Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

What the bees did

“The bees don’t listen, do they?” said Jonesy. John Chapple and I nodded in agreement.

Alan had put on the kettle to make tea as we sat under the shade at the apiary table and shared stories about misbehaving bees.

Last weekend, it was a gloriously hot and sunny Saturday afternoon and the nectar, as well as the conversation, was in full flow. Emily and I had inspected our three hives and found that the honeybees were not wasting a second of the good weather either.

We had arrived at noon before the other beekeepers to carry out a thorough inspection of a suspected queenless colony. The queen was last seen three weeks ago by myself and Jochen. She was big, orange and beautiful. But she had since failed to lay a single egg and the colony was dwindling without brood or stores.

Eggs can be tricky to see on the comb until you know what you’re looking for – one tiny grain of ‘rice’ sticking up from the middle of a cell. Here I’ve ringed two eggs laid by Queen Angelica.

TIP: I have since learned from anecdotal sources that a virgin queen can be large rather than small and so appear to be mated, or, of course, a mated queen may look big and beautiful but may not have mated well. The only proof of a successfully mated queen is seeing eggs, larvae and worker-brood on the frames. Thanks to the Women in Beekeeping Facebook Group for that tip!

While waiting for her majesty to settle into her egg-laying duties (which can sometimes take a few weeks depending on the conditions inside and outside the hive), Emily and I had reduced the colony to one hive box by encouraging the bees to rob out the super above and take the honey down below. This would make it easier to search for a missing queen or to combine the hive, if it truly was queenless, with a queen-right colony.

Going through the frames, there was no sign of a queen or eggs and we were about to reach for the newspaper to unite colonies when at the eleventh hour (or the tenth frame) Emily spotted a queen. She was not the giant orange beauty but a smaller, darker queen, and as I held up the frame we watched her release an egg from her ovipositor and carefully deposit it into a cell, surrounded by a retinue of attentive workers.

After so many years of keeping bees, it is still a sight to see the queen in action. And with no other eggs seen inside the hive, perhaps we had watched her lay the first egg.

I also never get tired of seeing a bee emerge from her cell by chewing away the wax capping. 

What happened to the orange queen? I had put a frame with four or five queen cells (two looked particularly promising) into the hive on the weekend of the first May bank holiday. This was an attempt to requeen the colony after the old queen, Patience, had disappeared without leaving behind any daughters. Had more than one queen emerged? Perhaps this dark mystery queen had killed her sister for the throne?

Or did the orange beauty get eaten by a bird or fly into a spider’s web on her mating flight, (a queen’s mating flight can be a perilous journey), or even fly away in a cast-off swarm? We’ll never know.

The hive was not out of the woods. The new queen and her old workers faced the huge task of rebuilding the nest. So Emily and I put in a frame from our stronger colony and refilled the syrup feeder above the crownboard.

John arrived as we closed up. He had a surprise to show us.

A wasp queen and her workers had also been busy nest building and their creation was a work of art. I’m not sure if this is a paper wasp nest or a wood wasp. Does anyone know?

What we named the queens

A heatwave was about to hit London (this time last week) and I hoped that the foragers would fly home with stomachs full of nectar and baskets heavy with pollen for all three queens and their colonies.

Emily and I name our queens after essential oils – partly because I’m an aromatherapist and had started this tradition with my first hive, and partly because of the intricate relationship that exists between the honeybee and these vital essences of flowers.

The queen of our largest hive – an amber-and-black striped amazon – is named after the essential oil of everlasting, because she comes from such a long line of queens. The queen of the nuc hive – who has a long dark tail with orange–brown flecks – is named after the essential oil of angelica, which reflects the angelic nature of our bees. And the newest queen – who is small and dark – is called Rose-Jasmine (RJ) as these were the names of Emily and my first queens respectively at around the time that we became hive partners in 2011.

I’ve added the new queens to our honeybee-family tree:

What the bees did next

When the hottest day for forty years arrived on Wednesday (sounds biblical doesn’t it) and temperatures in London soared to almost 35°C, I went to the apiary to put a super on Everlasting’s hive and to transfer Angelica’s colony from the polynuc to a full-size hive. This was to give the bees more space and to stop them from having ideas about swarming.

On Saturday I was eager to open up the hives and find out what the bees had done during the heatwave. Everlasting and Angelica were building up their brood nests nicely. Rose-Jasmine did not show herself again and disappointingly had not laid any more eggs. Had yet another queen failed for this unlucky colony?

