About twice a week during the winter months, I walk around to all the hives just to make sure they haven’t been tipped over by a bear or some other hairy creature. While I’m making these rounds I flick the dead bees off the landing board and clean away any snow or soggy leaves.
I pay fairly close attention to the number of dead bees. Usually there is the equivalent of two or three dead bees per day per colony and that is a number I’m comfortable with. A lot more may mean something is wrong. None may also mean something is wrong. For example, if the bees are unable to remove the dead bodies, it may signal the hive is too weak for house cleaning. They could be low on food or have a disease. So I figure a happy medium is a good thing.
I’ve been doing this body count for years, but yesterday something took me aback. I hadn’t checked on them for about a week and I was seeing about 15 or 20 dead bees per hive. So far, so good. One hive had a particularly large pile, so I opened that hive but found nothing amiss. But at the next to last hive I did a double take—I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, amid a little pile of about ten bees was the queen—deader than a door nail with all six feet in the air. Darn!
I turned her over a few times. She was really long, light colored like an Italian, and she looked old. Of course, maybe that was because she was dead. Whatever . . . she had that “worn out” look. But she was all of a piece and I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong with her. I flicked the other dead bees away, carried the queen around for a minute, then flicked her away as well. Afterall, what could I do?
Today, I took one of the nucs up the hill and, using a piece of newspaper, combined it with the queenless hive. Before I added the nuc, I checked the frames from the queenless hive. Sure enough, the remaining bees were diligently tending supersedure cells in a misguided effort to produce a new queen. I say misguided because there are no drones to mate with in the dead of winter. Why they go through the motions is one of those “bee things” I haven’t quite figured out.
Needless to say, whenever I saw a dead bee today, I was sure it was another queen. In truth, that will probably never happen to me again; but for now, I can’t help but expect it. Really, though, it was just one of those lucky moments that makes beekeeping so endlessly fascinating. If I hadn’t noticed her, I would never have known the hive was queenless until it was too late to do anything about it.