Over the past few days, I’ve been writing about the misadventures of a small queenless hive which we placed in our back yard this summer. It dutifully raised several nice queen cells. At the time, I worried about the greedy bug-eating birds that spend a lot of time in our neighbourhood. I knew that only one queen from the cells would fly out on a mating flight. It seemed possible – but not likely – that the little nuc’s queen would end up in some hungry bird’s mouth. I was probably wrong to incriminate the magpies, but unfortunately, our queen did disappear during her mating flight. Now I suspect the culprits were wasps, not birds. I’ve never seen so many Vespidae in my life and they were especially fierce this year. They hovered in front of our nuc, snacking on bees whenever they could.
I know that virgins successfully emerged from the nuc’s cells. Below, you can see the proof. The cells came full-term, several queens emerged within hours of each other, and (I assume) mortal combat ensued between the would-be queens. One strong and fit queen bee would have eventually left the hive on her mating expeditions. She never made it back. Here are before and after photos of the cells:
I’m blaming the queen loss on wasps. They were incredibly aggressive this year. Luckily, our nuc had a small screened entrance – it kept the wasps from getting inside the hive. But from morning through evening, dozens of wasps patrolled the area right in front of the hive. I watched as wasps picked off nectar-laden bees returning to their home. That’s probably what happened to our newly mated queen, returning home after her afternoon of frolic. Later, I caught a bit of the wasp action on a video, which is playing just below. It’s not pretty.
Other things can go wrong when a queen is supposed to be mating. The victorious virgin may be badly injured following the battle against her rivals, thus dying enroute to the drone congregation area. She might simply get lost. Both situations are rare, so that’s not likely what happened. In a pet hive, the beekeeper (me!) might disturb the queen as she prepares to mate or shortly after her nuptial flight. In such a case, the bees are unnerved by the beekeeper’s intrusion and they punish their new queen, as if she were somehow responsible for the hive’s bad luck. But I have an alibi – I was in Hungary when the queen was hooking up with the drones. This time it was not my hive examinations that led to the virgin/queen death. Instead, I tend to think the queen was ripped apart by those aggressive wasps that replaced themselves faster than our fly swatter could punish them. Wasps were really, really prolific here this summer.
So, what happens to a hive when all the brood has hatched and the only chance for raising a queen is missed? That’s the subject of tomorrow’s blog post.
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Thankfully, we do not YET have these wasps in So Calif. We have docile paper wasps, which clean up the dead, but don’t go in for attacking from the air.
One thing I remember reading was that the VQ is conducted on her mating flight by a small contingent of escorts who lead her and protect her. Perhaps they did not perform their job so well. Also, I am wondering if anyone is working on a pheromone trap for the wasp species you have. There a many available from this outfit for various pests http://www.pestwizard.com/
I use their citrus leafminer pheromone traps and pantry pest traps. This is a very approachable small biz and the owner is a hoot to speak with on the phone.
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Thanks. You always have great advice. I should call the Pest Wizard whom you’ve mentioned! Too late in the season, we tried the ‘mimic nest’ trick – brown paper bags that look like wasp nests. These actually work (sometimes) because wasps stay away from the fake nests (sometimes).
Hopefully, you won’t have these pests around your bees. This was an extremely hot dry summer for us and that seems to have helped the wasps populate our neighbourhood.
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This year I’ve learned the hard way that manage a small nuc is a very hard mission.
It’s my second season as a hobby beekeeper and I tried to split families as much as I could, but that didn’t paid off at all (less production and weak families).
For wasps here in Italy, we put (during spring) empty bottles with a funnel on top near the hives. Inside the bottle we put some beer that attract wasps but not the bees. Once they get inside they can’t get out. The beer must be changed once every two weeks approximately.
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Thanks for the tips about catching and controlling wasps. I’m surprised that bees aren’t attracted to beer – they like brewer’s yeast and they usually chase the same smells that I chase.
Good luck with your bees. It’s one of the best ways to spend time and they give you a lifetime of study!
Wasps can be a nuisance over here. Especially for small hives. I use an old jam jar with some water in and a hole in the lid. Wasp look in, see all their friends drowning but still jump straight in. I’ve never caught a bee, they are just to canny!
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