I’m going to call last weekend’s events “mishaps”. Not misadventures and not disasters. Not yet.
Here’s a heavily edited version of what transpired at my Suffolk apiary. That’s because when I wrote down what actually happened on Saturday afternoon, the catalogue of woe was bigger and wider than Argos’s Christmas edition. So I binned it and started again.
Executive summary: 3 out of 4 hives turned out to be Queenless. Ness Hive was as conspicuously Queenless as a radical, regicidal republic. Castle Hive reverberated with an unmistakeable “queenless roar” as soon as I flipped the lid off. And Snape Hive, the pride of the apiary this year, had its brood frames ravaged by a drone-laying-Queen (DLQ) depositing drone eggs haphazardly in the brood box and, incredibly, sleighting through a metal queen excluder, ovipositing in the super. I ask you !
The first thing a beekeeper wants to see when a beehive is opened is clear evidence of Queen activity. If a perusal of “the Court circular” draws a blank for Her Majesty’s recent engagements, anxiety levels begin to rise. But there is one time of year when an AWOL monarch really sets the nerves jangling. And this is it. Autumn. The reason is that there is n0 breeding window left to replace her. Quite simply, no Queen means no new bees in a hive, assuring a long, dwindling death as the workers die of old age, unreplaced. A DLQ means a quicker annihilation, as drones gobble up precious resources both before and after emerging from their wax cells on a one-way ticket to oblivion.
I needed a plan. What I got instead was a confection of intuition and bee-knowledge, bow-tied with a ribbon of guesswork. I would dismantle Snape Hive and merge it with Ness Hive, feed and medicate the merged bees, then add a spare Queen next week. Readers of a sensitive disposition should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs, which contain explicit references to bee-husbandry. Some may find this offensive. And too technical by half.
Here goes: I restored 4 frames of foundation to the recently dummied-down Ness Hive and moved it to Snape Hive’s stand, adding lemongrass to the entrance to mask the distinct odours of Ness and Snape Hives as they united. (The flying bees from Ness Hive would return to an empty space, but would drift to neighbouring queenright Iken Hive). I moved Snape Hive 20 metres away and smoked it heavily, so that the bees would be crammed with honey to pay the price of admission to a foreign hive. Then I disassembled Snape Hive, shaking the bees frame by frame into the air and brushing off any stragglers onto the lawn. Finally a sharp bang on the brood box, for good measure, to dislodge any recalcitrant bees.
The evicted workers flew off to the newly-positioned Ness Hive – now renamed Snape Hive and crowned with Snape’s trademark roof, a sinuous white ‘S’. Initially, there was plenty of congestion on the threshold of the hive, since I have drawing-pinned a Queen excluder across the the entrance, to keep out any DLQ or drones. Half-an-hour later, I checked that there was no DLQ craving admission, then took off the QE and replaced the entrance block. I fed the uniting hive with 2 ½ gallons of thymolated syrup (to combat nosema), which will I hope the bees will use, unseasonably, to draw out the brood comb on the four new frames, ready to accept a new laying Queen.
Well, that’s the trailer. No doubt it is one of those trailers which is better than the actual movie. This could be a devastating setback to my Suffolk apiary as autumn sets in. Thank goodness I have spare queens in London (the adage about smooth succession being assured by “an heir and a spare” works just as well for bee dynasties as for human ones).
All is not yet lost, but I’m up against it in my first full year as a rural Suffolk beekeeper – and no mistake.