Laying Workers

A funny thing can happen to a beehive when it remains without a queen for too long.  The colony becomes so desperate for a queen that some of the workers take on the role of the queen and begin to lay eggs.  This is what is called “laying” workers.”

Normally when a colony loses a queen bee, it immediately sets out to raise emergency supercedure queen cells from its larvae.  If all goes well, the queenless colony will have raised a new queen within less than two weeks.  Within three or four weeks, the new queen will have mated and will be up and running, and the colony will have recovered and be back to normal.

However, any number of things can go wrong in this process.  The original colony may not have had any viable larvae for the colony to use to raise queen cells.  Or the queen cells might get a virus or disease and not survive.  Or a queen could die while on a mating flight, or not mate at all.  In short, there are no guarantees that a colony can always successfully requeen itself.

Usually after about four weeks of not having a queen the colony becomes stressed and desperate.  So, the colony’s emergency “solution” is that some of the worker bees take it upon themselves to “become” a queen.  This doesn’t really work because the workers who now think that they are queens never actually mated.  These laying workers are infertile, and are only capable of laying unfertilized eggs, which, unfortunately, only mature into drones.

As a beekeeper, when you inspect a colony with laying workers, you may, at first glance, think that all is well.  You see eggs and larvae, and it can appear that a healthy queen is in place.  There are, however, a few ways of determining if your colony has laying workers.  Here’s what to look for:

The signs that you might have laying workers are that you may notice a disproportionate quantity of drone bees.  A typical strong colony can have up to a few hundred drones.  But if you are seeing more than a normal number of drones – especially in a weak colony – this is a red flag that you have laying workers.

Another telltale sign is noticing more than one egg or larvae inside a single cell.  Laying workers are not experts in laying eggs like regular queens.  So, laying workers make plenty of mistakes and will often lay two or more eggs in a single cell.  Also, laying workers do not usually center their eggs in a cell.  They sometimes miss the mark and leave eggs on the side of the cell, or off center rather than positioning them in the center of the cell like a regular queen would.

Your first thought of a solution to your laying worker problem might be to requeen the colony.  Don’t even think about this; a colony with laying workers will almost never will accept a new queen.  For better or for worse (mostly for the worse) a colony with laying workers already believes that it has a queen.  Therefore, when a new queen is introduced, since the colony sees itself as already having a queen, it will see the new queen as an intruder and will kill it.

The best solution for a colony that has laying workers is to combine the entire colony into a strong, queen-right colony.  The pheromone of the existing queen will quickly overpower the meager pheromones of the laying workers, so that the colony will soon forget about their laying worker “queens”.  Let the two colonies work as one for a while.  In short order, the bees from the colony of laying workers will completely combine with the strong colony, and become one with the original queen, long forgetting about the laying worker situation.

Later, you can make a new divide out of the strong colony, purchase a new queen for the divide, and start over fresh again.

Keeping Honeybees is About More Than Just Honey

Beekeeping is more than just about honey (although it’s a fantastic perk). People who keep honeybees—if they are humane and respectful to their bees—are serving nature and humanity by building the number and strength of pollinators available.

Honeybees are essential for the reproduction of many plant species and food crops. From the ecosystem perspective, bees are more valuable as pollinators than honey producers. This is because pollination sustains the reproduction of countless plants. In contrast, honey production is generally only valuable to the bees themselves (as well as any other species that eats their stores, such as bears and humans).

It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food we eat is made possible by pollinators. This percentage is even greater when focusing exclusively on fruits and vegetables, as honeybees make up 80-90 percent of global fruit and vegetable pollination!

Without honeybees, our world would look very different. The loss of bees would likely have a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem, as plants and animals that depend on each other would no longer be able to thrive. Many plants simply would not be able to reproduce. As a result, humans would lose a massive amount of the fruit, vegetables, and nuts we rely on for food.

