The case of foul brood and the diabolical baby

Emily and me did less tea drinking and more proper beekeeping last weekend, captured beautifully on camera by Emily's 'entourage' Drew Scott!

Things can happen fast in bee-land. Barely a month has passed since the Bailey comb change, but there has been a drone-laying queen, a suspected case of foul brood and the unexpected appearance of a virgin queen. That’s just one hive. I sat on this post for a while thinking back on the lessons learned in the past few weeks.

Rain had prevented our hive inspections for two weekends following the Bailey comb change, but when the sun came out after Easter bank holiday Emily went to check on our bees. What she found inside Queen Rosemary’s hive would worry most beekeepers, so she raised the alarm by emailing the secretary of our association, Andy Pedley.

‘I am worried our hive has some kind of brood disease,’ wrote Emily. ‘There is virtually no healthy worker brood, lots of drone brood, and some dried up larvae, some that look a bit scaly, and some that look a bit bloated.’

Emily thought our bees were grumpy and a bit aggressive, which can be a sign of a failing queen or being queenless. She spotted cells filled with pollen with a film of honey on the top, which can also indicate being queenless.

Andy is a very experienced beekeeper, a sentinel apiarist for the Middlesex area, and apprentice to the queen’s beekeeper, John Chapple. So he really is the bees knees! Andy offered to meet at the apiary on Saturday to test our hive for bacterial disease.

What followed was a week of worry as I wondered how our bees could have declined so quickly. At the last inspection every cell in every brood frame had been scrutinised while we tried to find the queen and eggs, and there was no sign of disease. But now we had a suspected brood disease like European foul brood (EFB), which is not good but can be treated, or American foul brood (AFB), which is untreatable – destroy the hive, burn the remains and salt the earth!

I downloaded these educational images of EFB and AFB from the National Bee Unit.

Healthy bee larvae are curled in half-moon shapes inside cells and are pearly white with yellow tummies from the pollen that they eat. © Crown copyright 2010

Unhealthy brood with EFB look misshapen, dark and slimy. © Crown copyright 2010

The classic 'snot test' for AFB, a matchstick is dipped into a cell – if a stringy mess of slime is pulled out there may be bacterial disease. © Crown copyright 2010

On Saturday we arrived at the apiary to find Andy was already there. When I told how beekeepers from New York had kindly tried to help identify the brood disease on Emily’s blog, Andy shook his head in amazement and marvelled at the inter-web, then he said cheerfully, ‘Right, let’s go have a look’.

Andy used tweezers to pull out and examine a few larvae, then disposed of them in the smoker for hygiene. The first few were healthy white grubs with yellow tummies from the pollen they had eaten. So far so good. He then found a couple of larvae that were discoloured and slimy, and used the EFB and AFB kits to test for disease. The kits are similar to pregnancy tests: a sample is dropped onto an indicator, then you wait three minutes and…

One larvae is popped into a vial of spirit and shaken. It is important to use only one larvae for the test or this can affect the results, Andy explained, because EFB is always present in bee colonies at low levels.

Andy used a pipette to drop a sample on the indicator. Then we waited three minutes. Breathe.

One line under 'C' for 'control' is a negative result, two lines under 'C' and 'T' for 'test' is positive. Both our tests for EFB and AFB only had one line under 'C', phew! You can't see it clearly on this photo so I have drawn a pink line.

All clear! Both tests for bacterial disease were negative, phew! But it was not over…

This was not a case of EFB or AFB but a lack of TLC. The larvae had become cold and hungry because Rosemary was a drone-layer, explained Andy, so there were not enough workers inside the hive to nurse the baby bees. Unless the queen was replaced the whole colony would die out.

This is the moment I had been dreading as a beekeeper – disposing the queen for the good of the hive. In the past, our bees have been very good at superceding their own queens, and Emily and me have preferred to let them do this. However, they may have been unable to supercede Rosemary without enough viable fertile larvae. I felt I should step up to the plate and get the job done, but Andy kindly and quickly did the deed. It seemed fitting because he has a history with our flighty queen.

Andy mashed the honeycomb around the young larvae to encourage the bees to find it and build a queen cell.

Blissfully unaware of the untimely death of her sister, we took a frame from Queen Lavender’s hive that had young worker larvae and placed this inside Rosemary’s hive hoping that our bees would now raise a new queen. Andy mashed the honeycomb around the larvae to encourage the bees to find them and build queen cells.