Emily and I looked at the signs. The workers had drawn out honeycomb on a new frame and were forming strings of wax builders, polishing out cells, bringing home pollen and glistening nectar, and behaving calmly and purposefully – all of which suggests that a queen was present and keeping the colony working as a whole. There were no signs of laying workers, which might have suggested that the queen was gone.

When the workers prepare to swarm, they starve the queen to make her skinny to fly and to slow down her egg-laying. Perhaps something similar was happening here. The workers were not preparing to swarm, but they had not brought home much nectar and the queen might be simply too hungry to lay eggs.

We decided to give the colony one more chance by feeding it as much as possible for the next two weeks to see if this will stimulate the queen to lay. If she doesn’t produce the goods, then she may lose her throne. We’ll have to wait and see.

The queen drama in June reminded me that the bees never put all their eggs in one basket. The workers may build up to sixteen queen cells to make a new queen even though the colony needs only one. To make life you need a lot of chances.

Queen Hope left behind at least two daughters who have proven to be good egg-layers for their colonies. Here is Everlasting with her long beautiful orange tail and black markings – I think she has the looks of her great, great, great, great grandmother Neroli.

This is something that particularly hits home for me. In the past twelve months, my husband and I have had two failed IVF cycles and the loss that comes with it. It can take some time to move on from that.

That is why I felt a pang at the idea of taking down any of the queen cells in May, and instead used them to requeen the queenless colony and to create a split colony in the nuc. It is a pleasure to see that all three colonies did produce a queen and that two, at least, are alive and laying. And as ever, it feels like a privilege that the bees tolerate and allow me to be a part of their world.

That done, Emily and I helped John Chapple to take off some honey from his hives and then we all had a well-deserved sit down and a slice of cake at the apiary table. You can read about the cake in my previous post, in which Stan did the honours of cutting it with a hive tool.

Tom was giving a beginners session on queen-rearing by showing the beginners how to graft young larvae onto starter cells. Yet more queen drama about to begin at Ealing apiary!

Last weekend, my husband John discovered a butterfly meadow just around the corner from where we live and took me to see it as a surprise. I’ve never seen so many butterflies. So you see, you never know what lies around the corner in life and that’s why it’s a good idea to enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.

This weekend rain is forecast for the week ahead and to be honest it is needed for the trees and flowers to continue producing nectar for the bees, butterflies and other pollinators. After that, the sun is welcome to come again.

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14 thoughts on “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

  1. I love your fascinating insights into beekeeping. I do hope you and your husband have success with future cycles.
    It seems to be bees all round as I am trying to paint the swarm that we had in our street this month.

    • Thank you so much and I can’t wait to see your painting of a honeybee swarm. I wish we’d have a swarm in our street – a nice excuse for me to catch the bees and keep them in our garden 😉

    • Hi Amelia and thank you. I seem to have lost track of comments with this post…the life of the queen is a good insight into the hive, you are right, as although she doesn’t truly ‘rule’ the hive (I think the house bees do that), her life and health is so important to the colony. We are spending today in the garden to enjoy our hard work out there for the past few weeks and I’ve noticed already that the honeybees are hard at work on the cotoneaster. Have a lovely day ahead to you both.

  2. My daughter is learning about the Tudors at the moment and your queen sagas remind me a bit of them! I’m so sorry to hear that IVF hasn’t worked for you, utterly heart breaking – take good care of yourself.

  3. Thanks for adding to our queens’ family tree. I’m glad we have been able to nurture our queens and appreciate all that they do for us. Very difficult to heal your heart after such sadness but perhaps the beauty of nature, your garden and the bees can help a little during the hard times.

    • We have been so lucky that our line of queens have lasted so long, and in that time I like to think that our two swarmed queens Lavender and Hope were successfully collected and went on to continue other branches of the family tree 😉

    • Thank you, Philip, and sorry I’ve only just seen your comment, and it is very nice of you to say. We are trying hard to enjoy this summer and all the other things in life. Today it is our garden that makes us feel blessed. Have a great Sunday ahead 🙂

  4. Hi Emma,
    I have embraced the C21 and its technological revolution! I have recently started a facebook group entitled ‘all about skeps’. Please feel free to join / comment or spread the word to any other like minded folk.

    Keep up the good work.

    Thank you

    Neil & Sammy Page

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