The business of bees is not as simple nor as satisfying as one might think. Venus and I have both learned a great deal ever since we purchased our first hive box and package of bees in late April.
But we still have much to learn. Our mistakes may have cost us the life of one colony. I hope not. There's still time for our hive to recover. But that's not up to us now. It's up to fate. It's up to nature. It's up to God.
I'd like to thank Howard Mann from the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association for contributing some really intense photos attached with this posting (the best you'll ever see on this blog). Howard has been nurting bees in his North Highlands backyard for darn near a decade, and is now serving as a mentor for both Venus and I.
The emergency steps we have taken in the past three weeks with Howard's help just might work. Then again, they might not. But at least I can content myself with the knowledge that I've done everything I can to save our hive.
Some of the passages in the book "First Lessons in Beekeeping" by Keith Delaplane stand out rather ominously now. I didn't initially understand the phrase: "75% of all new hives fail in the first year." I do now. That's a true statement.
The first inkling that the Hello Kitty hive was in serious trouble came three weeks ago when I finally built up enough courage to check on the progress of the Queen. It would be the first visit back inside the hive since I removed a large patch of burr comb, and suffered three stings in the process.
Although the stings didn't really hurt all that much (really, they didn't), they do serve as a warning of what can go wrong when you inspect a hive. Three stings can turn into ten rather quickly. But, if I was going to be serious about maintaining a hive in the backyard, the progress check had to be done.
What I found -- and what you see to the right -- spelled a massive jolt of trouble. Those empty combs were a massive disappointment. If you look closely, you can see a male bee -- called a drone -- emerging from his bullet-capped cell. You can also clearly see other bullet-capped cells in the same picture.
But what I should have encountered, and did not, is lots of brown, flat capped cells among the few drone cells. Those are the female worker bees, and its those bees that can mean success, or spell doom, for any beekeeper. I clearly didn't have any. I also couldn't find the queen either.
What I did find during the hive check three weeks ago is a colony severely depleted in numbers. A queenless colony. What happened to our queen? I'm not really sure. I could have accidentally killed her on the night of the previous visit, when I clearly upset the hive by removing burr comb buildup. Or, she could have abandoned the hive on her own. She also could have been killed by other workers.
Any number of things could have happened.
The picture to your left represents what I should have found when I checked the hive. It is what i was hoping to find. This is a frame from a healthy hive. All of those flat, tan colored combs belong to female workers that have yet to emerge. They will breathe new life into any colony. I had nothing like this.
As disappointed as I was by finding a near empty hive and a few bullet-shaped cappings, the news was about to get worse. Others more experienced than me at this business informed me that I might have a "laying worker" inside the hive. That's a death sentence. Laying workers cannot produce other females. They can only lay eggs that will produce male drones. Soon I would have nothing left but hive of male drones, which would eventually die off.
The next bit of advice didn't make me any happier. You cannot "re-queen" a hive that contains a laying worker. The other bees will just kill the new queen. Do you know the only proven way to rid a hive of a laying worker? Every frame of the hive must be removed from the hive -- taken a distance of 80-to-100 feet away -- and then whacked silly to dislodge every remaining bee on each of all ten frames.
The "laying worker" will not have the ability to fly back to the hive (she's too fat), and will die. At that point, you CAN reintroduce a new queen into the hive, provided all those bees you've enraged during the removal process haven't taken their own lives by stinging the intruder destroying their home.
I needed help. Help arrived in the form of Howard Mann. He offered the experienced eye that Venus and I did not have, and knew what steps needed to be taken. Time was of the essence.
The first thing that Howard discovered after closely examing the bees in the hive is that the queen was obviously gone. That, we already knew. But he also delivered some unsuspected good news: the hive did not appear to have a laying worker. There would have been some evidence of a laying worker in LOTS of bullet shaped drone cells.
But, since I only had a few drones, he deduced very quickly that I did not have a laying worker, nor a queen. Even worse, the population of the existing hive had fallen into a near-failure state. Not only would I need to add a new queen to the hive, I would be forced to add new bees as well in what is referred to as a "nuc (nuke) transfer."
A "nuc transfer" is somewhat different from purchasing a "package of bees," which is what I had initially done last April. In a "nuc transfer" several frames of existing brood and bees are removed from a successful hive and directly inserted into a failing hive (like mine).
But, successful hives are hard to find in late June. If you're a beekeeper with a successful hive, you normally resist attempts to split the hive, unless you receive indications that the successful hive is so crowded, that bees are preparing to swarm. Then, and only then, will a beekeeper with a successful hive agree to sell some frames of brood and bees.
Once again, Howard's experience paid dividends. He knew other beekeepers in the Sacramento area who had queens. He knew others that had brood they were willing to part with. And, after a few phone calls and a quick trip to Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies in downtown Sacramento, I had my new queen (pictured to your left).
Unfortunately, you can't actually see her in that cage. But, trust me, she's there. She's covered with a dot of green paint on her abdomen, which makes her extremely easy to spot.
I also managed to acquire two frames of existing brood and bees, which I immediately inserted into my hive. Do you see the tan or brown colored cappings in the middle of that frame? Each one of those combs represents a female worker bee that has yet to emerge. Those new workers, and the new queen, represent new life for the hive. If you look closely in the upper right of the photo to your right, you'll also spot the new queen in her queen cage.
We were almost there.
Inserting the new frames into an existing hive is easy enough. The old bees mix in with the new bees easily enough. The new bees are immediately accepted because they didn't try to enter the hive. I placed them there. So, to the old bees, it was like nothing had happened. The new bees just sort of magically appeared.
But -- the story was different for the hundreds of bees who were flying around the frames and their new hive. Because they failed to stay on the frames when I inserted them into the hive, they were immediately attacked the moment they tried to enter the hive through the entrance at the bottom.
The old, or existing bees, saw them as invaders. The new bees were simply trying to gain access to the frames they called home. That, unfortunately, set off a Death Match 3000 fight between old and new in front of the hive. It's a match where both bees -- old and new -- would perish. As much as I didn't like it, bees are insects. This is just something that they do.
As for the new queen? Well, she got to hang out in the new hive for a bit -- but still very much protected by her queen cage. She sat in her cage -- held aloft by two frames pressed together -- for a good 72 hours. And then, in the final move of attempting to save my hive, we removed the cork covering the entrance to the queen cage, and laid it on top of the hive.
We waited and watched.
Sure enough -- about a minute later -- the queen emerged. She paid no notice to the beekeepers fawning over her -- no worry at all. She looked about, looked down, and immediately climbed into her hive. She was accepted without question. Long live the queen.
Does this mean new life for the Hello Kitty hive? Possibly. Keep your fingers crossed. I'm hoping and praying that the new queen is laying a bundle of eggs in frame after empty frame. My hope is that when we enter the hive next, we'll see frame after frame after frame of covered brood. Should we see that -- the Hello Kitty hive has got a fighting chance.
Time will tell.