So, we were guilty of hubris after all. Expecting to be up to our probosces in bees, with all hives having survived the winter, things seem less brimming with bees a few Sundays ago. We have already reported Clarissa’s demise and while we have no additional deadouts yet, we have reason to fret.

With reports of swarms already captured in the general area, we hastened to take advantage of the warm weather to inspect our survivors, beginning with Beatrix. She was doing beautifully with bees, brood, and honey aplenty. We saw drones, reminding us that swarming approached, but no queen cells, reassuring us that it was not imminent. We performed a sugar roll and happily found no mites.

Then we moved on to Dorcas, expecting somewhat the same with a smaller population. To our surprise the comb in what ought to be the brood chamber was quite empty. Has she gone queenless or has her queen (which we did not find) taken an extended holiday from egg-laying? There was a decent if not brimming population of bees. We probably should have transferred some brood from Beatrix and will do so next warm spell unless Dorcas surprises us.

Nonplused we moved on to Angharad, the tower of nucs. We had used foundationless frames in her, inserting a thin strip down the center of the top bar as a guide for building comb. The rebellious bees had refused to be guided and crosscombed with energetic abandon before we knew it. Once having discovered the problem we were unwilling to engage in the extensive and disruptive surgery required and defered doing anything about it.

But now, after a winter of pondering, we had a cunning plan. We would nadir with new frames having foundation to encourage orderly drawing out comb and laying brood therein. After repeating a few times, if the brood area kept moving lower, we should eventually be able to remove and dispose of the old cross-combed messes from the top of the stack. And why not try a split while we do it?

Setting aside the top box full of honey comb we put a new bottom board next to the old but facing the other way. Onto this we put a nuc body with new plastic frames. The foundation of the frames has been daubed with extra wax by us but still needs to be drawn into comb by bees. Atop this went one of old nuc bodies with, we hope, brood. We repeated this arrangement on the old bottom board with a nuc body of plastic frames topped with the second old brood box. Finally returning our attention to the box of honeycomb we did some rough surgery to release two frames which went into yet another new nuc box, leaving three in the old. Filling the little supers with additional frames we put one atop each of our stacks and finished with inner and telescoping covers.

Our hope is that whichever wee hive, Auld Angharad or Backwards Blodwyn, did not get the queen will have brood of age suitable to be made into a queen. We could not check without potentially destroying what we hoped to find.

And so, four overwintered colonies became three, possibly en route to two. We may save Dorcas and our split may succeed, returning us to four. And there may still be swarms to catch. But then we are beekeepers. Optimism does not suit us.

It seems that we have left an August story unfinished. Perhaps, because the ending is sad it was particularly easy to avoid writing and let ourselves be carried along by the flow of quotidian demands until unusual events quickened the current and turned it to white water at year’s end, leaving August far behind. By the time we successfully navigated the metaphor to arrive in calmer waters again, we had quite forgotten that we had left our readers with a bit of a cliffhanger. In brief, the Angharad Experiment failed and Dorcas died. With no particular timeline (can not be bothered to check notes) the ordered events, including a recap, are:

  • Dorcas had a queen in June. We even saw her!
  • We could not find her in August but did find three queen cells on two frames.
  • We made a nuc, wee Angharad, including the frame with two cells and left the other in Dorcas. Splitting just like real beekeepers!
  • The queen cell in Dorcas opened at bottom indicating that a queen emerged but we never found any new brood in Dorcas.
  • The queen cells in Angharad remained unchanged. We emptied Angharad by putting all comb back into Dorcas.
  • One queen cell ripped open from the side indicated a queen killing competition. The other queen cell was unchanged and the only capped brood seen were drones.
  • Time goes by and with only drone comb seen, we feared laying workers so we dumped, brushed, and blew bees off each comb in Dorcas and installed it in Clarissa. Then we moved the Dorcas hive far away.

And so we entered the winter with only two hives, Beatrix and Clarissa, both of which have survived into mid-May. We have removed their winter insulation in spite of the occasional snow flurry.

Beatrix is booming as always and with a few queen cells under construction. She will surely swarm if we do not split her but we were ill prepared to do so during the inspection and now weather has turned cold again.

Clarissa is confusing. The follower board position reminds us that she had expanded nearly as much as Beatrix. But only the first half of the hive seems to hold a busy colony. The latter half is empty moldy comb, which we are assured the bees will clean up.

