Monday, June 21, 2010

Honey bees: the queen

Now for the most important member of any beehive: the Queen.
There is only one queen bee in every hive, and she is responsible for the production of all other bees. She is easily spotted in the hive if you know to look for her long abdomen.
A queen starts out as an egg, identical to the rest of the eggs of all the other female bees of a hive. What makes this egg develop into something special is that as a larvae she hatches and develops inside a larger sized cell in the honey comb- called a queen cell or a supercedure cell.
This extra room allows her to grow larger and she develops over a longer period of time. The large cell signals that bees who feed her to give her extra protein in the form of pollen, and an extra dose of royal jelly. Royal jelly is fed to all baby bees, and this substance is made up of protein, sugar, water, fats, vitamins and minerals. It is this extra royal jelly and the large queen cell that allows a bee to have fully developed sex organs. The queen exudes with these sex organs a group of pheromones which allow her to control the behavior of the rest of her hive. These pheromones have many different effects, from keeping the hive calm to telling them how healthy the queen is, and how to develop the new comb they are making.
As many of you know, we have several of our own hives, including a hive that my Honey and I caught as a swarm in our neighborhood. This hive has not been dong well, due mostly to the terrible weather we had while the swarm was transitioning into their new home. In the massive die-off of the hive we lost more than 75% of the bees, including the queen. It was awful, but we decided to keep an eye on the remaining hive and see what would happen.
When the weather changed and the bees began to emerge again in their new home, they quickly started to realize that their queen was gone. Her pheromones had worn off, telling the workers to prepare new queen cells. They built these cells outside of the typical comb, pointing the openings downward. Then they simply took unhatched eggs and placed them in the new queen cells. We watched as they did this, and soon we had a couple of capped queen cells.
When there are more than one of these queen cells, it's a battle for the fittest when the new queens begin to emerge. The virgin queen who survives the fight will leave the hive to mate with the male bees of another hive before she returns to spend the rest of her life laying eggs and being fed and groomed by the workers, her daughters. She only mates one time, but may mate with many males. She will carry that sperm with her the reset of her life, using it only to fertilize the female worker bees of her hive.
When a new queen returns to a hive without a queen, she begins to restore life of the hive back to normal.
We monitored our new hive, and a little more than two weeks after we discovered we needed a new queen, there she was- furry in her newness. She quickly began filling the ready comb with eggs, and the hive is recovering rapidly in this warm weather.

This queen here in the center is newly hatched, and you can tell this because she is unusually fuzzy.  As she ages the fur will wear off and she will become more shiny.
Now this new queen-making is not just confined to those hives who may have lost queens. The making of a new queen is the way this super-organism reproduces itself, and the hive gets the urge in the spring to split and make two. Some beekeepers say this need to reproduce can be minimized by giving the bee hive extra room in the spring as their numbers increase, but even with extra hive boxes the wary beekeeper should be checking her hives every week during the spring for those queen cells.
If a new queen hatches into a hive that already has a queen, when she returns mated her mother will sense she is there by the extra pheromones. The old queen will take half her workers and leave the hive to her daughter as a legacy ensuring her survival. The flight of the old queen with her bees to a new place is the swarm. In nature this urge to swarm allows bees to reproduce and meet the pollination needs of the land, and bees would move into dead trees and rock crevices nearby. But in the city bees can move into places they aren't wanted, so it is important for beekeepers to keep an eye on their hives by checking regularly for those queen cells. Any cells must be removed before they hatch, the cycle taking a total of 16 days.

Tune in to the next article for more about swarms, coming soon.