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Sometimes, beekeeping doesn’t go according to the beekeeper’s plan.  Bees are dynamic creatures, with free will, and sometimes, despite all the preparations, reading, attending guild meetings, and talking to beekeepers who are vastly more experienced than ourselves, the bees surprise us.

About a week ago during a nice warm afternoon we stopped by the hives to check on honey stores, and the feeders. The bees have been fortunate this winter so far. Even though mornings have been cold, it’s been dry, and the afternoons have been climbing into the mid-60s, so there’s been plenty of foraging activity in the apiary.

Rosemary Queen (center) in September 2011

During our last visit we noted there was absolutely no activity at the entrance of the Rosemary hive, even though their neighbors were zipping in and out, and clearly bringing in lots of bright orange, and pale yellow pollen.

The entrance of the adjacent hive, Salvia, was bustling with activity, with plenty of pollen coming in

Rosemary, a package colony, had looked a fair bit weaker than our two feral colonies for at least a few weeks, but seemed to be hanging in there.  Suddenly though, the entrance seemed eerily quiet.

We noted a few dead bees at the entrance, and fearing the worst, we popped the lid off the Rosemary hive, removed the feeder, and peered between the frames.

Approximately 20 dead bees were scattered at the entrance of the Rosemary Hive

Silence.  No bees, and looking down through the hive, I could clearly see the bottom board, and a few scattered dead bee bodies. The food in the feeder was untouched.  Sadly it seemed the Rosemary hive, like Chamomile before it, was dead.

Because the New Year tends to be busy for us in the orchard, I postponed dissecting the Rosemary hive for a few days, each day looking at the entrance just to be sure.  Still nothing.  Yesterday I knew I needed to make time to get in there, see what happened, and at a bare minimum remove the pollen frames to discourage wax moths from moving in and destroying the combs.

I took off the lid, removed the feeder, and popped off the top hive body, which was completely full of capped honey, and set it aside.

The next box down I noticed just a few bees that seemed to be clustering at the top of one of the frames.  At first I thought these were bees from the neighboring hives exploiting stores, although it seemed strange to me they were all in a clump. Robbers are usually more scattered throughout the hive.

I removed the adjacent frame and saw it was full of nectar.  The whole frame was uncapped, but there was plenty of fresh nectar, and some scant pollen.  Setting that frame aside, I went for the adjacent frame, where the bees were clustered.  There was maybe one-half cup of bees, by volume.

I turned the frame over, and was completely shocked to see…THE QUEEN!  Really?  She’s Alive!?

With so few bees in the hive, I was surprised to find the Queen, with a few attendants

I was sure this colony was dead.

I noticed there was some old capped brood, some partially emerged, but dead, and nothing else particularly remarkable. No eggs or larvae, but that’s to be expected this time of year.  The few bees near her highness seemed to be relatively uninterested in her though.

Making sure I held the frame over the hive body, as the first rule of beekeeping is DON’T drop the Queen, I snapped a quick shot of her (above) to show Mr. Curbstone when he came home, just as proof that I wasn’t imagining things.  Then, just as I pulled the viewfinder away from my eye, the Queen promptly flew off!

My heart completely sank.  I watched, slack-jawed, as she lithely buzzed up toward my face (I swear she stuck out her tongue at me), hung a sharp left, and peeled off behind the Salvia hive.  I tried to follow her, but soon lost her as she flew past some scrubby oaks.  None of her attendants even tried to follow her.

In the blink of an eye, the Rosemary Queen had abdicated her throne, with not so much as “so long, and thanks for all the fish“[1].

All I could think about was…she was there…right there…I have a photo.  I have proof!  Right on that frame!  I LOST HER?!?!?!

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Despite the massively diminished size of this colony, she had still survived, and my blasted ill-timed meddling caused her to leave.  I was so mad at myself.  In my defense, this whole darned thing started because I was sure this colony was dead in the first place, but still…*$&% it!