This is not to deny that bees also produce honey and beeswax, which are valuable commodities in their own right. Before the European discovery of the new world, honey was practically the only sweetener available to people in medieval times. This changed, however, with the European discovery and colonization of the Americas. Vast sugar cane plantations gave rise to a global sugar trade, along with cheap and abundant sugar supplies. As a result, sugar has crowded out honey as the world’s primary sweetener.

Similarly, the development of the petrochemical industry in the twentieth century gave rise to paraffin, which has almost completely replaced beeswax as the preferred wax for candles. As a result, honey and beeswax have become specialty and niche products these days. This leaves pollination as the most valuable service of honeybees by far.

As beekeepers, it is our job to ensure that honeybees continue to play a vital role in our world. The decline of pollinators is an ongoing worldwide crisis. Pollinator populations have been taking a nosedive in recent years due to various factors, including habitat loss and pesticide use. This is a serious dilemma, as pollinators are crucial for the health of our planet.

The modern agriculture industry needs to feed 8 billion people—this number continues to grow each year. Keeping honeybees is primarily about helping to ensure the health of our ecosystems. One of the most important things you can do as a beekeeper is to take care of your bees healthily and humanely. You can also do your part by planting native flowers and trees and avoiding pesticides.

 

Wood vs. Plastic Frames

Beekeepers have been using wooden frames in their hives for over a hundred years. Yet, while some beekeepers still remain loyal to wood, many have migrated to plastic. Nowadays, the majority of commercial beekeepers, as well as many smaller-scale beekeepers, choose to use one-piece molded plastic frames instead of wooden frames.

When it comes to durability and general ease of use, not only are plastic frames more lightweight than wood, making them easier to move when full of honey, but they’re also more efficient and cost-effective since they come fully assembled and ready to use. Plastic frames typically outlive wooden frames by a long shot. Plastic frames have an additional advantage in that they generally can’t be destroyed by pests and parasites. Pests such as wax moths can’t burrow through or eat through solid plastic as they can with wood and wax.

Plastic frames are available in both white and black. Black frames are fantastic for brood chambers since they make it much easier to identify eggs in the hive. At Wildflower Meadows, we appreciate how a black background makes it easier to spot the right-aged larvae when grafting and raising queens.

With that being said, there are still plenty of advantages to using wooden beehive frames. Sustainably sourced wood frames are both eco-friendly and bee-friendly, allowing bees to adapt to new frames quickly and easily. Plus, if you’re a handy beekeeper, wooden frames are easily repaired if they do eventually break. For beekeepers who prefer using a traditional old-school pure beeswax foundation, wood is really the only choice that will accommodate a traditional beeswax foundation.

Whereas wooden beehive frames stand up well against the forces of the extraction process, plastic frames can sometimes warp or bend after being put through extraction. This can make plastic frames a little difficult to work with when extracting subsequent batches of honey. Wood frames, on the other hand, are unlikely to warp.

Why Do Beekeepers Feed Sugar Syrup?

Some beekeeping purists and animal advocates have argued that feeding bees sugar syrup is contrary to their authentic nature. After all, bees in the wild live off of flower nectar, which is certainly more natural and very likely more nutritious for them.

In theory, a wild beehive collects honey during the productive months, enabling the bees to store natural and nutritious honey for the off-season. In the wild (or in a managed situation where a beekeeper does not intervene), a beehive must preserve and consume its stored honey provisions. If enough honey is stored, then the beehive does not need sugar syrup. If not, then the beehive is in trouble.

In today’s world of modern agriculture, pesticides, and a planet of over 8 billion people, this hypothetical situation of bees sustaining themselves is becoming less and less realistic. Wild honeybees scarcely exist in many parts of the world. Most honeybees are kept by beekeepers responsible for their well-being.

