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As ever when we are having bee troubles, we contacted Dr. Meghan Milbrath for advice. Fortuitously in our area yesterday, she made time for a look at Dorcas for us in spite of this being a busy time at her business, The Sandhill.

She confirmed that there was no sign of an active queen but neither was it a laying worker situation. The bees may not have been as energetic as we have seen them but they did not appear distressed and were moving purposefully. In fact, they seemed to be cleaning out cells in preparation for a queen to lay in them. Around then the Mrs. pointed out a clandestine, capped queen cell along the outside edge of a comb. Dr. Milbrath also drew our attention to the large number of drones wandering about. Although drones may generally enter any hive they wish1, she said that they do not necessarily receive a warm welcome. Their numbers here indicated that the colony anticipated a use for them once a virgin queen took her mating flight.

Dr. Milbrath’s conclusions were that something had indeed happened to the old queen. She may have left with a swarm2 or the colony decided to supersede her. There may already be a virgin queen within but there is certainly one developing in the queen cell. We could add a comb or not but either way, the hive should be not bothered for three weeks. We opted to just move all the empty-celled combs to the one end of the hive, close up, and hope.


1Except for the autumnal purge when they are evicted from all hives. Some strict colonies will also evict them during a nectar dearth.
2Later reading said that bees usually make a large number of queen cells for swarming but make only a few, sometimes even just one, for supersedure.

As Paul Pena sang during a low point, “It’s a hard life when you’re stupid. It’s a hard life when you’re blind.” Indeed. We can’t spot queens. We can’t see eggs. We do not know what we are doing. Oh, woe.

We went out to sugar roll the hives again, beginning with Dorcas, who seemed to our casual glance less populous than before. Starting from the follower we checked each comb and with increasing anxiety reached the other end of the hive without finding any brood. None at all. Just capped honey and uncapped nectar. And no sightings of her majesty. And the bees seemed less energetic than usual, as queenless bees are said to be.

One hypothesis is that we, clumsily and without noticing, killed the queen during the sugar roll. But an emergency queen would then be in the works and we only saw a few half-hearted, open-ended queen cups. Another hypothesis is that we missed another swarm and the replacement queen failed her mating flight due to bad weather or hungry bird or other hazard. A third happier hypothesis would be that eager backfilling has robbed her of any place to lay and we missed her sulking in a corner. We are probably not so lucky.

We likely need to transfer a comb with eggs soonest, probably from Clarissa. But first we shall seek expert advice. Oh, woe.

Not much to this post. Last Saturday we sugar rolled our initial mite load measurements for the season and found them agreeably low. If we see a repeat of last year, they will stay low until a jump in autumn frightens us. We will, of course, be checking regularly.

Mites per Hundred Bees
Hive May 27
Beatrix 0.67
Clarissa 0.0
Dorcas 0.67

In other news, Dorcas has largely taken the hint and is building straight, new comb on the empty bars we had provided although she could not resist one small perpendicular foray, which we discouraged sharply with a hive tool. And Beatrix is muddling along, having not yet recovered her full strength. We imagine Clarissa may be feeling pleased with herself.

Yes, our midsections are indeed waxing rounder with age but that is not the current topic. Since our first improvised wax melting we acquired an inexpensive 21.5 quart water-bath canner with a rack to use. The handles of the wire rack have sharp S-bends that allow them to sit on the sides of the pot, holding the rack bottom well above the pot bottom. The intended use is to let the canner conveniently load the rack with jars before plunging it into boiling water and then equally conveniently unload it after a suitable time in the water.

In wax melting there is no plunging but the rack is left sitting high to hold the crushed comb above the waiting water. Unfortunately the handles proved too tall for the pot to fit in our oven even on the lowest shelf. We could have simply put it on the bottom of the oven without using a shelf but we have always heard that is a bad thing to do so we instead bent the handles down against the edge of a table. The extra bend is visible in the picture at left (click for larger image) and we could now use the bottom shelf. We do not anticipate ever canning but if we do we can always obtain a new unmodified rack.

To melt we put several inches of water (probably more than needed) in the bottom of the pot, place the modified rack atop it, line the rack bottom with paper towels, and load it with crushed wax. The whole assembly is then carefully put in the oven on the lowest shelf. Carefully. The rack is too easy to dislodge and drop in the water. The oven is then set to wax-melting temperature and we wait for hours, adding more crushed wax as the pile melts and gets lower.

