The hives seemed to be doing well going into the long weekend. In particular, our problem hive #2 appeared to have settled down into a good pattern of foraging activity, suggesting that they were drawing comb and rearing brood. Unfortunately we were in for a nasty surprise when we opened up the hive for the weekly inspection.
The bees had drawn out a decent amount of comb in the last week, but there was no brood. Looking more closely we discovered multiple eggs per cell, indicating that there was no queen and a worker bee had started laying unfertilized drone eggs. Most likely the bees had not accepted the queen when she was released and proceeded to kill her.
A laying worker is one of the worst case scenarios for a colony. Not only do you need to replace the queen, losing valuable weeks of time at the beginning of the honey season; you also need to break the laying worker behavior. Left on its own, this hive would be doomed to die within a few weeks.
There are different ways of getting the bees back on track. Most of them depend on having a supply of brood frames on hand that can be added to the ailing hive. Having just 2 hives, we don’t have any brood frames to spare. Our solution – suggested by Casey, our beekeeping mentor – was to temporarily combine the queenless colony with our good hive. The queen pheromones should override the laying worker instinct within a few days, at which time we’ll split the hives again and introduce a new queen to hive #2. With a bit of luck, this will allow us to save that hive.
Our beekeeper confidence took a bit of a hit. Everything seemed to be going so fine. In retrospect, there were some signs that might have alerted us to a problem: the lack of comb after the first week, and the disorganized activity around the flight hole during the first few days. An experienced beekeeper might have taken that as a cue to inspect more frequently and have re-queened earlier, avoiding the laying worker complications.
On the other hand, this is not an uncommon situation. Combining hives, splitting hives, re-queening – those are all beekeeping techniques that we needed to learn anyway. So we are learning a little more quickly than anticipated. No doubt, there are still many more beekeeping surprises in store for us.