Most commercial beekeepers, and many other smaller-scale beekeepers, maintain apiaries consisting of large numbers of beehives—sometimes 100 or more in a single location! This crowding creates high competition for nearby flowers. Often, the surrounding food is not enough to sustain such elevated concentrations of bees. Beekeepers fill the gap by feeding supplemental sugar syrup feeding

In addition to beekeepers who manage large apiaries, most backyard and hobby beekeepers supplement their beehives’ food stores by feeding sugar syrup – a mixture of sugar and water.  Beekeepers have many reasons for this, but the most common are:

  • To prevent the beehive from starvation
  • To allow the bees to have more honey than they need, providing a buffer against future shortages
  • To build up the population during early spring or right before a honey flow
  • To build up heavy stores before winter, which provides not only food but insulation against the cold
  • To assist with the queen’s introduction
  • To deliver medicine (through the feed)

Sometimes beekeepers are forced to feed sugar syrup when they over-harvest honey. This situation seems rather ethically wrong. A conscientious and responsible beekeeper will nearly always leave enough natural honey stores, so the colony does not lose all the fruits of its hard work. Fair is fair! Plus, the honey is likely healthier for the bees and contains some of the trace minerals of plant nectar. Ideally, a beekeeper wants their hive to prosper.

How Many Frames Should be in a Langstroth Beehive?

When it comes to the standard beehive, known as the Langstroth beehive, beekeepers have two box sizes available to choose from – an 8-frame and a 10-frame box. The 10-frame is the standard box that most beekeepers use. The 8-frame box has the same function as the 10, but it is narrower, lighter, and easier to handle. This is an excellent option for beekeepers who may struggle to lift a heavy 10-frame beehive when it is full of honey.

This seems straightforward enough, except that many beekeepers – especially commercial beekeepers – use 9 frames. Why is that?

Honey producers sometimes choose to use 9-frames in a 10-frame box to create extra free space for their bees to fill in with more honey. Nine frames, counterintuitively, can often result in a higher honey yield than if the bees worked a box with 10 frames. This is because with 9 frames there is more space per frame to pack in honey.  In a good honey flow, the frames in a 9-frame setup become fat and heavy with honey.

Many beekeepers also prefer to use 9-frames because it provides extra room for handling and removing the frames, whereas 10-frame setups can be tightly spaced and sometimes challenging to work with.

While a 9-frame setup has the advantage of maximizing honey production, the extra space between frames, if not evenly distributed, can be a disadvantage. Precise spacing is very important to honeybees. The space that they inhabit between their honeycombs is a universally standardized distance called bee space. Bee space needs to be larger than 4.5mm and less than 9.0mm — no matter what. Honeybees will not tolerate any space outside of this range. If the space between combs is less than 4.5mm the bees will close the gap, usually sealing it with propolis. If the gap is wider than 9mm, the bees will build an additional honeycomb to bring the gap back to the acceptable and precise space that they desire.

Because of how it is designed, a 10-frame box naturally spaces the frames properly. With 9-frames, however, it’s important to consider proper spacing. Beekeepers need to avoid creating large gaps between the frames that are wider than the bee space. Large gaps will cause the bees to build comb between the frames which will create an unnecessary mess. Most beekeeping supply companies sell metal frame spacers that create the perfect size gaps due to the spacing issue that can be caused by using 9-frames. These spacers are made to hold nine frames perfectly within bee space.

So, when would a beekeeper use all 10 frames?

First, when building out a new foundation, nearly all beekeepers will use 10 frames, since frames containing only foundation are particularly thin and ideally fit 10 to a box. Pollinators, bee breeders and many hobbyists also usually utilize all 10 frames. Using 10 frames allows 10% more capacity for brood laying than 9 frames would. At Wildflower Meadows, since we are more focused on queen and bee breeding than honey production, we prefer to use 10 frames per box. This keeps things simple and allows our queens the maximum amount of real estate to lay both worker and drone brood.

Harvesting Honey Supers

When it comes time to harvest honey – that magical moment that you have been waiting for! – there are several methods available to get the job done. While no one method is necessarily better than another, some methods are better suited to hobbyists, whereas others are more appropriate for commercial or larger-scale beekeepers.

