The post about our weeks-spanning adventure grew far too long and so has been broken into three pieces. It shall not drag on like the series whose titles we are punning. Here then is the first part.

On Sunday two weeks ago (2018-Jul-29) weather and schedule permitted us to open each of the hives for inspection and a few sugar rolls. We found that Clarissa had no mites at all. But also no queen and no worker brood. All the brood frames looked rather like the picture at left, proud with copious drone brood. We concluded that we had too long left Clarissa to her own devices, missed some misfortune befalling the queen, and now have the curse of laying workers.

Worker bees are a caste of female bees with nonfunctional reproductive systems, the ovaries being suppressed largely by pheromones from open worker brood. As with many statements in beekeeping this is only mostly true. A healthy queenright colony may have a small percentage of workers with ovaries sufficiently mature to let them lay eggs. Of course, they have never mated and so will lay only drones. Their eggs are usually eaten by the other bees but if one finds a tiny patch of drone brood far off in the honeycomb then it may be a laying worker’s sons. At any rate a small number of laying workers is normal and not a problem.

But if a colony stays queenless long enough it will become broodless as well and eventually a very large number of workers will develop their ovaries and start laying drone eggs, even if their sisters foolishly build queen cells for them, as in the picture at right. Drone brood does not have the suppressive quality of worker brood so the number of laying workers will increase. Such a colony is doomed as the females, who do all the work, eventually die without replacements. The drones simply move on to other colonies and may have a chance to at least propagate some of the dead colony’s genes.

There are any number of procedures in the lore to try rescuing the colony by requeening or combining with a queenright colony but they are prone to failure by regicide. Weekly donations of open worker brood from another colony are said by some to eventually restore normality and allow the colony to make its own queen. But it is not guaranteed to do anything except weaken the donor colony. The surest solution is to simply dismantle the hive and dump the bees near the apiary, not too close to any one hive, and let the homeless bees try finding their own way to acceptance in some other, queenright hive. Some claim that it is nurse bees that become laying workers and so will not fly to a new home but perish. Others are less dogmatic about this but trust that guard bees will not allow a laying worker to enter, since she will not smell right. However it works, this was the approach we chose.

Second part soon to come.

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