Winter can be so uncomfortable….
This is not only true for us, but just as much for bees.
May I present to you “The Queen That Is Going Nuts”.
This is a weird winter problem, and a challenge for beekeepers: a queen that has inappropriate egg-laying habits.
Funnily enough this issue occurs when cold winter weather is absent. Warm(ish) winters/autumns can cause confusion among queens that are used to cold winters. When it’s cold outside, it’s a sign for the queen to reduce her egg laying. However, in situations where temperatures get to around 17 degrees in late autumn or winter, the biological clock of the queen gets a bit confused about the time of year (and you can’t blame her!). Some queens will just happily continue laying loads of eggs as if it’s still summer. Out of control! This is mostly the case with new, young queens.
It is undesirable to have too many eggs and young larvae in the hive when winter is about to set in. As I described in my previous post, bees cluster up in a ball in winter. Hive activity is minimal. The babies are still in their cells, not ready to emerge yet, not ready to join the cluster. The cluster will form in the brood box, over the brood (the babies). In a normal situation, the queen will either completely stop laying or she will reduce her laying to perhaps one or two frames if the climate is milder. She then stops laying in the outside frames, and will only focus on the very centre of the brood box – the warmest place of the hive.
But if she continues laying in multiple frames, there will be too much brood. And too much brood means not enough food! In winter when there is no supply of new incoming honey and pollen, the bees need to be careful how their food stores get rationed. If they don’t watch out, the excess babies will eat all the honey supplies that were meant to keep the hive alive!
The hive needs to focus on keeping warm, and not everybody will fit in the cluster. Imagine if you have a hive with three or four boxes stacked on top of each other – how can all these bees fit in one box, in one cluster? They can’t. And how would all these bees get fed? They wouldn’t.
Therefore, the colony becomes stricter about who is allowed in, and who is not. The population needs to be significantly reduced. Numbers can be as drastic as a reduction from 10.000 bees in one hive to only a couple of thousand.
Foraging bees, who have done such a good job in summer by collecting pollen and nectar, become redundant in winter. There’s not much out there for them to forage and what’s more: bees lose their ability to convert nectar into honey in the cold of winter. This is why it’s crucial they get their honey supplies ready in time, before the cold sets in. As the foraging bees can’t contribute much to the hive anymore, keeping them alive would only mean that they devour honey supplies without doing any work in return. The hive needs to get rid off them.
The same is true for drones, the male bees: as their only function is to mate with the queen -an event that takes places in spring- in winter they are just redundant threats to the honey supplies.
The hive gets rid off them by starving them off, as well as by increasing the number of guard bees. Guard bees stand in front of the hive entrance and watch who comes and goes. When winter comes in, the only bees that are still allowed in are the ones that have managed to find some food to bring home. To every other failing foraging bee the door will be mercilessly closed. “I’m sorry, you’re not allowed in anymore”.
The guard bees and forager bees fight a tragic fight, but it is for the greater good of the hive…
Everything to save the food supplies!
You may understand that in this situation of drastic population reduction, any excess brood is highly undesired. So, if you find yourself in this situation with an inappropriate queen, it is time for action.
She needs to be stopped!
To stop a fanatic queen, the beekeeper has to be creative. I know about a few possible solutions, or “manipulations”.
- The first one is to supply the hive with an extra heavy sugary syrup. You need to increase the sugar-to-water-ratio. A light syrup stimulates egg laying much more than a heavy syrup does.
- You could also artificially control the “lay out” of the brood box. This means that you need to sacrifice baby-lives. Take excess brood frames away so that you have only two core frames left. Replace them for frames with pollen and honey. Another option is to replace them for empty frames, so that the bees can move down the pollen and honey themselves (from the stores boxes).
- This is a crazy one. And very counter-intuitive. Yet a very experienced beekeeper informed me about this….Put the excess brood in the deep-freeze. Take them out after a few hours. They will be dead. Put the frames with dead babies back into the brood box, on the outside edges. The bees will clean out the cells until they are nice and empty. Then they can start filling them up with honey…
The key to remember is that the queen needs a barrier that stops her from laying. You need to stop her from filling up empty cells. When the cells are filled up with honey and pollen, she won’t lay eggs in them anymore.
Luckily this is not a very common situation. But you never know- with global warming on its way, we might await some warm winters….