Royal Tribulations

Part of the fun of beekeeping is that there is always a story to tell.  Often the story line doesn’t go as planned and the beekeeper (that’s me!) has to come up with a new plan on the spot.  My spring splits this year were a case in point.

Over the winter I lost one colony to some CCD-like problem — most likely involving Nosema Ceranea.  Of the remaining two colonies, one was healthy and one was suffering  from Nosema Ceranea, but still building.  I wanted to do a split from the good hive, so I was on the lookout for a source of queens.  Leroy, one of our local beekeepers, had ordered a bunch of Buckfast queen cells from Ontario to try to add some quality genetics to his bees.  There were a few extras and they were inexpensive, so I signed up for two cells.

May 7: I made up two splits.  One was a nice five frame split out of my healthy hive.  This was to be the replacement colony and I wanted to give it a good start.  The other was three frames from the hive sick with Nosema.  This was the back-up.  I made the splits between rain showers in the morning and placed the queen cells between the frames later the same day.  After a couple of days I checked and, sure enough, both cells had hatched, with a nicely sliced hole and the trap-door still hanging from the cell.  I removed the cells, put the lids back on and waited for nice queen mating weather before checking further — everything going according to plan.

Come the weekend, after a nice potential mating day during the week, I went looking to see what I had.  In the big split I found my new Buckfast queen.  She looked nice enough except for her deformed wings that meant she could never fly on a mating flight.  I put the lid back on hoping that I would find good news in the back-up split.  Instead I found nothing.  Search as I might, there were no eggs, no queen.  But there were a couple of queen cells the bees had started on their own when I made the split, so I put the lid back on that one as well and pondered my choices.

I put in a call to my beekeeping buddies, to see if there were any other queens to be had.  Monday morning, Leroy called to tell me about a swarm call he had received, so armed with ladder and box of frames, I went forth to collect the swarm.  The report that it was ten feet off the ground proved to be wishful thinking.  The small swarm was a good twenty feet up in the branches of an old apple tree.  Some careful ladder work, acrobatics with a saw and a large tree branch, and soon the swarm was happily at home in the new box.

May 16: After bringing the swarm home, I went through the big split and found deformed wing queen and killed her.  Then I put a screen over the top of the split and placed the swarm box on top, giving them an upper entrance under the lid.  After a couple of days I removed the screen and everything has been great with that colony since.  As of today at the end of July it has filled two brood chambers, drawing half a dozen frames in the process, has a chock full super of honey, and is on its way to the second super.  That’s success!

Meanwhile…  there was the other split.  I should have combined it with the mother colony, but stubbornness prevailed, and I decided to see if I could do an increase this year and get a fourth colony going.  So patiently, I waited for the queen cell they had started to hatch out.  Around the first of June, with the main honey flow just around the corner, I checked the little split and lo– yet again the little queen had deformed wings!

Now surely, you say, its time to throw in the towel.  But at this point, the effort had some inertia that defied reason.  A rainy week eventually relented and on June 7 I found I nice full frame of brood and eggs from my strong colony to give the woeful split its final chance.  The bees built a single nice queen cell on that frame.  Again, I had a patient wait for the cell to hatch.

When dealing with queenless colonies, I always listen closely to the hive.  When the bees are truly desperately queenless, they are distressed and you can hear it in the dull roar the bees make when you open the hive.  To get the best audio fidelity to make the queen / no queen judgement, I don’t use smoke when opening the colony.   If the bees have a queen cell or a virgin queen in the hive, they are content.  Once the virgin queen hatches and she is about on the frames and not yet mated, she can be very hard to find.  Since the colony has been without a queen for quite a while,  there are no eggs or young brood.  This is the time when the sound of the hive is the best indicator of trouble or not, even if you can’t find the queen.

June 27:  Finally the little split had a nice new queen.  She was laying within a week, filling lots of empty holes with eggs.  No fancy Buckfast genes here, just the best my little apiary could provide.

She has her work cut out for her, building the little split into something that might survive the winter.  I’m going to have to build some better top and bottom boards for colony number four.  Right now it seems like it was worth the effort.  We will know that for sure if it is still a going concern next March.

By the way, the Nosema problem in the mother colony has abated with the coming of the honey flow.  No doubt it is still present, but you would be hard-pressed to know there was anything wrong just from outward appearances.  So what should I do to prepare the potentially sick colony for the winter, folks?


  1. I know, it’s riveting! Wish I had more experience and could offer the level of support you’re looking for. Thanks for letting all of us follow along.

    1. Hi Emily,
      I had to check your blog again, and I see you are having your own Royal Tribulations. I enjoy your descriptions and bee adventures!

