The Composure Of A Well-Mated Queen Bee

Near the end of this season we managed to capture a close up photo of a rather calm looking queen as she paid a visit to the “tattoo parlor” for her blue mark.  There is something peaceful about the mannerisms of a well-mated queen bee.  She exudes a sense of composure, which can practically be seen in the above photo.

This sense of calm is also noticeable inside the hive as a well-mated queen bee moves purposefully and calmly across the combs, laying her eggs in a meticulous circular pattern.  The other worker bees carefully surround her, gently touching her with their antennae to connect with her queen pheromone.

In handling a queen bee, as long as she is treated with care and respect, the queen typically will take her handling in stride, hardly putting up a fuss as she is given her color mark or placed inside a temporary cage for transport.  At times when we gently grasp a mated queen bee by her thorax or wings for marking (here by her legs), it feels like she is holding hands with us!

In handling countless tens of thousands of queens, to the best of our knowledge, no queen bee has ever attempted to sting any of us at Wildflower Meadows.  Although queen bees have a stinger, and theoretically can sting humans, they almost never do.  Instead, they reserve their sting – which is as potent as any other worker bee – for their traditional enemies: other queen bees.

Next Year’s Champions

During the height of the beekeeping season, while we are busy raising queens and shipping orders, another project takes place in the background.  Our breeding experts are assessing an assortment of bee stock obtained from around the country for the best of the best – the most mite resistant, the most gentle, the most hardy of all.  They then cross their best candidates with other desirable stock, typically pure VSH drones obtained from the USDA.  If all goes well, the results are outstanding breeder queens for the upcoming season – next year’s champions.

Around the end of each season, we look forward to receiving a new group of these hand-selected breeders to add to our existing proven stock.  This assures us a ready selection of quality queens from which to breed at the start of the next season.

We recently received our final set of this season’s breeder queens.  Number 63, pictured above inside a push-in cage, arrived with high accolades.  Her offspring is light and gentle, and contains both the Pol-Line and VSH traits.  She is precious, and we are taking all precautions for her well-being!

To introduce her into a new colony we used a homemade push-in cage.  This type of cage allows the queen to begin laying eggs in a safe and controlled area before the cage is removed and she is fully released into her new colony.  By laying eggs before she is released, she becomes more desirable and better accepted by her new colony, greatly increasing the odds of her successful introduction.

Screened Bottom Board

The Screened Bottom Board

When varroa mites first came on the scene in the United States during the late 1990’s, screened bottom boards followed shortly thereafter.  The concept of screened bottom boards appears to be sound:  varroa mites often fall off of bees to the bottom of the hive.  If the mites are regularly falling off the bees, then why not use a screened bottom so that the varroa mites continue their fall right out the bottom of the beehive?  Mathematically, any reduction in the growth of varroa is bound to help the colony of honeybees.

The main problem with the screened bottom board, is that over many years, no one has ever definitively proven that it works.  One question that remains to be answered satisfactorily, is that if the beehive is placed on the ground then what is to prevent the mites from simply crawling back up into the colony?

Nevertheless, at Wildflower Meadows we committed to using screened bottom boards a number of years ago, and currently run the majority of our colonies over screened bottoms.  In any case, screened bottom boards provide excellent added ventilation.  The screened bottoms also allow the debris from the beehive to fall away from the bees creating a hygienic environment, much in the same way that a feral beehive generally has no bottom.

The Final Fall Queens

At some point in early autumn, usually around mid-September, give or take, mating conditions begin their decline.  The bees sense the oncoming change of season, and bee colonies begin subtle changes in preparation of the upcoming winter ahead.  Our queen cell building colonies, which earlier in the season were queen-producing machines, grow less enthusiastic about raising new queen cells with each passing day.  They know it, and we know it too: the season is nearing its end.

Colonies have begun to cut back on brood rearing and are especially reluctant to produce new drones.  Autumn is not a season of swarming and expansion, so the bees feel little need to raise new drones.  Without swarms and virgin queens flying about, drones serve little purpose in the honeybee world.  We begin to see less and less of them.

Autumn is when we harvest the very last queens of the year.  Our last batch of queen bees, pictured above, was mated about a month earlier when conditions were better.  These are the true fall queens, the final mated queen bees of the year.

The last batch of queens also marks the end of the queen-rearing season for Wildflower Meadows.  The mating nucs are shut down, our employees take some well-earned time off, and the bees begin their long journey into the winter season

Multiple Mating Flights, Multiple Mates

Until the middle of the 20th Century, scientists believed that queen bees took only one mating flight in their lifetime.  It wasn’t until the 1940’s that a scientist who was studying queen bee mating behavior discovered that queen bees take multiple mating flights.  The scientist (Roberts, 1944) determined that the number of mating flights ranged from one to five.  It took another ten years or so for another scientist (Woke, 1955) to postulate and prove that queen bees not only take multiple mating flights, but also mate with multiple drones during this flights.

We now know that queen bees mate with approximately 10 to 20 drones, typically over the course of several flights.  Why so many flights and drones?  By spreading the mating process both over time and over multiple drones, the queen limits the probability that she will mate with a drone that shares the same sex alleles.  This varied mating program minimizes the chances of inbreeding and maximizes the chances for “hybrid vigor.”

From Egg To Honeybee – An Amazing 21 Days

It boggles the mind to think that in a mere 21 days, an egg can become a tiny larva, then a pupa, and then a worker honeybee.

