And then it all went pear-shaped…
It has been a while since I last wrote. However, after a long period of trial and error, I can now sit back and relax for a fortnight before I winter my bees down again, as I am on the opposite side of the planet from most of you.
I came out of a mild winter; both my hives had overwintered well. Both colonies increased at an enormous pace, and the colonies were buzzing with life. Before I knew it, it was time to add the supers to the hives and let the honey season begin. I harvested about eighteen kilos of multi-floral honey and six kilos of manuka honey from the Pinus hive, and sixteen kilos from the Cupressus at the beginning of November 2021. Then it was time for me to book the inspector to come and inspect my hives for American Foul Brood (AFB) before the end of November.
I require an inspector as I am not qualified to inspect my hives yet. It is a long process to become qualified to do so, in New Zealand. I attended the AFB course and passed the exam. Then I had to make it through a year and have my hives inspected by a qualified inspector. One year after passing the exam, I applied for my licence, which I received. Now I have to wait another twelve months and have my hives re-inspected again in November this year by a qualified inspector. This is considered the time I am under supervision. If I pass this second inspection, I will become fully qualified to inspect my hives, so here’s hoping all goes well through the next winter.
Anyway, my locally recommended inspector had moved to the far north of the country and was no longer available. These moments are when you find out how important it is to belong or, at least, know of a local beekeeping club. There is no such club where I live, I had to contact the AFB authority as I was nearing the deadline to submit my inspection data, and I could not find an inspector. I finally booked an inspector who works at a commercial honey company, but the inspector delayed as he was too busy and then delayed several times again.
And after these delays, it all went pear-shaped, meaning wrong, very wrong indeed. I did not open my hives for three weeks, awaiting the inspection. In the meantime, both colonies swarmed, and I did not notice due to it raining non-stop for a week. I did manage to get another inspector to come and inspect my hives; she also works for a commercial beekeeping company. She opened the hives up, and I told her that I suspected that they had swarmed, as it appeared to me that there were a large number of bees missing. After being informed that it was her inspection and I should let her get on with it, she removed all the queen cells from both hives, trying to prevent them from swarming. She did not believe that they had already swarmed, due to the number of bees in the hives being only a little below average for that time of the year. She obviously had no idea how large the colonies looked before they swarmed. She never checked to make sure the hives were queen right.
This experience was a lesson that I learned the hard way. Never get just anybody to look at your hives. Even though she was qualified, that does not mean she is competent or even well-meaning. I found out, sometime later, that she lived very close to me and was most upset that our hives were so close together as I was a beginner could be a detriment to her hives.
So, there I was, with no queens or queen cells and no knowledge of a reputable queen breeder. There were a few eggs left in each hive. I left the bees to make an emergency queen each. That was never going to happen as it turned out that the eggs were from drone laying workers, but hey, an egg is an egg, and they all looked the same to me. A short time later, I ended up with two hives filled with drones. It is not quite what I had in mind.
I took a gamble after what happened the last time I got in some new bees. Last year, I purchased a nuc from a dealer about an hour’s drive away, and the bees were nasty. They were extremely aggressive. So, I ordered two queens from a breeder in the South Island, and a week later, they duly arrived. The seller had very kindly marked them for me. I doubled checked both hives to make sure there were no queens present and found a queen in one of them. What a surprise. There were no eggs, and she looked tiny, so I put her in a nuc box with a few frames, then put the cages into the respective hives and waited a few days. One of the queens was loose, but the other was not, so I let it out. Both hives looked fine, so I left them for a week.
The week eventually passed, and I could once again have a look in the hives to see what was happening. The Cupressus hive, where the queen left the cage by herself, was empty bar drones and even more capped drone brood. Over seventy-five percent of the colony consisted of drones, and then, of course, the varroa count hit the roof. I promptly put treatment strips in the hive, but to no avail. The brood was dying, and the drones looked unwell. The colony had contracted PMS (parasitic mite syndrome) from the varroa. The queen had absconded with the remainder of the worker bees. Because the hive was now weak, it also got a wax moth infestation.
The tiny queen I housed in the nuc got washed out due to extremely heavy rain. I was at the point where I nearly gave up on beekeeping, it was so stressful, and I just wanted it all to be over.
The Pinus hive feared a bit better. It had no wax moth that I could see, and the brood looked fairly healthy. I added varroa treatment to the hive and hoped for the best. The queen started laying eggs, but then for some unknown reason swarmed, and she took half the colony with her. I waited for two weeks however, nothing changed. I ordered another queen and was given this one for free. She arrived with pink marking on her. I checked the condition of the hive, found a very young queen, which I removed, then put the pink queen’s cage in and left it for three days. I marked the young queen I had found with blue paint that I had stored in the shed but managed to get it all over her head and half a wing. I then put the young “blue” queen in the Cupressus hive and swapped some frames round so that both hives now had a chance of coming right.
The next day I opened the hive to have a quick look to see if the blue-painted queen had survived her painting ordeal. I opened the Cupressus hive up, and the queen flew away. I waited for about fifteen minutes and did not see her return. Seriously, why am I doing this? I closed the hive up again, hoping she might return. Three days after putting the pink queen’s cage into the hive, I checked to see if the queen had managed to get out. She was still in the cage and was cowering in a corner. The resident bees appeared to have little interest in the queen cage, but when I opened it, the battles began. The helper bees from the cage were attacked and killed, and then the pink queen flew away.
I realised, almost immediately, that there must already be a queen in the hive. How could that be as I had already removed the queen? I stripped the hive down and examined every frame. They all looked relatively normal, weak, but normal. Then I spotter her… Who should be in the hive, but the queen, covered in blue paint! I could not believe my eyes. I opened up the other hive, and there was not a single bee to be seen. “Madam Bluebell” as I have now named her, took the remaining bees from the Cupressus hive and returned to her original Pinus hive. She managed to combine both colonies, which saved me doing it, as was my only remaining option.
This whole saga played out over three months. I am down to a single hive now, Pinus, and I check it weekly. Madam Bluebell runs a tight ship. There is brood in any cell she can find to lay in. She has discovered the top brood box and has been laying in it as well. I have pulled three wax moth larvae out of the frames and the varroa is now back under control so there is no PMS in the hive. I no longer use a smoker whilst checking the hive condition, as the bees are now placid and gentle, and I am very grateful that the colony that I lost turned out to be the aggressive one.
So now I wait for the bees to lay up enough honey and pollen to get them through the winter and start planning what to do next spring. One thing I know for certain is that I am not going to wait for any inspector to come and do their thing. I am already on the lookout for the person to inspect for me this year. I only need this to happen again this November, then hopefully, I can do my own inspections after that. With a bit of luck, my Pinus hive will explode with healthy new bees and I can make a split. The split will hopefully prevent the colony from swarming, and I will get my Cupressus hive back in action. I intend to let Madam Bluebell lay some eggs in a frame that will then hopefully be turned into queen cells when I remove her and house her in the Cupressus hive. With a bit of luck and coaxing, she will stay put and not return to the original Pinus hive again, if she does then I will leave her there and make sure that there are plenty of eggs available in the Cupressus hive so the bees there can create an emergency queen.
There is such a lot to learn. I read so many beekeeping books over the winter and was over the moon when I managed to get my hives through their first winter. But there is no preparing emotionally for making an error in judgement then it snowballs into a huge and expensive problem for a mere backyard beekeeper with only two hives. If I succeed, then it will have taken me a complete cycle of twelve months to overcome the error of my ways. Let the learning continue!
from New Zealand