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.