From Egg to Worker Honey Bee:

  • Day 0:  The worker bees clean out a cell of honeycomb and the queen bee lays a fertilized egg in it.
  • Days 1 to 3:  The egg sits in a honeycomb cell kept warm (approximately 93º Fahrenheit) amidst the brood nest.  It will lose approximately 30% of its weight during this incubation period.
  • Day 4:  The egg hatches into a larva.
  • Days 4 to 9:  The nurse bees feed the larva worker jelly (produced by the glands of nurse bees), and later pollen and honey, continuing to keep the larva warm and moist.  The larva eats between 150 to 800 times per day, growing at an astonishing speed.
  • Day 9:  The larva now weighs approximately 900 times the weight of the original egg!
  • Day 9:  The worker bees seal the larva.  The larva is now about to become a pre-pupa.
  • Days 10-21:  The pre-pupa goes through tremendous changes over these 12 days, becoming a pupa, and gradually taking the shape of a bee.  The skin of the pupa darkens near the end of this process and on the final day . . .
  • Day 21:  A bee emerges.  We think of this as a day old bee, but it really is a 21 day-old insect.

The Syrup Factory

Sometimes honeybee colonies consume more of their honey supplies than they bring in.  During times of drought or seasons when plants are not blooming, bees can be in danger of starving unless they are fed.  Supplemental sugar syrup (sucrose) feeding is an ideal way to keep a colony’s weight from declining dangerously.

Many commercial beekeepers feed high fructose corn syrup, or various custom blends of sucrose and fructose, that are delivered in enormous tanker trucks.  Most small-scale beekeepers, however, simply mix sugar and hot water in a bucket to make a few gallons of syrup at a time.

A strong colony can consume a gallon of sugar syrup in approximately 1 or 2 days!  Each gallon of thick sugar syrup (of approximately a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water) adds approximately 7 lbs. of weight to a colony.

Raising queen honeybees also requires a great deal of syrup.  The quality of queen bees is directly proportional to the quantity and consistency of food that is coming in.  Conscientious queen breeders feed to the maximum, not only syrup, but syrup and pollen substitutes, leaving nothing to chance, and keeping the entire queen rearing operation well fed at all times.

Gentle Bees

Gentle Bees

This week, with the August temperatures climbing into the high nineties, our queen harvesters just couldn’t take the heat anymore and took off all of their protective gear! Now, we do not recommend beekeeping without smoke or a veil, but that’s what we did. The smoker was put away because it causes the queens to run too much, making them challenging to catch. The veils came off because of the extreme heat. And the result?

The gentle bees took it all in stride.

Final tally of the day:  No smoke, no veil, no gloves, and . . . no stings!

Wildflower Meadows Queen Rearing Process and Mating

To Find A Queen Bee

Finding a lone queen bee in a large booming beehive of possibly a hundred thousand bees can be a challenge of epic proportions.  Even in a small colony, the queen sometimes seems to be nowhere to be found.  The good news is that the vast majority of beekeeping does not require a direct search for a queen.  Most beekeepers learn to read the condition of a queen by focusing on her brood and its distribution, rather than by searching for the queen directly.

Occasionally however, when it is time to replace her, a queen bee needs to be found.   In our queen bee rearing yards we typically search for queens all day long.   After a while, our beekeepers quickly learn the essential tricks of the trade:

  • It is a time saver – in the long run – to immediately check the lid as soon as it is opened
  • It is best to first remove a side frame to clear space for handling the other frames
  • The percentage play is the middle of brood nest, so it is more efficient to work from the inside out
  • The less smoke the better, since smoke makes the bees (and the queen) scatter from the high probability zone
  • As a frame is being pulled, quickly scan the sides of the frames next to the one being removed; sometimes this is a quick find
  • It is best to start from the outside of the frame working to the center so the queen doesn’t sneak away from the scope of vision
  • The pros look for the shape of the queen rather than the mark
  • The distinctive pattern of a queen with workers surrounding her in a circle is an instant give-away, and is usually as easy to find as the queen herself
  • For large colonies with multiple stories, it is a time-saver to insert a queen excluder between the boxes four days before searching.  Four days later the queen will be isolated in the box that contains newly laid eggs

Handling Queen Cells

Queen cells are very fragile, and an errant poke of a beekeeper’s finger into a queen cell can kill it, causing sadness for the queen breeder, and undoing hundreds of hours of hard work by the nurse bees.

Virgin queen bees typically hatch out of their queen cells on the twelfth day after grafting.  Many queen breeders, however, pull their queen cells from the cell building colonies on the ninth or tenth day, and store the queen cells inside an incubator for the remaining two or three days.   This early harvest frees up space in the cell building colony and reduces the chance of an early virgin queen bee hatching, running amok and destroying the rest of the cells.

When a mature queen cell is ready to be placed inside a queenless colony or inside a mating nuc, it needs to be transported from the queen-rearing apiary to the mating yard.  This is where the queen cell protector does its work.  The mature queen cells are placed into cell protectors and stacked into trays for transporting.  The protectors keep the queen cells from being accidentally damaged by the beekeeper during handling.  They also protect the queen cells from falling over or colliding into each other should the transporting vehicle hit a bump or should the driver need to stop suddenly.

Once the cells have arrived at the mating yard and begin their first step on becoming mated queen bees, the cell protectors can either be placed in the colony with the queen cell inside it; or the queen cell can be placed into the colony without the protector, and the protector saved for the next batch of queen cells.  Some beekeepers think that keeping the queen cells inside cell protectors within the bee hive aids in protecting the queen cell from being destroyed by the worker bees; but this is not really true.  If the bees want to remove a queen cell from a colony they are going to do it with or without the queen cell protector.