This is the fourth piece in my six-part description of my colossal failure as a beekeeper this summer. If you’ve been following this little series, you saw how I acquired a little queenless nuc, transported it to my home, and watched as it raised queen cells. But it appears that wasps captured the queen during one of her mating flights, leaving the colony terminally queenless.
A hive usually recovers after being queenless. If a queen suddenly dies (crushed by a beekeeper?), the workers feed a few larvae a steady diet of royal jelly. In most cases, a new queen develops, mates, and takes over the colony’s egg-laying chore.
If something goes wrong (as in the case of my little hive where the queen developed but then disappeared before laying), the hive is in big trouble. If a beekeeper has more than one colony, she could quickly insert several more frames of brood and young bees into the dying hive, essentially creating another nuc and giving the bees another chance to raise a queen. Caught at the right time, a new laying queen might be accepted by the hive. I might have done this, but I had just one hive so there was no back-up brood. I could have driven off to my daughter’s farm and returned with more brood, but I was in Europe, so I missed my chance.
Experienced beekeepers can guess what happened next. I’ll quote Leo Tolstoy, one of the 19th century’s best beekeepers, who compared Moscow to a queenless hive in War and Peace.
Here’s Lev Tolstoy’s description, from Chapter 20 of War and Peace:
Meanwhile, Moscow was empty. There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.
In a queenless hive no life is left, though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.
The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance it smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way. But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it. The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the beekeeper are not the same.
To the beekeeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive. From the alighting board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odor of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey. There are no longer sentinels sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defense of the hive.
There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder. In and out of the hive long black robber bees smeared with honey fly timidly and shiftily. They do not sting, but crawl away from danger. Formerly only bees laden with honey flew into the hive, and they flew out empty; now they fly out laden. The beekeeper opens the lower part of the hive and peers in.
Instead of black, glossy bees- tamed by toil, clinging to one another’s legs and drawing out the wax, with a ceaseless hum of labor – that used to hang in long clusters down to the floor of the hive, drowsy shriveled bees crawl about separately in various directions on the floor and walls of the hive. Instead of a neatly glued floor, swept by the bees with the fanning of their wings, there is a floor littered with bits of wax, excrement, dying bees scarcely moving their legs, and dead ones that have not been cleared away.
The keeper opens the two center partitions to examine the brood cells. They reek of decay and death. Only a few of them still move, rise, and feebly fly to settle on the enemy’s hand, lacking the spirit to die stinging him; the rest are dead and fall as lightly as fish scales. The beekeeper closes the hive, chalks a mark on it, and when he has time tears out its contents and burns it clean.
So in the same way Moscow was empty when Napoleon, weary, uneasy, and morose, paced up and down in front of the Kammer-Kollezski rampart….
My hive was Moscow at its worst. It was August and my story just gets worse. It was too late to fix the colony and . Tomorrow, I’ll describe the inside of my hive. It was much as Tolstoy said, “There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.” That – and other sad signs of defeat – will be our subject tomorrow.
I read War and Peace when I was a teenager (I think it was cool amongst my bookish friends to say you had waded through it) well before I ever thought of beekeeping. I don’t remember this section but what a great description of a failing hive.
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I’m going to complain about this common misrepresentation of the food produced by nurse bees—-“”
“the workers stop feeding a few larvae ‘bee bread’ and switch to a diet of royal jelly, transforming the developing larvae’s destiny from worker to queen” ALL larva receive royal jelly, as produced by the nurse bees in their hypopharynx and mandibles in the head of the bee. According to Tautz, in “Buzz About Bees–Biology of a Superorganism” pg 145—“Nurse bees are young bees between 5 and 15 days old and consume a significant amount of pollen in order to provide their royal jelly glands with the necessary raw materials. The young larva are initially nourished exclusively with the royal jelly produced by the nurse bees. As larva become older their diet of royal jelly is mixed with ever more pollen and honey…..Larvae that receive royal jelly throughout their development become queens….the components of the royal jelly are also altered: a sugar content of 35% hexose results in a queen, but simple workers will develop should this ingredient amount to only 10% Queen larvae are also visited 10 times more frequently” Further content in the book explains the difference in quantity and quality of the diet initiating a “cascade of biochemical reactions….” All this content is pg 145 to 154
This recounting of the failed nuc is not intended to cover the biology but to repeat the commonly told tale. I probably shouldn’t have written it thusly. I present some of the real biology on a blog post published in 2015 if you’re interested. It seems that royal jelly does not ‘make’ a queen but rather bee bread added after day 3 or so epigentically triggers a larva to ‘become’ a worker. Readers may see some details of recent (2015) research here. You’ve done a nice job of summarizing the cascade of biochemistry involved. Since you have kindly pointed this out, I may rewrite the entry above so as not to confuse others.
–> OK, I have changed a half dozen words. It’s less confusing (and more accurate) now. Thanks for your suggestion, Susan!
Yes! thank you, too!
“Where queens come from. A queen is made from a fertilized egg, exactly the same as a worker. It’s the feeding that is different and that is only different from the fourth day on. So if you take a newly hatched worker egg, and put it in a queen cell (or in something that fools the bees into thinking it’s a queen cell) in a hive that needs a queen (swarming or queenless) they will make those into queens.” So, I am going to pick at one more thing!! This quote is from Michael Bush’s book, and reflects the important attention that must be paid by the beek to the AGE of the resource one is using to remedy the queenless situation—-young larvae not more than 4 days old, or JUST HATCHED eggs. My students often fail to appreciate that one can’t just put in a frame with open brood (or capped brood) on it and have the bees utilize this for making a replacement queen. But, I love the Tolstoy quote!!! I was crazy for the Russian writers in high school and wanted to go to Russia to see the extraordinary people who birthed these artists. My mother was horrified.
I am loving your story and enjoying the opportunity to compare your queenless hive with mine. I have often wondered about the queen leaving the hive and encountering difficulties getting back. What stories they would tell if only we understood! I am inspired by your story and applaud your magnificent use of Tolstoy.
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The description of queenlessless is one of the best I’ve ever read, so vivid.
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