Mystery; Dry Larvae

A bee club member called the other day, asking for help figuring out why his colony was weak. He hadn’t been in it recently, but when last checked, it seemed strong, and now it was down to about 3 frames of bees. Diagnosis always starts with history, so I asked how old the queen was.. she is two, so this is her second spring build up. We removed the frame next to the sidewall, and it had crystallized honey on it. Then we went right to the one in the center of the circle of bees on the tops of frames, where the queen should be, and there she was, a nice, big, fairly fat queen. There was mixed ages of open larvae on the frame…eggs next to large larvae, next to newly emerged larvae; not in the customary half circles of similarly aged larvae.

The larvae appeared dry. On the next frame, there was a lot of open larvae, with one capped, one brown, all looking dry and ill-fed. On the final frame, also open larvae, some brown, a couple of double eggs in cells, all dry and ill-fed, and not aadult bees at all on  the frame. To this point, we had seen no fresh bee bread nor any fresh nectar in cells. I started thinking that they were starving, and maybe feeding would solve the problem, of maybe with a new queen (the larvae aren’t supposed to be of mixed ages like that), and they certainly needed more bees.

In the top box, there was one frame with bees on it, and it was all fresh bee bread and nectar. In fact, there were 5 frames up top with fresh nectar and bee bread, and none down in the brood chamber. The first obvious thing to do was to cut them down to a single brood box so that the few bees could control the temperature and humidity properly, while fresh food would be right next to the brood and cluster.

Adding up the rest of the clues, we decided that it was possible that although there were no queen cells nor even a remnant of an emerged queen cell, the fact that there was only open brood with a dramatically reduced population might mean that this was a supersedure queen. The beekeeper felt doubtful, since she was larger than he might expect for a new queen, but she wasn’t super-fat, and after 10 days of laying, I thought she could be that size.

It takes 5 weeks from egg to laying, and then 21 days more to emerged brood, which would account for the reduced population. It is not uncommon for the bees to preserve the lower brood chamber for the brood, while placing stores up above, which could account for the configuration and lack of feeding of larvae. The beekeeper had recently done a split in his other colony, and both sides of it looked perfect, so we didn’t want to bother either one of them too much, but decided that the best way he could boost population was to move a sheet of emerging brood from the just -split colony to the weakling, without any adult bees. In 5 days, the emerged bees will be old enough to feed larvae, and this won’t be too disruptive nor costly to the donor colony.

If a split had not just been done in this yard, a very easy solution would be to switch the positions of the weak colony with the swarm-ready colony, as it would serve the needs of both. When separated from the foragers (they’d be in the weak colony now) the old queen is not thinking of swarming. Those foragers who would move right into the weak colony that was in the place of their strong colony would boost the population and the stores so much that the larvae would be fed, and the population could recover. Adding up clues, it is a fun and important part of beekeeping.  T