Dorcas is yet empty but in position and open for occupancy. She does hold one frame of comb among the empty bars and we put a drop or two of lemony-smelling supplement into her entrance. We have since seen bees take a serious, continued interest in her. If we can not find occasion to actively split Beatrix her cast may migrate to Dorcas on their own.

Frankie is likewise empty and waiting. She has been spontaneously occupied before. It would be much to expect that lightning again even as we hope it will strike Dorcas.

We have also inherited the hive stand we made for our now-moved-away niece. It needed a little attention and is now next to Frankie, ready to receive any nucs we may be able to make this season. It is unlike us to be so optimistic but better to be ready in case of good luck than scrambling to repair and deploy equipment.

When we inspected the hives on Monday of two weeks ago and sugar rolled for mites1, we were surprised to see three capped queen cells in Dorcas. One was at the bottom of a frame and the other two were midface on another frame, one cell almost directly below the other. We could not find the queen, which we had seen when hiving the nuc. As per our usual procedure when confronted by unexpected bee news, we dithered. On the one hand all those queen cells were opportunity for making increase. On the other hand the end of July is usually far too late for us to be making splits. On the gripping hand everything this year has been late including swarms.

In the end, after expert guidance2 did not veto the idea as unreservedly stupid, we made a nuc, our wee Angharad, containing the frame that held two queen cells, two flanking bee-covered frames with a mix of brood and food, and two empty frames on the outside. We placed her atop the flat roof of a newly leveled, unoccupied Frankie. As before, we added a the second story above the inner cover to house a jar of syrup. Feeding this nuc is especially important since it is unlikely that we transfered many foragers and very likely that they would return to Dorcas anyway. We did attempt to forestall such return by lightly plugging the entrance with a bunch of grass, which the bees had moved by the next day.

Had we done nothing we may, in the worst case, have had a three queen free-for-all, possibly leaving no uninjured queen. A tidier result would be one queen hatching first and slaying her two rivals in their cells. But then there is no guarantee that a victorious virgin in Dorcas would return from her mating flight and we may yet have had a queenless hive. By making a nuc we can always recombine the bees if either one of parent hive or daughter nuc fails to produce a laying queen. Of course, both may fail but our odds are better and they may in the best case both succeed.

The violent scenarios still may occur in Angharad with her two queen cells. We had considered doing a little surgery to transplant one of the queen cells to another frame and make a second nuc, probably stealing some nurse bees from another hive. But we decided that the cells were so close together that we might clumsily damage them both. One out of three queens shall surely die but we hope no more than one.

On Thursday of last week we looked at the hives again. All the syrup jars were nearly or entirely empty so we refilled them. And all but Angharad received at least one empty bar to

Angharad The queen cells were both intact. Did we damage their fragile occupants in the move or did we simply check a little bit too early? We are poor judges of cap darkness, an indication of how long the cell has been capped, but the cell we left in Dorcas did look older with a very dark ring near the tip. Although the syrup jar had been drained there was no comb begun on the empty outer frames.

Dorcas Her queen cell was open at the bottom indicating that a queen had emerged although we did not see her. Nor did we search very hard. Now we need only fret that she survives her mating flight and settles to laying.

Clarissa There is nothing remarkable to report about this hive. She is full of bees and brood and honeycomb and working away as a good colony ought.

Beatrix This hive is booming yet again, more interested in making bees than storing honey, but in any case full of lovely straight combs. She had begun building comb on the other side of the follower board. Scraping that off we inserted several bars to give her the space she clearly needs.

Should the Angharad experiment3 fail we shall try to recombine with Dorcas if her queen proves viable. Otherwise we shall soon be down to two hives before winter.

1 All were below threshold for treatment but because the Mr. forgot to divide by three Beatrix got a dose of Apivar Life, thymol based.
2 Yes, it was Dr. Milbrath. We hate to name drop but believe in full disclosure and credit where due.
3 Sounds like an episode of Doctor Who.

Finally the nights are springtime warm and the dandelions are blooming, which is the cue for nervous beekeepers to split colonies threatening to swarm. Last year about this time we split a booming Beatrix to make the late Clarissa with the help of Dr. Milbrath. This year since, as Sassafras Bee Farm has reminded us, we can no longer claim to be beginners after seven years we screwed up our courage last Saturday and tried the task by ourselves. The critical bit is to make sure one hive has the queen and the other has the wherewithal to make one, i.e. eggs or sufficiently young larvae. Our ability to spot the former is not impressive and the latter nearly nonexistent but we assured ourselves that if we we were patient and carefully scrutinized each frame we could manage. We were not entirely correct.

