Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Confronting Queen Problems in Five Package Colonies

- April 1, 2019 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

From all my 50 packages bought in the 1970s, I had one kind of queen problem. Five packages had dead queens — right in their cages — seen upon first inspection. After much discussion and numerous phone calls, the cause was thought to be rough handling when the queens were caged. The cause(s) of queen problems in the five package colonies I ordered last season would be more cryptic and elusive.

I had installed all of the packages. The bees of four of the packages had displayed accepting behavior on the screen of the cages. The behavior appeared as bees calmly walking on the screen of the queen cage. Some bees may briefly bite and pull at the screen wires. That is still accepting behavior. Figure 1 shows bees displaying accepting behavior.

I immediately returned to Hive 35, because the package bees had been balling the queen cage upon its removal from the package. For what follows, know that queen balling is not completely understood, far from it. Bees may even ball a queen possibly as a way to protect her. However, in this situation, the bees aggressively balling the screen of the queen cage was a sign of queen rejection, meaning if the bees could get to the queen, they would probably kill her. Figure 2 shows the queen cage right as I removed it from the package, not trying to shake the bees off of the cage. Figure 3 shows the cage after I gently herded away most of the bees with only my fingers, and not a whiff of smoke. This bee handling was very delicate.

One needs to reason carefully in this situation with Hive 35. The five packages were mailed, not hauled and delivered overnight to me. The bees and the queens had been together long enough for the bees to show accepting behavior toward their new queens. If the five packages were all made at the same time using essentially the same bee source, then the four colonies showing queen acceptance gave strong evidence that the queen rejection in Hive 35 was truly something unusual.

In my experience, when package bees reject their caged queen, most likely another queen is loose in the cluster. She could be the mother queen of some bees in the shipping cage, who, of course, have accepted her. With this queen being mobile, intuitively it would seem her pheromones are disseminated better than those of the caged queen behind a barrier of balling hostile bees covering the screen. Therefore, the mobile queen becomes the accepted one while the bees reject the (most likely) unrelated (foreign) queen in the cage.

(Furthermore, I have never seen a free-roaming queen being balled in a shipping cage. If it ever happened, the queen ball would probably detach from the cluster and drop on the cage floor, like queen balls fall from usurpation swarms when they unite in the apiary. That is why I advise beekeepers: Be careful where you step near a usurpation swarm. You could kill the queens.)

Having just hived the package in Hive 35, the situation called for an immediate hive inspection to remove the second queen or confirm she was not there. The inspection should not be delayed. When the bees have a free-roaming second queen in the cluster, they could leave the hive with that queen. Then the beekeeper would find only some straggler bees around the caged queen. Obviously, the beekeeper would be at a financial loss, usually over $100. However, the sudden bee loss is also shocking to a new beekeeper, so early in their bee experience.

Moreover, do not think the brand-new woodenware of the hive will keep the bees from flying off. A new hive may have a pleasant aroma of foundation to us. To the bees, I do not think a frame hive is very attractive. The situation is similar with a brand-new top-bar hive, lacking even foundation. The bees might leave it too. On the other hand, if I could get a frame of brood, preferably with some young larvae, I would give that to the colony. The brood would help establish the “unstable swarm” as a fledgling colony and stop it from leaving. The next day sighting a queen or the very beginning of queen cells on the comb would tell the queen status of the bees. The difficulty here is that most new beekeepers do not have that quick access to the needed brood comb, which is another reason to have an experienced beekeeping mentor or help from a local beekeeping association.

Although Hive 35 with a newly hived package was — definitely — not the best time for a bee-by-bee queen search, the situation required it. Because left alone, the bees could abscond when flight conditions were favorable. The queen hunting was similar to hunting virgin queens in a newly-hived after swarm. I searched the frames of foundation, the hive walls, across the floor, and all around the frame feeder. I checked every small group of bees, because they typically find the queen long before I come along. And guess what? I found nothing. No queen. What next?

From my queen introduction studies in my bee house, I know the attendant bees can delay a colony’s transition from queen rejection to acceptance, sometimes for a long time (with an established colony during a dearth). With no evidence of a second queen arriving with the bees, a possible solution would be to remove the attendant bees, leave the cork in the candy exit hole, and replace the cage as specified in my previous article (February 2019). When the bees stopped balling the cage, I would remove the cork, and then let the time-release candy mechanism begin as with a regular queen introduction.

I followed this plan except I wanted to see if Hive 35 might be a situation that other beekeepers were experiencing. So I left the attendant bees in the cage, figuring that is probably what a typical beekeeper might have done. Understand, however, that given the strange delay in queen acceptance, I consider it risky to leave the attendants in the cage. After the screen balling stopped, I was hoping it would not restart, because I have observed that with the attendants in the cage. Also with attendant bees in the cage, I have observed some queenless colonies permanently reject a new queen; that is, the balling never stopped. Those queens were doomed.

My extended queen introduction plan worked. The balling finally ceased, though after about a week, much longer than the roughly three-day introduction period. I removed the cork. The bees released the queen, and she began laying eggs. With a routine introduction, I think the queen would have been killed.

Strangely though, Colony 35 had a lingering difficulty, maybe a queen problem. The most obvious symptom was not enough worker eggs when the bees of the brood nest covered plenty of empty brood cells. Some peripheral brood cells appeared cleaned out and shiny, ready to receive eggs. Brood occupied only roughly 75% of the available brood cells. The bees consumed syrup and pollen patties, and the brood nest grew, but slowly and leaving some brood cells empty. I do not recall ever observing such an odd symptom in the spring with a young queen from a package. I continued feeding until the nectar flow took over and the bees greatly reduced their syrup intake. At the same time I found other queen problems in the package colonies, which shifted my attention away from Hive 35 because it was, at least, growing.

I hived the packages on April 21, 2018. For the four remaining package colonies, after three days I checked the cage holes for queen release. The holes were open, showing no queens remained in the cages. Instead of squinting, and hunting through the hives for small patches of eggs, I generally wait several more days. Then I look for larvae on milky white beds of worker jelly. A new brood nest of larvae is easy to spot, keeping the inspection brief. I also get the opportunity to see if the larvae are well fed. The syrup, patty feeding, and natural pollen collection should provide optimal conditions for good nutrition. I also inspect for an excessive number of “missed” cells, meaning cells with younger larvae, including eggs, compared to the more uniform larval size of that patch. During the pupal (post-capping) stage, similar-aged brood all eventually becomes capped, hiding the missed cells, which are the “breaks” in the solid pattern. For checking the solidness of a queen’s brood pattern, I use her larval pattern rather than her sealed brood pattern. The larval pattern is particularly useful in the first assessment of a young queen, even before her brood is capped.

Hives 30 and 36 had large patches of young larvae surrounded by eggs, just as expected. Hive 34 had a similar growing brood nest. Suddenly, terrible, cringing news came on the back edge of its brood nest — a clutch of ….