It is time for another episode of the fretful beekeepers. This has been an abominable time to start a hive, particularly from a package. In spite of some sunny, warm (brutally hot to be accurate) days the weather has overall been relentlessly cold and rainy. Partly because of this we have been very late in undergoing a beekeeper rite of passage, the first hive inspection.
The main objectives of that inspection are to make certain that the queen has been released from her cage and that she is laying eggs. We already knew that she had been released and removed the cage from the hive so the first objective was met without formal inspection. As for the second there wasn’t much comb yet in which she could lay her eggs. Also queens may take a week or even two to start laying so there seemed no urgency. And we should only open the hive on a warm day, of which we have not had many at opportune times.
At day twenty-two (well past the usually suggested week) we had not yet checked for eggs. That day was, of course, cold and rainy yet again. We did peek through the observation window to see a nearly empty syrup jar (which we replaced quickly) and, for the first time, saw noticeably fewer bees than before. We had become accustomed to seeing that cluster of bodies almost totally obscuring the comb and making it hard to see how much there was. Now we could plainly see that three bars worth had been drawn. The sight was sobering.
It takes about twenty-three days for a worker bee to hatch and report for duty. Until then the colony’s workforce is dwindling. Assuming we started with about ten-thousand bees of all ages (ignore the drones) and a lifespan of thirty-five days, we have been and are losing around three hundred bees a day. By the time the first replacement emerges from its cell (if the queen started laying in time) we may have fewer than two thousand bees left.
Here is a graph from a spreadsheet we cobbled together (idea stolen from Gerry Navarre) showing this population decline before rebound. It is distressing how easily changing a few inputs such as the number of days before the queen starts laying or the lifespan of a worker will have the entire workforce die before the first new bee emerges.
On day twenty-three we finally lifted the bars of comb for a feckless inspection. Our inexperience, aging eyes, and the additional blurriness of looking through a veil made it unclear to us just what we were seeing. And we forgot to take our camera so we have no pictures to study at leisure. We were able to see the bumps that indicate drone cells. Those could be the queen’s work or, in the absence of a queen, the results of a laying worker, who can only lay unfertilized eggs. But we think we were able to make out some capped brood (good)but not any eggs or larvae(bad). We are hoping that they were present and we just failed to make them out. At this time it is too late to requeen anyway and we have no other hives from which to take a bar(frame) of brood. If the colony fails we will have to start over next year unless we somehow catch a mighty swarm.