Working our way through Beatrix we expected the usual concentration of worker brood comb sandwiched between drone comb at one end of the hive and honeycomb thereafter. Instead we saw a full comb of capped drone brood midway along the hive with more brood comb on either side and at least a little capped brood on almost every comb. We saw no full honey comb, suggesting that the bees were getting to the end of the larder, but there were a number of combs with some honey.

We also found an empty queen cup at the bottom of a comb and what may have been an open queen cell in the middle of another one. We could not tell if it was occupied or not but it seemed to be the center of interest for a number of workers so we are hopeful. Exultantly we found the queen! We were assisted by her still bearing the mark of Dr. Milbrath’s paint. But even with magnifying lenses we could not see any eggs.

We promptly moved the comb with the queen to the waiting Clarissa and returned to Beatrix to select a few more combs to transfer. This task was made difficult by our fear that any apparently empty cells on any candidate comb may actually be the only ones in Beatrix containing eggs that we wished to leave behind. In the end we moved a mere two combs partially filled with honey and put them on either side of the comb on which we found the queen. We did however brush the bees from a few other brood combs into Clarissa. The foragers would presumably return to Beatrix but the nurse bees would stay and accelerate their development to become foragers themselves sooner than usual. Adding two empty top bars we closed up both hives. To our embarrassment all this took us three hours. And so we return to our familiar occupation of worrying.

Beatrix: Had we left her with sufficiently young brood to make a queen? Was there an occupant in that one queen cell? Or will we find a box of drone-laying workers when we check after leaving her be for a few weeks? Waiting another week before splitting may have found her with a few queen cells, making our job less fraught. But then another week may also have found us lacking time to do anything but watch another swarm escape.

Clarissa: We made a very small split. Will nights stay warm or become too cool for them to survive? Will she be robbed?

Dorcas: Uncharacteristically, we are not worried about Dorcas. She may be splittable as well but does not seem to be threatening to swarm as had long been our fear for Beatrix so we can put that off for a while.

On Sunday, given her minimal resources, we put a jar of syrup into Clarissa to fuel her bees and encourage comb building until she had foragers to gather nectar. She would also need pollen for healthy brood but we had no plan for that yet. To our surprise, a few bees were already engaged in what seemed somewhat like orientation flights. By Monday we saw pollen being brought in. Our tiny colony is wasting no time.

Yesterday, five weeks to the day since she guided us in splitting our surviving colony, Beatrix, Dr. Meghan Milbrath returned at our worried request to inspect the two resulting colonies.

We had obeyed her charge to not disturb the queenless bees for at least three weeks and indeed waited until four weeks had elapsed to inspect, whereupon we saw a hive still full of bees but neither brood nor queen nor even queen cell. How long could this go on before Beatrix would be infested with laying workers?

racingStripeQueenWith the season’s nucs coming ready, Dr. Milbrath took advantage of her house call to deliver the one we had ordered. So we began by installing it into the long-empty Dorcas. The white-marked queen is in the picture at left. While beekeepers should value in their bees temperament, productivity, and other good practical qualities over the vanity of cosmetic appearance, damn, she looks cool or wicked or whatever is the current adjective of admiration among the young. Purest black with racing stripes. Of course, she is also showing a lovely laying pattern.

Next we inspected Clarissa, who had received the queen in the split, and found that comb construction and egg laying had continued steadily. The amount of sealed brood promises a population jump in a few weeks. Not surprising but good to see.

Finally with trepidation we came to Beatrix, which we had rendered queenless. Although the queen eluded us all her presence was indicated by several frames of capped brood that were not present a week ago. We both remembered those frames quite clearly. A queen has been hard at work. Dr. Milbrath even pointed out the cell from which she had likely emerged. It was smaller than we would have expected and under a carpet of bees. Easy for old eyes squinting after brood to miss.

In conclusion, we once again have the satisfaction of a full beeyard. Our split was successful. We can return to our regularly scheduled worries of varroa, weather, and the rest. For all the reassurances we request from our guardian angel Dr. Milbrath, we are actually feeling like real beekeepers.