The Life of a Breconshire Beekeeper April 2021

There is no brood in my hive!

Every year from around May onwards, beekeepers’ find that when they inspect their hive(s) they sometimes find that there is no brood.

Typically, you may have seen a queen cell or queen cells, QC, and depending on the type of QC that you find, you may have taken action. If you find swarm QCs, but the queen is still in the hive, then you may split the colony in some way to try and prevent them from swarming. If you can’t see the queen or any eggs or young brood then you may assume the colony has swarmed. In this case you can knock down most QCs leaving one or two as you don’t want them to swarm again with a virgin queen. Or you may decide to split the colony into nucs with a QC each.

Alternatively, you may find emergency QCs in which case its best to leave them to get on with it.

In any of these cases, you wait for the queen to emerge, to mate and then to start laying. Its wise to leave the colony alone for at least 10 days after the new queen has emerged as she may be on a mating flight and get lost coming home because you’re looking through the hive. (The beekeeper is responsible for making a colony queenless in around half of all queenless situations I reckon.)

However, often when you look at the colony you find that the queen hasn’t started to lay yet, and you can’t find her. As time goes on all of the brood from the old queen emerges and the colony is completely broodless.

The new queen won’t start to lay until all of the old queen’s brood has emerged. The workers control when the queen lays.

Now, there is a way to test for queenlessness in this case and that is to put a frame of eggs and/or very young brood into the colony as a test. The idea is that if the colony is queenless, then the bees will make a new queen. Next time you inspect the colony you find an emergency cell or two. That confirms to you that the colony was indeed queenless. I have done this several times in the past.

But….when should you put the frame of eggs into the hive? I raise this question as a frame of brood is valuable and you have to take it from another colony, weakening it. particularly in a cold Spring like this one. Some colonies have started slowly, so you take it from your strong colony, possibly affecting honey production. Big decision if you have only a few hives.

Lets have a closer look at the process and the timing; the new queen won’t start to lay until all the brood of the last queen has emerged…a broodless colony. The new queen has 21 days in which to mate after which she’s too old to mate. So if we look at her own case from egg to queen 16 days, followed by 21 days to mate, then some days to start to lay, maximum delay six weeks (42 days).

All of the brood from the previous queen will have emerged; the workers 21 days, there may be some drone brood (24 days), but the colony can be broodless for two or more weeks before the queen comes into lay.

On average, there is a 30 day brood gap (no eggs) between swarming and a new queen starting to lay. (Incidentally, for each day a colony is broodless, it loses 2% of its varroa population, this is why a nuc can be strong through winter, it has a very low varroa mite population. Reference to Ralph Buchler, see my previous posts)

Then you need to consider that if left too long with no queen the workers will start to lay, and that usually means the colony becomes useless.

Also, there are some who say that a new queen won’t lay if there is any brood in the colony, including the frame of eggs that you put in. There was a webinar on BIBBA recently where Tony Jefferson talked about queen rearing in the North East of England where his main crop of honey is from heather. Tony talks about new queens not laying and he says if you put a frame of eggs into a broodless colony, the queen won’t lay until there’s no brood. Now in this case the queen may become too old to lay.

I have experienced colonies with a new queen not laying, then putting in a frame of eggs and the bees don’t make a QC. Until recently I was perplexed by this, but I now see that it could be the case of a queen being there but not laying yet.

So….how long should you wait with your broodless colony. As explained above six weeks (42 days) and if she still hasn’t started to lay, then put in a frame of eggs or combine the colony with another above a queen excluder, as if there is actually a queen there she will be isolated from the one below the QE. You don’t want to leave them too long such that the workers start laying.

When I first started beekeeping, my colony seemed queenless early in the season so I bought a queen and carefully introduced her only to see her killed next time I looked…..and there was a slim black queen that I had missed…just started to lay.

The most important thing here is to keep detailed notes, otherwise you’ll never know when the queen emerged, how old she is etc.

My queen is a drone layer

What to do? You open up your hive and find that the queen is a drone layer.

I had this situation earlier in the spring; I also had a queenright colony that was very small, such that I had moved it into a nuc box. It had one small patch of brood and a handful of bees.

I put this small colony in the position of the drone laying colony, then moved the drone laying colony away more than three feet and the entrance facing the opposite direction.

I decided to let the flying bees from the drone layer come back to the small queenright nucleus of bees. Three days later I checked the nuc and the colony was now much stronger and the queen was still ok. The bees were taking pollen in and had a happier feel to them. You learn to get a feel for the bees and as a drone layer the bees were lethargic, now they had an urgency to them, they weren’t agitated at all.

I then took the drone laying hive about 30m away and shook all the bees out onto the grass. The flying bees would now go back to the nuc and the queen and hopefully any laying queen or workers would be left in the grass.

I left the nuc for a couple of days and then checked it again. I found that the queen had laid up three frames. Great! The nuc was by now pretty full of bees so I moved them back into a normal BS hive.

Cold start to Spring continues

This year has been a cold start to Spring; the Blackthorn is still in flower as the Hawthorn is about to flower in some places. I took photos of bees on the pear blossom at least two weeks later than in 2020 and the apple blossom is a full month later. I fed smaller colonies and nucs until early April to keep them going with brood growth.

Have a look at some of the photos I have taken and put onto instagram

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