A frame of young larvae placed in Rosemary's hive so her daughters can raise a new queen to ensure the colony survives. They will have to work fast as there are not many workers left, I caught one on camera immediately flying over the frame to where we had put the new larvae.

Lavender’s hive was thriving with healthy-looking bees, lots of workers and brood. I found Lavender happily climbing on a frame so we caged her to complete the Bailey comb change. With Lavender now in the top brood box and queen excluder beneath, all the bees can move up into their new home.

Emily releases Queen Lavender from her cage and into the top brood box. (She is the largest bee in the colony, I have put a pink circle around her.)

Emily’s boyfriend, Drew, took these lovely shots of us doing some proper beekeeping.

Looking for the queen. © Drew Scott

Still looking. It's difficult to spot one bee among hundreds of fast-moving insects on a frame! © Drew Scott

It was a busy day at the apiary, Andy and Pat were also shook swarming a couple of hives.

Andy shook swarming the hive belonging to David. This is a prolific colony of very fierce bees. Ghetto bees.

Drew took a shot of me shooting Pat! I gave David's bees oxalic acid treatment in December which they didn't enjoy, so I kept my distance in case they remembered. © Drew Scott

The business of beekeeping done for the day, there was still the afternoon meeting at the scout hut for the second Saturday of the month. Elsa had brought a chocolate celebration cake and I got the tea on.

On Monday the bee inspector visited the apiary and there was a surprise email from Andy titled ‘Rosemary’s baby’:

‘When Caroline checked the hive, we found an emerged queen cell in the bottom corner of one frame. Caroline then spotted a queen – very dark coloured. The frame that we put in had not got queen cells pulled out and indeed the section that was prepared for queen cells was being repaired!’

I thought we were one step ahead of our bees. Silly beekeeper. The workers were already preparing a new queen. © Drew Scott

So it seems our bees were one step ahead of us as usual, and were already raising a new queen to replace Rosemary. While we are hoping that Rosemary’s baby is not diabolical, it has inspired a name for our new queen thanks to Deborah Delong of Romancing the Bee who gave me this verse about myrrh:

‘Its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom.’

Queen Myrrh has emerged in a storm of rain and wind this week – not good for a virgin queen who must fly out and mate. Fingers crossed that our diabolical queen will have fair weather soon!

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34 thoughts on “The case of foul brood and the diabolical baby

  1. Fascinating story! I’m beginning to live vicariously through the bees! 🙂 Great post! It’s so interesting learning about what is involved in beekeeping. You’ve got me hooked 🙂

    • Thank you, there is a lot to learn, but Emily and me are so lucky we have some very experienced beeks at our apiary always willing to help. Our bees have lots to teach us too, just off to the apiary now to see what they have done next! 🙂

  2. Ghetto bees, a diabolical queen, a foul brood and snot tests. Who would have thought that bees were anything but happy flower lovers? This makes them sound like a horror movie 🙂

    (I loved your title too.)

    • He he! A case of split personality – but what else would you expect from a hive full of women?! 😉 Life can be pretty ruthless inside the hive, I suspect our bees are less queasy than Emily and me about dispatching the queen, and don’t get me started on what they do to drones at the end of summer…

      • I’ll check out your post. The tradition of telling bees that someone has died or got married used to be followed in English country villages though not now, but most beeks still talk to the girls though. If you treat them nice then they are nicer bees! Thanks for link, I’ll read this week 🙂

    • Cheers, Amy Sue 🙂 Beautiful sunshine this morning so hopefully Myrrh can go on her mating flight. She needs to mate with around 40 drones from other colonies to become a laying queen. But there are a lot of drone in her colony now, so she and the workers will have to work very hard to get back on their feet. Fingers crossed. 🙂

  3. What breeds are most common in England? It must also be nice to let your hives requeen without worrying about AHB. After my adventures this spring, I’ll have the unpleasant task of dispatching queens more often to avoid undesirable traits in my hive.

