I'm a second year beekeeper who could use some advice. My hive made it through the winter and seemed to be progressing "according to the books" but now I don't know what's going on. The ladies looked clogged enough that I added a third 8 frame medium box April 19th. I saw the queen up there laying in some drone comb April 27th. There was also a smattering of capped worker brood and some larvae. It wasn't a great pattern, but since we were still getting rather cold nights and it was in the top of three boxes I didn't worry overmuch. I'd ordered a queen to be delivered the week of May 3rd, so on May 2nd I did a full inspection to get an idea of which frames could go into a nuc.
Imagine my surprise when I found no evidence of brood in any of the 24 frames! The bottom box held pollen and honey, the middle and top boxes were honey-filled (the top being nicely drawn from foundation strips), and the only brood was a corner of drone and not more than a dozen capped workers. Moreover, one frame from the middle box held three tightly sealed swarm cells on the bottom and its neighbor had two open queen cups on the face of the comb.
"Aha," thought I, "I've caught them preparing to swarm." So I made up a 5 frame nuc with the two frames with potential queens, two frames of honey/pollen from the bottom, and a frame of honey from the middle. I brushed all the bees from the drone comb, replaced it in the original hive until more bees crawled onto it, and repeated the process twice more hoping to get nurse bees from the ones that kept returning to protect their brothers. I reduced the original hive back to 16 frames in two boxes by taking out two partially drawn frames from the top box and harvesting a frame of delicious water-clear honey from the middle for myself.
Today, my store-bought queen arrived so I traipsed back down to the apiary to discover that all three of the swarm cells in the nuc were open - two from the side and one from the bottom. I didn't see a queen in there but realize my naive eye is not likely to spot Her Virgin Highness even if the cluster is only the size of a soft ball. They still had plenty of honey and pollen so I closed them back up. I went through all 16 frames of the original hive and still could not find the queen or any sign that she had been there for a couple of weeks despite knowing she was laying (drone, at least) less than a week ago. There were half a dozen new queen cups all over the place, but I didn't see anything in them. When I hung the new queen in her cage between two frames the bees took notice immediately and swarmed to her but I couldn't tell if they were biting or happy to see/smell her. I plan to leave her there overnight and see what happens.
I had not used smoke in the hive on any of the aforementioned inspections. I had the smoker going but only smoked myself when I squished a bee, never the hive directly. The girls seemed happy and purposeful, ignoring me except when I bumped them or squished one. They didn't even seem disgruntled when I brushed them off to steal the frame of honey. The original hive was bubbling with bees, looking similar to the amount in residence when I last saw the queen. Neither did I ever hear a 'roar' from either the original hive or the nuc.
So, how many (potential) hives do I have? The way I figure it, best case scenario is that I have three laying queens. Worst case is that I have only the one in her cage and unproven (though highly recommended.)
Was the original hive getting ready to supersede the old queen or swarm? Do you think I satisfied their swarm instinct if that's what they were about? Could I have missed a thrown swarm even though they seem not to have undergone a population decline? Can the original hive donate another couple frames of honey and pollen to set up the new queen in a nuc? If not, how do I keep her alive? Should I let the original queen live if she's still there? She's about a year old now. I'm pretty sure she's a supersedure from the package I got about this time last year and I've never really liked her brood pattern. But she did make it through the winter and hasn't had a varroa or other pest problem. What about the maiden in the nuc? Do you think I'll be able to get more of the clear honey, or any honey, this year?
Most of all, what would you have done differently?