      As to the Nosema problem, the first thing I’m going to do is make sure the bees are cozy, well ventilated, and dry. This will mean cutting back a few branches to give the hive a bit more airflow, and improving the hive top with more overhang and built-in ventilation. I might give the new split some Fumadil-B if I have to feed it anyway to provide adequate stores for the winter. Since the split came from the mother colony with Nosema, seems prudent to really knock it out of the new colony. But I’m tempted just to watch what happens with the old colony. I know it was severely sick, and then recovered. I’m curious how recovered it really is, and what the range of natural outcomes are for this disease.

      1. Hi Gary, I enjoy reading your blog too! From what I’ve read, strong hives can sometimes survive with nosema with no obvious symptoms appearing other than being slow to build up and increase in numbers, because it shortens a bee’s life by about 50%. It’s a common problem at my local association apiary. To try and prevent it happening we change all our comb every year to stop the spores building up.

  2. Emily, That’s a lot of comb changing! A couple of years ago I was going to just use deeps for honey so I would always have plenty of nice drawn comb to do things like this. However, the full supers were just too heavy! I do try to cycle comb through on a regular basis, but is probably more like ~5yr life time.

    One thing about Nosema Ceranea, however, is that the spores are not cold tolerant at all. You could just remove comb, put it in the freezer for a day or two, and the spores would be dead and you still have your comb.

    The bees live in a world of viruses, protozoic pathogens, now mites, and hive beetles. They are in it for the long hall. All we can do is help them a bit through the transitions when a new pest gets added to the milieu, and try not so sabotage their own efforts with toxic chemicals. Health doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of infections agents, it just means the colony can maintain its vigor in their presence. This usually means genetic changes for both the bees and the pathogen. Hives that are doing marginally well in the presence of a pathogen are good for both species. It might be because this colony has a less virulent pathogen, or a more resistant bees. Either way, passing the genes along of either species is good for future colony health. For colonies that were killed by Nosema – the bees are dead and so are the Nosema spores from that colony at this point. They did too good a job at their infection and killed themselves. Add the mix of other varying natural conditions and organisms and the ecology that is a honey bee colony will adapt and remain viable simply because the entire menagerie of symbiots and parasites requires its vitality.

    1. It is a lot of comb changing and a lot of work! Hours of banging frames together :) But I think it’s worth it as nosema apis can’t be killed by freezing and changing the comb all at once in a spring shook swarm has the added benefit of destroying most of your varroa. We’re getting no varroa falling on our monitoring boards at the moment and no deformed bees appearing. There’ll be some pesky mites in there but hopefully not too many. We are lucky enough not to have hive beetles over here yet.

      Hope your bees can recover, sounds like their parent colony are little fighters.

      1. Emily, I guess I’m just a little less “management intensive.” As far as Nosema goes, many years ago in Washington State I had bouts of Nosema Apis and treated with Fumadil-B, but haven’t done that for a couple of decades until the recent N. Ceranea problem. Do you know for sure which species you are dealing with? In a lot of ways England has a similar climate to us in the Pacific Northwest, so I can imagine that Ceranea could become dominant there as well. It seems to be even problematic in pretty cold climates where Apis has the advantage.

        Has your bee group ever done a side-by-side comparison of comb-exchange versus not? These things are really hard to quantify – to know that there really is an effect. Us beekeepers area bright bunch, and we see lots of reasons why certain practices should do certain things. We observe results and draw conclusions. But I’ve done enough science to know that even with the best controls, seldom to you get unequivocal results. Look at Randy Oliver’s site and you see the “reality” of trying to make heads or tails of this stuff. (I got a big kick out of his result that correlated high Nosema spore counts with most honey production!)

        I’m pretty clean on the Varroa front as well at the moment. I suspect that they are all hanging out in the brood, and that come the end of the season as the queen shuts down, the Varroa drop will increase. I’m always amazed at how positive growth is for general health. The killer is maintaining health in times of contraction. (Think about that in terms of the economy as well!)

  3. My hives haven’t had nosema yet as far as I know, but some other hives in the apiary were tested after dying out and I think it came back as Apis. But both types are a problem in the UK I think.

    We haven’t done a side by side comparison as it’s a small apiary and the beekeepers in charge like to get everyone doing the treatments at once so some colonies aren’t infecting others. They say EFB used to be a recurring problem but hasn’t been in the apiary since we started annual comb changing. I love Randy Oliver’s site!

    Glad to hear you’re not seeing any varroa yet either. I’m sure the little buggers are in mine but hopefully not in great numbers as I’m not seeing any deformed wings. We’re starting Apiguard treatment in the apiary the first week of August. I remember last year I was finding over a hundred mites dropping on my monitoring board each week in December despite all the treatments, so you’re right about keeping them healthy when numbers are low being the tricky bit.

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