be going well, reshuffling some of the fully drawn nuc frames into the second section.

On latest inspection hive seemed less populous, located bunches of larva, but some of the established frames were empty and less overall activity. Very hot out in MD, so not enough time to locate queen or do much more beyond that.

I know I should probably go that next step with the inspection, but I was just melting. Clear elements were low activity and smaller population.