Beau June 9th, 2010
With the rain and warmer weather, this year has been good for the bees so far. My hives are really increasing their bee populations now, all except for one. When I installed the package of bees for the hive I remembered thinking there were a lot of drones (males) in there. I wasn’t too concerned however because I was installing a new queen right along with them. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but it’s now pretty apparent that I have a “drone laying queen.”
I thought at first I had laying workers, where there’s no queen and some of the workers began laying many infertile eggs. But you can tell that pretty clearly from multiple eggs in each cell, which I don’t have. And I have a good-looking queen in there, laying single eggs. Just not fertile ones!
What does that really mean? Simply that the queen bee in this hive is not laying enough fertile eggs that can develop into female worker bees. She is laying some fertile eggs, but not enough. How does that happen? Well she could be older or running out of eggs, or if the queen wasn’t fertilized properly on her mating flights. Perhaps it was too rainy or whatever, and then even though she lays eggs and looks strong, many or all of those eggs are infertile and may simply develop into drones (male bees). Take a look at this picture (click for full-size detail):
It’s not as healthy a brood pattern as you would like to see. A nice brood pattern is much tighter, and more uniform. In the picture above there are mostly scattered brood cells, all over the frame. And see the puffier ones that bulge outwards? Those are the drone cells because drones are bigger bees. Look at that big drone halfway down and to the left, and compare his size to the workers. This weak pattern existed on several frames in this hive and the queen was just wandering around all over the place. I think she’s laying both fertile and infertile eggs because there are worker bee cells and larvae in addition to all the drone cells.
Yesterday as I stood at the hive entrance I counted nearly 50% drones entering and leaving the hive right along with the workers. That’s pretty bad… too many drones simply eat all the nectar and honey stores, and don’t contribute anything. Well they do contribute something… they say it takes at least 12 drones to mate with a queen bee for proper fertilization, so they’re necessary. Just not all the time! Yes, snicker, snicker. But that’s why in Autumn we see the drones being dragged out of the hive because they don’t need to overwinter and eat all the stores inside. The queen bee can always produce more drones when needed.
Obviously for a normal, strong hive you need countless thousands of female workers, or the hive won’t survive (or make any honey!). Right now my drone-laying queen hive is slowly losing ground, kind of like running in place on a backwards moving treadmill without growing the worker population.
Here’s a frame from one of the strong hives. See the much tighter pattern of brood? Just what I like seeing, especially with the honey stores at the outside upper and lower edge of the frame. The queen in this hive is awesome, and their population has exploded recently.
So how do I fix the problem hive? Out with the old queen and in with a new one! Ah, but not as simple as it sounds and there’s many ways to go about it. I was thinking about shaking out some drone heavy frames and providing a few frames of open brood from a strong hive… with the right pheromones and fertilized brood they should be able raise a new queen. Should. Or perhaps the hive would raise a new queen themselves, but that might not happen for a long time, or at all before the hive dies out.
A friend suggested starting a new hive or nucleus (smaller) hive with a new queen. After a couple weeks, take the old hive and literally shake out all the bees on the ground a little distance away… workers, drones, queen, everything. Then I install the new queen/nuc frames into the original hive/location, and put a queen excluder on the bottom. Voila! New hive, and all the workers from the old one will come back and join the new one. But all those lazy honey-eating drones will be stuck outside, along with the old queen.
Sounds like a plan to me… but what do you think? How would you approach it? Isn’t beekeeping fun!