The melting point for beeswax is in the range 144 to 147°F (62 to 64%deg;C). Heated above 185°F (85°C) it discolors. The lowest regular temperature on our oven is 170°F (77°C) and we have had good results at that temperature. For our most recent batch, we had discovered that the oven has a dehydration cycle allowing lower temperatures so we tried setting it to the high end of the wax-melting range. The wax softened and melted but did not flow readily through the paper and into the water. It is possible that the oven is not precisely calibrated. Or it is possible that just barely liquid wax flows less well than rather warmer liquid wax. After a nearly entire day produced but a few lumps we ran out of patience and returned to using our familiar temperature. Several hours later we had another nice large disk of wax to add to our collection.

Now to finally make some candles.

Last Thursday we managed to steal an hour between other responsibilities to attend to Beatrix. She had come out of winter brimming with bees putting us in a state of continual fret, awaiting weather and time to split her before she swarmed. Although our old eyes can not see eggs at all easily we expected to find easily seen, peanut-shaped queen cells in preparation for swarming and anticipated no problems with swiftly populating a nuc during our allotted sunny hour.

Instead we found far fewer bees than we expected and not much capped brood. There were empty cells as well as cells with larvae of various ages. Of course we can not see eggs and, as usual, failed to see the queen. Nor did we see any queen cells but only a few queen cups. The difference is that a cup is shorter, open at the bottom, and most importantly unoccupied. It may be in the process of becoming a queen cell or not. Some bees, especially Russians, build and tear down queen cups nearly constantly whether to just keep in practice or to be pessimistically prepared for loss of a queen, probably at the hands of those Пчеловоды идиоты1.

Bewilderedly continuing to work through the combs we found that Beatrix had also followed this season’s fashion for ill-behaved comb. Fortunately none had fallen but all remained attached to the top bar. Unfortunately some were attached to each other and a few to the floor as well. Once again we performed comb surgery and again escaped without stings. The operation was generally successful although a few combs were so attached that we could not free them without breaking them off their top bars. If this remains a regular occurrence we shall have to prepare some means of reattaching comb. Having used up our hour we then simply closed up.

The following Tuesday we were fortunate to have our guardian angel Dr. Meghan Milbrath inspect our hives. She found and marked for us the queen in Beatrix, who seemed to be laying as she should although the brood pattern was not the best, perhaps due to the signs of European foulbrood which Dr. Milbrath pointed out. We were aghast but she calmly comforted us, saying that outbreaks are not uncommon in the spring and although some beekeepers immediately reach for antibiotics it often simply clears up, so a watch-and-wait attitude was not unreasonable. Or we could discard the current, not-too-populous brood comb and transfer some capped brood from a donor hive. Choosing that option, we carried off the brood combs, brushing the bees2 back into the hive, and went to inspect the enthusiastically bearding Dorcas.

With all the comb we had removed, Dorcas was crowded, combs dripping with bees as we had expected from Beatrix, and enthusiastically backfilling brood nest with nectar. Dr. Milbrath found the queen, still marked, and we found a queen cell, whereupon we got ambitious when Dr. Milbrath agreed there were bees enough to make a small nuc as well as transfer to Beatrix. Unfortunately we discovered that our hives are unintentionally a little deeper than a Langstroth deep and the comb would not fit in the cardboard nuc. As we dithered over giving up or attempting some kind of kludge the decision was made for us by the accidental crushing of the queen cell. Oops. There is non-standard nuc construction in our future.

With that distraction dismissed, Dr. Milbrath selected three bars of capped brood, covered with nurse bees3, which we carried over and placed into the waiting Beatrix. Then we added half a dozen empty top bars to Dorcas to replace the bars taken and further expand her available space, staving off the threat of her swarming. After closing both hives we proceeded to inspect Clarissa, for the sake of completeness, and found a well populated thriving hive. Dr. Milbrath again found and marked her queen and rode off into the sunset4 with our gratitude.

So what did happen to Beatrix? The timing seems a bit tight but the likely scenario is that she impatiently and unwisely swarmed while we were ill and the nights were yet near freezing. The remaining colony was then too small to stay adequately warm, allowing the foulbrood to take hold. Then as old bees died, they were not being replaced since the infected brood died before reaching adulthood. The transplanted healthy capped brood will soon hatch, building up the population and leaving open healthy cells for the queen to lay in. She ought to recover and thrive although it will be a while before she is again bursting with bees.


1Beekeeping idiots
2Dr. Milbrath finds that bees tend to get stuck in the bristles of bee brushes so she just grabbed a handful of tall grass to use.
3Unlike invading foragers, nurse bees are accepted without violence by any hive.
4Okay, drove her car off into the general direction of the eventual sunset.

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