The basic goal of honey harvesting is to separate the bees from the honey and to remove a honey super off the beehive without taking any bees with it. The bees store honey in the super – it’s where they cure and maintain the honey. In any strong honeybee colony, there will be bees inside working on tasks such as maintaining the temperature of the colony and building beeswax to coat and preserve the frames of honey. Your goal when harvesting is to clear them out so you are not carrying bees back to your house or facility.

The first and most commonly used method of removing the honey super is with what is known as a fume board. It is used by both hobbyists and commercial beekeepers alike, including us here at Wildflower Meadows. (The beekeeper in the photo is gathering his fume boards.)  A fume board is typically coated with a chemical repellant that drives the bees downward, away from the frames of honey. It’s placed on top of the honey super, clearing the box of bees below.

If you are a backyard beekeeper and only have one or two honey supers to harvest, another simpler method is to use a basic bee brush. A bee brush is an inexpensive and invaluable tool used by all beekeepers, which works great if you only have a small amount of honey to harvest.  When using a bee brush, simply pull the honey frames out one by one and gently brush the bees away. This method is more time-consuming than other methods, but it is perfectly effective for a small-scale hobbyist.

There is one thing you should be cautious of when using a bee brush, however. If you have not placed a queen excluder below your honey super, there is always the risk that the queen may have wandered up into the honey super. You do not want to brush a queen honeybee and risk potential injury to her abdomen or damage to her sensitive reproductive system. If you are not using a queen excluder and are brushing bees off your honey frames, you will want to look for the queen on the frames you are pulling first. If you find the queen, it would be best to carefully place her back into the hive by gently picking her up by her wings or thorax.

Another popular honey harvesting method used by hobbyists is using a device called a hive escape board. This is a one-way entrance that allows bees to fly out of the honey super but not back inside. This is an easy and stress-free way of clearing bees out of a honey super, however, it is time-consuming, usually requiring at least 24 hours to be effective.

We have experimented with various escape boards over the years, but generally have been disappointed. The main disadvantage of an escape board is that the honey super itself must be in pristine condition, with no holes or cracks where the bees can reenter.  Sometimes the bees will escape through the escape board and simply reenter through a nearby hole! Or worse, the bees escape through the board, only to have robber bees enter through a hole, starting a robbing episode.  Another concern with escape boards can be that ants and small hive beetles can quickly gain the upper hand as bees disappear from the super. In a healthy colony, guard bees are guarding the honey for a reason. If they are drained out of the honey super with an escape board, there will be few or no guard bees remaining to protect against infiltrators, leaving pests free to run amok.

Many commercial beekeepers who have thousands of boxes of honey to harvest, have no time for brushing frames, using escape boards, or often even for fume boards. Instead, some of these no-nonsense beekeepers choose to go for the most efficient and speediest method of honey harvesting – the bee blower.

A bee blower is basically a glorified leaf blower that literally blows the bees right out of the box!   While some mechanical blowers are specifically marketed for beekeeping, a beekeeper could literally use an actual leaf blower to blow bees during honey harvesting. Beekeepers who use blowers typically tip a honey super on its side before they powerfully blow the bees right out of the super, either in the direction from top to bottom, or bottom to top.

Although this is fast, efficient, and effective, it also is loud and obnoxious. Bee blowers quickly destroy the natural ambiance of an apiary and have the unfortunate side effect of making bees, (and peaceful beekeepers alike) angry and annoyed. Realistically, bee blowers are another method where beekeepers should use queen excluders. Without a queen excluder, the queens could be blown all across an apiary and lost for no reason!

Why Do Bees Produce So Many Drones?

Drone bees often get a bad rap—they don’t produce honey, don’t defend the hive, and they consume vital resources. So then why do queen bees produce so many of them? The answer, put simply, is that there must be enough drone bees available at any given time in order to sustain the reproduction of bees and the viability of the species overall.

