Disappearing act Back to Articles Page

Disappearing act

Words & Photos Rebecca Lees

It’s not often I crack open the hive and can’t find any eggs or larvae. It’s only ever happened once before, right after my hive swarmed. Last week, when I routinely checked my hive ‘Applement’, it happened again.

My bees were looking great, acting normal and there was no sign of disease (my varroa strips had worked well), but where were the eggs and larvae? This is my first winter of caring for my hives on my own, so I was concerned – had the queen stopped laying due to winter, or could it be a dire situation; was she injured or dead?

With uncertainty in mind I checked on my other hive, ‘Maxine’, to see how she was faring. That hive was looking great. There was loads of capped brood, and plenty of fat pearly white larvae; very healthy-looking indeed. Great news, but concerning for my other hive. Being faced with a dead queen going into the coldest winter months is not a good situation to be in.

I had a quick chat to a beekeeping friend who said: “Give your hive a top up of sugar syrup, it’ll spur the queen on to lay.” So, I did. Applemint had plenty of honey supplies, there was no issue with food running low, but by giving the hive a little top up it could spur the workers on to give the queen more food, which may result in the queen beginning to lay once more. Worker bees determine her rate of egg laying, and it has everything to do with food. Some say the bees won’t uncap honey stores unless they’re desperate, so giving them a little sugar syrup could get things moving along straight away.

A few days later, after topping up the hive with some sugar syrup, I checked the feeder – it was full of worker bees, humming away happily collecting the syrup. Great, my plan was working. The following week I cracked the hive open to see if there were any eggs, and I had a big surprise.

I don’t normally go into the hive much in the winter, each time I do I risk ‘chilling’ the brood, but this morning was quite warm and I thought it a good time to check how things were looking. As I lifted up the first frame and cast my eyes onto it, there in front of my eyes was my queen. I gave a squeal of delight – spotting the queen as soon as I opened the hive was a first for me.

I gave her a quick once-over. I checked her wings; they were in good nick, no chewed areas from varroa mites or injuries. She was moving around well, no limp in her stride. She was big, long and fat (mated) and well-fed – this was not a starving or injured queen bee. She was a little slower, thanks to the cooler weather, but a happy queen bee she was.

I checked the cells for eggs and larvae, and guess what I found? Healthy pearly white fat little larvae curled up in their cells looking snug and warm. The queen had started to lay again and this hive was on again doing well – what a fantastic start to winter.

Winter bees
During the winter months the queen can stop laying altogether. Her rate of egg laying depends on the workers, and the supplies given to her. When there is little or no food coming into the hives, during cold weather for instance, her laying rate decreases.
At this time of year, the bees are different – they’re called ‘winter bees’, and they’re longer-lived than usual worker bees. It’s estimated that winter bees live for around 140 days, compared to around 45 days. They have better developed hypopharyngeal glands, and, thanks to consuming more pollen in the autumn, their bodies are fatter (and they’re less active).