This week we got a stark reminder of the dangers of missing a weekly hive inspection – the discovery of five queen cells.
Emily is always amused when I compare these peanut-like cells growing out of the honeycomb to the eggs from Alien. But I think if I stumbled upon one of these monstrosities in a dark tunnel, I’d want Sigourney Weaver on my side.
Last week all seemed well with both hives. Our ladies were impeccably well-behaved for some visitors to the apiary and remained calm as they were handled by a small crowd. While Queen Rosemary made a dignified cameo appearance, Queen Rose was elusive but the presence of eggs in cells revealed that she was there. Our hives had queens, eggs, good-tempered bees, stores and space. We were approaching the end of swarming season and it looked like plain sailing ahead.
So this week when we were going to the scout hut for our monthly meeting, I was tempted to skip the weekly inspection. Was it fate that compelled me to text Emily and suggest that we meet at the apiary beforehand for a quick check of our hives? Little did we realise what we would discover.
‘Busy little creatures, huh?’ – Burke
Our inspection of Queen Rosemary’s hive proved arduous thanks to a pesky queen excluder stuck down with propolis. It took both our hive tools to safely prise off the super. All was well inside – nothing suspicious.
We expected our inspection of Rose’s hive to be much easier. This is our ‘baby’ hive, recently transferred from a nuc, and still growing. There is plenty of space in the brood box. So imagine our surprise when we came across one of these…
The sight of a queen cell fills most beginner beekeepers with fear, because we don’t really know what to do about them. There are three types of queen cells: swarm cells (the colony is creating a new queen so that half the bees can swarm with the old queen); supercedure cells (the bees are trying to replace the old queen because they sense that something is wrong with her); emergency cells (the bees need a new queen because the old queen has gone missing or died).
You can never be 100% sure why your bees are creating a new queen, but you can be 100% sure that you don’t want to lose half your colony, and much of the honey stores, by allowing them to swarm. For this reason, beekeepers sometimes panic when they find a queen cell and destroy it to buy some time. Emily and I decided to mark the frame where we found the first cell, and to continue to inspect the hive to find out why our bees were trying to make a new queen. Perhaps something had happened to Rose and they were queenless? We found four more queen cells – unhelpfully, these were at the top and bottom of frames. Swarm cells are usually found at the bottom of frames and supercedure cells at the top. Proof again that our bees don’t read books.
Our nuc was still sitting next to the hive – should we split this small colony again to prevent a swarm or was Queen Rose dead and our bees were trying to replace her?
‘I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies’ – Ash
We considered the evidence – no sign of Rose and no eggs, but Emily saw small larvae so she must have been there as recently as our last inspection. Five queen cells at top and bottom of frames – no real conclusion about whether these are swarm or supercedure cells. Two things swayed our decision: Rose’s normally mild-mannered family were behaving in an irritated manner and a cloud of guard bees had greeted our arrival, a sign that the colony might not be queen-right; and the colony is still quite small with plenty of space, there is no need to swarm.
We decided to leave our bees to their mysterious plans and find out what happens next week. Swarm or supercedure?! One thing we do know – any day now a new queen will hatch from her cell. She will find her unhatched sisters and tear down their cells to destroy her rivals, and if Rose is still in the hive…
Queen larvae ‘pipe’ when they are inside their cells to let the other unhatched queens know that they are not alone – they each have a deadly rival for the throne. Now don’t tell me that doesn’t sound like something out of Aliens!
I still wonder, wistfully, what would have happened if we’d skipped our weekly inspection. Ripley was off-duty for 57 years and look what happened then…