All queen honeybees must mate with drone honeybees. This mating never takes place inside the hive but rather takes place outside the hive while in flight. Several days after hatching, a queen bee will leave the hive for her first mating flight. Queens will only mate during a brief period of their lives; however, they mate with up to ten to twenty drones at a time, collecting and storing their sperm. By the end of her mating flight, a queen may have up to one hundred million sperm stored within her that she’s able to utilize for egg fertilization throughout the next several years of her life. Collecting sperm from multiple sources allows the queen’s offspring to be genetically diverse. This genetic diversity improves the overall health of the colony, furthering a colony’s ability to fight off disease.

The queen bee mating ritual happens at “drone congregation areas” where the queen is greeted by hordes of drone bees. Drones leave their respective hives—sometimes venturing miles away from their colonies—in hopes of being one of the few lucky suitors. Unfortunately, the process of successfully mating often results in the drone’s death as its endophallus is ripped off, leaving its abdomen open.

While many drones are lost due to successful mating, realistically, drones only have a 1 in 1,000 chance of mating with a queen—meaning that many drones don’t actually die from mating at all.

In addition to the loss of drones that meet their ultimate demise through mating, many drones are lost from other causes. The flight to drone congregation areas can sometimes prove to be a difficult feat, resulting in drone loss due to natural and environmental reasons. These losses are normal and need to be made up by excess drone production in the individual colonies that surround the drone congregation areas.

Spring Requeening

Although there are advantages to requeening a colony in the summer or fall, traditionally, beekeepers requeen colonies in the spring. One of the best reasons to requeen early in the season is to prevent swarming. Spring requeening reduces a colony’s tendency to swarm because, generally, colonies with very young queens tend to settle in with their new queen. It is older queens that are more likely to swarm. Why? Perhaps the new and young queen’s powerful pheromones signal the colony to keep her in place. Also, the requeening can distract a colony from swarming—at least while the new queen is being accepted.

A distinct advantage of installing a new queen in the spring is that a young queen brings enthusiastic and youthful energy into the hive at the very start of the season. This recipe for vigorous egg-laying leads to large population growth before the honey flows down the road. It’s perfect timing. This also means that the colony’s population should stay considerably large heading into the later part of the year and winter.

Besides the bees themselves, beekeepers who requeen in the spring also gain some advantages from this timing. Early in the season, colony populations are generally smaller, making it easier to locate the old queen. Also, if a new honey flow is just starting, the bees will tend to be on their best behavior and not as apt to behave defensively. During a honey flow, adult bees get locked into foraging. A colony will put up with a lot of beekeeper activity during a honey flow. The bees are focused on foraging and colony growth and are less apt to sting.

However, there are a couple of downsides to requeening in the spring.  The first is that spring weather can be turbulent, meaning that rainy and cool weather can damper a beekeeper’s ability to work the bees. A preordered queen’s date may not match the ideal weather for opening and work with a colony. Summer weather, in general, is more stable.  Running into adverse weather can also actually affect queen acceptance. If a new queen is introduced right before a long spell of inclement weather, the bees could go hungry and agitated, hampering the acceptance of the new queen.

Another downside to spring requeening is the possibility of additional queens or queens-in-the-making in the hive during requeening.  Beekeepers who requeen in spring, like all beekeepers, should always be on the lookout for natural queen cells during the requeening process. These natural queen cells are more apt to be present during the spring than any other season and must be eliminated while requeening.  One or more new and feisty virgin queens emerging from one of these queen cells is the last thing that a beekeeper wants to see during requeening. No one wants a newly purchased and precious queen having to deal with a battle royale before she even gets started!

What Happens When a Queen Bee Dies?

The queen bee is the heart of the hive and the life source of the colony. Without a queen bee, a colony cannot function.

A queen bee may meet her demise in various ways. Sometimes, death may come suddenly, perhaps from a beekeeping accident or an unexpected attack from other bees. Other times, a queen may live a long life and die of old age.

