Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hive Split Attempt, Part I

My last bee post recapped the sad ending to my sweet bee hive.  Fortunately, my co-keeper Venessa's hive had an amazingly healthy winter, and by early April, was showing signs of an impending swarming (the natural reproductive means for honey bee colonies).  Rather than attempting to catch a swarm (which can be done, if you happen to be around when the hive swarms), we wanted to split this healthy colony into two smaller ones.  The ideal situation would be to time this split right when the hive is starting their normal swarm activity.

When bees are about to swarm, the hive builds 2-4 queen cells, and feeds the larve in these cells plentiful amounts of Royal Jelly, a highly nutritious substance that transforms normal worker bee larvae into Queen larvae.  While the new queens are incubating, the existing queen gathers a portion of the workers to leave the hive and seek out new space, splitting the colony into two. The remaining workers stay behind to support the colony and tend to the emerging queens, who, immediately upon hatching, have a battle to the death to determine the new ruling queen.  That queen bee which kills her competitors while evading their stingers is the victor.  (Very Hunger Games-esque, but with only females- Queen Katniss will have no Peeta to help defend her in the Hive Hunger Games. Honey Games? I digress).

The idea is to time a split so that the queen is still in the hive, perhaps about to swarm, but queen cells have been laid.  We opened the hive on a sunny mid-April Sunday with this goal in mind.  In the burr-comb between the top box and the bottom box, we saw Queen cells!  Or so we thought they were queen cells.... in any case, they were distributed in both the top of the bottom box and the bottom of the top box. We made a quick decision to go ahead and just split the boxes, since there was, presumably, a queen cell in each, and these cells would soon take over queen duties in each hive.  We set up a base and a second box and just moved the top box of our hive over on to the empty box.  For the original hive, we added a second box below the top box.  We then crossed our fingers, and walked away.

Over the next few days, I did a bit of research about our on-the-fly "walk away split" technique (which actually is a real technique, but we really missed a few critical steps).  I learned, in this process, that what we saw were actually drone cells and not queen cells. 
Here's the difference- the long, peanut-shell looking cells on the bottom are queen cells. The round, puffy cells at the top are drone cells.  Whoops!  Now we know! (Photo from  the Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey blog). 
Drone cells house the males of the colony, which are relatively few in number and very limited in usefulness.  Drones cannot sting and cannot feed themselves- they basically lay around for their entire lives, until they take flights to look for queens to mate with.  Not a bad gig, to be sure, to be a drone.  From the colony's perspective, though, drones are no replacement for a queen.  Bee colonies need queens to survive, as she is the only bee capable of laying new worker bees.  Often, if a hive is queenless and not able to rear a new queen from larvae in the hive, a worker will start to lay drones.  Once you have a laying worker, it is very hard to get a hive to accept a new queen, and basically, all the bees in the hive are done for.  

Given all of this, I began to worry that our well-intentioned but uninformed split was causing at least one of the hives to be queenless, and possibly headed for the dire straits of a laying worker situation.  We needed a strategy to get both of our hives "queenright," and stat!  

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