After a minute or two of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ buzzing through my brain, and mumbling “stupid…stupid…stupid” repeatedly at myself, all the while scrutinizing the surrounding shrubs, and the ground in front of the hive stand, I closed up the hive, and dashed inside to call our significantly more experienced mentor.

I started the conversation with “Hey, you won’t believe it, I just did a REALLY REALLY REALLY stupid thing to one of our hives…”  To which my mentor chuckled “So did I this morning! What did you do?” to which I replied “I broke the first cardinal rule of beekeeping, I lost the Queen“.  There was silence for a moment, and then “so did I!“.  We laughed, and I felt a little better, not much, but a little.

I filled him in on our Queen’s abdication, and then asked for his opinion on what to do next.  It didn’t seem that emergency re-queening with a purchased queen would be useful in this case, as there are so few worker bees left in the colony, they’d barely be able to feed her highness, never mind be able to cover the brood to keep them warm.  Do I do nothing, and just chalk it up to experience?  Combine the remaining workers with another colony?  Stand in the corner for the rest of the afternoon with my ‘bee-dunce’ hat on?

I really felt like a dunce for losing the Queen (Image Source: Public Domain)

His recommendation was to go back out in the apiary, and take a second look near the hives, in the shrubs, on the ground, have a Queen cage handy, and just be sure she’s nowhere obvious near the hive, as Queens don’t tend to fly far.  Then pop the top of the hive open slightly.  It’s rare, but apparently it is possible she could find her way back to the hive.  Really?  Well, why not?  I had nothing else to lose, right?  The Queen is already gone!

Before I got off the phone with our mentor, he reassured me that this happens more often than I might think, and it’s happened to him numerous times, including this very day when he was trying to combine two weaker colonies to give those bees a better chance to survive the rest of winter, so at least I was in good company.

Queen catcher (left), and Queen cage (top). The marshmallows are use to plug the hole in the queen cage to stop her escaping.

With Queen catcher, Queen cage, and trusty mini-marshmallows in hand, I went back out to the apiary, still mentally kicking myself, and scoured every square inch near the hives.  I saw a couple of bees crawling on the ground, but none were our missing Queen.

I cracked the lid open on the hive, hoping I didn’t set off a robbing frenzy, and pulled away the robbing screen at the entrance in case Her Royal Highness tried to return.  Before the temperatures dropped too much in the afternoon, I went back out to replace the lid.

I was concerned that leaving the lid cracked open would incite a robbing frenzy, as this colony was so weak

There was robbing, no question.  If I was the queen, I wouldn’t want to come home to that.  I replaced the lid, and the robbing screen, and wondered if there was really any chance she may have made it back amidst all that pandemonium.  It certainly seemed unlikely, it really seemed she flew off with intent.

After repositioning the lid on the hive, bees from the Salvia and Lavender colonies were still trying to gain entrance to steal the honey

I’ll check the hive again this afternoon.  What’s the worst that could happen, the Queen actually made it back, and I lose her again?  If there’s no sign of her royal highness, which I doubt, we’ll go ahead and pull the pollen frames, and freeze them, to discourage wax moth, and divide the remaining stores between our two strong feral colonies, if only to get everyone in the apiary to calm down.

Wax moths can quickly move into an empty hive, and destroy the honey comb

If by some miraculous chance I find the Queen in the hive, we’ll need to combine what’s left of this colony with a stronger hive, most likely the Lavender colony.  If we leave them as is though, even if the Queen is in residence, they’re doomed to fail, there just aren’t enough of them.

Winter can be a challenging time for a colony. This was Rosemary just a few months ago.

In the meantime, I’ll chalk my first Queen loss up to experience.  It was bound to happen, as every beekeeper loses a Queen at one time or another.  However, the next time I do a winter hive check, as soon as I spot the Queen, there’ll be no photos…no curtsies…I’m slamming that lid SHUT!

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[1] So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish is the title of the fourth book in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.