When a queen bee dies, the entire colony becomes aware of her absence within as little as four hours. The bees figure this out by the lack of the queen’s pheromone. In a healthy beehive with a queen, the bees constantly pass along a queen’s pheromone from one bee to another as the bees shuffle through the hive. This movement circulates the queen’s scent within the hive. The absence of this pheromone indicates to the rest of the hive that a queen is no longer present.

Once this realization takes place, the bees switch into emergency mode. The colony appears agitated, and the bees start buzzing loudly. This distinct buzzing is what some beekeepers call a queenless roar. This urgent realization of queenlessness triggers the raising of a new queen.

A healthy colony will attempt to replace a missing queen by initiating multiple queen cells. Producing a new queen begins when a few young larvae are chosen for special treatment and are fed a special diet of royal jelly throughout their development. It takes approximately 16 days after eggs are laid before any virgin queen bees hatch from these queen cells. Typically, the emerging virgin queens will fight each other, leaving only one alive to venture off to become mated and then mature to become a laying queen. This maturing process, which occurs after a successful mating, takes another 7 to 10 days.

This lengthy process requires the colony to continue without a queen. During this period, while the colony waits for the new queen to be established, it is especially vulnerable to becoming permanently queenless. If, for whatever reason, the colony’s virgin queen does not properly mate, or if the virgin queen gets killed somewhere along the way, the colony is sunk. The colony now has no more larvae to manufacture a new queen. Therefore, unless a beekeeper intervenes with a commercially raised queen, such as one purchased from Wildflower Meadows, the colony will eventually dwindle and die off.

How Long Can I Keep a Queen in its Cage?

When you receive a queen bee, ideally, you want to be ready to install her as quickly as possible. Queen honeybees are not meant to live in cages over the long haul.

Sometimes, however, situations can prevent you from installing a queen immediately. Perhaps it’s challenging weather, an unanticipated work issue, family matters, or some other urgent situation that can prevent you from installing a queen upon arrival.

If this is the case, it’s good to know that with the proper care and handling, a queen bee can live in a cage with attendants for a week or even more with consideration. This is not ideal, however. The longer the queen remains in a cage outside of a colony, the longer she is exposed to the dangers of being outside of a colony of bees. She also potentially begins to lose her pheromone signature, impairing acceptance.

At Wildflower Meadows, we have generally found that queens that spend an extended period in queen cages can sometimes tend not to perform as well over the long haul. This could be due to several factors, such as:

  • The ability of just a few attendant bees in the cage to control the temperature and humidity is not close to that of a full beehive. Therefore, the queen bee is subject to broader and more potentially damaging temperature fluctuations when in a cage than inside a colony.
  • While acceptable, the quality of the candy in the cage is nowhere near as nutritious as the natural food in a colony.
  • Sometimes, the attendant bees can become stressed or die, limiting their ability to care for the queen.
  • There is no water in the cage, so the bees and queen can suffer from dehydration.
  • Other unknown stresses of being caged could affect the well-being of the queen and attendants in the cage.

So, what can be done to mitigate these potential problems?

First, if you can’t install your queen immediately, you want to store your queen at room temperature and in a relatively dark and calm place in your house. There should be no drafts or extended exposure to sunlight. You must also keep the queen away from household chemicals, especially pesticides.

Then, twice daily—in the morning and evening—give the cage a drop of clean water. You can apply the water to the cage with your fingertip so that some water drips in. The attendant bees will lap up the water. Don’t give any more water than this. This is not a case where more is better. Too much water can chill the bees or melt the candy, creating a mess and possibly stressing or even damaging the queen bee.

Keep an eye on the attendants. If more than one or two die, you may need to remove them and add new attendants to the cage. This is a tricky proposition and one you should avoid.

If you need to store the queens for more than a few days, the ideal way to hold queens is to establish a queen bank inside a strong, healthy colony. This is the tried-and-true way of storing and maintaining queens.

Again, your objective should always be to install and introduce a queen as soon as possible. The colony is her home, and laying eggs in a healthy colony is her calling and way of life!