    • In the UK we have only one species of honeybee (Apis mellifera), around 25 bumble bee species and around 240 other bee species such as solitary bees. Many UK beeks swear by the Italian subspecies of our European honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) because it is so gentle (and beekeeping should be fun). There have been reports of the British black honeybee re-discovered but they have been saying this for years. And the Buckfast bee is also becoming popular because it is said to be less swarmy. Emily and me have mongrel bees, not Italian or British thoroughbreds, but they are very nice bees, hardworking and seem to get through our wet winters. I hope you have more pleasant adventures ahead in bee-land. Look forward to hearing about your new queens! 🙂

  4. Whew! What a story!!
    I’m SO glad things have worked out in the end, and I’m proud and happy to have provided a name for the diabolical baby!! 🙂
    My Queen, which has heretofore been nameless, shall henceforth be named “Queen Em” in honor of both you and Emily. A perfect name for my Buckfast lady. 🙂

    • Wow! That’s amazing, thanks Deborah! Long live Queen Em! 🙂 I am meeting Emily this morning at Osterley Park where we are helping to make up some new hives. It is beautiful sunshine today so hopefully Myrrh will mate, but it could go either way for her colony as there are so many drone. We are keeping are fingers crossed! 🙂

  5. I agree – I never knew beekeeping could make for such riveting reading! I also didn’t know before you started blogging that the Queen had bees. Good old Queen.

    • Yes, her majesty likes to have her own honey for breakfast apparently. John keeps gentle New Zealand bees in the grounds of Buckingham Palace – he daren’t let them swarm or he could be off to the Tower! 😉

  6. Enjoyed reading your post. As a newbee beekeeper just learning, its great to learn. And I am SO amazed as I learn about bees about their incredible structure in the colony. I also may have to take your example and give my queen (once I get her and her colony) a name.

  7. Great post as always!

    By the way- we nominated you for a Sunshine Blog Award. We are not sure if you really need it, as your blog gets plenty of attention, but we love the blog and figured “why not”. Thanks- putneyfarm.com

    • Gosh, that is so kind, thank you! I keep meaning to get around to giving awards for blogs that I read too, there are so many, including yours! Next free Sunday… 🙂 I’m sure the bees will appreciate the Sunshine Award 🙂

  8. Great post & fab pictures!
    I’m learning so much from both of you…
    I do hope I know what I’m looking for with my weekly inspections…
    Shame about all this rain 😦
    Sara

  9. I love reading your blog. I learn so much. I’ve always thought it would be cool to keep bees since I love bee products. My husband is allergic to beestings, though, and we live in the city with a tiny yard. So…beekeeping is on my list of things to do Some Day.

    • Ah, thank you Holly! Keeping bees is a joy as they can teach you so much and they really do have a model society – if a little ruthless 😉 A shame your husband is allergic, although some beeks at our apiary are allergic and are just very careful when they suit up or are going through desensitisation therapy. I hope you get your bees some day. What bee products do you like to use?

      • I love honey. But I also love beeswax. Candles made from paraffin stink. I love the smell of a lovely beeswax candle burning. And beeswax and pollen can be used in so many things! And they are good for you!

      • I agree. Beeswax candles are so much nicer. They smell like honey and you can add essential oils like cedarwood and lavender, or rosemary and thyme, to the recipe. Heavenly. Your home must smell lovely of bee stuff! 🙂

  10. Hi there, I was wondering where you got your hands on those kits? We have struggled for over 6 months to find out if we have AFB or EFB. Honestly, all the signs point to EFB, but all the beekeepers in the area kind of insist we don’t have it around here (NW States) and it must be AFB. Its infected all of our hives (twelve). We tried shook swarming with some success and it has a there-you-see-it, now-you-don’t thing happening too. A badly infected hive in spring had totally cleaned itself up by fall! I’m stalling destroying all my hives and over a 100 boxes, with many 100′s of frames, many brand spanking new that were in the hives, but not drawn out. I’ve spend hours on the net, and have talked to some knowing folks over the phone, but still feel unsure. We have mis-shapen caps, but never a single successful “pull test” as shown in pictures. The larvae are always watery mushy but don’t pull out. I’ve seen twisting, and tracheal larvae, but I’ve also seen some slightly chewed up cappings from the bees apparently opening up the cell to see why nothing is hatching. I’ve seen dead uncapped larvae and dead capped larvae. I’ve seen dried hard scales, but I can flake them off. Any thoughts?

  11. WOW!….. There is such a lot to keeping Bee’s Emma, I read all of this with interest..And in can see there is lots and lots of work and attention to keep a healthy hive free from disease and other pests..

    Many thanks for directing me to this one.. 🙂
    Sue 😀

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